College football season is fast approaching, and with the College Football Playoff entering its sixth season, fans have an undisputed champion in a sport that for a century seemingly specialized in disputed championships.
Using the preseason coaches poll as a guide, let’s count down from No. 25 to No. 1 to take a look at the teams that are most likely to take home the coveted College Football Playoff National Championship trophy, which you’d be correct in assuming should have a catchier name by now.
The Wildcats enter 2019 with a new quarterback, who has brought a fair amount of hype with him. Hunter Johnson transferred to Northwestern from Clemson after the 2017 season, sat out his requisite year in 2018, and is looking to light up the Big Ten West this season with receivers JJ Jefferson and Kyric McGowan, both of whom flashed big-play potential in limited action last season.
24. Iowa State
Iowa State returns with sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy, who started eight games last season as a true freshman with a 66% completion rate. The Cyclones also return six offensive linemen to ensure that Purdy stays upright. Combine this with a defensive line that returns all of its starters, and Iowa State is an incredibly sneaky pick to make it to the title game.
Building upon the foundation laid by Jim Harbaugh, Stanford head coach David Shaw has turned Stanford into a perennial contender for the Pac-12 title. In the first eight seasons of Shaw’s tenure, Stanford has been recognized in the Associated Press’ preseason top 25 poll. This season, he’ll have help in the form of senior quarterback K.J. Costello, who threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, the best Pac-12 passing numbers south of Pullman, Washington.
After finishing 4-8 in his first two seasons as head coach, Dino Babers led the Orange to a 10-3 season in 2018, which included a bowl win over 16th-ranked West Virginia. To continue the upward trend, the Orange will rely on edge-rushing from defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. The duo notched 10 sacks each last season.
21. Washington State
Last season, head coach Mike Leach led the Cougars to their first 11-win season in program history. Last year’s quarterback, Gardner Minshew III, is trying to make an NFL roster, but Leach’s pass-heavy, Air Raid offense isn’t going anywhere. No matter the outcome of the quarterback competition between Eastern Washington graduate transfer Gage Gubrud and redshirt seniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, the starter will be given the green light to air it out.
20. Michigan State
Michigan State finished a disappointing 7-6 last season, but as it always has been under head coach Mark Dantonio, defense was the team’s calling card and should continue to be. The Spartans had the No. 1 scoring defense in the Big Ten in 2018 and return nine defensive starters.
Kirk Ferentz has coached the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons and taken them to 16 bowl games in his consistent tenure. A repeat of 2015’s 12-0 regular season will be dependent on senior quarterback Nate Stanley’s steady hand and pressure from defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, who combined for 14 sacks in 2018.
Wisconsin finished 8-5 last season with a dominating win over the Miami Hurricanes in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Badgers will be breaking in a new quarterback but should have no problem getting yards on the ground. They return junior running back Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2018.
17. Central Florida
The Golden Knights followed up their undefeated 2017 season with a 12-1 encore in 2018, the only blemish being a Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU. UCF brings back three all-American Athletic Conference starters from the offensive line to protect whoever earns the starting quarterback job and should have little problem winning a third straight AAC title.
Things don’t come easy for the Auburn Tigers, both playing in the SEC West and playing SEC East rival Georgia every year. But with three returning studs on the defensive line and three returning seniors in the secondary, coach Gus Malzahn, entering his eighth season with the Tigers, has said he believes it could be the best defense he’s had in his time at Auburn.
Utah finished 9-5 in 2018 and won the Pac-12 South, giving the Utes their first berth in the conference championship game. This season, the Utes return their entire starting defensive line as well as two All-Pac-12 players in their secondary.
14. Penn State
Since arriving at Penn State in 2014, head coach James Franklin has been extremely active — and successful — on the recruiting trail. This season will put one of those four-star recruits to the test with sophomore Sean Clifford taking the reins at quarterback from three-year starter Trace McSorley.
Per usual, the strength of Oregon this year will be its offense. Quarterback Justin Herbert returns for his fourth season with the Ducks. He’ll be helped by a new wide receivers coach, Jovon Bouknight, who was brought in to correct last year’s problem of dropped passes and keep the Ducks’ offense flying high.
The Huskies’ hopes and dreams will ride or die with new quarterback Jacob Eason, a Georgia transfer. A former five-star recruit and Gatorade National Player of the Year from nearby Lake Stevens, Washington, Eason will have the luxury of two senior wide receivers, Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia, who each had more than 50 receptions in 2018.
11. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher, College Station’s $75 Million Dollar Man, finished with a 9-4 record in his first season as head coach. However, Fisher, who coached Florida State to a national championship, was brought in to do much more than win the Gator Bowl against North Carolina State. Leading the way in 2019 will be junior quarterback Kellen Mond, who last season passed for 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Texas head coach Tom Herman’s resume speaks for itself. He won a national championship as offensive coordinator with Ohio State. He led Houston to a 13-1 record and a Peach Bowl victory in his first season with the Cougars in 2015. Last year, in Herman’s second season at Texas, the Longhorns won the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma and a grabbed a Sugar Bowl victory over fifth-ranked Georgia. The best is yet to come for the Longhorns.
9. Notre Dame
Notre Dame made the final four of the College Football Playoff last season and returns starting quarterback Ian Book, who had a 68.2% completion rate. Throw in seniors Chris Finke and Chase Claypool, who each had more than 500 receiving yards last year, and coach Brian Kelly has the Irish primed to compete again in 2019.
Florida head coach Dan Mullen finished his first year with the Gators riding a four-game winning streak that closed out 2018 with victories against rival Florida State and seventh-ranked Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Junior quarterback Feleipe Franks returns alongside senior running back Lamical Perine, who averaged 6.2 yards per rush, in what could be Mullen’s breakout season in the Swamp.
Michigan’s best two teams of the Jim Harbaugh era have had the same fate as his two lesser teams: season-ending losses to Ohio State. However, with new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, returning senior quarterback Shea Patterson and a receiving corps stocked with talent, Michigan’s offense should keep the Wolverines in national championship contention all season.
LSU’s biggest asset this season is experience. The Tigers return senior quarterback Joe Burrow as well as his top five receivers. He’ll also have junior tight end Thaddeus Moss, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, and an offensive line that returns four starters in what should be a dynamic passing game.
5. Ohio State
In the first season for Ohio State in a post-Urban Meyer world, new head coach Ryan Day will look to continue the Buckeyes’ incredible run of success. Junior running back J.K. Dobbins has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. Adding dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia, should open up the running game — and offense — even more in 2019.
Since taking over from Bob Stoops before the 2017 season, head coach Lincoln Riley has led the Sooners to two straight Big 12 titles and produced two straight No. 1 overall NFL draft picks from the quarterback position. In the offseason, Riley hired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to try to round the offensive juggernaut into a more balanced team in 2019.
Georgia returns junior quarterback Jake Fromm, who had a 67.3% completion rate in 2018 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 30 to 6. Add in junior running back D’Andre Swift, who in addition to being aptly named had more than 1,000 yards last season, and the Bulldogs look more than capable of avenging their previous national championship close calls.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has won six national titles, appeared in the past four national championship games and has only lost four games in the past four years. Meanwhile, junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will look to (somehow) build upon his 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2018 and bring the College Football Playoff trophy back to Tuscaloosa.
However, if anyone can claim the ability to topple living legend Nick Saban, it’s Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney. Clemson has faced off against the Crimson Tide three times in the national championship game and Swinney’s Tigers have taken two of three, including last season’s game, and have to be considered the favorite in 2019.
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