We’re just days into 2019, so why not look ahead to the 2019 college football season? Here’s our absurdly early Top 25 for the upcoming year. Six of our top eight teams from last year’s early Top 25 went on to play in New Year’s Six bowl games. The other two were Wisconsin (yikes) and Penn State. Maybe we’ll get the playoff field right this time.
Virginia is trending upward under Bronco Mendenhall. After blowing a chance to win the ACC Coastal (including a brutal loss to rival Virginia Tech), the Cavaliers pulled out an impressive win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. It was a dominant 28-0 effort to give the program its first bowl win since 2005. UVA won eight games combined in Mendenhall’s first two seasons. The win over the Gamecocks was win No. 8 for the season. With the Coastal wide open, Virginia should be right in the mix for the division crown. The team will be led on offense by Bryce Perkins, who threw for 2,472 yards, rushed for 842 yards and combined for 31 touchdowns in his first year as the starter.
In just its second season under Luke Fickell, Cincinnati won 11 games, a mark the program had not reached since 2009. That was Brian Kelly’s final season at UC before he accepted the Notre Dame job. Fickell was pursued by West Virginia but WVU ended up hiring Neal Brown from Troy. Now Fickell, who won big with many Tommy Tuberville leftovers and several of his own recruits as underclassmen, has a chance to compete with mighty UCF in the AAC East. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren are the biggest names to know on the offensive side of the ball.
With Jeff Brohm back at Purdue and Scott Frost in his second year at Nebraska, the Big Ten West figures to be much improved in 2019. But Northwestern won’t be easy to knock off its throne after it won the division title in 2018. After three-plus years as the starting quarterback, Clayton Thorson is off to the NFL. But Pat Fitzgerald has Hunter Johnson, a transfer from Clemson, ready to take over the quarterback duties. With Trevor Lawrence in place at Clemson, Johnson, a five-star recruit in 2017, decided to head back to the Midwest to play for the Wildcats. While he commands the offense, Northwestern returns a few all-conference players on defense in Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano.
22. Iowa State
Though running back David Montgomery and wideout Hakeem Butler are leaving school for the NFL, Matt Campbell is building something impressive in Ames. Campbell made the move to true freshman quarterback Brock Purdy midway through the 2018 season, and it jolted the Cyclones to a five-game winning streak through October and into November. Iowa State ended up finishing the year with eight wins, the most it has had since 2000. With Purdy and much of the defense returning, don’t be surprised if ISU ends up as a surprise contender in the Big 12.
Syracuse just had its first 10-win season since all the way back in 2001. And even though Eric Dungey is out of eligibility, some believe the Orange may be even better on offense with Tommy DeVito in place as the starting quarterback in 2019. DeVito saw quite a bit of action in relief of Dungey this year as a redshirt freshman and showed flashes of potential. He’ll have two acclaimed transfers, ex-Oklahoma running back Abdul Adams and ex-Michigan State receiver Trishton Jackson, with him in the lineup. The Orange also return a veteran defensive line and a young, talented secondary. The Orange could make some noise in the ACC.
Iowa ended the 2018 season on a high note, upsetting Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. All of Iowa’s strengths were on display that day, with the defense forcing three MSU turnovers, including a strip sack by A.J. Epenesa. Epenesa is a name you should learn. He could be one of the Big Ten’s top players next fall as part of what could be a ferocious Hawkeyes defensive line. On offense, Nate Stanley will return for his third season as the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback, but he could be without his three top receivers if T.J. Hockenson becomes the second Iowa tight end to declare for the draft. Noah Fant already declared and wideout Nick Easley is set to graduate.
USC made the surprising decision to keep Clay Helton as head coach, and Helton pretty much wiped his staff clean. The biggest addition to the coaching staff is ex-Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. If Kingsbury stays with the Trojans, he should inject some serious life into an offense that is full of talent, led by quarterback JT Daniels and a slew of highly rated wide receivers. Helton, whose job will lead hot-seat lists entering the season, depends on a major turnaround. In 2018, the Trojans had a losing record for the first time since 2000.
Missouri may be losing Drew Lock, but plenty of talent will be back in Columbia next fall. The Tigers picked up one of the most notable quarterback transfers in Kelly Bryant. Bryant helped Clemson reach the College Football Playoff in 2017 but could not hold off Trevor Lawrence this year. Bryant, who is immediately eligible, will have three returning starters up front along with top running back Larry Rountree and a slew of experienced pass catchers, especially if tight end Albert Okwuegbunam decides to come back. The fact that Mizzou gets South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee at home could be the difference between an average season and a double-digit win season.
Utah finally broke through and won its first Pac-12 South title in 2018. The Utes could be the favorite to repeat entering the 2019 season, especially with running back Zack Moss (2,265 yards over the past two years) deciding to return for his senior season. Quarterback Tyler Huntley should be ready to roll for spring practice after breaking his collarbone, and he’ll return a deep group of receivers. Speaking of depth, the Utes’ defensive line should be a major strength once again next fall, but the team must replace production at safety and linebacker.
Expectations were sky-high entering the 2018 season for the Badgers, but UW fell well short of reaching the College Football Playoff berth that many thought was possible. Is a rebound in store? It may be tough with the rest of the Big Ten West looking like a much-improved division on an upward trajectory. But when you return a player like Jonathan Taylor, it’s tough to count out the Badgers. In two seasons, Taylor has 4,171 yards and 26 touchdowns rushing, including 2,194 yards in 2018 as a sophomore. The quarterback position, namely Alex Hornibrook’s battle with concussions, is a question mark.
15. Texas A&M
Running back Trayveon Williams is off to the NFL along with tight end Jace Sternberger. But the Aggie offense brings back QB Kellen Mond and his top four wide receivers. Williams’ production will likely be replaced by a combination that includes Jashaun Corbin. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry in 2018. The defense loses a lot of talent and nearly 50 tackles for loss from Otaro Alaka, Landis Durham, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke. But Justin Madubuike is back and A&M has recruited well over the last few years. After a nine-win season in year one, the expectations are only going to get higher for coach Jimbo Fisher.
14. Penn State
Has James Franklin recruited well enough that Penn State has become a program that doesn’t have to rebuild, but simply reload? In 2018, PSU integrated a lot of new faces and ended up as a distant third in the Big Ten East. With Trace McSorley out of the picture at quarterback, finding a new starter there — either Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford — will be priority No. 1. If there isn’t much of a drop off at quarterback, the rest of the offense should be pretty good despite RB Miles Sanders’ departure to the NFL. The defense lost a few linemen to the NFL as well, but has the potential to be one of the better units in the conference. Micah Parsons is the player to watch at linebacker.
13. Central Florida
UCF’s 25-game winning streak over the 2017 and 2018 seasons finally came to an end at the hands of LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Knights will undoubtedly remain the top Group of Five team entering 2019. The status of star quarterback McKenzie Milton is unclear as we enter the offseason, but Darriel Mack Jr. acquitted himself well — aside from the turnovers — in Milton’s absence. The Knights return an abundance of talent at the skill positions behind Mack entering Josh Heupel’s second season as head coach, but the Knights will lose several seniors from their starting defense.
It says a lot about the job Chris Petersen has done that Washington’s 10 wins and Pac-12 title in 2018 felt like a disappointment. Turning the page to 2019, Washington loses two of the best players in program history: quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. At quarterback, UW has an excellent replacement in Jacob Eason. Eason, a Washington native, was a five-star recruit who left Georgia after Jake Fromm supplanted him as the starting quarterback. Now he has a clean slate and two years to play at UW with Salvon Ahmed (608) ready to step in at RB and potential first-round pick Trey Adams back at tackle. The defense, however, will replace a slew of all-conference players, including All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
Dan Mullen’s first season with the Gators included 10 wins and a bowl win over Michigan. Not bad at all. Kyle Trask should be healthy and either he or Emory Jones could challenge Feleipe Franks at quarterback, though Franks improved as the season went on. Running back Lamical Perine said he was coming back for 2019 and that’s a boost. Wide receivers Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland are back too, so Franks (or someone else) will have a lot of weapons. Linebacker David Reese is coming back too; he was the team’s second-leading tackler. The Gators do need a pass rusher to emerge and replace Jachai Polite’s production. Polite had 11 sacks in 2018. Look for Florida to challenge Georgia in the SEC East.
The Ducks crack the top 10 on the back of Justin Herbert’s decision to stay for his senior season in lieu of being a top-five draft pick in the 2019 NFL draft. If Herbert can stay healthy all season the Ducks are the Pac-12’s best bet to make it back to the College Football Playoff. The loss of leading receiver Dillon Mitchell to the NFL hurts, but 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Verdell is back. The defense could return four of its five leading tacklers and defensive backs Thomas Graham and Jevon Holland were underclassmen in 2018. Holland led the team with five interceptions. Oh, Oregon got the Pac-12’s only five-star signee too. DL Kayvon Thibodeaux could make an impact as a freshman.
QB Shea Patterson returns for his senior season and we’ll see how Michigan opens up the offense in his second season with the team. Patterson threw the ball just 26 times a game while Michigan ran it 42 times a game in 2018. The Wolverines’ wide receivers are talented too. Both Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins were just sophomores in 2018. Linebacker Josh Ross returns after 54 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. The decision by Josh Metellus to stay in school was big for Don Brown’s defense.
Texas is the king of being over-ranked to start the season. Is No. 8 too high? Wide receiver Collin Johnson surprised some with his decision to return in 2019. He’ll team with QB Sam Ehlinger and RB Keaontay Ingram. The bigger questions reside on the defensive side of the ball where Gary Johnson and Charles Omenihu depart. They combined for 37.5 tackles for loss. Kris Boyd leaves the defensive secondary too, though Caden Sterns was fantastic as a freshman in 2018. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will have some scheming to do in the offseason.
What can Joe Burrow do for an encore? The Ohio State grad transfer completed 58 percent of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Burrow’s stats won’t wow you, especially in college football’s heightened offensive state, but his solid play was a respite for LSU fans who looked longingly at Danny Etling. Clyde Edwards-Helaire returns at running back and wide receiver Justin Jefferson was also just a sophomore in 2018. Linebacker Jacob Phillips should be a first-team All-SEC selection in 2019 and the defense should be stellar again if Breiden Fehoko, Michael Divinity and Kristian Fulton return to school.
6. Notre Dame
The Irish got some bad news for 2019 over the weekend when Miles Boykin declared for the draft. But Ian Book is back at quarterback and running back Dexter Williams added another dimension after he started the season suspended He’s gone for 2019, however. How will Notre Dame replace his rushing production? Chase Claypool should be the team’s top receiving threat. The defense does need to replace Te’Von Coney, Julian Love, Jerry Tillery and Drue Tranquill, though the return of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem help immensely.
How will Lincoln Riley replace Kyler Murray at quarterback and how will Alex Grinch help turn around the defense? Austin Kendall is the frontrunner to be the team’s starting quarterback if Murray, as expected, doesn’t come back to Oklahoma for his senior season. Kennedy Brooks is back in the backfield along with CeeDee Lamb out wide and an offensive line that gets the job done. Anything Grinch does could and should be an improvement over Oklahoma’s defense in 2018, so if the offense takes a step back — you can’t be historically prolific every year — the defense could make up for it.
4. Ohio State
The prospect of Justin Fields in Ryan Day’s offense is going to be a leading offseason storyline. That assumes Fields will be eligible in 2019 and also assumes that he beats out Tate Martell for the starting QB job. Martell has vowed to compete with Fields for the right to succeed Dwayne Haskins. J.K. Dobbins will be a junior and on track for a third 1,000 yard season. The defense will have some holes to fill thanks to NFL departures but with a host of four and five-star athletes ready to step in and a new defensive system in place, Ohio State could be better on defense in 2018 than it was in 2019.
Georgia lost four underclassmen to the NFL on Friday, but the Bulldogs have recruited at such a high level that more talent is ready to step in. Jake Fromm returns for his third season as the team’s starter and will have D’Andre Swift in the backfield with him. Cal transfer Demetris Robertson should play a larger role in the passing game after the departures of Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman. Richard Lecounte III is back in the secondary and so is Monty Rice. Georgia should be just fine.
Yeah, this is a pretty boring top two, but who else are you going to put in this spot? QB Trevor Lawrence will be a sophomore in 2019 and will have a host of talented receivers back in Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers among others. The defensive line will have a lot of (relatively) new faces in 2019, but Clemson has been recruiting five-star talent for the times when Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell wouldn’t be Tigers any longer. Dabo Swinney’s team is the class of the ACC and should once again be a heavy favorite to get back to the College Football Playoff.
Note: This top 25 was originally published before Clemson’s 44-16 win over Alabama on Monday night. With so much talent back on offense for the Tigers, you have every right to think they belong at No. 1 heading into 2019.
The Crimson Tide bring back Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa and a receiving corps that was the best in the country in 2018. The defensive secondary will be a year older in 2019 and that’s bad news for the SEC and the rest of the country because it was pretty young in 2018 and still really good. Alabama will lose a lot of people to the NFL up front on both sides of the ball but Nick Saban’s teams have always been very good at finding talent in the trenches and at running back. There’s no reason to doubt Alabama’s depth at those positions heading into 2019. The only team that’s made all five College Football Playoff brackets should extend the streak to six in 2019.
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