With spring practice coming upon us, we give our initial early takes on the top-25 teams on the college football landscape. We'll be coming back at you with updated rankings as the offseason continues.
1. Clemson Tigers
Not a question in our minds of who should lead the pack heading into the spring. Clemson proved its mettle and then some in the National Championship Game. They’re just getting started, too, with Trevor Lawrence not eligible for the draft until after the 2020 season. The upcoming campaign could see Lawrence truly come into his own, in Heisman-esque fashion. Couple that with RB Travis Etienne and WR Tee Higgins both hitting their junior years and you have a recipe for wrecking the ACC. The Tigers will be replacing multiple all-universe performers in the front seven, but former blue-chip DE Xavier Thomas and LB Shaq Smith are equipped to ably help lead the new wave.
Where might they trip up?: Texas A&M (Sept. 7), at Syracuse (Sept. 14)
We’ve got our eyes on a back-to-back against Texas A&M and Syracuse starting in Week 2. The Aggies gave them one of their toughest challenges in 2018 and the Orange have been building building building under HC Dino Babers. Should Clemson make it through those two contests unscathed, it’s difficult to foresee them having much issue with the remaining two months on the regular-season calendar.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Every time the Crimson Tide are dethroned we are treated to an offseason of people theorizing on Alabama’s inevitable downfall, only for the following season to be some variation on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So it will be in 2019, when Alabama will inevitably come storming out like the billionth incarnation of the Death Star to wreak havoc on the SEC. The offense will be a year older and a year more terrifying, with Tua Tagovailoa heading into his junior campaign. Gone on the offensive side will be running backs Joshua Jacobs and Damien Harris, but we’re excited for a potential Heisman-caliber campaign not only from QB Tua Tagovailoa, but also RB Najee Harris, who has waited for the running back to clear so that he would have his shot at brilliance. Harris was given the ol’ “generational talent” by Scout.com’s Greg Biggins during the 2017 recruiting cycle.
How the Crimson Tide balance their cobra-quick passing attack while giving Harris his touches will be fun to watch. Our only concern with the offense, honestly, is whether OC Steve Sarkisian can consistently keep it on track. We saw Alabama confused on offense just a few times during the 2018 season -- notably against Georgia and (obviously) Clemson -- and we expect that Tagovailoa’s continued maturity will certainly help alleviate those issues, but Tagovailoa can only do so much if Sark is Sark.
Where might they trip up?: at Texas A&M (Oct. 12), LSU (Nov. 9), at Auburn (Nov. 30)
As with Clemson, Alabama could be tested by the Aggies -- just wait until we get to A&M’s schedule -- and maybe LSU finds a way to muddy things up in Tuscaloosa or Auburn's stacked front comes to play, but barring major injury, the Crimson Tide should be able to wash through their schedule undefeated, until they face off with say, Georgia, in the SEC Championship Game.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
Well, here we go. This could be Georgia’s best team under Kirby Smart. The Sugar Bowl loss to Texas was not indicative of something larger and shouldn’t be viewed with any serious weight as to 2019’s outlook. We thought the Bulldogs were one of the four best teams in the country a year ago -- a different thing than whether they deserved to make the Playoff -- and we expect them to be such once again. Jake Fromm impressed us with his developments from freshman to sophomore seasons, increasing his completion percentage (62.2% to 67.4%) and his passing yardage total (2,615 to 2,761) while steady at a sturdy 9.0 YPA. He takes another step up, here.
While Fromm loses a fair number of his offensive buddies (WRs Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin, plus TE Isaac Nauta), he gains Miami transfer Lawrence Cager. And Cal transfer Demetris Robertson -- who did not catch a pass in 2018 -- should be ready for his legitimate Athens debut after a full healthy offseason (he sustained a season-ending lower body injury with the Golden Bears in 2017). Five-star freshman WR George Pickens (6’3/190), whom Georgia flipped from Auburn, might also contribute early, ditto four-star WR Dominick Blaylock.
As we’ve become accustomed to with the Bulldogs, it’s a loaded running backs room, too, headlined by D’Andre Swift, who leads a rotation that could see big things from a pair of former five-star prospects in redshirt freshman Zamir White (who missed 2018 with a torn ACL) and James Cook.
The loss of Justin Fields to Ohio State will hurt more notably once Fromm is gone, but for now, this is a team which has a clear open door to the Playoff if only they would walk through it.
Where might they trip up?: Notre Dame (Sept. 21), Florida (Nov. 2, Jacksonville), at Auburn (Nov. 16), Texas A&M (Nov. 23)
It's a manageable schedule for the Bulldogs, this one, but it's not going to be a walk in the park. November, in particular, is going to be a dance if UGA is to make it to the conference title game.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Transitioning right from Georgia to Ohio State is a fitting enough movement. The Buckeyes may well have ranked this high even had it been Tate Martell, rather than Justin Fields, in line to start at quarterback, but with former five-star Fields receiving immediate eligibility, HC Ryan Day’s first outfit goes from a potential Playoff team to a potential national championship team. That’s the kind of upside that Fields brings to Columbus. Only Trevor Lawrence was ranked higher than him on Rivals. Lawrence was ranked as their No. 1 overall prospect for 2018, so there you go.
Day obviously lacks for Urban Meyer’s track record, but we actually think the team will benefit from a change. New days can be beneficial to us all, and so it is for the Buckeyes after a season trudging through the detritus of Meyer’s fumbled handling of WR coach Zach Smith, his suspension, all the drama. It’s like when you graduate from high school and suddenly all of the awkwardness you faced over the past four years evaporates, if only for a moment. To be replaced by new awkwardness and onward to the end of time.
Ohio State is bringing back almost the entirety of its starting defense from a year ago, EDGE Nick Bosa and DT Dre’Mont Jones the notable exceptions.
Where might they trip up?: at Northwestern (Oct. 18), Penn State (Nov. 23), at Michigan (Nov. 30)
We’re giving fair credit to Northwestern for the possibility that they just Northwestern things up, but it’s that last two-step that really catches our attention. If they lose at home to the Nittany Lions, they will have to immediately regroup before heading to Ann Arbor. If they win that one, they enter on a positive wave. Either way, that Penn State contest is going to have a significant ripple effect on how we view The Game.
5. LSU Tigers
Too high on the Tigers? That wasn’t the case in 2018. We consistently underestimated Coach O’s crew last season due to our concerns over their offensive whatever-ness. We were wrong, and we’d like to atone by going all in on the Baton Rouge boys for 2019. The offensive whatever-ness is going to be replaced (or at least slightly altered) by the awesomeness of five-star freshman RB John Emery, the true heir apparent to Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice after a make-it-by year from the combo of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Nick Brossette. Brossette’s on his way to the draft. Emery has the talent to start from Day 1 in 2019. 247Sports’ Barton Simmons compares him to...Derrius Guice. So there you go.
Gone from the secondary are CBs Greedy Williams and Terrance Alexander, but Derek Stingley Jr. was the best cornerback in the 2019 class and actually practiced with LSU during their bowl prep -- this is allowed for December signees so long as they get their paperwork through the compliance office -- with DC Dave Aranda saying after one practice, “He looked like he was the best guy we got” and that Stingley “had like three picks or something like that.”
We’re guessing Stingley’s name is going to be one batted around pretty frequently come the spring, and he should be able to help DBU remain afloat even with their most recent star waving bye-bye.
Where might they trip up?: at Texas (Sept. 7), Florida (Oct. 12), Auburn (Oct. 26), at Alabama (Nov. 9), Texas A&M (Nov. 30)
Tough gauntlet to run. That’s not even counting road dates at Mississippi State and Ole Miss which could always prove potentially troublesome. Even LSU’s non-conference schedule contains a “careful now” game, with Utah State coming to Death Valley on Oct. 5.
6. Florida Gators
While we’re not putting much (if any) weight in Georgia’s flat-lining against Texas in the Sugar Bowl, we will absolutely ascribe some heft to what Florida did to Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Not for their work in the game itself, exemplary as it was, but for the direction that victory encapsulated. Dan Mullen isn’t playing around. Dan Mullen turned QB Feleipe Franks into a viable -- or at least a useable -- offensive cog. Dan Mullen brought the Gators to a top-10 end-of-the-season ranking in Year 1, just one season after Jim McElwain was told to ride the shark out of Gainesville. Florida looked like a complete disaster two years ago. That they are already knocking on the door to the SEC -- if not the Playoff -- is simply remarkable.
Now just imagine what it will be like once Mullen turns over the roster with his guys. We should see the start of that process this season in earnest. For instance, we’re going to be watching closely for what former four-star dual-threat redshirt freshman QB Emory Jones does in camp. Jones is the X Factor to us. We just don't know how far away (or close) he might be. The Gators do lose studs on both of the lines in Juwan Taylor and Jachai Polite, but assuming they can paper over those holes without major effort, this is a team which has a chance to make real noise in 2019.
Where might they trip up?: Miami (Aug. 31, in Orlando), Auburn (Oct. 5), at LSU (Oct. 12), Georgia (Nov. 2, in Jacksonville)
Not too bad on the schedule front. Not too bad at all. The World’s Largest Cocktail Party could potentially decide the SEC East. That would be something.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
We’ve seen the Sooners higher than this in other offseason rankings lists, but we just can’t get there with Jalen Hurts at quarterback. We can’t. And that’s acknowledging that Lincoln Riley may well be a magical wizard who simply waves his playsheet over a quarterback and turns them into a Heisman Trophy. For his career, Hurts has completed 62.9-percent of his passes, but in his last full year starting (2017), hit on just 60.4% of them. Maybe Riley boosts that. He probably will. He is going to create easy throws for Hurts. He is going to create opportunities for him as a runner. And Hurts will be playing in a conference conducive to offensive numbers. We believe Hurts will have a nice year. But let’s get one thing straight: He won’t be Baker Mayfield. He won’t be Kyler Murray.
What made Oklahoma such a nightmare to deal with in recent years is the fact that the offense could score on any play, that no deficit was too much, that the offense would be able to save the defense. If the offense can’t save the defense, though, if it’s just “fine” with Hurts, that’s a problem. As much as we like Riley’s savvy hire of Ohio State's Alex Grinch (Grinch turned around a lost WSU defense prior to joining OSU's staff last winter), this unit has a long, long ways to go. That journey is not going to be completed in one year. 2019 will be a transition year in Norman. An interesting transition year, and one that should be fun to follow, but a transition year nonetheless. Of course a transition year for Oklahoma is not a transition year for, say, Toledo, but we still think that the transition to Hurts will be a bumpier road than some expect.
Where might they trip up?: Texas (Oct. 12, in Arlington), Iowa State (Nov. 9), at Oklahoma State (Nov. 30)
We’ll just call it now, that Oklahoma State game is going to be weird. We don’t know what’s going to happen, there, but it will absolutely be weird. Jokes aside, the Sooners don’t have a tough scheduling wall to climb, here. That alone should help them to keep their footing in the conference even if the offense does plateau.
8. Texas Longhorns
As much as it is easy to tire over talk of “Texas being back,” they actually kind of are. Sam Ehlinger has become something of a folk hero at quarterback and will get back NFL-caliber WR Collin Johnson (no more Lil Jordan Humphrey, alas) this year, while on the other side of the ball, S Caden Sterns is set to erupt as a true sophomore after logging 62 tackles, four interceptions and four passes defended in 2018. While we love Sterns -- we’re suckers for first-year defensive stalwarts ‘round these parts -- if there’s one thing to look out for the Longhorns this spring, it’s on that defense, which must replace eight starters from this past fall. That makes us nervous.
Still, despite potential soft spots on the underbelly of the crocodile, for the first time in a long, long time, expectations and potential are finally lining up in Austin. Just a matter of whether or not the Longhorns can make good. Ehlinger could have a beautiful season.
Where might they trip up?: LSU (Sept. 7), Oklahoma (Oct. 12, in Arlington), at Iowa State (Nov. 16)
The Longhorns will be tested early, but getting both the Tigers and Sooners at home eases the degree of difficulty some. And Maryland is no longer on the schedule! If Texas plays to talent level and form, they should be able to make the Big 12 Championship Game.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
All props to the Fighting Irish on their Playoff berth in 2018, but we feel lukewarm on their prospects of meeting that bar come the fall. Ian Book returns at the helm as starting quarterback -- fare thee well UCF-bound Brandon Wimbush -- but without the key skill-position talent around him that made the Notre Dame offense work, as it were, in 2018. Sans targets Miles Boykin and Alizé Mack, sans RB Dexter Williams in the backfield, we wonder about the offense’s upside, which even with those old reliables playing a part had a tendency to stall for stretches (even against teams in the phylum of Navy and USC).
Our bigger concern than a retooling offense (Book can shepherd that ably enough, probably) is a defense which loses just about everybody. And that defense was what took them to the Playoff last season. Gone are LBs Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney, gone is star CB Julian Love, gone is upperclassman leader Jerry Tillery up front. All told, Notre Dame will return just six starters on the defensive side of the ball. We feel comfortable putting the Irish this low in our initial rankings and we would not be surprised if they were ranked lower by the time the snow starts to fly come November.
Where might they trip up?: at Georgia (Sept. 21), at Michigan (Oct. 26), at Stanford (Nov. 30)
Stanford’s probably not going to be a world-destroyer in 2019, but even so, Notre Dame’s three biggest games of the year come on the road. Their spacing is good in the respect that the Irish will have time to recover between each one, but the end layout means that they will also not go through a month single month without having to skirt a road landmine.
10. Washington Huskies
Oregon is the darling of the Pac-12 this offseason, what with Justin Herbert coming back and a stellar recruiting class in tow (more on the Ducks below), but we have a sneaking suspicion that the Huskies are once again going to be lording over the conference like Mount Rainier. We'll lead off with a concern, though. Their defense will be in for a massive overhaul with CB Byron Murphy, S Taylor Rapp, DL Greg Gaines, LB Ben Burr-Kirven etc etc on their way out in Seattle. We trust Coach Pete to have the defense in order at the start of the campaign, but even so, we’re talking about a unit which will need to replace all but two (!) of its defensive starters. Our trust in Coach Pete only extends so far, and we expect the defense to naturally take a step back.
You know what’s cool, though? Offense! Respect to Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, but the Huskies were a pill to watch at times in 2018. That should not be an issue in 2019, not with Jacob Eason and Salvon Ahmed set to replace the above pair of old warriors. Back in his home-state, now, Eason should be able to move past being CFB’s version of Wally Pipp. Playing in the Pac-12 is going to suit him well. And Salvon Ahmed should be able to carry the torch from Gaskin in explosive fashion after rushing for 608 yards on 5.8 YPC in a complementary role a year ago.
Where might they trip up?: Oregon (Oct. 19), Utah (Nov. 2), Washington State (Nov. 29)
You know what makes it easier to break in an entire new defensive unit? A schedule -- and especially a road schedule -- that would make a cakewalk blush. Here that road schedule is -- at BYU, at Stanford, at Arizona, at Oregon State, at Colorado. That's just delectable.
11. Texas A&M Aggies
Aggies QB Kellen Mond, Heisman contender? It’s an uphill climb for a player whose team faces a very, very high scheduling hill to begin with, but Mond has the talent. He accounted for 31 touchdowns last season, in his first year working with HC Jimbo Fisher. Fisher coaxed a brilliant year out of RB Trayveon Williams too -- off to the draft -- and gets at least one more shot with Mond upcoming. Fisher has openly talked about Mond potentially turning in a “special” year in 2019, and while there’s certainly a touch of coach speak to that, we don’t doubt it. Mond has a slick, experienced receiving corps to work with, headlined by Jhamon Ausbon, Quartney Davis and Camron Buckley. And while Trayveon leaves triumphant a program record-holder, his presumed replacement, Jashaun Corbin could himself be in for a star turn. Corbin has speed in spades and the redshirt freshman received 61 carries behind Williams in 2018, so he’s not coming in completely green.
Our largest concern is with a defense which retains just a handful of starters from 2018. The front-seven, in particular, could be in for some growing pains, with DT Daylon Mack and LB Tyrel Dodson the two most notable departures. Last season, the Aggies showed consistent cracks in their ability to defend more explosive passing plays, something that could become all the more glaring and distressing depending on how well Fisher and staff are able to adjust to their losses up front.
Now let’s talk about Texas A&M’s terrifying schedule.
Where might they trip up (oh boy)?: at Clemson (Sept. 7), Auburn (Sept. 21), Alabama (Oct. 12), at Georgia (Nov. 23), at LSU (Nov. 30)
So the Aggies face the two best teams in the country in the first month-plus of the campaign, and finish up with our No. 3 and No. 5 teams, both on the road. We love so much about this Aggies team, especially on offense, especially if Mond takes that next step, but there’s nary a margin for error with this schedule. Three or even four losses would be understandable.
12. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines were in a sweet little place up until Friday. Then Justin Fields was granted immediate eligibility at Ohio State and their conference prospects faded just a touch. Not that the Wolverines are necessarily going to go gently into this good night. They came up just short from the Playoff this past fall, but very much looked the part of a postseason team in advance of their fateful journey to Columbus for The Game at November’s end. What we want to see, now, is a next step from the Wolverines.
We are dying to see the Wolverines try something, anything new on offense. Is Jim Harbaugh even capable of change? Thought so when the Wolverines brought Shea Patterson over from Ole Miss last spring, but he ended up throwing just 22 touchdown passes his first year in Ann Arbor. How much of that was Harbaugh, how much of that was Patterson, we don’t know, but the end result is that he basically played like a lesser version of Jake Rudock. Seriously.
Rudock in 2015, Harbaugh’s first year: 3,017 passing yards, 64-percent completions, 7.8 YPA, 20/9 TD/INT ratio
Patterson in 2018: 2,600 passing yards, 64.4-percent completions, 8.0 YPA, 22/7 TD/INT ratio.
We still have faith in Patterson to make good on his studly recruiting profile, if only Harbaugh will let loose. Michigan’s surprise hiring of Alabama WR Josh Gattis as OC -- and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton’s subsequent jump to the XFL as head coach and general manager (?) -- does instill some amount of confidence for us. At this point, with the offensive approach, we’ll believe it when we see it, though.
Where they might trip up?: at Wisconsin (Sept. 21), Iowa (Oct. 5), at Penn State (Oct. 19), Notre Dame (Oct. 26), Ohio State (Nov. 30)
If the Wolverines are to once again knock on the Playoff door, they’re going to earn it. This could end up a slightly easier ride should Wisconsin and Penn State continue on their downward paths from the past season, though.
13. Washington State Cougars
Typing this on a snowy evening in Pullman, Washington, we’re admittedly a little close to the situation. That said, this should be a fun Cougars team. Rather than look toward a Brandon Wimbush or Jalen Hurts in transfer, WSU HC Mike Leach and staff turned to prolific Eastern Washington QB Gage Gubrud, who was just granted eligibility for 2019 this past week to put the transfer through in earnest (Gubrud needed a sixth year if he was to play). Leach knows who will fit his darling Air Raid. Neither Wimbush nor Hurts can throw (kind of a must). Gubrud can throw and then some. In his high point with EWU, he went off for 5,160 passing yards with a 48/16 TD/INT ratio in 2016.
Gubrud isn’t guaranteed to win the starting job on the Palouse -- Cammon Cooper is a player who was said to perfectly fit the system when he was signed as part of the 2018 class -- but even should he fail to do so, we like what Leach has lined up at signal-caller. Look for sophomore RB Maxi Borghi to put up a big season in the new post-James Williams world, too.
Where they might trip up?: at Houston (Sept. 13), at Oregon (Oct. 26), at Cal (Nov. 9) at Washington (Nov. 29)
We highlight that Houston contest not because we view the Houston species of Cougars as on WSU’s level, but more because it could end up a coin flip shootout. The big fish on the schedule are all road fish, which naturally makes us feel nervous.
14. Oregon Ducks
We’ve seen the Ducks pushing into the top-10 or near it in several early 2019 rankings. We’re not quite there with them. As much as we enjoy Justin Herbert -- especially when he hits an in-game hot streak -- his obvious ability has yet to translate into a huge season. This past season he finished throwing for 3,151 yards (59.4-percent completions) with a 29/8 TD/INT ratio while averaging 7.8 YPA. Not exactly the most inspiring of campaigns, but as they say, one year older one year wiser.
While it’s easy to tout Oregon’s stellar recruiting work for the 2019 cycle, with five-star DE Kayvon Thibodeaux (arguably the best prospect in the class) leading the way, we can only factor that in to a certain degree. Few players come out of the box pre-formed. That said, while we aren’t quite ready to give Oregon an automatic stamp into the top-10 -- prove it first, baby -- this team has a sky-high upside if everything comes together. If Herbert takes it up a notch, things become really interesting. We aren’t going to automatically assume a Herbert level-up, though. Important year for him, both in terms of where he might take Oregon and where he might take his own draft stock.
Where might they trip up?: Auburn (Aug. 31), at Washington (Oct. 19), Washington State (Oct. 26)
That back-to-back against the Huskies and Cougars may well decide who wins the Pac-12 North. If we’re Oregon, we would prefer the road contest against the Huskies come after the home one against the Cougars, but thus is life in that there is no choice.
15. Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats lose Clayton Thorson at quarterback in 2019, but boy howdy, do they have a sweet replacement waiting in the wings. That would be former five-star Hunter Johnson, who signed in the same class as Trevor Lawrence and, well, you know how the rest of the story goes. He has been biding his time in Evanston while sitting out. Johnson hasn’t given us a proof of concept yet -- he has attempted just 27 passes in his career, but hey, 21 completions -- but will be added to the mix for a Northwestern team which just won the Big Ten West in the most Northwestern of fashions. They now bring back seven defensive starters that helped that to happen.
We’ll have to see on Johnson, but Thorson was a flawed quarterback in his own right -- though he certainly had his moments -- and we view the net positive upside, here, irresistible. Big fans of sophomore RB Isaiah Bowser, too.
Where might they trip up?: at Wisconsin (Sept. 28), at Nebraska (Oct. 5), Ohio State (Oct. 18), Iowa (Oct. 26), Purdue (Nov. 9)
We’re accustomed to the Wildcats playing in tight games. Any of the above could easily fit that mold, but knowing Northwestern, almost any game on the schedule outright could be a tight one. Of course, the equation changes if Johnson proves to be a game-changer.
16. UCF Knights
As with most sequels, UCF’s second run toward undefeated-ness felt like a somewhat hollow retread of the original. It ended in absolutely tragic fashion, too, with McKenzie Milton sustaining a devastating knee injury against South Florida at the end of the regular season. LSU subsequently handled UCF in bowl action to snap the streak.
Since the end of their streak, the Knights have added Brandon Wimbush. Yaaaaay. For the record, we still aren’t sold that Wimbush will even be starting in the fall. Darriel Mack did well in conference title-game action serving in place of Milton, and then there’s Milton himself.
Whether he will be medically-cleared for football in 2019 remains to be seen, but we’re not betting against him, either. He was doing 40-pound leg presses a little over a month after the injury. Milton is clearly not a normal human. Heck, we would take a diminished Milton over Wimbush every Saturday of the year so long as Milton is actually healthy enough to play. Regardless of who the Knights ultimately start at quarterback, the Playoff dream (if ever it existed) is probably dust in the wind. Should be able to make it through the AAC clean or clean enough, though.
Where might they trip up?: Stanford (Sept. 14), at Cincinnati (Oct. 4), Houston (Nov. 2)
Like we said, should be able to make through the AAC clean or clean enough.
17. Miami Hurricanes
Let’s gamble. Let’s gamble on Tate Martell being ruled eligible to play in 2019. Let’s gamble on HC Manny Diaz righting this sinking ship. Let’s gamble on a world where Tate Martell hooks up with Buffalo transfer K.J. Osborn and momentary Illinois transfer Jeff Thomas on repeat. Let’s game on a world where DeeJay Dallas and Lorenzo Lingard (5.7 YPC and 8.0 YPC in 2018, respectively) blow up the world. Let’s gamble on a fresh start after a weird ending. In a deflated ACC outside of Clemson, there’s room within the conference for a quick turn around. Let’s gamble.
Where might they trip up?: Florida (Aug. 31, in Orlando)
No really, once they’re past the opener, they have a chance to cruise. Even their could-be-tricky-if-things-are-going-poorly contests against foes like Virginia and Georgia Tech will come at home. The Hurricanes could easily, easily finish in the top-10, especially if Martell is granted immediate eligibility. Do not sleep on Miami.
18. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions spiked big in 2017, Saquon Barkley’s final year on campus, but settled into more of a middle-of-the-road being in 2018. And it'll be a new thing once more in 2019. Gone, now, are QB Trace McSorley and RB Miles Sanders. To the former, we say, probably a good thing. We loved watching McSorley’s collegiate career play out in Happy Valley, but it ended with his deficiencies (notably a lack of accuracy and lack of an elite arm) fully on display. Without OC Joe Moorhead, the attack stalled and grew stale. Call 2019 a breath of fresh air? Tommy Stevens steps in for McSorley, now, all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him. At least we’re presuming he steps in. Stevens has dealt with health issues throughout his career, most recently undergoing surgery for an unspecified injury which kept him out of bowl action this winter. Sophomore Sean Clifford is the other notable to watch in the race to replace McSorley. Ricky Slade, meanwhile, will serve as next man up in the Penn State running back chain after averaging 5.7 YPC on 45 attempts as a true freshman in 2018. K.J. Hamler gets a year older. James Franklin a year more humbled. We think Penn State’s in a good place post-McSorley.
Where might they get tripped up?: at Iowa (Oct. 12), Michigan (Oct. 19), at Ohio State (Nov. 23)
The Nittany Lions will also be traveling to East Lansing to take on Michigan State one week after that contest against the Wolverines. While that OSU contest in the penultimate game of the season naturally catches the eye, that run of Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State may well decide just how successful Franklin’s crew is this season.
19. Syracuse Orange
Syracuse QB Eric Dungey was one of our favorite players of the past five years, because he showcased that warrior’s heart that makes us love sport. Dungey repeatedly played through injury, notably fighting through a tendency for concussions with the Orange. We won’t argue Dungey’s decision to keep playing despite the potential long-term damages incurred -- that’s his call, not ours -- but will smile at the effort and wish him well. Long way of saying that Dungey was a beast.
Give passing-upgrade replacement Tommy DeVito a clean pocket and you’re going to be dead downfield. We got a stellar glimpse of what DeVito’s possibilities when he come on in relief of an ineffective Dungey to lead Syracuse to a win this past fall. We actually thought that DeVito might just take the job then, but Dino Babers gave Dungey another shot and Dungey ran with it, helping the Orange to close out the year having won five of their final six games, including a convincing Camping World Bowl over the ghost of West Virginia.
We’re game to see what DeVito might be able to do with a long run as starter. He encourages us on offense. Defensively, the Orange return eight starters from a year ago. That kind of returning production encourages us, too.
Where might they trip up?: Clemson (Sept. 14)
Honestly, we’re not overly concerned about the rest of Syracuse’s schedule, because the ACC is so, so down at this juncture. Syracuse could easily, easily end the year with just one or two losses. That might seem hyperbolic, but there’s just not much on the schedule that scares us.
20. Iowa State Cyclones
Purdy, purdy good, that’s what we think of Iowa State. That was a joke about Cyclones QB Brock Purdy, if you didn’t know. Quite the ride for Purdy in Ames last season. He began the season as third-string before taking the reins as starter midway through the season and not looking back. Purdy ended the campaign throwing for 2,250 yards with an 16/7 TD/INT ratio in 10 games, including Goliath-slaying showings against Oklahoma State and West Virginia. We would be even more high on Matt Campbell’s crew if RB David Montgomery and WR Hakeem Butler were returning to school for one final run, both now training for the NFL Draft instead. Do-everything running backs and wideouts with absurd, physics-defying arm extension/body control don’t come around every day, we know. The Cyclones don’t have immediate replacements for either Montgomery or Butler on roster and as much as we love what Purdy showed us as a young gun in 2018, our concern for the offense is that it could bog down unless fresh faces step up this offseason.
The Cyclones are out dependable cornerbacking duo Brian Peavey and D’Andre Payne for 2019, but Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson, though young, have already received seasoning and should be able to step up to able degree. Looking past Peavey and Payne gone bye-bye, Iowa State brings back almost their entire starting defense from a year ago.
Where might they trip up?: Iowa (Sept. 14), at Oklahoma (Nov. 9), Texas (Nov. 16)
That Oklahoma-Texas two-step looms large over the entire schedule, but Iowa State can’t look past the Hawkeyes. And if their offense can’t find replacement parts, that November two-step is unlikely to matter in the big picture.
21. Auburn Tigers
We’re back on board, baby! The Tigers offered up a bitter milkshake of disappointment in 2018 and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback now that Jarrett Stidham is off to the NFL. Be it Malik Willis or Joey Gatewood or Cord Sandberg or Bo Nix, we’re not placing Auburn in these rankings for their offensive potential (deep running backs room, though). No, we’re back on board due to what Auburn’s going to be fielding on defense, specifically up in the front seven. This could be a terrifying unit, especially with DE Marlon Davidson returning but especially especially with DT Derrick Brown doing likewise. Many assumed that Brown would just be gone for the NFL, but he opted back in for one more season with sometime-embattled HC Gus Malzahn. The team possesses an embarrassment of riches at edge-rusher beyond Davidson, including Nick Coe, Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry, among others. If Auburn can get anything going offensively, they’re going to be a problem for the conference.
Where might they trip up?: at Oregon (Aug. 31), at Texas A&M (Sept. 21), at Florida (Oct. 5), at LSU (Oct. 26), Georgia (Nov. 16), Alabama (Nov. 30)
Oh dear. And that right there is why they might be a "problem for the conference" but not an actual contender for the conference. Their schedule is a buzzsaw from the word “Go.”
22. Army Black Knights
No bowl team made more of a mark than Army in their December walloping of Houston. Major Applewhite still sometimes wakes up hearing the thud of a triple-option gone mad. Leading the charge once more will be QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who rushed for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading an admirable offensive attack. A bounceback year from Kell Walker -- who managed just 320 yards rushing a year after working it out to 629 yards -- would help to make up for the loss of FB Darnell Woolfolk. At this point, we trust that HC Jeff Monken will find a way to make it all work on that side of the ball. What Monken has done with what used to be a lost program deserves far, far more of a spotlight than what it has received.
Where they might trip up?: at Michigan (Sept. 7)
We would caution the Wolverines to start looking out for this one, now. Once Army gets UM out of the way for better or worse, their schedule is more than manageable. Michigan is the only Power 5 opponent that Army will face in 2019.
23. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Three general rules in life:
a.) Don’t trust anybody who dislikes Tom Petty, Johnny Cash or Sam Cooke.
b.) Don’t trust anybody who doesn’t wave at drivers who stop for them while they are crossing the street
c.) Don’t trust anybody who puts Nebraska in their spring top-20 for 2019.
But trust people who keep them at arm’s reach of that mark. Trust us. We feel comfortable with the notion that Scott Frost will keep this team moving in the right direction, and we believe that QB Adrian Martinez is going to put an upset scare into several teams this fall. We do not, however, believe that this is a defense which has enough oomph to allow the Huskers to truly soar, even in a Big Ten that’s generally more, um, offense-optional than some other conferences.
Where might they trip up?: at Ohio State (Sept. 28), Northwestern (Oct. 5), Wisconsin (Nov. 16), Iowa (Nov. 29)
Not many true road tests for Frost’s boys, but we don’t know if the defense will allow them to play consistent enough ball to launch them into the top-20. If they can pull off an upset of Ohio State in the first month of the campaign, that would be a major coup.
24. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes will be replacing their two star tight ends in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, their sneaky-reliable slot wideout Nick Easley, one of their best secondary performers in jack-of-all-trades DB Amani Hooker and one of their best defensive line performers in DT Anthony Nelson. We say “one of their best” in the case of Nelson because they still bring back DE A.J. Epenesa. Bookmark that name now if you haven’t already. Epenesa posted 16.5 TFL, 10 sacks and four forced fumbles as a true sophomore last season. Assuming double-teams do not wear him down to a nub -- possible without Nelson -- he is going to be a monster next season, when this is truly his team. He’ll be playing in the NFL when he so chooses.
Epenesa makes us excited for the defense, and QB Nathan Stanley makes us excited for the offense. At his best, Stanley has shown off a pro-caliber arm throughout his career. At his worst, he has confounded with his decision-making. Take the bad with the good, because Stanley is a dependable passer with upside to be more than that. We don’t know if he ever hits that upside, but he has it. We only wish the schedule wasn't quite so brutal, because we expect this to be a swinging Hawkeyes team.
Where might they trip up?: at Iowa State (Sept. 14), at Michigan (Oct. 5), vs. Penn State (Oct. 12), at Northwestern (Oct. 26), at Wisconsin (Nov. 9), at Nebraska (Nov. 29)
As much as we like this Hawkeyes squad, it would be a major surprise if they were in contention for the conference title near the end of November. Their schedule is a heavy, loaded one that doesn’t offer many spots for easy breathers.
25. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers’ nightmare 2018 season has allowed them to recede in our minds, but we think they will be a factor in the Big Ten in 2019. That starts with Jonathan Taylor -- who rushed for 2,197 yards and 16 touchdowns, with a 7.1 YPC average (better than in 2017) even in the face of Wisconsin’s increasing irrelevance -- but what makes us most optimistic about a potential rebound campaign for the Badgers is the possibility that Graham Mertz (their four-star true freshman QB) might actually provide something of a passing game. He’ll have to contend with Alex Hornibrook, returning for yet another season despite concussion concerns keeping him down for much of the second half of the 2018 season.
Hornibrook may well end up starting for HC Paul Chryst and company, but if Mertz is one of those new-fangled freshmen who come out of the box ready to play ala Jake Fromm and Trevor Lawrence, we don’t expect Hornibrook to hold the job for the entire season. Spring practice and August camp will tell the tale of whether Mertz is holding his own. If he can, we like the Badgers to potentially work their way into the top-15 as the season unfolds.
Where might they trip up?: Michigan (Sept. 21), Northwestern (Sept. 28), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), Iowa (Nov. 9), at Nebraska (Nov. 16)
We have all three of Northwestern, Iowa and Nebraska currently in the top-25. If the Hawkeyes and Huskers aren’t there, though, or if Northwestern finishes a little cooler than our expectation, this schedule suddenly becomes very, very manageable.