1. Alabama (14-1 in 2018): We’ve seen Overwhelmingly Talented Alabama. And Stingy Alabama. And Get-Offense-From-Defense Alabama. And Old-School Alabama. What, exactly, does Atoning For Big-Stage Embarrassment Alabama look like? Because Monday’s 44-16 loss to Clemson is going to fuel the Crimson Tide in the months to come.
2. Clemson (15-0): It’s really 1 and 1A, and no one should be stunned if the Tigers hoist the championship trophy again next year. Still, the exit of a supremely talented defensive line (even if Clemson cruised in the playoff without defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, which is rather absurd when you think about it) is enough of a difference to warrant slotting the Tigers at No. 2. Clemson’s offense, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence, tailback Trevor Etienne and wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, will be downright frightening next year.
3. Georgia (11-3): The Bulldogs aren’t going to be terribly fancy, just really, really talented. The running game will thrive, the defense will largely handle its business, Georgia will win a lot of games and it will be judged at season’s end on whether it (a) won the SEC East; (b) beat the SEC West champion to claim the league; and (c) did anything of note in the playoff.
4. Oklahoma (12-2): Well, what next for the Sooners? The hire of Alex Grinch from Ohio State as the program’s new defensive coordinator is a fascinating — and potentially game-changing — move for Oklahoma. The Sooners’ offense probably won’t put up 48.4 points per game, but then again, who thought that would happen when Kyler Murray took over for Heisman predecessor Baker Mayfield?
5. Ohio State (13-1): Goodbye Dwayne Haskins and Urban Meyer, hello Justin Fields and Ryan Day. The Buckeyes should look to Oklahoma for inspiration as it moves forward with a young, first-time head coach and a quarterback to replace a star who put up silly numbers. Oklahoma did fine with the Bob Stoops-to-Lincoln Riley transition, and Fields (a Georgia transfer who will try to become immediately eligible) could succeed Haskins every bit as ably as Murray replaced Mayfield. Another important thing to remember: The Buckeyes rarely take a serious step backward. Don’t expect one now.
6. Michigan (10-3): Keeping quarterback Shea Patterson for another year is extremely helpful, and the Wolverines aren’t going to lose many games they have no business dropping. That will put them in 10-win territory. But will the Jim Harbaugh era result in a Big Ten title, or some success against Ohio State? It’s a fair question at this point.
7. Oregon (9-4): The Ducks are trending in the right direction, and the return of quarterback Justin Herbert helps matters considerably heading into Coach Mario Cristobal’s second season. Oregon could get back to Pac-12 supremacy in 2019, though recent history suggests that means only so much.
8. Notre Dame (12-1): The switch to Ian Book at quarterback galvanized the Fighting Irish this season, at least until they ran into Clemson. The question for next year is whether Brian Kelly’s team (assuming it’s still his team and he doesn’t jump to the NFL) can navigate games at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. On the bright side, there’s no sign of Clemson on the 2019 ACC schedule rotation.
9. Florida (10-3): Dan Mullen’s first year in Gainesville didn’t produce a complete Gator Restoration, but winning 10 games, including bludgeoning Florida State and beating LSU, were the next best thing. Mullen instantly made the Gators better, and they could take a run at Georgia for SEC East supremacy next year if quarterback Feleipe Franks continues to improve.
10. Texas (10-4): Quarterback Sam Ehlinger after the Sugar Bowl defeat of Georgia: “We’re baaaaaack.”
The rest of the country, which remembers the Longhorns of the last decade: “We’ll seeeeeee.”
11. Washington (10-4): It only feels as if Jake Browning has spent a decade at Washington. But with his eligibility finally up, the Huskies need a new quarterback — and have one in Georgia transfer Jacob Eason. With three consecutive 10-win seasons, Washington isn’t about to collapse entirely just because an influential senior class is departing.
12. LSU (10-3): Three regular season losses has become the baseline in Baton Rouge, with the Tigers hitting that number on the nose in four of the last six seasons. LSU isn’t going to fall off the map, but the gap between it and Alabama atop the SEC West remains sufficiently large enough to justify this placement.
13. Texas A&M (9-4): The Aggies aren’t here because they blew out N.C. State in the Gator Bowl. A comfortable win in glorified exhibition isn’t the right way to evaluate teams for next year. But beyond that, Texas A&M improved as the season unfolded, fielded a much-improved defense under coordinator Mike Elko, and it will return quarterback Kellen Mond. This should be the most dangerous team from College Station since the Johnny Manziel era.
14. Penn State (9-4): A step back in the first year without Trace McSorley is possible, but the Nittany Lions will still be one of the top teams in the Big Ten and a threat to make things interesting. The schedule in the early going is not easy but is manageable (Idaho, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, at Maryland, Purdue), giving Penn State a chance to figure things out before visits to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.
15. Iowa State (8-5): Who will be the third best team in the Big 12? Maybe the Cyclones, who should have a strong, experienced senior class to go with Matt Campbell’s well-regarded staff. With coaching flux elsewhere in the league (Kansas State, Texas Tech, West Virginia), Iowa State’s increasingly steady program has a chance to take another step forward.
16. Central Florida (12-1): Okay, so the 25-game winning streak is gone. The foundation that led to it is not. Consider the Knights the early favorite for their third American Athletic title in a row, though the status of injured quarterback McKenzie Milton will be the subject of much interest throughout the offseason.
17. Wisconsin (8-5): Too. Many. Injuries. Plain and simple, the Badgers were snakebit in 2018. But they haven’t dropped five games in consecutive seasons since 2002-03 and the Big Ten West remains wide open. Look for a bounce-back year in Madison.
18. Northwestern (9-5): The Wildcats have rattled off winning seasons in Big Ten play in each of the last four years. The last time that happened in Evanston: 1938-41. Northwestern fielded a middle-of-the-road defense, but it figures to improve a little with much of it returning. Plus, like Wisconsin, Northwestern will benefit from its forgiving division.
19. Stanford (9-4): The Cardinal is averaging more than 10 wins a season under David Shaw, and with a couple of breaks could have finished the season on a seven-game winning streak. There won’t be as much buzz without tailback Bryce Love, but Stanford should again be a perfectly solid team that has a say in sorting out the Pac-12 North.
20. Washington State (11-2): Coach Mike Leach piloted his first 10-win team in a decade this year, and replicating that might not be so easy after the Cougars won big at Grad Transfer Quarterback Roulette in 2018 with Gardner Minshew II. But this isn’t a one-year blip; Wazzu has won at least eight games in each of the last four years, and while Oregon is rising, there’s no reason the Cougars can’t be a Pac-12 North factor again.
21. Army (11-2): A pounding of Houston in a bowl game drew some attention, but anyone who noticed the Black Knights’ near-upset of Oklahoma earlier in the season was well aware of this program’s growing strength. The schedule next season is largely manageable (there’s a trip to Michigan in the second week), and Army has cracked the code on sustaining success after back-to-back 10-win seasons. A run at another one is plausible.
22. Iowa (9-4): Death, taxes and Iowa winning at least eight games every season while claiming almost zero style points. Having Michigan and Penn State as divisional crossover opponents next year doesn’t help.
23. Cincinnati (11-2): The Bearcats finished the season ranked 11th nationally in total defense, and while there are replacements to be found up front, much of the linebacking corps and secondary will return for Luke Fickell’s bunch. Don’t for discount Cincinnati, which might be the biggest threat to UCF’s hegemony in the AAC.
24. Kentucky (10-3): The central figures on both defense (linebacker Josh Allen) and offense (tailback Benny Snell) both depart Lexington after the Wildcats enjoyed a once-in-a-generation season that included an early-season defeat of Florida and a bowl defeat of Penn State. There’s probably some regression due, but Kentucky should retain enough of its identity (and talent) to remain a tough out.
25. Virginia (8-5): The other six ACC Coastal Division teams have reached the conference title game in the last six years, so why not the Cavaliers? Much of a stout top-20 defense will be back in Charlottesville, and there’s a reasonable case to be made for Bryce Perkins as the best of the non-Trevor Lawrence quarterbacks in the ACC. Buy low on the Hoos.
26. Auburn (8-5): It’s unwise to overreact to any bowl result, and especially foolhardy to do so when Auburn is involved. Let’s face it: The Tigers could go in just about any direction in any given season, and they’ll probably go in a direction no one anticipates. So with quarterback Jarrett Stidham off to the NFL and Gus Malzahn’s seat apparently getting toasty (massive buyout be damned), Auburn could well be due to win the SEC next year because the Tigers are weird that way. This is a less ambitious placement.
27. Nebraska (4-8): That Scott Frost led Central Florida to a perfect season in his second year in Orlando isn’t reason enough to think the Cornhuskers are in for a huge leap in 2019. That Nebraska won four of its final six and was plenty competitive in the two losses, though, is a good sign. So is the schedule (crossover games against Indiana and Maryland) and the lack of a heavyweight in the Big Ten West. Expect progress on both sides of the ball, with a good chance the Huskers double their win total.
28. Syracuse (10-3): Somebody besides Clemson will be good in the ACC Atlantic. Here’s guessing Florida State doesn’t fix its offensive line woes in one year; Louisville will be better with Scott Satterfield in charge but not in the hunt for an 8-4 regular season. The Orange has an unmistakable identity, and if it can find a quarterback to replace Eric Dungey, it has a chance to make a run at another 10-win season.
29. Utah (9-5): Invariably, the old-school Utes figure it out. And while there are graduation hits at linebacker and safety, their consistency stands out. Consider Utah’s string of victory totals over the last five years: 9, 10, 9, 7 and 9. Toss in the weakness of the Pac-12 South — which should be at least a little better in aggregate (especially UCLA) but without a juggernaut (here’s looking at you, Southern Cal) — and the wins will be there again for the Utes.
30. Mississippi State (8-5): The Bulldogs led the country in total defense and yielded more than 20 points just three times. But they lose most of their defensive line rotation, and they need to fix an offense that couldn’t come close to solving the best defenses on their schedule (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky).
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