The 2019 college football season is less than a month away.
Media days are over, and training camp is here, leading up to the 150th year of college football. With that in mind, it’s time for Sporting News’ preseason top 25. No. 1 is no surprise. Most publications will have either Clemson or Alabama atop their poll knowing they’ve split the last four national championships.
Those two teams have played each other in the College Football Playoff each of the last four seasons too, including three in championship games. For those who don’t like preseason polls, keep in mind that all the teams in this year’s Playoff opened in our top 10 – with Notre Dame the lowest team at No. 10.
We have made all the adjustments, from National Signing Day to spring ball and media days. Here is a look at Sporting News’ final preseason top 25 ahead of the 2019 season.
Sporting News 2019 preseason top 25
The Huskers were picked by the media to win the Big Ten West, and there’s a lot of hype around Scott Frost entering his second season. Adrian Martinez will improve as a sophomore after totaling 25 touchdowns last year, but a defense that gave up 31.2 points per game in 2018 still must improve. The Sept. 28 home matchup against Ohio State is a candidate for ESPN “College GameDay.” We’ll find out then if the hype is warranted.
McKenzie Milton remains on the comeback trail, and quarterback remains the biggest question after Darriel Mack Jr. was also injured in the offseason. That puts the pressure on Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush to keep the Knights on track in the American Athletic Conference for a third straight championship run. UCF faces FAU, Stanford and Pitt Weeks 2-4 in nonconference play. It will know where it stands by the time the Knights head into the conference slate.
23. Washington State
Mike Leach won’t have Gardner Minshew in 2019, but he continues to make it work with a pass-happy system where it’s next man up. Anthony Gordon took the lead in the spring, but Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud will be in the mix in fall camp. The Cougars have been close to a Pac-12 championship, but that next step won’t happen until they unseat rival Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars travel to Utah, Oregon and Washington this season, too.
K.J. Costello returns at quarterback, and he will have to be a difference-maker if Stanford wants to be more than just a contender under David Shaw. Cameron Scarlett is slated to take over at tailback for Bryce Love, but did miss most of the spring. The offensive line will be a strength behind preseason All-American tackle Walker Little. The Cardinal will get all the attention they need in season-opening stretch against Northwestern, USC, UCF and Oregon.
Wisconsin slipped to 8-5 in Paul Chryst’s fourth season, and Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State. Who starts at quarterback now? Jack Coan could take the first snap, but freshman Graham Mertz will push for playing time early. That’s the missing piece for a roster that’s good enough to win the Big Ten. Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor returns. The crossover games against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are tough, but Chryst never shies away from that challenge.
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20. Iowa State
Matt Campbell is 19-19 after three seasons in Ames, and the Cyclones were close to a Big 12 championship game berth last season. Sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy will be the main leader of the offense now that receiver Hakeem Butler and running back David Montgomery are gone, but there was plenty of spring-practice buzz around four-star running back Breece Hall. Iowa State plays four of its first five games at home. The Cyclones will get off to a fast start, but will have to beat Oklahoma and Texas in November to keep their Big 12 hopes alive.
19. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs won four of their last five regular-season games and offered a glimpse of what could be with second-year coach Joe Moorhead. There are huge losses on defense with Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons and Johnathan Abram, not to mention quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on offense. Now it is either Keytaon Thompson or Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens‘ turn. Stevens played well given the chance last season and ran with the first team in the spring. If the Bulldogs can get through midseason road trips to Auburn and Tennessee, then November presents an opportunity in Starkville.
Syracuse is the best bet to challenge Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. Dino Babers and the Orange have proven that the last two seasons. Tommy DeVito takes over at quarterback, and he was 13 of 15 for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. The offensive line’s development is worth monitoring, but most of the skill players return from an offense that averaged 40.2 points per game last season. Preseason All-American safety Andre Cisco leads the defense, and the special teams are in good hands with Andre Szmyt. Clemson visits the Carrier Dome on Sept. 14.
The Utes have a talented team that can build on last year’s Pac-12 championship game appearance, and that starts in the backfield with quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Leki Fotu and Jaylon Johnson are impact players on defense. Kyle Whittingham’s no-frills approach works. This year will be no exception.
Army is 21-5 record the last two seasons under Jeff Monken, and won a school-record 11 games last season. Star quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. returns on a team that has experience on both sides. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s departure to North Carolina is the only downer. The Black Knights gave Oklahoma a scare in 2018; if they can do the same at Michigan on Sept. 7, this independent team could work its way into the New Year’s Day Six conversation.
Auburn has a two-way quarterback competition between Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood, and that is the big question for the Tigers. Gus Malzahn needs to find the answer in a pivotal season on The Plains. The Tigers have had four or more losses in each of the last five seasons. The good news? Alabama and Georgia visit Jordan-Hare Stadium. The defense should be tough up front with future first-round picks Derrick Brown and Nick Coe. Per usual, consider the Tigers this year’s potential chaos team.
Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are gone, and the defense must replace five seniors off the front seven. It’s time for transfer quarterback Jacob Eason to seize the opportunity, and the schedule is set up for a quick start after the opener against FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington. Chris Petersen still has one of the most talented teams in the Pac-12, but the competition in the division will be fierce with Wazzu, Stanford and Oregon. The Huskies’ defense dominated the spring game, and that is not such a bad thing.
Justin Herbert’s decision to stay in school has the Ducks thinking about Pac-12 championships again. CJ Verdell returns as one of the conference’s best backs. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson could develop into a go-to receiver in this offense, and he played well in the spring game. Mario Cristobal has elevated that belief with a top-10 recruiting class. Now it’s time for the Ducks to win big conference games again. Road trips to Stanford, Washington and USC make that possible, but not until after the season opener against Auburn at Jerry World.
12. Penn State
Tommy Stevens’ decision to enter the transfer portal shook up the quarterback race, but Sean Clifford impressed enough in the spring to take the lead for the job. The Nittany Lions likely will have a running back committee, and receiver KJ Hamler will build on a breakout season. Yetur Gross-Matos returns after leading the defense with eight sacks, and Micah Parsons could enjoy a breakout season. Close losses to Ohio State have kept the Nittany Lions out of the Playoff race the last two seasons. James Franklin upgraded the talent, but it’s time to close the gap with the Buckeyes.
11. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher returns a talented team that includes quarterback Kellen Mond, and the Aggies have enough four- and five-star talent to be an SEC West contender. The Sept. 7 trip to Clemson won’t be easy, and the Oct. 12 matchup with Alabama will again be a measuring stick. Texas A&M will have a challenge with consecutive road trips at Georgia and LSU to end the season. If Texas A&M can win 10 games against this schedule, then they might deserve Playoff consideration.
The Wolverines have the ninth-best record among Power 5 teams since Jim Harbaugh arrived at Ann Arbor in 2015, but the only record that gets air time is 0-4. Harbaugh still hasn’t beat Ohio State, and the schedule features the same potholes with an early matchup against Army and road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State. The hire of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis builds some enthusiasm around quarterback Shea Patterson and a talented group of receivers that includes Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Dylan McCaffrey might play a role in that success, too. The Wolverines still need to find a running back, and defensive coordinator Don Brown has several pieces to replace on defense.
9. Notre Dame
The Irish took a big step by reaching the College Football Playoff in 2018, but Ian Book must break in some new skill position talent this season. Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg lead another talented offensive line. The defense returns Khalid Kareem, Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman. Notre Dame’s depth through recruiting will be tested under Brian Kelly, but there should be no complaints about a schedule that features road trips to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. The early test against the Bulldogs will be a season-shifting game, too.
This is the first of four SEC teams in the top 10 capable of competing for a national championship. That is not a perception. It is a product of conference depth, and Dan Mullen proved what a difference one year makes in Gainesville. Feleipe Franks has taken control of the starting quarterback job. The defense, despite a mass exodus of talent in the secondary, is led NFL-caliber cornerback CJ Henderson. The September schedule includes Miami, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators will get more big-stage opportunities in October against LSU and Auburn before that all-important matchup against Georgia on Nov. 2. High expectations are a good thing.
The Tigers steadied the program with a Fiesta Bowl victory under coach Ed Orgeron, and despite a few early departures should feel good heading into 2019. Joe Burrow, who took command of the offense last season, returns for his second year as the starting quarterback. LSU also hired Saints passing game coordinator Joe Brady to supplement second-year offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s system. The defense features All-American candidates Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton in the secondary, and incoming freshman Derek Stingley arrives with huge expectations. The road trip to Texas and the usual date with Alabama on Nov. 9 will determine the viability of the Tigers’ Playoff hopes.
Tom Herman has another cycle of four- and five-star talent to work with, and the Longhorns will get another chance to show they’re ready for the big stage. Herman also has an experienced quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, and Collin Johnson’s decision to return to school is huge. Keaontay Ingram and Daniel Young add to the backfield. The defense will be led by safety Caden Sterns. That huge September game against LSU will determine how right (or wrong) this preseason billing is, and whether we can belt out that three-word phrase.
Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff with Heisman Trophy-winning seasons the last two years, and now it’s Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts’ turn. Trust third-year coach Lincoln Riley and a high-flying offense that will be good enough to win the Big 12 with playmakers Kennedy Brooks and CeeDee Lamb, even with an offensive line that will need a rebuild after a massive NFL exodus. The defense must improve under new coordinator Alex Grinch if the Sooners want to go from Playoff contender to national champion after losses to Georgia and Alabama the last two seasons. The Big 12 is counting on it.
4. Ohio State
Ryan Day takes over the Buckeyes, and he already brought in a new-look staff with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich from Oklahoma State and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from Michigan. The latter move will be in the spotlight given the rivalry ties, but the defensive line features Chase Young and freshman instant-impact player Zach Harrison. Georgia transfer Justin Fields took over at quarterback in the spring, and he will have competition from Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak, a Columbus native. Expect J.K. Dobbins to be more involved in the offense, and freshman Garrett Wilson will make some head-turning catches. The schedule is set up for a continued honeymoon in Day’s first season, but the Buckeyes’ season will be defined in the last two weeks against Penn State and Michigan.
Georgia has put the season-ending losses to Alabama and Texas in the past, and now it’s on Kirby Smart to deliver the school’s first national championship since 1980. They have the talent to do it. Jake Fromm is a three-year starter at quarterback with several new targets in the passing game, but the running back will be strong around D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien, James Cook and Zamir White. Offensive tackle Andrew Thomas is a first-round talent that leads the offensive front. Smart has recruited at a ridiculous clip on the defensive side the last two years, and now that talent must stand up. A September matchup with Notre Dame should set the tone for another run toward the SEC championship game, where Alabama should be waiting again.
The Tigers handled the media day circus a little better than the Crimson Tide, but last year is over. Clemson has the unique opportunity to win three national championships in four seasons under Dabo Swinney, and there is no way to contain the hype around megastar quarterback Trevor Lawrence after his performance against Alabama in last year’s championship game. Travis Etienne, Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins all return to an offense that could score 50 points per game. The defense will have to rebuild after sending three defensive linemen to the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but Xavier Thomas is ready to fill that void along with linebacker Isaiah Simmons and cornerback A.J. Terrell. As good as this team could be – and we will find out early against Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Syracuse – they will be even better in 2020.
Surprise! The beat goes on for the Crimson Tide, and Tua Tagovailoa will be a Heisman front-runner with Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy back in the fold. Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs IV all are back on offense, too. Alabama has 10 of the top 50 players on our 2020 NFL Draft big board. The coaching staff was remodeled and brought back offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian while promoting Pete Golding to defensive coordinator. Expect a few freshmen to jump right in, including defensive end Antonio Alfano and running back Trey Sanders. Alabama will have to weather the usual set of NFL defections, new coordinators and an SEC schedule that features road trips to South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. Since when has any of that stopped Nick Saban? Prepare for Clemson-Alabama V, and we’re going to give Alabama the slight edge in the rematch.