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ESPN ranks Alabama No. 2 heading into 2016

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama coach Nick Saban is not one to relax after winning a national title, and neither is ESPN with its constant ratings.

The self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” decided to have some fun two days after the national championship game by releasing a Way-Too-Early top 25 list for 2016.

Clemson reigns at No. 1 as it returns eight starters on offense, including quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman. The Tigers will get nine starters back on defense and two on special teams.

Alabama slides in at No. 2, despite losing offensive pieces in Jacob Coker, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Ryan Kelly to the upcoming NFL Draft. It will have to replace Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Geno Matias-Smith and Cyrus Jones on defense, but the Crimson Tide returns six starters on offense and five on defense.

Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and junior Cooper Bateman are two marquee names in next season’s quarterback competition, but David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts are also vying for the role. Cameron Robinson returns to anchor its offensive line at left tackle and will have Alphonse Taylor (RG), Ross Pierschbacher (LG), Charles Baldwin (early enrollee) and others by his side.

Northridge High School alum Bo Scarbrough will begin his journey as Alabama’s featured back, while being accompanied by Damien Harris of Berea, Ky. Wide receivers will not be an issue for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin as everyone returns with the exceptions Richard Mullaney and Chris Black.

Tight end O.J. Howard decided that he would forgo the draft and play his senior year.

Returning Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on defense should help Alabama sustain an effective pass rush.

The trio combined for 28.5 of its FBS-leading 52 sacks in 2015.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson came into his own with 34 tackles, six pass breakups and four quarterback hurries.

Another year under defensive line coach Bo Davis could make him a household name. Both Da’Shawn Hand and Daron Payne had strong moments last season. Hand finished with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while Payne chimed in with 13 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and half a sack.

The linebacker position will have a new ring leader at Alabama with Reuben Foster returning for a senior year. He improved his tackling technique and managed to stay healthy all season.

Foster finished with 73 tackles, eight tackles for loss, a sack, nine pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. He will share Alabama’s front seven with Shaun Dion Hamilton, Keith Holcombe, Rashaan Evans, Adonis Thomas and others.

Defensive minds Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker are both in Georgia, yet the return of Jeremy Pruitt at secondary coach puts everything in perspective for Alabama’s defensive backfield.

He placed several UA defenders in the National Football League, including Javier Arenas, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Kareem Jackson, Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri.

Pruitt will inherit talented bunch, headlined by safeties Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison along with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Listed below is ESPN’s full Way-Too-Early top 25 list for 2016

  1. Clemson
  2. Alabama
  3. Baylor
  4. Michigan
  5. Oklahoma
  6. Florida State
  7. LSU
  8. Stanford
  9. Notre Dame
  10. Houston
  11. Tennessee
  12. Ohio State
  13. Ole Miss
  14. Michigan State
  15. USC
  16. Iowa
  17. North Carolina
  18. Oregon
  19. TCU
  20. Washington State
  21. UCLA
  22. Oklahoma State
  23. Georgia
  24. Louisville
  25. Washington

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 15 years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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