(AP) -- With two of the best players in the country leading the way — and a championship game loss as motivation — Alabama is No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason college football poll for the second straight season and ninth time overall.
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, national defensive player of year Will Anderson Jr. and the Crimson Tide received 54 of 63 first-place votes and 1,566 points in the Top 25 presented by Regions Bank released on Monday.
Ohio State is No. 2 with six first-place votes (1,506 points) from the media panel and defending national champion Georgia is third with three first-place votes (1,455 points). Clemson is No. 4. Notre Dame rounds out the top five, setting up a tantalizing opener at Ohio State on Sept. 3.
The Tide's preseason No. 1 ranking is the seventh in 15 years under coach Nick Saban. Since the preseason rankings started in 1950, only Oklahoma with 10 has been No. 1 in the initial poll more often than Alabama.
The Crimson Tide started last season No. 1 and finished ranked No. 2 after losing the national championship game to the Southeastern Conference rival Bulldogs.
Alabama coach Nick Saban recently called 2021 a rebuilding season for his Tide dynasty, which has won six national titles over the last 13 years. He has a point.
Young was in his first season as a starter last year, playing behind an inexperienced offensive line. He was unfazed, throwing for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Anderson was a force on the other side ball as Alabama broke in a back seven with mostly new starters. The sophomore led the nation in tackles for loss with 33 1/2, 11 1/2 more than No. 2 on the list.
Ohio State brings back a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback in C.J. Stroud while at Georgia, most of the key players from one of the best college defenses of the last 25 years are now in NFL. Still, quarterback Stetson Bennett and All-America tight end Brock Bowers return to a Bulldogs offense that could be even more explosive in 2022.
Texas A&M, which finished last season unranked despite handing Alabama its only regular-season loss, starts this season No. 6.
Defending Pac-12 champion Utah is seventh, the best preseason ranking in school history. Defending Big Ten champion Michigan is No. 8 after making the playoff for the first time last season.
No. 9 Oklahoma is the highest-ranked Big 12 school, one spot ahead of defending league champion Baylor.
The Tennessee Vols did not make the AP preseason Top 25.
Alabama has been in the preseason top five in each of last 14 seasons and in the preseason top three in 13 straight. The Tide's 31st preseason top-five ranking this year matches Ohio State for the most in poll history.
Turning preseason No. 1 into a national championship has proved tricky throughout history, even for Alabama.
The Crimson Tide has gone on to win the national championship after starting No. 1 just once under Saban and twice overall.
Since the AP preseason began in 1950, there have been 11 preseason No. 1 teams that also finished the season top ranked. Alabama was the last to do it (2017).
RARITIES AND STREAKS
— No. 13 North Carolina State is ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2003. The Wolfpack matched their best preseason ranking. They were also 13th in 1975.
— No. 17 Pitt is in the preseason rankings for the first time since 2010.
— No. 20 Kentucky is making its first preseason poll appearance since 1978.
— No. 22 Wake Forest made the preseason rankings for the first time since 2008.
— Ohio State is ranked in the preseason for the 34th straight season, breaking a tie with Nebraska (1970-2002) and Penn State (1968-2000) for the longest such streak in poll history.
— Texas A&M has the second-best preseason ranking for a team that finished the previous season unranked. Ohio State was No. 3 in the 1972 preseason poll after being unranked at the end of the 1971 season and Notre Dame also started No. 6 in 1983 after finishing unranked in 1982.
How did the seasons work out of those teams? Ohio State went 9-2 and finished the season No. 9. The Irish went 7-5 and unranked again.
— LSU with new coach Brian Kelly will start the season unranked for the first time 2000, Saban's first of five seasons as coach of the Tigers.
— Florida and Florida State are both unranked to start the season, which has not happened since 1974.
Five schools ranked in the preseason poll have head coaches starting their first full seasons leading their teams: Notre Dame (Marcus Freeman), Oklahoma (Brent Venables), No. 11 Oregon (Dan Lanning), No. 14 USC (Lincoln Riley) and No. 16 Miami (Mario Cristobal).
This is the second time in the last five seasons that five teams with new coaches were ranked in the preseason, according to research done by Sportradar. It also happened in 2018, but before that season that type of representation in the preseason poll for teams with new coaches was a rarity.
You have to go all the way back to 1990 when six schools with coaches entering their first full season appeared in the preseason Top 25, according to Sportradar. That list includes some notable names: Gary Moeller, Michigan; Ken Hatfield, Clemson; Gene Stallings, Alabama; Jack Crowe, Arkansas; Paul Hackett, Pittsburgh; and John Jenkins, Houston.
For the fourth straight season, the Southeastern Conference has three teams in the top six.
The Atlantic Coast Conference matched its best showing in the preseason poll with five teams. The ACC has reached that number four previous times.
SEC - 6 (Nos. 1, 3, 6, 19, 20, 21).
ACC - 5 (Nos. 4, 13, 16, 17, 22).
Big Ten - 4 (Nos. 2, 8, 15, 18).
Big 12 - 3 (Nos. 9, 10, 12).
Pac-12 - 3 (Nos. 7, 11, 14).
American - 2 (Nos. 23, 24).
Independents - 2 (Nos. 5, 25).
Here's a look at the AP Top 10 and SEC teams in the Top 25.
No. 1 Alabama
2021 finish: 13-2, (final ranking) No. 2.
Key games: at Texas, Sept. 10; at No. 19 Arkansas, Oct. 1; vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, Oct. 8; at No. 21 Mississippi, Nov. 12.
Potential All-Americans: QB Bryce Young; OLB Will Anderson; S Jordan Battle; G Emil Ekiyor.
Outlook: Alabama returns arguably the best offensive and defensive player in the country, with Anderson and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Young. The defense appears loaded with LB Henry To'oTo'o and CBs Kool-Aid McKinstry and Eli Ricks (via transfer from LSU). The offense is hoping for boosts from transfer WRs Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and RB Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech.
No. 2 Ohio State
2021 finish: 11-2, No. 6.
Key games: vs. No. 5 Notre Dame, Sept. 3; vs. No. 18 Wisconsin, Sept. 14; at No. 15 Michigan State, Oct. 8; vs. No. 8 Michigan, Nov. 16.
Potential All-Americans: QB C.J. Stroud; RB TreyVeon Henderson; WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba; S Ronnie Hickman.
Outlook: Despite the loss of first-round NFL draft picks Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, the Buckeyes return some major offensive weapons for Heisman Trophy finalist Stroud. An experienced offensive line will help clear the way. Coach Ryan Day brought in former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to overhaul a defense that allowed 372.9 yards per game and was largely blamed for losses to Oregon and Michigan.
No. 3 Georgia
2021 finish: 14-1, No. 1.
Key games: vs. No. 11 Oregon, Sept. 3; at South Carolina, Sept. 17; vs. Tennessee, Nov. 5; at No. 20 Kentucky, Nov. 19.
Potential All-Americans: DL Jalen Carter; TE Brock Bowers; LB Nolan Smith; CB Kelee Ringo.
Outlook: The defending national champions have some huge holes to fill, especially on the defensive side, after a record 15 players were selected in the NFL draft. Five players off Georgia's defense were chosen in the first round, including top overall pick Travon Walker. But coach Kirby Smart has built a sustainable powerhouse. The offense could be even more dynamic, with QB Stetson Bennett surrounded by weapons such as All-American Bowers.
No. 4 Clemson
2021 finish: 10-3 No. 14
Key games: vs. No. 13 North Carolina State, Oct. 1; at No. 5 Notre Dame, Nov. 5; vs. No. 16 Miami, Nov. 19.
Potential All-Americans: DE Myles Murphy; DT Bryan Bresee; RB Will Shipley.
Outlook: Clemson must replace its linebacking "Bruise Brothers" duo of James Skalski and Baylon Spector and will look to Trenton Simpson and Barrett Carter to fill the gaps. QB DJ Uiagalelei enters his second season as starter and will look to improve on his disappointing sophomore year (nine TD passes and 10 interceptions). The Tigers also enter the season with new coordinators. Wes Goodwin, part of the behind the scenes defensive group, has taken control of that unit with quarterback coach Brandon Streeter in charge of the offense.
No. 5 Notre Dame
2021 finish: 11-2, No. 8.
Key games: at No. 2 Ohio State, Sept. 4; vs. No. 25 BYU, Oct. 8; No. 4 vs. Clemson, Nov. 5; at No. 14 USC, Nov. 26.
Potential All-Americans: TE Michael Mayer; DE Isaiah Foskey; S Brandon Joseph.
Outlook: Marcus Freeman takes over for Brian Kelly as coach with the Fighting Irish looking for their sixth straight double-digit win season. The Irish turn their offense over to QB Tyler Buchner and have a young offensive line with potential. Foskey leads what has potential to be a solid defensive line.
No. 6 Texas A&M
2021 finish: 8-4, not ranked.
Key games: vs. No. 16 Miami, Sept. 17; vs. No. 19 Arkansas at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 24; at No. 1 Alabama, Oct. 8.
Potential All-Americans: S Antonio Johnson; OG Layden Robinson.
Outlook: Texas A&M is looking to take a step forward after going 8-4 last year with a victory against No. 1 Alabama but losses to unranked Mississippi State and LSU. QB Haynes King, who won the starting job last season before an early season-ending injury, and LSU transfer Max Johnson are vying to start.
No. 7 Utah
2021 finish: 10-4, No. 12.
Key games: at Florida, Sept. 3; vs. No. 14 USC, Oct. 15; at No. 11 Oregon, Nov. 19.
Potential All-Americans: CB Clark Phillips III; RB Tavion Thomas.
Outlook: Utah went to the Rose Bowl for the first time last season and this year the Utes hope to build on that success while upping their national profile. QB Cam Rising returns after leading a late-season surge by the Utes to their first Pac-12 title.
No. 8 Michigan
2021 finish: 12-2, No. 3.
Key games: vs. Penn State, Oct. 15; vs. No. 15 Michigan State, Oct. 29; at No. 2 Ohio State, Nov. 26.
Potential All-Americans: DT Mazi Smith; K Jake Moody; C Olu Oluwatimi.
Outlook: Jim Harbaugh's eighth team is his first at Michigan that is coming off a win over the rival Buckeyes, and the Wolverines' new challenge is to beat Ohio State on the road for the first time since 2000. QBs Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy will likely share snaps for an offense that will try to keep an inexperienced defense off the field.
No. 9 Oklahoma
2021 finish: 11-2, No. 10.
Key games: at Nebraska, Sept. 17; vs. No. 10 Baylor, Nov. 5; vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State, Nov. 19.
Potential All-Americans: WR Marvin Mims; P Michael Turk.
Outlook: The Sooners have a new head coach in Brent Venables, and expectations remain high with QB Dillon Gabriel expected to fit seamlessly into new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby's scheme. If the Sooners can escape Nebraska in Lincoln and beat its two toughest regular-season opponents at home in Baylor and Oklahoma State, they could be positioned to make a playoff run.
No. 10 Baylor
2021 finish: 12-2, No. 5.
Key games: at No. 25 BYU, Sept. 10; vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State, Oct. 1; at No. 9 Oklahoma, Nov. 5.
Potential All-Americans: OL Connor Galvin; DL Siaki Ika.
Outlook: Baylor is an expected Big 12 contender now after a surprising title last season, when the Bears went from two wins in coach Dave Aranda's pandemic-affected 2020 debut to a school-record 12. QB Blake Shapen, the Big 12 title game MVP in his second career start, will have a solid line protecting him.
No. 19 Arkansas
2021 finish: 9-4, No. 21.
Key games: vs. No. 23 Cincinnati, Sept. 3; vs. No. 6 Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 24; vs. No. 1 Alabama, Oct. 1; No. 25 BYU, Oct. 15.
Potential All-Americans: S Jalen Catalon; LB Bumper Pool.
Outlook: Arkansas had a breakout season last year with QB KJ Jefferson leading the way. The schedule is tough with two ranked nonconference opponents on top of the always difficult SEC West slate.
No. 20 Kentucky
2021 finish: 10-3, No. 18.
Key games: at Florida, Sept. 10; at No. 21 Mississippi, Oct. 1; vs. No. 3 Georgia, Nov. 19.
Potential All-Americans: QB Will Levis; OLB J.J. Weaver.
Outlook: After its second 10-win season in four years and fourth consecutive bowl victory, Kentucky faces expectations of finishing second to No. 3 Georgia in the SEC East. Levis has been mentioned as a potential top-10 NFL draft pick after a breakout junior season.
No. 21 Mississippi
2021 finish: 10-3, No. 11.
Key games: vs. No. 1 Alabama, Nov. 12; at No. 19 Arkansas, Nov. 19; vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 24.
Potential All-Americans: OL Nick Broeker; S Isheem Young.
Outlook: Ole Miss loaded up in the transfer portal to help replace QB Matt Corral and its top running backs after the Rebels' first 10-win regular season. USC transfer Jaxson Dart and Luke Altmyer are vying for Corral's job.