The SDS Top 25: Ranking the best teams in college football to start 2019
Editor’s note: Welcome to SDS’ Top 25 Week. This weeklong series will preview the best of the 2019 season and provide a bit of nostalgia, too. Teams, players, QBs, coaches, coordinators, games, moments and much more, it’s all included.
It’s rankings time, boys and girls.
It’s probably fitting that I provide some of my own Top 25 rankings considering I wrote 2 separate columns devoted to criticizing what I’ve seen in some of the preseason rankings across other publications.
Now, it’s my time to get criticized.
Remember, strength of schedule for the upcoming season should have absolutely nothing to do with preseason rankings. Just because I rank a team at a certain spot doesn’t mean that’s where I expect them to finish. That can be based on a number of things (2018 results, returning production, improvement down the stretch, confidence in a head coach, etc.).
So as we kick off Top 25 Week here at SDS, here’s how I believe the Top 25 should look to start 2019:
25. Michigan State
2018 record/final AP rank: 7-6/NR
If Brian Lewerke and Kenny Willekes are healthy to start 2019 as they indicate they will be, MSU is absolutely a Top 25 team. MSU was a disaster in the latter half of 2018 while Lewerke was banged up. That alone should help a group that returns 78% of its offensive production. There’s still reason to believe that with Willekes and shutdown corner Josiah Scott healthy, the Spartans will produce a top 20 defense, as well.
2018 record/final AP rank: 8-5/NR
Surprising it was that Auburn got top 15 love to start 2018 when it went 3-5 vs. the SEC last year and it ranks just No. 84 in percentage of returning production with a new starting quarterback and a new leader on defense. Did Gus Malzahn calling plays in the Music City Bowl show shades of what Auburn could have been in 2018 or what it could be in 2019? Perhaps, but it’s hard to know that when Auburn looks like it’ll start a freshman quarterback.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-3/No. 12
I don’t care if I’m the only person willing to put Kentucky in the Top 25 to start the year. Yes, Benny Snell and Josh Allen are gone, but you know who’s not? Mark Stoops, AKA the guy who coached Kentucky to its best season in over 40 years despite the fact that his team got zero preseason buzz. A Kentucky team that finished 2018 with 10 wins and a No. 12 ranking will have a more versatile rushing attack, a more reliable passing game and maybe, just maybe, Stoops’ defensive prowess will prevent them from falling off the face of the Earth.
Also, I’ll take any excuse to share this soundbite:
22. Iowa State
2018 record/final AP rank: 8-5/NR
Matt Campbell appears to be the up-and-coming coach in college football. The fact that he has a young quarterback returning from an 8-win team is fueling the Cyclones’ hope. So why am I not even higher on Iowa State? It beat 1 Power 5 team with a winning conference record last year, top offensive weapons David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler are gone and this is still a program waiting on its first Top 25 finish since 2000. But fringe Top 25 to start? I’m on board with that.
2018 record/final AP rank: 9-5/NR
Like Iowa State, I think too many people are sipping the Utah Kool-Aid by putting them near the top 10. But I do get some of the love. The S+P projections are all over Utah, probably because the Utes return 75% of their production from 2018. Getting quarterback Tyler Huntley and tailback Zack Moss back after they were sidelined for the final 5 games of 2018 will be huge. Perhaps that combination will help Utah finish in the top 15 for the first time in a decade.
2018 record/final AP rank: 9-5/No. 21
You don’t have to think that Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will be a Heisman Trophy winner in order to think the Wildcats should start as a top 20 team. Paddy Fisher might rank in the top 3 players nationally for “dudes you should know about but probably don’t.” He’ll lead a defense that ranked in the top third nationally in scoring that returns 71% of its production. People might not realize how productive the defending Big Ten West champs have been the past 4 years:
- 36-17 overall (26-9 vs. Big Ten)
- 28-9 post-September record
- 3 bowl victories
- 3 Top 25 finishes
- 3 9-win seasons
It’s about time the Wildcats get their first Top 25 preseason ranking of the Playoff era.
19. Washington State
2018 record/final AP rank: 11-2/No. 10
Not to take anything away from Gardner Minshew, but Mike Leach took a grad transfer from East Carolina and turned him into a Heisman candidate. So no, I’m not worried about who runs his offense. A team that was predicted to finish last in the Pac-12 North earned a No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press Poll. It’s still a team that brings back 14 starters, including 4 on the offensive line to protect the new starting quarterback.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-3/No. 15
If there’s any Dino Babers stock still available, I’m buying it. While some might look at the 2018 season as a flash in the pan, there’s reason to believe this Syracuse team can be even better without quarterback Eric Dungey. Syracuse only had 1 player drafted and it ranks in the middle of the pack in percentage of returning production. That defensive line should be one of the nation’s best with Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman.
Based on the way Syracuse finished the year — the Notre Dame loss was sandwiched between double-digit wins against 4 Power 5 bowl teams in the second half — and what it returns, it’d be foolish not to give the Orange some Top 25 love.
2018 record/final AP rank: 9-4/No. 25
I’m always mindful of teams that win a ton of close games or lose a ton of close games. Why? We’ve often seen teams like 2017 South Carolina or 2017 Michigan State regress a year after winning a bunch of close games. And on the flip side, I think that projects well for a team who loses a bunch of close games the year before. Iowa won 8 games, but lost 4 games by single digits. More important, Iowa has a game-changing defensive lineman in A.J. Epenesa, who has “top 10 draft pick” written all over him.
The Hawkeyes still return plenty of production (72%) from an offense that lost 2 first-round tight ends in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, including 3rd-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley.
2018 record/final AP rank: 11-2/No. 19
A service academy at No. 16? What year is this? It’s 2019, and the Black Knights are for real. Remember last year when people blasted Oklahoma for needing overtime to beat Army in Norman? All Army did was rip off 9 consecutive wins after that late-September game, including that 70-14 beatdown of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. Prolific quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (he can pass, too!) is back, as is 80% of last year’s offensive production. That Week 2 game against Michigan in Ann Arbor will be no nonconference laugher.
2018 record/final AP rank: 8-5/NR
Yes, last year was super disappointing. I picked the Badgers to make the Playoff, and I regretted it by mid-September. So what’s to like this year? Led by Heisman front-runner Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin returns perhaps its best group of skill players in recent memory. Wisconsin will get a fresh start at quarterback with Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State, which many Badgers fans would argue will actually help the offense. I think Wisconsin gets back to looking like Wisconsin in 2019.
2018 record/final AP rank: 12-1/No. 11
Too much respect? Not enough respect? How about we agree that a team that lost 1 game in the past 2 years is really good? The Knights actually hung with LSU without McKenzie Milton, which I think was a good sign for 2019 if nothing else. With Brandon Wimbush on board, there’s reason to believe that UCF’s Boise State-like consistency will take shape in 2019. Even though there are questions up front and in the secondary, it’s not like UCF needs to hold teams to under 14 points to win on a weekly basis.
2018 record/final AP rank: 9-4/NR
There’s a lot to like with Mario Cristobal’s team. Justin Herbert is a household name who could go high in the NFL Draft, but lost in the shuffle of 2018 was that Oregon’s defense figured things out down the stretch after a horrible start. A group that allowed 20.6 points in the final 5 games returns 71% of that defensive production. Add 5-star freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to that and Oregon could actually turn the corner on that side of the ball. The Ducks should finish better than fourth in the Pac-12 North for the first time since 2015.
12. Texas A&M
2018 record/final AP rank: 9-4/No. 16
If Trayveon Williams and Jace Sternberger had returned, A&M would have been a set-it-and-forget-it top 10 team. Instead, they capitalized on monster seasons and left early for the NFL. But it’s still Jimbo Fisher and a solid starting quarterback in Kellen Mond.
The Aggies are loaded at receiver and they’ll bring a top 5 recruiting class on campus this year. For a defense that lacks experience, at least defensive coordinator Mike Elko is back after being linked to several jobs. Again, strength of schedule shouldn’t factor into A&M’s preseason ranking. Having said that, it’ll be quite the accomplishment if the Aggies finish in the top 10.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-3/No. 14
Here’s the good news for a team that won 10 games last year. Jim Harbaugh finally is giving away control of the offense. Michigan’s 20th century approach is no more with Josh Gattis running the show. He has an ideal quarterback to execute that system with Shea Patterson back for his senior year. He has dynamic weapons in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins. But defensively? There are some huge holes to fill. Devin Bush, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are all gone from that front 7. Don Brown will have his work cut out for him, especially if the Peach Bowl was any indication for what lies ahead.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-4/No. 13
Yes, I’m higher on Washington than most. Part of that is Chris Petersen. Part of it is my belief that Jacob Eason (below) will be a better fit to run his system than Jake Browning was. I think the loss of Myles Gaskin will be tougher to overcome, but the Huskies still return 7 offensive starters. The defensive turnover is significant, no doubt (only 2 starters back from 2018).
But I trust a Washington defensive staff that produced 3 consecutive top-8 defenses. They’ve recruited well — they signed 13 defensive players rated 4-stars or better the last 2 years — and should be able to handle some major personnel shifting without falling off a cliff.
9. Notre Dame
2018 record/final AP rank: 12-1/No. 5
So you think Notre Dame is overrated to start the year after the way 2018 ended? Well, I’d argue that losing to one of the greatest teams of the 21st century on a neutral site is hardly an embarrassing loss. I’d also argue that returning Ian Book from last year’s battle-tested squad — the Irish went 4-1 against ranked foes — makes the Irish a legitimate Playoff threat again. Let’s not forget that while Notre Dame has a lot of production to replace, Brian Kelly recruited top 10 classes in 2017 and 2018, which marked the first time he accomplished that feat. I don’t expect the Irish to suddenly fade away.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-3/No. 7
While offseason drama certainly hasn’t helped the Gators’ 2019 outlook, let’s not dismiss the fact that Dan Mullen took a 4-win team to a No. 7 finish in Year 1. Any way you slice it, that’s impressive. The Gators’ biggest offseason acquisition was retaining Todd Grantham, who worked wonders for that defense last year. And with another year to work with Dan Mullen, Feleipe Franks should — “should” is the key word there — show more consistency.
The amazing thing is Florida actually lost more underclassmen than expected to the NFL Draft, and that was from a team that returned 20 starters last year. Yet heading into 2019, Florida ranks in the top 20 percentile of FBS teams in percentage of returning production. That bodes well for Year 2 of the Mullen era.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-4/No. 9
Is Texas back? I don’t know officially, but I’d say a team coming off a New Year’s 6 Bowl that returns its up-and-coming coach and starting quarterback is usually top 10 worthy.
Unfortunately for Texas, that’s about all it returns. The Longhorns are dead last among Power 5 teams in percentage of returning production. There’s good news, though. Tom Herman signed a pair of top 3 classes the past 2 years. Coming off the program’s best season in a decade, Herman has a major opportunity to chase a Big 12 title and a Playoff berth. Fortunately for him, Maryland is no longer standing in the way of the latter.
6. Ohio State
2018 record/final AP rank: 13-1/No. 3
This ranking won’t suggest it, but I’m actually a little worried about the Buckeyes this year. Part of that is dealing with the ups and downs that could come with Justin Fields in his first season as a starter, but I also wonder how Ryan Day is going to maximize the ability of this Ohio State defense. A group that struggled at too many key points last year lost both defensive coordinators. But the good news is that while Nick Bosa is gone, the Buckeyes have promising 3rd-year guys in Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah (they return 85% of their defensive production), both of whom look like future first-round picks. In the first year of the post-Urban Meyer era, I expect the Buckeyes to fare better than Florida did in 2011.
2018 record/final AP rank: 10-3/No. 6
I know there might be a few LSU fans who see that No. 5 preseason ranking and have flashbacks to the last time the Tigers started there. But unlike that 2016 squad, which ruined its top 5 ranking in the season opener against Wisconsin, this year’s group has a much more diverse offense. Led by Joe Burrow, LSU will be able to run a more modern offense with Joe Brady in town now. It’s also worth adding that with Myles Brennan healthy and the depth chart where it needs to be, Burrow can be used more as a runner. Add in how deep LSU is at receiver and in the defensive backfield and yeah, winning another New Year’s 6 Bowl should be the expectation for this group.
2018 record/final AP rank: 11-3/No. 7
Here’s what I like — Jake Fromm is the guy for the first time this offseason. Even though Georgia is incredibly inexperienced at receiver, especially after Jeremiah Holloman’s dismissal, I like the fact that Fromm has an entire offseason to be the unquestioned QB1 to get maximum reps with them. With Fromm, plus potentially the deepest backfield in America in D’Andre Swift, Zamir White and James Cook, new play-caller James Coley has plenty to work with.
The unknown is who’s going to become the alpha in that front 7. Georgia has to be better at getting pressure on the quarterback. But do I trust Kirby Smart to figure out that part of his defense? Definitely. It just remains to be seen at how high of a level they can do that at.
2018 record/final AP rank: 12-2/No. 4
What if I told you in 2016 that Jalen Hurts would be replacing Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray? You’d tell me I was crazy. Now what if I told you in 2017 that I’d like Hurts’ chances of continuing to develop as a passer and ultimately have his best season yet? You’d probably say I was even crazier.
These are the type of throws I expect to see Hurts make a lot of in Norman, which he didn’t do in 2017 at Alabama:
It’s hard not to trust Lincoln Riley at this point. And even though that Oklahoma defense was so bad last year, it still earned a Playoff berth. I think that group, which was extremely young last year, gets a lot better with new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Even if Hurts doesn’t reach Murray/Baker Mayfield-like production, the Sooners are still going to be in the national title hunt again.
2018 record/final AP rank: 14-1/No. 2
As strange as it is to not end these rankings with Alabama, anyone doing so is completely ignoring what we saw take place on the field in January. Having said that, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that Alabama can reach its fifth consecutive national title game and win its third championship of the Playoff era. The combination of Tua Tagovailoa with those group of returning receivers is as good as it gets. If Terrell Lewis can stay healthy, he, Dylan Moses and Raekwon Davis should make for one of the nation’s best front 7s. And let’s not forgot that even though Alabama couldn’t stay on the field with Clemson, it still completed one of the most dominant regular seasons we’ve ever seen.
History shows us Nick Saban coming off a bowl loss usually means good things the following season. In his 17 seasons as an SEC head coach, the following season after Saban returned from a bowl loss, his team won it all 4 of a possible 5 times. So yeah, a top 2 spot seems fair.
2018 record/final AP rank: 15-0/No. 1
No, I don’t. I don’t think even if Trevor Lawrence makes major strides that the Tigers will be better in 2019 than they were in 2018. I believe that group was one of the 2 or 3 best teams we’ve seen in the 21st century. Losing an extremely rare group of defensive linemen like that will make it a tougher battle than it was in 2018.
Having said that, how could the team that went 15-0 — and demolished Alabama — that retained its coaching staff and returns a second-year starting quarterback, an All-American running back and a pair of next-level receivers in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins not be No. 1 to start the following season? Clemson still actually ranks in the top half of the country in overall percentage of returning production, though the majority of that is on offense.
Still. Clemson is as worthy as it gets of a preseason No. 1 ranking.