2019 College Football Crystal Ball: Playoff Picks, Darkhorse Predictions and More

The SI Staff
Sports Illustrated

The 2019 college football season is nearly here, with in-state rivals Florida and Miami set to kick us off in Orlando on Saturday. But first, it's time for our writers to peer into their crystal balls and predict what the next four-and-a-half months will hold on the gridiron. While some things about last season—Clemson vs. Alabama Part III, anyone?—weren't hard to forsee, other things, like Kyler Murray winning the Heisman, were more off the radar. Who will get the the College Football Playoff and take raise the trophy this season? Which Power 5 team will be the biggest disappointment, and who will be this year's darkhorse? What about coaches on the hot seat and breakout players? Read on for our 2019 season predictions.

Who Will Win the National Championship?

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Ross Dellenger: Alabama. Have you ever seen an angry Tua? Well, you're about to. Tagovailoa finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and his team finished runner-up in the national championship. What more motivation does an already supremely talented player need? Also, take a look at the Tide's schedule and tell me what game is even remotely losable. The toughest is probably at Auburn or at Texas A&M, two teams that combined last year for nine losses. 

Joan Niesen: Clemson is going to repeat. Trevor Lawrence is that good, and the Tigers offense is going to be better in 2019 than it was a year ago. On defense, Dabo Swinney’s team lost a ton of name recognition, but it has plenty of talent ready to step up and fill those gaps. Sure, that unit might take a tiny step back as the next generation of defensive linemen hit their stride, but with the production Lawrence (and running back Travis Etienne, and receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins) is capable of, a top-10 defense rather than a top-5 unit won’t warrant much panic.

Laken Litman: Clemson will win its second consecutive national championship behind another ridiculously impressive performance from QB Trevor Lawrence, who will once again have NFL scouts drooling over his size, speed, arm strength, hair, etc., only to find out after the Tigers beat the Tide again that he wants to return to Clemson for his junior year.

Scooby Axson: When it comes to Clemson, this season is more about the Tigers than anyone on their seemingly-easy schedule, which presents few challenges. They have enough talent at all levels to make each game a bore, so it’s imperative that they put teams away when they have the chance. That shouldn’t be much of a problem, even with the improvement of teams in the ACC. As long as Trevor Lawrence is healthy, expect Clemson to be in any championship conversation until he leaves for the NFL.

Max Meyer: While I don’t think this Clemson team is as good as last year’s, the Tigers still boast the nation’s best offense and have a soft schedule due to residing in the worst power conference east of the Pac-12. Trevor Lawrence might just be the most hyped quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. Travis Etienne, Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins form the most dangerous collection of skill-position talent in the country. And while the defense loses one of CFB’s best defensive lines in recent memory, there’s still plenty of talent on that side of the ball. Give me Dabo’s squad to capture its third national title in four years.

Michael Shapiro: I’ll give a slight nod toward Georgia over Alabama in a potential semifinal matchup, but Clemson will still claim its third national championship in four years in 2019. The Tigers should cruise through the ACC undefeated, and a matchup with Texas A&M on Sept. 7 marks the lone potential pitfall on the way to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers have college football’s best quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, and their assemblage of offensive weapons is perhaps the best of the Dabo Swinney era. Running back Travis Etienne is a potential All-American, as are wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. A smattering of losses on the defensive end should be smoothed over—largely thanks to patrolling linebacker Isaiah Simmons—keeping the shootouts to a minimum. Swinney has transformed Clemson into a complete powerhouse. He’ll be rewarded with a third national title in New Orleans in January 2020.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Who Will Win the Heisman Trophy?

Dellenger: Tua Tagovailoa. Darkhorses have won the last two Heisman Trophies but that streak ends this year. Tagovailoa passed his way to a record-breaking, sensational regular season in 2018, only to suffer two sprained ankles in the SEC championship game during a sloppy performance that came on the same day that Kyler Murray marched his team to the Big 12 title. Well, there is no Kyler Murray in college football any longer. And excluding more injury problems, Tua's got a noted offensive mind (Steve Sarkisian) and a bevy of future pros at receiver (Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith). 

Niesen: This is Trevor Lawrence’s year. He’s going to start for Clemson from Week 1, and he’ll chew up defenses en route to the national championship, his second title in two years. Just look at last year, considering the games from Sept. 15 onward (which is when Lawrence began to get the bulk of the Tigers’ reps): Over that span, the quarterback averaged 234.6 passing yards per game, threw just four interceptions and logged 26 touchdown passes. (He had 30 touchdowns on the season.) If Lawrence can continue to complete about two-thirds of his passes, like he did as a freshman, the Heisman is well within his reach.

Litman: We’re expecting some elite quarterback play this season around the country from Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa to Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm to Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields. All these players and more will be in the Heisman discussion, but it’ll be Lawrence who ultimately separates from the pack. He wasn’t really in the conversation last year with Kyler Murray swooping in late after Oklahoma won the Big 12 and snatching the trophy right out of Tagovailoa’s hands. As a freshman, the 6’6” Lawrence threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions and led Clemson to an ultra-dominant win over Alabama in the national title game. There’s no reason not to believe he’ll pick up where he left off as a seasoned sophomore.

Axson: The string of Oklahoma quarterbacks winning the award ends this year as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence can become the school’s first Heisman winner. Lawrence doesn’t need to put up monster numbers like his predecessors Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray did, because chances are he will be on the bench relaxing by the time the fourth quarter rolls around in most of the Tigers’ games. Lawrence has the receiving corps to light defenses up and Clemson will be at or near the top of the polls all year so his name stays relevant in the race.

Meyer: After lighting up the college football world with his insane play in the regular season, Tua Tagovailoa has taken a backseat to Trevor Lawrence’s spotlight following uninspiring performances in the SEC championship and national title game. The Alabama quarterback, however, was downright dominant for most of the year, completing 69% of his throws (tied for fifth) while posting a 11.2 YPA (second) and 43:6 TD-INT ratio. Those video-game numbers were accumulated despite the fact that he frequently sat on the bench late with the Crimson Tide having wrapped games up. Tagovailoa also has more high-profile games to shine in down the stretch than Lawrence does: Alabama travels to Mississippi State and Auburn along with hosting LSU all in November.

Shapiro: Lawrence will take home the national title once again this season, but Tua Tagovailoa will take home college football’s top individual award. The talent of the SEC will keep Tagovailoa in the national spotlight throughout the season, and his numbers should be comparable to Lawrence. It’s not Lawrence’s fault Clemson will cruise past Wake Forest in November as Tagovailoa battles LSU and Auburn, but the attention spotlight disparity remains relevant. That isn’t to say Tagovailoa won’t be a worthy winner. He will continue to shred defenses with ace wideout Jerry Jeudy, and he remains a top-10 NFL talent, albeit not on the same plane as Lawrence. Expect another dominant year from Tua, and the first-ever Heisman Trophy for an Alabama quarterback.

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Which Power 5 Team Will Be the Biggest Disappointment?

Dellenger: Florida. The Gators are ranked in the top 10 in most polls, and while there's good reason why (a returning starting QB, eight returning players from a salty defense and the fact that Dan Mullen won 10 games in his first year), there are plenty of reasons to worry about UF. The offensive line is chief among them. The Gators lost four of five starters, including two all-SEC plays in Jawaan Taylor and Montez Ivey. Also, that returning quarterback of theirs, Feleipe Franks, got booed off his own field just 10 months ago. And lastly, have you seen the Gators’ schedule? Neutral site games against Miami and Georgia, a trip to LSU and South Carolina and a home game against Auburn. Not easy.

Niesen: LSU is in the top 10 of plenty of preseason rankings, but I don’t see Ed Orgeron’s team remaining in the playoff race past mid-October. Too much is riding on the team’s massive offensive makeover, and its schedule is grueling, too, with Texas on the road in Week 2 and back-to-back-to-back games against Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn in October. That brutal stretch will culminate in the first CFP rankings of the year, and by that point, LSU will be on the fringe of the conversation.

Litman: Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor will make Wisconsin games fun to watch—last year he finished with 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns, accounting for half the teams scoring on the ground, and rushed for 200 yards in five games. But he can’t win by himself. The Badgers still don’t know who their quarterback will be after Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State. It could be junior Jack Coan, who played a little last year, or true freshman Graham Mertz, a top recruit who had offers from Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. Eyes will also be on defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to make improvements from a year ago: his unit allowed an average of 344.2 yards per game, which was a major reason the team did not reach double-digit wins for the first time in the Payl Chryst era. The Badgers have a pretty tough road though, with tests against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, plus Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska are all expected to be more competitive.

Axson: Oregon will still win its fair share of games and land in a decent bowl. But as far as expectations are concerned, the talk of the offseason has been about the Ducks possibly taking the reins of the Pac-12 and making it to the College Football Playoff. Justin Herbert’s return for his senior season certainly helps matters but he might have to carry this team on his back. There are plenty of opportunities for statement victories with Auburn and conference foes Stanford, Washington and USC on the schedule.

Meyer: After defeating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Texas has been the talk of the town this offseason. But this was a team that was worse than its record indicated in 2018. The Longhorns only managed one-score wins against Tulsa, Kansas, Texas Tech and Kansas State, and none of those teams went bowling. Texas also was outgained in terms of yards per play—the offense averaged 5.5 YPP while the defense allowed 5.6 YPP. Add in the fact that the Longhorns have to replace eight defensive starters, and I don’t see a team that’s equipped to live up to the preseason hype.

Shapiro: Don’t expect Auburn to crack 10 wins as Gus Malzahn looks lo avoid whispers about his job security in 2019. The Tigers’ defense remains stout (led by potential All-American DT Derrick Brown), but a brutal schedule and significant quarterback uncertainty is a dangerous combination. Auburn will have to stop Justin Herbert and Oregon in Week 1, and they travel to Texas A&M, Florida and LSU in 2019. Add in home matchups with Georgia on Nov. 19 and Alabama on Nov. 30, and five losses is more likely than an appearance in the SEC title game. True freshman QB Bo Nix, who was named the starter this week, will have to shine in Year 1 for Auburn to reach a New Year’s Day bowl. 

John McCoy/Getty Images
John McCoy/Getty Images

Which Under-the-Radar Team Will Emerge as a Surprise Playoff Contender? 

Dellenger: Oregon. The Ducks are one of many darkhorses who could wreck Alabama and Clemson's playoff party. TCU, LSU, Utah and Washington are all good picks, too, but Oregon has 17 starters back and one of those is named Justin Herbert. The senior starter passed on the draft and returns for a senior season that could result in a Heisman Trophy. In his second year, coach Mario Cristobal has got Oregon bigger up front to go along with the speed it's always possessed. There is only one problem: the schedule. Away from Autzen Stadium, the Ducks get Auburn, Stanford, Washington and USC.

Niesen: Oregon may be the favorite in the Pac-12, but I think Utah can emerge into the playoff conversation thanks to a ton of returning talent and a schedule that’s just hard enough to earn the Utes credit but also manageable enough for them to enter November undefeated. Utah will get a healthy Tyler Huntley back—he broke his collarbone last year—and the personnel around the quarterback will be familiar. On defense, Kyle Whittingham’s team could be the best unit in the Pac-12.

Litman: Utah won the Pac-12 South last year despite losing quarterback Tyler Huntley (broken collarbone) and running back Zack Moss (knee) for the last five games. Heading into 2019, both guys are back and healthy and make Utah dangerous and a favorite to not only win the South again, but also represent the Pac 12 in the CFP. The offense is loaded with talent and has a defense to match. The group is led by players who chose to return to Utah instead of bolting for the NFL, like senior linemen Leki Fotu (first-team All-Pac 12 last year) and Bradlee Anae (led the conference with eight sacks) and projected first-round pick Jayson Johnson, and there’s plenty more experience scattered throughout the unit. And it’s helpful that Utah doesn’t have to play Oregon or Stanford during the regular season, forcing Kyle Whittingham’s team to take advantage of a weaker south division where USC and UCLA have yet to reclaim dominance.

Axson: A lot has to happen for Iowa State to get any sort of national traction, but with the way the Cyclones play defense—especially in the defensively-challenged Big 12—they could make a serious run. A few obstacles stand in their way: First is a home date with Iowa on Sept. 14. They should be favored in every other game leading up to back-to-back November games with the conference’s heavy hitters in Oklahoma and Texas. Iowa State probably needs victories in all three games to get on the radar.

Meyer: You’ll look foolish more often than not when picking a Pac-12 team to emerge as a surprise CFP contender, but I am all-in on Utah. The Utes’ offense was rolling in October last season, as they dropped at least 40 points in four straight conference games. But season-ending injuries to quarterback Tyler Huntley and tailback Zack Moss put a major dent in this unit. Huntley, Moss and top wideout Britain Covey return for an offense that finally looks like it can be a legitimate counterpart to a usually-strong defense. Utah has one of the best defensive lines in the country, and a very solid secondary as well. Avoiding Oregon and Stanford is a big boost to an already manageable schedule. Don’t be shocked if we end up seeing an 11–1 Utah rolling into the Pac-12 championship game with a potential playoff spot on the line.

Shapiro: We may be diving into the longshots bin, but don’t be shocked if Iowa State is lurking near the AP Top 10 by midseason. The Cyclones boast one of the nation’s sturdiest coach and quarterback combos with Matt Campbell and sophomore signal-caller Brock Purdy, and their schedule is favorable in the first half. The Cyclones host TCU and Oklahoma State, avoiding two tenuous road trips. Iowa State doesn’t play Texas nor Oklahoma until November, and a win at Baylor on Sept. 28 could set Purdy and Co. on track for a 7–0 start heading into a matchup at Oklahoma on Nov. 9. Iowa State is likely to fade by season’s end; it may still creep toward the Playoff in the early edition of the rankings.

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Which Coach Will Be on the Hottest Seat by Midseason?

Dellenger: The easy answer here is USC's Clay Helton, and it won't take until midseason. His seat's been boiling for going on about 10 months. Maybe the more difficult answer is Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Despite signing a mega-million dollar contract two years ago, Gus always seems to be on the hot seat no matter what and the Tigers' first six weeks include three games away from Jordan-Hare: Oregon, Texas A&M and Florida. And maybe the easiest answer of them all is Lovie Smith at Illinois. His combined record in three seasons is 9–27.

Niesen: Clay Helton kept his job at USC after missing a bowl game last season, and if things don’t look up for the Trojans, even the financial angst of a big buyout won’t help him hang onto his role. Helton will have to hope a revamped offense can eke out a few more wins than last year’s five, which will be unacceptable—but even if his team is more talented this fall, it faces a beast of a schedule that could easily trip up bowl aspirations.

Litman: Clay Helton is hoping a change in offensive philosophy will cool his hot seat at USC. Heading into his fourth season, and coming off a 5–7 record in 2018, Helton knows he has to do more than simply win games. If he wants to make it to Year 5, he must prove the program is moving upward, back into the upper echelon of college football. So what he’s done this offseason is hire former Texas Tech quarterback and North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell as his OC (after Kliff Kingsbury spurned USC for the head job with the Arizona Cardinals). Harrell has swiftly installed a simpler “Air Raid” type of scheme that players like quarterback JT Daniels have reportedly picked up quickly. Now it just has to work, because the Trojans don’t have time to mess around with Stanford, Utah, Washington and rival Notre Dame all appearing on the schedule by mid-October.

Axson: USC head coach Clay Helton knows there is a tremendous amount of pressure on him to produce a winning season, so much so that he hired Graham Harrell to lead the offense. After years of running a pro-based offense, the Air Raid makes its debut in the Land of Troy in hopes of helping JT Daniels and his talented receivers become more explosive. The Pac-12 South is ripe for the taking and anything less than a division title could spell doom for Helton.

Meyer: I’m not sure exactly what Clay Helton is sitting on—his seat has already burned up after last season’s 5–7 finish at USC. And it’s going to be a major uphill battle early on this season. Facing a Fresno State team that lost a lot of production may look benign to start the season, but you can never really count out a Jeff Tedford-coached group. Then this five-game stretch: hosting Stanford, a road trip to BYU (watch out for this one, the Cougars are underrated heading into this campaign), home vs. Utah, then back-to-back road games (with a bye in between) against Washington and Notre Dame. There’s a legitimate possibility at a 3–3 or even 2–4 start, and that would be too much for Helton to overcome.

Shapiro: There’s not a flood of interest in Randy Edsall’s second tenure at UConn, though 2019 does mark a pivotal year for the 60-year-old head coach. Edsall tallied six winning years with the Huskies in his first stint from 2000–10, then bolted to Maryland in 2011. His five seasons in College Park were middling, and his last two campaigns at UConn in 2017 and 2018 have gone even worse. UConn went 3–9 in 2017 and an abysmal 1–11 in 2018, finishing last in the AAC. Edsall can’t afford another dreadful year with the Huskies. UConn won’t owe Edsall a dime if they fire him after Dec. 1, and the Huskies are once again in-line for a bottom-third finish in the AAC. UCF will likely provide an ugly loss in late September, as will Houston in October. The clock is running out quickly on Edsall as opening day approaches.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Who Will Be the Fall's Biggest Breakout Player?

Dellenger: Demetris Robertson. Who? That's the point. The Georgia receiver signed out of high school with Cal, landed on some all-freshman teams in 2016 and then, well... disappeared. He suffered an injury as a sophomore, redshirted and returned to his home-state last year transferring to UGA. He didn't catch a single pass in 2018, dropping a few balls, in fact. A year later, 2019 offers many opportunities. Guys who he played behind last year, Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin, are now in the NFL and Jeremiah Holloman was dismissed from the team in June. It's now or never for the guy they call D-Rob. 

Niesen: Sure, Adrian Martinez has the fifth-best Heisman odds of anyone in the country, but those numbers a less a validation of his status than they are a bet on what he’ll do this fall—and I’m taking that bet. The Nebraska sophomore quarterback was the main reason his team managed to turn its season around last fall after starting 0-6, and with a year starting behind him, Martinez has both the physical tools and maturity to live up to the hype and power the Huskers into the conversation in the Big Ten West.

Litman: He’s not exactly under-the-radar anymore after torching Big Ten defenses as a freshman, but Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore is poised for another highlight reel type of season. In 2018 Moore broke plenty of school records, including the one for single-season all-purpose yards (2,215) and most all-purpose yards in a game (313 vs. Northwestern). He capped a stellar rookie year with 1,471 yards of total offense (averaging 113.2 per game), 744 return yards and he scored 14 touchdowns. His best game came in Purdue’s upset of Ohio State, when he amassed a career-high 170 yards with two touchdowns. Safe to predict he’s going to have an even bigger 2019.

Axson: Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez ended last year on a positive note going 4–2 down the stretch after the Cornhuskers lost their first six games. He completed 65% of his passes for 2,617 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, adding 629 yards on the ground during his freshman campaign. His dual-threat abilities have many thinking Nebraska can push for a Big Ten West title in Scott Frost’s second year. A big reason for that is its home schedule, which includes Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Meyer: Joe Burrow didn’t have the smoothest start in his first LSU season, but the signal-caller finished the campaign strong. He threw for 10 touchdowns versus one interception in LSU’s final four games, and completed 66.9% of his throws to go along with a 9.6 YPA. The Tigers hired Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady to be their passing game coordinator, which could mean bigger things in store for Burrow. Besides his NFL pedigree, Brady also has RPO experience when he was a grad assistant under ex-Penn State OC Joe Moorhead, which will be a boost for the dual-threat QB. With four starting offensive linemen and six of his seven top pass-catchers returning, Burrow could headline a high-flying offense that has been a rare sight in the Bayou.

Shapiro: Texas’s history is littered with impact running backs, and sophomore Keaontay Ingram may be next in line to emerge on the national scene. The nation’s No. 6 running back recruit in 2017 led the Longhorns with five yards per carry last season and hauled in 27 receptions, the fifth-most on the team. Ingram added 15 pounds in the offseason, and he appears to be the feature back after splitting time with Cal grad transfer Tre Watson in 2018. The Longhorns project to be one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks this season led by quarterback Sam Ehlinger. His backfield mate may also snag first-team All-Big 12 honors.

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