College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2019

Examining which teams are poised to improve their win total in 2019

College football’s 2019 season won't get underway until late August, but it's never too early to look ahead and predict which teams are poised for a significant leap in the rankings or win column next year. The 2019 version of college football's teams on the rise features Texas, Utah, Oregon, Iowa State, and Texas A&M from the Power 5 ranks, along with Louisiana, FIU, Tulane and Hawaii from the Group of 5 conferences. With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed prior to 2019. However, this list reflects teams we think are poised to take a step forward next fall in the rankings or by an increase in wins. 

 

There’s a long ways to go until the 2019 season officially begins, but here are 20 teams we think are on the rise for next season (and a few to watch).

 

College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2019

 

Baylor

Baylor tied Syracuse and Florida for the biggest jump in wins from 2017 to ’18 among Power 5 programs. After a 1-11 record in coach Matt Rhule’s first season, the Bears finished 7-6 in 2018, capped by a victory over Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl. And with most of the depth chart slated to return for 2019, another jump in wins is within reach. Quarterback Charlie Brewer is poised to challenge for All-Big 12 honors after throwing for 3,019 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions as a sophomore. Receiver Jalen Hurd will be missed, but Brewer has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. The receiving corps is anchored by Denzel Mims (55 receptions for 794 yards), while Chris Platt returns after being granted an additional year of eligibility. Running backs John Lovett, JaMycal Hasty and Trestan Ebner reached rushed for over 400 yards in 2018 and all will return next fall. Baylor showed small signs of improvement on defense last fall but a bigger jump is expected for 2019. Linebacker Clay Johnston returns after pacing the defense with 99 stops while the front is anchored by All-Big 12 end James Lynch (nine TFL). Cornerback Derrek Thomas and safety Verkedric Vaughns depart the secondary, but this unit will get a boost from the return of cornerback Grayland Arnold from injury. Baylor should be 3-0 headed into its Big 12 opener against Iowa State on Sept. 28, and the schedule also features home dates against Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.

 

BYU

Kalani Sitake’s tenure in Provo started with a 9-4 mark in 2016, but BYU slipped to 4-9 in ’17. However, after an offseason of changes, including a revamped staff, the Cougars improved to 7-6 in 2018. BYU opens 2019 with a tough slate of Power 5 opponents, beginning with Utah, followed by a matchup at Tennessee and home games against USC and Washington. However, the rest of the schedule is manageable, which includes a visit by Boise State on Oct. 19 and a road trip to Utah State on Nov. 2. Outside of a manageable schedule after September, Sitake’s team returns rising star Zach Wilson under center and four starters in the trenches. Wilson’s targets on the outside include tight end Matt Bushman (17.6 ypc) and receivers Aleva Hifo (28 catches) and Talon Shumway. Additionally, Lopini Katoa (427 yards) is back to anchor the ground game. Under first-year coordinator Jeff Grimes, BYU increased its scoring average from 17.1 in 2017 to 27.2 in ’18. Another step forward is a reasonable expectation next fall, especially if Wilson continues to develop after a standout performance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Cougars have a few holes to plug on defense, as linebacker Sione Takitaki (118 tackles) and end Corbin Kaufusi (9.5 TFL) are gone. However, Sitake and coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki shouldn’t allow this unit to slip too far on the stat sheet. And with an offense ready to shoulder more of the load in 2019, BYU should increase its win total once again.

 

Cincinnati

The Bearcats made one of the biggest jumps in wins by an FBS program last fall, increasing their victory total by seven compared to 2017. Another jump in wins isn’t going to be easy, but Cincinnati should be UCF’s top competition in the American Athletic Conference next fall. Coach Luke Fickell has to retool some in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but this team has a strong foundation in place. The offense is headlined by a deep stable of running backs, including Michael Warren (1,329 yards), while quarterback Desmond Ridder returns after accumulating 232.1 total yards a game in 2018. As mentioned previously, Fickell and coordinator Marcus Freeman have to rebuild a defensive line that loses Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland, but this unit led the AAC in scoring defense (17.2 ppg) in 2018, so there’s plenty of pieces in place to prevent a major drop-off. Safety James Wiggins should be among the AAC’s top returning defensive backs, and linebacker Perry Young has all offseason to recover from a season-ending knee injury suffered in early November. Cincinnati has an opportunity to make a statement right away, as this team hosts UCLA in Week 1 and plays at Ohio State in Week 2. The Bearcats also get Temple and UCF at home next fall.

 

FIU

FIU has posted just four winning seasons since joining the FBS level in 2004. Two of those have come under coach Butch Davis, who has guided the Panthers to back-to-back bowl games and 17 victories over the last two years. Another postseason trip and a chance to contend for the Conference USA East Division title is within reach once again in 2019. FIU’s offense will return quarterback James Morgan, who threw for 26 touchdowns and 2,727 yards in his first season with the program. Napoleon Maxwell departs at running back, but the ground game is in good shape thanks to the return of D’Vonte Price (560 yards) and Anthony Jones (338). CJ Worton departs after a successful senior year (37 catches for 627 yards), but Morgan has plenty of capable targets to utilize on the outside, including Austin Maloney (30 for 610 yards), Maurice Alexander (40 catches), Bryce Singleton (29) and tight end Sterling Palmer (25). The Panthers allowed only eight sacks last fall. Even though standout guard Jordan Budwig departs, this offensive line should remain one of the best in Conference USA. FIU’s defense took a step forward on the stat sheet last season and only four of the top 12 tacklers are gone. Linebacker Sage Lewis is one of C-USA’s top returning defenders after recording 132 stops last year. Replacing Edwin Freeman at linebacker, Emmanuel Lubin at cornerback and tackle Anthony Johnson will be the top priorities in spring ball for coordinator Brent Guy.

 

Florida

The Gators showed marked improvement in coach Dan Mullen’s first year, improving their win total by six games from 2017. The next goal for Mullen’s team: Catch Georgia for the top spot in the SEC East. In order for that to happen, the Gators will have to rebuild an offensive line that is slated to lose four starters and patch a couple of holes on defense caused by early departures to the NFL. However, Mullen knows how to maximize the talent on his roster, so Florida is primed for another run at a New Year’s Six bowl and a spot in the top 10. Feleipe Franks was one of the most improved quarterbacks in the nation last fall and should take another step forward with another offseason to work under Mullen. However, he could be pushed for time by redshirt freshman Emory Jones. The Gators are loaded with talent at the skill positions. Lamical Perine (826 yards), Dameon Pierce (424 yards) and Malik Davis will anchor the ground game, while the team’s top six statistical receivers – including Van Jefferson and Kadarius Toney – are back for 2019. Florida’s defense held teams to just 20 points a game in 2018 and has the pieces in place (despite the early departures) to rank near the top of the SEC. The cornerback tandem of CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson lines up as one of the best in the conference, linebacker David Reese is back for his senior year, and the addition of Louisville transfer Jon Greenard will provide a boost to the pass rush after Jachai Polite left early for the NFL. The Gators only have to leave the state of Florida once in September (Kentucky on Sept. 14), as they are slated for a neutral-site matchup against Miami in Orlando in the opener, while Tennessee and Auburn come to Gainesville. Road trips against LSU and Missouri won’t be easy, but the East Division is likely to be decided on Nov. 2 in Jacksonville versus Georgia.

 

Related: Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2018

 

Hawaii

The return to the run-and-shoot offense helped to propel coach Nick Rolovich’s team to a five-game improvement in the win column last season. After finishing 3-9 in 2017, Hawaii jumped to 8-6 overall and finished 5-3 in Mountain West play. The Rainbow Warriors averaged only 22.8 points a game in ’17 but increased that total to 30.8 in ’18. Receiver John Ursua (89 catches for 1,343 yards and 16 scores) departed Honolulu early for the NFL, but Rolovich’s offense will be dynamic once again next fall. Cole McDonald (36 TDs and 3,875 yards) returns under center, with promising redshirt freshman Chevan Cordeiro poised to push for snaps. Cedric Byrd (79 catches for 970 yards) and JoJo Ward (51 for 865) become the new primary targets on the outside, and a line that returns all five starters should improve after giving up 46 sacks in 2018. Hawaii’s defense allowed 6.76 yards a play in 2017 but cut that total to 6.3 last fall. Coordinator Corey Batoon is tasked with generating more improvement out of this group in 2019, and this unit is slated to return 16 out of its top 20 tacklers from last season. Standout linebacker Jahlani Tavai will be missed, but leading tackler (and linebacker) Solomon Matautia (92 stops) is back, along with lineman Kaimana Padello (13.5 TFL). Both players should help the defense take a step forward next season. Hawaii’s 2019 schedule features home games against Arizona State, Oregon, and Army, while a road trip to Washington is on tap for Sept. 14. In conference action, the Rainbow Warriors host both Fresno State and San Diego State – their top competition in the Mountain West’s West Division.

 

Houston

Houston was one of the big winners from college football’s 2018-19 coaching carousel. It’s not often a Power 5 coach leaves for a vacancy in the Group of 5 ranks, but that’s exactly what happened to the Cougars. Dana Holgorsen arrives in H-Town after winning 61 games from 2011-18 at West Virginia. Holgorsen’s background is no secret, as he’s regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. Additionally, Holgorsen pieced together a good staff, which should help to ease the transition in 2019. The Cougars led the American Athletic Conference in scoring offense (43.9 ppg) in ’18, but quarterback D’Eriq King suffered a season-ending leg injury in mid-November. Assuming King is back to full strength, he should rank among the nation’s top signal-callers in Holgorsen’s high-powered offense. A solid foundation is back up front, while King will have plenty of help in the receiving corps thanks to the return of three receivers who caught at least 35 passes, including Marquez Stevenson (1,019 yards). Houston’s biggest concerns for 2019 rest on defense. Ed Oliver is off to the NFL, and six of the team’s top 10 tacklers were seniors. The Cougars open with two Power 5 opponents (at Oklahoma and Washington State in Houston) in the first three weeks of the season. Additionally, Holgorsen’s team travels to North Texas on Sept. 28. While road trips to Tulane and UCF are on tap, the Cougars host key AAC matchups against Cincinnati and Memphis next fall.

 

Iowa State

The Cyclones have posted back-to-back winning records in conference play for the first time since the Big 12’s inception in 1996. Additionally, coach Matt Campbell’s team is 16-10 over the last two years and has earned consecutive bowl trips for the first time since 2011-12. Replacing All-Big 12 running back David Montgomery and big-play receiver Hakeem Butler isn’t going to be easy, but there’s plenty of staying power in Ames. Quarterback Brock Purdy returns after throwing for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushing for 308 yards and five scores as a freshman in 2018. He also connected on 66.4 percent of his passes – the highest total among qualified freshmen from Power 5 teams. The offensive line returns intact and will benefit from the return of Tom Manning as coordinator/assistant coach. Iowa State’s defense led the Big 12 by holding teams to just 22.9 points a game and ranked second in the conference by limiting offenses to 5.1 yards a play. This unit should rank near the top of the Big 12 once again. Cornerbacks Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne and linebacker Willie Harvey will be tough to replace, but coordinator Jon Heacock returns rising star Mike Rose (75 tackles) and Marcel Spears at linebacker, safety Greg Eisworth and defensive end JaQuan Bailey (14.5 TFL). The schedule is also favorable in 2019. Rival Iowa visits Jack-Trice Stadium on Sept. 14, TCU comes to Ames on Oct. 5 and Texas travels to Iowa State on Nov. 16. If the voids on offense are filled, and the defense replenishes the cornerback spots, the Cyclones will challenge for a trip to the Big 12 title game in 2019.

 

Kent State

Kent State’s 2018 record (2-10) matched its ’17 mark, but there was considerable progress under first-year coach Sean Lewis. The Golden Flashes lost to Illinois by only seven points in the 2018 opener, lost by one to Ohio and dropped two other games by no more than eight points. Kent State was more competitive under Lewis’ watch, and another step forward is a reasonable goal in 2019. Lewis’ background on offense was evident last fall, as the Golden Flashes averaged 23.9 points a game (up from 12.8 in ’17). With quarterback Woody Barrett, running back Jo-El Shaw and four players that caught at least 20 passes back, this offense should see even more improvement on the stat sheet. Kent State’s defense will lose a handful of key playmakers, including linebackers Jim Jones and Matt Bahr and lineman Kalil Morris. However, with an offense capable of increasing its production in Lewis’ second year, the Golden Flashes won’t need a standout defense to double their win total from ’18.

 

Louisiana

Billy Napier’s first season at Louisiana was a success. The Ragin’ Cajuns won the Sun Belt’s West Division title, defeated Arkansas State 47-43, and beat rival ULM in the season finale. Of Louisiana’s seven defeats, two came to Sun Belt champ Appalachian State, while another was against Troy (26-16). Quarterback Andre Nunez departs, but Napier’s offense will rank near the top of the Sun Belt once again thanks to a deep stable of running backs, headlined by Trey Ragas (1,181 yards) and Elijah Mitchell (977). With Nunez out of eligibility, Levi Lewis enters spring as the favorite to start under center. He will have plenty of help from an offensive line that returns all five starters, along with receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley (10 TD catches in 2018). Louisiana’s defense also showed signs of improvement in Napier’s first year. After giving up 40 points a game in 2017, this unit cut that total to 34.2 last fall. While there’s plenty of room to improve, Napier will have to replace a handful of seniors, including five seniors that ranked among the top 10 in tackles in 2018. With Arkansas State also replacing key cogs from its 2018 team, and Appalachian State and Troy breaking in new coaches, Napier’s team will have a chance to make even more noise this fall.

 

Marshall

Marshall has claimed at least eight victories in five out of the last six seasons, and coach Doc Holliday’s team will be near the top of the C-USA East Division when preseason predictions roll out this summer. The Thundering Herd’s offense averaged 28.2 points a game in 2018, but that total should tick higher with the return of quarterback Isaiah Green after a promising freshman season. Green accounted for 2,459 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air and added 116 yards on the ground. Tyler King and Brenden Knox should form a potent one-two punch at running back, while Green will have to lean on Obi Obialo (42 catches) as the go-to target after Tyre Brady (71 catches for 1,002 yards) finished his eligibility. The offensive line returns largely intact, but there’s some retooling to do on defense following the departure of safety Malik Gant to the NFL, along with lineman Ryan Bee and linebacker Chase Hancock expiring their eligibility. Marshall has an intriguing non-conference slate with matchups against Boise State, Ohio and Cincinnati. However, Holliday’s team misses UAB and North Texas in crossover play with the West Division, and FIU comes to Huntington.

 

Minnesota

Minnesota ended 2018 on a high note, as coach P.J. Fleck’s team beat rival Wisconsin (37-15) and dominated Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl. The momentum in Minneapolis should continue into 2019, as the Golden Gophers will be a sleeper team to watch in the Big Ten West Division. The offense improved its scoring average by nearly a touchdown from 2017 to ’18, and another step forward is realistic for next season. Quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad combined for 20 touchdowns in 2018 and are set to compete for the starting job under center once again. The passing attack received a huge boost when Tyler Johnson (78 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 scores) decided to return for his senior year. Johnson will team with Rashod Bateman (51 catches) and Chris Autman-Bell (28) to form one of the Big Ten’s top receiving trios. The backfield is also loaded with talent. As freshmen in 2018, Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 1,160 yards and Bryce Williams chipped in 502. Those two players are back, along with Rodney Smith (1,158 yards in ’16) and Shannon Brooks returning from a redshirt year due to injury. Joe Rossi assumed the defensive play-calling duties after a 55-31 loss to Illinois on Nov. 3. Minnesota did not allow an opponent to score more than 24 points in each of its last four games, which certainly helped Rossi earn the full-time role. Fleck also upgraded his defensive staff over the offseason, hiring former Maine coach Joe Harasymiak to coach safeties, while Jim Panagos was brought aboard to develop the defensive line. The Golden Gophers will miss linebacker Blake Cashman and safety Jacob Huff, but Rossi has pieces to work with, including end/linebacker Carter Coughlin (15 TFL), linebacker Thomas Barber and safety Antoine Winfield (back from injury). Minnesota’s schedule features home dates against Nebraska and Penn State, along with road trips to Iowa and Northwestern next fall. After winning seven games in Fleck’s second year, another step forward is definitely within reach for 2019.

 

Nebraska

The Cornhuskers seemed to get better every week in coach Scott Frost’s first year in Lincoln. After an 0-6 start, Nebraska finished 4-2 over its last six games. Additionally, the two losses in that span came to Iowa and Ohio State by a combined eight points. Of the Cornhuskers’ eight defeats overall, five came by a touchdown or less. The Big Ten West Division is loaded for 2019, but Frost’s team is poised for a big step forward. Quarterback Adrian Martinez (295.1 total yards a game) returns after a terrific freshman campaign, with Maurice Washington is poised to anchor the ground attack after rushing for 455 yards as a backup to Devine Ozigbo in ’18. Go-to receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. will be missed, but JD Spielman (66 catches) is back, and Nebraska should be able to tap into its recruiting class for help, including top-100 prospect and all-around threat Wandale Robinson. After giving up 31.3 points a game in 2018, there’s plenty of room to improve on defense. Coordinator Erik Chinander is losing a handful of key seniors, but linebacker Mohamed Berry returns after pacing the team with 112 stops, and the cornerback spot is in good shape with Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle back. Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels should provide a boost in the trenches, and there should be some natural progression for this unit in the second year under this staff. Nebraska also has one of the Big Ten’s most favorable home schedules with Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, and Ohio State set to come to Memorial Stadium in 2019.

 

Oregon

There’s no shortage of momentum this offseason in Eugene. Oregon was a big winner at the draft deadline after quarterback Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior season, and coach Mario Cristobal inked the Pac-12’s top signing class. As a result, Oregon will open spring practice as the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2019. Herbert – a likely first-round NFL draft pick if he declared – guided the Ducks to an average of 34.8 points a game in ’18, while throwing for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns and adding 166 more on the ground. Herbert will need to find a new No. 1 receiver after Dillon Mitchell left for the NFL, but he will have plenty of help at running back with the one-two punch of CJ Verdell (1,018 yards) and Travis Dye (739). Additionally, thanks to the return of Jake Hanson, Calvin Throckmorton, and Shane Lemieux for their senior year, along with the development of Penei Sewell at left tackle, the Ducks should have one of the top offensive lines in the nation. Similar to the offense, Oregon’s defense got a big boost around the draft deadline. Linebacker Troy Dye passed on the NFL for one more season in Eugene, and the senior should rank among the Pac-12’s top defenders next fall. The Ducks held teams to 25.4 points a game and 5.2 yards a play in 2018, and Dye’s return, along with the arrival of five-star recruit lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux, will keep this unit near the top of the Pac-12. The secondary features a couple of rising stars in Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir at cornerback, along with Nick Pickett and Jevon Holland at safety. Oregon will have plenty of opportunities for marquee wins next fall, as Cristobal’s team plays Auburn in the opener and has road trips to Stanford, Washington and USC.

 

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2019

 

Texas

Texas is back as a Big 12 title contender and a program capable of contending for New Year’s Six games. But are the Longhorns ready to take the next step and contend for a playoff spot in 2019? In order to reach that goal, coach Tom Herman’s team is going to need a big season from quarterback Sam Ehlinger. And the junior-to-be is certainly up for that task after a standout sophomore campaign. The Longhorns lost receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey early to the NFL, but Collin Johnson is back as Ehlinger’s go-to target. Additionally, running back Keaontay Ingram should see more opportunities after a promising freshman season (708 yards). Texas’ biggest concerns rest up front with a revamped line, while coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense also has a few personnel voids to address. There’s no shortage of promising talent waiting to step up on defense, and the Longhorns already have two of those players in place with safeties B.J. Foster and Caden Sterns primed for even bigger things in 2019. Assuming Texas reloads in the trenches and on defense, Herman’s team could once again face Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game – this time with a trip to the playoff on the line for both teams.

 

Texas A&M

The Aggies paid big bucks - $75 million to be exact – to land coach Jimbo Fisher, but the move is already paying dividends in College Station. Texas A&M finished 9-4 in 2018 and jumped from No. 61 in ’17 to No. 18 in the S&P rankings. The Aggies nearly upset Clemson (28-26) in Week 2, lost to Auburn by four, defeated LSU (74-72 in 6OT) for the first time since joining the SEC and capped the 2018 season by beating NC State 52-13 in the Gator Bowl. Fisher will have to reload at a couple of positions, as running back Trayveon Williams, center Erik McCoy, tight end Jace Sternberger, and linebacker Tyrel Dodson all declared early for the NFL. However, Fisher can build his 2019 team around rising star quarterback Kellen Mond (3,581 total yards and 31 overall touchdowns in ’18) and a cast of talented wide receivers. After giving up 30.7 points a game in 2017, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko helped Texas A&M cut that total to 25.3 per contest in ’18. In addition to Dodson, fellow linebacker Otaro Alaka, safety Donovan Wilson, and linemen Daylon Mack, Kingsley Keke and Landis Durham must be replaced. However, reinforcements are coming from Fisher’s recruiting classes, while Justin Madubuike is poised to rank among the SEC’s top linemen next fall. The Aggies have to play at Clemson on Sept. 7 and face a tough back-to-back stretch in November with road trips to Georgia and LSU. However, Fisher clearly has this program trending up for 2019.

 

Related: College Football's Top 30 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2019

 

Tulane

Tulane has been trending up since coach Willie Fritz arrived on campus prior to the 2016 season. After winning four games in ’16, the Green Wave improved to 5-7 the following year and jumped to 7-6 last fall. Tulane’s winning mark in 2018 was just the program’s second since the 2003 season. Additionally, the Green Wave claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference West Division title with a 5-3 mark in league play. With Memphis replacing dynamic running back Darrell Henderson, and Houston looking to reload under new coach Dana Holgorsen, Tulane should be in the mix to win the division title in 2019. Quarterback Justin McMillan is back after assuming the starting job during the season and throwing for 1,304 yards and 10 touchdowns and accounting for 238 yards and five scores on the ground. He should be more comfortable in his second year under center, especially with the arrival of new play-caller Will Hall. The Green Wave also return 1,000-yard rusher Darius Bradwell, Corey Dauphine (785 yards) and Stephon Huderson (281) in the backfield. Hall’s top priority in spring ball will be plugging a couple of holes on the offensive line, along with replacing receiver Terren Encalade (44 catches for 727 yards). Tulane’s defense ranked near the top of the AAC by holding teams to 27.5 points a game in 2018, but coordinator Jack Curtis has a few key cogs to replace, including linebacker Zachery Harris, cornerback Donnie Lewis, and safety Roderic Teamer. However, the cupboard isn’t bare. Edge rusher Patrick Johnson returns after collecting 16 tackles for a loss in 2018, and fellow defenders Lawrence Graham and Cameron Sample are back after combining for 8.5 sacks. The Green Wave have a challenging non-conference slate with FIU visiting New Orleans and road trips to Auburn and Army. Additionally, Fritz’s team hits the road for games at Memphis, Navy, Temple, and SMU. However, both Houston and SMU come to Yulman Stadium in 2019.

 

UCLA

The Bruins finished 3-9 in coach Chip Kelly’s first year, so there’s only one way to go in 2019. However, the final month of the 2018 season provided a glimpse of what’s to come. UCLA beat rival USC 34-27, lost to Arizona State by three points and to Stanford by seven. In other words, Kelly’s team played better in the final weeks and should be able to build off that in 2019. With another offseason to progress and develop under Kelly and his staff, the Bruins should jump into bowl contention next fall. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a breakout candidate, and running back Joshua Kelley was one of the Pac-12’s biggest surprises last season, recording 1,243 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Tight end Caleb Wilson departed to the NFL, but Theo Howard (51 catches) should challenge for All-Pac-12 honors next fall. UCLA’s biggest concern on offense remains its line. Left tackle Andre James left for the NFL, but the rest of the unit returns intact, providing hope for improvement in 2019. The Bruins gave up over 30 points a game last season, but this unit is primed to improve next fall. Only two seniors – safety Adarius Pickett and cornerback Nate Meadors – ranked among the team’s top 20 tacklers.

 

Utah

After earning the program’s first trip to the Pac-12 title game in 2018, Utah is positioned for another run at the conference title in ’19. After averaging 5.7 yards a play and 28.1 points a game in 2018, the offense is primed to take a step forward under veteran play-caller Andy Ludwig next fall. Ludwig returns to Salt Lake City after spending the last four years calling the plays at Vanderbilt and inherits a group that returns dynamic quarterback Tyler Huntley, along with running back Zack Moss and receiver Britain Covey. Restocking the trenches is Ludwig’s top priority this spring, but Huntley’s mobility will help to ease some of the pressure on this group. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s defense held teams to just 19.4 points a game in 2018 and will be one of the best in the Pac-12 once again. The Utes return one of the nation’s top defensive lines, anchored by tackle Leki Fotu and end Bradlee Anae. Transfers Francis Bernard and Manny Bowen will ease the loss of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton at linebacker, while the secondary returns three veteran cornerbacks in Jaylon Johnson, Julian Blackmon and Javelin Guidry. The road slate is challenging. Utah plays at BYU, USC and Washington next season. However, the Utes possess a standout defense, along with an offense that’s primed for improvement in 2019. That formula makes Utah the team to beat (by a significant margin) in the South and a contender to take the Pac-12 title and finish in the top 15 next fall.

 

Virginia

The race to win ACC Coastal in 2019 is a wide-open battle, and Virginia is positioned for a run at the program’s first trip to the conference title game. Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers have increased their win total in back-to-back years. After winning two games in 2016, Virginia bumped that mark to six in ’17 and eight last fall. The Cavaliers recorded a victory over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl and finished .500 or better for the first time in ACC play since 2011. Mendenhall’s team will be anchored by dynamic senior Bryce Perkins at quarterback, who averaged 277.2 total yards a game in his first year in Charlottesville. Perkins’ supporting cast will require a little retooling, as the line has to replace three starters and running back Jordan Ellis (1,026 yards) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (93 catches) have expired their eligibility. The return of Hasise Dubois (52 catches) and Joe Reed (25) provides an experienced foundation for Perkins to lean on at receiver. Virginia’s defense ranked among the best in the ACC last fall, holding opponents to 20.1 points a game and 5.3 yards a play. This unit got a boost after the Belk Bowl victory, as cornerback Bryce Hall – an expected All-American for 2019 – announced his return for his senior year. Mendenhall and coordinator Nick Howell will have to replace linebacker Chris Peace and defensive backs Tim Harris and Juan Thornhill, but there’s good depth and talent returning at every level, ensuring this unit will remain near the top of the ACC. Virginia will be tested right away with matchups at Pitt and Notre Dame, along with a home date against Florida State in the first five weeks of 2019. A road trip to Miami is on tap for Oct. 11, but the Cavaliers play their last three games at home, including the Nov. 29 showdown versus Virginia Tech.

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