College football finally has decided not to stiff-arm opportunity or plant cleat marks on mystery in the hunt for the national title. Finally, teams named something other than Alabama and Clemson might be able to divvy up the dream.

For too long, the race to the campus mountaintop irked like a needle stubbornly skipping on a turntable. Alabama has won five of the last 10. In the most recent four, it's remained the sole dominion of two-stepping titans: Clemson, Alabama, Clemson, Alabama.

Now, there is legitimate possibility and debate _ and it's glorious.

College football still could end up in the same place, with Alabama and Clemson snarling at each other Jan. 13 at the Superdome in New Orleans. It hardly seems likely, though, with party crashers Ohio State, LSU, Penn State and others with resumes and will, waiting to pounce.

Start with Ohio State, installed by the College Football Playoff committee as the top team in the country. The Buckeyes beat current CFP No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 20 Cincinnati by a combined 80-7. They allow a scant 3.59 yards per play, the fewest in the country.

Adversity lives at the top, too, though. Defensive end Chase Young, a top Heisman Trophy contender with 13 { sacks this season, was suspended for at least one game for what he says was a loan from a family friend that has since been repaid. If the NCAA hands down a larger penalty, the playoff drama grows more intriguing still.

Next, according to the CFP folks, is LSU. That alone is telling, since it means neither winner of the last four titles resides in the Top 2.

The Bayou Bengals fuel one of the most compelling arguments for regime change on the eve of their epic kickoff Saturday at Alabama. They're the first team in the history of the Associated Press poll to beat three Top 10 teams through eight games, dumping Texas, Florida and Auburn.

Quarterback Joe Burrow owns the Heisman talk ... for now. He leads the SEC in total offense (366.2) and is second in the FBS with 2,805 pass yards. He's on pace to smash every LSU single-season record, sitting on 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

An interesting case-against stat: The ESPN Football Power Index, which uses a range of factors to rank bark and bite, ranks the Tigers No. 4, but just 39th in "win-out percentage" at 12.1 percent.

Then comes the team Nick Saban coaches. Alabama, the most dominant program of this half-generation, always is in the mix _ even when someone senses cracks. Especially when someone senses cracks.

Though the schedule has been less than salty so far, the LSU matchup Saturday provides the ultimate measuring stick. There's a mixed bag for the Crimson Tide in the ESPN index, too: they're No. 2 overall, but 17th in win-out percentage (30.7).

Want more proof that the landscape could flip? The No. 4 team, according to the CFP, is Penn State _ meaning No. 5 Clemson, the winner of two of the last three titles, sits on the outside looking in. The Nittany Lions travel to No. 17 Minnesota on Saturday and also face a Nov. 23 trip to Ohio State.

Toss in one-loss teams in the Top 10 _ Georgia, Oregon, Utah and Oklahoma _ and the storylines add spice.

Suddenly, sports surprise is en vogue. Kawhi Leonard gave Canada an NBA title. The St. Louis Blues, 0-12 in Stanley Cup history, skated off with Lord Stanley's Cup. The Nationals, with old Expos fans in tow, rode the brilliance of Stephen Strasburg to a World Series crown.

Why not college football? Please, college football. No one wants to know the final scene of a movie in advance. It's cruel to spill details about the last page a book. Knowing what's underneath the wrapping paper torpedoes the surprise.

Football, it seems, might just play along this time.

In San Diego, the college game might just offer another gift. The Aztecs remain in the Group of Five mix for a Cotton Bowl trip. Keep winning, no matter the offensive warts, and it gets more interesting by the week.

The eligible teams in front of them all face schedule challenges. Cincinnati, at 20, meets No. 21 Memphis on Nov. 29. Navy, No. 24, plays at Notre Dame on Nov. 16 and likely would face either Cincinnati or dangerous UCF in the AAC title game. SMU (25) still has Navy with a possible ranked AAC title-game matchup.

And San Diego State controls its own destiny with a possible Mountain West title game showdown against Boise State, No. 22 to CFP thinking.

Someone other than Alabama or Clemson? A puncher's chance for the Cotton Bowl?

College football is fun again. Finally.

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(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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