It’s never too early to think about next season, so with college football’s 2018 season officially in the books after Clemson's 44-16 win over Alabama, Athlon Sports is here with its way-too-early top 25 rankings for 2019. Alabama and Clemson have played four consecutive times in the CFB Playoff, and there's a good chance it happens again next season. The Tigers and Crimson Tide should begin 2019 as the favorites to win it all in New Orleans next January. Georgia headlines the next tier, with a collection of teams vying to contend for a playoff spot, including, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida.
While the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline has passed, coaching moves, transfers, injuries and recruiting moves are still taking place. And needless to say, this top 25 ranking could look a lot different by May once all of the personnel moves and changes are completed. However, the strengths and weaknesses for all 130 CFB teams are largely recognizable at this point. The early rankings take into account early schedule projection, overall team strength and where teams stand prior to spring practice.
Here is Athlon’s way-too-early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2019, followed by 15 other teams to watch this offseason (UPDATED JAN. 30):
Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2019
25. Washington State
Replacing Gardner Minshew won’t be easy, but it’s safe to say Mike Leach knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, so Washington State’s high-powered offense won’t drop too far on the stat sheet next season. Regardless of whether or not Leach turns to Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley, Cammon Cooper or another graduate transfer next year, the supporting cast will certainly ease the transition to the new signal-caller. The Cougars return rising star Max Borghi at running back, along with the team’s top four statistical receivers. Left tackle Andre Dillard is a big loss up front, but four other starters from the Alamo Bowl are slated to return. Tracy Claeys was one of the Pac-12’s top assistant hires prior to 2018, and the former Minnesota head coach kept Washington State’s defense near the top of the league after Alex Grinch left for Ohio State. This unit loses leading tackler Peyton Pelluer, but there’s enough returning to prevent a major drop in performance. Road trips to Oregon, Washington, California and Utah are tough, but the Cougars won’t have to play USC, while Stanford and UCLA visit Pullman in 2019.
The Wildcats have won 19 games over the last two seasons and should finish in the top 25 in back-to-back years after beating Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is primed for another run at the West Division title in 2019, as Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is set to replace Clayton Thorson under center, and Northwestern’s defense ranks among the best in the Big Ten after holding opponents to 23.2 points a game in ’18. Running back Isaiah Bowser should push for 1,000 yards as a full-time starter next fall, and while Flynn Nagel will be missed at receiver, the rest of the unit returns largely intact. The biggest concern on offense rests up front with three starters departing Evanston. Standout linebacker Paddy Fisher is back to anchor the defense next fall, but cornerback Montre Hartage and lineman Jordan Thompson leave big shoes to fill on this side of the ball. End Joe Gaziano might be one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. Northwestern will be tested right away with a trip to Stanford in the opener but Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota all visit Ryan Field in 2019. Fitzgerald’s team will travel to Wisconsin and Nebraska for key West Division matchups next fall.
With Gus Malzahn’s seat heating up after an 8-5 mark in 2018, he’s slated to take over the offensive play-calling duties once again in ’19. The Tigers averaged only 22.3 points in SEC contests and ranked near the bottom of the league in plays of 30 yards or more (24). While Malzahn’s decision to be more involved could be a plus, the offense has to break in a new quarterback after Jarrett Stidham left early for the NFL and get marked improvement out of an offensive line that was inconsistent throughout 2018. The good news for Malzahn: Quarterbacks Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix are talented, and the line is slated to bring back all five starters. Additionally, JaTarvious Whitlow is back to anchor the ground game after rushing for 787 yards and six touchdowns this season. The receiving corps will miss Ryan Davis (69 catches), and Darius Slayton (19.1 ypc) declared for the NFL. However, Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz are back, and Will Hastings and Eli Stove return after redshirt seasons due to injury. Auburn’s defense was the unquestioned strength of its 2018 team. This unit held teams to just 19.2 points a game, ranked second in the SEC in sacks (38) and allowed only 3.7 yards a carry. Cornerback Jamel Dean declared for the NFL draft, but Derrick Brown (DT) and Marlon Davidson (DE) are coming back for 2019. Deshaun Davis leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker. Malzahn has a chance to cool his seat with a matchup against Oregon in Arlington on Aug. 31, but the road schedule is brutal. Auburn plays at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU next season. However, Georgia and Alabama come to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
22. Iowa State
The Cyclones have recorded back-to-back winning marks in Big 12 play, and the 2019 team has a shot to eclipse eight victories. Of course, that task got a little tougher after running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler declared for the NFL Draft. Quarterback Brock Purdy threw for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns with just seven picks in an impressive freshman season and will benefit from a full spring to work as the starter. Improving the offensive line is a top priority for Campbell and all five starters are slated to return for 2019. Iowa State’s defense led the Big 12 by limiting teams to just 22.9 points a game this year. Coordinator Jon Heacock’s group will have to replace both cornerbacks, including All-American Brian Peavy. Also, the Cyclones lose standout linebacker Willie Harvey. While those three losses are significant, this unit has a chance to lead the conference in scoring defense once again. Iowa State hosts rival Iowa, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas next fall but faces tricky road trips to Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
21. Virginia Tech
Injuries and youth on the depth chart dropped Virginia Tech to 6-7 in 2018. However, the long-term outlook is still bright for coach Justin Fuente’s team. Josh Jackson transferred in January, but the Hokies return a capable quarterback in Ryan Willis, along with a promising freshman in Quincy Patterson. Eric Kumah's transfer means Willis will have to lean even more on Damon Hazelton (51 catches for 802 yards and eight scores) and rising star Tre Turner at receiver in 2019. Leading rusher Steven Peoples (786 yards) departed, but Deshawn McClease is expected to return after considering a transfer. In addition to settling the quarterback situation, Fuente’s top priority on offense will be sorting out a line that loses guards Kyle Chung and Braxton Pfaff and tackle Yosuah Nijman. Bud Foster’s defense had an uncharacteristic 2018 season. Virginia Tech allowed 31 points and more than 200 rushing yards a game as well as 6.4 yards a play. However, the news isn’t all bad for Foster. The Hokies return nearly everyone on this side of the ball, with linemen Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota the biggest departures. With better health and development out of the young talent, it would be a major surprise if Virginia Tech once again ranks near the bottom of the ACC on defense. The Hokies won’t have to play Clemson in crossover action within the ACC but catch Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame away from Blacksburg.
Missouri will be an intriguing team to watch in 2019. Coach Barry Odom landed an impact transfer in Clemson’s Kelly Bryant to replace Drew Lock under center, so the offense shouldn’t drop too much on the stat sheet next fall. Bryant also has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. The Tigers return a deep backfield and three starters in the trenches. Guard Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms is among the SEC's top returning linemen and anchors a unit that allowed only 13 sacks in 2018. Receiver Emanuel Hall will be missed, but tight end Albert Okwuegbunam decided to return after considering an early jump to the NFL. Johnathon Johnson and Jalen Knox are a good place to build around at receiver. Tackle Terry Beckner and linebacker Terez Hall are significant losses for coach Barry Odom’s defense, but this unit took a step forward in 2018. After allowing 31.8 points a game in ’17, the Tigers held teams to 25.5 in ’18. The schedule is also manageable. Missouri plays Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina at home, while catching Ole Miss and Arkansas in crossover play.
Nebraska was trending up over the second half of 2018 and should take another step forward in ’19. Dynamic freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez helped coach Scott Frost’s offense average 30 points a game this fall, and this unit should be even better with another offseason to work under this staff. Maurice Washington is primed for a breakout year as Devine Ozigbo’s replacement at running back, while JD Spielman becomes the go-to receiver with Stanley Morgan Jr. out of eligibility. Frost has a few holes to fill up front with center Tanner Farmer and guard Jerald Foster departing Lincoln. Despite a few key losses on offense, this unit will be one of the most explosive groups in the Big Ten next fall. The Cornhuskers surrendered 6.34 yards a play in 2017 but cut that total to 5.8 in ’18. Contending for a Big Ten West title will require more improvement out of this group. The Cornhuskers aren’t losing a ton of seniors off the defense, but each level loses at least one starter. Oklahoma State graduate transfer Darrion Daniels will provide a lift on the interior of the line, while the cornerback spot should be set thanks to the return of Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle. Restocking the safety position with Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed and Tre Neal departing is crucial, and Frost will have to find two new linebackers with Luke Gifford and Dedrick Young out of eligibility. Nebraska might have the most favorable path to a Big Ten West Division title. The Cornhuskers host Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State next fall. Additionally, they won’t have to play Michigan, Penn State or Michigan State in crossover action.
The Badgers were projected to be a top-10 team in 2018 but fell short in a disappointing 8-5 season. Can coach Paul Chryst get this team back on track? As usual, the ground game will be the strength of the offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor should be a first-team All-American after rushing for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns this fall. The offensive line is slated to lose standout guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, but center Tyler Biadaz is among the best in the nation and announced his return for '19. Jon Dietzen could slide from tackle to guard, with Cole Van Lanen anchoring the edge at tackle after David Edwards left early for the NFL. In order for Wisconsin to get back to the top of the Big Ten West standings, Chryst has to get more out of his passing game. Alex Hornibrook did not play in the Pinstripe Bowl due to concussion symptoms, and his status for 2019 is unknown. If Hornibrook is sidelined, junior Jack Coan (515 passing yards and 5 TDs) or freshman Graham Mertz could get the nod under center. The team’s top four pass catchers are back, including tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receiver A.J. Taylor. Despite losing a ton of talent from its 2017 unit, Wisconsin still held teams to 22.6 points a game in ’18. Coordinator Jim Leonhard will have to replace standout linebackers T.J. Edwards, Andrew Van Ginkel and Ryan Connelly, safety D’Cota Dixon and tackle Olive Sagapolu. A healthy year from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand will stabilize the trenches, while most of the secondary returns, including promising safety Scott Nelson. The Badgers catch Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play and have to play at Nebraska and Minnesota.
The Hawkeyes capped a solid 2018 season with a New Year's Day victory over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. Of Iowa’s four losses, three came by six points or less and the other was by 11. Contending for the Big Ten West Division title is certainly within reach in 2019. Quarterback Nate Stanley returns after throwing for 26 touchdowns, and the backfield features a promising trio in Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s top priority on offense will be restocking the playmakers for Stanley. Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson declared for the NFL. Nick Easley was the team’s top statistical wide receiver and finished his eligibility after the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes will need more out of wideouts Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith next season. The tackle duo of Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs provide a strong foundation up front, but guard Ross Reynolds and center Keegan Render must be replaced. Despite a few personnel losses to the NFL, the defense should rank near the top of the Big Ten. A.J. Epenesa should be among the nation’s top linemen in 2019 after recording 10.5 sacks this season. The tackle position has to be restocked, and Epenesa needs help on the other side after Anthony Nelson left early for the NFL. Safety Amani Hooker also left for the next level, but the cupboard isn't bare for a pass defense that was one of the best in the Big Ten. The schedule is one reason why Iowa may not contend for the Big Ten title in 2019. The Hawkeyes play Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road next year.
After winning the Pac-12 South for the first time in program history, the Utes should be the early favorite to win the division in 2019. Quarterback Tyler Huntley is back after missing the last five games of the year due to a collarbone injury, and the offense received a boost when running back Zack Moss decided to return for his senior year. The departures of center Lo Falemaka, tackle Jackson Barton and guard Jordan Agasiva leave a significant void up front. The offense also needs receiver Britain Covey to get back to full strength after a knee injury in the Pac-12 title game. Utah’s defense held opponents to 19.4 points a contest and 4.6 yards a play in 2018. As usual in Salt Lake City, this unit should be a strength next fall. The line ranks among the best in the nation thanks to the return of Bradlee Anae, Mika Tafua, Leki Fotu and John Penisini. The biggest personnel issue on this side of the ball is at linebacker following the departure of standout seniors Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. BYU transfer Francis Bernard could be an impact player for this unit after recording 38 stops in a reserve role in 2018. The Utes will have two new safeties, but cornerback should be a strength with Jaylon Johnson, Julian Blackmon and Javelin Guidry returning. Utah opens with a Thursday night matchup against rival BYU and plays key Pac-12 games versus USC and Washington State before the end of September. The Utes have to play at Washington but won’t have to play Oregon in the regular season.
The Knights are favored to be the top Group of 5 team once again in 2019. And if McKenzie Milton is healthy from a serious knee injury, coach Josh Heupel’s team could move a few spots up this list by August. If Milton isn’t at full strength by the opener, the quarterback position is in good hands with Darriel Mack Jr or Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. The Knights are loaded at the skill positions. Adrian Killins and Greg McCrae lead the way on the ground, with Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon back at receiver. Replacing left tackle Wyatt Miller and guard Tyler Hudanick are the biggest concerns facing Heupel’s high-powered offense. Coordinator Randy Shannon has holes to fill at every level on defense, as linemen Titus Davis, A.J. Wooten and Joey Connors, linebacker Pat Jasinski and defensive backs Rashard Causey and Kyle Gibson have finished their eligibility. However, there’s a good foundation in place. Safety Richie Grant, linebacker Nate Evans and cornerback Nevelle Clarke all earned first-team all-conference honors, with Brendon Hayes and Randy Charlton coming back to anchor the trenches. Road trips to Cincinnati, Tulane and Temple await in conference play, with a matchup at Pitt slated for Sept. 21. Stanford and Houston visit Orlando next fall.
Chris Petersen has won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons and claimed two Pac-12 titles in that span. The bar has been raised by Petersen and his staff, but the Huskies are likely to enter 2019 behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North. The prolific backfield of quarterback Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin departs, while All-Pac-12 lineman Kaleb McGary also has exhausted his eligibility. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, freshmen Colson Yankoff and Jacob Sirmon and sophomore Jake Haener will battle to replace Browning under center. The receiving corps was a question mark entering 2018 but should be a strength next fall. Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones return outside, while tight end Hunter Bryant should be back to full strength after missing most of ’18 due to a knee injury. Salvon Ahmed should have a breakout year as the full-time running back, and he’ll be toting the rock behind a line that returns four full-time starters from 2018, along with left tackle Trey Adams back at full strength from an injury that limited him to four games. The Huskies led the Pac-12 in scoring defense for the fourth consecutive year in 2018. Play-caller Jimmy Lake will have his work cut out in ’19, as this unit must replace Shane Bowman, Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson in the trenches, All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, while the secondary loses Taylor Rapp, JoJo McIntosh and Byron Murphy. Washington opens with four of its first five games at home and key swing matchups against Oregon, Utah and Washington State take place in Seattle.
13. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are trending up under coach James Franklin after three consecutive seasons of at least nine victories. However, Franklin and his staff will have a busy offseason to maintain its place near the top of the Big Ten. Three-year starter Trace McSorley departs after a prolific career. Senior Tommy Stevens and sophomore Sean Clifford will battle for the starting quarterback job, but the offense can lean on running backs Ricky Slade, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford and an offensive line that brings back three starters for 2019. KJ Hamler is back after an impressive freshman campaign to lead the receiving corps, with tight end Pat Freiermuth likely to be an even bigger factor in the offense next fall. Helping the transition on offense will be a standout defense that doesn’t lose much after giving up 350.4 yards and 20.5 points per game a game in 2018. End Yetur Gross-Matos and tackle Robert Windsor anchor a talented front, but this unit lost Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller early for the NFL. Micah Parsons was a big-time recruit and certainly lived up to the hype in his first year on campus. He will be counted on to lead a linebacker unit that’s slated to only lose Koa Farmer. Safety Nick Scott and cornerback Amani Oruwariye depart a secondary that allowed only 14 scores in ’18. Michigan visits Happy Valley, but Penn State takes on Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State on the road next year.
With Justin Herbert returning for his senior year, Oregon should be the favorite in the Pac-12 and the conference’s best hope for a playoff team. In addition to Herbert, the Ducks bring back all five starters on a line that should rank among the best in college football. Left tackle Penei Sewell is a rising star, while center Jake Hanson has started 38 games in his career. The backfield is set with the one-two punch of CJ Verdell and Travis Dye in place, but the Ducks could use more playmakers at receiver. Early NFL departure Dillon Mitchell posted over 1,000 receiving yards in 2018, but no other Oregon receiver eclipsed 500. The Ducks' defense loses a couple of key seniors — linebackers Kaulana Apelu and Justin Hollins, end Jalen Jelks and cornerback Ugo Amadi — but help is on the way from a standout recruiting class, which features five-star lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux and four-star prospects Mykael Wright (CB) and Mase Funa (LB). Linebacker Troy Dye has eclipsed over 100 tackles in back-to-back years and passed on the NFL to play his senior year in Eugene. Dye will anchor a unit that also returns promising players like Thomas Graham, Jevon Holland, Nick Pickett and Jordon Scott. Oregon opens 2019 with a neutral site matchup against Auburn and plays at Stanford and Washington.
11. Notre Dame
In addition to a 22-4 mark over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has also posted back-to-back double-digit win totals for the first time since 1992-93. In other words, there’s plenty of stability in South Bend after coach Brian Kelly hit the reset button following a disappointing 4-8 mark in 2016. Getting back to the CFB Playoff in 2019 starts with quarterback Ian Book. The California native jump-started the passing attack after he assumed the starting job, finishing with 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns to seven picks. Book should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter, but his supporting cast will feature some new faces. No. 1 receiver Miles Boykin and tight end Alize Mack (36 catches) left for the NFL. Dexter Williams nearly posted a 1,000-yard season (995) in nine games, and his big-play ability on the ground will be missed. However, Tony Jones (392 yards) and Jafar Armstrong (383) is a capable duo to lean on next fall at running back. Center Sam Mustipher is a huge loss up front, but the rest of the line is slated to return. Clark Lea had an outstanding first year as Notre Dame’s defensive play-caller, as this unit held teams to just 4.7 yards a play. Lea’s job will be a little tougher in 2019. Tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney are out of eligibility, and cornerback Julian Love departed for the NFL. The cupboard isn’t bare, as safety Alohi Gilman is slated to return, and the trenches will be in good shape with Julian Okwara joining Khalid Kareem coming back next fall. The Fighting Irish will have to navigate road trips to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford next fall, while Virginia Tech, Boston College and USC come to South Bend.
10. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher has Texas A&M trending up entering 2019. Can the Aggies take another step forward and push for double-digit wins next fall? For that to happen, Fisher needs more progression out of quarterback Kellen Mond, who finished 2018 with 3,581 total yards and 31 overall scores. Mond should rank among the SEC’s top signal-callers next fall. Mond's supporting cast took a hit around the NFL Draft deadline, as running back Trayveon Williams, tight end Jace Sternberger and center Erik McCoy declared for next level. The offensive line still brings back three starters, and the receiving corps is stocked with intriguing options like Quartney Davis, Camron Buckley, Jhamon Ausbon, Jalen Preston and Kendrick Rogers. Mike Elko was one of the top coordinator hires for 2018, and Texas A&M’s defense cut its points allowed total from 30.7 in ’17 to 25.3. Elko will have some work to do this spring, as the Aggies have to get better against the pass and must replace standouts like linebackers Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson, safety Donovan Wilson and linemen Kingsley Keke, Landis Durham and Daylon Mack. Fisher inked the No. 3 recruiting class after the early signing period, which includes five-star defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal. Look for Fisher’s classes to start to provide help on defense in 2019. Texas A&M travels to Clemson on Sept. 7, plays Alabama on Oct. 12 and closes the year with back-to-back road trips to Georgia and LSU.
Low expectations surrounded LSU in 2018, but coach Ed Orgeron guided the program to a 10-3 record. After starting ’18 ranked near the bottom of the top 25, the Tigers will be a preseason top 10-15 team. The offense still has room to improve under coordinator Steve Ensminger, but the personnel losses are minimal on this side of the ball. Quarterback Joe Burrow and leading receiver Justin Jefferson are back, while the passing game could get a boost if Terrace Marshall and Ja’Marr Chase develop as sophomores. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and incoming freshman John Emery are likely to anchor the ground game with Nick Brossette departing Baton Rouge. Guard Garrett Brumfield is the only senior starter up front, so an offensive line that dealt with injuries and inconsistency at times should be even better in 2019. As usual under coordinator Dave Aranda, LSU’s defense will rank among the best in the SEC. Aranda does have some personnel voids to fill, as cornerback Greedy Williams and linebacker Devin White departed for the NFL. Cornerback Kristian Fulton decided to return for 2019, he’ll anchor a secondary that features All-America safety Grant Delpit and promising corners in Kelvin Joseph and five-star freshman Derek Stingley. Linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson returns after missing nearly all of 2018 due to injury. A road trip to Austin on Sept. 7 to take on Texas looms large, but Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M all visit Baton Rouge next fall.
While Jim Harbaugh hasn’t elevated Michigan to a Big Ten title, this program has won 10 games in three out of the last four years. And with Urban Meyer departing Ohio State, and the Buckeyes visiting Ann Arbor in 2019, the door is open to win the Big Ten East Division. In order for the Wolverines to do so, Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis have to find ways to make better use of his skill players on the outside. Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are one of the nation’s top trios at receiver returning in 2019 but need more opportunities. Quarterback Shea Patterson returns after a solid debut, while Chris Evans, Tru Wilson and Christian Turner are poised to assume the workload at running back after Karan Higdon expired his eligibility. The offensive line took a big step forward under assistant Ed Warinner and brings back four starters for 2019, including All-Big Ten selection (and left tackle) Jon Runyan Jr. Michigan’s defense ranked as one of the best in college football but allowed 103 points over the final two games. The task of getting the defense back on track got tougher after Devin Bush, David Long and Rashan Gary declared for the NFL. Additionally, standout end Chase Winovich finished his eligibility after recording 17 tackles for a loss. Cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus decided to return for 2019, and five-star freshman Dax Hill arrives this offseason, which will bolster a secondary that allowed only 14 passing scores in ’18. Linebacker Josh Uche and lineman Kwity Paye will be counted on for breakout years next fall. In addition to the home game against Ohio State, Michigan hosts Notre Dame, Michigan State and Iowa in 2019.
The Gators made a six-game jump in the win column from 2017 to coach Dan Mullen’s first year back in Gainesville. Mullen should be able to continue that momentum in 2019, as Florida should be comfortably inside of the top 10 in preseason polls. After averaging only 22.1 points a game in 2017, the Gators averaged 35 a contest in ’18. Improved play from quarterback Feleipe Franks and the offensive line were key reasons why the offense took a step forward. Franks tossed 24 touchdowns to just six picks and added 350 yards and seven scores on the ground. While Franks took a step forward, he will be pushed by redshirt freshman Emory Jones. The backfield features Lamical Perine (826 yards), Dameon Pierce (424) and Malik Davis, while Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Trevon Grimes, Freddie Swan and Kadarius Toney are back to anchor the receiving corps. Mullen’s biggest concern on offense is in the trenches, as Florida is set to lose four starters up front after Jawaan Taylor declared early for the NFL. The Gators held opponents to 20 points a game in 2018, and the defense will remain near the top of the SEC once again next fall. Even with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson leaving for the NFL, the secondary should rank among the best in the nation. Cornerback C.J. Henderson earned third-team All-SEC honors by Athlon Sports for 2018, and Marco Wilson rejoins the lineup after missing nearly 11 games due to injury. Coordinator Todd Grantham has to retool a bit in the front seven. Sacks leader Jachai Polite decided to go pro early, and linebacker Vosean Joseph followed him to the next level. Cece Jefferson is also set to depart from the trenches, but Adam Shuler and Jabari Zuniga will be back next fall. Grantham will need a big season out of Zuniga to replace some of the pass rush lost by Polite's early departure. Louisville graduate transfer Jon Greenard should provide some help off the edge as a pass rusher. Florida opens with Miami in Orlando and catches Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Missouri on the road. Florida State, Auburn and Tennessee visit the Swamp next year.
Oklahoma gets the nod as Athlon’s early Big 12 title favorite, but the gap separating these two teams going into 2019 is shrinking. The Longhorns capped coach Tom Herman’s second year with an impressive win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, which gave the program its first season of double-digit victories since 2009. Sam Ehlinger is the Big 12’s top returning quarterback for 2019, but the receiving corps took a hit with Lil’Jordan Humphrey leaving Austin for the NFL. Ehlinger's list of targets isn't thin though, especially after Collin Johnson announced his intention to return for 2019. Promising running back Keaontay Ingram should get more opportunities as a sophomore, and Herman will have to tweak a line that loses three starters, including left tackle Calvin Anderson. Todd Orlando’s defense is set to lose a handful of key contributors, starting up front in the trenches with Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager. Linebacker Gary Johnson and cornerback Kris Boyd will be missed, but there’s plenty of promising talent accumulated in recent recruiting classes to build around next fall. Texas hosts LSU in one of the top non-conference games of 2019, and the annual showdown against Oklahoma takes place on Oct. 12.
5. Ohio State
No pressure Ryan Day. Under Urban Meyer’s watch, Ohio State never lost to Michigan, claimed a national championship in 2014 and went 86-9 overall since '12. Day has retooled the staff, but his biggest question mark for 2019 starts at quarterback. Dwayne Haskins completed one of the best seasons by an Ohio State quarterback by throwing for 50 touchdowns and left for the NFL. If Georgia transfer Justin Fields does not get a waiver to play immediately, freshman Matthew Baldwin is next up after Tate Martell transferred to Miami. The passing game is also slated to lose receivers Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon and Parris Campbell, while the line has to replace right tackle Isaiah Prince and guards Malcolm Pridgeon and Demetrius Knox. With the revamped passing game, the Buckeyes could lean a little more on running back J.K. Dobbins. Ohio State’s defense has plenty of room to improve after an uneven 2018 season. In addition to end Nick Bosa, standout tackle Dre’Mont Jones is off to the NFL. The secondary lost Kendall Sheffield early to the next level, but the defense only has one senior among its top 25 tacklers. The schedule features a non-conference matchup against Cincinnati on Sept. 7 and road trips to Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan. However, key games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State take place in Columbus.
Even though Kyler Murray departed Norman after a prolific 2018 season, Lincoln Riley’s team isn’t going to slip too far in the national rankings in '19. Incoming freshman Spencer Rattler ranked as the No. 23 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is the future under center, but Riley landed an impact transfer in former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. The senior is a good runner, and while he isn't as polished as Murray or Baker Mayfield in the passing department, Hurts made significant strides as a junior with the Crimson Tide. In addition to replacing Murray, Riley faces a rebuilding effort up front. Tackle Bobby Evans joined Cody Ford in leaving early for the NFL, while guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia have finished their eligibility. However, line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is one of the best in college football, and center Creed Humphrey is a rising star to build around on the interior. Receiver CeeDee Lamb is back after a standout sophomore campaign, but Marquise Brown departed for the next level. Instant help at receiver is likely to come from the 2019 signing class, as Riley inked three of the top 10 prospects at this position. Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks form one of the nation’s top duos at running back for 2019. It’s no secret Oklahoma has to improve on defense after giving up 33.3 points a game this year. The good news for new coordinator Alex Grinch: The Sooners don’t lose a ton on this side of the ball, and Riley has recruited well over the last two seasons. Edge rusher Ronnie Perkins (five sacks) and linebacker Kenneth Murray are two promising pieces to build around in the front seven. With Iowa State and TCU coming to Norman, Oklahoma’s toughest game in conference play will be the annual showdown against Texas at the Cotton Bowl.
A year after losing in overtime to Alabama in the national championship, the Bulldogs just missed a trip to the CFB Playoff in 2018. However, coach Kirby Smart’s team is loaded for another run at Alabama in the SEC. Jake Fromm returns after a standout sophomore campaign, with Jeremiah Holloman and Demetris Robertson leading a receiving corps that lost Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman to the NFL. As usual, Georgia is stocked at running back. D’Andre Swift will contend for All-America honors, while Brian Herrien, James Cook and Zamir White are also in the mix. Center Lamont Gaillard is a big loss, but the offensive line should be among the best in college football. Georgia’s retooled defense ranked near the top of the SEC in 2018 and will be elite once again in ’19. All-America cornerback Deandre Baker is a big loss, but Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell are a good duo to build around at the position Additionally, the secondary received a boost when safety J.R. Reed returned for his senior year. End Jonathan Ledbetter and linebacker D’Andre Walker leave big shoes to fill in the front seven. However, lineman Jordan Davis and linebacker Monty Rice are two promising players to lean on, and there’s a cast of talented recruits waiting to step up. The Bulldogs host Notre Dame on Sept. 21, with other key games against Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M coming at home. The toughest road test is on Nov. 16 at Auburn, along with the annual neutral-site affair against Florida on Nov. 2.
Alabama and Clemson were college football’s best teams in 2018 and that’s unlikely to change next fall. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is only going to get better as a sophomore in 2019, Travis Etienne is one of the nation’s top running backs, and there's no shortage of talent and depth at receiver. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt is the biggest personnel departure on offense. With Lawrence and Etienne leading the way, Clemson has plenty of firepower to ease the pressure on a rebuilding defense. The Tigers lost cornerback Trayvon Mullen, tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and linebackers Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph. Even with those personnel losses, coordinator Brent Venables will keep this unit performing at a high level. Also, it certainly helps to have talent like defensive end Xavier Thomas waiting on the wings for a bigger role in 2019. The schedule features road trips to Syracuse, NC State, Louisville and South Carolina but Florida State and Texas A&M come to Death Valley. Clemson should be favored in all 12 games and has an excellent shot to repeat in 2019.
Nick Saban’s team will lose some key pieces off its 2018 squad, but the Crimson Tide opens the offseason as the favorite to win it all once again. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returns after a prolific season, and the sophomore is near the top of the list for Heisman Trophy favorites after a runner-up finish in 2018. Tagovailoa’s receiving corps should be the best in college football next season. DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle are back, but tight end Irv Smith must be replaced after he left early for the NFL. Despite losing Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, the backfield is in great shape thanks to the return of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, along with the addition of five-star freshman Trey Sanders. The line faces some retooling, as left tackle Jonah Williams left early for the NFL, and senior center Ross Pierschbacher is out of eligibility. The defense lost a couple of key performers early to the next level, but this unit won’t suffer too much on the stat sheet. Up front, end Isaiah Buggs and nose guard Quinnen Williams must be replaced, but Raekwon Davis is back to lead the way. The linebacking corps should be a strength with Dylan Moses, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis in place. However, Mack Wilson left Alabama early for the NFL, leaving a void next to Moses at inside linebacker. Sophomore Patrick Surtain should take the next step in his development at cornerback, and he will have help thanks to the return of Trevon Diggs on the opposite side. Safety Deionte Thompson had a breakout 2018 season but left for the next level. The defense also needs more depth and difference makers after struggling against Clemson's offense in the national championship. Road trips to Texas A&M and Auburn are the toughest regular-season matchups for Alabama in 2019.
15 Other Teams to Watch in 2019
If Khalil Tate can stay healthy, the Wildcats could be the biggest threat to Utah in the Pac-12 South. Dynamic running back J.J. Taylor is back, and the defense returns largely intact next fall.
The Black Knights are 21-5 over the last two years and another double-digit win total is within reach for 2019. Coach Jeff Monken’s defense has a handful of players to replace, but quarterback Kelvin Hopkins is back next fall.
The Bears showed marked improvement in coach Matt Rhule’s second year and another step forward is within reach for 2019. Quarterback Charlie Brewer ranks among the top returning signal-callers in the Big 12 next fall, and the defense should be better with nearly everyone returning.
The Broncos have to replace the prolific duo of quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Alexander Mattison next fall, a task only made tougher with a schedule that features a matchup against Florida State to open the year. A defense that held teams to 22.1 points a game will be the strength of coach Bryan Harsin’s program in 2019.
Cal’s defense held teams to just 20.4 points a game in 2018, but the offense struggled to find any consistency. The Golden Bears averaged only 21.5 points a contest and lost 31 turnovers. Justin Wilcox’s defense should be strong once again but contending for the North Division title will hinge on how far the offense can progress.
The Bearcats made marked improvement in coach Luke Fickell’s second year and should be the biggest threat to UCF in the American Athletic Conference next fall. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren are back, but Fickell has big voids to fill on both lines of scrimmage.
With nearly everyone returning from a 10-win season in 2017, the Spartans began the year with high expectations and aspirations of competing for a Big Ten title. However, Michigan State regressed to 7-6 and finished by losing three out of its last four games. While 2018 ended on a down note, coach Mark Dantonio’s team once again brings back most of its depth chart. Improving the offense is priority No. 1 for this program. The Spartans averaged only 18.7 points a game and 4.6 yards a play this season. Dantonio didn't make drastic changes to his staff to address the subpar offensive performance. Instead, Dantonio shuffled the roles of the assistant coaches, promoting Brad Salem to play-caller. Quarterback Brian Lewerke needs to get back to full strength after dealing with a shoulder injury, and the ground game has to find a new go-to back with LJ Scott off to the NFL. Cody White (42 catches for 555 yards) returns as Lewerke’s No. 1 receiver, and no senior was listed along the offensive line in the final two-deep for the Redbox Bowl. Defense certainly wasn’t a problem for Michigan State in 2018. Dantonio’s group limited teams to 17.2 points a game, led the Big Ten in rush defense and held offenses to 4.5 yards a play. End Kenny Willekes and linebacker Joe Bachie considered an early jump to the NFL but are back for 2019. Standout nose tackle Raequan Williams and cornerback Josiah Scott are also back to help anchor this group. Penn State and Arizona State come to East Lansing, but the Spartans play at Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan next fall. Michigan State was the last team out of Athlon's early rankings for 2019.
The Golden Gophers don’t lose much off a team that showed marked improvement in 2018, finishing 7-6 after beating Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. Receiver Tyler Johnson considered a jump to the NFL but decided to return for 2019. The offense’s biggest concern rests up front in replacing two starters in the trenches (Donnell Greene and Jared Weyler) and getting more consistency (and overall better play) out of the quarterback position. The backfield will be one of the deepest in the Big Ten with the return of Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith back from injury. Minnesota’s defense will miss standout linebacker Blake Cashman, but this unit played better late in the year after Joe Rossi assumed the play-calling duties.
Joe Moorhead begins his second year in Starkville needing to replace quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, while a standout defense lost safety Johnathan Abram and linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. If new quarterback Keytaon Thompson builds off his promising stints in limited action and jumpstarts the passing game, the Bulldogs could return to the top 25 in 2019.
The Cardinal have won at least eight games in every year of coach David Shaw’s tenure, but the 2019 team will have to overcome a tough schedule to reach that mark. Stanford hosts Northwestern in the opener and catches USC, UCF, Oregon and Washington before Oct. 6. Additionally, there’s a road trip to Washington State on Nov. 16 and a home date versus Notre Dame on Nov. 30. The good news? Quarterback K.J. Costello is back, and cornerback Paulson Adebo was terrific as a freshman.
The Orange capped their best season and earned a 10th victory under coach Dino Babers by beating West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl. Eric Dungey is gone, but Tommy DeVito ranked as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2017 signing class. He will have help from transfers Abdul Adams (Oklahoma) at running back, and Trishton Jackson (Michigan State) at receiver. However, the line will require a little bit of retooling, and the defense has to restock at linebacker and replace standout tackle Chris Slayton. Safety Andre Cisco is one of the ACC’s top rising stars on defense.
Injuries hit TCU hard in 2018, but coach Gary Patterson still guided this team to a 7-6 finish. Receiver Jalen Reagor returns, and the offensive line could return four starters. However, in order for the Horned Frogs to be a top 25 team, quarterback Justin Rogers has to get healthy, and Patterson has to restock the defense. Can graduate transfer Alex Delton compete with Rogers, Michael Collins and incoming freshman Max Duggan for the starting job under center?
The Volunteers just missed a trip to a bowl game in coach Jeremy Pruitt's first year, and there are plenty of signs this program is headed in the right direction. How much improvement can this team make in 2019? With quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returning, and a standout recruiting class on the way, Tennessee should at least go bowling next fall.
The addition of Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator was expected to add some much-needed punch to an attack that averaged only 26.1 points a game in 2018. However, Kingsbury left to be the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in January. Quarterback JT Daniels and a stacked receiving corps are a good starting point for coach Clay Helton's team to build around in 2019. However, the Trojans have to rebuild up front and on defense.
The Cavaliers won just two games in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first year but improved to six last season and eight in 2018. With quarterback Bryce Perkins and a good chunk of the defense returning, Virginia could make its first trip to the ACC Championship in a wide-open Coastal Division. The defense also got a boost after the Belk Bowl when top cornerback Bryce Hall announced his intention to return in 2019.