Projecting College Football Preseason Top 25 at the Start of Fall Camp
Now that spring practice, summer workouts and media days are complete, the 2019 college football season is almost here. Only fall camp separates us from the beginning of another wild campaign.
And that means a fresh set of rankings.
The Associated Press will likely unveil its initial Top 25 in mid-August, and it's a safe bet the preseason poll will feature Alabama and Clemson atop the list. Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma are among the definite top-10 teams, too.
Since offseason perception is annually reflected in the ranking, we have a decent idea of what to expect when the poll is revealed. The following is a projection of what that first AP Top 25 will show.
25-21: Nebraska, Northwestern, Washington State, Army, Iowa State
25. Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-8 in 2018)
Despite a four-win campaign last year, the Scott Frost hype train has stormed into the nation's consciousness this offseason. Nebraska returns a true standout quarterback in Adrian Martinez, who threw for 2,617 yards and ran for 629 as a freshman. The concern is that an objectively bad defense lost six of its top contributors. Skepticism is understandable no matter the ranking Nebraska will probably receive.
24. Northwestern Wildcats (9-5)
The defending Big Ten West Division champions must replace four-year starter Clayton Thorson, but expectations aren't getting lower. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, a 5-star in the 2017 class, is the highest-rated quarterback in program history. Northwestern should have a reliable defense led by Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano, but its upside hinges primarily on Johnson's performance.
23. Washington State Cougars (11-2)
Gardner Minshew turned Wazzu into one of last season's top breakout teams. Will the offense find another gem within the competition between Gage Gubrud, Trey Tinsley and Cammon Cooper? Thanks to four straight years with at least eight wins, head coach Mike Leach has probably—and rightfully—earned the voters' benefit of the doubt. However, a road-heavy slate has the potential to smother the wrong quarterback.
22. Army Black Knights (11-2)
Army's inclusion goes beyond the requisite "non-Power 5 team in the 20s" part of the preseason poll. The offense returns quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. behind an experienced line, and the schedule is extremely soft. Six of Army's opponents won three games or fewer in 2018, and two more are Football Championship Subdivision schools.
21. Iowa State Cyclones (8-5)
Iowa State's primary appeal is a promising young quarterback in Brock Purdy. Over nine starts, he posted a terrific 10.2 yards per attempt while providing a decent rushing threat, too. But can the Cyclones withstand the departures of David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler? While keeping the entire offensive line intact is valuable, Iowa State desperately needs a couple of reliable playmakers to emerge.
20-16: Wisconsin, Stanford, Utah, UCF, Syracuse
20. Wisconsin Badgers (8-5 in 2018)
On the bright side, Jonathan Taylor returns after scampering for 2,194 yards last year. Wisconsin has a proven superstar to carry the offense. Conversely, the Badgers lost a strong majority of their disruptive players on defense and is unsettled at quarterback. Jack Coan was inefficient in five appearances, and prized freshman Graham Mertz is, well, a freshman. To complicate matters, UW will meet Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in a highly unfavorable Big Ten crossover slate.
19. Stanford Cardinal (9-4)
Stanford had a very un-Stanford-like season in 2018, finishing an abysmal 123rd in rushing yards per game. Despite losing once-star running back Bryce Love and a few starters up front, it'd be pretty hard to get worse. The running game should be more effective, but quarterback K.J. Costello will have a revamped receiving unit. Throw in a retooling defense and Stanford's margin for error is pretty thin.
18. Utah Utes (9-5)
Defense should propel Utah, which must replace four key players but essentially brings back everyone else from the nation's 10th-best defense. The Utes have enticing potential on offense, though. Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss are a dangerous quarterback-running back combination, and a young receiving corps figures to collectively improve in 2019. Utah is a serious threat for the Pac-12 crown.
17. UCF Knights (12-1)
Figure out the quarterback and 2019 could be a familiar story. UCF boasts a 25-1 record over the last two seasons but is facing a dilemma. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton (leg) will miss the campaign, and Darriel Mack Jr. (ankle) may be sidelined for a while. Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush must produce quickly, lest UCF falter and hand the position to Mack once he's healthy.
16. Syracuse Orange (10-3)
Syracuse went 6-0 at home last season and desperately needs to repeat that in 2019 to be a factor. Clemson heads to the Carrier Dome in mid-September, and the result will basically determine whether the Orange are a real ACC contender. Nevertheless, a veteran defensive line and secondary ought to brace the team while quarterback Tommy DeVito moves into the full-time starting spot.
15-11: Texas A&M, Washington, Auburn, Oregon, Penn State
15. Texas A&M Aggies (9-4 in 2018)
This schedule, folks. I mean, seriously, this schedule. Texas A&M travels to Clemson and hosts Auburn in September, welcomes Alabama in October and heads to Georgia and LSU on consecutive November weekends. Praise the Aggies for their offensive upside as much as you'd like, but good luck surviving this slate.
14. Washington Huskies (10-4)
Bad situational offense plagued the 2018 Huskies, who trudged to 105th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage. New quarterback Jacob Eason faced similar issues as a freshman at Georgia in 2016, but expectations are high anyway. As long as a rebuilt defense takes advantage of a relatively soft early schedule before conference play, Washington will remain the Pac-12's team to beat.
13. Auburn Tigers (8-5)
Do they have a quarterback? That's the most pressing question facing the Tigers after losing Jarrett Stidham. While both Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix were coveted recruits, Gatewood has no significant experience and Nix is a freshman. Auburn's defense may buoy the team, but a schedule with Oregon, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Florida and LSU before November leaves no time to waste.
12. Oregon Ducks (9-4)
Senior quarterback Justin Herbert is widely considered a top NFL draft prospect, and Oregon has five returning starters up front. The hype, at the very worst, is reasonable. Still, a sturdy foundation is only part of the conversation. The Ducks have an unproven receiving group and need a few disruptive defenders to break out. Otherwise, a slate that includes a neutral-site clash with Auburn and road trips to Stanford, Washington and USC could break them.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-4)
Trace McSorley's graduation left a massive vacancy at quarterback, and Tommy Stevens' transfer to Mississippi State eliminated all questions about the replacement. Sean Clifford should take over and has only seven pass attempts in his college career, but Penn State eases into the season opposite Idaho, Buffalo and Pitt. Even if the Nittany Lions start slowly, they could regroup prior to their level of competition rising in October.
10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2018 Record: 12-1
Ian Book ascended from backup to undisputed starter last year, guiding the Irish to the College Football Playoff and pushing Brandon Wimbush to transfer this offseason.
But the encore will be challenging.
After hosting most of its marquee games in 2018, Notre Dame must travel to Georgia in September, Michigan in October and Stanford in November. Book will no longer have explosive back Dexter Williams or his favorite target, Myles Boykin, on the outside.
Though a strong defense will keep the Irish a tough opponent, the potential for offensive regression is clear.
9. Florida Gators
2018 Record: 10-3
Florida's level of success is most dependent on Feleipe Franks.
While his final 2018 numbers looked fine—2,807 yards of offense and 31 total touchdowns to six interceptions—he ranked in the bottom half in yards per attempt among SEC starting quarterbacks. And against top competition, Franks was generally a non-factor. That's simply not sufficient in the SEC.
Florida meets Miami for a neutral-site opener, but that single result isn't as important as what happens during the four-game stretch featuring Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia.
Whether head coach Dan Mullen has maxed out Franks' upside is the subjective topic that shapes the Gators' season projections.
8. Michigan Wolverines
2018 Record: 10-3
Early reports suggest that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has successfully overhauled the scoring unit, bringing a more modern approach to Ann Arbor. If legitimately true, Michigan will showcase a more exciting scoring attack to complement a superb defense.
But when is an offseason report ever negative?
Quarterback Shea Patterson and Co. are under considerable pressure in 2019 because the Wolverines haven't yet defeated Ohio State during Jim Harbaugh's tenure. However, Gattis is heralded as the solution to UM's woes on offense, and the Wolverines host The Game this year.
Michigan has a massive opportunity to reshape perception, but any change hinges on the offense's performance.
7. LSU Tigers
2018 Record: 10-3
LSU will always have a couple of tough SEC road games, so traveling to Mississippi State and Alabama isn't particularly notable. Heading to Texas in early September, however, fits that description.
Since the Tigers otherwise take on Georgia Southern, Northwestern State, Vanderbilt and Utah State, their path to 5-0 is clear. Because that challenging SEC slate awaits, though, head coach Ed Orgeron's club absolutely must topple Texas to be a national threat.
Good thing this roster is stacked.
LSU ranks 15th in returning production, per SB Nation, and will welcome back a potential superstar in linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson, who basically missed all of 2018 due to a knee injury. The Tigers should have one of the country's top defenses.
But as usual, everything is measured with respect to Alabama. Joe Burrow is generally competent but likely isn't a game-changing quarterback. The offensive line needs to improve from mediocre to average before talking about excellent or elite.
Right now, LSU looks a tier below the Tide. Will the Tigers change that perception prior to Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa?
6. Texas Longhorns
2018 Record: 10-4
Texas is back! Unless it's not. It might be, though!
Forget the showdowns with LSU and Oklahoma. Split those and it's probably a successful year. The Longhorns' bigger concern should be avoiding letdowns against underdogs.
Knocking off an Oklahoma- or Georgia-level opponent is great, but losing to Maryland and Oklahoma State is indefensible. In 2019, that primarily means earning road victories over West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State and Baylor—all quality but lower-tier programs.
Considering the amount of production lost defensively, an upset loss or two this season is completely foreseeable. But if the Longhorns go 4-0 in those outings, they'll have a legitimate shot at being "back" nationally.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
2018 Record: 13-1
Ohio State underwent an offseason full of transition, but the beginning of the 2019 season may be kind anyway.
The Buckeyes kick off the campaign against Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Indiana and Miami (Ohio). As new quarterback Justin Fields adjusts—and it'll be Fields despite the faux competition first-year head coach Ryan Day continues to declare—they can handle a few bumps en route to 4-0.
But then the schedule gets much tougher.
Over the next five weekends, OSU will travel to Nebraska, host Michigan State, head to Northwestern for a Friday night showdown and host Wisconsin. To close the regular season, Penn State will come to Columbus, and the Buckeyes will go to Michigan.
Fields is a heralded talent and has a little extra time to develop, but he'll be challenged regularly after a comfortable opening.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
2018 Record: 12-2
Oklahoma is handing Jalen Hurts the keys to its scoring powerhouse. The Alabama transfer will constantly look for star wideout CeeDee Lamb while showing off mobility alongside Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon, who combined for 2,003 rushing yards last season.
The Sooners need to revamp the blocking unit, but they're expected to address that area and boast an elite offense yet again.
So, uh, will the defense stop anyone?
Last year, Oklahoma ranked 101st in scoring defense, 102nd in yards allowed per play and a historically bad 130th in red-zone defense. Opponents scored a touchdown on 83.3 percent of their red-zone drives, and OU's 54 drives allowed ranked a paltry 106th.
Head coach Lincoln Riley's squad is the deserving Big 12 favorite, but the Sooners might need to score 40-plus per game out of necessity.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
2018 Record: 11-3
College analysts, draftniks and scouts are all asking the same question: Exactly how good is Jake Fromm?
For much of 2018, the quarterback either shredded overmatched teams or—with one exception—the Dawgs won despite a mediocre showing from him. Fromm's 301-yard, three-touchdown day in the SEC Championship Game was the best performance of his career, but Georgia lost to Alabama and later fell to Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Questions already existed about Fromm's ability to elevate his surrounding pieces, and UGA lost its top five receivers—four to the NFL and one to dismissal—this offseason.
Georgia's experienced offensive line and star-studded defense are major positives.
But seriously: Exactly how good is Jake Fromm?
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
2018 Record: 14-1
If you hold Alabama below 30 points, you have a chance. The bad news is only LSU, Mississippi State and Clemson accomplished that in 2018, and those defenses ranked 21st, first and second, respectively.
The worse news is that Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa returns along with the nation's most explosive pass-catching group. No offense recorded more receptions of 40-plus yards than the Crimson Tide, who watched Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith obliterate defenses.
Oh, and then you actually need to score.
Considering the Tide surrendered 18.1 points per game last season—its second-highest average over the past decade—that's the worst news. Sure, the defense lost six players to the NFL. Is anyone doubting the returning talent, though?
Wake us up in November when Alabama faces LSU and Auburn. Before then, only a trip to Texas A&M looks even mildly threatening.
1. Clemson Tigers
2018 Record: 15-0
This is simple: If Trevor Lawrence is healthy, Clemson will be the favorite in every contest through the ACC Championship Game.
As a true freshman, he completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns while throwing just four interceptions and winning a national title. Clemson returns Lawrence's primary targets in 1,000-yard receiver Justyn Ross and touchdown leader Tee Higgins.
Normally, an All-American running back would be the featured player. Instead, Travis Etienne—who scampered for 1,658 yards and 24 scores last season—isn't even mentioned until now. The Tigers are absolutely loaded on offense.
Clemson will be relying on several new defenders, so the opening stretch of Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Syracuse is moderately problematic. The contrast of styles may be tricky for young players.
But if the Lawrence-led offense plays to its potential, the scoring attack will overshadow any defensive issues and help Clemson cruise to a 3-0 start and, eventually, another ACC title.