College football's 2019 season officially begins on Aug. 24, but it's never too early to project where all 130 teams will finish at the end of the year. Athlon Sports released its top 25 in May and now it's time to project the rest of the teams 26-130. Alabama and Clemson lead the way in the overall rankings, followed by Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma. There are plenty of solid teams just outside of the top 25, including Virginia Tech, Miami, Washington State, South Carolina and Cincinnati.
UCF ranks as the projected top Group of 5 team this fall, but Boise State, Memphis, Cincinnati and Utah State aren't far behind. Marshall is Athlon's highest-ranked team from Conference USA for 2019, with Appalachian State (Sun Belt) and Ohio (MAC) ranked as the projected winner from their respective conferences.
Where do all 130 teams stack up for 2018? This is not a preseason 130 ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
Power 5: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Group of 5: American | C-USA | MAC | MW | Sun Belt
Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2019
Mike Bloomgren inherited a big-time rebuilding project last season, so it was no surprise the Owls finished 2-11 with just one win in C-USA play. Rice brings back 13 starters and hopes last year’s experience by a handful of young players helps this team take a step forward in 2019. Bloomgren has some promising pieces – RB Juma Otoviano, WR Austin Trammell, LB Blaze Alldredge and S George Nyakwol – but question marks remain at quarterback and on defense after giving up 36 points a game.
New coach Walt Bell is a good hire for a UMass program that has won only 16 games over the last five years. However, the Minutemen have a lot of work to do this offseason. Only six starters are back, and Bell has to restock an offense that lost standout receiver Andy Isabella and enters 2019 with uncertainty at quarterback. A defense that gave up 42.9 points a game last fall also has concerns at every level.
The Miners showed some small signs of progress in coach Dana Dimel’s first year in El Paso, but this program still has a long ways to go to contend for a bowl or winning mark in 2019. Quarterback Kai Locksley’s status is uncertain after an off-field incident in June, but the return of Greg Long and Derron Gatewood should bolster the offensive line. UTEP’s defense gave up 32.8 points a game last fall and only brings back five starters.
127. New Mexico State
The 2017 season provided New Mexico State’s first winning record since 2002 and the program’s first bowl trip since 1961. However, the Aggies slipped to 3-9 in their return to FBS Independence last fall. Coach Doug Martin’s team faces another tough schedule in 2019, so major gains in the win column are unlikely. Quarterback Josh Adkins is promising, but a defense that gave up 41.3 points a game last fall has to show marked improvement.
The Huskies are rebuilding with youth on both sides of the ball, and as evidenced by last year’s 1-11 finish, coach Randy Edsall and this staff have a long climb ahead in the AAC. The quarterback job is open after David Pindell finished his eligibility and backup Marvin Washington transferred in the summer. UConn’s defense is in need of major repair. This unit surrendered a whopping 50.4 points and 617.4 yards per game last season. Just getting to three wins would be a step in the right direction.
125. Bowling Green
The post-spring decision by quarterback Jarret Doege to transfer added to the list of concerns for new coach Scot Loeffler. A graduate transfer is a possibility to replace Doege, but the uncertainty under center should push the offense to lean even more on talented junior running back Andrew Clair. Brian VanGorder was hired to address a defense that surrendered 40 points a game last fall. End David Konowalski’s return from injury will help, but the Falcons only bring back three starters and question marks remain at every level.
124. Coastal Carolina
Jamey Chadwell – a former Charleston Southern head coach and interim leader of Coastal Carolina in 2017 – takes over on a full-time basis following Joe Moglia's retirement. The Chanticleers had a couple of key players transfer after last year’s 5-7 mark, and Chadwell has to do some restocking on both sides of the ball to keep this team in the mix for a bowl. Additionally, the quarterback battle between Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter is likely to extend into the fall.
123. South Alabama
Steve Campbell seems like the right fit at South Alabama, but it may take another year of development before this program will contend for a bowl. The Jaguars return standout running back Tra Minter and receiver Kawaan Baker, but the offense needs to find an answer under center to help a unit that averaged only 24.2 points a game in 2018. The defense is also in rebuild mode after giving up 38.8 points a contest. Tyree Turner is one of the Sun Belt’s top defensive linemen but questions remain about the pieces around him.
122. Georgia State
The Panthers took a step back in coach Shawn Elliott’s second year in Atlanta. After a 7-5 mark in 2017, Georgia State finished only 2-10 with just one Sun Belt win. A youth movement on both sides of the ball was certainly to blame for the regression, but that experience should pay off in 2019. Dan Ellington could push for a spot among the top quarterbacks in the conference after accounting for 17 total touchdowns in his first year on campus. Standout receiver Penny Hart must be replaced. Georgia State’s defense brings back seven starters but surrendered 37.4 points a game last fall.
Tom Arth is a solid hire for an Akron program looking to make a jump in the MAC East. Unfortunately for the first-year coach, the question marks are numerous for 2019. Quarterback Kato Nelson is a playmaker and should rank among the top signal-callers in the MAC. However, the Zips need more balance and better play up front to support Nelson. The return of safety Alvin Davis, linebacker John Lako, and end Josh Ward provides a good foundation on defense, but the rest of the group will be under renovation.
120. Central Michigan
Jim McElwain is back on the sidelines as a head coach following his dismissal at Florida during the 2017 season. And it’s a good thing McElwain’s specialty is offense, as Central Michigan averaged only 15 points and 254.7 yards per game last fall. Houston transfer (and former Tennessee signal-caller) Quinten Dormady should help right away at quarterback, and Virginia Tech transfer Kalil Pimpleton has potential to be an impact addition at receiver. Defense certainly wasn’t a problem for the Chippewas last season, but a handful of key players have departed Mount Pleasant, leaving only four returning starters on this side of the ball.
Related: Ranking the MAC's Head Coaches for 2019
Improving an offense that averaged only 14.2 points a game in 2018 is the top priority for coach Frank Wilson and play-caller Jeff Kastl this offseason. The return of quarterback Frank Harris from injury could provide a spark, and four starters are back to lead the way in the trenches. UTSA’s defense should be strong up front, but standout linebacker Josiah Tauaefa departed early for the NFL.
118. San Jose State
Brent Brennan enters his third year at the helm in San Jose with just three overall victories over the last two seasons. Unfortunately for Brennan, the Spartans are likely in for another long year. Quarterback Josh Love (14 TDs) is back, and Brennan’s offense has a good cast of supporting skill talent. However, the offensive line gave up 39 sacks and remains a concern for 2019. San Jose State’s defense is an even bigger issue for Brennan. The Spartans were shredded for 211.2 rushing yards a game and needs more talent and depth at all three levels. Linebackers Jesse Osuna and Ethan Aguayo should push for All-Mountain West honors.
117. Old Dominion
The Monarchs have posted back-to-back losing seasons since winning 10 games and going to a bowl in 2016. Coach Bobby Wilder is hoping a coaching staff overhaul along with the addition of a handful of junior college transfers provides an immediate spark. Former Michigan State quarterback Messiah deWeaver is one of those JUCOs vying for time, as he will push Steven Williams (back from redshirt) for the No. 1 spot. New defensive coordinator David Blackwell won’t have standout end Oshane Ximines to lean on, and the Monarchs enter the fall with question marks at every level.
Related: Ranking Conference USA's Head Coaches for 2019
116. Texas State
New coach Jake Spavital isn’t stepping into a bad situation for his debut. Texas State brings back 16 starters, including two of the Sun Belt’s top linebackers in Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels. Spavital is regarded for his work on offense during stints as a play-caller at Texas A&M, California and West Virginia, and this group has plenty of room to improve after averaging only 19.8 points a game. Junior college (and former Montana) quarterback Gresch Jensen should provide a spark under center.
115. Kent State
The Golden Flashes only won two games in coach Sean Lewis’ debut but were more competitive than the previous year. Another step forward should be within reach in 2019. The offense returns rising star Woody Barrett at quarterback, along with a strong supporting cast at receiver and running back. Kent State’s defense is thin up front, but the outlook is better in the secondary.
114. Ball State
Coach Mike Neu is only 10-26 through three seasons, but with 18 returning starters in place for 2019, Ball State could be a sleeper to watch in the MAC West. Neu’s top priority will be developing Drew Plitt at quarterback after Riley Neal transferred to Vanderbilt. The Cardinals have one of the MAC’s top linebacker units, but the defense has to improve after finishing near the bottom of the conference versus the run and points allowed.
113. New Mexico
With a 6-18 mark over the last two years, the 2019 campaign is likely a make-or-break season for Bob Davie. And with immediate help needed on both sides of the ball, Davie is counting on an influx of junior college transfers to play a lot in 2019. The line should be the strength of the offense, but this unit needs steady play out of Tevaka Tuioti or Sheriron Jones at quarterback, along with a go-to back to emerge. The return of linebacker Alex Hart from injury is big for a defense that gave up 36.2 points a game in 2018.
Related: Ranking the Mountain West Coaches for 2019
Charlotte is a program with upside, and new coach Will Healy should elevate this team over the next couple of years. The 49ers just missed on a bowl last fall (5-7) and another push for a winning mark is within reach. In order to do so, Healy needs stable quarterback play to go with standout running back Benny LeMay on offense. The defense – led by standout end Alex Highsmith – could be one of Conference USA’s top units.
New coach Tyson Helton is tasked with getting WKU back to the top of Conference USA after this program slipped the last two years under Mike Sanford. Helton worked under Jeff Brohm during his successful run in Bowling Green, and rekindling the high-scoring offense is a priority. The skill talent and line are in place, but can the Hilltoppers get consistent play at quarterback? Six starters provide a good foundation on defense, but concerns remain at linebacker. With solid quarterback play, WKU could surprise in Helton’s debut.
With Hugh Freeze taking over in Lynchburg, Liberty won’t lack for intrigue in 2019. The combination of quarterback Buckshot Calvert and receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden should produce plenty of points and allow the Flames an opportunity to push for a winning record.
109. East Carolina
The Pirates made one of the offseason’s top hires by bringing Mike Houston from James Madison to Greenville. Quarterback Holton Ahlers provides a good foundation for Houston to build around on offense, but East Carolina’s defense has to replace standout end Nate Harvey and show overall improvement after giving up 37.3 points a game. If the supporting cast fills in around Ahlers, the Pirates could be a surprise bowl team in Houston’s first year.
Related: Ranking the American Athletic Conference Coaches for 2019
The Jayhawks will be interesting with Les Miles at the helm. However, with uncertainty on both sides of the ball, the 2019 season is likely to be another rebuilding year in Lawrence. The strength of the defense will be in the secondary, but the front seven has to be retooled. If running back Pooka Williams returns after an off-field incident, it will be a huge boost to a group already breaking in a new quarterback.
After a 4-8 finish in Chris Ash’s second year (2017), Rutgers seemed to be going in the right direction. However, a year later, the Scarlet Knights are coming off a disappointing 1-11 mark. Getting back on track won’t be easy. Offensive coordinator John McNulty has talent to work with at running back, but quarterback Artur Sitkowski has to show marked improvement after tossing 18 picks last season. The outlook is better on defense, as cornerback Avery Young and linemen Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov provide optimism. How far can this unit carry the team while the offense develops?
Entering his fifth year, Tony Sanchez is still looking for his first winning season in Las Vegas. And with the program moving to a new shared home with the NFL's Raiders in 2020, this year will be critical for his long-term outlook. Having a healthy Armani Rodgers at quarterback certainly helps the bowl hopes of UNLV, but question marks remain on a defense that brings back only five starters. The Rebels also face a tough schedule in 2019.
105. Miami (Ohio)
The bad news: Unless coach Chuck Martin brings in a grad transfer at quarterback, the RedHawks will enter the season with zero career attempts among its signal-callers. The good news: Miami (Ohio) has a decent supporting cast still in place, and the defense brings back five starters from a unit that held teams to 25.5 points a game. If Martin can find a quarterback and navigate a tough non-conference slate, getting to six wins is within reach.
Philip Montgomery started his tenure at Tulsa with back-to-back bowl appearances, but the Golden Hurricane are only 5-19 over the last two years. Baylor transfer Zach Smith should fill a huge need at quarterback, and the offense has a solid one-two punch at running back with Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor. Tulsa’s defense took a step forward last fall, and seven starters provide optimism for more improvement. If Smith ignites the offense, this team could push for a bowl.
The Warhawks have made steady progress in each of coach Matt Viator’s three years. Getting to a bowl in 2019 will require navigating a difficult non-conference slate, as well as filling out the skill talent around quarterback Caleb Evans – one of the Sun Belt’s top signal-callers. Improvement on defense has been noticeable under Viator’s watch and another step forward is within reach this fall.
Related: Ranking the Sun Belt Coaches for 2019
The Midshipmen are just 5-16 since midway through the 2017 season. Coach Ken Niumatalolo is hoping a change at defensive coordinator helps to fix a unit that allowed 33.5 points a game last fall. With just three starters back, this group will be a work in progress in 2019. Quarterback Malcolm Perry returns, and Niumatalolo and coordinator Ivin Jasper plan to tailor the offense to his strengths. Navy brings back just six total starters, but a revamped approach on both sides of the ball should help this team improve in 2019.
101. Eastern Michigan
This is one of the toughest jobs in college football, so it’s quite an accomplishment coach Chris Creighton has led Eastern Michigan to two bowl games over three years. The Eagles had one of the MAC’s top defenses last season but restocking the front seven and replacing end Maxx Crosby won’t be easy. Quarterback Mike Glass is a breakout candidate.
100. Colorado State
The Rams are coming off their worst (3-9) season under coach Mike Bobo. Getting back on track will require a healthy year out of quarterback Collin Hill, along with development out of the offensive line. Receiver Warren Jackson should help fill the void left behind by All-Mountain West receiver Preston Williams. The defense was a major problem spot last fall, allowing 36.8 points and over 200 rushing yards a game. How far this unit improves could decide whether or not Colorado State returns to the postseason.
Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Starting QBs for 2019
Nevada showed marked improvement in coach Jay Norvell’s second year, going from 3-9 in 2017 to 8-5 last fall. Replicating that record in 2019 will require some work on both sides of the ball. The offense features some of the Mountain West’s top skill talent, but the offensive line and quarterback spot are a concern. Former Florida State signal-caller Malik Henry could be the answer at quarterback. Every level of the defense was hit hard by departures, but coordinator Jeff Casteel should prevent a massive drop off.
The 2018 season was the best in Buffalo’s history at the FBS level. However, for the Bulls to return to the MAC title game, coach Lance Leipold needs to find a quarterback to replace Tyree Jackson and restock a receiving corps that lost Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn. Look for the offense to lean heavily one of the MAC’s top lines and backfields until a new quarterback emerges. There’s also a lot of talent to replace on defense, but Buffalo returns enough experience to prevent a major drop in performance.
97. Middle Tennessee
With quarterback Brent Stockstill out of eligibility, MTSU faces a tough path to return to the Conference USA title game. In addition to finding Stockstill’s replacement, restocking a line with just two returning starters will be a priority this offseason. The strength of coach Rick Stockstill’s 2019 squad is a defense that brings back six starters, including safety Jovante Moffatt who missed most of 2018 due to injury.
The Cowboys ended 2018 on a high note by winning their last four games to finish 6-6. Coach Craig Bohl’s team struggled to find answers on offense in the post-Josh Allen era, but quarterback Sean Chambers emerged late in the year and appears to be primed for a breakout year as the full-time starter in 2019. Wyoming’s defense held teams to 22 points a game in 2018, but coordinator Scottie Hazelton left for Kansas State and there are holes to fill at every level. Still, with five starters back, there’s enough of a foundation to remain near the top of the Mountain West.
95. Oregon State
As expected, Jonathan Smith’s debut at his alma mater was a rebuilding year. The Beavers should be better in 2019, but wins could be tough to find on a difficult schedule. If quarterback Jake Luton can stay healthy, Oregon State should have no trouble scoring points. The receiving corps and the one-two punch of Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce at running back comprise one of the Pac-12’s top collections of skill talent. Oregon State’s defense surrendered a whopping 45.7 points a game last fall. This unit is littered with question marks once again.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2019
FAU was better than its 5-7 record showed last season, but rebounding in 2019 will require coach Lane Kiffin’s team to replace standout running back Devin Singletary and get better play out of its quarterbacks. Chris Robison’s status is uncertain after an off-field incident, but help at quarterback could come in the form of former Florida State signal-caller Deondre Francois. Kiffin hit a home run with the addition of Glenn Spencer as the program’s defensive coordinator.
The return of the run and shoot offense last fall helped guide Hawaii to its first winning season since 2010. And with two capable quarterbacks in Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro leading the way, the Rainbow Warriors could be a sleeper in the Mountain West this fall. In order for Hawaii to make that leap, coach Nick Rolovich needs better protection from his offensive line, and the defense has to cut down on its points allowed (35.1 ppg). Both San Diego State and Fresno State visit Honolulu this season.
Last year’s 4-8 mark represented the highest win total of Lovie Smith’s tenure in Champaign. The Fighting Illini have shown some small signs of progress, and there’s optimism the youth from the previous two years will help produce more victories in 2019. The ground game is set with the return of dynamic running back Reggie Corbin and a solid offensive line. The quarterback spot is unsettled, and there’s a lack of proven targets outside. Smith is taking over the full-time play-calling duties on a defense that returns eight starters but gave up 39.4 points a game last fall. Standout end Bobby Roundtree suffered a spinal injury over the offseason.
91. Northern Illinois
Former NIU running back Thomas Hammock has returned to his alma mater and his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level. The Huskies bring back enough talent (14 starters) to push for the MAC West title. However, Hammock has to jumpstart an offense that averaged only 20.1 points a game last fall. All-America end Sutton Smith will be missed on defense, but this unit should still rank among the best in the MAC.
FIU has earned back-to-back bowl trips under Butch Davis’ direction, but the program is hunting something bigger in 2019 – a Conference USA East Division title. The Panthers have all of the necessary pieces to contend, as quarterback James Morgan leads a potent offense, and six starters return on defense. The Nov. 30 matchup at Marshall could decide which team represents the East in the C-USA title game.
Related: Ranking Conference USA's Head Coaches for 2019
89. Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech is poised to earn its sixth consecutive winning record under coach Skip Holtz but contending for the C-USA West crown will hinge on a couple of factors. The defense must replace record-setting end Jaylon Ferguson, and the offense needs more production after finishing ninth in the conference in scoring (24.7 ppg) last fall. Cornerback Amik Robertson is one of the top defenders in the league. A favorable schedule – North Texas, Southern Miss and FIU visit Ruston – could help Louisiana Tech’s quest to win the division.
The Mustangs just missed a bowl in coach Sonny Dykes’ debut last fall, but things are looking up for this program in 2019. SMU already had one of the AAC’s best wide receiver groups with James Proche and Reggie Roberson returning, and the passing game should get a boost with the arrival of quarterback Shane Buechele. The Mustangs showed some improvement late in the year on defense and can build off that finish with eight returning starters.
87. Western Michigan
The Broncos rank among the nation’s best in returning production from the 2018 season. Coach Tim Lester has a team capable of contending for the MAC West title, but this team suffered a setback in May when standout receiver Jayden Reed decided to transfer. Quarterback Jon Wassink is back after missing the last four games due to injury, and running back LeVante Bellamy is one of the MAC’s top playmakers. New defensive play-caller Lou Esposito hopes to transform a group that has room to improve after allowing 34.5 points a contest in 2018.
Despite some hefty personnel losses on both sides of the ball, don’t count out Bill Clark’s team from another run at the Conference USA title. Quarterback Tyler Johnston is primed for a breakout year in his first full season as the starter. The offense can also lean on standout running back Spencer Brown to take the pressure off a defense that returns just five starters. Road trips to Southern Miss (Nov. 9) and North Texas (Nov. 30) are likely to decide how high the Blazers climb in the West Division.
Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Starting QBs for 2019
85. Southern Miss
The strength of Jay Hopson’s 2019 squad once again rests with a defense that brings back six starters. This unit held teams to just 19.8 points a game last fall and should be near the top of Conference USA. However, contending for a league title will hinge on the offense. The Golden Eagles averaged 26.2 points a game and need to establish more of a consistent ground game. Additionally, No. 1 receiver Quez Watkins may not return to the team.
84. Air Force
The Falcons have missed out on a bowl in back-to-back seasons, but that streak is unlikely to extend to three. Coach Troy Calhoun’s team lost all seven of its games in 2018 by no more than 10 points. With a little better luck, combined with the development of quarterback Donald Hammond and a defense that brings back seven starters, Air Force should return to a winning mark in 2019.
The MAC West appears to be a wide-open battle this season, but a slight edge goes to Toledo in Athlon’s projections. Although the receiving corps must be restocked, the offense is the strength of coach Jason Candle’s squad. Quarterback Mitchell Guadagni is back from injury, with Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour leading the way on the ground. Toledo’s defense has room to improve after allowing over 30 points a game in 2018. With Western Michigan and Northern Illinois coming to Toledo this season, the MAC West title likely runs through the Glass Bowl.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are a program on the rise under coach Billy Napier and another Sun Belt West Division title is within reach. Napier’s squad has to sort out the quarterback position and continue to improve on defense, but Louisiana can lean on a deep backfield and standout offensive line to make another run at the Sun Belt title.
Scott Satterfield is the best hire among new coaches, but the 2019 season is poised to be a rebuilding year at Louisville after a 2-10 mark last fall. The Cardinals have more talent than last season’s win total would suggest. However, Satterfield needs to get better play out of quarterback Jawon Pass and address a defense that allowed 44.1 points a game last season.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2019
The Green Wave are coming off their best win total (seven) under coach Willie Fritz. Look for another step forward in 2019, as Tulane brings back one of the AAC’s top defenses behind standout edge rusher Patrick Johnson. The strength of the offense is the ground game, and new coordinator Will Hall was brought in to improve the passing attack. There’s optimism for this unit behind the return of quarterback Justin McMillan and receivers Darnell Mooney and Oklahoma State transfer Jalen McCleskey.
79. Arkansas State
Arkansas State gets a slight edge over Louisiana for the No. 1 spot in the Sun Belt’s West Division. New quarterback Logan Bonner’s development will be a huge x-factor in the conference title race, but the Red Wolves can lean on running back Marcel Murray and a defense that brings back seven starters to ease the transition under center.
New coach Rod Carey inherits a strong foundation (13 starters) from a team that went 8-5 and finished second in the AAC East last season. Quarterback Anthony Russo showed promise in his first year as a starter, but the offense has to replace running back Ryquell Armstead. Temple’s defense is led by one of the top Group of 5 linebacker units. However, this unit will miss safety Delvon Randall and lineman Michael Dogbe.
Can a handful of coaching changes get USF back on track? That’s the hope of coach Charlie Strong, as the Bulls ended 2018 on a six-game losing streak after a 7-0 start. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for this team. Quarterback Blake Barnett and running back Jordan Cronkrite anchor a dangerous offense under new coordinator Kerwin Bell. USF’s defense has to get tougher against the run after giving up 247.5 rushing yards per game last season.
76. Georgia Southern
Chad Lunsford guided the Eagles to an eight-win improvement in his first full year in Statesboro. A tough schedule may limit the upside of the win total in 2019, but this team will be a factor in the Sun Belt title picture. Quarterback Shai Werts anchors the option attack, with seven starters back on a defense that ranked second in the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed per game.
Related: Sun Belt Football Predictions for 2019
75. Georgia Tech
Geoff Collins should be an excellent long-term fit at Georgia Tech. However, this is a program in transition for 2019. The shift on offense from the option to a new spread approach will take time, especially without a clear answer at quarterback. The defense is also under renovation with just three returning starters.
Neal Brown left a strong foundation in Troy for new coach Chip Lindsey to contend for the Sun Belt title in 2019. The Trojans have to break in a new set of receivers, but the offense is in good hands with quarterback Kaleb Barker, running back B.J. Smith and one of the league’s top lines. Troy’s defense suffered some unexpected attrition in the offseason, but five starters – including standout linebacker Carlton Martial – should keep this unit near the top of the Sun Belt.
73. North Texas
Record-setting quarterback Mason Fine is back for his senior season, and that’s enough to keep the Mean Green in contention for the Conference USA title. North Texas made progress on defense in 2018, but this unit suffered key losses at every level. Coach Seth Littrell’s team gets key C-USA games versus Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss on the road. However, the finale – Nov. 30 at home versus UAB – could decide the West Division title.
The only accolade missing from Frank Solich’s stint at Ohio is a conference title. However, behind the MAC’s top quarterback (Nathan Rourke), the Bobcats are Athlon’s pick to win the conference in 2019. Restocking Rourke’s supporting cast on offense will be a priority this offseason. Ohio’s defense returns seven starters and should rank as one of the best in the MAC.
Related: Ranking the MAC's College Football Coaches for 2019
The Thundering Herd leaned on a standout defense to win nine games last fall, but the offense may have to carry this team early in the 2019 campaign. The defense brings back five starters and lost key pieces at every level. Although No. 1 receiver Tyre Brady must be replaced, the outlook on offense is bright. Quarterback Isaiah Green is poised for a breakout year, and the offense has a talented one-two punch at running back with Brenden Knox and Tyler King.
Chad Morris’ second year in Fayetteville should go better than the first. The Razorbacks have improved their quarterback situation with the arrival of transfers Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel, and the offense also boasts a talented duo at running back (Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley). However, the defense and offensive line – two areas of concern last year – remain unsettled.
New coach Mel Tucker inherits an experienced quarterback in Steven Montez and one of the Pac-12’s top playmakers in receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. But Tucker will have his work cut out in other areas, as the Buffaloes need to identify a new go-to back, continue to improve along the offensive line, and address a defense that ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in points allowed last fall. Also, a schedule that features Nebraska in non-conference play and crossover games versus the projected top four – Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Stanford – won’t be easy.
68. North Carolina
Mack Brown is back on the sidelines in Chapel Hill. This hire will be fascinating to watch over the next couple of seasons, but the new staff figures to have its hands full in 2019. The Tar Heels return one of the ACC’s top blockers in tackle Charlie Heck and a talented tandem (Antonio Williams and Michael Carter) at running back. True freshman Sam Howell could start right away at quarterback. North Carolina’s defense will be a work in progress after giving up 34.5 points a game last fall.
Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Starting QBs for 2019
After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, coach Tom Allen decided to hand the defensive play-calling duties to Kane Wommack and hired Kalen DeBoer as the program’s new offensive coordinator. Those changes should help the Hoosiers push for a bowl, but the schedule is challenging once again in the Big Ten East. Peyton Ramsey will be pushed by Jack Tuttle and Michael Penix for the starting quarterback job. The winner of the quarterback battle can utilize a solid group of receivers and running back Stevie Scott. Eight returning starters provide optimism on defense after giving up 29.9 points a game in 2018.
Replacing quarterback Daniel Jones and restocking the receiving corps are the top offseason priorities for coach David Cutcliffe. Senior Quentin Harris provides an experienced option under center, but the strength of this team is a defense that brings back nine starters. The Blue Devils face a tough slate in 2019, which includes non-conference games versus Alabama and Notre Dame.
New coach Mike Locksley wasted no time upgrading the talent on the roster this offseason. The addition of transfers at quarterback (Josh Jackson), tight end (Tyler Mabry), and linebacker (Shaq Smith) will provide an instant boost to both sides of the ball. Look for Locksley to take full advantage of the dynamic ability of running back Anthony McFarland. Locksley’s biggest concern is a defense that is thin up front and returns only three starters.
64. Kansas State
Filling the shoes of Bill Snyder won’t be easy, but new coach Chris Klieman is a strong hire for Kansas State. The Wildcats won’t have running back Alex Barnes to lean on and need a big season out of quarterback Skylar Thompson to return to a bowl game. K-State’s defense ranked third in the Big 12 in fewest points allowed a game last fall, and while question marks remain at linebacker and in the secondary, this unit could be the strength of this team.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2019
63. San Diego State
Coach Rocky Long has promised a few tweaks to San Diego State’s offense, but the overall approach won’t change too much with the return of running back Juwan Washington. Linebacker Kyahva Tezino and safety Tariq Thompson will be counted on to anchor a defense that’s thin along the line of scrimmage. The development of quarterback Ryan Agnew and the receiving corps are likely to decide whether or not San Diego State passes Fresno State for the top spot in the Mountain West’s West Division.
62. Ole Miss
Coach Matt Luke made two of the offseason’s top coordinator hires with the addition of Rich Rodriguez (offense) and Mike MacIntyre (defense). The Rebels enter 2019 with major question marks on defense and must restock the receiving corps. However, quarterback Matt Corral is a breakout candidate, and running back Scottie Phillips should push for 1,000 yards.
61. Boston College
With just three starters back on defense, Boston College’s bowl hopes will rest on quarterback Anthony Brown and running back AJ Dillon. The Eagles have new offensive and defensive coordinators, and while there’s a good foundation in place, the offensive line needs time to jell with just two returning starters.
60. Wake Forest
Dave Clawson’s team has holes to fill on a defense that gave up over 30 points a game in 2018, but thanks to a talented offense, the Demon Deacons should earn their fourth consecutive bowl bid. The quarterback battle between Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman is likely to extend into the fall. Running back Cade Carney is one of the best in the ACC, and the line gets a boost with the return of Justin Herron from injury at left tackle.
59. Texas Tech
Rising star quarterback Alan Bowman and four returning starters along the line give new coach Matt Wells plenty to build around. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem in Lubbock recently, but Wells has to find a way to maintain the high-powered offense and build a competitive defense within the Big 12. There are capable pieces in place at every level on defense, but this unit struggled (31.1 ppg) last fall.
58. West Virginia
The departure of quarterback Will Grier, a couple of key receivers, and standout linebacker David Long means new coach Neal Brown will have his hands full in his debut in Morgantown. Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall has the inside track to replace Grier, and Brown can lean on a talented group of running backs to carry the offense until the passing game develops. The post-spring decision by safety Kenny Robinson to transfer leaves the Mountaineers with just four returning starters on defense.
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The defense is the unquestioned strength of coach Justin Wilcox’s team. This unit held teams to just 20.4 points a game last fall and is anchored by All-America linebacker Evan Weaver and one of the nation’s top secondaries. However, returning to a bowl game or moving up the standings in the Pac-12 North Division will require more out of an offense that managed only 21.5 points a game in 2018.
56. Fresno State
The Bulldogs have won 22 games and a Mountain West championship over the last two years under coach Jeff Tedford. Winning the conference title again will require Tedford to restock an offense that lost quarterback Marcus McMaryion, a couple of starters up front and standout receiver KeeSean Johnson. A defense that held teams to 14.1 points a game in 2018 lost a couple of pieces as well, but this unit should still rank as one of the best among Group of 5 teams.
Last year’s 7-6 record was a step in the right direction for BYU after a disappointing 4-9 finish during 2017 season. Coach Kalani Sitake’s team faces a brutal start – Utah, at Tennessee, USC and Washington – to the 2019 campaign, but the emergence of quarterback Zach Wilson and development of a line that returns four starters should ensure this team returns to the postseason.
A punishing ground game led the way for Pitt’s Coastal Division title last season, but coach Pat Narduzzi heads into 2019 looking to replace two 1,000-yard running backs and restock a line that returns only one starter. If the Panthers are to contend once again, quarterback Kenny Pickett has to shoulder more of the workload under new play-caller Mark Whipple. Additionally, Pitt needs its defense to build off last year’s improvement.
The combination of quarterback D’Eriq King and new coach Dana Holgorsen should result in plenty of offensive fireworks for Houston this season. While the offense enters 2019 with few concerns, that theme doesn’t continue on defense. The Cougars gave up 37.2 points a game last fall and will need instant help from the junior college ranks to shore up this group in 2019.
Related: American Athletic Conference Predictions for 2019
52. Utah State
Gary Andersen inherits a team capable of winning the Mountain West in his return to the sidelines in Logan. Quarterback Jordan Love ranks among the nation’s top signal-callers after throwing for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns last fall. Love’s supporting cast and offensive line has to be retooled. Utah State’s defense brings back seven starters, including All-America linebacker David Woodward. The Nov. 23 date versus Boise State should decide the winner of the Mountain West’s Mountain Division.
51. Appalachian State
New coach Eli Drinkwitz is stepping into one of the best situations for any first-year coach. The Mountaineers bring back 15 starters from last season’s team that claimed the Sun Belt title. Quarterback Zac Thomas had a breakout year in 2018 and should continue to get better under Drinkwitz’s direction.
Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb, and tight end Jared Pinkney form one of the best trios in terms of skill talent in the SEC. However, Vanderbilt’s offense won’t take off without solid play from Riley Neal or Deuce Wallace in the battle to replace Kyle Shurmur under center. The addition of a couple of transfers should help bolster the secondary, but coach Derek Mason’s defense has to get better against the run.
The projected finish (No. 49) here for Memphis might be a tad on the low side for coach Mike Norvell’s team. Dynamic running back Darrell Henderson must be replaced, but the offense is still in good hands with quarterback Brady White, running back Patrick Taylor, and receiver Damonte Coxie. Memphis should also have one of the AAC’s top defenses with eight starters back.
Kentucky was the SEC’s biggest surprise in 2018. However, another 10-win campaign will hinge on how well this team replaces running back Benny Snell and edge rusher Josh Allen. Additionally, coach Mark Stoops needs more production out of quarterback Terry Wilson.
Jeremy Pruitt has things going in the right direction, and the Volunteers seemed poised to return to a winning record in 2019. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano should thrive under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and the addition of two touted freshman tackles should help the line. Tennessee’s defense has concerns up front but should be solid in the secondary.
In order to rebound from a disappointing 5-7 season in Kevin Sumlin’s debut, the Wildcats need a healthy (and dynamic) year out of quarterback Khalil Tate. He’s joined by standout running back J.J. Taylor, but new playmakers must be found at receiver. Arizona’s defense also needs to take a step forward after giving up 32.6 points a game in 2018. A challenging schedule – at Hawaii, Texas Tech, Utah, Washington, at USC, at Stanford, at Oregon – means a bowl game isn’t certain.
45. Arizona State
Herm Edwards exceeded expectations in his first year, but the Sun Devils head into 2019 looking to replace quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry. Look for Edwards to lean on running back Eno Benjamin and an improving defense to get Arizona State back in a bowl this fall.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2019
With a favorable schedule and the return of quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, Army should post a third straight season of double-digit victories and a fourth straight trip to a bowl. The Black Knights have to plug a few holes up front and on defense, but coach Jeff Monken’s squad could be favored in all of its games outside of the Sept. 7 matchup versus Michigan.
There’s too much talent at USC to go 5-7, but even with a revamped staff, plenty of question marks remain for coach Clay Helton’s team. The offensive line and secondary are glaring concerns headed into the fall. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell should help quarterback JT Daniels improve as a sophomore, and there’s no shortage of skill talent outside. A brutal schedule won’t make life any easier for Helton in 2019.
Chip Kelly’s debut didn’t go according to plan (3-9), but the Bruins played better late in the season and return 17 starters for 2019. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a breakout candidate, and running back Joshua Kelley is back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards. The offensive line and defense remain a concern for UCLA.
Thanks to Jeff Brohm’s decision to remain in West Lafayette and not return to his alma mater (Louisville), combined with the arrival of a top-25 recruiting class, Purdue was a big winner this offseason. Brohm’s high-powered offense will have a new quarterback (Elijah Sindelar) and a couple of new starters up front, but the objective remains the same: Get the ball to Rondale Moore. The Boilermakers should take a step forward on defense with nine starters coming back.
The Golden Gophers took a step forward in coach P.J. Fleck’s second year, and this team should be a sleeper to watch in the Big Ten West for 2019. Consistent quarterback play out of Zack Annexstad or Tanner Morgan is needed, but the offense returns one of the deepest backfields in the Big Ten and standout receiver Tyler Johnson. Can Minnesota’s defense also build off its late-season finish?
After improving their win total by seven games in coach Luke Fickell’s second year, the Bearcats have their sights set on an AAC title. Both sides of the ball have to retool along the line of scrimmage, but Fickell’s team is in good hands with quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren. Defending AAC champ UCF visits Nippert Stadium on Oct. 4.
38. NC State
With an offense in transition, coach Dave Doeren will have to lean on a defense that brings back eight starters early in the 2019 season. The Wolfpack will have a new play-caller on offense, and this unit must replace three starters up front, two 1,000-yard receivers, running back Reggie Gallaspy and quarterback Ryan Finley.
Even though the Horned Frogs return only five starters on defense, it’s tough to doubt this group under Gary Patterson’s direction. But even if TCU’s defense ranks near the top of the Big 12 once again, this team won’t increase its win total (seven) without improvement on offense. The Horned Frogs have one of the nation’s top playmakers in Jalen Reagor, but uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position exiting spring practice.
The Bears improved their win total by six games in coach Matt Rhule’s second season in Waco and another step forward is possible for 2019. Quarterback Charlie Brewer and receiver Denzel Mims return to anchor the offense, while the defense continues its search for improvement with six starters back. The development of the offensive line and defense will decide how high Baylor can climb in the Big 12.
Northwestern’s defense led the way for last year’s team that claimed the Big Ten West Division title. Led by All-America linebacker Paddy Fisher this unit should be strong once again and the strength of coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team. In order to repeat, the Wildcats need more out of an offense that averaged only 24.2 points a game in 2018. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson should be an impact addition at quarterback.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2019
The Cardinal usually lean on their defense and ground game to win under coach David Shaw, but that philosophy may have to shift in 2019. The strength of Shaw’s team is with quarterback K.J. Costello and a receiving corps that features standout tight end Colby Parkinson. Stanford’s defense was hit hard by attrition this offseason, but sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo is already among the nation’s top defenders.
33. Florida State
Willie Taggart inherited a bigger mess than most realized last season, and the Seminoles should show some improvement in 2019. Provided the offensive line is better, quarterback James Blackman and running back Cam Akers should thrive under new play-caller Kendal Briles. The defense has more talent than last year’s performance (31.5 ppg allowed) would suggest. Tackle Marvin Wilson is one of the top interior linemen in college football.
32. South Carolina
The biggest obstacle to build off last year’s seven-win season isn’t a personnel concern for coach Will Muschamp. Instead, it’s a schedule that features nine bowl teams, non-conference games against Clemson and Appalachian State, and crossover matchups versus Alabama and Texas A&M from the SEC West. Muschamp needs more consistency out of quarterback Jake Bentley, but the offense could also use more punch out of the ground game. The Gamecocks bring back five starters on a solid defense, including tackle Javon Kinlaw and cornerback Jaycee Horn.
31. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State’s offense will have a new quarterback (Spencer Sanders) and play-caller (Sean Gleeson), but don’t expect this unit to drop too far from last year’s performance. Sanders is a breakout candidate, and he’s supported by one of the nation’s top receivers (Tylan Wallace) and a likely 1,000-yard back (Chuba Hubbard). An experienced secondary is a good starting point for the defense to build around, but the line is thin on proven options and depth.
30. Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead is one of college football’s top offensive-minded coaches, so it was surprising to see this team finish 10th in the SEC in scoring. Jumpstarting this group is Moorhead’s top priority this offseason. The Bulldogs return a solid offensive line and running back Kylin Hill, but question marks remain about the passing attack. Can Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens unseat Keytaon Thompson under center? The losses were heavy from one of the nation’s top defenses last fall. However, coordinator Bob Shoop returns enough of a foundation to prevent a major drop off in Starkville.
29. Boise State
Provided the Broncos reload at quarterback and running back, coach Bryan Harsin’s team should be in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 program in 2019. That’s largely due to a defense that should be among the best in college football. Edge rusher Curtis Weaver is a candidate for All-America honors, while the secondary is loaded with talent and experience. Replacing Alexander Mattison at running back could be a committee approach, while Chase Cord is the frontrunner to replace Brett Rypien under center.
Related: Ranking the Mountain West Coaches for 2019
New coach Manny Diaz brought some much-needed energy into a program that finished with a disappointing 7-6 mark last fall. Diaz and his staff tapped into the transfer portal for help on both sides of the ball, but Miami’s place in the ACC Coastal Division will once again hinge on how far the quarterback position and offensive line develops. Even though the Hurricanes have a few holes to fill on defense, this unit should still rank as one of the best in the conference – anchored by a standout linebacker unit and cornerback Trajan Bandy.
27. Washington State
Gardner Minshew will be missed, but it’s safe to assume coach Mike Leach will reload at quarterback and keep Washington State’s offense among the best in the Pac-12. Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud is likely to win the starting nod, giving Leach a talented and experienced option under center. The Cougars are loaded with skill talent outside, return an experienced line and have a breakout candidate at running back in Max Borghi. Additionally, Leach’s team has made strides on defense in recent years, and this unit should continue to progress thanks to six returning starters. Gubrud’s development in this offense, along with road trips to Utah, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington will decide how high Washington State finishes in the Pac-12 North.
26. Virginia Tech
Injuries and youth at spots limited Virginia Tech to a 6-7 finish last season, but a rebound year should be in order for 2019. Senior quarterback Ryan Willis and a talented receiving corps lead the way on offense, and there’s potential for the line to rank among the best in the ACC. The Hokies need more production out of the ground game, but there’s experience returning with Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston. Virginia Tech’s defense had an uncharacteristic 2018 campaign by finishing near the bottom of the ACC in points allowed and versus the run. However, with Bud Foster calling the plays, this unit won’t stay down for long. Additionally, 10 starters are back, so there’s no shortage of experience at every level. Assuming the Hokies can pair an improved defense with a capable offense, this team should push for the Coastal Division title in 2019.
For the first time since 2005, Virginia is projected by Athlon Sports to finish inside the top 25. The Cavaliers have made considerable progress under coach Bronco Mendenhall’s watch. After a 2-10 mark in 2016, Virginia improved to 6-7 in '17 and finished 8-5 last year. The Cavaliers are the only team from the ACC's Coastal Division that has not played for the conference championship. Behind a standout defense and quarterback Bryce Perkins, there's a good chance that streak ends in 2019. Perkins accounted for 34 total touchdowns and averaged 277.2 total yards a game in his first year on campus. The senior's supporting cast will have to be retooled in a few spots. Leading rusher Jordan Ellis (1,026 yards) and No. 1 receiver Olamide Zaccheaus expired their eligibility. The offensive line also has room to improve after giving up 32 sacks in 2018. Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed lead the way at receiver, but Mendenhall added extra depth with two post-spring pickups in graduate transfers Terrell Chatman (Arizona State) and Dejon Brissett (Richmond). Virginia's defense returns seven starters from a unit that limited opponents to 20.1 points a game and 5.3 yards a play last season. Cornerback Bryce Hall is one of the top lockdown cover men in college football, with Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden anchoring a strong linebacker unit. The regular season finale in Charlottesville vs. Virginia Tech – a matchup the Cavaliers have not won since 2003 – may decide the Coastal Division champion.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2019
24. Iowa State
Iowa State is on the rise under coach Matt Campbell. The Cyclones are coming off back-to-back winning records in Big 12 play for the first time in program history, and this is the first time Iowa State has been projected by Athlon Sports to finish in the top 25. Running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler left big shoes to fill in Ames after leaving early for the NFL Draft. However, the news wasn't all bad for the offense this offseason. Tom Manning returned to Ames from the NFL to call the plays, and quarterback Brock Purdy is one of the Big 12's rising stars. As a freshman in 2018, Purdy went 6-2 as the starter and threw for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns. The offensive line has room to improve but brings back all five starters from last season. Replacing Montgomery might be more of a committee approach, while Deshaunte Jones, Tarique Milton and transfer La'Michael Pettway lead the way at receiver. Iowa State led the Big 12 in run defense and held opposing offenses to just 22.9 points a game (also best in the conference). This unit boasts a strong front seven, anchored by end JaQuan Bailey and nose guard Ray Lima up front, with Marcel Spears and Mike Rose providing support at linebacker. The biggest concern for coordinator Jon Heacock rests at cornerback in finding a replacement for standout Brian Peavy and D'Andre Payne.
For a variety of reasons, Missouri will be an interesting team to watch in 2019. The Tigers were banned from postseason play this year due to NCAA violations, but the program filed an appeal in hopes of overturning that decision. The postseason uncertainty could hang over this program into the 2019 campaign, but regardless of what happens with the appeal, the on-field product should be entertaining. Coach Barry Odom's team possesses a dynamic offense, led by Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant at quarterback and some of the SEC's top talent at the skill positions. Bryant is more mobile than last year's starter (Drew Lock), so coordinator Derek Dooley will have to tweak the offense to fit his skill set. Running back Larry Rountree will run behind a strong offensive line that returns three starters, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is the best in college football at his position. Missouri's high-powered offense should provide some cover for a defense that has to replace standout lineman Terry Beckner, must identify and develop a couple of players to rush the passer off the edge, and needs better play out of the secondary. Tackle Jordan Elliott is a rising star, and linebacker Cale Garrett should challenge for All-America honors. Missouri has started slow but picked up steam over the second half of the season in back-to-back years. The schedule affords an opportunity for a fast start. The Tigers play five out of their first six games at home and could be 8-0 going into the Nov. 9 showdown at Georgia.
Another undefeated record in the regular season might be too much to ask for coach Josh Heupel's team, but UCF remains Athlon's pick to rank as the top Group of 5 program by the end of 2019. With McKenzie Milton expected to sit out this year recovering from a leg injury suffered in November, a new conductor must be found for the Knights' high-octane offense, which averaged 6.9 yards per play and 43.2 points a game last fall. Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush and sophomore Darriel Mack are vying for the starting job, and this battle could extend deep into fall practice. The winner of that battle will have plenty of talent at their disposal. Running back Greg McCrae gashed defenses for 8.9 yards per carry on 133 attempts, all-purpose threat Adrian Killins accounted for 107.5 total yards a game last fall, and the receiving corps features big-play threats in Gabriel Davis (15.4 ypc) and Tre Nixon (14.1). Three starters return to anchor an offensive line that should be the best in the AAC in 2019. The outlook on defense isn't as certain for Heupel. UCF gave up 222.3 rushing yards a game last season and begins 2019 with concerns in the front seven. End Brendon Hayes and linebacker Nate Evans are solid building blocks, but coordinator Randy Shannon will need instant contributions from transfers like tackle Cam Goode and help from the junior college ranks. Led by safety Richie Grant and cornerback Nevelle Clarke, the secondary is the strength of the defense. UCF has two favorable matchups – Stanford and at Pitt – against Power 5 teams this season, but road trips in league play to Cincinnati, Tulane and Temple could be tricky.
After back-to-back 4-8 seasons to begin his tenure at Syracuse, coach Dino Babers delivered a breakout year in 2018. The Orange finished 10-3 – the program's first double-digit win total since 2001 – and capped the year with a 34-18 victory over West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl. A favorable schedule puts another 10-win season within reach, and there's an intriguing (and critical to the ACC Atlantic title picture) Sept. 14 home game against Clemson. Eric Dungey will be missed under center, but the offense seems to be in good hands with sophomore Tommy DeVito. The New Jersey native ranked as a four-star prospect out of high school and saw playing time in eight games last fall. Easing DeVito's transition into the starting lineup is a loaded group of skill players. Moe Neal (869 yards) is joined by Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams at running back, with Sean Riley, Nykeim Johnson and Trishton Jackson forming one of the ACC's top receiving corps. The offensive line returns two starters and adds South Alabama transfer Ryan Alexander but is the biggest question mark going into the fall. Syracuse's defense showed marked improvement in 2018. After giving up 32.2 points a game and 6.4 yards a play in 2017, the Orange cut those totals to 27 points a contest and 5.83 a play in '18. A strong defensive line leads the way for coordinator Brian Ward in 2019, as ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are back after combining for 20 sacks last fall. The linebacker unit must be rebuilt, but the secondary returns four starters – including All-America candidate Andre Cisco at safety – is among the best in the ACC. Kicker Andre Szmyt connected on 30 of 34 field goals last fall and won the Lou Groza Award in his first year on campus.
High expectations surrounded coach Gus Malzahn's team going into the 2018 season. However, the Tigers fell short, finishing 8-5 overall (3-5 in the SEC) and outside of the top 25 rankings at the end of the year. Auburn has been a hard team to get a read on during Malzahn's tenure, as the program played for a national championship in 2013 and nearly made the CFB Playoff in '17 but didn't win more than eight games in the other four years under his watch. That unpredictability follows Auburn into 2019. Talent certainly isn't an issue for Malzahn’s team, but the Tigers face one of the nation's toughest schedules. A neutral site opener against Oregon is on tap for Week 1, Georgia and Alabama – both picks by Athlon Sports to make the playoff – come to Auburn this fall but road trips are on tap for matchups versus Florida, LSU and Texas A&M. The strength of Malzahn's team is a defense that returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to 19.2 points a game in 2018. Tackle Derrick Brown anchors arguably the best defensive line in the nation, and the secondary returns two senior safeties in Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson. Malzahn handled the play-calling duties in Auburn's 63-14 romp over Purdue in the Music City Bowl and will handle that role in a full-time basis this season. Malzahn's top priority is settling a quarterback battle that features two talented freshmen in Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix. Improvement should be expected from an offensive line that returns all five starters, with running back JaTarvious Whitlow and receiver Seth Williams primed for All-SEC seasons. Provided a clear answer (and production) emerges at quarterback, the talent is there to easily exceed Athlon’s projection of No. 20.
Athlon Sports projects a tight race in the Big Ten West this year. Wisconsin ranks No. 19 overall but just two spots behind projected champ Nebraska at No. 17. The Badgers failed to win double-digit games for the first time in coach Paul Chryst’s tenure last season. Reaching that mark in 2019 will require navigating a schedule that features crossover games versus Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, along with a road trip to Nebraska on Nov. 16. Chryst's team is once again anchored by a strong ground game, featuring Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor. Another 2,000-yard season could be in order for the junior, but Wisconsin does have to reload along the offensive line. Center Tyler Biadasz is the best in the nation at his position, and he's also the lone returning starter for Chryst in the trenches. Jack Coan made three starts in relief of an injured Alex Hornibrook last season and enters the fall as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart. Coan threw for 515 yards and five touchdowns last year but could be pushed by true freshman (and four-star recruit) Graham Mertz. The team's top four statistical options in the receiving corps are back, including tight end Jake Ferguson (36 catches for 456 yards) and receiver Danny Davis (40 grabs). Despite returning only three starters last season, Wisconsin's defense limited opponents to 22.6 points a game and 5.5 yards per play. This unit has to deal with turnover once again, but the pieces are in place for coordinator Jim Leonhard to have another strong defense. Garrett Rand's return to full strength should help to bolster the defensive line, while a promising group of young players will continue to develop in the secondary. Replacing T.J. Edwards, Andrew Van Ginkel and Ryan Connelly at linebacker is the top priority for Leonhard this offseason.
The 2019 season sets up an interesting dynamic in the Big Ten West. On paper, the Hawkeyes should be the best and most complete team in the division. However, the schedule isn't kind to coach Kirk Ferentz's program. Iowa plays at Iowa State in non-conference play and has road trips to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska in league play. And if that wasn't enough, Penn State visits Kinnick Stadium a week after the road date at Michigan in 2019. Senior quarterback Nate Stanley (2,852 yards and 26 TDs in 2018) leads the way on offense, with three running backs vying for the starting job and the opportunity to jumpstart a ground game that ranked 10th in the Big Ten last year. Tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant must be replaced, but there's potential at receiver with Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini in place on the outside. The offensive line could be the best unit in the Big Ten. The interior is a little unsettled going into the fall, but tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will contend for All-America honors. The strength in the trenches extends to the defense. End A.J. Epenesa recorded 10.5 sacks in a limited role last fall and should rank among the top players in the nation with a full workload in 2019. Chauncey Golston is a capable end on the other side, but the Hawkeyes have to identify some depth across the line to keep the starters fresh late in the game. Three starters are back to headline a standout secondary but filling the void left behind by hybrid defensive back/linebacker Amani Hooker won’t be easy.
Related: Ranking All 130 QBs for the 2019 College Football Season
Scott Frost has Nebraska trending up entering the 2019 season. The Cornhuskers finished 2018 by winning four out of their last six games. The two losses – Ohio State and Iowa – came by a combined eight points. Quarterback Adrian Martinez averaged 295.1 total yards a game as a freshman last year and will only get better with another offseason to work with Frost. Martinez's development is a big reason why the Cornhuskers are the pick to win the Big Ten West Division. The offensive line returns two starters, and JD Spielman (66 catches in 2018) will move into the No. 1 role after the departure of Stanley Morgan Jr. The status of running back Maurice Washington is uncertain due to legal issues, but junior college recruit Dedrick Mills should help in the backfield right away. True freshman and all-purpose threat Wan'Dale Robinson is a name to remember and a potential breakout candidate this fall. There's room for improvement on a Nebraska defense that allowed 5.8 yards per play and 31.3 points a game last fall. The good news for Frost: A good foundation is in place up front, and the line was bolstered by the addition of Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels at tackle. Mohamed Barry (linebacker) and Dicaprio Bootle (cornerback) are two of the best in the Big Ten at their position. In addition to the projected improvement by Martinez and the offense, along with some gains on defense, Nebraska's schedule sets up favorably for a run at the West Division title. The Cornhuskers play Ohio State in crossover play but catch Indiana and Maryland in their other two games against the East. Additionally, Nebraska hosts Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern in Lincoln this fall.
16. Michigan State
Defense led the way for the Spartans in 2018 and will anchor coach Mark Dantonio’s team once again in '19. Michigan State led the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 4.5 yards a play, 17.2 points a game and just 77.9 rushing yards a contest. Eight starters are back from that suffocating group, including end Kenny Willekes (8.5 sacks), linebacker Joe Bachie (102 tackles), and cornerback Josiah Scott. All three players will be in the mix for All-America honors this fall. Tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are an underrated duo up front. While the defense dominated last season, Michigan State only won seven games and finished 2018 by losing three out of their last four contests. Offensive issues were largely to blame for the sluggish '18 season, and this unit will determine whether or not the Spartans can contend for the Big Ten East Division title. Quarterback Brian Lewerke regressed last fall after a promising 2017 campaign. However, Lewerke's struggles last year were largely due to a shoulder injury suffered in the first half of the season. Assuming Lewerke is back to full strength, it would be a huge boost for a unit that averaged only 18.7 points a game in 2018. Brad Salem was promoted to play-caller and a few tweaks could be coming to the scheme and overall pace of this unit. The Spartans have a solid receiving corps in place, but the offense needs more consistency out of the offensive line and ground game. Of Michigan State's six losses last season, four came by 10 points or less. Modest improvement on offense could lift Dantonio's team to nine wins in 2019.
Oregon returns all of the necessary pieces to win its first Pac-12 title since 2014. Quarterback Justin Herbert passed on the NFL for one more year in Eugene, and the senior ranks among the best in college football for 2019. Herbert started every game in 2018, throwing for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns to just eight picks. His supporting cast features one of the nation's top offensive lines and a solid one-two punch at running back in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. The receiving corps is Oregon's biggest question mark. Dillon Mitchell left early for the NFL, leaving Jaylon Redd (11.4 ypc on 38 catches) and tight end Jacob Breeland (24 receptions) as the top statistical options for 2019. However, coach Mario Cristobal tapped into the transfer portal, landing Juwan Johnson from Penn State. Oregon's standout recruiting class could provide some solutions to the receiving corps. Freshman Mykael Wright is a name to watch this fall. New coordinator Andy Avalos inherits a defense that allowed only 25.4 points a game in 2018 and features a promising core of talent at every level. Freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux is an impact addition in the trenches, and linebacker Troy Dye – an All-America candidate – is likely to lead the team in tackles for the fourth year in a row. The Ducks ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last season and should own one of the league's top defensive backfields once again. Cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir combined for 27 pass breakups last fall and are joined by Jevon Holland and Nick Pickett at safety. The biggest obstacle to Oregon's Pac-12 North title hopes could be the schedule. The Ducks play at Washington and Stanford this season. Additionally, the opener versus Auburn is one of the top non-conference showdowns of 2019.
14. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have won at least nine games in each of the last three seasons, and there's a good chance that streak extends to four in 2019. But in order to reach nine (or more) wins, Penn State has to find a replacement for quarterback Trace McSorley. Sophomore Sean Clifford played sparingly as McSorley's backup last season and is set for the starting role after Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State. Clifford has a big-time arm, and the Nittany Lions have intriguing talent on the edge to utilize downfield. The best of the bunch is sophomore KJ Hamler (42 catches for 754 yards and five scores last season), with Jahan Dotson, Justin Shorter and transfers George Campbell (Florida State) and Weston Carr (Azusa Pacific) also poised to contribute. Tight end Pat Freiermuth caught 26 passes as a freshman last season and should be more involved in 2019. Miles Sanders left for the NFL after a terrific junior season, but the cupboard isn't bare at running back. Ricky Slade is likely to see the bulk of the carries, with Journey Brown, C.J. Holmes and freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford rounding out a deep rotation. Three starters are back up front, but the left tackle spot is worth monitoring, as redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker is penciled in as the favorite to start. If Clifford and Penn State's offense needs a few games to find their footing, the defense provides an excellent insurance policy. The Nittany Lions held teams to 20.5 points a game and 4.7 yards per play in 2018. The strength of this unit is the front seven. End Yetur Gross-Matos is poised for All-America honors after recording 20 tackles for a loss and eight sacks last fall. Sophomore Micah Parsons is one of college football's rising stars at linebacker, joining an experienced starting trio that features Cam Brown and Jan Johnson. John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields form a solid duo at cornerback. Michigan visits Happy Valley in 2019, but Penn State catches Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa on the road.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Coaches for 2019
Utah crossed an important hurdle in its program history by claiming the first Pac-12 South crown. The next step for coach Kyle Whittingham's team is clear: Win the Pac-12 title and play in a New Year's Six bowl. Both goals are attainable for 2019. As expected from a Whittingham-coached team, Utah's defense ranks among the best in college football. The line is one of the best in the nation, with Bradlee Anae and tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini poised to challenge for All-America honors. Transfers Manny Bowen (Penn State) and Francis Bernard (BYU) are likely to fill the void left behind by Chase Hansen and Cody Barton at linebacker. Some retooling is needed in the secondary following the departures of safeties Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard. While the starting unit will look a little different, the level of performance shouldn't change. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, safety Julian Blackmon and defensive back Javelin Guidry lead a group that held Pac-12 teams to just 58.6 percent passing last fall. Injuries to quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss hindered Utah's offense in 2018. The Utes ended the year by averaging 5.7 yards a play and 28.1 points a game, but there’s room for improvement. Coordinator Andy Ludwig's return to Salt Lake City is one of the offseason's top coordinator hires, and he's tasked with helping Huntley take the next step in his development. Assisting Huntley is a solid group of receivers, including all-around playmaker Britain Covey and tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe. The Utes have to replace two starters up front but usually do a good job of rebuilding in the trenches. Special teams are often overlooked, but Utah will miss standout kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky. The Utes left spring with concerns at kicker and tapped into the transfer portal for help with the addition of UCLA graduate Andrew Strauch. Utah is clearly the class of the Pac-12 South and the Nov. 2 date at Washington could be an early preview of the conference title game.
It’s a close call between Washington and Oregon for the top spot in the Pac-12 North. With the Huskies hosting the Ducks this season, and a belief in Chris Petersen and his staff, Washington is Athlon's pick to win the division once again in 2019. The Huskies held teams to 16.4 points a game and 4.67 yards a play last fall. The defense may not match those totals with just two returning starters but a significant drop-off isn't likely. Coordinator Jimmy Lake should have this unit performing at a high level in short order, especially with plenty of talent returning in the secondary and Benning Potoa'e and Levi Onwuzurike back to anchor the trenches. Washington's offense did just enough to win the Pac-12 last season, but Petersen and coordinator Bush Hamdan need more out of this group. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is slated to replace Jake Browning under center, and the Huskies have a breakout star in Salvon Ahmed ready to move into the No. 1 running back role. Eason brings more arm strength and downfield passing ability to the offense, which will open up more opportunities for Ty Jones and Aaron Fuller. The return of tight end Hunter Bryant to full strength should provide a boost to the passing game. The line is among the best in the nation, with left tackle Trey Adams back to 100 percent after missing most of 2018 due to injury. The schedule sets up in Washington's favor. The Huskies catch USC, Oregon, Utah and Washington State all in Seattle this fall.
Texas made considerable progress in coach Tom Herman's second year in Austin. The next step? Win the Big 12 title and earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Both goals are certainly within reach this fall, but the Longhorns have work to do on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger accounted for 41 overall touchdowns last season and is the catalyst for an offense that averaged 31.1 points a game. Keeping Ehlinger healthy is a priority, so the coaching staff may look to get running backs Keaontay Ingram and Jordan Whittingham more involved to lessen the junior quarterback's workload on the ground. Ehlinger won't have No. 1 receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey to throw to, but Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay, Bru McCoy (if eligible), Brennan Eagles and Josh Moore provide plenty of capable targets. Left tackle Samuel Cosmi and center Zach Shackelford are two of the Big 12's top returning linemen, but the other spots feature three new full-time starters. Todd Orlando is one of the nation's highest-paid defensive coordinators, and he will certainly earn every penny in 2019. The Longhorns return just two starters but feature a cadre of promising talent at every level. In other words, the drop-off from the 2018 unit is likely to be minimal – it's just a matter of how fast this defense reloads. Sophomore safety Caden Sterns is primed to push for All-America honors after picking off four passes as a freshman last fall. Texas' rebuilt defense will be tested right away in 2019. The Longhorns host LSU in Week 2 and play Oklahoma State and Oklahoma before mid-October. The schedule also features road matchups at Baylor, Iowa State and TCU. Another double-digit win season and trip to the Big 12 Championship Game should be within reach for Herman's team.
10. Texas A&M
Texas A&M paid big money to lure Jimbo Fisher to College Station, and the program is already reaping the benefits of that move. The Aggies finished 9-4 last fall, which was headlined by a victory over LSU for the first time since joining the SEC and a dominant win over NC State in the Gator Bowl. Fisher closed out his first full year on the job with an elite recruiting haul, setting the program up to take another step forward in the coming seasons. Exceeding last year's nine wins won't be easy in 2019. Texas A&M faces a brutal schedule, featuring matchups against Athlon's projected top three teams – Alabama, Clemson and Georgia – home SEC matchups against Auburn, South Carolina and a road date at LSU. Fisher excels at developing quarterbacks, and his next star pupil is Kellen Mond. The junior showed marked improvement in 2018, throwing for 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns and accounting for 474 yards and seven scores on the ground. Mond is poised to rank among the SEC's best at quarterback, but his supporting cast features some turnover at key positions. The offensive line must continue to develop under new assistant Josh Henson, and running back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jace Sternberger must be replaced after departing early for the NFL. The good news for Mond: The cupboard isn't bare. Sophomore Jashaun Corbin is primed for a breakout year at running back, and freshman Baylor Cupp could be the answer at tight end. Similar to the offense, Texas A&M's defense is trending in the right direction. Coordinator Mike Elko's group held teams to just 25.3 points a game last fall and ranked second in the SEC versus the run. The line will feature some new faces after Landis Durham, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke expired their eligibility, and the linebacker unit must replace Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson. While those losses are significant, the overall play of the front seven may not decline too much with the young talent – including five-star freshman Demarvin Leal – in place. The secondary ranked 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season and remains a concern for 2019. Texas A&M is likely to show more progress in Fisher's second year, but the record may not reflect it thanks to one of the nation’s toughest slates.
9. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have some key players to replace but also return enough talent to make another run at a CFB Playoff berth. Coach Brian Kelly's team is likely to be favored in 10 of its 12 matchups, with road trips to Georgia and Michigan looming large in the playoff mix. Quarterback Ian Book took over the starting job in September from Brandon Wimbush last season and was instrumental in the 12-1 mark. Book was efficient (68.2 percent completion percentage), threw for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns and added four more scores on the ground. Coordinator Chip Long is likely to lean a little more on Book's right arm this season, and three out of the top five receiving targets are back, including rising star tight end Cole Kmet and receiver Chase Claypool. Dexter Williams expired his eligibility after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards last fall, but Jafar Armstrong (383 yards) and Tony Jones (392) should have a productive one-two punch. Four starters are back to form a solid and experienced foundation in the trenches. Clark Lea had an impressive debut as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator but will have his work cut out in 2019. The Fighting Irish won't have lockdown cornerback Julian Love on the outside or Jerry Tillery back to wreak havoc on the interior of the line. Also, the linebacker unit lost standouts Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill. While the losses are significant, the defense isn't hurting for talent. The defensive end duo of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem is among the best in college football, and safety Alohi Gilman should earn All-America honors in 2019.
The Gators were one of the most-improved teams in the nation last season. After a 4-7 mark in 2017, coach Dan Mullen led Florida to a 10-3 record and capped his first season in Gainesville with a convincing 41-15 victory over Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Mullen's second team features a major question mark along the offensive line, but another double-digit win total is within reach. The development and overall improved play from quarterback Feleipe Franks was instrumental in Florida's turnaround last fall. Franks threw for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 350 yards and seven scores. The junior has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Lamical Perine leads a solid stable of running backs after rushing for 826 yards and seven scores in 2018. The top six statistical receivers from last season are back, including Van Jefferson (35 catches) and all-purpose threat Kadarius Toney. However, none of the skill talent or development from Franks will matter unless Florida solidifies a line that returns only one starter and finished spring with plenty of uncertainty. The Gators bring back seven starters from a defense that held teams to just 20 points a game last season. End Jabari Zuniga will be joined by Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard to form a potent pair of edge rushers but more is needed out of the interior of the line after giving up 162.5 rushing yards a game last fall. David Reese is back to anchor the linebacker unit, while the secondary ranks among the best in the SEC with Marco Wilson (back from injury) and CJ Henderson in place at cornerback. Florida opens with an intriguing matchup against Miami in Orlando and hosts Auburn on Oct. 5 in a huge barometer game for both teams. Road trips to LSU and Missouri are tough but closing the gap to Georgia in the SEC East will require a win in Jacksonville against the Bulldogs on Nov. 2.
Reading too much into spring hype or what takes place in the actual scrimmages is always dangerous. However, the offseason chatter about an improved and modernized offense in Baton Rouge seems to be actually taking place. Coach Ed Orgeron brought up-and-coming assistant Joe Brady from the Saints to coach receivers and help coordinator Steve Ensminger implement more spread/RPO looks. Quarterback Joe Burrow is the perfect fit for this offense, as the former Ohio State signal-caller ranks as one of the best in the SEC after throwing for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first year with the program. Justin Jefferson is back after catching 54 passes for 875 yards last season, and the program has a cast of talented receivers waiting to emerge, including Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall. The offensive line needs to play with more overall consistency and must get better in pass protection. Orgeron won't be starting from scratch up front though, as four starters return to provide a good foundation. Dave Aranda is one of the top defensive coordinators in college football, and despite the loss of linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams to the NFL, don't expect LSU’s defense to slip on the stat sheet. Each level of the unit ranks among the best in the SEC, and linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson’s return from injury will bolster a pass rush that managed only 14 in conference games last fall. Kristian Fulton will slide into the No. 1 cornerback role, and he's joined by a freshman poised to make an instant impact in Derek Stingley Jr. on the other side. Safety Grant Delpit is one of the nation's top returning defenders. A Sept. 7 road date at Texas should provide an early glimpse into LSU's revamped offense. The Nov. 9 date at Alabama is one of the must-see games of 2019, but the Tigers catch Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M all at home this year.
The Sooners will once again ride their high-powered offense to contend for their third consecutive trip to the CFB Playoff and the program's fifth Big 12 title in a row. Coach Lincoln Riley has a few holes to fill on this side of the ball, but as evidenced by back-to-back Heisman winners (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray), this unit isn't likely to miss a beat behind Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts. The Texas native accounted for 7,602 total yards in his career with the Crimson Tide, but most importantly, showed marked improvement as a passer during his senior campaign. The supporting cast is loaded with dynamic playmakers. Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks combined for 2,003 rushing yards last season and form one of the top running back units in college football. Marquise Brown's big-play ability on the outside will be missed, but CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra and three standout freshmen from the 2019 class – Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges – provide plenty of weapons for Hurts. Oklahoma line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his work cut out this offseason, as the Sooners look to replace four starters from a dominant line. Defense is once again Oklahoma's biggest concern and the unit that could derail a trip to the playoff. New coordinator Alex Grinch was one of the offseason's top hires, and nine starters provide a good starting point. However, the numbers weren't pretty in 2018. The Sooners gave up nearly 160 rushing yards a game, finished 111th nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed 6.1 yards per snap. How much can Grinch improve this group over the course of the season? The answer to that question is likely to decide whether or not Oklahoma makes the CFB Playoff in 2019.
5. Ohio State
Urban Meyer finished his Ohio State career with an 83-9 record, a 7-0 mark versus rival Michigan, a national championship in 2014 and no finish below No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll. In other words, no pressure Ryan Day. As if following Meyer wasn't a tough task on its own, Day has to replace quarterback Dwayne Haskins and address a defense that underachieved in 2018. While Day has big shoes to fill, he inherits one of the nation's most talented rosters. Additionally, the addition of former five-star recruit Justin Fields as a transfer from Georgia addressed the quarterback position. Fields brings more dual-threat ability than Haskins provided to the offense last season, but the sophomore is still developing as a passer. Day's offense also returns standout running back J.K. Dobbins, along with a deep group of weapons at receiver. Left tackle Thayer Munford is the lone returning starter up front, but the Buckeyes have some experienced pieces and talent pushing for snaps. Ohio State's defense ranked an uncharacteristic seventh in the Big Ten in points allowed (25.5), finished sixth versus the run (158.2 ypg), gave up 5.8 yards per play, and surrendered 23 plays of 40 yards or more last fall. Day tapped former Michigan assistant Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley (49ers) from the NFL to coordinate the defense and address last year's deficiencies. The defensive line is deep, as All-America candidate Chase Young anchors the edge with Tyreke Smith, Jonathon Cooper and Zach Harrison, while Robert Landers, Davon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Tommy Togiai plug the interior. Senior Malik Harrison should rank among the Big Ten's best at linebacker, but the rest of the unit struggled in 2018 and must step up this fall. The secondary will be a strength with Damon Arnette, Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah at corner, along with senior Jordan Fuller leading the way at safety. The Buckeyes get Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, but the success level of Day's first season (and the Big Ten East Division title) is likely to be decided on Nov. 30 at Michigan.
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Predicting the champion of the Big Ten East Division was one of the toughest picks for Athlon Sports this offseason. A couple of factors swung this debate in favor of Michigan. Urban Meyer retired, the Wolverines have an edge at quarterback with Shea Patterson returning for his senior year, and most importantly, the game is in Ann Arbor this season. Everything is in place for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan to break through and win the division and claim a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2019. That doesn't mean the Wolverines are short on question marks entering this season, however. Harbaugh is handling the play-calling duties to Josh Gattis – a first-time offensive coordinator – and Michigan is planning to go up-tempo and use more spread/RPO looks to utilize Patterson's talent. A healthy Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Mike Sainristil form a deep group of options at receiver and should benefit from the switch in offensive style. The uncertainty surrounding running back Chris Evans' status for 2019 means the Wolverines need former walk-on Tru Wilson, and freshmen Christian Turner (redshirt) and Zach Charbonnet (true) to handle the bulk of the carries this fall. The offensive line showed marked improvement under assistant Ed Warinner in 2018 and could be the best in the Big Ten with four starters back. Michigan's defense allowed 103 points over the final two contests last season and a run to the playoff will require coordinator Don Brown to get this group back on track. The bad news: Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, David Long, Brandon Watson and Tyree Kinnel are gone. That's a lot of talent to replace in one offseason, but the cupboard isn't bare. Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson, Central Michigan transfer Mike Danna and hybrid end/linebacker Josh Uche should keep the pass rush performing at a high level. Josh Ross will get the first opportunity to replace Bush in the middle of the linebacker unit, while this position group would benefit from a bounce-back season by Khaleke Hudson. Lavert Hill is poised to rank among the top corners in the nation, while Ambry Thomas is the favorites to fill the void left behind by Long on the other side. Incoming freshman Daxton Hill is expected to push for a starting job at safety. Trips in Big Ten play to Wisconsin and Penn State are challenging, but Michigan gets three of its biggest games – Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State – in Ann Arbor.
Georgia fell short of a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff last season, but coach Kirby Smart's team has all of the necessary pieces for a run at the national title in 2019. Quarterback Jake Fromm returns after throwing for 2,749 yards and 30 touchdowns to just six picks in a brilliant sophomore season. Fromm is supported by the nation's best offensive line, and as usual in Athens, there's no shortage of talent at running back. D'Andre Swift leads the way on the ground, with James Cook, Zamir White and Brian Herrien slated to round out a deep rotation. The biggest question marks on offense are centered on new play-caller James Coley and a revamped receiving corps. Coley was promoted after Jim Chaney left for Tennessee but hasn't called plays since the 2015 season at Miami. Junior Jeremiah Holloman is likely to be Fromm's No. 1 target, and freshmen Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens could contribute right away in the receiving corps. Georgia's two-deep is overflowing with talent at every level on defense. The line has to get a little better versus the run, but sophomore Jordan Davis and senior Tyler Clark should push for All-SEC honors. Freshmen Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean and junior college recruit Jermaine Johnson join a linebacker unit that features Monty Rice, Brenton Cox, Adam Anderson and Tae Crowder. Replacing No. 1 cornerback Deandre Baker won't be easy. However, Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell are both talented and poised to start at cornerback, with steady senior J.R. Reed providing support at safety. Rodrigo Blankenship one of the most reliable kickers in the nation. Matchups versus Notre Dame, Florida (in Jacksonville), Texas A&M and at Auburn are tough, but Georgia is likely to be favored in all 12 regular season contests.
The reigning national champs are in great shape to repeat in 2019. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is only going to get better as a sophomore, and he's surrounded by big-play threats Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross at receiver, along with dynamic running back Travis Etienne in the backfield. Clemson's offensive line returns four starters and ranks among the best in college football. Even though several key players are gone from a dominant defense, the level of concern is low in Death Valley. That's largely due to coordinator Brent Venables' track record of consistently reloading and developing the next wave of stars. Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence leave big shoes to fill in the trenches, but the cupboard isn't bare. Sophomore Xavier Thomas is primed for a breakout year on the outside, with Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney set to step up on the interior. All-America candidate Isaiah Simmons anchors a rebuilt group of linebackers, while cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace are back to start at safety. Clemson's schedule features an intriguing non-conference matchup versus Texas A&M on Sept. 7 and a tough road date at Syracuse on Sept. 14. However, the Tigers should be favored in all 12 games and are a heavy favorite to win the ACC title. Although Clemson is one of the favorites to win it all in 2019, history isn't on their side. Only one team (Alabama) has won back-to-back national titles since the start of the BCS era. But with Lawrence and a talented cast of playmakers in place on offense, along with a standout defense, the Tigers have all of the necessary pieces to reverse that trend.
The last image of Alabama in the 2018 college football season was a blowout loss at the hands of Clemson in the national championship. Defeats like the one the Crimson Tide suffered in Santa Clara simply don't happen under coach Nick Saban's watch. But after another offseason of coaching changes, Alabama is poised for another run at the national championship – the sixth during Saban's tenure. The offense is led by Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa after he threw for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns in his first year as the starter. Keeping Tagovailoa healthy is a priority with Jalen Hurts deciding to transfer to Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide's receiving corps is the best in college football, and Najee Harris is primed for a breakout season replacing Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs as the No. 1 running back. The concerns on offense are minimal for new play-caller Steve Sarkisian, but the line does have three new starters, including at center and left tackle. Alabama's defense annually ranks near the top of the nation in most defensive categories and that shouldn't change in 2019. Similar to the offense, there are concerns up front. Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs departed, leaving Raekwon Davis as the lone returning starter. A standout 2019 class should replenish the talent in the trenches. Dylan Moses takes over as the leader at linebacker in the middle of the Crimson Tide's 3-4 defense after Mack Wilson left for the NFL. A healthy Terrell Lewis would bolster a pass rush that already features Anfernee Jennings (13 TFL and 5.5 sacks) from the outside linebacker spot. The secondary had an uneven performance in 2018, but the return of Trevon Diggs from injury, along with the development of Patrick Surtain will solidify the cornerback position. Deionte Thompson is a big loss at safety, but Xavier McKinney seems ready for a career season. Alabama has to navigate road trips to Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State, but LSU visits Tuscaloosa in early November.
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