Clemson is the 2018 College Football Playoff national champion for the second time in the last three years and the Tigers are our No. 1 team as we looked ahead to next fall.
As we enter the first day of the offseason, here’s our way-too-early preseason top 25 for the 2019 college football season, which is bound to change pending upcoming NFL draft decisions.
1. Clemson: Like Alabama, Clemson will return most of its offensive skill position players. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who won offensive MVP in the national championship, will be the unquestioned starter entering spring camp after splitting time with former Clemson signal-caller Kelly Bryant in the first four games of the 2018 season. Running back Travis Etienne will be on preseason Heisman Trophy lists after a sophomore campaign in which he rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Clemson’s top three wide receivers – Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers – will all be back, even though the Tigers finally lose slot receiver and 2017 national championship game hero Hunter Renfrow.
The Tigers’ defensive line was on the short list of the best position groups in the sport in 2018 and they might have three defensive linemen selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. They’ll also lose at least two All-ACC offensive linemen in tackle Mitch Hyatt and center Justin Falcinelli but the Tigers are recruiting and operating at such a high level that Clemson should continue to be a force as long as Lawrence is under center and Swinney is on the sidelines.
2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide was in great shape for the 2018 season after winning the 2017 national championship, especially offensively with the return of two capable quarterbacks, its top five running backs and a really talented wide receiver class that could collectively mitigate the departure of Calvin Ridley in their sophomore seasons. The scary part is that Alabama arguably has more proven commodities entering the 2019 season than it did this time last year before its 14-1 campaign in 2018.
Tua Tagovailoa, who was considered the Heisman Trophy frontrunner for much of the 2018 season, will be back for what will likely be his final season in college. Even with the graduation of leading rusher Damien Harris and the potential for running back Josh Jacobs to declare for the draft, former No. 1 overall recruit Najee Harris will enter spring camp as the team’s No. 1 running back. The sophomore wide receiver trio of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, along with dynamic slot receiver/returner Jaylen Waddle, means Tagovailoa will have four of his top five receivers back even if tight end Irv Smith Jr. were to declare for the NFL draft.
Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the winner of the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the country, is a projected top-five pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, so Alabama should prepare for life without him up front defensively but he had exploded onto the scene in 2018 and the Crimson Tide is no stranger to developing elite defensive talent.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs took the Crimson Tide to the wire twice last calendar year and they could be on a collision course to meet again next postseason, whether it’s in the SEC Championship or College Football Playoff. Despite a disappointing end to the 2018 season with a Sugar Bowl loss to Texas that wasn’t as close as the final score, Georgia will enter the 2019 campaign as the favorite in the SEC East.
Quarterback Jake Fromm is back and with the transfer of backup Justin Fields, Fromm will be the clear No. 1 option under center. However, junior wide receivers Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman, plus tight end Isaac Nauta, declared for the NFL draft, which will leave Fromm without his top three receivers from last season.
Even with the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Elijah Holyfield to the NFL, Georgia should have one of the best rushing attacks in the country with the return of leading rusher D’Andre Swift, a pair of backs in James Cook and Brian Herrien who averaged at least 5.9 yards per carry on 40-plus attempts in 2018, and the addition of a healthy Zamir White, the No. 1 running back prospect in the 2017 recruiting class who tore his ACL in a scrimmage last August. The Bulldogs should have a running back corps that goes at least four players deep once again.
4. LSU: The Tigers were on a potentially playoff-bound trajectory entering Week 10 of the 2018 season and despite a primetime shutout against Alabama and a seven-overtime defeat at Texas A&M in Week 13, their 10 wins was the program’s most in five years. Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow looks like LSU’s best quarterback since Zach Mettenberger and as a rare grad transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, he’ll be back in Baton Rouge next season.
LSU will lose cornerback Greedy Williams and defensive tackle Ed Alexander from a top-15 defense with the potential for more draft departures, most notably linebacker Devin White.
LSU struck gold in the grad transfer market with kicker Cole Tracy, who previously played at Division II Assumption College, and he was 29-of-33 (87.9%) on field goal attempts and perfect on 42 PATs in 2018. He could be an underrated loss if LSU doesn’t have an heir apparent at the position.
5. Texas: After the Longhorns defeated No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger proclaimed on national television, “We’re back.” At risk of falling into the trap of elevating a team’s preseason expectations based upon a bowl result, Ehlinger might just be right about Texas after the Longhorns’ decade-long pursuit of “being back.”
Ehlinger, for one, will be back in Austin next season, as will second-leading rusher Keaontay Ingram, 6-6 wide receiver Collin Johnson and First Team All-Big 12 defensive back Caden Sterns.
Texas will lose an All-Big 12 honoree at each level of the defense in defensive lineman Charles Omenihu, defensive back Kris Boyd and linebacker Gary Johnson.
The stay-or-go decision by leading wide receiver/returner Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who reportedly received a mid-to-late round grade for the NFL draft, will be the biggest one to watch for the Longhorns.
6. Michigan: Michigan’s 2019 season could be summed up as “If not now, then when?” given the talent in the program, its expectations and the landscape of the rest of the Big Ten. Rival Ohio State will have a first-time head coach and the Wolverines will host the Buckeyes in the final week of the regular season.
Michigan loses several critical starters from its defense, including First Team All-Big Ten cornerback David Long, defensive linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush, plus running back Karan Higdon and offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty. But quarterback Shea Patterson is back and Michigan arguably has a more favorable schedule next season than it did in 2018.
7. Ohio State: Reasonable minds can disagree about Ohio State’s 2019 outlook, given the amount of unknowns and new faces around the program. Ryan Day will be in his first season as a full-time head coach, the school chose not to re-sign Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano and hired Michigan Defensive Line Coach Greg Mattison to be its Co-Defensive Coordinator, Heisman Trophy finalist Dwayne Haskins declared for the 2019 NFL Draft and three of the team’s top four wide receivers exhausted their eligibility last season.
The Buckeyes’ future next season could depend on whether Georgia transfer Justin Fields, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, receives a waiver to play immediately. Haskins’ decision to declare for the draft leaves redshirt freshman Tate Martell, another former highly regarded dual-threat quarterback prospect, as Ohio State’s most experienced returner at the position.
Defensive end Nick Bosa, who played just three games before being sidelined for the season with a core muscle injury, is NFL-bound, as are the team’s second-leading rusher Mike Weber, center Michael Jordan and defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones.
8. Florida: The Gators throttled Michigan 41-15 in the Peach Bowl, making them another contender to potentially be overvalued entering the 2019 season, but Florida has the makings of the second-best SEC East team next season. Quarterback Feleipe Franks showed significant year-over-year improvement from his freshman to sophomore campaigns and Florida would stand to benefit from more growth in terms of accuracy and downfield passing from its quarterback next fall.
9. Washington: The Huskies will have Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who was one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2016 recruiting class, eligible next season, so if Washington’s defense has a top-10 efficiency like it did in 2018, it could be the favorite to win the Pac-12.
10. Oklahoma: For the second year in a row, Oklahoma will have to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Kyler Murray’s future lies in professional baseball (or football), leaving redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Kendall as the team’s most experienced returning signal-caller. He was 12-of-17 for 122 yards and a touchdown in limited snaps in 2018.
After back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances and Heisman Trophy winners, Oklahoma could experience a down year if its quarterback play takes a significant step back.
11. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish will have trouble going undefeated in the regular season for the second year in a row with games at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford, and while Notre Dame will have a full season with quarterback Ian Book as the team’s starter, it loses leading rusher Dexter Williams and leading receiver Miles Boykin.
12. Oregon: Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who was on track to contend to be the first signal-caller drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, elected to return to school. Herbert threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior and his return could allow Oregon to compete for the Pac-12 title. The Ducks currently have the No. 7 2019 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and they had the No. 13 class in 2018, so there’s an influx of talent arriving in Eugene, Oregon.
13. Missouri: The Tigers will replace Second Team All-SEC quarterback Drew Lock with Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant, who has College Football Playoff experience and he should keep Missouri as a top-25 team. Missouri has a favorable start to its 2019 campaign with games at Wyoming before five home games in a row against West Virginia, Southeast Missouri, South Carolina, Troy and Ole Miss, which means the Tigers could climb into the top-15 with a strong September and October.
14. Utah: Five of the Utes defensive players who were named to the All-Pac 12 First or Second Team in 2018 were underclassmen, including defensive linemen Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini, so there’s reason to believe Utah could have a top-20 defense again in 2019. Leading rusher Zack Moss (1,096 yards, 11 TD) will return for his senior year and leading receiver/return specialist Britain Covey will be back, while the Utes could have a quarterback competition between Tyler Huntley and Jason Shelley – the latter of whom took over under center after the former suffered a collarbone injury in November.
15. Texas A&M: The Aggies will lose running back Trayveon Williams to the NFL draft but quarterback Kellen Mond, who threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns against Clemson, will be back. Texas A&M’s 2019 schedule is extremely tough with road games at Clemson, Georgia and LSU, and home games against Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State, but the Aggies should still contend for an eight or nine-win season.
16. Iowa State: The Cyclones were 7-2 under true freshman quarterback Brock Purdy last season and when they traveled to Austin, Texas, in mid-November, they were still in contention for the Big 12 Championship Game. Iowa State is more defense-oriented than most Big 12 teams and another year of development for Purdy could allow the Cyclones to better compete in conference games that turn into shootouts.
Iowa State first three games and four of its first five are at home next season so the Cyclones could get off to a strong start in 2019.
17. Penn State: Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford will compete to win the vacant starting quarterback job made available by the graduation of Trace McSorley and Penn State will also have to replace running back Miles Sanders, who rushed for 1,274 yards in 2018 before declaring for the NFL draft, but the Nittany Lions’ top-20 recruiting classes and AP Top 25 rankings in recent years suggest they can continue to operate at a top-25 level.
18. UCF: The Knights’ offense, which ranked as the sixth-most efficient nationally in 2018, will likely take a step back in 2019 without injured quarterback McKenzie Milton but UCF had three First Team All-AAC offensive linemen who should lay the foundation for another potent offense next season. True freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. had six total touchdowns in place of Milton in the AAC Championship against Memphis, running back Greg McCrae rushed for 1,182 yards and 8.9 yards per carry as a sophomore, and leading wide receiver Gabriel Davis (50 receptions, 756 yards, 6 TD) will also be back for UCF.
19. Wisconsin: The Badgers had a disappointing 2018 season but they’ll have at least one more year of star running back Jonathan Taylor and they don’t play a conference road game until October 19 at Illinois. Wisconsin’s divisional crossover games against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State aren’t ideal but the first two are at home and it could be a year of transition for the Buckeyes.
More times than not in the last 15 years, Wisconsin has finished the season as a top-25 team and we’ll assume the Badgers’ 8-5 season in 2018 isn’t the new normal.
20. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose quarterback Nick Fitzgerald but Mississippi State’s offense could benefit from a quarterback who’s more accurate and doesn’t run the ball 200-plus times in a season. Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead helped elevate Penn State’s offense when the Nittany Lions had Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley and an offensive spark combined with another year of elite defense could make the Bulldogs a dangerous team in the SEC West.
Mississippi State has a top-20 recruiting class in 2019, including four-star dual-threat quarterback Garrett Shrader and several talented linemen.
21. Syracuse: The Orange had a breakthrough year in 2018 with a 10-3 record and a Camping World Bowl victory. Now it’s about maintaining its status as one of the best teams in the ACC. Syracuse will have to replace quarterback Eric Dungey but Tommy DeVito, who played in seven games as a freshman, appears to be next in line and he already almost 90 attempts in his college career. Defensively, the Orange will return First Team All-ACC safety Andre Cisco, as well as unanimous All-American kicker Andre Szmyt.
22. Virginia Tech: The Hokies lost starting quarterback Josh Jackson for the season last September just three games into the 2018 season so assuming he makes a full recovery from his injured ankle and stays healthy for the whole season, Virginia Tech should contend for a nine or 10-win season like it had in 2016 and 2017. We trust Virginia Tech Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster to improve his unit from its No. 81-ranked efficiency in 2018, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.
23. Miami (FL): Miami Coach Manny Diaz transformed the Hurricanes’ defense as the team’s Defensive Coordinator and if he can have a similar impact in his first year as head coach, the ‘Canes can be a top-25 team. Quarterback N’Kosi Perry was a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school and if he can improve as a sophomore, increasing Miami’s offensive efficiency from its No. 77 ranking nationally in 2018, the Hurricanes can contend for an ACC Coastal title.
24. Auburn: The Tigers signed the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, Bo Nix, who could compete to claim the starting quarterback job vacated by Jarrett Stidham, who declared for the 2019 NFL Draft. Auburn’s leading rusher, JaTarvious Whitlow, is just a freshman. While leading tackler Deshaun Davis, a First Team All-SEC selection at linebacker, exhausted his eligibility, defensive tackle Derrick Brown announced his return to school.
Like the 2017 season, Auburn will have a big opportunity by hosting Georgia and Alabama but the Tigers open the season against Oregon and travel to Texas A&M, Florida and LSU.
25. Nebraska: The Huskers went just 4-8 in the first year of the Scott Frost era after starting 0-6 but five of their losses were by five points or less. They had a true freshman quarterback last season in Adrian Martinez, who completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and he’ll have a strong No. 1 wide receiver next season in JD Spielman (66 receptions, 818 receiving yards, 8 TD).