Top 25 for 2020: Our early fore­cast

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS TUESDAY - By Matt Murschel

Check out our way-too-early look at the 2020 col­lege football top-25 rank­ings.

Clem­son

1

Trevor Lawrence re­turns for what most likely will be his fi­nal sea­son at Clem­son. The ju­nior quar­ter­back will surely open 2020 as one of the fa­vorites to win the Heis­man Tro­phy, and his re­turn is cru­cial for an of­fense that may have to deal with the de­par­ture of tail­back Travis Etienne and re­ceiver Tee Hig­gins. The of­fen­sive line will need to be re­built, but there is plenty of depth at the po­si­tion. The de­fense may lose some play­mak­ers to the NFL, in­clud­ing line­backer Isa­iah Sim­mons and de­fen­sive back A.J. Terrell, but an­other strong re­cruit­ing class should bol­ster the group.

Alabama

2

There’s no doubt los­ing Tua Tago­v­ailoa to the NFL will have an im­pact on the of­fense, but whether he is re­placed by Mac Jones or Bryce Young, the start­ing quar­ter­back will be sur­rounded by skilled play­mak­ers. The de­fense is young, with less than a hand­ful of se­niors on the ros­ter, but many of those play­ers, in­clud­ing line­backer Dy­lan Moses, have cru­cial ex­pe­ri­ence that will come in handy dur­ing earl­y­sea­son show­downs against USC (Sept. 5) and Ge­or­gia (Sept. 19).

Ohio State

3

Ohio State loses a pair of dy­namic play­mak­ers in run­ning back J.K. Dob­bins (2,003 yards) and de­fen­sive end Chase Young (16.5 sacks), but the Buck­eyes re­turn quar­ter­back Justin Fields, who led the Big Ten in to­tal of­fense while scor­ing 51 to­tal touch­downs with just three in­ter­cep­tions. The of­fense fea­tures plenty of tal­ent, high­lighted by run­ning back Mas­ter Teague, while the de­fense will need some time to grow. The big test comes dur­ing an early road con­test at Ore­gon on Sept. 12.

LSU

4

De­spite los­ing Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Joe Bur­row, LSU finds it­self right back in the mix in 2020. Myles Bren­nan takes over for Bur­row at quar­ter­back and will get help from re­ceivers Ja’Marr Chase (1,559 yards) and Ter­race Mar­shall Jr. (625 yards). Tail­back Clyde Ed­wards-He­laire could leave early for the NFL, but if he re­turns, he would bol­ster an al­ready ex­plo­sive of­fense. De­fen­sive back Derek St­in­g­ley Jr. and line­backer K’Lavon Chais­son could be the per­fect pair to an­chor the de­fense.

Florida

5

The Ga­tors have won 21 games, in­clud­ing back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games, dur­ing the past two sea­sons un­der coach Dan Mullen. Kyle Trask grew by leaps and bounds as a starter in 2019, mak­ing him one of the top re­turn­ing quar­ter­backs in the SEC. Florida fea­tured a top-10 de­fense and the re­turn of cor­ner­back Marco Wil­son could pro­vide the ex­pe­ri­ence needed to get past Ge­or­gia and win the SEC East.

Ok­la­homa

6

The big­gest un­cer­tainty fac­ing Ok­la­homa this off­sea­son is at quar­ter­back, where the Soon­ers will have a new starter for the fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son. Tan­ner Morde­cai and Spencer Rat­tler could begin an in­ter­est­ing quar­ter­back com­pe­ti­tion in the spring or Lin­coln Ri­ley could once again work his magic and land an ex­pe­ri­enced signal caller via the trans­fer por­tal.

Ge­or­gia

7

The ad­di­tion of Wake For­est trans­fer Jamie New­man pro­vides Ge­or­gia with an ex­pe­ri­enced quar­ter­back to re­place three-year starter Jake Fromm. New­man will bol­ster a Bull­dogs of­fense that only re­turns about 20% of its pro­duc­tion from 2019. The early chal­lenge will be a sched­ule that fea­tures Vir­ginia (Sept. 7) and Alabama (Sept. 19).

Ore­gon

8

Ore­gon was nine sec­onds away from a po­ten­tial spot in the Col­lege Football Play­off semi­fi­nals if the Ducks could have held off Auburn in the opener. Mario Cristobal’s team went on to win 12 of its last 13 games, in­clud­ing the Pac-12 cham­pi­onship and Rose Bowl. The team must find a re­place­ment for quar­ter­back Justin Herbert, but it oth­er­wise fea­tures a solid of­fen­sive line, and a 1,000-yard rusher in CJ Verdell.

Penn State

9

Penn State has 42 wins dur­ing the past four sea­sons, with the Nit­tany Lions fin­ish­ing no worse than third in the Big Ten East. The pro­gram re­turns most of its of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing quar­ter­back Sean Clif­ford and run­ning back Jour­ney Brown. All-Amer­i­can line­backer Micah Par­sons is back to lead a de­fense that al­lowed just 16 points per game in 2019.

Notre Dame

10

Notre Dame is com­ing off its third con­sec­u­tive dou­ble-digit win sea­son for the first time since 1991-93. If the Fighting Ir­ish hope to make it four straight years, they’ll have to quickly adapt to a new of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor. The team parted ways with Chip Long, who helped guide the of­fense to a top-13 fin­ish in to­tal of­fense. His re­place­ment will have the lux­ury of work­ing with ex­pe­ri­enced quar­ter­back Ian Book.

Auburn

11

Auburn is one of just two SEC teams ranked in the top 15 in the Col­lege Football Play­off rank­ings that will re­turn its start­ing quar­ter­back. Fresh­man Bo Nix stepped in and guided the team to a nine-win sea­son and it’s up to new of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Chad Mor­ris to get the most out of a Tigers of­fense that at times seemed to get stuck in neu­tral.

Min­nesota

12

Min­nesota is com­ing off the best sea­son in school his­tory, dur­ing which the Golden Go­phers fin­ished sec­ond in the Big Ten West be­hind Wis­con­sin. P.J. Fleck’s team re­turns a 3,000-yard passer in Tan­ner Mor­gan and a 1,000-yard re­ceiver in Rashod Bate­man along with vir­tu­ally the en­tire of­fen­sive line from 2019. The de­fense must ac­count for the loss of All-Amer­i­can safety An­toine Win­field Jr., but the group fea­tures a good mix of youth and ex­pe­ri­ence to make this team dan­ger­ous in 2020.

Texas

13

It turns out Texas wasn’t all the way back, but the Longhorns are sure to make a big­ger im­pres­sion in 2020. Tom Her­man re­booted his staff in the off­sea­son, adding a pair of former Ohio State coaches in Chris Ash (de­fense) and Mike Yur­cich (of­fense). The team re­turns quar­ter­back Sam Eh­linger (3,663 yards) along with run­ning backs Keaon­tay Ingram and Roschon John­son.

Michi­gan

14

This could be a make-or-break sea­son for Jim Har­baugh at Michi­gan. The Wolver­ines are com­ing off a dis­ap­point­ing 9-4 cam­paign in 2019 that was capped with the pro­gram’s fourth con­sec­u­tive bowl loss. Dy­lan Mc­Caf­frey and Joe Milton are ex­pected to com­pete for the start­ing quar­ter­back spot.

Ok­la­homa State

15

Af­ter three straight 10-win sea­sons be­tween 2015-17, the Cow­boys have dipped a bit and posted an eight-win sea­son in 2019. But Mike Gundy’s team re­turns a trea­sure trove of tal­ent, in­clud­ing quar­ter­back Spencer San­ders (2,065 yards) and re­ceiver Ty­lan Wal­lace (903 yards), but the pos­si­ble re­turn of run­ning back Chuba Hub­bard (2,094 yards) could be the big­gest gamechange­r for Ok­la­homa State.

Texas A&M

16

The Ag­gies are 17-9 (65%) dur­ing their first two sea­sons un­der coach Jimbo Fisher, with turnovers con­tribut­ing to the team’s strug­gles. Texas A&M has given up the football 38 times dur­ing the past two sea­sons. The pro­gram landed a No. 10 re­cruit­ing class and has enough re­turn­ing tal­ent for an­other eight- or nine-win sea­son.

Wis­con­sin

17

Wis­con­sin isn’t ready to give up its claim on the Big Ten West de­spite los­ing its top run­ning back (Jonathan Taylor), top re­ceiver (Quin­tez Ce­phus) and top of­fen­sive line­man (Tyler Bi­adasz) early to the NFL draft. In­cum­bent Jack Coan and sopho­more Gra­ham Mertz could be locked in a close quar­ter­back com­pe­ti­tion this fall.

Louisville

18

Scott Sat­ter­field led Louisville to eight wins and a sec­ond-place fin­ish in the ACC At­lantic in his first sea­son with the Car­di­nals. Quar­ter­back Malik Cun­ning­ham helped the team fin­ish as one of the top scor­ing of­fenses in the league af­ter fin­ish­ing with 2,547 yards. He’ll be joined by sopho­more tail­back Ja­vian Hawkins (1,525 yards) and re­ceiver Chatar­ius Atwell (1,276 yards).

UCF

19

The Knights fin­ished 10-3, with all three losses com­ing by a com­bined seven points. Quar­ter­back Dil­lon Gabriel ex­celled as a true fresh­man, pass­ing for 3,653 yards and 29 TDs with seven in­ter­cep­tions and the of­fense re­mained one of the most po­tent in the coun­try. Re­plac­ing Gabe Davis, a 1,241yard re­ceiver, will be a pri­or­ity as will be find­ing re­place­ments at cen­ter (Jor­dan John­son), right tackle (Jake Brown) and line­backer (Nate Evans).

Bay­lor

20

Matt Rhule re­turned Bay­lor to na­tional rel­e­vance dur­ing three sea­sons, with the Bears com­ing off an ap­pear­ance in the Big 12 cham­pi­onship. But Rhule’s de­par­ture to the NFL ear­lier this month is sure to have an im­pact on the pro­gram. Much of the team’s suc­cess can be at­trib­uted to a top 40 de­fense and while some of the pieces from that group re­turn, the unit is young and will be tested dur­ing road con­tests against Ok­la­homa, Texas and Iowa State.

North Carolina

21

The Tar Heels made mas­sive strides in Year 1 un­der Mack Brown, go­ing from a 2-10 sea­son in 2018 to a 7-6 mark in 2019, with the six losses com­ing by a com­bined 26 points. The pro­gram re­turns most of its of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion from last sea­son, in­clud­ing quar­ter­back Sam How­ell (3,641 yards and 38 TDs) and 1,000-yard re­ceivers Dyami Brown and Dazz New­some.

Cincin­nati

22

The Bearcats recorded back-to­back 11-win sea­sons for the first time in more than a decade thanks to an op­por­tunis­tic de­fense that lead the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence with 26 take­aways. The of­fense is an­chored by quar­ter­back Des­mond Rid­der, who fin­ished with 2,164 yards and 18 touch­downs, but must find a re­place­ment for Michael Warren II, a hard-nosed tail­back who fin­ished with 1,265 yards and 14 touch­downs, and re­ceivers Josiah Deguara (504 yards) and Rashad Medaris (354 yards).

Iowa State

23

Four of Iowa State’s six losses in 2019 were de­cided by seven points or less, giv­ing Cy­clones fans op­ti­mism for the team head­ing into 2020. Brock Purdy re­turns for his sec­ond sea­son as the pro­gram’s start­ing quar­ter­back af­ter end­ing with a Big 12-best 3,982 yards, 27 TDs and nine in­ter­cep­tions.

Boise State

24

Boise State has won the Moun­tain West Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship dur­ing two of the past three sea­sons and has been ranked in the fi­nal Col­lege Football Play­off rank­ings dur­ing each of the past three sea­sons. Quar­ter­back Hank Bach­meier (1,879 yards, nine touch­downs) and tail­back Ge­orge Holani (1,014 yards) high­light an of­fense that led the league with 35 points per game in 2019.

Mem­phis

25

Mike Norvell’s de­ci­sion to leave Mem­phis to coach at Florida State left the pro­gram reel­ing this post­sea­son, but new Tigers coach Ryan Sil­ver­field has plenty of fire­power left to make a se­ri­ous run at an­other AAC cham­pi­onship. The re­turn of quar­ter­back Brady White (4,014 yards), run­ning back Ken­neth Gain­well (1,459 yards) and re­ceiver Da­monte Coxie (1,267 yards) will bol­ster an of­fense that av­er­aged more than 40 points per game in 2019.

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

UCF quar­ter­back Dil­lon Gabriel will help the Knights con­tend for an Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship in 2020.

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