Stadium’s Pre-Spring College Football Top 25: #25-21

With the 2019 college football season only 194 days away – and counting – it’s never too early to start projecting next fall’s Top 25 teams. 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 Nos. 21-25.
Tuesday: Teams ranked 16-20.
Wednesday: Teams ranked 11-15.
Thursday: Teams ranked 6-10.
Friday: Teams ranked 1-5.


No. 25 – Northwestern

Last year: 9-5 (8-1 Big Ten)
Bowl result: Defeated Utah 31-20 in Holiday Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 4 years (3-1)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At Stanford, Aug. 31
Toughest conference game: Home vs. Ohio State, Oct. 18

Which two teams have the best records in Big Ten play the last two seasons? Ohio State would be one obvious and correct choice, with a league-best 16-2 record in conference play. Which team is next? That would be Northwestern.

The Wildcats are 15-3 in that span under Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has his alma mater humming along. Northwestern has put together four consecutive winning seasons, all which coincided with Clayton Thorson as its starting quarterback. The candidates to replace Thorson this fall will be either highly-touted prep recruit Hunter Johnson, a transfer from Clemson, or TJ Green, last year’s back-up.

[RELATED: Predicting the 2019 Over/Under Win Totals for the ACC]

The Wildcats return eight starters on defense who will be counted on early. After opening with Stanford and UNLV, Northwestern faces an imposing five-game onslaught of Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa.

Don’t sell Northwestern short. The Wildcats have been lethal as an underdog lately, and if they can survive the five-game stretch, they could make a run for a second straight Big Ten West title. Even if they don’t reach the Big Ten title game this year, Fitzgerald should still become the first coach in school history with five consecutive winning seasons in Evanston.

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

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

File away: In the past two years, Northwestern is a perfect 8-0 against the spread as an underdog in Big Ten regular season games, winning seven of the eight contests outright.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): 200/1


No. 24 – Army

Last year: 11-2
Bowl result: Defeated Houston 70-14 in Armed Forces Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 3 years (3-0)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
Toughest game: At Michigan, Sept. 7

The Black Knights capped off last year’s remarkable season, their first with 11 wins in program history, by housing Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl and earning a No. 19 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. It was Army’s first ranking in the final AP Poll since 1996. Now, is there enough momentum for the Black Knights to earn their first AP preseason ranking in 60 years since the 1959 team debuted at No. 5?

I think so.

Army returns quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who became the first player in school history to exceed 1,000 yards rushing (1,017 yards) and passing (1,026 yards), accounting for 23 touchdowns, along with six other starters on offense. Defensively, the Black Knights only return four starters and lose coordinator Jay Bateman to North Carolina. John Loose, who was Army’s safeties coach since 2014, was promoted to coordinator before the bowl game vs. Houston and all the defense did was record a school-record 10 sacks.

Last year, the Black Knights nearly won at Oklahoma, losing in overtime. This season, they’ll have another shot at taking down one of college football’s elite, when they travel to the Big House to face Michigan on Sept. 7. If Army upsets the Wolverines, an undefeated season is not out of the question. The Black Knights’ other 12 games consist of nine Group of 5 conference opponents, two FCS opponents and FBS independent UMass.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 11-2
2017: 10-3
2016: 8-5
2015: 2-10
2014: 4-8

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 21-18

File away: Army has won 13 consecutive home games, tied for the nation’s fifth-longest current streak, but four of the wins were vs. FCS opponents. Against the nine FBS opponents in the home win streak, the Black Knights are only 3-6 against the spread.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): N/A


No. 23 – Nebraska

Last year: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)
Bowl result: N/A
Consecutive bowl trips: 0
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Toughest non-conference game: At Colorado, Sept. 7
Toughest conference game: Home vs. Ohio State, Sept. 28

Even before last year’s regular season heartbreaking loss to Iowa went final, the Cornhuskers were already being touted as a team to watch in 2019 – and for good reason. Scott Frost returned to his alma mater and rebounded from an 0-6 start to finish 4-2, with the losses coming at Ohio State by five points and at Iowa by three points.

Las Vegas has taken notice.

Nebraska’s national title odds in 2019 are a shockingly low 30/1. By comparison, the next-lowest odds for a team coming off a losing season are USC at 80/1. Last season, Nebraska scored at least 28 points in six regular season Big Ten games, its most since 2012.

Besides Frost’s track record at UCF – taking over a 0-12 team, going 6-7 in year one and then 13-0 in year two – quarterback Adrian Martinez is the biggest reason for the optimism in Lincoln. As a freshman last year, Martinez was second in the Big Ten in total offense (295 yards per game) and accounted for 25 total touchdowns.

The schedule cooperates as far as the Cornhuskers breaking out under Frost in year two. Nebraska gets its toughest opponents all in Lincoln – Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa – and don’t face Michigan, Penn State or Michigan State from the Big Ten East in 2019.

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

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 17-18-2

File away: Nebraska finished 6-0-1 against the spread in its final seven Big Ten games in 2018. Also, when favored, Scott Frost’s teams have won their last 14 conference games straight up – Frost’s final 12 games as a favorite at UCF in 2016-17 and 2-0 as a Big Ten favorite in 2018.

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


No. 22 – Missouri

Last year: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Bowl result: Lost to Oklahoma State 38-33 in Liberty Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 2 years (0-2)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. West Virginia, Sept. 7
Toughest conference game: At Georgia, Nov. 9

With the season opener still months away, Missouri suffered its first loss of 2019 when the NCAA penalized the Tigers for an academic scandal and ruled them ineligible for the postseason. Missouri said it will appeal the bowl ban, but it’s doubtful the NCAA will reverse its decision. With the bowl ban, Missouri is also ineligible for the SEC title game, where it played in 2013 and 2014, its first two years in the SEC.

Quarterback Drew Lock is gone, but the Tigers should be set at quarterback after landing one of the top graduate transfers of the offseason in Kelly Bryant, who led Clemson to the 2017 College Football Playoff. Bryant left Clemson after four games in 2018 and is motivated to show what he can do in Columbia.

The Tigers couldn’t have asked for a better schedule for Bryant to make the transition. After opening the season at Wyoming, the Tigers then play five consecutive home games against West Virginia, Southeast Missouri, South Carolina, Troy and Ole Miss. If Mizzou avoids an upset, the Tigers should be 8-0 when they visit Georgia on Nov. 9 followed by a Nov. 16 home game with Florida. The back-to-back games against Georgia and Florida are likely the only contests Missouri will be an underdog, so a double-digit win season is not out of the question.

Record last 5 years:
2018: 8-5
2017: 7-6
2016: 4-8
2015: 5-7
2014: 11-3

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 20-18

File away: Under Barry Odom, Missouri has lost 19 of 23 games straight up when the Tigers fail to score at least 40 points. They are 9-14 against the spread in those contests.

Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate Superbook): N/A


No. 21 – Auburn

Last year: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)
Bowl result: Defeated Purdue 63-14 in Gator Bowl
Consecutive bowl trips: 6 years (2-4)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Toughest non-conference game: Oregon in Arlington, Texas, Aug. 31
Toughest conference game: Home vs. Alabama, Nov. 30

Auburn has not performed well under Head Coach Gus Malzahn when the Tigers are a preseason top 10 team. In the past four seasons, nine teams that began the season ranked in the top 10 finished the year unranked. Malzahn is the only active coach that did so twice (No. 6 in 2015 and No. 9 in 2018).

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be an issue in 2019. The Tigers will likely find a spot in the top 25, but won’t be anywhere near the top 10. More importantly, can Auburn finish as a top 10 team?

Certainly, the Tigers hope their 49-point rout of Purdue in the Gator Bowl is a good omen, since that marked the first time in two seasons that Malzahn resumed the play-calling duties. However, quarterback Jarrett Stidham left early for the NFL. Highly-touted incoming freshman Bo Nix enrolled at Auburn in January. He will battle junior Malik Willis, last year’s back up, and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood to replace Stidham.

Whoever wins the job will have Malzahn calling the plays in the fall as he tries to cool off his hot seat status due in part to his 17-15 SEC record the past four years and a new seven-year, $49 million contract he received before last season. The defense returns seven starters, including the entire secondary. The Tigers open against a loaded Oregon team in Arlington, Texas, and then they will be tested as always in the SEC with road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU and home dates with Georgia and Alabama.

Good luck, Gus.

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

Record vs. spread last 3 years: 17-21-2

File away: When favored at home the past three years, Auburn has won 15 of 18 games, but is only 6-11-1 against the spread in those contests.

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

MORE: Big Ten Football National Championship Odds: Favorite, Dark Horse & More