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Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2019

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama at No. 3
1. Clemson Tigers
Could Clemson be ready to overtake Alabama as the top program in college football? Maybe not just yet, but they should enter 2019 once again the favorite to win it all. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence will undoubtedly top preseason Hesiman lists, and he'll be joined by most of his other offensive weapons, namely budding receiver Justyn Ross and explosive running back Travis Etienne. The defense is going to have to recover from a number of losses across their front seven, but coordinator Brent Venables has proven time and time again that he can reload as well as anybody. Sophomore Xavier Thomas showed flashes last year and looks ready to become the team's next elite pass rusher and the back-end should still be solid, with corner A.J. Terrell likely back, as well as safety Isaiah Simmons. With all this talent returning, and a coaching staff that has proven themselves as one of the best in America, the Tigers should once again be hosting the Playoff Trophy come early January 2020.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Life after Urban Meyer began with a splash early this off-season, when former five-star recruit Justin Fields announced he would transfer from Georgia and enroll in Columbus. Fields will apply for a waiver to play immediately, but there is still a chance Tate Martell will be the Day One starter for new head man Ryan Day. Martell is a former high profile recruit himself, and has flashed serious scrambling ability in his time with the Buckeyes. Whoever starts at QB will have the help of plenty of playmakers, namely back J.K. Dobbins and returning wide out K.J. Hill. The defense will have a new coordinator, and hopefully a new energy, even with some heavy losses in the front seven.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
It wouldn't be surprising at all to see Alabama come back with a fury in 2019,  and they'll have plenty back to return to the sport's largest stage. The most important returnee is clearly Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, assuming he can stay healthy after being beat up down the stretch this year. Tagovailoa will also have his favorite target, Jerry Jeudy, returning as well as the support of a deep backfield, where Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris will return. Again, the Tide will have to rebuild a defense sure to be picked apart this spring in the NFL Draft. The D-Line lacked depth this year and will likely see Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams move on, but the linebacker corps should still be solid, with Dylan Moses leading the way. The secondary was very young this season, but should be able to take some steps up in '19, even with All-American safety Deionte Thompson moving on.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
While Georgia has suffered some rotten luck with transfers and NFL defections early this off-season, the stage is set for them to once more rule the SEC East. Running back D'Andre Swift was never fully healthy in 2018, but if he can get back to 100 percent he is a legitimate Heisman threat. He'll be aided by youngsters Zamir White and James Cook in the backfield, while working behind a strong O-Line. The defense is going to lose some leadership, but there are plenty of young defenders ready to step up, namely linebacker Monty Rice and safety J.R. Reed. The big question, however, is at quarterback where Jake Fromm will return for his junior campaign. Fromm has had his moments, but really struggled in a couple of UGA's losses in 2018.
5. Texas Longhorns
Is this the year somebody is finally overtake to four-time reigning conference champion Oklahoma in the Big 12? It looks like Texas has the pieces to do just that, as they enter Tom Herman's third year in Austin. Sam Ehlinger is going to be the top returning quarterback in the Big 12, and his top receiver, Collin Johnson, recently announced he was also remaining. Running back Keontay Ingram will also be back, and should take over the feature back role from former Cal transfer Tre Watson. The defense will lose some veterans, but coordinator Todd Orlando still has some impressive pieces remaining. Safety Caden Sterns earned Freshman All-American honors last year and is ready to lead the secondary, while Malcolm Roach appears ready to be the team's top pass rusher up front.
6. LSU Tigers
Another Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship will surely be challenged by LSU, who has a ton back from a 10-3 team. The offense has the chance to be the best it has been in some time, with veteran QB Joe Burrow set to return, along with four starters on the offensive line. Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be the top returning tailback, but Tigers fans are already getting excited for incoming freshman John Emery Jr., a consensus five-star recruit. LSU is almost surely going to miss linebacker Devin White and corner Greedy Williams, but guys like safety Grant Delpit and corner Kelvin Joseph will ensure there is not too much of a dip in production.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
Can Lincoln Riley coach up another future Heisman winner after coaching the last two? Junior Austin Kendall is expected to take the reigns of the offense, although he'll face resistance from incoming freshman Spencer Rattler. Whoever does take control of the offense will have the assistance of one of the game's best offensive minds, as well as a number of elite playmakers around them. Sure-handed wide out CeeDee Lamb looks ready to be the team's No. 1 receiver, while Kennedy Brooks emerged as a very reliable option on the ground this past season. The Sooners' biggest problem the last few years has been a porous defense, but the hope is that new hire Alex Grinch can turn things around as coordinator. Grinch did great things as Washington State's D-coordinator before spending this past season at Ohio State.
8. Florida Gators
It looks like Texas football may be "back", can the same be said about Florida? Head coach Dan Mullen will try to dampen expectations heading into 2019, but the Gators looked ready to become something special en route to a 10-3 season capped off by a dominant victory over Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Feleipe Franks had a surprising '18 and is back to engineer what should be a very explosive offense. Former Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson should be back as the team's leading receiver, as will leading rusher Lamical Perine. The defense will lose significant NFL talent, but UF has proven they can reload on that side of the ball. Don't be surprised if already, in just year two of Mullen, the Gators are seriously battling Georgia for SEC East supremacy.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
A disappointing loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl cast a shadow over what was otherwise a successful campaign in South Bend. Its important to remember the Irish won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the early 1990's, and Brian Kelly's offense still was pretty young. QB Ian Book is going to return, hopeful to avenge a lackluster showing in that semifinal. Wide receiver Chase Claypool will join him, as will a number of key contributors from an O-Line that played very well despite losing plenty of leadership last spring. DC Clark Lea will haev his work cut out for him rebuilding a defense that will miss stars Te'Von Coney, Jerry Tillery and Julian Love. With that being said, Kelly has recruited well, and ND should be able to recover on that side of the ball just fine.
10. Oregon Ducks
There is significant momentum in Eugene these days, as head coach Mario Cristobal landed a superb recruiting class punctuated by five-star pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and top NFL QB prospect Justin Herbert announced he would return for his senior season. Herbert has proven himself as one of the top signal-callers in the country, and another off-season getting comfortable in Cristobal's offense will work wonders for him. The rest of the offense should also be in good hands, with five starters returning up front, and a two-headed monster in the backfield, with C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye. The defense should continue to take steps forward, and the Ducks are very hopeful tackling machine Troy Dye returns at linebacker. Even if he doesn't, the young talent on this roster should be able to step up, including Thibodeaux, who is already wowing NFL scouts.
11. Washington Huskies
While Oregon will enter 2019 with momentum, the three-time reigning Pac-12 North champion Washington Huskies won't let them take the division without quite a fight. Gone will be Jake Browning and back Myles Gaskin, who played a pivotal role in UW's rise, but were unable to get the team over the top. The quarterback reigns will pass to former five-star recruit Jacob Eason, who was supposed to be the guy at Georgia before injury hit. He has a much better arm than Browning, and Chris Petersen should be able to acclimate him to football on the West Coast. Talented offensive tackle Trey Adams' surprising return was a huge win for this offense, as is the likely return of promising tight end Hunter Bryant, who will be back from injury. The defense is going to lose a lot, but again, Petersen has recruited well, and young guys should be able to step up.
12. Michigan Wolverines
For all the great moments the Wolverines achieved in 2018, losing to Ohio State and Florida to end the year put more pressure on Jim Harbaugh and this program than ever before. The good news is that this team still will return plenty of talent, but playing in the unforgiving Big Ten East will still pose quite a challenge. QB Shea Patterson might be the most crucial returnee after flirting with the idea of going pro, but he has to prove he can become more consistent. He'll have two key targets back in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, although the offensive line will have to gel quickly. DC Don Brown will lose star Chase Winovich and rangy linebacker Devin Bush, but the cupboard is far from bare. Linebacker Josh Uche looks ready to break out, and Khaleke Hudson and Lavert Hill should be leaders in the secondary.
13. Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher arrived and immediately made an impact in College Station, as Texas A&M won nine games for the first time since 2013. Even bigger things are going to be on the horizon, likely right away in 2019. The Aggies will miss the SEC's leading rusher in Trayveon Williams, but they have an underrated veteran QB returning in Kellen Mond (31 total touchdowns in '18) and plenty of other offensive weapons. New coordinator Mike Elko worked magic on A&M's defense this past season, but will have to reload with a number of key leaders moving on. That shouldn't be too much of a problem, as Fisher notched the No. 3 class in the 2019 recruiting cycle, which includes guys like DeMarvin Leal, a five-star D-Linemen.
14. UCF Knights
Don't think that UCF's loss in the Fiesta Bowl to LSU will stop this program from making noise. Second-year head coach Josh Huepel still has talent everywhere, especially at the most important positions. UCF hopes quarterback McKenzie Milton can return from a gruesome injury suffered late in the year, and if he does he will once more be a Heisman threat. Even if he isn't fully 100 percent to start 2019, Adrian Killins can help out at running back and Tre Nixon and company return at receiver. The defense missed Mike Hughes and Shaqueem Griffin quite a bit this past season, but they should have a good crop of returnees back in '19. Don't expect the train to stop rolling just yet in Orlando; UCF will likely once again be the Group of Five favorite entering next year.
15. Penn State Nittany Lions
While Penn State may lose three-year starter Trace McSorley at quarterback, don't expect too much of a dropoff from James Franklin and this program. Longtime backup Tommy Stevens should finally get the chance to show what he can do, and will have plenty of offensive support returning. Seven other offensive starters are expected to return, including a strong group of receivers. The defense understandably had a rough 2018 with nine starters gone from the year prior, but expect a bounce-back campaign in 2019. The D-Line has plenty back, and big things are expected of Micah Parsons, a former five-star recruit who showed flashes of dominance in his first year in Happy Valley.
16. Utah Utes
The Pac-12 South was a disaster in 2018, but the Utes came out as Champions, and they should be improved entering '19. Quarterback Tyler Huntley will be fully healthy after missing the final three games of the season, and a number of other contributors are also back. Running back Zack Moss decided to return for his senior season, and the O-Line could be one of the nation's best. There is also going to be a ton back on a defense that was the Pac-12's stingiest this past season. Cornerbacks Jaylen Johnson and Julian Blackmon could end up forming one of the best 1-2 punches at the position in the entire country.
17. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin was one of the most disappointing teams in college football this past fall, going from within an inch of the Playoff to an 8-5 year. However, this program has proven they can reload, and I firmly expect them to take back the Big Ten West in 2019. Jonathan Taylor quietly had another amazing season in Madison this past year, and he should once again top Heisman lists. He'll operate behind an offensive line that should miss some pieces, but still be incredibly strong. The question is at quarterback, where the Badgers were dismal in '18. Alex Hornibrook has eligibility remaining but his status is unknown for 2019, and backup Jack Coan wasn't too inspiring starting in his place. Could Paul Chryst turn to highly touted true freshman Graham Mertz right away? Either way, the defense has to regain their 2017 form after a rough season.
18. USC Trojans
Considering how young the USC Trojans were in 2018, it wasn't surprising they slipped to a 5-7 record. Head coach Clay Helton will enter the new year firmly on the hot seat, but this offense has a chance to save his job. Kliff Kingsbury was slated to be the team's next OC before taking the Arizona Cardinals job, but USC still has plenty of remaining talent. QB J.T. Daniels should take a major leap after an up-and-down freshman season, and he has loads of talent helping him at receiver. Tyler Vaughns will be back as the No. 1 guy, but don't be surprised if Amon-Ra St. Brown proves himself as the best player on this entire team after a fabulous true freshman season. The defense is a more pressing concern with some important veteran leadership departing, but the talent the Trojans have waiting in the wings should be ready to step up.
19. Auburn Tigers
Head coach Gus Malzahn is firmly on the hot seat in the Plains entering 2019, but this team has the tools to be much improved. The biggest question will be at the game's most important position, with Jarrett Stidham moving on. However, youngster Joey Gatewood is a great fit for Malzahn's offense, and if he can learn on the fly, could actually be an improvement in some areas. JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin will form a 1-2 punch at running back, and the line should be productive. The defense was inconsistent at times in '18, but is still the team's strength. Derrick Brown decided to return on the D-Line as did edge rusher Marlon Davidson, which is huge for this team. Also important to note: Malzahn will return as the team's play-caller after OC Chip Lindsey joined the staff at Kansas. That should be a good thing for an offense that just seemed out-of-sync this past fall.
20. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern recovered from a bad non-conference start to go 8-5 and win the Big Ten West, which earned head coach Pat Fitzgerald some suitors this off-season. The long-time head coach and former NU linebacker should stay put, and could be ready for an impressive encore in 2019. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson should be ready to take over the reigns of the offense, which will also including budding star Isaiah Bowser at running back. Linebacker Paddy Fisher was one of the conference's premier defenders this past season, and he should once more be back to lead a very physical and disciplined group.
21. Virginia Tech Hokies
Injuries and youth hurt the 2018 Virginia Tech Hokies, who faltered to a 6-7 record in Justin Fuente's third year in Blacksburg. The good news is that that youth should be able to grow up fast, and VT now has two capable quarterbacks in Kansas transfer Ryan Willis and former starter Josh Jackson. They also return a quickly improving star at receiver in Damon Hazelton, who had 802 yards and eight touchdowns last season. D-coordinator Bud Foster did the best he could with a very young and injured Hokie defense this past season, but he'll have more help in 2019. Nearly everybody returns to this unit, including linebacker Dax Hollifield, who had 62 tackles and 8 TFL as a true freshman.
22. Iowa State Cyclones
Losing leading rusher David Montgomery and electric receiver Hakeem Butler to the NFL will undoubtedly hurt the Cyclones, but head coach Matt Campbell still has plenty to work with looking ahead to 2019. QB Brock Purdy quietly put together an extremely impressive freshman season leading the offense and he should take even bigger steps forward next year. He'll have the luxury of working behind an offensive line expected to return all five starters. The defense is going to lose some standout names, including All-American Brian Peavy, but there is a big chunk still coming back to guide the Big 12's best scoring defense this past fall.
23. Army Black Knights
If you haven't taken notice of Army yet, its time to start. The Black Knights have morphed into one of the Group of Five's premier programs, and head coach Jeff Monken doesn't appear to be stopping anytime soon. They'll once again employ their tough-to-stop triple-option offense, with the mastermind behind it all, speedy quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, returning. There is also a ton returning on a defense that contained Kyler Murray and Oklahoma in a near upset last season. Army will play Michigan in Ann Arbor on September 7th; don't be surprised in Monken and the Knights are able to pull off a major upset.
24. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Could my hometown bias for Minnesota be showing through here? Perhaps, but there is no denying the tear Minnesota ended the year on, despite being the youngest football team in America. Nearly every big name contributor should be back, along with a number of guys returning from injury. Mohamed Ibrahim and a healthy Rodney Smith will form a potent 1-2 punch at running back, and P.J. Fleck is hopeful wide outs Tyler Johnson and budding Rashod Bateman remain in the fold. The defense played superb down the stretch in 2018, and leader Carter Coughlin should return. The biggest question marks will be the health of corner Antonine Winfield Jr., who is the best player on this team when healthy, and how the Gophers will respond to a rapidly improving Big Ten West.
25. Washington State Cougars
Washington State will miss departing quarterback Gardner Minshew, a former transfer who seemingly came out of nowhere to finish fifth in Heisman voting. Yet, Mike Leach has proven he can work some magic in Pullman, and I expect this team to once more be in the Pac-12 Title hunt. The top four receivers are all slated to return in an offense that leans on them, and the O-Line should prove to be very solid. On the other side of the ball, DC Tracy Claeys was honored as the Pac-12's top assistant, and outside of the loss of leading tackler Peyton Pelluer, nearly every big name should return.

Just Missed the Cut
Iowa Hawkeyes
Missouri Tigers
Nebraska Cornhuskers
Cincinnati Bearcats
Boise State Broncos
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Virginia Cavaliers

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