2019's Way-Too-Early Top 25: Clemson, Alabama Primed to Pace College Football Again
The orange and white confetti has only just stopped falling from Monday night’s stunning national title game, but the attention has already shifted to the 2019 season. Between transfers, early entries to the NFL draft (the deadline to declare is Jan. 14) and the finalization of recruiting classes, coaches may not have a good feel for their rosters until late spring, but with a few educated guesses and a handful of bold projections, we can sketch out the landscape of next fall's national title race.
Clemson flipped the script on a season that felt like an Alabama coronation, and since both national title game participants are positioned to return so much talent, it’s hard to find a reason to knock the Tigers from the top spot entering the offseason. Over the next eight months, the Trevor Lawrence hype train will reach top speed, Dabo Swinney will wax philosophical on how far his program has come and the replacements for all those defensive linemen will settle into their new roles. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide will be loaded up and angrier than ever.
The sport’s other typical heavyweights can be found early in the countdown of this way-too-early Top 25, and there are several teams that should be good enough to make 2019 less of a two-horse race than this season often was. Contenders like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State and Washington must replace productive quarterbacks, so these rankings set the expectation that the talented signal-callers waiting in the wings are ready to help those programs continue their winning ways.
Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross will be back to lead a loaded offense which should be good enough to win the ACC on its own. The big questions lie on the defensive side of the ball, where the entire starting line needs to be replaced, but defensive coordinator Brent Venables should be enough to get the Tigers' cache of decorated underclassmen up to speed quickly.
Tua Tagovailoa should be Lawrence's main competition for the Heisman Trophy, and his top four wide receivers should all be back. The defensive standouts that the Crimson Tide may lose (D-lineman Isaiah Buggs is a senior, and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, safety Deionte Thompson and linebacker Mack Wilson will almost certainly earn first-round picks if they join him in the draft pool) will be replaced by the next wave of four and five-stars waiting for their chance to shine. Expect the Tide's perfect playoff attendance record to remain intact.
In the last calendar year, the Bulldogs twice had Alabama on the ropes and twice failed to get the job done. Their no-show in the Sugar Bowl against Texas should be more motivation than ever to finally get over the hump for the school’s first national championship since 1980. UGA should hope junior D’Andre Swift and redshirt freshman Zamir White are healthy enough to carry much of the load on the ground because the early exits of wide receivers Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and tight end Isaac Nauta for the NFL are certainly going to hurt the passing game. Still, with Jake Fromm back under center for another year, the SEC East crown should again run through Athens.
4. Ohio State
Ryan Day takes over for the retired Urban Meyer in a smoothly executed transition that indicates the Buckeyes’ talent level and expectations aren’t changing anytime soon. Dwayne Haskins is off to the NFL after a record-setting season as the starter, and the next quarterback in line will be dynamic redshirt sophomore Tate Martell or Georgia transfer Justin Fields (if he gets a waiver to play immediately), both of which would offer more formidable dual-threat capabilities than Haskins did. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State all come to Columbus, but the season-ending trip to Ann Arbor will be Day’s biggest test.
5. Notre Dame
Their playoff cameo didn’t go as planned, but the Irish are rightfully riding high off their undefeated season and looking forward to the next step from Ian Book, now entrenched as the starting quarterback. The schedule might be too tricky to expect another 12–0 finish, with road games at Georgia, Stanford and Michigan, and the defense loses top playmakers Julian Love, Jerry Tillery, Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill.
This is a critical offseason in Lincoln Riley's quest to raise the Sooners’ ceiling to national championship level, and the work starts with turning around a defense that was truly dreadful in 2018. The hiring of Ohio State defensive assistant Alex Grinch, who worked wonders as the DC at Washington State, is a big step in the right direction.
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner for the second straight year, along with Kyler Murray’s favorite target All-America wide receiver Marquise Brown, won't be easy to do. But if anyone can do it, it will be Riley, whose offense averaged 8.60 yards a play, a full yard better than everyone in the FBS except Alabama (7.89 yards per play). The Sooners just added a third five-star receiver to their class of 2019 (Jadon Haselwood joins Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges), another sign that blue-chippers are lining up to make Riley’s vision a reality.
With quarterback Shea Patterson, four starting offensive linemen and several skill players who only scratched the surface of their potential this year returning, the Wolverines should be in good hands on offense. But the nation’s No. 1 defense allowed 103 points in its last two games, both blowout losses to Ohio State and Florida, and with leaders Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich departing, respected coordinator Don Brown will be asked to work his magic in 2019.
After an impressive Sugar Bowl victory against Georgia, get ready to have the “Is Texas back?” discussion all over again. The Longhorns need to topple Oklahoma in the Big 12 before they can dream of the playoff, but they do have the pieces in place to make a run. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger will have skyscraping wide receiver Collin Johnson to throw to, although top playmaker Lil’Jordan Humphrey has elected to enter the draft. Despite a wave of graduating senior leaders, safety Caden Sterns and other gems of Tom Herman’s recent recruiting classes should make Texas’s defense the conference’s best unit.
Florida’s last four games saw an offensive explosion that Gators fans had sorely missed for years, giving Dan Mullen some encouraging momentum heading into year two. Quarterback Feleipe Franks looks to be slowly putting it together—the question is who is going to block for Franks, as four starting offensive linemen move on to the next level. Leading rusher Lamical Perine and leading receiver Van Jefferson will be expected to produce even more as Florida settles into Mullen's offense.
The Ducks’ 2019 hype train got rolling in earnest when quarterback Justin Herbert, who had a shot at being the first QB off the board in this spring's draft, announced he was coming back for his senior season. Now the question is who he will throw to. Jaylon Redd, the team’s only returning wideout with more than 30 catches, is well-positioned to become Herbert’s favorite target, and left tackle Penei Sewell should be safely removed from the ankle injury that cut short his sterling freshman season. The top-five recruiting class secured by the coveted commitment of Kayvon Thibodeaux has the future looking bright in Eugene, and with quarterback turnover elsewhere in the division, Oregon should be the Pac-12 favorite.
11. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher had a promising first year at College Station, finishing 9–4, but he is going to have to replace two centerpieces of his 2018 offense if he wants to build on that success in ’19: Trayveon Williams, the SEC’s leading rusher, declared for the draft early, as did All-America tight end Jace Sternberger. Quarterback Kellen Mond (3,107 yards and 24 TDs this season) is a rising star, but he will have to lead the Aggies through some brutal road tests, including a trip to Clemson on Sept. 7 and visits to Georgia and LSU once SEC play begins.
The reigning Pac-12 champions are again set up for success, even though Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are out of eligibility. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason has talent all around him at the skill positions to capably step in at quarterback, and he’ll have a majority of the offensive line back, including excellent-when-healthy tackle Trey Adams. The conference’s best defense runs the risk of slipping to the middle of the pack now that it has to replace linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp.
If Joe Burrow’s four-touchdown performance against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl had been the rule rather than the exception during his first year in Baton Rouge, then LSU might have had a shot at a playoff spot. Burrow will be back for 2019, and replacing running back Nick Brossette will be key.
The secondary has a chance to even be better even without possible first-round pick Greedy Williams, as All-America safety Grant Delpit comes back. That defense will be tested early when the Tigers visit Austin in Week 2 to take on Texas in one of next year's better early non-conference games.
14. Penn State
Program legend Trace McSorley is gone, but the future still looks bright in Happy Valley, as stability at offensive line and running back awaits new starting quarterback Tommy Stevens. Look for breakout seasons from receiver KJ Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth. Sacks leader Yetur Gross-Matos (eight sacks, 20 TFL) is back, and the secondary should again be a strength after holding its last five opponents under 200 passing yards.
Coming off their first Pac-12 South title, the Utes will again make a run at a very winnable division. Utah is set to return 15 starters, will have two experienced quarterbacks to choose from in Tyler Huntley and Jason Shelley and will return almost every receiver that contributed in 2018. The defense will be strong again, especially cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who has All-America potential.
This ranking is based on the Knights' hope that quarterback McKenzie Milton returns from the gruesome knee injury that ended his season on Black Friday. If he needs more time to heal, Darriel Mack showed he is more than capable of taking the reins after a promising if inconsistent redshirt freshman season. UCF could again be the Group of Five’s best team, with a good chance to make a third straight New Year’s Six bowl.
The difference between Wisconsin contending for a Big Ten title and spending a second straight year in mediocrity will be competent quarterback play. Alex Hornibrook's penchant for turnovers doomed this year's team, and his replacement Jack Coan did the best he could under the circumstances. The Badgers will once again hitch their fortunes to running back Jonathan Taylor, who is hoping to become the first back with back–to–back 2,000-yard seasons since Iowa State's Troy Davis accomplished the feat in 1995 and ’96. There will be some new faces on the offensive line blocking for Taylor.
The Hawkeyes have as many holes to fill as any team on this list, especially at linebacker and tight end. Steady quarterback Nate Stanley is back, but he needs receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette to up their production to balance out a strong running game. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who led the team in sacks, is back to bolster his candidacy for one of the first picks of the 2020 draft, and he will form one of the nation’s best end tandems alongside 6'7" Anthony Nelson.
Every season on the Plains seems to fluctuate between a playoff push and a fade that draws calls for Gus Malzahn’s job. Malzahn is back to calling plays after OC Chip Lindsay joined the new staff at Kansas, but whether that is good or bad for the Tigers remains to be seen. The offense must pick up the slack after the team’s most consistent unit, the defense, saw multiple departures (although standout defensive tackle Derrick Brown and edge rusher Marlon Davidson will be back). Auburn gets Oregon in a neutral-site season opener in Arlington and must navigate road games with LSU, Florida and Texas A&M.
Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is set to take over for four-year starter Clayton Thorson, and Isaiah Bowser, who had a breakout freshman season, is back to carry the load at running back. The Big Ten West is up for grabs again, but the defense, led by leading tacklers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, should shore up a group that was on the field more than any unit in the league in 2018.
21. Iowa State
While Iowa State returns quarterback Brock Purdy and its entire defensive line, questions abound with Matt Campbell’s group. Workhorse running back David Montgomery and big-play receiver Hakeem Butler are huge NFL draft losses, but the Cyclones are typically good for an upset or two. Most of the Big 12’s contenders (along with the in-state rival Hawkeyes) have to come to Ames in 2019, and while a trip to Norman to face Oklahoma is no picnic, the Cyclones’ last trip there resulted in a surprising victory.
The Black Knights are coming off a school-record 11 wins, and on any given week their triple-option attack can give defensive coordinators nightmares. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins is back after his five-touchdown Armed Forces Bowl performance. Army could be a sleeper New Year’s Six participant if it takes advantage of its lone Power 5 statement opportunity, against Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sept. 7.
23. Michigan State
Another Big Ten team that needs a reboot on offense, Michigan State returns most of its offensive line and leading receiver Cody White, but need to find a replacement for rusher LJ Scott, who ran for nearly 3,000 yards in his career. The defense again has the potential to be championship caliber, but while Mark Dantonio gets the most out of his talent and is poised to become the school’s all-time wins leader next season, another uninspiring year could leave fans and alumni frustrated with the direction of the program.
The Tigers are replacing prolific passer Drew Lock with Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant, who just two years ago led his former Tigers to the College Football Playoff. Mizzou is deep at running back and features returning rusher Larry Rountree III, but competing in the SEC East will be challenging with Georgia and Florida restocking and reloading. With Bryant at the helm, a 10-win campaign is a possibility.
25. Virginia Tech
A 6–7 season certainly didn’t sit too well in Blacksburg, especially with the subpar seasons put forth by the Hokies’ Coastal Division counterparts. Quarterback Josh Jackson should be fully recovered from his leg injury and will be pushed by Ryan Willis, who helped the team fight to continue its nation-leading bowl streak. But it is Bud Foster’s defense that must get things turned around. Louisville was the only ACC team that allowed more yards per play than the Hokies, and the return of eight starters should lead to a step forward on that side of the ball.
Next in line: Arizona, Utah State, Nebraska, USC, Mississippi State, Washington State.