- With spring practice wrapped up, which teams have the best chance to be headliners next fall when the rankings get real?
With spring practice in the rearview and the deep college football offseason closing in, the next few months are a time for teams to get their newcomers acclimated to the program and evaluate the players who will step into starting jobs or larger roles this fall.
After high-profile transfer decisions dominated the early spring headlines, shaking up the quarterback situations at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Miami and UCF, the focus will soon turn to position battles and fall debuts for new coaches and returning breakout players.
There is no surprise at the top of this post-spring top 25, with Clemson and Alabama occupying their now-familiar spots. Here are some names and storylines to watch going forward for the Tigers, the Tide and the rest of the nation’s top teams.
Even though the Tigers just watched the three defensive linemen who were the heart and soul of their championship team selected in the first round of NFL draft, they remain the team to beat moving forward. Replacing Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins (along with Austin Bryant, the final starter on that D-line, who went in the fourth round) is no easy task, but Clemson has done well of late filling holes left by top picks. The next front-seven star should be Xavier Thomas, a sophomore edge rusher who had three tackles and half a sack in the national title game.
Like the team that blasted them in the national title game, the Crimson Tide return most of their offensive playmakers in 2019. Nick Saban mentioned this spring that depth will certainly be an issue this season, especially on the defensive side, but Alabama is known for having an enviable second string, and with more than a dozen freshmen from their latest top-ranked recruiting class already on campus, the Tide should have some pivotal young contributors ready to go come fall practice. With tackle Jonah Williams off to the Bengals with the No. 11 pick, maybe there’s early playing time ahead for five-star offensive lineman Evan Neal, the second highest-rated player in Alabama’s 2019 class, who stands at 6'7" and weighs north of 350 pounds.
After Justin Fields’s transfer to Ohio State capped a tumultuous first college season for the five-star QB, it was a relatively quiet spring between the hedges, except for a couple of young linebackers entering the transfer portal. The biggest question is who will step up to join Jeremiah Holloman in replacing Jake Fromm’s top three receiving threats from 2018. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Matt Landers reportedly torched the Bulldogs’ scout team defense during his first season on campus. At 6'5", he could give Fromm the big target last year’s receiving corps lacked.
4. Ohio State
Fields will have plenty of skill talent around him, but the young line protecting him remains a concern. Ohio State was one of college football’s worst defenses at giving up big plays, and the back seven got a lot of attention this spring. A name you could be hearing a lot as the Buckeyes’ pace-setter in 2019 is senior safety Jordan Fuller, who was the co-team leader in tackles, but also recovered two fumbles and had one interception.
5. Notre Dame
To get back to the playoff, Notre Dame had some work to do on defense, where someone has to replace linebacker Drue Tranquill, cornerback Julian Love and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who all went in the first four rounds of the draft. (Leading tackler Te’Von Coney signed with the Raiders as an UDFA.) It will be interesting to see if the Irish employ a committee at running back or if Jafar Armstrong or Tony Jones Jr. can break through in the way that new Packer Dexter Williams did last year.
The Sooners have had to replace a Heisman Trophy winner (again), an All-America wide receiver and four offensive lineman that were drafted last weekend. Meanwhile, new coordinator Alex Grinch needs to fix a defense that couldn’t stop anyone and returns almost everyone. Alabama transfer QB Jalen Hurts should provide leadership and looked good during the spring game, but who else is going to catch balls besides CeeDee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra? A group of top rated and talented freshman receivers (Trejan Bridges, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease) could produce a breakout contributor for Oklahoma.
It still remains to be seen whether Jim Harbaugh can fully pass off control of the offense to one of his assistants, but the hiring of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and the emphasis on speed-in-space sounds like a step in the right direction. Among the issues the Wolverines have going into fall practice is settling the running back rotation; there are plenty of returning starters elsewhere on offense, which should set a high ceiling for quarterback Shea Patterson. Christian Turner, Tru Wilson and Zach Charbonnet will be sharing carries if projected starter Chris Evans doesn’t return from his academics-related spring suspension.
Feleipe Franks certainly did enough during his sophomore season and this spring to head into the fall as QB1. But Emory Jones will have a chance to put pressure on Franks if the Gators sputter on offense, and it may turn into an issue as the season wears on. Franks’s confidence couldn’t be higher after the way he ended last season, leading Florida to win its last four games, including an impressive Peach Bowl victory over Michigan.
Archrival Oklahoma lost a lot of talent this offseason, but the Longhorns had it even worse. The defense needs to replace nine starters, including the entire line, and will need to rely on its promising depth to plug in at crucial spots. Sam Ehlinger is back as the unquestioned leader of the offense, but who is going to step up to make plays for Texas if his bruising playing style gets him injured? Neither dual-threat Roschon Johnson nor redshirt freshman Casey Thompson has any experience.
10. Texas A&M
Now that Jimbo Fisher has announced he isn’t going anywhere after the departure of athletic director Scott Woodward for LSU, he can go about dealing with the loss of seven NFL draft picks. Among some standouts this spring are defensive linemen Bobby Brown and Justin Madubuike. The SEC’s leading rusher Trayveon Williams and All-America tight end Jace Sternberger are gone, but look out for freshman Baylor Cupp to provide some instant production in Sternberger’s stead.
The return of the Pac-12’s best quarterback, Justin Herbert, will go a long way in determining the Ducks’ success this season. But the running game will be worth watching, too, as all five starting linemen return to clear holes for underrated back CJ Verdell. A healthy pass rush could also pay dividends, and if No. 1 recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux can produce early, it will help a secondary that was burned for 11 plays that went for 40 or more yards.
The Jacob Eason era is set to start at Washington, and if the Georgia transfer is as good as advertised, the Huskies could be a fringe player in the national title picture. Eason will have tackle Trey Adams to protect his blind side, and a solid running back group with Salvon Ahmed, Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant. Washington has had the Pac-12’s top defense each of the last four seasons and has replaced departed pieces with capable players ready to step up, and this year should be no different.
The Tigers have little excuse for offensive struggles in 2019 as quarterback Joe Burrow has all of his receivers and four starting offensive linemen back for another run. The battle of the spring is replacing the defensive pieces around safety Grant Delpit. The void at cornerback left by Greedy Williams could be filled by five-star freshman Derek Stingley, who had an interception in the spring game and is an asset on punt returns.
14. Penn State
Former QB of the future Tommy Stevens plans to transfer after Sean Clifford got most of the snaps during the spring game and looks to be in line to replace Trace McSorley. Notre Dame transfer CJ Holmes appears the leader at this point to step into Miles Sanders’s lead back role, and every level of the defense will have challenges trying to fill positions. One player to watch out for is linebacker Micah Parsons, who led the Nittany Lions in tackles despite getting only one start last season.
For the Knights to again finish as the Group of Five’s top-ranked team, the quarterback play must approach the standard set for most of last year by McKenzie Milton, who expects to take a medical redshirt this season as he recovers from a horrific leg injury. Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush has arrived in Orlando to battle incumbent backup Darriel Mack, who performed admirably when thrown into action late last year. UCF’s defense gave up huge chunks of real estate all season, only to be bailed out by its offense; this year it may have to pull its weight.
The Utes firmly expect to be back in the Pac-12 title game, with a hungry defense led by defensive end Bradlee Anae, and an offense that struggled at tiimes last year but returns quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. The Utes have some promising QBs in the wings in Jason Shelley, who filled in admirably after Huntley broke his collarbone last season, and Texas transfer Cameron Rising, who is seeking a waiver for immediate eligibility.
Jonathan Taylor led the nation with 2,194 rushing yards in 2018, but he will have four new offensive linemen blocking for him after three left for the NFL and a fourth retired due to injuries. Offensive line position battles aren’t the most intriguing offseason fare in most places, but Wisconsin is different. Cole Van Lanen and future NFL draft pick Tyler Biadasz should anchor the line, while as many as nine others will compete for the remaining three slots. With a quarterback battle underway in Madison, the run game needs to stay stable for the Badgers to compete in the Big Ten West.
There’s no simple replacement for two first-round picks at tight end in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant at tight end, so the Hawkeyes will have to look elsewhere for offense. Quarterback Nate Stanley has struggled at times but should have help with a loaded wide receiving corps, including potential breakout star Brandon Smith, who has all the tools and size (6'3", 205 pounds) to become one of the Big Ten’s best pass catchers. The next Iowa first-rounder should be defensive end A.J. Epenesa (16.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks a year ago), and his exploits might overshadow how good fellow end Chauncey Golston is.
The battle to replace quarterback Jarrett Stidham could drag well into August. Joey Gatewood, Cord Sandberg, Malik Willis and five-star freshman Bo Nix all saw action during the spring game, with no clear-cut favorite to win the job. All five offensive linemen return, which should help the starter and jumpstart what was a punchless running game last year. The Tigers bring back one of the best defensive lines in the country, but the linebacker corps will need to rise to that level to get this defense to its ceiling.
Are the 13 returning starters good enough to repeat as Big Ten West champions? No one knows at this point, but Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, a former five-star recruit who will almost certainly assume starting quarterback duties this fall, gives the Wildcats another shot at playing for a conference title. Sophomore Isaiah Bowser has what it takes to follow up his breakthrough freshman year with a 1,000-yard season on the ground, and the defense has plenty of promise. Linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, the team’s top two tacklers from 2018, are back, and JR Pace, who had four picks in 2018, leads the secondary.
21. Iowa State
Iowa State may have the least to worry about on defense of any Big 12 team. Jaquan Bailey leads the way for the defensive line, while Mike Eisworth patrols the defensive backfield at safety. Replacing all-conference back David Montgomery and wide receiver Hakeem Butler will be a challenge for Matt Campbell. While settled at quarterback with emerging star Brock Purdy, the Cyclones have little reliable production returning at the rest of the skill positions. Kene Nwangwu, who led the Big 12 in kickoff return average, is the favorite to take over for Montgomery.
The Hurricanes built up some buzz this spring after the return of Manny Diaz sparked a flurry of transfer portal activity, headlined by the arrival of former Ohio State QB Tate Martell, who won his case to become immediately eligible but will still have to win the quarterback gig over N'Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams. Martell didn’t look impressive at all during the spring game, but that’s to be expected for a newcomer. Improvement on the offensive line would go a long way for whoever wins the job before the August 24 opener against Florida.
23. Michigan State
The Spartans’ summer optimism will be dictated by the health of two players: quarterback Brian Lewerke, who struggled mightily through a shoulder injury at the end of last year, and defensive lineman Kenny Willekes, who broke his leg in the Redbox Bowl. The defense is expected to be stout again, but the offense needs vast improvement under new coordinator Brad Salem. Michigan State’s running game, which ranked next to last in the Big Ten, will be a primary camp concern.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez is back, but his leading receiver and rusher have moved on, and sophomore running back Maurice Washington is facing a trial for revenge porn charges that has left his status in doubt, so Martinez may have to shoulder a big load as a sophomore. The defense, which finished near the bottom of the conference in almost every major category, need to find someone to consistently rush the passer.
25. Virginia Tech
Whoever wins the battle at quarterback between Ryan Willis, Quincy Patterson and Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister will be key for the Hokies in 2019, after a turbulent season that ended with two-year starter Josh Jackson transferring to Maryland. Bud Foster’s defense couldn’t stop the run at all last year, so the spring’s focus has been the front seven as well as trying to find some stability among its defensive backs, who were repeatedly burned for big plays.