Home Sports College football Top 25: Many usual contenders not in rankings

College football Top 25: Many usual contenders not in rankings

0


College football is back for the ACC and the Big 12. In two weeks, the SEC is scheduled to join.

It was just one month ago that the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to postpone their respective football seasons, seemingly triggering the shutdown of the sport until the spring or following fall.

Instead, Trevor Lawrence will be back on the field. Nick Saban will be back on the sideline. Fans will be in attendance.

Usually, we all try to predict how the season will end. Now, we’ll all just hope the end comes with the scheduled College Football Playoff National Championship in Miami on Jan. 11.

Here is The Post’s Top 25:

1. Clemson

Even before the Big Ten and Pac-12 sidelined themselves, Clemson was our No. 1 team — and nothing has changed. Trevor Lawrence, the overwhelming Heisman Trophy favorite, still will be under center. Travis Etienne may be the best running back in the country. And two-time national champion Dabo Swinney will still be in charge. Everyone in the ACC is playing for second place.

2. Alabama

The Crimson Tide were playoff spectators for the first time last season. Don’t bank on them being left on the sidelines again. Losing Tua Tagovailoa hurts, but Nick Saban won five national championships with lesser quarterbacks. Supporting Mac Jones or five-star freshman Bryce Young is a nation-high six AP Preseason All-Americans — WRs DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, RB Najee Harris, OT Alex Leatherwood, LB Dylan Moses and CB Patrick Surtain II — and the nation’s most talented defense.

Jamie Newman
Jamie NewmanAP

3. Georgia

The Bulldogs are the best team in the SEC East until proven otherwise. Winning a fourth straight division crown won’t be easy, though, after losing QB Jake Fromm, RB D’Andre Swift and four starters on the offensive line, in addition to seeing Fromm’s replacement, Wake Forest grad-transfer Jamie Newman, opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. The defense, led by playmaking safety Richard LeCounte III and a deep group of experienced linebackers, will have to carry the load early on.

4. Oklahoma

The expectations are the same in Norman, even with the team’s fourth starting quarterback in four years. Looking for their sixth straight Big 12 title and fourth straight playoff appearance, five-star redshirt freshman QB Spencer Rattler will follow the massive footsteps of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, directing an offense that has averaged at least 40 points per game in each of the past five seasons. Rattler will be assisted by one of the nation’s best offensive lines, but may lack the usual backfield firepower, following starter Kennedy Brooks’ decision to opt out.

5. Florida

Dan Mullen has made Florida a contender, winning 21 games in his first two seasons in Gainesville. Now comes the hard part: taking the next step and overtaking Georgia atop the SEC East. The situation at quarterback is worth following as Mullen will look to use both established starter Kyle Trask and high-ceiling youngster Emory Jones, who can add a lethal dimension as a runner.

6. LSU

The defending national champions are almost unrecognizable. The Tigers return just eight starters from one of the most dominant teams in the sport’s history. Gone are Heisman winner Joe Burrow, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire and WRs Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase — who opted out of the season — in addition to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and key offensive assistant Joe Brady. To retain the title, junior QB Myles Brennan will have to make a more improbable leap than Burrow.

Seth Williams
Seth WilliamsAP

7. Auburn

Auburn’s 13th-ranked defense was able to make up for Bo Nix’s shortcomings as a true freshman starter at quarterback. Now, it’s his turn to lead, and he will have his two favorite targets, WRs Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, back to help. The defense — the one group that was able to slow down LSU last year — will be a work in progress after losing standouts Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson to the NFL. The hope is DE Big Kat Bryant and LB K.J. Britt will emerge.

8. Notre Dame

Brian Kelly was on the hot seat less than four years ago, following a 4-8 season. Since then, the Fighting Irish have gone 33-5. Now, a second playoff berth in three years is in sight. With senior QB Ian Book and the entirety of the nation’s best offensive line back to recreate an attack that put up nearly 37 points per game, the ACC will struggle to stop its new, temporary member, which remains just as strong on the defensive end.

9. Oklahoma State

Nobody had a better offseason than the Cowboys. Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher and the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and dynamic WR Tylan Wallace both passed on the NFL, and West Virginia grad transfer G Josh Sills picked Oklahoma State. Factor in the defense returning 10 starters, and it’s easy to see coach Mike Gundy’s team challenging for the Big 12 crown.

10. Texas A&M

The Aggies don’t want to wait any longer to see their $75 million investment in Jimbo Fisher pay off. After going 17-9 in Fisher’s first two seasons and finishing last year unranked, Texas A&M has 16 starters back to make a run, led by senior quarterback Kellen Mond. Nevertheless, the group must fare better in big games, having gone 0-4 against ranked SEC teams last season.

Jimbo Fisher
Jimbo FisherAP

11. Texas

While QB Sam Ehlinger declared the Longhorns “back” in the aftermath of a 2019 Sugar Bowl win, Texas couldn’t handle the hype, watching a top-10 preseason ranking precede a forgettable 8-5 campaign. So, Tom Herman returns for his fourth season with a new offensive and defensive coordinator (former Rutgers coach Chris Ash). While Ehlinger will shine, a defense bringing back nine starters could be the key to the program’s first league title since 2009.

12. Iowa State

Since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996, Iowa State has produced a winning conference record four times, with coach Matt Campbell accomplishing the feat each of the last three years. The Cyclones can take an even bigger leap this year behind exceptional junior QB Brock Purdy, all-conference TE Charlie Kolar and a defense that returns nine starters.

13. North Carolina

The one ACC school that made Clemson sweat last year returns its two best players: conference Rookie of the Year Sam Howell at quarterback and LB Chazz Surratt, a first team All-ACC selection a year ago and the team’s leading tackler. The goal is simple: challenge for the league crown for the first time since 2015.

14. Cincinnati

The Group of Five may never be invited to the playoff in its current format, but the Bearcats hold the best chance for the little guys to break through, due to the absence of the Big Ten and Pac-12. Following back-to-back 11-win seasons, the Bearcats appear ready to finally claim the AAC championship, with nine starters returning on defense. Luke Fickell, who inherited a four-win team in 2018, turned down the head coaching job at Michigan State this winter to return for his fourth season.

15. UCF

A 10-3 campaign was a step back for the Knights after going 25-1 the previous two years, but the AAC crown could be theirs again. Sophomore QB Dillon Gabriel will lead an offense that averaged 43.4 points last season and is supported by a balanced, veteran defense, which ranked 11th in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.6). Nevertheless, Central Florida had 10 players — including two starters — opt out of the season.

16. Memphis

Even with the opt-out of standout rusher Kenneth Gainwell and the departure of coach Mike Norvell, there are high hopes for the Tigers. Eight returning defensive starters and the explosive QB-WR tandem of Brady White and Damonte Coxie — the duo connected 76 times for 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago — gives new coach Ryan Silverfield a strong base to work with. A second straight AAC crown and fourth title game berth in a row remains possible.

Brady White
Brady WhiteAP

17. Louisville

One of the most improved teams in the nation has more room for growth. In Scott Satterfield’s first season as coach, the Cardinals had a six-win improvement. This year, he has even more talent, including RB Javian Hawkins — who had 1,525 rushing yards last season — and dual threat QB Micale Cunningham. Points won’t be a problem. Preventing them will be after ranking 109th in the nation in scoring defense (33.4) last season.

18. Tennessee

After closing last season with a six-game winning streak — securing the Vols’ first winning season in three years — Tennessee returns with a top 10 recruiting class. Fifth-year senior QB Jarrett Guarantano reclaims the starting job he lost last season after completing 59.1 percent of his passes, but returns without three of last year’s top four receivers. One of the nation’s most talented offensive lines should give him the chance to be more consistent for a roster full of potential.

19. Virginia Tech

Losing projected first-round pick Caleb Farley stings — he opted out because of the coronavirus — but the secondary has the depth to still be strong, with the addition of Illinois State transfer Devin Taylor. If QB Hendon Hooker can build off a quality sophomore season, Virginia Tech will be a factor in the ACC. Expect the Hokies, who return 15 starters, to play in a record 27th straight bowl this year.

20. Baylor

Matt Rhule left for the NFL after elevating the Bears from one win to 11 wins in just two years. Replacing him is former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who will have to rebuild a unit that lost nine starters from the Big 12’s best defense last season. Offensively, Baylor brought in former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, who’ll need senior QB Charlie Brewer to keep pace with the conference’s elite offenses.

21. Appalachian State

The Mountaineers are best known for their stunning 2007 upset of Michigan. But for the second straight year, they will be a top-25 fixture. Appalachian State hasn’t had a losing record since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014 and is gunning for its third straight league title this year with its third different coach. Get to know the name Shaun Jolly, a junior cornerback who had five interceptions and eight passes defensed a year ago.

22. Kentucky

The Wildcats’ strength isn’t sexy and it may bore fans, but it’s obvious: the big guys up front. According to Pro Football Focus, they return four of the top-seven-rated offensive linemen in the SEC, led by OT Darian Kinnard. With the loss of do-it-all QB-RB-WR Lynn Bowden, the group will be essential to Kentucky’s success.

23. Miami

The Hurricanes suffered one of the nation’s biggest blows when potential top-10 pick and defensive anchor Gregory Rousseau opted out of the season, but Manny Diaz also landed two of the most important additions of the offseason. The offense has former Houston QB D’Eriq King, who ranked third in the nation in total touchdowns during his most recent full season (2018), while preseason All-American DE Quincy Roche comes from Temple.

24. Florida State

There is good news for new coach Mike Norvell: There is nowhere to go but up. The one-time national powerhouse has averaged six wins the last three seasons, leading to Willie Taggart’s dismissal and Norvell’s arrival following a 12-1 campaign at Memphis. Norvell inherits one of the premier defensive players in the country, All-American DT Marvin Wilson.

25. Kansas State

Chris Klieman’s first year was a surprise, an eight-win season that included a massive upset of eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma. Building off that won’t be easy after losing 15 starters, including the entire starting offensive line, and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Sophomore Johsua Youngblood was a revelation as a kick returner, scoring three touchdowns and averaging 27.8 yards per return, and could make an impact on offense this year for senior QB Skylar Thompson.

Kussoy’s playoff picks: Clemson, Alabama, Florida, Texas
National champ: Clemson

Braziller’s playoff picks: Clemson, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State
National champ: Alabama

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here