The 2018 season has concluded with national champion Clemson’s demolition of Alabama on Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Per Sporting News’ tradition, it’s never too early to think about next season’s top 25, and that’s the case for 2019 as well. For those who don’t like the process, keep in mind that all the teams in this year’s Playoff opened in our top 10 — with Notre Dame the lowest team, at No. 9.
With that in mind, here’s an early peek at how next year’s rankings might look. Sporting News will update throughout the offseason after transfers, NFL defections and spring football. The 2019 season will be here before you know it.
“Row the Boat, indeed.” We know the risks of ranking the Gophers, but P.J. Fleck had this team playing at a high level with blowout wins against Purdue and Wisconsin in November before an impressive bowl rout against Georgia Tech. Plus, the Gophers’ schedule is a little easier than the other contenders.
Pat Fitzgerald typically does more with less, and the Wildcats have improved facilities and recruiting to back up the success that has come both in the division and bowl games. It will be a test to do it all over again without Clayton Thorson, but the steady success under Fitzgerald comes with interchangeable parts. Five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will be a player to watch this spring.
23. Iowa State
Matt Campbell continues to impress as the Cyclones’ coach, and there’s an excitement around sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy. Iowa State plays four of its first five games at home and is set up for a fast start, but it will have to win at Oklahoma and West Virginia to keep their Big 12 championship hopes alive.
The Badgers slipped in Paul Chryst’s fourth season and didn’t handle preseason expectations well, but there are enough pieces, starting with Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor, to believe the Badgers can get back atop of the Big Ten West. They did not win the crossover draw with games against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, however. Can Alex Hornibrook — or whoever is under center — rejuvenate the passing game?
This is a default setting of sorts for Stanford, which will be in the Pac-12 hunt as usual under David Shaw. It’s time for K.J. Costello to lead this team to something more. The Cardinal will get all the attention they need in season-opening stretch that includes Northwestern, USC, UCF and Oregon.
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Dino Babers has the best-equipped team to challenge Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, something the Orange have proven the last two seasons. The Orange have to replace quarterback Eric Dungey and an experienced offensive line, but most of the skill position players return on a team that averaged 40.2 points per game.
19. Washington State
Mike Leach won’t have Gardner Minshew, but he continues to make it work with a pass-happy system where it’s next man up. The Cougars have been close to a Pac-12 championship, but that next step won’t happen until they unseat rival Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars travel to Utah, Oregon and Washington this season. That won’t be easy.
UCF remains the best team in the AAC, and quarterback McKenzie Milton’s status will be talked about, given the long recovery from a gruesome leg injury. Darriel Mack Jr. proved he can play, however, and UCF faces FAU, Stanford and Pitt in nonconference play.
The Black Knights won a record-11 games in 2018, and have a 21-5 record the last two seasons under Jeff Monken. Star quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. returns on a team that has experience on both sides. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s departure to North Carolina is the only downer heading into next season. The Black Knights gave Oklahoma a scare in 2018; if they can do the same at Michigan on Sept. 7, this independent team could work into the New Year’s Day Six conversation.
This is a pivotal season at Auburn for Gus Malzahn, who will be more involved in the offense than he was in 2018. The Tigers have had four or more losses in each of the last five seasons. The good news? Alabama and Georgia must come to The Plains this year.
15. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs won four of their last five regular-season games and offered a glimpse of what could be with second-year coach Joe Moorhead. There are huge losses on the defensive line with Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, and Nick Fitzgerald was a program-building quarterback — but backup Keytaon Thompson played well when given a chance. If the Bulldogs can get through midseason road trips to Auburn and Tennessee, November could be a lot of fun in Starkville.
Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are gone, and the defense must replace five seniors from the front seven. It’s time for transfer quarterback Jacob Eason to seize the opportunity, and the schedule is set up for a quick start after the opener against FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington. Chris Petersen still has one of the best teams in the Pac-12, but the competition up top in the division will be fierce.
The Ducks will be a hot pick to win the Pac-12 with quarterback Justin Herbert returning and Mario Cristobal bringing in a top-10 recruiting class. The right pieces are in place. Now it’s time for the Ducks to win big conference games again. Road trips to Stanford, Washington and USC make that possible, but not until after the season opener against Auburn at Jerry World.
12. Penn State
Tommy Stevens will take over at quarterback, and he’ll have an explosive talent to throw to in KJ Hamler. Edge rusher Micah Parsons could have a breakout season, too. Close losses to Ohio State have kept the Nittany Lions out of the Playoff race the last two seasons. James Franklin still has the talent capable of a breakthrough.
11. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher returns a talented team that includes quarterback Kellen Mond, and the Aggies have enough four- and five-star talent to be an SEC West contender. The Sept. 7 trip to Clemson won’t be easy, and the Oct. 12 matchup with Alabama will again be a measuring stick. Texas A&M will have a tough challenge with consecutive road trips at Georgia and LSU to end the season.
The Wolverines have the seventh-best record among Power 5 teams since Jim Harbaugh arrived at Ann Arbor in 2015, but the only record that gets air time is 0-4. Harbaugh still hasn’t beat Ohio State, and the schedule features the same potholes with an early matchup against Army and road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State. The rivalry games against Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State are home this time. With quarterback Shea Patterson and a talented group of receivers back, Harbaugh can let the offense take flight.
Four SEC teams already? It’s the reality of the situation, and Dan Mullen showed what he can do with an offense in his first year in Gainesville. The quarterback competition between Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones will draw headlines, and the September schedule includes Miami, Kentucky and Tennessee. High expectations are back in Gainesville, and that’s a good thing.
8. Notre Dame
The Irish took the next step by reaching the College Football Playoff, and Ian Book must break in some new skill position talent. Notre Dame’s depth through recruiting will be tested under Brian Kelly, but there should be no complaints about a schedule that features road trips to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford.
The Tigers had an impressive season under Ed Orgeron, and Joe Burrow, who had a good game against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, has another year to work in offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s system. The defense can offset some losses around SN All-American safety Grant Delpit. The road trip to Texas and the usual date with Alabama on Nov. 9 will determine the Playoff possibilities, but the rest of the schedule is friendly enough to set up those opportunities.
Tom Herman has another cycle of four- and five-star talent to work with, and the Longhorns are will get another chance to show they’re ready for the big stage. Herman also has an experienced quarterback in Sam Ehlinger and a defense led by safety Caden Sterns. A huge September game against LSU will determine how right (or wrong) this preseason billing is.
5. Ohio State
Ryan Day takes over as head coach, and if quarterback Dwayne Haskins leaves for the NFL there could be yet another intriguing quarterback battle in Columbus. Chase Young has All-American potential on the defensive line, and it will be interesting to see if five-star defensive end Zach Harrison breaks in right away. The schedule is set up for a fast start, but the Buckeyes’ season will be defined in the last two weeks against Penn State and Michigan.
Too high? You said that last year when Baker Mayfield left, and critics will try it again without Kyler Murray. Trust third-year coach Lincoln Riley and a high-flying offense that will be good enough to win the Big 12 with playmakers Kennedy Brooks and CeeDee Lamb. Austin Kendall can work with that. The defense must improve if the Sooners want to evolve from Playoff regular to national champion.
We know about the Sugar Bowl flop against Texas, but that still doesn’t change our opinion. The Bulldogs will be ranked No. atop some publications’ polls, given the talent around junior quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift. The defense has another year under its belt, and Kirby Smart has shown this team can compete with Alabama into the fourth quarter. A September matchup with Notre Dame should set the tone for another run at an SEC title.
The Tigers are the defending national champions and will take a run at a fifth straight ACC championship around sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and high-flying receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. Both are game-breaking Heisman contenders. The defense will have to rebuild a once-in-a-generation defensive line around sophomore Xavier Thomas, SN’s player watch in 2019. We’ll find out how good that unit is in season-opening home showdowns against Georgia Tech and Texas A&M.
Surprise! We know Clemson won the latest meeting, but Alabama still has a little more depth heading into 2019. The beat goes on for the Crimson Tide, and Tua Tagovailoa will be the Heisman front runner with Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy back in the fold. Alabama will have to weather the usual set of NFL defections, a new offensive coordinator after Mike Locksley’s departure and an SEC schedule that features road trips to South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. Since when has any of that stopped Nick Saban?
You’re mad they missed the cut …
Miami needs to find the right quarterback if Manny Diaz wants to get off to the right start in Mark Richt’s place. The rest of the ACC is a work in progress.
Michigan State has a ruthless midseason stretch with consecutive road trips against Ohio State and Wisconsin, followed by a home visit from Penn State and another visit to Michigan. Mark Dantonio has a habit of doing more with teams with lower expectations. It’s time to show that one more time. Good luck picking a Big Ten West winner. Nebraska will be a chic team with second-year coach Scott Frost and Purdue has an exciting team coming back with Jeff Brohm, but both teams need to show more consistency. All this means Iowa likely will contend for the division with the ageless Kirk Ferentz.
Oklahoma State beat ranked Boise State, Texas and West Virginia at home in 2018, but the Cowboys also lost four road games in Big 12 play. Can Mike Gundy’s team be more consistent in 2019? It’s going to be a rebuilding year at West Virginia without Will Grier and Dana Holgorsen.
Utah and Arizona State just missed the cut in the Pac-12, but we wouldn’t be surprised if either team wins a messy Pac-12 South. The Utes are solid almost every year, and the Sun Devils are recruiting well under Herm Edwards. USC and UCLA also must prove they belong.
Tennessee didn’t make the cut, but we’ll be keeping a close watch on the Vols in the SEC East. They had an excellent recruiting class under second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Kentucky is coming off a 10-win season but won’t have Benny Snell or Josh Allen. Mark Stoops will have to prove he can do it again.
Group of 5
Conference-USA champion UAB and AAC contenders Cincinnati and Memphis lead the Group of 5 teams that just missed, and that includes Boise State and Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference, Ohio in the MAC and Appalachian State and Troy in the Sun Belt.