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Final Four: Crimson Tide remains at the top

Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire

We’re only nearing the midway point of September, but college football gets serious this weekend. It’s an early milestone, a time for contenders to step up and pretenders to be exposed.

Not to worry. If there’s a defeat, there’s plenty of time for recovery. But we’ll start to get tiny bits of clarity.

Mega-games are everywhere this weekend and the results should help us make more educated guesses when predicting the four teams headed for the College Football Playoff.

Here are our current favorites for the CFP final four.

No. 1: ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

So Far: 2-0 (defeated Western Kentucky 38-10 at home after opening with a 52-6 smashing of USC in Arlington, Texas).

Synopsis: Nick Saban wasn’t particularly pleased after a perfunctory victory against the Hilltoppers. In fact, he was livid when Alabama fumbled in the late going, allowing Western Kentucky to score a touchdown. Saban, who went nuclear on Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin during a sideline exchange, said he had never been more disappointed after a victory. Saban’s notorious attention to detail is well known, but perhaps he wanted to send a strong message.

Ole Miss goes for three straight wins against Alabama. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire)

Ole Miss goes for three straight wins against Alabama. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire)

Who’s Next: The Crimson Tide travels to SEC West rival Ole Miss (1-1) and there’s a score to settle. Actually, two of them. The Rebels have consecutive victories against the Tide — 43-37 last season and 23-17 in 2014. Saban usually displays his best stuff in the so-called “revenge’’ games. It goes double this time. Can Ole Miss beat Saban’s team in three consecutive seasons? The Rebels, led by QB Chad Kelly and a very active defensive front, had a terrific opener against Florida State … for most of the first half. Then it all unraveled. But for a while, Ole Miss showed that it can be a major factor against an elite team.

No. 2: FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

So Far: 2-0 (defeated Ole Miss 45-34, rallying from a 22-point deficit, then stomped Charleston Southern, an outmanned Football Championship Subdivision team, 52-8).

Synopsis: The Seminoles are getting superb play from redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois, who seems up to the task. Although running back Dalvin Cook really hasn’t gotten untracked, he was a major factor in the passing game against Ole Miss. There’s concern over the status of sophomore free safety Derwin James, the team’s best defensive player, who left with a knee injury against Charleston Southern.

Who’s Next: FSU opens ACC play in a big way with a visit to Louisville (2-0), which has looked unstoppable in its first two games. Behind sophomore QB Lamar Jackson, who has been hurriedly added to many lists for Heisman Trophy candidates, coach Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals defeated Charlotte (70-14) and Syracuse (62-28).

The ACC has mostly been painted as a showdown between FSU and Clemson, but Louisville has grabbed everyone’s attention. FSU leads the series 14-2, although Louisville has been a difficult venue, including the game from 2014 when the Seminoles were forced to rally from a 21-0 deficit to win.

No. 3: MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

So Far: 2-0 (pounced upon UCF, 51-14, after defeating Hawaii, 63-3, in the opener).

Synopsis: Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have been hitting on all cylinders, outscoring a pair of overmatched opponents by a combined 114-17. QB Wilton Speight might not be a Heisman candidate — yet — but he looks very capable of efficiently operating the Michigan offense.

Who’s Next: The Wolverines host Colorado (2-0), which pounded Colorado State and Idaho State to open the season. Colorado wasn’t expected to be an upper-division Pac-12 Conference team, but it can’t be taken lightly. One positive for Michigan: Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, Colorado football icons, won’t be making the trip. The miraculous final-play touchdown connection between Stewart and Westbrook in 1994 will always be the biggest sidelight of any Michigan-Colorado football game.

06 September 2008: Oklahoma fans cheer on their team during the University of Oklahoma Sooners 52-26 win over the University of Cincinnati Bearcats at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK.

Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has been renovated and expanded since this 2008 shot, but this is where Ohio State will venture on Saturday. — Icon Sportswire

No. 4: OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

So Far: 2-0 (shut down offensively potent Tulsa 48-3 after opening with a 77-10 win against Bowling Green, a decent Mid-American Conference team).

Synopsis: The preseason conversation was all about the personnel the Buckeyes had lost. Who would step up in key positions? After two games, it seems the Buckeyes are just fine, although we will know much more once the Big Ten Conference schedule kicks in. Ohio State looked a bit sluggish in the first half against Tulsa, logging only 158 yards and no offensive touchdowns. But the weather made for a water-logged setting and the Buckeyes eventually got going (417 total yards).

Who’s Next: It’s a battle of college football giants on Saturday when Ohio State visits Oklahoma (1-1), which rebounded from its opening-day 33-23 loss against Houston with a 59-17 rout of Louisiana Monroe. It’s only the third meeting between the two superpowers and Ohio State’s first visit to Norman since 1983. Under Coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes are 11-3 against ranked opponents.

NATIONAL SEMIFINALS

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Peach Bowl) — Nick Saban against Urban Meyer. Not a bad coaching matchup. They split meetings in the SEC Championship Game when Meyer was at Florida. Oh, and these are the past two national champions, so this is a pretty good national semifinal, too. 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. Winner: Alabama.

No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Michigan (Fiesta Bowl) — The Seminoles and Wolverines have met only twice with both programs winning on their home field during regular-season match-ups. It’s a matchup of quarterbacks starting for the first time since season — FSU’s Deondre Francois and Michigan’s Wilton Speight — but both have been very capable in the early going. This could be one of the all-time shootouts. Winner: Michigan.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) — No doubt, Harbaugh will do everything in his power to tweak Saban in what seems like a matchup of college football’s establishment against the brash newcomer. Michigan hasn’t played for No. 1 since it won a share of the national championship following the 1997 season. Saban’s Crimson Tide almost has a standing reservation for the ultimate game. Experience wins out. 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.

The College Football Playoff is expected to be a coming-out party for Tampa’s Riverwalk, a 2.5-mile trail along the Hillsborough River, which winds through downtown, providing access to museums, restaurants and parks.

It was originally conceived in 1975 as a bicentennial project and a few planks were installed. Then the project was largely forgotten. But in recent years, interest was rekindled, momentum built and Tampa now has its Riverwalk, finally taking advantage of one of the city’s finest natural resources.

Final Four: Crimson Tide remains at the top

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