© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
While Alabama and other traditional powers still had their say, the 2016 college football season was a season of relative outsiders. In a sport with so little competitive balance, it's hard to keep any traditional powers out of the sport's upper tier, but 2016 included the rise of some of the little guys.
Colorado finished the regular season in the Top 10 after years of misery. Washington turned over a decade of average finishes into a College Football Playoff berth. Notre Dame fell to 4-8, while Army and Idaho both made bowl games. And even though Clemson isn't some plucky underdog, the Tigers upset the Alabama dynasty to win their second ever national title.
But for all the nice stories of this season, 2017 is going to be about the traditional powers of the 1990s and 2000s, even some we haven't heard from in a long time. And it's that way in every conference.
ACC: Clemson will be back in the running, as will Louisville, but Florida State is a strong favorite in the ACC. The Seminoles return almost everyone from a young, Orange Bowl-winning team.
Big 12: Oklahoma will be the favorite once again, but Texas will also have big expectations under new coach Tom Herman. Herman can unleash the Longhorns offensive potential, and he's already engineered quick turnarounds.
Big Ten: Ohio State had a young team this year and still made the Playoff. The Buckeyes will be favored to get back there, but they'll be pushed by this year's Big Ten Champion, Penn State, which returns a high-powered offense, and by Jim Harbaugh's Michigan.
Pac-12: Washington will have a say in the race as the defending champ, but USC won nine straight games to end the year, including the Rose Bowl and a win over Washington. Next year, the Trojans return star quarterback Sam Darnold and a host of talented players, thanks to out-recruiting the rest of the Pac-12
SEC: Once again, it's Alabama and everybody else. The second-best team? Maybe LSU. There's not going to be a change of the guard this year.
Take another look at those teams mentioned: Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, USC, Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Washington, Louisville. That's nine traditional powers and three other teams with at least some history. Some of those teams will flop, of course, but for the first time in years, we can mention USC, Texas, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, etc. as teams that will at least have a say in the Playoff race.
Underdogs are fun, but next year, the teams we grew up with and the teams that have had the biggest impact on the history of college football will factor in the conversation for more than name recognition alone. It's fun watching the plucky upstarts, but it's also fun watching two powerful teams compete, especially when the attention is warranted. Those games—Texas-USC, Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-LSU—are the ones that are remembered for ages. Perhaps even better: we'll all have a reason to start hating Texas, USC, and others again for their success, giving us yet another reason to watch.
This year of college football was fun, but next year will be better. The programs at the top have too much history to let us down.