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CFP newcomers: Michigan moves up, Houston makes noise

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

College football is off and running — and passing and tackling and turning our weekends into binge-fests. It was supposed to be the most dynamic weekend of college football ever. It did not disappoint.

We’re just getting started and as the saying goes, there’s lots of football left to be played. That won’t stop us from predicting the four teams headed for the College Football Playoff.

We’ll give our best guesses each week. Don’t be shocked if we change our minds — plenty. That’s actually how it’s supposed to work if teams are freshly evaluated after each new Saturday.

Here are our current favorites for the CFP final four.

03 SEP 2016: USC RB TB Justin Davis (22) gets stuffed by Alabama during the game between the USC Trojans and the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Alabama beats USC 52-6. (Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire)

03 SEP 2016: USC RB TB Justin Davis (22) gets stuffed by Alabama during the game between the USC Trojans and the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Alabama beats USC 52-6. (Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire)

No. 1: ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

So Far: 1-0 (defeated USC 52-6 in Arlington, Texas).

Synopsis: What was that offseason talk again? Nick Saban’s program was, what, a bit vulnerable? It seems laughable now after the Crimson Tide’s 52-6 spanking of the USC Trojans. Alabama looks mightier than ever, and its true freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, could add an unexpected dimension. It was the third time in five years the Crimson Tide opened with a highly ranked non-conference opponent. In 2012, it thrashed Michigan, 41-14. In 2015, it triumphed over Wisconsin, 35-17. Each time, Alabama won the national title.

Who’s Next: The Crimson Tide hosts Western Kentucky (1-0), which opened with a 46-14 win against Rice. Hilltoppers redshirt junior QB Mike White, who sat out last season after transferring from the University of South Florida, is the early national passing leader with a 517-yard performance. WKU is a quality Conference USA program and a winner of two straight bowl games.

No. 2: OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

So Far: 1-0 (defeated Bowling Green 77-10).

Synopsis: Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes didn’t exactly ease into the season. After giving up a pick-six on the first series, Ohio State outscored Bowling Green 77-3 the rest of the way, rolling up a program-record 776 yards. Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett accounted for seven touchdowns — six passing, one rushing — to set another program record. The margin of victory was stunning to at least one observer — me — because the Falcons are expected to be a Mid-American Conference contender.

Ohio State was, well, Ohio State.

Who’s Next: The Buckeyes host the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (1-0), who opened with a 45-10 victory against San Jose State. Tulsa RB D’Angelo Brewer rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns. The Golden Hurricane, an American Athletic Conference program, made last season’s Independence Bowl as a 6-6 team (losing 55-52 against Virginia Tech). They have a formidable QB in Dane Evans (4,332 yards, 25 touchdowns last season).

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No. 3: MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

So Far: 1-0 (defeated Hawaii 63-3).

Synopsis: After an offseason of withering attention — mostly directed toward the high-profile antics of coach Jim Harbaugh — the Wolverines delivered in a big way. According to ESPN researchers, Harbaugh’s team generated the largest margin of victory in a Michigan opener since the value of a touchdown was changed to six points in 1912. Harbaugh wouldn’t let on about his starting quarterback until his offense trotted out for the first series, but Wilton Speight (10 of 13, three touchdown passes) looked very capable.

Who’s Next: The Wolverines host UCF (1-0), which opened with a 38-0 win against Football Championship Subdivision opponent South Carolina State to break a 13-game losing streak. That game marked the debut for Scott Frost, the former Oregon assistant who replaced George O’Leary as head coach.

No. 4: HOUSTON COUGARS

So Far: 1-0 (defeated Oklahoma 33-23).

Synopsis: The Cougars put themselves in the CFP conversation with a highly entertaining victory against the Sooners. Led by dual-threat QB Greg Ward Jr. (321 yards passing, two touchdowns), the Cougars looked fast, eager and very, very good. After last season’s 13-1 finish and American Athletic Conference championship (punctuated by a bowl-game victory against Florida State), then the upset against Oklahoma, it’s hard to describe Houston as a fluke. It looks like the Cougars are here to stay.

Who’s Next: Houston’s competition level drops considerably when it hosts Lamar (0-1), which opened with a 38-14 loss against Coastal Carolina, seeking a return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. Lamar, which resurrected its program in 2010 after a 21-year absence, is 0-6 against Football Bowl Subdivision programs since then (losing by an average of 44 points).

NATIONAL SEMIFINALS

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Houston (Peach Bowl) — Houston (at 13-0, winning the AAC title) earns a spot in the CFP field, but it’s a challenging reward when facing Saban’s polished Crimson Tide program. These are the moments when Saban and his staff really excel, having extended time to deal with Ward and Houston’s imaginative offense. Alabama simply has too much postseason experience and muscle to be denied in this setting. Winner: Alabama.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan (Fiesta Bowl) — OK, we know what you’re thinking. How can this even happen? Like so: Ohio State and Michigan both march unbeaten into the Nov. 26 regular-season finale at Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes win a classic — say, 31-30 — in a game that Michigan deserves to win. So even though the one-loss Wolverines won’t be Big Ten champions, the CFP committee will be sufficiently impressed and keep them in the hunt… but it will lead to a new kind of hurt. Two defeats against rival Ohio State in the same season? Oh my. Winner: Ohio State.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Ohio State (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) — Two heavyweight programs and two heavyweight head coaches. It’s also a matchup of the past two national champions. They met in the Sugar Bowl’s national semifinals to follow the 2014 season with Ohio State winning 42-35 en route to a national title. Alabama gets its revenge. Winner: Alabama.

WELCOME TO TAMPA

To get you in the mood for a potential trip to Tampa’s College Football Playoff championship game, we will offer a weekly primer on the city’s culture, folklore, cuisine and history.

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak.
New Orleans has the po’ boy.
Tampa has the Cuban sandwich.

It was originally known as the “mixto’’ — a sandwich of ham, roast pork, swiss cheese and mustard — that was made for cigar workers in Tampa’s Ybor City section. Genoa salami eventually was added to the mix, a reflection of Italian immigrants joining the Spanish and Cuban workers in the cigar factories.

It’s still the basis for today’s Cuban sandwiches, which can best be enjoyed in Tampa with the authentic Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. It’s the real thing.

CFP newcomers: Michigan moves up, Houston makes noise

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