In 2018, we saw franchises win for the first time (the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Capitals), dominant teams and dynasties add another trophy to the case (Alabama Crimson Tide, Golden State Warriors) and individual athletes finally capture those coveted titles. As we reflect back on the top moments in sports from the past year, Sports Illustrated's writers are also looking ahead into the future at what next year will bring. Here are our predictions for the teams and individuals that will win championships in 2019, be it on Jan. 7 at the College Football Playoff National Championship, in March at the NCAA tournament or in October at the World Series.
Super Bowl champion: New Orleans Saints
No team has a combination of world-beating offense and functional defense quite like New Orleans. Every one of the favorites heading into playoff season—Kansas City, the Rams and Chargers, the Bears—seem fatally flawed in one aspect of their game. The Saints have the ability to win as a power running team, to place the game on Drew Brees’ shoulders and out-pass their opponents and, if all else fails, utilize their dominant front to create havoc in the opposing backfield. It would be surprising to see the Brees and Sean Payton relationship end with just one championship, and the league may just be wide-open enough this season for the Saints to roll in and get their second. —Conor Orr
UEFA Champions League: Manchester City
Pep Guardiola’s City will finally get over the hump in Champions League, the holy grail for Manchester’s noisy neighbors. Pep’s project has been improving every year, and City has the talent, the depth and the chemistry to win soccer’s most important club trophy for the first time. —Grant Wahl
Women’s World Cup: United States
Jill Ellis’s U.S. team has been rolling over the past year after switching to a 4-3-3 formation, and if the rarely tested defense can hold up, the Americans will raise World Cup trophy No. 4 in Lyon next July. It doesn’t hurt that perennial rival Germany is going through a downturn, while host France has failed to come up big when the pressure is on. —Grant Wahl
Gold Cup: Mexico
After leading Atlanta to the MLS title, Tata Martino is expected to take over El Tri, and he’ll have plenty of young and veteran talent to work with next summer. New U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter will have the U.S. ready, despite only a small amount of prep time with his best players, but Mexico will feature too many weapons in the final. —Wahl
Copa América: Brazil
Going out in the World Cup quarterfinals was disappointing for Brazil, but hosting the Copa América will give the Seleção a chance to back up its dominant run in World Cup qualifying and bring some pride back to Brazilian soccer. —Wahl
Stanley Cup Champion: Nashville Predators
It’s finally time for the Nashville Predators to win the Cup. After losing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017 and winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s most points scored in 2018, the Predators are due for their first-ever title in 2019.
The Lightning and Maple Leafs have held down the fort with the Predators at the top of the standings through the first couple months of the season, but Nashville seems to be the most resilient. Even after suffering injuries to several major players—P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, to name a few—the Predators haven’t really wavered. If they get their injury bug out of the way now and have the majority of their firepower return within the next month or two, expect the Preds to bust out one final surge heading into the playoffs that will finally see them hoist Lord Stanley. —Kristen Nelson
College Basketball, Men’s
NCAA champion: Duke Blue Devils
Talk of the Blue Devils running the table was snuffed out early by a loss to Gonzaga, but that it took such a strong night from such a talented and experienced Bulldogs team to knock them off is a testament to just how good Duke is already. Without the burden of chasing perfection, the absurdly talented, skilled and large Blue Devils can focus on improving further still, something Coach K's freshmen-heavy teams have shown a knack for doing rapidly in recent years. No team's ceiling is higher. —Dan Greene
College Basketball, Women’s
NCAA champion: UConn Huskies
The more things change, the more they stay the same. UConn looks like it’s on a revenge tour after being bounced in the Final Four the last two years. The Huskies avenged last year’s loss with a drubbing of then-No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend that should have sent warning signs around college basketball. Geno Auriemma is as fiery as ever and his team has rarely looked more dangerous. Katie Lou Samuelson looks fully recovered from the foot injury that plagued her last season, Napheesa Collier is impossible to keep off the boards and Christyn Williams is living up to all of the hype she drummed up before ever playing a collegiate game. Over the summer, Williams boldly predicted that UConn was going to win a national championship during her freshman year. If the beginning of the season is any indication, it looks like UConn’s newest star has the ability to predict the future. —Kellen Becoats
The Masters: Tony Finau
Over the last 12 months, Tony Finau has done everything…except win. The big-hitting Utahn contended in majors down the stretch, finishing in the top 10 of 2018’s Masters, U.S. and British Opens. He made his first Ryder Cup team and was one of exactly two Americans to escape Le Golf National with a winning record. The big win is a matter of when, not if, for Finau, and the Masters suits his game nicely—he drives it a country mile but has the scoring touch necessary to navigate Augusta’s tricky green complexes. Plus, he has a history there. Remember last year, when he badly twisted his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one at the par 3 contest, then still finished T-10 on an ankle the size of a softball? This time around, assuming he avoids similar disaster on the eve of the tournament, the 6’6” Finau will slip on one of the larger green jackets ever produced. —Daniel Rapaport
PGA Championship: Tiger Woods
Wishful thinking? Maybe. Totally out of the realm of possibility? Absolutely not. Tiger Woods showed last year that he’s capable of winning majors again. Remember, he led on the Sunday back nine at Carnoustie and finished solo second at Bellerive. Woods typically fares well on PGA Championship setups—he’s won the tournament four times—and he’s got a solid history at this year’s host venue, Bethpage Black, where he won the U.S. Open in 2002 and finished T-4 in 2009. Woods wins the first PGA Championship in May for his 15th major and, in the process, truly completes one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history. —Rapaport
U.S. Open: Tommy Fleetwood
The casual golf fan was introduced to Tommy Lad at the 2018 U.S. Open, where he fired a final-round 63 and to finish a single shot behind eventual champion Brooks Koepka. The avid golf fan has been aware of Fleetwood, his glorious un-country club locks and ballstriking prowess for a while now. The U.S. Open always puts a premium on finding fairways and greens, and Pebble Beach will do more of the same come June. That will play into Fleetwood’s hands, and he’ll pick up his first—and likely not his last—major on the shores of Northern California. —Rapaport
British Open: Rory McIlroy
In the summer of 2005, a 16-year-old phenom shot 61 to break the course record at a golf course that dates back to 1888. The phenom was Rory McIlroy. The golf course was Royal Portrush. For the first time since 1951, this year’s Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland’s small seaside town of Portrush and McIlroy couldn’t ask for a better place to end his four-plus year major drought. The man formerly known as Boy Wonder will turn 30 in May and, despite having four, the overwhelming sense is that he should have won more majors by now. He’ll get back to his world-beating ways on a golf course he’ll know as well as anyone else in the field, notching major No. 5 and re-establishing himself as one of golf’s top dogs. —Rapaport
Finals Champion: Golden State Warriors
Could it be that picking the Warriors to win the title is less of a layup (or more appropriately, a wide-open three) than years past? Sure. They don’t seem to be getting along all that well, Kevin Durant may have one foot out the door, and the Western Conference is proving more treacherous than usual. But as long as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are healthy come playoff time, there’s no opponent capable of upending Golden State four times in seven games. Maybe this group has developed an unseemly on/off switch, or the chemistry experiment has begun to boil over, but they have almost always found a way when it counts. It’s good news for the league from an entertainment perspective that this selection was more difficult than usual. But it’s the Warriors’ crown to lose, and we’re all hurtling toward the same endpoint until further notice. —Jeremy Woo
Women’s Player of the Year 2019: Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens did not back up her 2017 by winning another major singles title. She did not straighten a career marked by zig-zagging results. She lost her share of matches in puzzling fashion, twice in very first round of majors. And yet 2018 may have marked best—and defining—year of her career. She won a big-ticket title in Miami, bringing her exquisite mix of offense and defense to bear. She reached the final of the French Open, coming within a few games of the title. She finished the year ranked higher (6) than when she started (13). And above all, Stephens, unlike so many in the tennis salon, again showed that she’s utterly comfortable with her erraticism.
Tennis is a horizontal sport, the ball bounding and bouncing back and forth over the net. But tennis fortunes move vertically. And Stephens possesses an unrivalled ability to strap in for the ascents and descents. Wins don’t particularly inflate her. Losses don’t deflate her. Some players embrace chaos and change and competition. Stephens embraces her inconsistency. This will serve her well in 2019. The WTA field is wide and deep as ever—cut and paste: eight different players have won the last eight majors. Unpredictability swirls as fiercely as ever. Serena Williams enters the season in the final stages on her monarchy. Simona Halep, the world No. 1 enters without a coach. Angelique Kerber, the defending Wimbledon champ, enters with a new coach. Caroline Wozniacki, the defending Australian Open champ, confronts rheumatoid arthritis. Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Open champ, comes saddled with post-breakthrough expectations. Then there’s Stephens, who is hard-wired for flux. She’ll win some matches, looking like the champ she’s been. She’ll lose matches, looking disengaged. But she’ll be comfortable with it all. She’s managed her own expectations. And, now more than ever, that’s a considerable weapon. —Jon Wertheim
Men’s Player of the Year 2019: Novak Djokovic
The casual fan will look at the Novak Djokovic ledger for the year 2018 and shrug. Two majors, the top ranking, two Masters 1000s titles for good measure. Almost $16 million in prize money. Yeah, that’s about right.
In sports, as in life, often context is everything. The way Djokovic managed his year spoke as much to his character as to his actual achievements. Djokovic’s start to 2018 was a continuation of his dismal 2017. Projecting confusion and joylessness—looking at his racket as if it were Excalibur drained of magical powers—Djokovic lost early and often. At the Australian Open, the event he has won more often than not over the last decade, he fell in round four to Hyeon Cheong, a Korean then ranked outside the top 50. For months, it got worse from there. And Andre Agassi was another “L.” In his first full-time coaching job since retiring, Agassi consciously uncoupled from Djokovic after less than a year, citing irreconcilable differences of opinion.
But Djokovic reunited his band, most notably his longtime coach, Marian Vajda. He reacquainted himself with his talent. His confidence followed. And…presto, the Djoker was back. He won Wimbledon—including a takedown of Rafael Nadal in the match of the year—and all but ran the table, winning the U.S. Open, finishing No.1 and, above all, regaining his aura.
Djokovic now heads to Australia, not only unrecognizable from the guy who withered last year, but a player poised to dominate. Djokovic is the youngest of the “Big Three” and is, as Agassi once put it, “31 going on 25.” With Roger Federer age 37, Nadal struggling customarily with injuries, and Andy Murray still recovering from his hip surgery, Djokovic is exquisitely well positioned in 2019. He has 14 majors going in. Watch closely as that total swells. —Wertheim
NCAA national champion: Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama is poised to win its second consecutive national championship and sixth in 10 years, even despite some uncertainty at quarterback. Will Tua Tagovailoa be fully recovered, or at least well enough to play, in time for the College Football Playoff? He’s been practicing and recently said that he’ll “probably be 100% by the time the game comes.” Or, will Nick Saban go with former starter-turned-backup-turned SEC title game hero Jalen Hurts? It probably doesn’t matter as it pertains to winning another title.
The Crimson Tide has been especially dangerous this season because of the explosive level Tagovailoa took a good offense with plenty of playmakers. The sophomore didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, likely because of the high ankle sprain he sustained during the SEC championship game, but he did produce one of the finest seasons by a quarterback in Alabama history without ever playing a full game. He didn’t throw an interception until Nov. 3 and completed 67.7% of his passes for 3,353 yards with 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions. With Tagovailoa, Alabama scored a touchdown on its opening drive in 10 of 13 games and those possessions averaged a time span of 1:55.
Then there’s Hurts, the guy who didn’t transfer after he lost his starting job, continued to work all season as the No. 2 and was ready to come in the fourth quarter and lead Alabama to a comeback win over Georgia to clinch the conference championship and playoff spot.
Alabama’s indestructible as always has only given up a nation’s-best seven rushing touchdowns and has limited opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, holding down a 56% conversion rate. The group is anchored by probable future first round draft picks Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis and Deionte Thompson.
Alabama is also battle-tested, beating the nine SEC foes on its schedule this year by an average of 29.7 points while limiting teams to 14.8 ppg. All these things will help Saban earn his seventh title on Jan. 7, 2019, surpassing legendary coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant for the most titles by a head coach. —Laken Litman
World Series champion: Los Angeles Dodgers
December marks a difficult time in the baseball calendar for predictions. More and more, teams are choosing to wait out big-ticket free agents and hope their price drops. Contenders restock via trade and head into the new year without knowing which stars will land there. All this is to say: Don’t yell at me if I’m wrong. The landscape will change dramatically once Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign. In the meantime, the Dodgers seem a good bet to make the World Series for the third straight season. and win it for the first time in 31 years. The AL’s big three of the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Astros are probably stronger teams, but the Dodgers have the benefit of playing in what is, at present, a weaker league. They return most of the cast that got them the last two pennants, and if shortstop Corey Seager returns from Tommy John surgery on time and first baseman/centerfielder Cody Berlinger plays more like he did in 2017 than in ’18, their path to a title seems open. —Stephanie Apstein