Stadium’s Pre-Spring College Football Top 25: #20-16

Monday debuted with my pre-spring teams ranked Nos. 21-25. 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 16-20.
Wednesday: Teams ranked 11-15.
Thursday: Teams ranked 6-10.
Friday: Teams ranked 1-5.

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

No. 20 – UCF

Last year: 12-1 (8-0 American)
Bowl result: Lost to LSU 40-32 in Fiesta Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 3 years (1-2)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Stanford, Sept. 14
Toughest conference game: At Cincinnati, Oct. 4

While it’s doubtful quarterback McKenzie Milton will return in 2019 from the devastating knee injury he suffered last year against USF, the Knights will have a couple of capable options in Darriel Mack Jr. and Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush.

Seven offensive starters return, including two of UCF’s top three receivers from a year ago: Gabriel Davis (53 catches, 815 yards) and Tre Nixon (40 catches, 562 yards). UCF has scored at least 30 points in its last 26 games, the nation’s longest current streak, and should have no trouble extending that in the opener against Florida A&M.

The concern is what to expect from the defense. Only five starters return from a unit that ranked in the bottom half of the American in rushing and total defense last season and was scorched in the Fiesta Bowl by LSU.

UCF should once again be the class of the American, followed closely by Cincinnati and Memphis, but if the Knights want to make another run at a New Year’s 6 bowl, they must navigate a non-conference schedule featuring consecutive games against Stanford and Pitt. With wins in those matchups, UCF could have its sights set on a third consecutive undefeated regular season.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 12-1
2017: 13-0
2016: 6-7
2015: 0-12
2014: 9-4

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 23-13-1

File away: UCF has won a national-best 25 consecutive games when favored, dating back to 2016. In that span, UCF has been favored by at least 14 points in more than half of those games, going 8-5 against the spread.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 500/1

 

No. 19 – Mississippi State

Last year: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Bowl result: Lost to Iowa 27-22 in Outback Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 9 years (6-3)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Kansas State, Sept. 7
Toughest conference game: Home vs. Alabama, Nov. 16

In Mississippi State’s first season with Head Coach Joe Moorhead, the Bulldogs’ offense was feast-or-famine: They scored at least 28 points in seven games and won them all, but scored seven points or fewer in four games, all SEC matchups that they lost. Those four SEC losses were to teams that all finished in the top 12 of the final AP rankings (No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Florida and No. 12 Kentucky).

This fall, the Bulldogs seek more consistency on offense, but must do so without four-year starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Keytaon Thompson will take over at quarterback. Thompson is more of a dual threat than Fitzgerald but has limited experience, although he led the Bulldogs to a victory against Louisville in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl.

Defensively, the Bulldogs lost a lot of talent, including lineman Jeffery Simmons, but they should remain strong. Last season, Mississippi State led the SEC in total defense and scoring defense and was one of only three teams that didn’t allow more than 30 points in a game (Fresno State and Notre Dame were the others).

The Bulldogs benefit from home games against Kansas State, Alabama, LSU and rival Ole Miss, but must visit Texas A&M and Auburn.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 8-5
2017: 9-4
2016: 6-7
2015: 9-4
2014: 10-3

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 21-18

File away: In Joe Moorhead’s debut season, Mississippi State was 8-1 straight up and against the spread when the Bulldogs scored 10 or more points.

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

 

No. 18 – Penn State

Last year: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
Bowl result: Lost to Kentucky 27-24 in Citrus Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 5 years (2-3)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Pitt, Sept. 14
Toughest conference game: At Ohio State, Nov. 23

Trace McSorley, Penn State’s all-time leading passer and winningest quarterback in school history is gone. The Nittany Lions also have seven players headed to the NFL Combine, the third-most among Big Ten schools, and a dozen players put their names in the NCAA’s Transfer Portal.

So who’s left? Penn State does return six starters each on offense and defense.

The biggest question: Who will replace McSorley? It’s a three-man battle between senior Tommy Stevens, sophomore Sean Clifford and freshman Will Levis. Entering spring, Stevens, who has only 41 career attempts, has the edge. Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of a schedule that should allow the Nittany Lions to build some early momentum.

Penn State should be 5-0 before entering a tough second half of the season featuring road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State and a home game against Michigan. Coach James Franklin has won 31 games in the past three years at Penn State and if the Nittany Lions are going to reach double-digit wins again, they’ll need strong play from their new starting quarterback.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 9-4
2017: 11-2
2016: 11-3
2015: 7-6
2014: 7-6

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 25-14-1

File away: In 2016-17 with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, the Nittany Lions averaged 39.3 points and 446 yards per game and 6.54 yards per play. Last season without Moorhead, Penn State averaged 33.8 points and 423 yards per game and 6.11 yards per play.

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

 

No. 17 – Iowa

Last year: 9-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Bowl result: Defeated Mississippi State 27-22 in Outback Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: Six years (2-4)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At Iowa State, Sept. 14
Toughest conference game: At Michigan, Oct. 4

Dec. 2, 1998.

That was the day Kirk Ferentz was hired as Iowa’s coach. Ferentz enters his 21st season this fall with the Hawkeyes as the longest-tenured active head coach in college football. Ferentz has strung together six consecutive winning seasons and the outlook for 2019 looks strong as well.

Quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his third year as a starter, having thrown 26 touchdown passes in each of the past two seasons. Leading rushers Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young also are back, after combining for nearly 1,400 yards a year ago. They also return three starters on the offensive line – Cole Banwart, Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs – but lose tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to the NFL.

Iowa’s defense returns three starters in the secondary, but must replace six of its front seven. Iowa’s biggest challenges at home will come in consecutive games against Penn State (Oct. 12) and Purdue (Oct. 19). The road will be much more difficult as the Hawkeyes visit Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 9-4
2017: 8-5
2016: 8-5
2015: 12-2
2014: 7-6

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 22-15-3

File away: Since 2013 as a road favorite, Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes are a remarkable 15-2-1 against the spread and 17-1 straight-up when favored in regular season road games.

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

 

No. 16 – Iowa State

Last year: 8-5 (6-3 Big 12)
Bowl result: Lost to Washington State 28-26 in Alamo Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: Two years (1-1)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Iowa, Sept. 14
Toughest conference game: At Oklahoma, Nov. 9

From 2014-16, Iowa State won a total of eight games. In the past two seasons under Head Coach Matt Campbell, they’ve won eight games each season – the first time the Cyclones have done so in back-to-back years since the late 1970s. That also was the last time Iowa State was ranked in the preseason AP Poll (No. 20 in 1978).

That streak should end this season because Campbell has built the Cyclones into a legitimate top 25 team. Star running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Hakeem Butler must be replaced, but they return quarterback Brock Purdy, who was sixth in passing efficiency last year as a freshman, and all five starters on the offensive line. Purdy and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger will be the top returning quarterbacks in the Big 12, and Purdy looks to build on last season when he threw 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Iowa State hosts in-state rival Iowa, looking for its first win in Ames against the Hawkeyes since 2011. In conference play, ISU’s toughest stretch is consecutive games against Oklahoma State in Ames, at Oklahoma, and against Texas in Ames.

While Iowa State’s 41-year streak of not being ranked in the preseason AP Poll should end this season, the Cyclones also should end a 19-year streak of not appearing in the final AP Poll. Iowa State has been ranked in the final Associated Press Poll only twice in school history: 1976 (No. 19) and 2000 (No. 25).

Record last 5 years:
2018: 8-5
2017: 8-5
2016: 3-9
2015: 3-9
2014: 2-10

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 23-13-1

File away: In three years in Ames, Matt Campbell’s teams are 15-7 against the spread as an underdog, including 8-2 against the spread when getting 10 or more points.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 300/1

MORE: Predicting the 2019 Over/Under Win Totals for the ACC