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July 14, 2012

Preseason magazines high on Tide

TUSCALOOSA | LSU and Southern Cal are a long way apart in terms of miles, but they couldn't be closer when it comes to the early favorite for the college football season.

Mash together the top 25 polls of the four major preseason magazines - Lindy's, Athlon, Phil Steele and USA Today - and the Tigers and Trojans come out tied for first place in a consensus poll of the preview publications. The University of Alabama ranks third, followed by Oklahoma and Oregon.

"We like USC a lot, with what they have offensively coming back with Matt Barkley and Marquise Lee and Robert Woods," said Matt Lowe, an assistant editor at Lindy's Sports. "The one question with Southern Cal is their depth. Do they have enough to make it through the season and actually win a title?"

Southeastern Conference Media Days begin Tuesday in Hoover, where hundreds of media members will gather and rank the league's teams in a poll of their own. Alabama and LSU are expected to garner much of the frontrunner attention for league play, and the preseason polls suggest nothing different.

USA Today ranked Alabama No. 1 in the nation, while Lindy's (No. 3), Athlon (No. 3) and Steele (No. 5) each had the Crimson Tide in the top five.

"You always start with the SEC," USA Today's Mike Lopresti said. "You can see the personnel losses, but it's to the point now where you can't talk about a top five without starting with the SEC. For USC, with (quarterback) Barkley coming back, you can start there as well.

"It's the same teams in the race, but it's a different feel this year with the conference realignment, Ohio State being ineligible for a bowl, Texas and Florida retreating a little bit, there is a lot going on."

Experts point to four out of five starting offensive linemen from last season and quarterback AJ McCarron as returning strengths for the defending BCS national champion Crimson Tide.

"Of course LSU and Alabama are two of the teams we think that have the most firepower," Lowe said. "Alabama and LSU have a lot of experience coming back on their offensive and defensive lines. That makes a big difference."

Alabama has won two of the last three national championships, but winning back-to-back titles won't be easy. Lopresti isn't sure USA Today's preseason projection of Alabama at No. 1 will stand.

"It is hard, and it's hard for a reason," Lopresti said. "You have to have a lot of things go right. But you have a great coach, an experienced quarterback and a program that is reloading talent-wise. I think they'll have a chance to do it, and I won't be shocked if they're in position. The opportunity will be there, but I don't think they will just because it's so hard to do. Every national champion needs some good fortune or a ball to bounce the right way at some point, and it's hard to get that two years in a row."

Of the four publications, Steele's preseason rankings were unique, beginning with his choice for the nation's top team: Florida State. The Seminoles ranked no higher than seventh in any of the other three magazines, but Steele's magazine notes the Seminoles "are one of the most experienced teams in the country with 17 starters and 68 lettermen back from a team that was loaded with talent." Steele's magazine ranks Florida State's defense as the best returning unit in the nation.

Steele ranked South Carolina far lower than others at No. 23 and ranked three teams that were unranked in the other three publications (No. 13 North Carolina, No. 15 Central Florida and No. 20 South Florida).

The Crimson Tide opens the season on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas, against Michigan, ranked No. 7 by Lindy's, in what will be one of the most watched nonconference games of the regular season.

"Michigan has to replace a great center, but they like the guy coming back," Lowe said. "They've lost some guys on that line. But the thing about Michigan is, they'll have a good running game and Al Borges is creative calling plays.

"They open with Alabama. If they were to win that game, that would be a huge springboard for them."

Other teams in the SEC ranked in a consensus poll of the magazines are Georgia (No. 7), Arkansas (No. 10), South Carolina (No. 12) and Florida (No. 18).

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.

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