16 Aug 2019 AROSE PRESEASON CFB TOP 25: 11-25
11). TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Kellen Mond has improved throughout the spring from a season ago, showing he will be a much better passer to go along with his excellent running ability. He wasn’t an awful passer in 2018, but expect him to look more like a QB in regards to his footwork and reads. With Trayveon Williams gone, Jashaun Corbin will fill the role as the Aggies #1 back with an almost identical workload and should be able to match Williams production as well. In Jimbo Fisher’s first season, he went ahead and set the A&M rushing record in yards, and had over 100 more rushing attempts than the Aggies had in 2017.
Defensive Line is their strong point returning Justin Madubuike, their #2 sack leader in 2018. Their pass rush will be key throughout one of the most difficult schedules in college football and will need to be at an elite level to make up for their inexperienced linebacker unit.
If the Aggies inexperienced defense (only 4 returning starters) can learn as they go through some of their top tier games (@ Clemson, vs Auburn, vs Alabama) teams like UGA and LSU should be worried in the last two weeks of the regular season.
12). OREGON DUCKS
Justin Herbert would have been a top-three QB selected in the 2019 NFL Draft but elected to return for his senior season in Eugene. The Ducks not only return their star QB but a total of 10 starters on offense! Their offensive line play will be what puts them ahead of the other PAC-12 teams, with all of their returning starters on the line coming back including 4 seniors. Herbert will be surrounded by experienced weapons and a line that will make it near impossible for the defense to get to him.
Oregon signed the #1 recruit in the nation in Kayvon Thibodeaux who will strengthen a defensive line that lost a couple of starters. But have a pair of corners in Lenoir and Graham who may be the best duo in the PAC-12 and a top linebacker in the PAC-12 in Troy Dye. This defense is going to be one of the best in their conference.
In their rotation, they avoid playing Utah, the clear #1 in the South. Their #1 challenge in their schedule will be against Auburn to kick off the season, but the game that will most likely determine the North champ is when they visit the Washington Huskies on October 19th.
13). WASHINGTON HUSKIES
Jake Browning was the best QB in Washington history, and it will be almost impossible to replicate the love the fans had for him and the success he brought Washington over the past couple of years. QB Jacob Eason will look to win over that love and step into a situation where he will be able to win immediately, especially considering his IQ and arm are viewed to be even stronger than Browning’s. After sitting out a year behind Browning, Eason is prepared and ready to take on this role and compete for a PAC-12 title. To get there, however, they need production out of the backfield with Myles Gaskin gone, he provided so much spark for the Washington offense and there isn’t a clear #1 in this group so a group effort will need to do the job.
The lone returning starter on the D-Line, Levi Onwuzurike is set to step up in a huge way for Washington. He was able to get 26 QB pressures in 2018 as well as 6.5 tackles for a loss. Levi has a knack for getting into the backfield and will continue to keep that up in 2019 where he will break out as one of the top linemen in the conference.
The PAC-12 this year is a three-horse race between Oregon, Washington, and Utah. I believe Washington falls in the middle of the pack among these three, but may also be able to jump up early depending which way Auburn-Oregon goes. This looks like a team that will be undefeated in late October before having the opportunity to host Oregon and Utah with a bye week in between.
14). AUBURN TIGERS
A young QB room will find redshirt Freshman Joey Gatewood as the starting QB for Auburn. He brings a strong, athletic build which will fit with the Tiger’s running backs nicely. The running back group will be able to take some pressure off the freshman QB, returning almost all of their rushing yards from a year ago as well as 15 TDs.
Auburn’s defensive line is absolutely nasty, consisting of a pair of seniors and a pair of juniors. Derrick Brown and Nick Coe return 11.5 sacks and will have to continuously pressure the QB to force throws downfield for their experienced secondary to take care of, led by Daniel Thomas, who was their leading tackler in 2018 with 74 tackles.
If this brutal schedule will allow Auburn a break at all here it is: they get to host Georgia and Alabama just like in 2017. Along the way, they will have to visit A&M and Florida with a non-con game to open the year against AROSE #12, Oregon. Auburn will be tested but if they steal a few wins on the road early, this team becomes a major threat in November.
15). UTAH UTES
In 2018, Utah lost two of their best players on offense to season-ending injuries. Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss went down at the same point in the season. Both starters return this year and look to have huge bounce-back seasons. Despite only playing in 9 games, Moss rushed for 1143 yards for 11 touchdowns! Moss was primed to be one of the best backs in the PAC-12 before the injury and barring another injury this season, will look to repeat that success and prove to not only be a great back out west but one of the best in the nation.
“Sack Lake City, Utah” is back. This defensive line is the real deal and will dominate the line as they did in 2018. This group recorded 37 sacks in 2018 and return every single starter. The two on the line to keep an eye out for in the NFL Draft are senior DE Bradlee Anae as well as interior defensive lineman Leki Fotu. Both of these guys are absolute studs and will be a terror for offensive lines that get in their way.
As my third and last team from the PAC-12 included in the AROSE Preseason Top 25, the Utes round out the three-horse race out west. Notably, the only team in the PAC-12 South to make this list. This division should be Utah’s to lose, and will likely face either Oregon or Washington in the PAC-12 championship.
16). MIAMI HURRICANES
Redshirt freshman Jarren Williams has officially been named the starting QB for the Hurricanes’ Week 1 matchup against Florida. What does this mean? It means N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell, both with playing experience from a year ago will be starting the season from the bench. Martell was one of the biggest names to enter the transfer portal, deciding to leave Ohio State after last year, and ended up not winning the job. As of now, we do not know if he will transfer again, but it is hard to believe he will have eligibility if he does, but who knows with how the NCAA hands out waivers like free samples at Panda Express.
The Hurricanes defense is for sure the strong side of the ball this year, as they return all three of their linebackers, totaling 184 tackles and 9.5 sacks. MLB Shaquille Quarterman is fresh off a first-team All-ACC and will look to top that again in 2018. Manny Diaz is viewed across the country as a strong defensive-oriented coach and will only help improve the development of this defense. They showcase the best linebacker group in the ACC and will have to rely on shutting down teams defensively rather than blowing them out on offense.
1st-year coach Manny Diaz was hired in-house after the announcement that Mark Richt would be retiring. Diaz will be challenged immediately facing AROSE #8 Florida to kick off the college football season. Miami will be considered the favorite to win the Coastal but will have some work to do against improved Virginia Tech and UVA teams, who they face in a six-day span to begin October.
17). PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Exit Trace McSorley, Enter Sean Clifford. There is a new era of Nittany Lion Football, and it begins this year as sophomore Sean Clifford takes the reigns under center. 2018 was not the way Penn State wanted to close out McSorley’s career and Clifford will have to transition seamlessly if this team wants a shot to make that November 26th match-up against Ohio State mean a little more. Penn State returns their top two receivers from 2018, WR KJ Hamler and TE Pat Freiermuth, who collectively gained 1000+ yards in the air for 13 TDs. Hamler and Freirmuth will be crucial options for Clifford, but Ricky Splade is their biggest X-Factor. Last year they had to replace the first-round pick, Saquon Barkley, this year they replace Miles Sanders. Ricky Splade has some big names to live up to in Happy Valley. I do not believe he will come close to matching the production those two had, but as a committee, Splade/Brown/Cain/Ford can come close to matching the 1300 Sanders had in 2018.
Good news for Penn State is that their defense is solid at every level. Returning their leading tackler in LB Micah Parsons, leading sack man in Yetur Gross-Matos, and CB John Reid who suffered an ACL injury in 2017. With an offense full of question marks, it is comforting knowing you have a high-quality defensive product to put out on the field.
The talent level gap between Michigan/Ohio State to Penn State is too large for Penn State to be able to make a playoff push, they are weaker on every side of the ball. They will have an opportunity to play spoiler hosting Michigan on October 19th, which as I mentioned would set up a big match-up against Ohio State in November.
18). WISCONSIN BADGERS
Badgers offense is not always pretty to watch, but with Jonathan Taylor in your backfield, you must tune in. Back for his Junior season, Taylor rushed for 2194 yards for 16 TDs, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Taylor is a special running back, and will be running for many years once he enters the NFL, but is there enough on this Wisconsin offense so that it’s not solely relied on his legs? At Badger camp, there is currently a QB competition between freshman Graham Mertz and junior Jack Coan. Coan is coming off an up and down season in 2018, only making four starts and varying between flashes of excellence and some rough games in the mix. Mertz had an electric senior season in his home state of Kansas but will have to earn his reigns as a starter. I don’t believe it’s a matter of IF Mertz will earn the starting QB role, it’s a matter of when.
After what most would call an “off” year for a typically strong Wisconsin defense, they were hit hard with the injury bug and couldn’t keep a consistent defensive unit on the field throughout the season. This year they return over half of their starting defense and will attempt to improve upon an outlier of a year in Wisconsin history, improving from the 2018 defensive numbers.
In a wide-open West division, Wisconsin got an unlucky draw having to take on Michigan and visit Columbus. Those match-ups can put a damper on the Badgers season and truly make this division a toss-up. I have them as my highest-ranked team in the West for now, but the clock is ticking on Wisconsin.
19). IOWA STATE CYCLONES
As a true freshman last year, Brock Purdy impressed anyone who had a chance to catch a Cyclones game. After a 1-3 start, Purdy took over as the starting QB when he came in against Oklahoma State, and he did not turn back, ending the season on a 7-2 run. With this run towards the end of the year, the talk around town was the improved Iowa State Cyclones and what they can bring to the table next year. Well, they land at #19 on the AROSE Top 25 and could keep up on both sides of the ball with any Big 12 team. Four seniors return on the offensive line, protecting Purdy but more importantly, this experienced unit will be able to create gaps for the young running back group to try and replicate David Montgomery’s production.
Last season was as strong of a season ISU could’ve had defensively, giving up only 22.9 points per game. This defense will be one of the best in the Big 12 along with TCU, two teams who I feel can put Oklahoma and Texas on upset alert and spoil their playoff dreams.
20). MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
If there was ever a season to forget and move on from, it’s Michigan State’s 2018 season. They started the season getting upset by an Arizona State team that nobody respected going into the year. This loss set the tone for the Spartans season where they finished a mediocre 7-6 and coincidentally lost their bowl game to Oregon in a 7-6 barnburner. They will be improved offensively for sure this season, overcoming injuries on the offensive line allowing them to get back to running the football, which they do so well. They also return nine starters on offense. Their QB situation was ROUGH last season, neither Lewerke or Lombardi showed promise, so getting back to the ground will be key. Leading that rushing attack is Connor Heyward and true freshman Anthony Williams. Williams and Heyward will need to pick up the production LJ Scott left behind and are more than capable of handling that workload. Reports from MSU camp suggest Anthony Williams is making strides as a true freshman and will most likely see majority touches on this offense.
Ahh, the epitome of a Big Ten team, strong rushing game, even better defense. This Spartan defense in my eyes is the best in the Big Ten and could easily be one of the best nationally. Returning eight starters on defense, including the Big Ten defensive line player of the year, Raequan Williams, they have a star at every level of the defense and will be out to play some hard-nosed football this year. LB Joe Bachle had 102 tackles in 2018 and CB Josiah Scott led the team in pass breakups with seven.
MSU will have an extremely interesting year if their offense can keep up with some scoring machines in their division. Their October will make or break their season, visiting Columbus and Madison back to back weeks and then State College, PA to end the month. It will be an interesting year to see how Dantonio bounces back but I do believe he will and the Spartans will be back to form competing in the Big Ten East.
21). CINCINNATI BEARCATS
Cincinnati had themselves a great season in 2018, totaling 11 victories including a bowl win against Virginia Tech. In 2019, they return 7 starters on both sides of the ball, but most importantly 1st team All-AAC running back Michael Warren. Warren rushed for 1329 yards for 19 touchdowns, which landed him in the top five in rushing touchdown for the season. Not only does Warren return, but all three of his back-ups as well, allowing the Bearcats to “run back” the success they found on the ground in 2018.
Cincy’s defense showed out last season, flexing two shutout victories on their schedule and a remarkable 17.2 ppg allowed. As I mentioned, with 7 returning starters they should match the success that they had a year ago. They begin the season with two Power 5 games, hosting UCLA and then visiting Ohio State. I do not see UCLA by any means giving them trouble and would be a nice win to set the tempo of the season, but against Ohio State, they should look for minor victories and remain confident in a game which may get ugly for the Bearcats.
22). NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
The Cornhuskers are one of the most hyped-up teams entering 2019 and for good reason. After starting 2018 at a lousy 0-6, they were able to salvage the season with a 4-8 record and looked much improved in those final six games. Adrian Martinez stood out as one of the best true freshman QBs in the nation, whose numbers will only get better and better while playing under HC Scott Frost. Focusing in on those last six games, their offense excelled in five of the six and squeaked away with a 9-6 victory at home against Michigan State. I see Martinez and Frost taking another step in the right direction this season and making the most of their opportunity in a wide-open Big Ten West.
The defense struggled last season and they return six starters from that group in 2019. Last season was their first year with their new coaching staff, so I’m not looking too much into their defensive performance, they will make the necessary adjustments to be serviceable. This is not your typical Big Ten defense, Nebraska is going to beat you by outscoring you with their explosive offense and hope the defense can simply allow less. This typically fades the mindset of most of the old school Big Ten teams and if they can’t keep up with the fast Nebraska offense, the Huskers will put this division on blast.
As I mentioned, this is a wide-open division and every conference game counts in the standings. The highest AROSE ranked Big West team to begin the year in Wisconsin at #18, but their Big Ten East schedule is brutal. Nebraska was fortunate enough to have Maryland in their rotation but also has to host Ohio State in late September, they will likely jump out to a quick 4-0 start before facing the Buckeyes. Their November stretch ends with them hosting Wisconsin, visiting Maryland, and hosting Iowa; which will likely determine how the Big Ten West shapes out.
23). ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS
Coming off an 11 win season in 2018, West Point looks to match their success and put together another double-digit win season. QB Kelvin Hopkins returns as their leading rusher and passer in this triple-option system that the academies are known for running. The most important piece of the triple option is having a solid offensive line you are confident in to get you good looks in the run game. Three offensive line and four skill players return, in an offense that you only get better in over your time in the system.
What scares me about teams that run the option is that’s what you have your defense practicing against, leaving the defense at a disadvantage when faced with an offense they are not familiar with because they just haven’t seen that ran naturally in their practice. No matter what offense this defense is covering, CB Elijah Riley is one of the best to do it. He was a first-team all-Independent player in 2018, lining up alongside Julian Love of Notre Dame. Army should be confident in their ability to cover all big-time receivers on their schedule with Riley on the field, who totaled 10 pass breakups, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 55 overall tackles.
Army has an interesting schedule in 2019. They don’t have many challenging games besides Week 2 when they visit Ann Arbor. In 2018, Army was involved in an OT thriller in Norman, Oklahoma which was one of the first big upset watch games of the year… will the Black Knights embrace that dog role and give a top-five team a scare again this season?
24). IOWA HAWKEYES
The biggest name on this Hawkeyes team comes on the defensive side of the ball. DE AJ Epenesa had an unbelievable 2018 with 10.5 sacks, 6 TFL and 8 QB hits, earning him a spot on 1st Team All-Big Ten. He will need to match the production he brought Iowa a year ago into this year, with Iowa losing four starting defensive linemen. The craziest thing about Epenesa is that he didn’t start a single game for Iowa and still put up these unbelievable numbers! He will continue to dominate the trenches this season, as he continues to build a strong draft resume that NFL teams will be drooling over come April.
Under center for his third season as the Hawkeyes starting QB is Nathan Stanley, who put together a pretty good year in 2018 with 26 touchdown passes and 2800 yards. He is a true stay in pocket QB and will have all the time he needs with the always impressive Iowa offensive line. Iowa’s entire RB group also returns this season, combining for over 1700 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. One area that will be almost impossible to replace for the Hawkeyes is at TE. In the 2019 NFL Draft, both Iowa TE’s TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant went in the first 20 picks of the draft! Losing that much NFL talent, who were also their top two receiving options, forces an opportunity for someone to step up and become Nate Stanley’s primary target in 2019.
25). TCU HORNED FROGS
Now this team is one of the teams I am most excited for in 2019 despite most people suggesting to ease up on the hype of TCU. The Texas Christian Horned Frogs, fresh off an unforgettable Cheez-It Bowl win are set to take a leap and compete for a Big 12 championship. Other than his first two seasons at TCU, Head Coach Gary Patterson has bounced back from a single-digit win season with a double-digit win season every time throughout his 19-year tenure.
Another QB competition going on at TCU camp is between a transfer from Kansas State, Alex Delton, and true freshman Max Duggan. Both have been very impressive in camp, but either one will benefit from WR Jalen Reagor on the field. Reagor is a future first-round wideout, coming off of a 1061 yard 9 TD season, and being named to 3rd Team All American. Incredibly, Reagor was able to put up these numbers in 2018, considering the lack of talent that was throwing him the ball in whatever TCU was trying to accomplish with their QBs last year. Reagor will continue to build a strong resume with an improved QB under center no matter who wins the competition.
The Horned Frogs secondary is one of the best in the entire nation, the duo of seniors Jeff Gladney and Julius Lewis is more than capable to keep pace with the high energy Big 12 offenses, which will throw off many of these spread teams when they have no open options. Plugging the middle is NG Ross Blacklock who was out all of 2018, but is a returning starter from two years ago and adds to the depth of this defensive line.
Honorable Mentions: Central Florida, Missouri, Northwestern, Stanford, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Washington State