It’s an annual rite of passage for each of the 130 teams in the FBS to come into the season with championship aspirations, no matter how absurd or unrealistic they may be. Alas, 99% of those teams will exit the 2019 season disappointed, and the cycle of playing catch-up with college football’s elite will start once again.
The first College Football Playoff rankings won’t be released until Nov. 5, giving pundits and the selection committee plenty to gloss over as the games are being played. It’s business as usual at the top of our preseseason power rankings, as three of the four finalists in the playoff from 2018 assume their spots in the top four.
These power rankings are different from SI’s Preseason Top 25, and instead features each team’s perceived hype entering the season and the reality it faces attempting to reach the title game in New Orleans.
Post spring rank: 1
The Hype: Replacing a dominant defensive line isn’t the easiest task in the world, but the offense will more than make up for whatever struggles, if any, Clemson endures. With quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne leading the way, reaching back-to-back titles is more than a realistic possibility.
The Reality: The Tigers' schedule features only two ranked teams, so they may as well book their tickets to Charlotte for the ACC title game and the national championship clash in the Big Easy.
Post spring rank: 2
The Hype: Smarting from the blowout loss to Clemson in the national title game, the Crimson Tide take it out on their opponents, blowing through the SEC schedule again to reserve their annual spot in the playoffs. There is just too much talent, especially on offense, for Alabama to be slowed down anytime soon.
The Reality: Nick Saban has seven new on-field assistants this season, again being forced to absorb a mass exodus in his coaching staff as well as the 10 players who were selected in the NFL draft. The question is, who will stop the Crimson Tide from making another playoff appearance? The answer is no one.
Post spring rank: 6
The Hype: The Sooners are hoping that a stroke of luck by the name of Jalen Hurts, the heralded Alabama transfer, will push them past getting eliminated in the CFP semifinals. Of note, the last two Sooner quarterbacks with the initials J.H. (Jamelle Holieway, Josh Heupel) each won national championships.
The Reality: The offense should be fine no matter who the quarterback is, despite replacing four linemen, a kicker and a wideout after Marquise Brown left for the NFL. But with new defense coordinator Alex Grinch, the defense will again struggle to get key stops at crucial junctions. This time, it will keep them out of the playoff.
4. Ohio State
Post spring rank: 4
The Hype: There will be no dropoff in offensive production as the Buckeyes transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day. With a roster chock full of four- and five-star recruits, the Buckeyes are just too much for anyone else in the Big Ten to compete with as they try to make their way back to the playoff.
The Reality: Improvement on the defensive side is paramount, especially in reducing the amount of explosive plays given up (the team allowed 23 plays of 40-plus yards in 2018). But expect vast improvement from that unit, and with Justin Fields at quarterback and a favorable home slate, the Buckeyes will once again be in the mix for a playoff spot.
Post spring rank: 3
The Hype: The Bulldogs have blown double-digit leads the last two times they have faced Alabama, keeping them from their championship dreams. This time, there will be no such issue as Georgia finally gets another shot, whether it beat its nemesis or not.
The Reality: The first month of the season will be telling with a season opener at Vanderbilt and Notre Dame visiting Athens three weeks later. Jake Fromm must buil a rapport with his young receivers quickly, while D’Andre Swift leads a talented group of running backs. The SEC East again runs through Athens.
Post spring rank: 7
The Hype: In Jim Harbaugh’s four previous seasons at Michigan, disappointment has been common: four losses to Ohio State and a blowout loss in the Peach Bowl to end the 2018 season. There are no excuses this year as the Wolverines have the talent and experience to make a serious run at a championship and break a 15-year Big Ten title drought.
The Reality: Harbaugh isn’t handling the play-calling duties, so expect an improved offense to keep the Wolverines afloat until the defense comes together in trying to replace Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich from a top-five unit. Plus, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State all have to come to Ann Arbor this year.
Post spring rank: 13
The Hype: The question every year in the Bayou is whether or not LSU can get its offense into the 21st century. Joe Burrow returns after an efficient season, and with an experienced offensive line and receiving corps, the Tigers' schedule sets up for a title shot if they can get past Texas and their annual showdown with Alabama.
The Reality: The defense, which returns eight starters, is stacked and will keep them in every game, but they aren’t going anywhere without an offense that can strike fear in the opponent. It’s another season of getting close, but no cigar for LSU, putting more pressure on Ed Orgeron and his ability to put the Tigers over the top.
Post spring rank: 8
The Hype: Feleipe Franks took a big step in establishing himself as a leader Dan Mullen can trust to handle his offense. But replacing four starters on the offensive line is a concern and inconsistent play has been an issue. The defense might have to carry the weight during the first month of the season.
The Reality: Florida could be the biggest enigma in college football, with the ability to win 11 games and the capability to miss out on the postseason entirely. Spilt the difference and you have the 2019 Gators, who still won’t be able to get past Georgia in the SEC East.
9. Notre Dame
Post spring rank: 5
The Hype: Despite being blown out by Clemson in the playoff semifinals, Notre Dame’s sudden climb to the top means it will be able to stick around for a while competing for championships. The luck of the Irish was in full force in 2018 and this time around, they will rely heavily on fringe Heisman candidate Ian Book.
The Reality: Three big road games will determine the Irish’s fate: Georgia (Sept. 21), Michigan (Oct. 26) and Stanford (Nov. 30). If they win those three, the Irish will have more than enough currency to warrant another playoff appearance. But they can’t expect to beat up on an improved ACC schedule like they did last season, because replacing key contributors, especially on special teams, will be tough.
Post spring rank: 9
The Hype: The “Texas is back” talk has been loud and deafening all spring, so the expectations are sky high in Austin. The Longhorns return an FBS-tying low eight starters, so any success they have in 2019 will depend on players with loads of talent, but little game experience.
The Reality: When is the last time any team won anything when it had to replace eight starters on defense? Make no mistake about it, Texas is talented enough to win the Big 12 and even make a playoff push, but it isn’t getting any benefit of the doubt here until it does so.
Post spring rank: 12
The Hype: Jacob Eason, the Huskies’ next hot-shot quarterback, is ready to take the them to the next level. Fortunately for Eason, the receiving corps and offensive line are solid. Don’t be surprised to look up in late November and see that the Huskies are right in the mix, possibly battling for a final four berth.
The Reality: Having nine new starters on defense and replacing the school’s all-time leading passer and rusher would be tough for any program. Washington has led the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense in each of the last four years, a streak that will most likely end this year. Still, the Huskies get Utah, Oregon and Washington State at home, with potential stumbling blocks on the road at BYU and Stanford.
12. Texas A&M
Post spring rank: 10
The Hype: A&M surprised many by winning nine games last season, so now it’s time to take the next step in pushing past the stalwarts of the SEC West. Kellen Mond will carry the load for the offense until his young backfield mates and receivers mature.
The Reality: No matter what the ceiling is for this team, its schedule is absolutely brutal. With road games at Clemson, Ole Miss, Georgia and LSU to close out the season, Texas A&M’s $75 million contract to Jimbo Fisher might have to wait another year to fulfill any championship dreams.
Post spring rank: 19
The Hype: Whoever takes the quarterback job will be a freshman and, in most cases, that means growing pains. The Tigers have more than enough skill to compensate for any deficiencies and with Gus Malzahn taking over play-calling duties again, Auburn is setting itself up for the type of run it is known to go on every few years.
The Reality: The annual Malzahn hot seat will get cranked up for another go around, especially if the Tigers don’t at least make the SEC championship game. While there are questions about the offense, there are no such concerns about a defense expected to be one of the SEC’s best. Chances are that Malzahn will be back on the Plains for the 2020 season.
Post spring rank: 16
The Hype: The odds-on favorite to get back to the Pac-12 title game from the pedestrian South division, Utah has all the pieces in place to play spoiler and wreck the CFP, giving the Pac-12 a much-needed boost in perception. Watch out for the Utes’ defensive line, which is one of the best in America and could be the catalyst to a special run.
The Reality: Utah is absolutely loaded and even though it absorbed injuries to starter quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss last year, there is enough depth should the Utes meet that fate again. The top five pass catchers return, but the shoring up of the linebacking corps with the loss of Cody Barton and Chase Hansen is critical.
Post spring rank: 11
The Hype: Oregon’s title dreams got a big boost when NFL prospect Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior season. Defeating Auburn in the season opener could go a long way in terms of confidence and knowing the Ducks can stack up to the nation’s best. If the defense can generate a pass rush and one or two of the freshmen can contribute, Eugene will be rocking once again.
The Reality: Perhaps the Ducks are the Pac-12’s best hope for a playoff berth and will ride their hopes on Herbert and the most experienced offensive line in college football. With a sudden boost in recruiting and lofty expectations, anything less than a spot in the conference title game would be considered a disappointment.
Post spring rank: 15
The Hype: As the only Group of Five team to make this list, UCF again is primed to make another run at a New Year’s Six bowl. Darriel Mack, who took over for an injured McKenzie Milton, broke his ankle in July, presumably handing the quarterback job to Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. Lots of talented skill guys makes life much easier for whomever is the starter.
The Reality: Another AAC title is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, even though the defense might struggle despite the talents of defensive back and leading tackler Richie Grant, who also picked off six passes last year. As usual, it’s New Year’s Six bowl or bust for UCF.
17. Penn State
Post spring rank: 14
The Hype: Sean Clifford replaces longtime starter Trace McSorley, but there are serious questions about the offensive line. The strength of the team is the defense, which has a chance to be one of the nation’s best led by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. The Nittany Lions led the nation in sacks per game and any slip in production is the difference between a contending season and a mediocre one.
The Reality: By season’s end, Penn State might be on the outside looking in of… the top 25. Fortunately, its schedule could allow it to ease into the season before the true gauntlet arrives. Winning nine games, as the Nittany Lions did last year, is fine and well, but will still only be good enough for third place in the Big Ten East.
Post spring rank: 18
The Hype: Iowa needs to do a better job of closing out games, so it might rely on defensive end A.J. Epenesa and the rest of his teammates to shut the door and add a few more wins to the resume. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw 26 touchdowns in 2018 but was wildly inaccurate at times. Experience at every level gives the Hawkeyes a leg up on the rest of the Big Ten West.
The Reality: Both of Stanley’s safety blankets (TE’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant) are in the NFL, but he still has plenty of talent around him, with tons of talent at the skill positions. The schedule doesn’t give the Hawkeyes any room for error, as they go on the road to face the division’s toughest opponents, plus Michigan and in-state rival Iowa State.
Post spring rank: 17
The Hype: The offense will again run, literally, through 2,000-yard back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor is the conference’s best offensive weapon when he isn’t run into the ground. The thought is there will be an efficient quarterback and a few receivers to step up and help Taylor, because he can’t possibly shoulder the offensive burden alone.
The Reality: Wisconsin should be able to beat most teams just by running the ball 50 times a game. But that won’t get it done in the Big Ten, unless the Badgers have vastly improved quarterback play. On paper, there is no reason why they shouldn’t easily walk away with the West Division crown. Games aren’t won on paper and the Badgers again fall short of double-digit victories.
20. Iowa State
Post spring rank: 21
The Hype: If there is one team other than Oklahoma and Texas being talked about in Big 12 circles, it’s Iowa State. The only reason the historically bad Cyclones are being discussed is because they actually play some semblance of defense. Brock Purdy is the Big 12’s latest gunslinger who can pick defenses apart, but finding replacements for wideout Hakeem Butler and do-it-all back David Montgomery is key.
The Reality: Iowa State’s schedule really cranks up at the end of October with games against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas. It’s possible the Cyclones could be 8–0 by the time they visit Norman, but any talk of a Big 12 title coming to Ames is a bit premature.
Post spring rank: 20
The Hype: Hope springs eternal in Evanston as the defending Big Ten West champions have a new quarterback (Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson) trying to improve on the Big Ten’s worst rushing attack, and suspect offensive line play that allowed 36 sacks. Johnson’s ability to push the ball down the field gives the Wildcats a legitimate passing threat they haven’t had in years.
The Reality: How the Wildcats won nine games last year, especially with that offense and pedestrian kicking game, is a mystery to all. But the defense is the story here, led by linebacker and tackling machine Paddy Fisher. Northwestern can’t afford to get off to a slow start, or its hopes at a division title will closed by the end of September.
Post spring rank: 24
The Hype: After losing their first six games under new head coach Scott Frost, the Huskers finished strong down the stretch behind quarterback Adrian Martinez and running back Dedrick Mills, who could run for 1,500 yards if he stays healthy. Improvement on the league’s worst defense, which gave up 30 or more points eight times in 2018, is key.
The Reality: Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa all have to come to Lincoln, making this a no-excuses second season for Frost. With 13 starters back, Nebraska has enough experience to make a serious run at the Big Ten West. Winning nine games would be more than a successful season in Big Red country.
23. Michigan State
Post spring rank: 23
The Hype: It can only go up for the Spartans as injuries and an inconsistent offense derailed any chance of success in 2018. Michigan State is one of those teams that could be in the playoff or hit rock bottom and miss bowl season entirely. With new offensive coordinator Brad Salem in tow, expect a departure from the stagnant run-based scheme that was successful but not exactly inventive.
The Reality: Michigan State isn’t going anywhere if it again averages a putrid 18.7 points a game, and it is absolutely stunning the 2018 squad won seven games. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is healthy and so is his receiving corps. The always-reliable defense will be a force, which makes the Spartans a sleeper pick in the Big Ten East.
Post spring rank: –
The Hype: If winning eight games is the bare minimum at Stanford, David Shaw’s team can certainly reach that barrier even with a brutal non-conference slate. Shaw let K.J Costello take control of the offense after a surprising inability to run the ball. Get back to playing a physical style with Costello’s experience and the Cardinal will be back competing for Pac-12 title.
The Reality: The first month of the season is going to be tough, with road games at USC and UCF, and Northwestern and Oregon coming to The Farm. There are just too many holes to fill, specifically in the defensive front seven and trying to replace Bryce Love’s production. Stanford might have to take its seat behind the Ducks and Washington for the time being.
25. Miami (Fla.)
Post spring rank: 22
The Hype:Jarren Williams was tabbed as the starter at quarterback over Tate Martell and N’Kosi Perry, and he doesn’t have the time or luxury to settle in as he will be thrown directly into the fire against Florida this weekend. Williams does have talent at receiver and running back, and the Hurricanes likely won’t have the bullseye on their back like they did in 2018 unless they somehow find a way to beat the Gators.
The Reality: Before the season is over, chances are that all three of the aforementioned quarterbacks will get an opportunity to take the reins of an offense that has underachieved for years. The turnover chain gimmick on defense needs to produce big time for “The U” to declare itself anywhere close to competing for a division title.
By conference: Big Ten (8), SEC (6), Pac-12 (4), Big 12 (3), ACC (2), Independent (1), AAC (1).
Maybe next week: Mississippi State, Memphis, Army, Boise State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Missouri, Washington State.