Stadium’s Pre-Spring College Football Top 25: #5-1

    Today concludes with the top five teams in my pre-spring Top 25 rankings. If you didn’t like my rankings, I promise they will change after spring

    February 15, 2019

    Today concludes with the top five teams in my pre-spring Top 25 rankings. If you didn’t like my rankings, I promise they will change after spring practices are completed and most assuredly will be different when I submit my Associated Press preseason Top 25 ballot in August.

     

    No. 5 – Ohio State

    Last year: 13-1 (8-1 Big Ten)
    Bowl result: Defeated Washington 28-23 in Rose Bowl
    Consecutive bowl trips: Six years (5-2)
    Returning starters: 4 offense, 9 defense
    Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 7
    Toughest conference game: At Michigan, Nov. 30

    Who will face more pressure in 2019? New Ohio State coach Ryan Day or new quarterback Justin Fields? Probably both, but even with the changes, the Buckeyes are still the most talented team in the Big Ten and my pick to win the league. Day already knows what to expect as head coach of the Buckeyes after taking over for Urban Meyer after Meyer was suspended three games by the university last year for his handling of former assistant coach Zach Smith. Day was impressive in his three-game stint.

    Day and Ohio State picked up another victory last week with the NCAA granting Fields a hardship waiver, allowing the Georgia transfer to become immediately eligible in 2019. Fields takes over for Dwayne Haskins, who had 50 touchdown passes last season. In limited action at Georgia last year, Fields threw for 328 yards with four touchdowns. Running back J.K. Dobbins will be counted on heavily as Fields transitions to his new team.

    Ohio State should benefit from returning nine defensive starters and some new faces on the coaching staff. New co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who was at Michigan last year, and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich, who was Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator last season, are the most notable additions.

    The Buckeyes should race out to a 4-0 start before they get tested in consecutive weeks at Nebraska, home vs. Michigan State, at Northwestern and home vs. Wisconsin. Then they end the regular season at home against Penn State and at Michigan.

    Record last 5 years:
    2018: 13-1
    2017: 12-2
    2016: 11-2
    2015: 12-1
    2014: 14-1

    Record vs. spread last 3 years: 20-21

    File away: Ohio State has won seven consecutive games against Michigan and 14 of the last 15 contests with the Wolverines.

    Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate SuperBook): 8/1

    [READ: McMurphy’s Top 25 – Nos. 25-21]

    No. 4 – Oklahoma

    Last year: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12)
    Bowl result: Lost to Alabama 45-34 in Orange Bowl
    Consecutive bowl trips: 20 years (9-11)
    Returning starters: 4 offense, 10 defense
    Toughest non-conference game: At UCLA, Sept. 14
    Toughest conference game: Texas in Dallas, Oct. 12

    Can Jalen Hurts make it a Heisman Trophy 3-peat for Oklahoma quarterbacks? Hurts is expected to be the Sooners’ third consecutive starting quarterback that transferred into OU. The previous two: Heisman winners Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield.

    Hurts is the most noteworthy transfer of 2018, after spending three seasons at Alabama. As a sophomore in 2017, he led the Tide to the College Football Playoff, but was replaced by Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the National Championship Game. Hurts saw limited action last season, although he led Bama to a thrilling win in the SEC title game against Georgia. Now, Hurts gets a chance to work with Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. At Alabama, Hurts was considered a better runner than passer and finished with 48 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Ironically, in Hurts’ freshman season at Alabama, he attempted 382 passes – or five more than Murray did in winning the Heisman last season. Besides Murray, the Sooners also must replace star wide receiver Hollywood Brown.

    While Hurts will get all the headlines, if the Sooners are to return to the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive season they must improve on defense. They return 10 starters, which may or may not be a positive, considering how bad the Sooners’ defense was last season. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was one of the top offseason hires and should pay immediate dividends for Oklahoma.

    The Sooners will once again be the favorites to win the Big 12 and should be favored in all 12 regular season contests. Out of conference, they play UCLA, while their toughest Big 12 games will be against Texas in Dallas, at home against Iowa State (the Cyclones won in Norman two years ago) and the regular season finale in the Bedlam Series against Oklahoma State.

    Record last 5 years:
    2018: 12-2
    2017: 12-2
    2016: 11-2
    2015: 11-2
    2014: 8-5

    Record vs. spread last 3 years: 21-19-1

    File away: Since 2014, Oklahoma has been favored in 46 of its 47 games against Big 12 opponents. In that span, OU has a 40-7 record in Big 12 play with four of those losses coming in 2014. Since 2015, OU is 35-3 vs. the Big 12 with its only losses to Texas (in 2015 and 2018) and Iowa State (in 2017).

    Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate SuperBook): 18/1

    [READ: McMurphy’s Top 25 – Nos. 20-16]

    No. 3 – Alabama

    Last year: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)
    Bowl result: Lost to Clemson 44-16 in College Football Championship
    Consecutive bowl trips: 15 years (12-7)
    Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
    Toughest non-conference game: Duke in Atlanta, Aug. 31
    Toughest conference game: Home vs. LSU, Nov. 9

    Alabama had a program-record seven early entrants into the NFL Draft. In all, the Crimson Tide will have a national-best 11 players at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Crimson Tide also must replace seven assistant coaches, a year after losing six full-time assistants. And for the third consecutive season, Alabama will have a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. Will the large amount of turnover make Alabama vulnerable in 2019? I believe so.

    The end of the 2018 season marked the Tide’s worst showing defensively in six years as Alabama allowed more than 30 points in consecutive games against Oklahoma and Clemson for the first time since 2013. Despite all the losses, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes Alabama will remain a force to contend with. “I told Coach Saban after the (national title) game, ‘See you next year,’ because I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere. They’ll be back.”

    If so, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will need to replicate his early success last season – 36 touchdown passes and two interceptions – compared to his struggles in the final three games (seven TD passes, four interceptions). Leading receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs return, but the Tide lost a number of starters on both the offensive and defensive lines.

    Alabama is the only team that has qualified for the College Football Playoff all five seasons and is among the favorites according to the Westgate SuperBook to make a sixth consecutive appearance. Even with all the coaching and personnel losses, Alabama’s schedule is one of the weakest it has faced in Saban’s 12 seasons. The Tide open with Duke in Atlanta (that’s their marquee non-conference game) and in SEC play, their toughest contests are at Texas A&M and Auburn, and home against LSU. Alabama is projected to be favored in all 12 regular season games this fall, likely improving its streak to 66 consecutive games as the favorite.

    Record last 5 years:
    2018: 14-1
    2017: 13-1
    2016: 14-1
    2015: 14-1
    2014: 12-2

    Record vs. spread last 3 years: 24-18-2

    File away: Since the 2014 regular season, the New England Patriots and Alabama have alternated winning the Super Bowl and College Football Playoff championships each year. The Pats in 2014, 2016 and 2018; Alabama in 2015 and 2017.

    Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate SuperBook): 5/2

    [READ: McMurphy’s Top 25: Nos. 15-11]

    No. 2 – Georgia

    Last year: 11-3 (7-1 SEC)
    Bowl result: Lost to Texas 28-21 in Sugar Bowl
    Consecutive bowl trips: 22 years (16-7)
    Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
    Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 21
    Toughest conference game: Florida in Jacksonville, Nov. 2

    Before you bombard me on Twitter: yes, you are reading correctly, I have Georgia ranked ahead of Alabama. The Bulldogs return 15 starters, 11 of which were freshmen or sophomores last season, and if they can stay off Twitter long enough (like before last year’s Sugar Bowl), I think this will be a really special season for Georgia.

    Quarterback Jake Fromm is back for his junior season and won’t have to worry about Justin Fields lurking over his shoulder with Fields transferring to Ohio State. Last year, Fromm was fifth nationally in passing efficiency and should benefit from throwing behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Running back D’Andre Swift also returns after rushing for 1,049 yards last season while splitting time with Elijah Holyfield, who is off to the NFL.

    On defense, the Bulldogs return eight starters on a unit that ranked second in the SEC in passing defense and total defense, and held eight of 12 regular season opponents to 17 points or less. In 2019, Georgia will play only five games away from Athens – four true road games (the toughest at Auburn) and the annual Florida game in Jacksonville. The seven-game home schedule is highlighted by a monster matchup with Notre Dame on Sept. 21 and Texas A&M on Nov. 23, when the Aggies visit Athens for the first time since 1980.

    Record last 5 years:
    2018: 11-3
    2017: 13-2
    2016: 8-5
    2015: 10-3
    2014: 10-3

    Record vs. spread last 3 years: 25-17

    File away: Last year’s Georgia-Florida game marked the 19th time in the past 39 years that both teams were ranked in the Top 25 at kickoff. Since 1980, only twice – 2010 and 2013 – has neither team been ranked when the Bulldogs and Gators meet.

    Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate SuperBook): 8/1

    [READ: McMurphy’s Top 25: Nos. 10-6]

    No. 1 – Clemson

    Last year: 15-0 (8-0 ACC)
    Bowl result: Defeated Alabama 44-16 in National Championship Game
    Consecutive bowl trips: 14 years (10-7)
    Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense
    Toughest non-conference game: Home vs. Texas A&M, Sept. 7
    Toughest conference game: At Syracuse, Sept. 14

    Clemson enters 2019 looking to extend its NCAA-record streak of eight consecutive seasons finishing the year ranked higher or equal in the final Associated Press poll than it was in the preseason AP poll. In two of the past eight seasons, Clemson started No. 2 in the preseason, but ended up ranked No. 1 after winning the national title (2016 and 2018). Clemson likely will have to repeat as national champions to keep that streak going because I believe the Tigers will be preseason No. 1 when the AP poll is released in August.

    Coach Dabo Swinney welcomes the challenge. Even though Clemson’s defense only returns four starters, Swinney is not concerned. “I think we have a lot of guys that y’all don’t have no idea who they are right now,” Swinney said the morning after beating Alabama in the 2018 title game. “But this time next year everybody is going to know who they are.”

    Everyone already knows who the Tigers have back on offense: quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and wide receiver Justyn Ross are just a few. Lawrence replaced Kelly Bryant as the Tigers’ starting quarterback early on and led Clemson to the first 15-0 season in modern day history. Lawrence starred in the two College Football Playoff victories, completing 65 percent of his passes while averaging 337 passing yards a game, and racking up a combined six touchdowns and no interceptions. Etienne finished the season with 1,658 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns.

    The Tigers, who have not been a regular season underdog since 2016, should be the favorites all year long. Their toughest test will come out of conference when Texas A&M visits on Sept. 7, followed by a visit to Syracuse, where Clemson lost its last visit to the Carrier Dome in 2017.

    Record last 5 years:
    2018: 15-0
    2017: 12-2
    2016: 14-1
    2015: 14-1
    2014: 10-3

    Record vs. spread last 3 years: 25-17-2

    File away: Clemson has been an underdog seven times in the past four seasons. The Tigers won five of those games and are 6-1 against the spread as an underdog since 2015.

    Odds to win College Football Playoff (via Westgate SuperBook): 2/1

    MORE: Predicting the 2019 Over/Under Win Totals for the Pac-12

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