Stadium’s Pre-Spring College Football Top 25: #10-6

As we close the next two days with the top 10 teams in my pre-spring rankings, you have probably realized whether your favorite school has made my early top 25 rankings or not. If not, I’ve still got a few surprises remaining. And remember, my rankings probably will change after spring practices are completed and most assuredly will be tweaked when I submit my Associated Press Preseason Top 25 ballot in August.

Today: Teams ranked 6-10.
Friday: Teams ranked 1-5.

[READ: McMurphy’s Top 25 – Nos. 25-21]

No. 10 – Utah

Last year: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12)
Bowl result: Lost to Northwestern 31-20 in Holiday Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 5 years (4-1)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At BYU, Aug. 29
Toughest conference game: At Washington, Nov. 2

Utah staggered down the stretch last season, but still managed to capture its first Pac-12 South title. After scoring at least 30 points in seven of its final eight regular season games, the Utes’ offense struggled in losses to Washington in the Pac-12 title game (10-3) and Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl (31-20). Starting quarterback Tyler Huntley (broken collarbone) and leading rusher Zack Moss (knee) were both out in the bowl loss, but they are among eight returning starters on offense in 2019.

Jason Shelley, who started five games at quarterback when Huntley was injured, is also back as Utah welcomes new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who came from Vanderbilt. Ludwig returns to Utah, where he was offensive coordinator from 2005-08. He is already stressing a more physical presence for the Utes and a commitment to running the football, which fits perfectly into Coach Kyle Whittingham’s philosophy.

Defensively, the Utes return a lot, including six players with starting experience on the defensive line: ends Maxs Tupai, Mika Tafua and Bradlee Anae and tackles Leki Fotu, John Penisini and Pita Tonga. Utah opens the season with the Holy War against BYU in Provo. The Utes also play Northern Illinois and Idaho State before entering conference play. The Pac-12 schedule works in Utah’s favor as it replaces games with Oregon and Stanford with Oregon State and Cal. The Utes’ toughest tests will be at USC and at Washington, so expect Utah to make another run at a Pac-12 title.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 9-5
2017: 7-6
2016: 9-4
2015: 10-3
2014: 9-4

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 24-15-1 ATS

File away: Since 2014, Kyle Whittingham’s Utes are 11-2 against the spread as a road underdog, winning seven of the 13 games outright.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 100/1

[READ: McMurphy’s Top 25 – Nos. 20-16]

No. 9 – Texas A&M

Last year: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Bowl result: Defeated NC State 52-13 in Gator Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 10 years (5-5)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At Clemson, Sept. 7
Toughest conference game: Home vs. Alabama, Oct. 12

Texas A&M should make a lot of preseason top 10 rankings in the coming months. But whether the Aggies finish the season still in the top 10 depends on how well they can navigate one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Awaiting Texas A&M in 2019 is a juggernaut slate featuring games at Clemson, Georgia (A&M’s first trip to Athens since 1980) and LSU along with home games vs. Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Quarterback Kellen Mond is among six returning starters on offense. Last season Mond was fourth in the SEC in total offense (275 yards per game). He was spectacular yet also inconsistent at times. He threw for a career-high 430 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the two-point loss to Clemson. However, excluding his six touchdown passes in the seven-overtime win against LSU, Mond had only nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in A&M’s remaining SEC contests.

This fall, the Aggies hope to continue the strides they made both offensively and defensively under Jimbo Fisher. In Fisher’s first season at A&M, the Aggies improved their total offense by 65 yards a game, averaging 472 yards per game, and their defense allowed 60 fewer yards per game compared to 2017. If that improvement continues in 2019 with 12 new starters, then the Aggies could challenge for their first SEC West title. That is, if they can survive their brutal schedule.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 9-4
2017: 7-6
2016: 8-5
2015: 8-5
2014: 8-5

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 21-15-3

File away: Including Jimbo Fisher’s final three seasons at Florida State and last season at Texas A&M, Fisher has lost nine of his last 10 regular season games when his team was an underdog, including an 0-4 record at Texas A&M last year.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 40/1

[READ: McMurphy’s Top 25: Nos. 15-11]

No. 8 – LSU

Last year: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Bowl result: Defeated UCF 40-32 in Fiesta Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 19 years (12-7)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At Texas, Sept. 7
Toughest conference game: At Alabama, Nov. 9

Did LSU’s offense suddenly come together in the final few weeks of last season, or did the Tigers take advantage of weaker competition? Maybe a little of both. Either way, quarterback Joe Burrow finished strong with 10 touchdown passes and only one interception in his final four games, compared to six touchdown passes and four interceptions in his first nine games. LSU averaged 363 yards per game in its first nine games and exploded for 491 yards per game in its final four contests.

Against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, Burrow threw for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns. The Tigers hope that momentum can carry over into 2019 with Burrow returning, along with seven other offensive starters. Defensively, coordinator Dave Aranda welcomes back the bulk of the Tigers’ defense that ranked second in the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.81), but loses impact players Devin White and Greedy Williams. In a marquee early-season game which should determine which team is a College Football Playoff contender/pretender, the Tigers visit Texas on Sept. 7. In SEC play, LSU hosts Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M in Baton Rouge and travels to Alabama, looking to end an eight-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 10-3
2017: 9-4
2016: 8-4
2015: 9-3
2014: 8-5

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 21-17

File away: In his two-plus years at LSU since taking over for Les Miles, coach Ed Orgeron has faced a ranked opponent in 16 of 34 games. Orgeron is 10-6 against ranked opponents and 15-3 against unranked opponents.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 60/1

 

No. 7 – Notre Dame

Last year: 12-1
Bowl result: Lost to Clemson 30-3 in College Football Playoff semifinal
Consecutive bowl trips: Two years (1-1)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Toughest game: At Georgia, Sept. 21

After Ian Book replaced Brandon Wimbush as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback three games into the 2018 season, the difference was staggering. Notre Dame, which had averaged 23 points in its first three games with Wimbush starting, averaged 37 points in its final nine games before the College Football Playoff loss to Clemson.

Book finished with 19 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, averaging 242 yards total offense per game. The Irish return eight starters on offense, including Book and four offensive linemen, but must replace their leading rusher (Dexter Williams) and receiver (Miles Boykin).

Clark Lea made a big impact in his first season as the Irish’s defensive coordinator. Notre Dame’s defense was one of three teams that held every opponent to 30 points or less in every game last season. The others were Fresno State and Mississippi State. The Irish also allowed only 347 yards per game, their lowest amount since 2012 when they lost to Alabama in the BCS title game. Six starters return on defense, but must replace star cornerback Julian Love. Against Clemson, Love left with an injury and the Irish secondary was literally helpless in slowing down Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Since Notre Dame’s 4-8 disaster in 2016, Brian Kelly has bounced back with consecutive seasons with double-digit victories, the first at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz had three in a row from 1991-93. Kelly could match Holtz’s streak if the Irish can have success away from South Bend. Notre Dame’s home schedule isn’t challenging – with the exception of USC – but the Irish will be tested on the road against Georgia, Michigan and Stanford.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 12-1
2017: 10-3
2016: 4-8
2015: 10-3
2014: 8-5

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 18-19-1

File away: Notre Dame’s loss in the College Football Playoff was the Irish’s eighth consecutive loss in one of the New Year’s 6 or traditional major bowls dating back to 1994. Notre Dame’s last major bowl victory came against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1994.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 30/1

 

No. 6 – Florida

Last year: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Bowl result: Defeated Michigan 41-15 in Peach Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: One year (1-0)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Miami in Orlando, Aug. 31
Toughest conference game: Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 2

Under former coach Steve Spurrier, Florida’s offense was known as the Fun ’n’ Gun. Spurrier’s offenses would “chuck the ball” around, put up a lot of yards and even more points. But recently for Florida, the Gators’ offense has been anything about fun. It had fallen to the bottom of the SEC – and it couldn’t get back up. From 2010-17, the Gators’ offense ranked among the bottom three units in the SEC every single year.

That all changed last year when Dan Mullen arrived from Mississippi State. In his first season in Gainesville, the Gators’ offense averaged 426 yards per game – after eight consecutive seasons of never averaging more than 370 yards per game. Mullen capped off his debut season as UF’s coach with consecutive routs of rival Florida State (41-14) and Michigan (41-15). Not a bad debut.

Now what does Mullen do for an encore?

The offense only returns five starters, including quarterback Felipe Franks, who blossomed under Mullen. The defense returns mostly intact with eight starters back. The schedule is challenging, but not overwhelming: neutral site games against Miami in Orlando and Georgia in Jacksonville. Other than that, Florida’s toughest games is in back-to-back weeks hosting Auburn and then visiting LSU.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 10-3
2017: 4-7
2016: 9-4
2015: 10-4
2014: 7-5

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 18-19

File away: Last year Florida scored more than 40 points in six games – or the same number of times it did in the previous 75 games before Dan Mullen’s arrival between 2011-17.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 30/1

MORE: Predicting the 2019 Over/Under Win Totals for the Big Ten