TOP 50 COLLEGE FOOTBALL TEAMS
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.
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.
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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.
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 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.
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 OTL 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.
We project 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.
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.
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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 the 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.