CFB51 2019 Pre-Season 130 Teams Ranked- Countdown style.

Every Season our very own (who wishes to remain anonymous) breaks down the field into his Famous and Extraordinary 130 Team Countdown, and though the location has changed (from home base CFB51 to CFB51-LINE), it remains as good as ever. No further description is required:

130. UTEP Miners
#14 in Conference USA

Last year in my UTEP write up, I mentioned how usually the bottom of this list included massive shuffling, as the teams that went for it with a lot of seniors, and were bad, but not terrible, fall to the bottom, while some teams go young, are horrible, but project better going forward.  I then noted that UTEP was the rare exception that finished at the bottom of the Massey composite rankings in 2017, but I was keeping them there in 2019*.  The asterisk is because technically they were #129 of 129 returning FBS programs, but I slid FBS newcomer Liberty in below them by default.  The Miners did not disappoint, going 1-11, and finishing again dead last in the Massey composite rankings.  Now, I can truly say this has never happened, but I still see no reason to move them up.  They are cemented right now as the worst program in the FBS, and don’t seem particularly committed to any youth movement.  In 2017 it made some sense, Sean Kugler, in Year 5, was clearly on the hot seat, and needed to keep his job.  Why Dana Dimel didn’t last year is anyone’s guess.  He did make a change at quarterback, going with JUCO transfer Kai Locksley, a one time Texas Longhorn, and son of new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley.  But to show you where his confidence level in him is, he tried to bring in Alex Delton from Kansas State as a grad transfer, who played under Dimel there.  Delton committed to the Miners, then changed his mind and went to TCU.  That shouldn’t be awkward or anything for the coach-quarterback relationship to know he tried to replace you, had your replacement, then it fell through.  The bigger issue is a defense that was stocked with seniors a year ago and still finished 3rd worst in Conference USA, allowing 32.8 ppg.  The four leading tacklers are all gone.  Nobody who received any postseason honors returns.  The hope is that the turnover margin has to swing at least a little bit, their -17 turnover differential was tied with Connecticut for worst in the nation.  Usually that corrects itself somewhat.  That’s probably the best bet for UTEP to rise up, after a combined 1-23 record over the past two seasons.

KEY PLAYERS
QB Kai Locksley, Senior
RB Quardraiz Wadley, Senior
G Bobby DeHaro, Sophomore
.
LB Sione Tupou, Sophomore
CB Justin Rogers, Senior
P Mitchell Crawford, Senior


129. Old Dominion Monarchs
#13 in Conference USA

Where did it go wrong for the Monarchs?  The program relaunched in 2009 after a nearly 70 period, and by Year 3 they were a top 10 FCS team, reaching the FCS Elite 8 in their fourth year, their final year in that division.  By 2016, their third year in Conference USA, they were 10-3, co-division champs, and played in a bowl game.  It seemed like a program that was going to firmly entrench itself in the upper echelon of the conference.  Since then they’ve had back to back losing campaigns, and have lost 7 of their last 9 conference games.  Somehow they managed to go 4-8 last year, in a year where they beat Virginia Tech.  Not that the Hokies were their usual selves last year, but this was an Old Dominion team that was 0-3 at the time, and had opened the season with a 42 point loss to Liberty…who was playing their first ever game as an FBS team.  4-8 was with a roster that returned 15 starters, and started 13 seniors.  So where does it go from here?  Well the quarterback position looks set, with the return of senior all-conference player Blake LaRussa.  Except not, as he has decided to retire from football to enter the seminary.  The only position of certainty entering 2019, is now perhaps the biggest hole on the roster.  It means Old Dominion likely turns back to Steven Williams, who started for the program in 2017, and the beginning of 2018, before the job was handed over to LaRussa.  They did also add former Michigan State quarterback Messiah deWeaver, by way of JUCO.  Old Dominion can’t afford much of a slip on offense with the defense they’ve fielded.  They lose 8 starters from a unit that gave up a conference worst 471.4 ypg, particularly awful against the run, where they allowed 216.4 ypg on 5.2 ypc, both also league worsts.  Just to make things tougher, the Monarchs have road games at both Virginia and Virginia Tech in September, and in conference play all four of UAB, Middle Tennessee, Marshall and FIU, the top four teams from 2018, and all on the road.

KEY PLAYERS
RB Kesean Strong, Senior
T Isaac Weaver, Junior
G Tony Barnett, Senior
.
LB Lawrence Garner, Junior
LB Jordan Young, Junior
CB Geronda Hall, Sophomore

128. Massachusetts Minutemen
Independent

If UMass was going to finally break through and make their first bowl game since their elevation to FBS, last year seemed like as good a shot as any, with an offense that appeared to be loaded.  They had Andrew Ford returning under center after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with 22 touchdowns to 4 interceptions; a Biletnikoff candidate at wideout in Andy Isabella, coming off a 1,000 yard season; and Marquis Young toting the rock after nearly having 1,000 yards himself, finishing up 2017 by going over 100 yards in four of their final 6 games, while the Minutemen won 4 of their final 6 after an 0-6 start.  At the helm was Mark Whipple who had only added NFL Offensive coordinator experience since his first go round at the school, which led to a 1-AA National Championship in 1998.    Instead it just never worked.  The offense was good, but not great, and the defense, which gave up 55 or more points in HALF of their games was abysmal.  Isabella was still an All-American and a Biletnikoff finalist, but Ford got hurt in the seventh game, and Young was a shell of the 2017 version.  All three were seniors, they are gone, as is Mark Whipple, who was fired after a 16-44 second go round at the school, never winning more than 4 games.  The school stuck with the offensive side of the ball and hired Florida State offensive coordinator Walt Bell, a very curious hire.  He’s only 34, and was viewed as a fast riser, but his offenses at Maryland stagnated in his two years there, and in his one season at Florida State, the Seminoles finished in the bottom 20 in the FBS in total offense.  There is some question as to how much of that was him, when Willie Taggart retained play calling duties for most of the season, but the bloom is certainly off the rose compared to three years ago when Maryland hired him.  If he is going to finally get the program into a bowl game, they’ll have to do work up front against a very manageable September and October schedule, before finishing against Army, Northwestern and BYU.  As for that defense, which graduates 6 seniors from a unit that gave up the fourth most points in the FBS, and was #125 in S&P+, it falls on Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who has spent two years as defensive backs coach at Maryland, his only two years of actual coaching experience.  Bell, a guy known as a recruiter, still seems like a very weird hire for a school that isn’t going to recruit well, no matter who is there.  I’m guessing we still have the Minutemen somewhere around here in three years when he’s fired.

KEY PLAYERS
WRSadiq Palmer, Junior
TRay Thomas-Ishman, Senior
CDerek Dumais, Senior
.
DEJake Byczko, Junior
LBChinedu Ogbonna, Junior
CBIsaiah Rodgers, Senior

127. Charlotte 49ers
#12 in Conference USA

The 49ers jumped from 1-11 to 5-7, which was their best season in their 4 year FBS history.  But it wasn’t enough to save Brad Lambert’s job.  I think Lambert knew the deal.  He threw in the towel on 2017, to go all in on 2018, returning 18 starters, including 10 on defense.  When you go all in on a two year plan for a job saving season, and peak at 5-7, usually your school moves on.  The school brings in Will Healy, from FCS Austin Peay, which is an under the radar hire that I really like.  He made Austin Peay decent, something the Governors never have been.  This is a program that has never qualified for the FCS playoffs, and last won a conference title in 1977, their previous one was in 1948 as an NAIA school.  Long term, he needs to find a way to balance the offense.  Short term, he might as well just continue running Benny LeMay into the ground.  LeMay ran for 1,243 yards last year, on a respectable 5.4 ypc, but the team as a whole, just continued running to very little effect whether or not he got the carry.  The 49ers ran the ball 3rd most in Conference USA, at 44 times per clip.  Problem was LeMay kept that strategy barely effective.  When anyone else carried the ball, Charlotte averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, yet had 294 such attempts.  Considering that was the strategy with a pair of senior quarterbacks at the top of the depth chart, it’s probably not going to change a ton this year.  They were a middle of the pack defense, but there is so much experience there, that they have to finish near the top of the conference for any hope of a bowl.  It’s not just the 7 returning starters, it’s that 6 of the 7 will be three or four year starters.  If that kind of experience can’t produce better, then it’s clear the recruiting just wasn’t there at a school that should be fairly easy to recruit to, by Conference USA standards.  The main problem was that they allowed the third most passing yards per attempt, and had the third worst opponents passing efficiency.  But when you also have the conference’s second lowest sack rate, it’s tough to pin exactly where the problem is.

KEY PLAYERS
RBBenny LeMay, Senior
WRVictor Tucker, Sophomore
KJonathan Cruz, Sophomore
.
DEAlex Highsmith, Senior
DETyriq Harris, Senior
SBen DeLuca, Senior

126. Colorado State Rams
#12 in Mountain West

While the Rams hadn’t been in the conference title picture since 2014, and hadn’t won one since 2002, it seemed that Mike Bobo had maintained the consistency that Jim McElwain had rebuilt after the disastrous Steve Fairchild era in Fort Collins.  Colorado State had been to five consecutive bowl games, matching what Sonny Lubick did from 1999 through 2003.  But then 2018 produced a 3-9 season, that included infighting, a quarterback controversy, and honestly some luck just to get to 3 wins.  The season opened with a home loss to Hawaii, where Colorado State trailed by as many as 30 in the third quarter, and included a 16 point home loss to FCS Illinois State.  As bad as Arkansas was, that upset win probably didn’t get enough attention, because we didn’t know just how bad Colorado State was either.  The Rams’ two other wins were over New Mexico and San Jose State, who went a combined 2-14 in Mountain West play.  Even to pick those up, Colorado State needed fourth quarter comebacks, including a final play win over New Mexico.  At least Mike Bobo made the switch from senior K.J. Carta-Samuels to then-sophomore Collin Hill in October, because with Izzy Matthews and Olasabi Johnson graduating, and Preston Williams leaving early for the NFL, the Rams faced a complete dearth of skill position players heading into 2019.  Bobo seems committed to passing the ball, and I’d expect that to continue, even without Johnson and Williams.   The Rams averaged over 300 yards per game in the air, but needed 41.8 attempts per game to do so, easily the most in the conference, and 5th most nationally.  The averaged only 7.3 ypa, 4th worst in the Mountain West, and Hill threw as many touchdowns as he did interceptions (7).  Defensively they were led by a pair of senior linebackers who combined for 232 tackles, and will be tough to replace, but it’s their quarterback pressure which was lacking, even with Josh Watson and Tre Thomas.  Ellison Hubbard looks like he can fill that role from the middle of the defensive line, but he’s inconsistent.  If he gets going early, he’ll be a pain all afternoon long, but too often when he didn’t make a splash early, he totally disappeared.  The Rams ranked last in the Mountain West in defensive pass efficiency and second to last in sack rate.  The starting line was 3/4 freshmen and sophomores last year, so the hope has to be more pressure up front, to ease some on the back.  Rising sophomore cornerback Rashad Ajayi looks like a guy who will merit being on a Key Players list by the end of the season.

KEY PLAYERS
QBCollin Hill, Junior
WRWarren Jackson, Junior
TECameron Butler, Junior
.
DTEllison Hubbard, Junior
SJamal Hicks, Senior
PRyan Stonehouse, Junior

125. New Mexico Lobos
#11 in Mountain West

Bob Davie deserves a ton of credit.  He took over a Lobo program which looked dead at the end of the Rocky Long era, and for the entirety of the Mike Locksley era, going 7-41 over the four seasons prior to his arrival.  The school gave him some time, and while it took four years, he got New Mexico into back to back bowls in 2015 and 2016, sharing a division title in 2016.  Even in his first year he won more games (4), than Mike Locksley did in three years at the school (2).  He’s now 64, and the program appears to be backsliding, winning just two total conference games over the past two seasons, and finishing each year with a 7 game losing streak.  Last year Davie tried to modify the option attack he adopted when he took the New Mexico job, by bringing in Calvin McGee as offensive coordinator, who had run Rich Rodriguez’s offensive attack at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona from 2005-2017.  The experiment didn’t work.  New Mexico had the second worst offense in the Mountain West, averaging only 330 ypg on 5.0 ypp.  Davie wanted to add wrinkles to what was still a run based offense, and Magee had experience there.  That was the plan, they ran the ball 42.1 times per game, third most in the conference, but they were too often banging their heads against the wall trying to force it, averaging just 3.6 ypc.  Only Colorado State and San Jose State were less efficient running the ball among Mountain West teams, and they ran it the least times among conference teams.  Magee made things easy by reuniting again with Rodriguez, to be his tight ends coach, under Rodriguez as offensive coordinator at Ole Miss.  New Mexico has hired former Liberty offensive coordinator Joe Dailey, who quarterbacked Nebraska in 2003 and 2004 before transferring to North Carolina.  It appears to mark a shift in offensive philosophy, as Liberty passed the ball 49.1% of the time last year, 48th in the nation, while New Mexico was in the bottom 20 at just 39.8%, even with playing substantially from behind.  Do they have the personnel for the move?  The answer may be that it won’t be as drastic of a move as feared, because Sheriron Jones, the former Tennessee Vol, is not a pure triple option quarterback.  He looks the part, but the interceptions need to come way down.  The Lobos as a team tied for the conference lead in interceptions thrown, which is very concerning considering how little they threw it.  Nationally, only Rutgers threw interceptions at a higher rate than New Mexico (6.08%).  While there isn’t a ton of reason to watch this team this year, it is very likely Bob Davie’s last year on the sidelines anywhere, so Davie fanatics, get your medicine.  Another would have been to see Marcus Hayes make plays all over the field.  The redshirt freshman who was a late flip from Western Michigan, led the nation in punt return yardage, and was honorable mention all-conference on defense as well.  You can bet Dailey would have found ways to get him offensive touches as well.  Instead he announced his transfer to Kansas State immediately after the 2018 season finished, joining sophomore linebacker Rhashaun Epting, who led the team in sacks.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSheriron Jones, Senior
TEMarcus Williams, Junior
TJarred Sylvester, Senior
.
NTAaron Blackwell, Senior
LBBrandon Shook, Junior
PTyson Dyer, Junior

124. Texas State Bobcats
#10 in Sun Belt

The Bobcats’ transition to the FBS hit another hiccup when it became clear that Everett Withers wasn’t making any progress, and was fired after a 7-29 three year stretch, that included going 2-22 in conference play.  The defensive minded Withers fielded solid defenses in his time in San Marcos, but in a state that seems to be leading the charge in up tempo high flying passing attacks, he was unable to ever field an offense reflective of the local talent at his disposal.  Administrators tried to correct that with the hiring of West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who oversaw the nation’s 4th ranked passing attack last year, putting up 351.3 ppg.  Spavital is only 33, and has no head coaching experience, but in 11 years of coaching, all on the offensive side of the ball, spent 4 years each under Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen; and a year each under Todd Graham, Mike Gundy, and Sonny Dykes.  If the guy hasn’t picked up enough offense by now, he never will.  It marks a new era for Bobcats football, with a clear shift in philosophy to appeal more to the wealth of high school talent in their backyard, but also to go outside the family, and hire a guy with no connections to the school, a combination Texas State, a school that was an NAIA and then Division II power through the 50s and 60s and then again in the early 80s under future Minnesota coach Jim Wacker, hasn’t gone to before.  While Spavital doesn’t have David Sills and Gary Jennings to work with, Hutch White and Jeremiah Haydel are a very good pair, if they have a quarterback to work with.  Because he CERTAINLY doesn’t have Will Grier under center.  Last year, Texas State was last in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency, and yards per attempt, partly due to a league worst completion percentage.  Tight end Keenen Brown, who has moved on, was the main target, but White and Haydel both showed enough, despite combining for just 50 catches and 624 yards to both make third team all-conference.  Haydel, a rising junior, is particularly intriguing, averaging over 20 yards per reception, and a quarter of his catches resulting in touchdowns.  Who is going to be throwing them the ball though?  The old adage is that when you have two quarterbacks, you really have none.  I’ve never bought that, but when you have two quarterbacks, but both are terrible, then it’s true.  Willie Jones started the year, was replaced by Tyler Vitt, who then got hurt, putting Jones back in, who maintained the job, but then had a shoulder injury of his own, allowing Vitt to finish the season.  The end result was that each played in 9 games, and out of 10 qualified quarterbacks in the Sun Belt, they finished 9th and 10th in Total QBR.  They were the 3rd and 15th worst in all of FBS respectively.  That is why the leader in the club house may be JUCO transfer Gresch Jensen.  Jensen played for new Texas State offensive coordinator Bob Stitt, when Stitt was the head coach at Montana, as a freshman in 2017.  Jensen was Montana’s MVP, and finished 3rd in voting for the Jerry Rice Award, as the top freshman in the FCS.  But Stitt was fired as head coach, and Jensen transferred out.  He’ll have two seasons of eligibility left, and has to be better than what Texas State rolled out last year.

KEY PLAYERS
WRHutch White, Senior
WRJeremiah Haydel, Junior
CAaron Brewer, Senior
.
LBBryan London, Senior
LBNikolas Daniels, Senior
CBKordell Rodgers, Junior

123. UTSA Roadrunners
#11 in Conference USA

Perhaps no fan base is less excited to find out that they have 8 starters returning to one side of the ball, than UTSA fans, if those exist, have to be about their offense.  Their useless, useless offense.  The Roadrunners finished dead last in the FBS, with only 247 yards of offense per game.  As a Michigan State fan I know what bad offense looked like…and UTSA averaged almost 100 yards per game less than Michigan State’s putrid offense.  I listed Jordan Weeks as a Key Player, because the UTSA offense is devoid of them, and he might be the starting quarterback, so any change starts with him, unless he’s not the starter.  I say that because four different quarterbacks played in at least four games last year, with each starting at least once: Cordale Grundy, Bryce Rivers, D.J. Gillins and Jordan Weeks.  Bryce Rivers, who was the starter to finish the season, already announced his transfer, and Gillins was a senior, so it’s likely between Weeks, and rising senior Cordale Grundy, who began 2018 as the starter before giving way to Weeks, with Gillins grabbing a start in between.  The passing game has been miserable for a few years, but the running game, which was still top 40 nationally in 2017, kept the offense barely afloat.  Enter Al Borges, and the running game disappeared, with Jalen Rhodes, who was their leading rusher in 2017, dropping to averaging just 24.4 yards per game, in the nation’s third worst rushing attack.  Also much like Michigan State, rather than fully addressing the problem in the coaching staff, they just reshuffled, with Borges moving from coordinator to analyst; Jeff Kastl moving from passing game coordinator to offensive coordinator; and retaining the offensive line and receivers coaches.  The offense has been bad though, so why UTSA fell from bowl eligible to #123 in the Massey composite is because the defense went from one of the best in the nation to not good at all.  In 2017 UTSA was #22 in the nation in total defense, #8 in scoring defense (#2 and #1 respectively in Conference USA in those stats); and fell to #98 in total defense and #88 in scoring defense, giving up a full 14 points more per game.  So if the Roadrunners are going to have a bounce back, it seems much more likely that the defense gets back on track.  That starts with a pair of edge rushers who could do big things in DeQuarius Henry and Lorenzo Dantzler.  They are going to have to create a ton of pressure, because behind them, the Roadrunners look more likely to repeat 2018 than 2017.  They graduated a pair of rock solid safeties in C.J. Levine and Darryl Godfrey, who combined for 174 tackles; and leading tackler Josiah Tauaefa, their lone returning all-conference player opted to leave early for the NFL Draft.  Frank Wilson is highly thought of as a recruiter, but after his first full class, which was the highest rated in school history, that has started to dip too.  It’s time for that 2017 class, now comprising the juniors and redshirt sophomores, to get the program back on track.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJordan Weeks, Sophomore
TEGavin Sharp, Sophomore
TJosh Dunlop, Senior
.
DEDeQuarius Henry, Junior
DELorenzo Dantzler, Junior
CBCassius Grady, Senior

122. San Jose State Spartans
#10 in Mountain West

Well, Mike MacIntyre is available again.  MacIntyre’s .432 winning percentage in his three years at the school is sadly the best of any coach who was there that long since Claude Gilbert posted a .558 winning percentage from 1984-89.  I don’t want to prematurely fire Brent Brennan, but after a 3-22 start in his first two years, he looks to be quickly approaching a status of being San Jose State’s next former coach.  There is some hope, as Brennan got some unexpected contributions from some underclassmen last year that maybe shows a glimmer of hope for 2019.  On the offense, that’s wideout Tre Walker, who was buried on the depth chart for the first half of the season with the Spartans returning all three starting receivers from 2017.  Walker wound up leading the team in receiving with 714 yards after totalling 6 catches for 122 yards and no touchdowns in the first half of the season.  Over the second half?  He put up over 100 yards in three of six games, including a 209 yard effort against Utah State, and had 33 catches for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns total over those six games.  You get that kind of production for a whole year, and he’ll find himself at some award banquets next year.  They need that production, because the Spartans are getting nothing on the ground.  Tyler Nevens as a sophomore, was serviceable, but that was it.  San Jose State was dead last in the FBS both in yards per carry (2.1) and rushing yards per game (61.5).  Take Nevins away, and the rest of the team combined for 184 yards (15.3 ypg) on 0.8 ypc.  Those are not typos.  On defense it was true freshman strongside defensive end Cade Hall.  Hall wasn’t on the two deep to begin the season, but looking back on articles from San Jose State “insiders” from August, he was certainly on the radar as a guy who could contribute early.  I think even the most optimistic of those writers would not have projected Hall to lead the team in sacks, he wasn’t even one of the 10 highest rated San Jose State recruits from 2018.  Granted part of that was due to the experience on the line, with all three starters returning from 2017 for their senior years.  Starting nose tackle Sailosi Latu was limited to just three games due to injury, and so Owen Roberts slid over to nose tackle, opening up a spot for Hall, who appeared to be undersized for a 3-4 defensive end at just 235 pounds, but didn’t play that way.  The next step is with the graduations of Roberts and Bryson Bridges, how will Hall handle being the guy that opposing offenses scheme their blocking against?

KEY PLAYERS
QBJosh Love, Senior
RBTyler Nevens, Junior
WRTre Walker, Junior
.
DECade Hall, Sophomore
LBEthan Aguayo, Senior
LBJesse Osuna, Senior

121. Bowling Green Falcons
#12 in MAC

Yes Mike Jinks was 7-24 overall and 5-14 in the MAC in two and a half years at Bowling Green, a school coming off a MAC Championship, their second in three years, and three consecutive division titles, split between two coaches, when he was hired.  The Falcons went bowl-less in all three Jinks seasons, their longest streak since before Urban Meyer showed up, and suffered three consecutive 8+ loss seasons for the first time in school history.  I get all of that.  But when you hired Mike Jinks, a guy who had never coached outside the state of Texas, and aside from three seasons at Texas Tech as a running backs coach, had never coached outside the high school ranks, that it was, to use a cliche, an “outside the box” hire, for a midwest mid-major.  So if that’s the direction you want to go, you need to acknowledge that it’s a bit of a radical change, and give it more than two and a half years.  Jinks’ two recruiting classes were ranked #2 and #3 in the MAC.  His top three recruits last year were from Florida and Georgia.  There were eight Texas kids on the roster.  He was bringing in talent, and he was bringing it in from places Bowling Green didn’t typically do it.  But administration decided to move on, and make the safe hire of Scott Loeffler, a midwest guy, from Ohio, played for Michigan, had eight years of coordinator experience, the last seven at the Power 5 level.  It’s your typical MAC head coaching hire.  So is it another system overhaul, or can he harness the young talent that Jinks seemingly was beginning to fill the roster with, even if it’s still very young.  One thing he needs to do is pay at least a little attention to the defense.  It is not a surprise that when you stack a Texas high school coach onto what Dino Babers was doing, you get a program that has turned a blind eye to defense.  The Falcons gave up a league high 40.0 ppg on a league high 6.4 ypp.  The problems were mostly in the front seven, where teams ran on Bowling Green at 5.9 ypc, nearly a yard per carry more than anyone else in the MAC.  The Falcons were one of the worst defenses against the run in 2017, and had to replace all of their starters up the middle, so that was maybe expected.  Now that is flipped, with five returning starters in the front seven, including freshman Karl Brooks, who earned 8 starts, after being left off the August two deep, and led the team in sacks.  However the secondary, which actually held teams to just 167 passing yards per game, on a MAC best 52.7% completion rate, has to replace three starters, including both starting cornerbacks, and six players total from the two deep.  The back end was susceptible to the big play, with a MAC worst 14.4 yards per completion, which worked hand in hand with the low completion percentage, the throws teams were trying on them were a number of deeper routes.  Perhaps a corner was turned late, as they did hold Central Michigan to 13 and Akron to 6 points in November after allowing 35 or more points to all 9 previous opponents.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJarret Doege, Junior
RBAndrew Clair, Junior
GJack Kramer, Senior
.
DEKarl Brooks, Sophomore
LBKholbe Coleman, Junior
SJerry McBride, Senior
120. New Mexico State Aggies
Independent

After ending the nation’s longest bowl drought at 57 years in 2017, it seemed clear that New Mexico State would take a step back in their first season in conference exile.  But falling all the way to 3-9, considering how terrible the schedule was, was farther than even they anticipated I assume.  The three wins came over a UTEP team that we’ve is spending its second season at the bottom of this list; a mediocre FCS team, and Liberty, in their first FBS season, who they lost to in a rematch that was played because it ain’t easy to find opponents as an FBS independent in the middle of nowhere.  The Aggies reached a bowl in 2017 by throwing the ball all over the field with Tyler Rodgers, finishing 6th in the FBS in passing yardage.  He was going to be hard to replace, and it’s clear Doug Martin wasn’t changing his system.  Now New Mexico did fall from 2nd in pass attempts in 2017, at 49.2 per game (behind only Mike Leach at Washington State), all the way down to 4th at 44.8, but when you are only completing 55.3% of your passes, that simply isn’t going to work.  With Jason Huntley and Christian Gibson in the backfield, New Mexico State should be better at running the football than they are, they are simply not built to block for it.  They have the size, three starters over 320 pounds, but they aren’t winning that line.  Their Power Success rate, which is conversions of 2 yards or less, was just 64%, #105 in the FBS, and their Stuff Rate, the percentage of carries stopped at or behind the line, is 22.6%, #111.  Their pass blocking numbers are all average, to above average, but Huntley is too good of a talent to be limited to the numbers he’s putting up running the ball.  That’s why they have found ways to use his multitude of talents to get him the ball other ways, namely 47 catches, which was the 4th most in the FBS by a running back; and on special teams where he recorded 3 kick return touchdowns, the only player in the FBS to accomplish that last year.  Defensively it starts up front, where the Aggies were elite at getting after the quarterback (#8 in the nation in standard down sack rate), while being miserable against the run (6th worst run defense in the nation).  In my opinion it’s because they are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by running a 3-4 with mid-major players.  The typical problem at the college level, lack of size in the middle, is not here, Roy Lopez and Myles Vigne are each 315 pounds.  For this to work, Shane Jackson needs to generate more than 2 sacks and 4 tackles for loss, as their best outside linebacker.  Otherwise, let him put a hand on the ground, and let Wilcots just attack the quarterback from the other side, with less containment responsibilities.  It might serve them well to try and get more linemen and fewer linebackers on the field anyway, trying to replace 6 of 8 from last year’s two deep at the linebacker position.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJosh Adkins, Sophomore
RBJason Huntley, Senior
TSage Doxtater, Senior
.
DECedric Wilcots II, Senior
DTRoy Lopez, Senior
SShamad Lomax, Senior
119. Central Michigan Chippewas
#11 in MAC

Just how badly did Central Michigan spiral into oblivion?  The Chippewas were so bad last year that John Bonamego, a Central Michigan alum, who called it his dream job, and who beat cancer during his time as coach, was fired despite reaching bowl games in each of his first three years.  But that’s what will happen when you come off the worst season in school history, going 1-11 overall, 0-8 in the MAC, the school’s first ever winless MAC campaign.  They now turn to Jim McElwain, who spent one season coaching under Jim Harbaugh after getting fired from Florida midway through his third season, in spite of reaching the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two years.  The problem at Florida, particularly for an offensive minded coach, is that McElwain was never able to field good offenses.  Wait until he gets a load of the mess he’s walking into now.  The Chippewas had easily the worst offense in the MAC a year ago, averaging just 15.0 ppg on 254 ypg, 3rd worst and 2nd worst in the FBS respectively.  The running game, at 3.2 ypc, deserves plenty of blame, but the real problem is the complete lack of a passing attack.  Central Michigan threw for just 4.5 ypa, with a 48.6% completion rate; per S&P+ the worst offense in the FBS in 2018.  It was musical chairs at quarterback, starting with Tony Poljan, who turned down Big Ten offers to play tight end or receiver, to try his hand at quarterback in the MAC.  He wound up getting benched for Tommy Lazzaro, and then after being reinserted following a season ending injury to Lazzaro, getting benched again.  It looks like after a one year trial run, he will be moved out to receiver.  He could hopefully provide a spark, as multiple Big Ten teams viewed him as worthy of an offer, so long as he didn’t play quarterback.  Getting Lazzaro back healthy, after only being fully healthy for 4 games last year should help too.  In those 4 games, the Chippewas averaged 21.0 ppg; which isn’t great, but still far better than the 12.0 they put up in the 8 he didn’t play in any of or all of.  They completely wasted what was actually a fairly solid defense, which was 2nd in the MAC, allowing just 5.0 ypp, and accounting for 4 of the 11 first team all-MAC defensive players.  Three of those 4 had remaining experience, and looked to be the backbone of what had a chance to be a bowl team in 2019, with even a little bit of offense.  Instead, both starting cornerbacks, Sean Bunting and Xavier Crawford declared early for the draft; and then Mike Danna, who tied for 2nd in the MAC in sacks, entered the transfer portal as a grad transfer.  Just to show the type of player he is, Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska have apparently already contacted him.  So while you would assume a small step forward on offense with quarterback health, it’s going to be tough to expect the defense to be anywhere near the same level trying to replace seven starters.

KEY PLAYERS
QBTommy Lazzaro, Senior
RBRomello Ross, Senior
KRyan Tice, Senior
.
LBMichael Oliver, Senior
CBDa’Quan Jamison, Senior
SDevonni Reed, Sophomore

118. Connecticut Huskies
#12 in American

Randy Edsall returned to UConn in 2017, the program he built from a 4-7 FCS team in 1999 to a BCS conference champion and Fiesta Bowl participant in 2010*.  The team he has now looks farther from getting back to the Fiesta Bowl than the team he took over in 1999.  The Huskies just completed their worst season in school history, going 1-11, with no FBS wins, and allowing 10 of their 12 opponents to score at least 49 points.  So starting 10 players with remaining eligibility is to be taken with a grain of salt, when that defense gave up over 50 ppg on over 600 ypg, both obviously worst in the FBS.  They weren’t just the worst defense in the FBS, but gap between their  Defensive S&P+ and the 2nd worst, was larger than between the 2nd worst and the 17th worst.  Their Defensive S&P+ wasn’t just 2018 bad, it was historically bad, the worst in the Football Outsiders database (going back to 2005), with only the 2013 New Mexico State defense being in the same neighborhood.  Darrian Beavers, who led the team in sacks after being moved from linebacker to defensive end, already transferred within the division to Cincinnati.  The front seven remains a huge problem, and really the only place the Huskies don’t still have major issues is at safety, which they play three of in their 3-3-5 alignment.  Granted, Omar Fortt could move up to linebacker, depending on their new scheme.  The defense was so awful, that the simply bad offense looked almost competent by comparison.  But it was also last in the American in scoring, at just 22 ppg, thanks to the conference’s worst passing attack, which averaged just 6.1 ypa.  The test of whether you’d rather return several players from a dismal unit is put to the test between UConn’s defense and their passing offense.  Because while the Huskies’ terrible defense was young, the passing game was filled with veterans.  Their starting quarterback, both starting receivers, and the starting tight end were all seniors.  For good measure, the top returning receiver, tight end Tyler Davis, transferred to Georgia Tech.  Keyion Dixon, and his 11 receptions, lead all returning wideouts and tight ends.  The team is going to be built around a running game that features Kevin Mensah and Zavier Scott, who do compliment each other well.  Mensah, the workhorse back, and Scott the better all purpose back, who actually caught 33 passes out of the backfield.  They run behind an offensive line that returns four starters, who started all 12 games in 2018.  The only loss there is running backs coach Terry Richardson, who was probably the only coach UConn fans were happy with last year, but who left for the same job at Mississippi State.  The problem last year, and looks to be the problem again, is that the Huskies fall too far behind, too early, and they can’t lean on their strength.  Randy Edsall turns 61 right before the 2019 season begins, and while it seemed like he wanted to get back to Storrs as a job to ride into retirement, that decision may be made for him after this season.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKevin Mensah, Junior
RBZavier Scott, Sophomore
TKyle Van Demark, Junior
.
STyler Coyle, Junior
SOneil Robinson II, Sophomore
SOmar Fortt, Junior

117. Rice Owls
#10 in Conference USA

Year 1 the Mike Bloomgren era was never going to be measured in wins and losses, although finishing with a win over Old Dominion, following an 11 game losing streak to FBS opponents, after a narrow win over Prairie View A&M in the opener, did leave a better taste in everyone’s mouth.  As discussed earlier, Bowling Green tried to zig, while the rest of the MAC zagged, and brought in a Texas high school coach to open it up, then bailed on the project after two and a half years, and brought in an Ohio native, Michigan trained coach, that made everyone sleep much safer at night.  Well, for Rice, it’s the opposite.  They brought in Bloomgren to try and apply the Stanford model to Rice.  Let’s hope they give him more than two and a half years.  The advantage Bloomgren has, is that while Bowling Green had tons of recent success to point to, Rice does not.  The Owls have won two conference championships in the last 60 years, and the transition from the SWC to being a mid-major has not gone well.  The Stanford model was built on defense, and while Bloomgren ran the offensive side of the ball in Palo Alto, you know he wanted to instill the same mentality that Harbaugh and David Shaw established there.  So allowing 36 ppg is certainly not what he had in mind.  Granted it’s a small sample size, but in their two conference games to end the season (sandwiched around being LSU’s creampuff during the SEC nap week), the Owls allowed just 41 total points to Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion.  Considering Rice had allowed at least 41 points in 7 of their other 9 FBS games to that point, that does mark a sharp turn.  This was for a unit that only started two seniors, but the defensive line was hit very hard by grad transfers, losing a pair of all-conference linemen in Zach Abercrumbia and Roe Wilkins.  While neither has made a decision, Abercrumbia is seemingly down to either Texas or Michigan; and Wilkins has been linked to Oklahoma State, just to show the caliber of player that the Owls are losing there.  Offensively, Rice is going to go with Wiley Green, who saw action in 4 games last year as a freshman.  He looked like a freshman, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns (4 to 3), and completing only 51.1% of his passes.  But he also threw for 7.1 ypa, which was way up from the 5.9 ypa that the other Rice quarterbacks combined for.  If Green takes a step forward, the Rice passing game could be fairly potent, with an all-conference pair of wideouts in Aaron Cephus and Austin Trammell.  Juma Otoviano likely steps into the starting running back role.  He showed the most flash of any of the running backs last year, leading the team with 5.6 ypc, while only getting 5.4 carries per game.  Austin Walter (graduated) and Emmanuel Esukpa (transfer) take their combined 19.6 carries per game with them.  Austin’s twin brother Aston may help fill the backfield.

KEY PLAYERS
QBWiley Green, Sophomore
WRAaron Cephus, Junior
WRAustin Trammell, Junior
.
LBAnthony Ekpe, Junior
SGeorge Nyakwol, Junior
SPrudy Calderon, Sophomore

116. Georgia State Panthers
#9 in Sun Belt

For a program that fancied itself on the rise, 2018 was a bucket of cold water for Georgia State.  After breaking through with the first bowl bid in program history in 2016, in only their fourth year in the FBS, they had a bit of a backslide in 2017, before surging to 7-5, and a bowl win in 2017.  While replacing their starting backfield was going to be something to overcome, overhaul getting to their second bowl game in a row, and third in four years seemed like a reasonable goal.  Instead, the Panthers stumbled to 2-10, recording only 1 FBS win, and losing 10 of 11 to finish, including 7 in a row to end the season.  Penny Hart who had recorded over 70 receptions, 1,100 yards and 8 touchdowns in each of his two healthy seasons in 2015 and 2017, around a lost season in 2016 due to an ACL injury, put up career lows across the board.  While he was eligible to either return for his redshirt senior season, or seek a grad transfer, he instead left for the NFL.  That puts a lot on Cornelius McCoy, who was a revelation with 35 receptions for 495 yards as a true freshman, but things get a lot harder when you no longer have the guy with multiple 1,000 yard seasons lining up on the other side of the field.  Some falls on Dan Ellington, who did make honorable mention all conference in his first year as a starter, but largely on quantity, not quality.  He averaged 192 passing ypg, which was somehow 3rd in the Sun Belt, but wasn’t even in the top 10 among qualified starters in passing efficiency.  There are only 10 teams in the conference.  The issues were that he also threw the third most passes in the conference, with the lowest completion percentage (59%) and the second lowest yards per attempt (7.0).  I’m guessing some voters just took a peak at the passing yardage leaders, and sent in their ballot.  Damn Sun Belt media.  But it wasn’t the offense that took the season from middling to bad, it was a defense that went from top 3 in the conference in 2017 in total, scoring and rushing defense, to dead last.  The passing defense, the achilles heel in 2017, became downright pathetic in 2018, trying to replace three starters, and surrendering leagues worsts in completion percentage (72.8%) and yards per attempt (9.5).  The front seven returned all four edge defenders, but somehow managed only 13 sacks on the season, for 67 yards, second fewest in the FBS.  The secondary looks to be just as much of an issue in 2019, and while the front seven simply has to better, the loss of Marterious Allen, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss, suggests that creating any pressure in the backfield will continue to be a problem.  A bounceback likely sole depends on Ellington taking a big step forward in his second season starting and simply outscoring teams.

KEY PLAYERS
QBDan Ellington, Senior
WRCornelius McCoy, Sophomore
THunter Atkinson, Senior
.
DETerry Thomas, Senior
LBEd Curney, Senior
PBrandon Wright, Senior

115. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
#9 in Conference USA

While Purdue fans can’t believe their good fortune to not just have hired Jeff Brohm, but to have held onto him for two seasons through overtures by Tennessee, and his alma mater Louisville; Western Kentucky fans have learned just how good a coach he is, in the opposite direction.  After going 22-5, including 17-1 in conference games, with a pair of conference titles in 2015 and 2016; in just two years under Mike Sanford Jr., the Hilltoppers fell to just 3-9, and dead last in the Conference USA East Division.  While the trend is certainly going in the wrong direction, I feel more optimistic than I do about maybe any other school outside the top 100 in greatly exceeding my expectations.  To do that, the Hilltoppers need to lean on their defense, something they never really did during their championship years.  In terms of top end defensive talent though, Western Kentucky might have more of it than any other school in the conference.  They return five all conference players on that side of the ball, and the most talented, freshman all-American, defensive end Juwuan Jones, may just be beginning to tap into what he has to offer.  Jones played linebacker in college, and was the second highest rated member of their 2017 class, despite only holding one Power 5 offer, from Wisconsin.  But he put on 40 pounds, they moved him from inside linebacker to defensive end, and he blew up.  More than anything from the Xs and Os though, new head coach Tyson Helton, who was never been a head coach, but was offensive coordinator under Jeff Brohm at Western Kentucky for two year, needs to clean things up in the margins.  Western Kentucky’s numbers weren’t great last year, but they weren’t the numbers of a team that finished at the bottom of their division in the worst year in Conference USA history.  They were the worst red zone team, which isn’t surprising when you can’t run the ball, and you have a 5’9” receiver starting on the outside.  As far as running the ball goes, Western Kentucky did make an strong effort to improve there, a year after finishing 7th in the nation in passing offense, but dead last in rushing offense.  They ran the ball roughly 3 more times per game, and for 3.7 ypc, which is not good, until you realize they were at 2.0 ypc in 2017.  Redshirt freshman Josh Samuel, another gem from that 2017 class that may save the program, really helped out once he became the go to guy against Ball State.  He averaged 64 ypg over the final 9, on over 5 ypc.  If he can develop into more of a weapon out of the backfield, in an offense that is still going to be very pass heavy, his usage should go up even further.  When he was in the game last year, it was almost certain he was going to be handed the ball, because he couldn’t catch, and struggled to block, as freshmen do.  There are still problems, and they may still be a year away, but I do feel confident saying that there is more talent here than with probably any other school outside the top 100, certainly any mid-major.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSteven Duncan, Junior
WRLucky Jackson, Senior
TMiles Pate, Senior
.
DEDeAngelo Malone, Junior
LBBen Holt, Senior
CBTacorian Darden, Senior

114. Akron Zips
#10 in MAC

The 2018 season began with so much promise for Akron, with a dominating win over Morgan State, then a road upset over Northwestern, then nearly following that with a road upset at Iowa State.  No idea what happened after that.  The Zips lost 8 of their final 10 games, with the lone wins being in overtime over Kent State and by 7 against Central Michigan, two teams that combined to go 3-21, and then lost their final 5.  Even though he had reached the MAC Championship Game just the year before, and had taken Akron to bowls in two of the previous three seasons, for a program that had been to one bowl (2005 Motor City Bowl) in their history, Terry Bowden was fired.  37 year old Tom Arth is the new head coach, greater Cleveland born and raised.  After a successful four year stint at Division III John Carroll, which culminated in 2016 with Division 3 Coach of the Year honors, a trip to the Final Four, the program’s first conference title since 1989, and a win over powerhouse Mount Union, he spent the last two years middling at FCS Chattanooga, going 9-13, and finishing no higher than 5th in the SoCon, coming off three consecutive FCS playoff appearances.  So the hire is far from a home run.  He is tasked with fixing an offense that was only saved from the MAC basement by Central Michigan’s historically awful unit.  And he’ll have to do it without the luxury of what was a very solid defense a year ago, considering the hole their offense put them in.  The Zips put 6 defenders on the all-conference team a year ago, but all but Alvin Davis graduated.  Bowden moved Davis, who was second team all-conference in 2017 at cornerback, to safety, in order to get his four best defensive backs on the field.  Davis missed all of spring practice, and managed to learn his new position in August, and repeat his performance as all-conference, this time at safety.  At 5’9” and 175 pounds, he’s not the most intimidating safety you’ll find, but he finished fourth on the team, first among defensive backs, in tackles, while still having good hands for a safety, leading the team with 4 interceptions.  We’ll see where he can take his game with his first actual offseason at the position.  It’s another guy who changed positions who will have to lead the charge on offense, left tackle Trevor Brown, who had to change jerseys mid game as a freshman to move from defensive line to offensive line in a moment of desperation.  Now he enters his third season starting at left tackle, but it’s anchoring a line that was dismal last year, the worst run blocking line in the FBS.  That was the main reason that the rushing attack wound up 3rd worst in the FBS, and without the entire right side of the line, or senior running back Van Edwards, it’s tough to see it improving much.  Much was expected of Kato Nelson, after he filled in the prior year for suspended starter Thomas Woodson, and threw for over 300 yards and 4 touchdowns in the upset of Ohio to put the Zips into the MAC Championship Game, but he never came close to replicating that effort in 2018.  Playing behind that line, with no running game, was a lot to ask, but he’s too dynamic of an athlete to be held to just 303 rushing yards on the year.  He somehow pulled out his lone 300 yard passing game, and his lone game of more than 2 touchdowns against Ohio again, so maybe he just has the Bobcats number, but any hope of finishing in the top half of the division depends on him becoming a stud for this offense.

KEY PLAYERS
QBKato Nelson, Junior
WRAndre Williams, Junior
TTrevor Brown, Senior
.
LBJohn Lako, Senior
LBJosh Ward, Senior
SAlvin Davis, Senior

113. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
#8 in Sun Belt

Coastal Carolina entered November needing to win just one of four games (three of which were at home) to be bowl eligible in just their first season free from the transition period, and eligible to go to a bowl.  Instead, the Chanticleers lost all four, and I’m not sure which is more painful; (1) the first three, wherein they were completely outclassed, and lost by an average of 23 points per game; or (2) the final game which they lost by 3 points.  They enter 2019 with the retirement of Joe Moglia, two full months after the season finished.  Moglia’s story has been well told, where he stepped down as CEO of AmeriTrade to pursue football coaching in 2008, and within four years was the head coach for an FCS playoff team.  Moglia missed all of 2017 with health issues, and now Jamey Chadwell, his offensive coordinator, who served as interim coach during the 2017 season, is elevated to full time head coach.  He takes over a team that is loaded with experience…except at the most important positions.  The Chanticleers return 15 starters, but that doesn’t include their top passer, rusher or receiver.  At two of those three spots, there is a chance they could be ok.  Quarterback Kilton Anderson graduated, but the second half of the season was plagued by injuries.  Moglia turned to a pair of true freshmen, first Bryce Carpenter and the Fred Payton.  Both Carpenter and Payton had better Passer Efficiency Ratings, Completion Percentages and yards per attempt numbers than Anderson.  They enter 2019 locked in a quarterback battle, with Payton probably having the slightest of edges.  Then at running back, while Marcus Outlow had the most carries, C.J. Marable was the best back, leading the team with 719 rushing yards and 6.1 ypc.  The defense was expected to take a big step forward thanks to a great pass rushing duo at defensive end, but Jeffrey Gunter, the lone Coastal Carolina player to be named first team All-Sun Belt, put his name into the transfer portal, one of six players to do so.  The other big loss is offensive lineman Brock Hoffman, who may be headed to Virginia Tech.  While the other four are depth guys only, the bigger issue may be what it says about the transition from Moglia to Chadwell.  Reserve quarterback Chance Thrasher, who got buried behind two true freshman on the depth chart last year, so, grain of salt, stated on Twitter that “A lot of us may be transferring because we want to compete! Play for a coach that cares about us. And the current culture isn’t what we committed to.”  Chadwell was not an unknown, he was on staff, and was interim head coach two years ago, so the players know what he is like as a head coach.  It seems concerning for the future of the program that this many guys would rather jump ship than play another year under Chadwell, as they did in 2017.

KEY PLAYERS
RBC.J. Marable, Junior
CTrey Carter, Junior
KMassimo Biscardi, Sophomore
.
DETarron Jackson, Junior
LBSilas Kelly, Junior
CBChandler Kryst, Senior

112. Liberty Flames
Independent

After Danny Rocco and Turner Gill combined to win 8 Big South Championships in 10 years, the program seemed perhaps better equipped than any since Appalachian State to make the jump to the FBS, and the results a little bit bore that out.  Turner Gill decided to retire, and the school made, I think, a solid choice in giving Hugh Freeze his second chance.  He has to follow the two most successful coaches in school history, but I think he was a solid football mind before turning to cheating to get over the hump.  Granted, if Liberty starts pulling in 4* recruits, it might be time to give him the boot for good.  He also seems like a coach where the stain of the Ole Miss sanctions might be enough to scare any Power 5 program from allowing this to be his redemption chance, meaning he could be at Liberty for the long haul.  Or he could be coaching at Virginia in a year, who knows.  He has a chance to take the Flames’ offense, which was actually pretty solid last year, up to the next level.  The strength should be the running game, headed by senior Frankie Hickson, who ran for over 1,000 yards a year ago, but Peytton Pickett was a strong second option.  That group will be bolstered further by the addition of Josh Mack, who transferred from Maine, and sat out the 2018 season, after leading the FCS in rushing in 2017.  But it’s Hugh Freeze, you know he’s going to want to throw the ball all over the yard.  Antonio Gandy-Golden is an NFL prospect at receiver, standing 6’4” and 220, and not looking at all like he should be at a mid major.  The offensive line ranked top 25 nationally in sack rate, even adjusted for both standard downs and passing downs.  So it’s on Buckshot Calvert to be more than just the coolest name in college football.  He was bottom 20 in the FBS last year in Total QBR, throwing 18 interceptions, tied for the most in the nation, while completing just 54% of his passes.  He threw 100 more passes than any other quarterback with a completion percentage below 55%, so the thought of “let him throw his way out of it” seemed to be their mentality.  That was actually a downtick in pass attempts from when their FCS number from 2017 would have led the FBS.  Perhaps the most important hire Freeze made was giving Tanner Burns, who played for Freeze at Ole Miss, his first coaching job, after spending five years as a quality control staffer for Arkansas, by making him special teams coordinator.  It’s above my pay grade to determine how these things are measured, but Liberty had the second worst special teams, according to S&P+, so Scott Downing, was not retained in the transition.  The Flames open with probably the biggest game in school history, a home game against a Power Five school, Syracuse, who finished 2018 ranked #15.  It’s not unreasonable to think they can win that game, and of the six to follow, a home game against Buffalo is easily the toughest.  Is it possible that Liberty could be 7-0 going into a road game at Rutgers on October 26?  Among so many misguided jumps from FCS to FBS, it appears that Liberty is committed to making it work, and the overall trajectory looks good.

KEY PLAYERS
RBFrankie Hickson, Senior
WRAntonio Gandy-Golden, Senior
GDontae Duff, Senior
.
DEJessie Lemonier, Senior
LBSolomon Ajayi, Senior
SElijah Benton, Senior

111. Kent State Golden Flashes
#9 in MAC

It’s baby steps, but it looks like Kent State is actually clawing its way out of the MAC basement.  That may seem like an odd take for a school that won only one FBS game last year, and has gone 8-44 against FBS opponents over the past 5 years, but that also shows just how far Sean Lewis had to build this program back up.  Kent State brought him in, as a 33 year old Dino Babers disciple, to fix an offense that was the worst in the FBS in 2017.  While nobody is going to confuse it for Oklahoma’s offense, it did jump from the bottom, up to 9th in the MAC in scoring, and 6th in total offense, and increase of 11 ppg and 108 ypg.  A lot of that is a pace adjustment, with the Golden Flashes increasing from 66.1 offensive plays per game in Paul Haynes final year, 19th fewest in the FBS, up to 79.4 plays per game in 2018, 8th most.  For comparison purposes, that slots right between Baylor and Oklahoma State.  The defensive faltering you would expect to see along with that didn’t really happen either, they gave up 1.6 ppg more defensively.  On the whole that’s a scoring margin improvement of +9.5…and still led to just 1 FBS win.  That’s how horrible the 2017 Kent State team was.  Now he’s had a full season and offseason to implement his system, and get his guys in place, returning all 11 starters from the 2017 version.  It would not be a surprise at all to see this group jump up into the top third of the conference offensively, particularly if Woody Barrett, the Auburn transfer, can work that completion percentage up to at least over 60%.  But can the defense hang on?  While some drop, based on the offensive philosophy change was expected, and the point per game rise was only marginal, don’t start to think the defense was actually good.  Those 36.7 ppg allowed was still second worst in the MAC, as was the 6.3 ypp they surrendered.  Kent State is listing linebacker Matt Bahr on their 2019 roster as getting a sixth year of eligibility, after suffering a season ending injury in the second game of the 2017 season.  There doesn’t seem to be any official news there, but the kid has been Academic All-MAC every season, and led the Golden Flashes in tackles and tackles for loss last year.  Getting him back would obviously be a huge boost to a front seven that looks to have issues.  The secondary is where any improvement from 2017 on that side of the ball has to come, with both K.J. Sherald Jr. and Jamal Parker leading a deep talent pool returning.  Both were starting cornerbacks at points in their career, but both finished last year at safety.  Tom Kaufman has not hesitated to move guys around to get his best guys on the field, valuing position flexibility.  But his task is not to field a shut down unit, just do enough to let the offense thrive.  The fact that the team leader in sacks last year was a 238 pound nose tackle, evidences that he still is working very short handed from a talent standpoint, even by MAC standards.

KEY PLAYERS
QBWoody Barrett, Junior
RBJo-El Shaw, Senior
WRMike Carrigan, Senior
.
NTTheo Majette, Senior
LBMatt Bahr, Senior
CBK.J. Sherald Jr., Junior

110. Eastern Michigan Eagles
#8 in MAC

The fact that Chris Creighton is returning to Ypsilanti for his sixth season as the Eastern Michigan head coach tells you all you need to know about what Power 5 schools seem to value in making hires.  They’d rather find the guy with one splash season, where maybe everything lined up, who hadn’t necessarily proven anything, and just pray that they landed the next big thing, rather than look to a guy who has proven he can build a program.  If that wasn’t the case Creighton would already have been scooped up by now.  The school was patient while he slugged through a 3-21 first two years, but since then, he’s gone 7-6, 5-7 and 7-6, with a pair of bowl bids, at a school that had only won 5 games once in the previous 20 years, and hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1987.  Making Eastern Michigan a consistently decent MAC team deserves way more credit than he’s getting.  Unfortunately, 2018 is trending towards a bit of a backslide, unless he’s done an even better job than I’ve given him credit for in terms of stocking the depth chart, because Eastern Michigan might lose the most talent of any MAC school from 2018 into 2019.  Bill Connolly ranks the Eagles #117 in the nation in terms of returning production from next year, ahead of only Buffalo within the MAC, with his weighted distribution.  But that’s returning production, boosted by the amount of playing time backup quarterback Mike Glass received last year, the Eagles have the fewest returning starters.  How Glass transitions from backup to starter will determine if Eastern Michigan can be in the mix for a bowl again.  In “limited,” and I put limited in parentheses because he played in 8 games and threw 117 passes, Glass actually had a better passer rating than starter Tyler Wiegers, fueled by an 8 to 1 TD to INT ratio.  His completion percentage was slightly lower, but his yards per attempt was about 1.6 ypa higher.  He also brings a different dynamic with his legs, finishing second on the team with 412 rushing yards, including team-bests 5.8 ypc and 6 rushing touchdowns.  That does speak to how disappointing Eastern Michigan’s run game was a year ago.  It was supposed to be a strength, with both Shaq Vann and Ian Eriksen returning, but both of them had their worst seasons in Ypsilanti.  Defensively, an already thinned out front seven was dinged again by the early departure of defensive end Maxx Crosby, who finished tied for 6th in the MAC in sacks, second in tackles for loss, and was second in tackles among defensive linemen.  The secondary is the clear strength of that side of the ball, led by three returning all-conference performers, but replacing six starters in the front seven means repeating last year, where the Eagles led the MAC in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense, is unlikely.  Granted they still seem capable of creating splash plays in the back, where they had more interceptions than touchdowns a year ago, and held teams to just 5.7 ypa, top 8 nationally, on only 55.3% completions.  There are a couple pieces, but way too many question marks, for a program that is still a long way from getting the benefit of the doubt.  If Creighton can get this group to a bowl game, any Power 5 program lucky enough to hire him, has made a slam dunk in my opinion.

KEY PLAYERS
QBMike Glass III, Senior
WRArthur Jackson III, Senior
TSteve Nielsen, Senior
.
CBKevin McGill, Senior
SVince Calhoun, Senior
SBrody Hoying, Senior

109. Miami(Ohio) RedHawks
#7 in MAC

Miami(Ohio) is the flagship of the MAC.  Off the bat, they have easily the highest regarded academics, but then on the football field, they have the most wins (684), highest winning percentage (.598) and most MAC championships (15) of any school in the conference.  But since 2005 the school has only finished over .500 once, back in 2010.  Chuck Martin actually has a pair of 6-2 conference seasons in the past three years, but they’ve been crippled by slow starts.  In 2016 they started 0-6, before winning six in a row, and then losing their bowl game.  In 2017, a 3-2 finish wasn’t enough to get bowl eligible after a 2-5 start.  Then last year a senior laden team finished 5-2, including 3 wins in a row to finish, but missed a bowl after a 1-4 start.  That was a RedHawks team returning 16 starters, but going into 2018 they start over almost completely on defense and at the skill positions.  One question can be answered if Maurice Thomas can finally convert his return skills to the running back job.  Thomas led the MAC in kick return yardage, including one of only two kick return touchdowns in the conference all season, being named first team all-conference, but as a running back, struggled as a second option behind Alonzo Smith, averaging just 3.8 ypc.  With both Smith and third option, Kenny Young, graduating, it’s all on Thomas.  He’s a dynamic athlete, but at 5’11” and 180 pounds, he hasn’t been able to translate that into being a ball carrier.  He should have the strength of the offense to work behind in an offensive line that returns three starters, plus a strong blocker in tight end Nate Becker.  Andrew Homer is the bigger receiving threat from that tight end spot, but Chuck Martin continues to start Becker for his blocking prowess.  The RedHawks were a solid pass blocking unit a year ago, top 15 nationally in sack rate on pass downs, but struggled in run blocking.  If they and/or Thomas don’t take a step forward, they could find themselves very one dimensional.  That is not what Martin wants to be doing, considering last year, with a senior starting quarterback, they threw the ball the third fewest times in the conference.  Gus Ragland finished his career as arguably the third best quarterback in school history, behind only Zac Dysert and Ben Roethlisberger, and so this offense, which might have to be uncomfortably reliant on passing the ball lands on Michigan transfer Alex Malzone.  I was a huge fan of Malzone coming out of high school, in a 2015 recruiting class where Michigan State needed to take two quarterbacks after losing their 2014 commit late.  Instead Michigan jumped on him, but he never saw the field in Ann Arbor, and after taking a grad transfer to Miami last offseason, only got into two games, throwing 4 passes, all incomplete.  So while the job is likely his, he’s thrown 4 game passes since his last high school game…in 2014.  So it’s far from a sure thing.  But for the RedHawks to have any shot at a bowl, he’s going to have to prove me right, about six years after I first bought up real estate on Malzone Island.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMaurice Thomas, Senior
WRJack Sorenson, Junior
CDanny Godlevske, Junior
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DTDoug Costin, Senior
SMike Brown, Junior
PKyle Kramer, Senior

108. Kansas Jayhawks
#10 in Big XII

With 10 senior starters, while expectations were still low, it was clear that it was the make of break year for David Beaty at Kansas.  He had a roster full of his guys, and plenty of experience.  His most talented player during his tenure, freshman running back Pooka Williams, was icing on the cake.  While a season opening loss to FCS Nicholls was not ideal, the Jayhawks followed with dominating wins over Central Michigan and Rutgers, by a combined score of 86-21.  Not that those programs were anything special, but considering Kansas had lost 35 of their previous 36 FBS games, getting back to back wins, the program’s first since 2011, and first over FBS opponents since 2009, it wasn’t nothing.  But Kansas only picked up one more win the rest of the way, and rather than try again with an up and comer, Kansas went the retread route again, as they did with Charlie Weis, by hiring Les Miles.  I’m not going to put the hires at the same levels, Miles’ tenure at LSU wasn’t a joke the way that Weis was at Notre Dame by the end.  His name value helped this week, when most programs late signing period was relatively quiet, with Kansas picking up an additional 8 commitments, including 4* defensive end Steven Parker from Dallas, the Texas Tech decommit, who became the highest rated member of the Jayhawks’ class.  The most important development for Kansas is Williams entering a diversion program for his December arrest for domestic battery.  That would seem to clear the path for him to return to the team for his sophomore year.  As a true freshman he finished second in the Big XII, averaging 102.3 ypg, on 7.0 ypc.  Any concerns that teams might have gotten a book on him, and figured out if you stop him, you stop Kansas, after an early November swooned, were eased by finishing with 355 rushing yards on 11.5 ypc, with 3 touchdowns, over the final two games of the year, against Oklahoma and Texas.  While Miles raises the profile of Kansas football, it’s unclear if he improves the long term outlook.  Either way, the short term is probably going to continue to be ugly in Lawrence.  While Williams was simply Kansas’ best option at running back, around him on offense, Beatty, in Year 4, didn’t have the luxury of trying to play for a future he wouldn’t be a part of.  So he ran out a senior quarterback, three senior receivers, and a pair of senior linemen.  Stephon Robinson Jr., the JUCO transfer from El Camino Community College, finished fourth on the team with 28 receptions for 330 yards, and a touchdown.  He’s the only returning receiver or tight end who was a significant contributor.  Tight end in general needs an overhaul, although it does appear Miles is willing to scrap his offensive philosophy, based on his offensive coordinator hires.  And yes, that’s hires, plural.  He initially hired Chip Lindsey from Auburn, who then left to take the Troy head coaching job.  He followed that with Les Koenning, who had been offensive coordinator at UAB, but previously coached under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State.   Adding some Gus Malzahn or Dan Mullen into his scheme is a bit of a shift, and certainly a necessary one, considering how often his offenses struggled with LSU talent.  He certainly couldn’t have pulled that off with Kansas talent.

KEY PLAYERS
RBPooka Williams, Sophomore
WRStephon Robinson Jr., Junior
THakeem Adeniji, Senior
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CBBryce Torneden, Senior
SMike Lee, Senior
SHasan Defense, Senior

107. UNLV Rebels
#9 in Mountain West

Grading what UNLV was last year without Armani Rogers may be as unfair as trying to grade any team based on what they were post-injury.  The Rebels went 3-3 with their starting quarterback, with a pair of one score losses to bowl teams.  Without him, UNLV was 1-5, and it was ugly.  They lost by 36 at home to give New Mexico their lone conference win, lost by 31 at Utah State, lost by 13 at San Jose State to give that program their lone conference win.  So how good can a UNLV team with 9 returning starters back on offense, including a healthy Armani Rogers?  Tony Sanchez’ program had improved by exactly one win per season in each of his first three years, which would have put him at 6-6 and in a bowl last year.  They went 4-8.  You think they don’t beat lousy New Mexico and San Jose State teams if they have their quarterback?  A quarterback who had a 10 to 4 TD:INT ratio, with 3 of those interceptions coming in the same game, while having legs that would have been good for 3rd in the Mountain West in rushing at 94.2 ypg, and 2nd nationally among quarterbacks, but he wasn’t eligible, playing only in 6 games.  He does need to develop into a more consistent passer, particularly considering the personnel shifts around him.  Lexington Thomas, the second leading rusher in school history, graduated, but the receiving corps should be strong, with all 6 receivers and tight ends who had more than 5 receptions a year ago, returning.  Brandon Presley is the most established presence, leading the team in receptions and receiving yards, entering his third season as a starter.  But the most intriguing talent has to be sophomore Tyleek Collins, who was second on the team in both stats, and leading the team in receiving touchdowns, plus averaging 8.7 ypc and a touchdown on 12 carries, playing as a 5’9” true freshman a year ago, as a 3* kid, who decided to cross the country from Georgia to Nevada, spurning Power 5 offers from Michigan State, Kentucky and Illinois.  Scoring more points seems like a certainty, assuming Rogers stays healthy, and becomes more consistent with his completion percentage.  But can the Rebels stop anyone?  They finished last in the Mountain West in scoring defense giving up 37.2 ppg, on 6.5 ypp.  They gave up 50 points each in those mentioned losses to lousy New Mexico and San Jose State teams, that combined to otherwise go 0-14 in Mountain West games, and average 15.4 ppg and 20.3 ppg, the two lowest output offenses in the conference.  The back seven of the defense has to improve, with 5 returning starters, but the line could shift from a strength to a problem.  It might surprise that a team with that bad of a defense actually had a line that ranked #22 nationally in line yards, and was #6 when accounting for only passing downs.  The only sure piece they have going into 2019 though is defensive tackle Kolo Uasike.  The versatility of Javin White does allow Tim Skipper some leeway in how he configures that back seven, whether he plays him at linebacker or next to Evan Austrie at safety.  The cornerbacks need to be much improved for any of it to matter though.  In Year 5 it’s probably bowl or bust for Tony Sanchez though.

KEY PLAYERS
QBArmani Rogers, Junior
WRTyleek Collins, Sophomore
GJustin Polu, Senior
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LBJavin White, Senior
LBGabe McCoy, Senior
SEvan Austrie, Senior

106. South Alabama Jaguars
#7 in Sun Belt

Joey Jones took the South Alabama job in 2008, with the job of creating the program.  He had been the only coach in program history, and had taken the Jaguars to bowl games in two of the previous four years, which is why his resignation following a 2017 season came as a bit of a surprise.  So Steve Campbell came in, fresh off of back to back FCS playoff appearances with Central Arkansas, and while 3-9 was not as expected, some of the news to break since the season ended may sort of explain some of it.  The transfer portal has really ramped up what had already been an increase in transfers, but perhaps no school was hit as hard as South Alabama, which had 9 players enter their name.  While most of them were depth guys, Ryan Alexander was supposed to be anchoring the offensive line as a third year starting tackle.  Jordan McCray was the team’s second returning leading receiver.  And either way, that number of transfers, on the heels of such a disappointing season, seems to suggest that the program’s second ever coach may be not as well received in the locker room as their first.  A major development for the offense could be if Tra Minter can carry his 2018 finish over in 2019.  The Jaguars were the worst rushing offense in the Sun Belt, but Minter started to find his stride late, averaging 83.8 ypg over the four games leading up to the finale against Coastal Carolina, after previously averaging just 37.6 ypg prior.  Then in the finale against the Chanticleers, he ran wild for 203 yards, on 8.5 ypc, and added 49 receiving yards.  Oh, and he’s one of the most dynamic returners in the conference.  He is the type of singular talent that makes averaging just 3.7 ypc as a team perplexing.  A repeat of that seems unlikely.  The Jaguars were actually decent passing the ball, in spite of a complete lack of consistency at the position.  South Alabama used three different quarterbacks last year, and all three started at least once, and all three saw action in at least 5 games, but none in more than 10, thanks to a combination of suspensions and injuries.  The quarterback competition seems likely to carry through spring and summer with all three returning for the 2019 season.  The Jaguars snapped their losing streak to end 2018 using both Evan Orth and Cole Garvin, who were statistically the best, with Orth leading the team in passing efficiency, completion percentage and yards per attempt.  In fairness, Campbell seemed to recognize that, and he did get the bulk of the snaps, even with his injury.  And Cole Garvin put himself a little bit in the doghouse with a suspension following a fight.  But it really seemed like Campbell wanted redshirt freshman to win the battle.  So in spite of his dreadful 36.8% completion percentage, he remains part of the battle.  In might be part because he’s the hometown kid from right there in Mobile, and part because his legs should be a weapon for him (even though they weren’t), but he still appears to be a factor in the race.  While the offense’s inability to run the ball, considering the skill they had there is matched by the defense’s inability to stop it, with the talent they have.  The run defense was not bad, it was average, but the defense in anchored by a pair of outstanding defensive tackles in the middle of the line that need to do a better job of holding up against the run.  Campbell went young last year, and the Jaguars gave up the most points in the league, so that move should pay off for him this year.  Hopefully a year of experience at least cleans up the penalty debacle, which made the scoring numbers worse than the other metrics, with 83.5 yards of penalties per game, the most in the nation by a wide margin.

KEY PLAYERS
RBTra Minter, Senior
WRKawann Baker, Junior
TRyan Alexander, Senior
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DTTyree Turner, Junior
DTJordon Beaton, Junior
CBJalen Thompson, Senior

105. East Carolina Pirates
#11 in American

The Scotty Montgomery disaster years are over, as East Carolina went from being one of the best mid-majors through the 90s and 2000s into an absolute mess, going 9-27 in Montgomery’s three years, including 4-20 in conference play.  After going to eight bowl games in nine years from 2006-2014, and 14 since 1992, the Pirates have now been left home for four consecutive years.  They haven’t had a five year bowl drought since going 12 years without from 1979-1990, during the Ed Emory and Art Baker years.  The Pirates can turn things around quickly, they have before, and they are well situated to succeed.  After Steve Logan resigned following a singular bad year in 2002, John Thompson drove the bus clear off the road, going 3-20 in 2003 and 2004, back against a Conference USA schedule.  Granted the East Division of the AAC, with UCF, USF, Temple and Cincinnati, is no joke, easily the best mid-major division.  Skip Holtz got them back to 5-6 in his first year, before taking them to four consecutive bowl games.  So the rebuilding process might not be so long.  That task falls to Mike Houston, who won the FCS National Championship at James Madison in 2016, and got back to the title game in 2017, with a playoff appearance in 2018.  He grew up in rural North Carolina, playing at small Mars Hill University on the western edge of the state, before coaching high school football in the state for a decade.  Beyond his connections to the state, I’m not understanding the hire.  He built upon what Everett Withers started there, and Withers had a much better pedigree, before bombing out at Texas State.  Houston inherited a championship ready team, and to his credit, won with it, but then seemingly regressed every year.  These hires can be a crap shoot, but it seems like they just hired the lesser version of the guy who just failed.  Houston’s hiring does mark a change in recent philosophy, towards being more defensive focused.  Might as well give that a try, because the last staff completely ignored that side of the ball, leading to some of the worst defenses in the FBS over the past few seasons, while still being fairly bad on offense.  The Pirates averaged 84 plays per game last year, third most in the FBS, but even at that pace, they averaged 22.8 ppg, second worst in the American, thanks to a 5.0 ypp average that was worst in the conference.  That was with Trevon Brown, who accounted for 33% of East Carolina’s receiving yards, but graduated.  Montgomery also continued to flip between quarterbacks, but with the new staff, you would think the job would go to Holton Ahlers, unless a third party emerges.  Neither true freshman Ahlers, or sophomore Reid Herring was particularly effective throwing the ball, Herring with slightly better accuracy, but when you are comparing 53.5% to 48.3%, you aren’t making a choice based on accuracy, and even with the lower accuracy numbers, Ahlers was a bigger downfield threat, averaging over 1 yard per attempt more.  When you factor in the rushing edge for Ahlers (592 to -67), it seems obvious, Ahlers actually led the team in rushing.  Combined rushing and passing attempts, Ahlers held a 6.22 to 4.94 edge.  The defense did actually make some improvements last year, after essentially being in the basement across the board statistically in 2017, not just in conference, but nationally, they were actually solid against the run, although the pass defense still struggled.  When your defense isn’t going to hold up play to play, you at least need to be able to force turnovers, and the Pirates’ scoring defense sagged below their other metrics based on their inability to do so, forcing a league low 11, being leagues lows both in fumbles recovered (6) and interceptions (5).  That pass defense is going to get much less help from the front this year due to the graduation of AAC Defensive Player of the Year Nate Harvey, the first Pirate to win the award, who tied a conference record with 14.5 sacks.

KEY PLAYERS
TD’Ante Smith, Senior
CJohn Spellacy, Junior
KJake Verity, Senior
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DTAlex Turner, Senior
LBBruce Bivens, Senior
SDavondre Robinson, Junior

104. Ball State Cardinals
#6 in MAC

If there is a MAC team that you are looking to make a big leap forward in 2018, it might be Ball State.  Much like they did when they hired Brady Hoke, the Cardinals hired a guy off the radar, because he happened to be an alum, in Mike Neu.  After winning only 1 total conference game in his first two years in Muncie combined, the Cardinals went 3-5 in his third season, and were primed return 20 starters for 2019, including six starters on the offensive side of the ball who would be in either their third or fourth year starting.  Now the pieces are in place for the school’s best year since 2013, when they started 9-1, received votes in the AP Poll, but lost the de facto West Division championship to #20 Northern Illinois, and finished 10-3.  Except for that damn transfer portal.  The Cardinals got hit with quality and quantity.  They lost six players total, and while four were reserves, two just happened to be their starting quarterback and starting running back, landing in the Power 5, at Vanderbilt and Kansas State respectively.  Ball State isn’t really in a position to be losing Power 5 caliber players.  The one upside is that this program has learned how to play without those two guys in the past.  Riley Neal couldn’t stay healthy, spending the final 9 games of 2017, and the final 3 games of 2018 on the injury list; while James Gilbert missed almost the entire 2017 season and a pair of games in 2018.  The options to replace them do provide some hope.  At quarterback, Drew Plitt finished the season in place of Neal, and actually had a substantially better completion percentage and passer efficiency.  The interceptions are a problem that must get rectified, throwing 1 per 16.4 attempts is not going to get it done.  If he had been eligible, that would have been the second highest rate in the FBS.  Malik Dunner also got 3 starts, and had a higher ypc than Gilbert did and was an all-conference player on special teams, so the talent is there.  The next step is proving he can transition from 5-6 carries per game to 15-20 carries per game.  Where there is no uncertainty is wide receiver, where Ball State has perhaps the best duo in the conference in Justin Hall and Riley Miller, who combined for 130 catches and 1,500 yards a year ago.  They work well as a pairing, with Hall as the possession guy, and Miller being the deep threat.  They finished 2nd and 3rd in the MAC in receptions a year ago.  This is all operating behind a line returning all five starters, including three multi-year starters.  The Cardinals jumped from 10th in the MAC in total offense to 5th, and if Plitt and Dunner can expand their roles without losing efficiency, there’s no reason they can’t creep higher.  Of course a lot will be helped if the defense, which ranked 11th in the MAC in total defense can just get up to adequate.  It was a run defense that surrendered over 5 ypc a year ago which was the main culprit, but replacing all but one starter from the front seven from 2017 was a big part of the issue.  At least they have to hope it was.  David Elson was retained for a third year as defensive coordinator, and major progress is needed to make it a third.  Although if there isn’t major progress, it might torpedo the whole thing, and it probably won’t be Mike Neu in charge anymore.  The linebacking corps has a chance to be as good as any in the conference, but questions on the line remain.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMalik Dunner, Senior
WRRiley Miller, Senior
WRJustin Hall, Junior
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LBJacob White, Senior
LBChristian Albright, Junior
LBRay Wilborn, Senior

103. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
#10 in American

Tulsa wants to win with offense.  Since Steve Kragthorpe lifted the program out of two decades of malaise in 2003, through Todd Graham and Bill Blankenship, the program’s focus was on the offense.  That’s why hiring Philip Montgomery, who had been Art Briles’ right hand man since their Texas high school days in 1998, seemed like the right fit.  Partly due to injuries, the offense just didn’t click like it needed to a year ago for a program like Tulsa to succeed.  They actually had a better than average defense, but the Golden Hurricane finished in the bottom three in the American in both total defense and scoring defense.  The injuries can’t be ignored, but they can’t exactly be blamed either.  Starting quarterback Luke Skipper was lost for the year in the fourth game of the season, but Seth Boomer came in and may have been better.  He struggled with his accuracy on one hand, completing just 51% of his throws, but also wasn’t throwing them to they other team, as Skipper was doing (an interception per 49.5 attempts vs. an interception per 19.3 attempts).  But they were forced to change the offense for the freshman, dropping from 29 attempts per game with Skipper to 24 with Boomer.  But Boomer was a redshirt freshman, and overall had a better passer rating.  There is a chance Skipper wins the job back, but I’d bet on Boomer.  While the two headed backfield of Shamari Brooms and Corey Taylor both return, averaging a combined 155 rushing yards per game last year, this is an Art Briles disciple coaching.  His offense is not built to survive finishing 11th out of 12 in the American in passing yardage.  Much more is needed from their offensive line, but there’s no reason to believe in it, after a line that returned four starters a year ago gave up the most sacks in the conference.  All-conference Tyler Bowling is solid at one guard spot, but the tackles could be a major issue.  Defensive, the pass defense was quite good.  Good enough that teams generally didn’t even bother testing it.  The Golden Hurricane only saw 310 pass attempts against them, fewest in the conference, 13th fewest nationally.  With 10 returning starters on defense, they have a chance to really be something if they can move from being sound, to making more big plays.  They had those stats despite having only 14 sacks and 9 interceptions, bottom 3 of the conference in both.  The special teams are a mixed bag.  On one hand you have an all-conference punter in Thomas Bennett, on the other, you missed 9 field goals last year.  Unfortunately for Tulsa, I think they’ll still use the former a lot more.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSeth Boomer, Sophomore
RBShamari Brooks, Junior
GTyler Bowling, Senior
.
DETrevis Gipson, Senior
LBCooper Edmiston, Senior
PThomas Bennett, Senior

102. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
#14 in Big Ten

Even the most fervent backers of the Big Ten’s addition of Rutgers, who might just be Jim Delany’s immediate family, at least felt that if given time, Big Ten membership would life the school’s football profile, even if the transition was rough.  Instead, things seem to be going in the opposite direction.  In Year 5 in the Big Ten, Year 3 of the Chris Ash era, the Scarlet Knights completed their second winless Big Ten season in three years, and their lone bowl trip remains their first year in the conference, an 8-5 season in 2014.  Possibly even sadder is that there will be a Year 4 for Chris Ash, despite absolutely zero positive signs, a 3-24 conference record, and continued offseason issues.  Just to make things better, the team’s best player, and offensive captain, guard Jonah Jackson, entered the transfer portal, one of six Rutgers players to do so.  The graduation of Giovanni Rescigno means the quarterback controversy is over, but the fact that Art Sitkowski remains standing may not be ideal.  He was a big time recruit, who flipped from Miami to Rutgers, thrown into the fire as a true freshman on a bad offense.  Lumps were to be expected, but his struggles went beyond normal freshman issues.  He completed just 49% of his passes with an absurd 4 touchdowns to 18 interceptions, a major reason the Scarlet Knights had more turnovers than any team in the nation, and 3 more interceptions than any other team, and absurd 1.83 per game.  Boston College transfer Johnny Langan is probably the only realistic other option.  Raheem Blackshear is a talented back, but he’s got no room to work with.  Rutgers had a bottom 30 run blocking offensive line, and that was before they lost a pair of NFL talents in the aforementioned Jackson, and the graduation of left tackle Tariq Cole.  They were a solid pass blocking group, which, despite the lack of receiving options, makes the quarterback troubles more concerning.  Aside from the offensive line transition, the offense does return most of their starters.  The defense, which held up relatively well, suffered a ton of losses.  The per play stats for the defense slotted Rutgers in the middle, to slightly above.  If they could have created more big plays, they may have even been good enough to help prop up their dismal offense, but they finished at the bottom in turnovers created and sacks.  They allowed opponents to convert 49% of their third downs, also worst in the Big Ten.  So while they were an underrated unit overall, they struggled to come up with the big play when they needed it.  Their special teams are in fantastic shape, returning a pair of all-Big Ten specialists in kicker Justin Davidovicz, who made 82% of his field goals, including a 52 yarder, which was the third longest on the season by a Big Ten kicker, and the longest in the history of High Point Stadium.  Adam Korsak averaged 42.7 ypp, and hit a 79 yarder, which was the Big Ten’s longest in 2018.  He’ll likely get plenty of opportunities to beat that in 2019.

KEY PLAYERS
QBArtur Sitkowski, Sophomore
RBRaheem Blackshear, Junior
KJustin Davidovicz, Junior
.
DEElorm Lumor, Junior
CBDamon Hayes, Senior
PAdam Korsak, Junior

101. Navy Midshipmen
#9 in American

Ever since Paul Johnson got the Naval football program back on its feet in his second season, in 2003, you could pencil the Midshipmen in for 8 wins and a bowl.  Since 2003, Navy had only missed a bowl once, and only come up short of 8 wins one other time.  That time was 2017, after going 20-7, including 14-2 in the American, over the previous two seasons.  So was that 7-6 2017 a sign of things to come?  In retrospect, it sure looks like it, as Navy stumbled all the way to 3-10, their worst season since going 2-10 in Johnson’s first year, in 2002.  Grading the service academies is always tough, because while the rest of college football has moved away from earning your stripes, they have not.  They always field senior laden starting lineups, so their returning production is always deceptively low, even in good times.  Army and Air Force are expected to be ok this year, Army even appearing in some early top 25s, and they rank #48 and #75 in returning production, so there is a military academy asterisk there.  But Navy is #126.  Somehow Navy only returned 4 offensive starters last year, and only have 3 going into next year.  It seems likely that Malcolm Perry, who was moved from slot back to quarterback late in 2017, and started there in 2018, before going back to slot back, will move back to quarterback as a senior in 2019.  Follow that?  Perry is easily Navy’s most talented player, and Ken Niumatalolo desperately wanted him at quarterback, but his arm is so bad, it couldn’t even get by for a triple-option quarterback.  In his two games at quarterback in 2017, he threw 2 passes…1 was intercepted.  Last year, before getting moved back to slot back, he completed just 36% of his passes.  But Garret Lewis and Zach Abey both graduated, so it’s either Perry or Dalen Morris.  Moving Perry back to quarterback does leave a massive hole among the backs though, as Anthony Gargiulo also graduated, leaving the Midshipmen without their three top slot backs.  Nelson Smith is a good enough fullback, but the slot back position is a major concern.  Next is line might be C.J. Williams, who was 8th on the team in rushing a year ago, but did average 8.3 ypc with his 2 touches per game.  The defense will swing on whether they can get better up the middle.  In Nizaire Cromarite and Elan Nash, Navy has a pair of rush linebackers in their 3-4 scheme, who should be better at getting to the quarterback than they were a year ago, but the line and the inside linebackers are a big concern carrying over from a year ago when they gave up 5.1 ypc, second worst in the American.  And all AAC defensive statistics for futility need to be adjusted down one, as though UConn’s historically horrible defense didn’t exist, because for all metrics, second worst is really the worst anyone else could do.  Niumatalolo has done enough to earn a shot to fix this, but Navy is not trending in the right direction, and it’s right at a time when Army is on the upswing.  He has to prove he can compete in a league which doesn’t get the credit it deserves, after feasting on his Independent schedule for his first seven years, against opponents that weren’t used to the difficulties Navy’s attack presented.

KEY PLAYERS
QBMalcolm Perry, Senior
FBNelson Smith, Junior
CFord Higgins, Senior
.
LBNizaire Cromartie, Senior
LBElan Nash, Senior
SJacob Springer, Junior

100. UL Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
#6 in Sun Belt

Outside of maybe Wisconsin, unless/until Nebraska returns to glory, I’m not sure any school was more happy with their division split than UL Lafayette with the Sun Belt putting Appalachian State, Troy, and hell, even Georgia Southern, in the opposite division.  The Ragin Cajuns took advantage right away, and went 7-7 overall, 5-3 in the Sun Belt (tied for fourth overall), and wound up playing for a conference championship.  They couldn’t pull it out, but it was a one score game until Appalachian State kicked a field goal with 2 minutes to play.  That might continue to be the recipe, be just good enough, and hope you can win one game the first Saturday in December, and you’ve got yourself a conference title.  Billy Napier was hired as head coach after a year of working under Todd Graham, and whatever he did to the offense, it worked.  The Cajuns were 2nd in the SUn Belt in scoring and averaged 6.6 ypp, best in the conference.  They featured a pair of all-conference running backs, three all-conference linemen, and an all-conference receiver.  They craziest part is that they all return, and now with their first full offseason in Napier, and offensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ offense.  So why sixth in the Sun Belt?  The quarterback position is a major question mark.  After Jordan Davis abruptly left the team, Troy Nunez filled in admirably.  But now he has graduated, and the job falls to junior Levi Lewis, who was the presumed starter a year ago after Davis left, but underwhelmed, and found himself in a bit of a rotation, but as the clear #2 guy, attempting 59 passes to Nunez’s 287.  The job was Lewis’ a year ago, and he couldn’t hold it, but there is less clear competition this time, so it seems Lewis would have to do a lot to lose it again.  Just cutting down on the number of sacks would probably be the biggest area of improvement at the position.  There’s no excuse to give up the third most sacks in the conference, when you have three all-conference linemen, and your pass play rate is squarely average.  The defense took a big leap under first year coordinator Ron Roberts, who left an FCS head coaching job at Southeastern Louisiana to take over the Cajun defense, his first FBS experience of any kind, player or coach.  While the defense was far from good, it was merely, not so good, as compared to the complete and total trainwreck he took over from 2017, when they gave up 40 ppg, and finished in the bottom five nationally in total defense.  The front looks like it should actually be better, but the secondary, which graduated three players from a unit that gave up 9 yards per attempt, and surrendered 22 passing touchdowns to 8 interceptions, could be an even bigger problem than it was in 2018.  If the quarterback position gets figured out, this ranking has the potential to be way too low, because Louisiana averaged 31.9 ppg last year, and they are a quarterback away from pushing that much closer to 40.  Three of their seven wins came in games where they gave up 38 or more points, but they may find a way to win the four games they lost last year when giving up between 26 and 30.

KEY PLAYERS
RBElijah Mitchell, Junior
WRJa’Marcus Bradley, Senior
GKevin Dotson, Senior
.
DEZi’Yon Hill, Sophomore
DEBennie Higgins, Senior
LBJacques Boudreaux, Senior

99. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
#8 in Conference USA

2018 seemed prime for Middle Tennessee State to make a run at their first Conference USA championship, their first conference championship of any kind since they won the Sun Belt in 2006, and by nature of having a conference championship game now, their first outright conference title since winning the (then) 1AA Ohio Valley Conference in 1992.  They came so, so close, going 7-1 in conference play, and leading UAB late in the conference title game, a game against the same opponent, on the same field, that they beat 27-3 a week prior.  But the Blazers got their revenge with a game winning field goal with 2:32 to go, for the 27-25 win when Brent Stockstill’s 4th down pass from midfield fell incomplete with 1:21 to play.  With 11 senior starters graduating, 2019 was always looking to be a rebuilding year, so for 2018 to be the program’s best as a member of Conference USA at least made a rebuilding year a little more palatable.  The Blue Raiders did lose all 5 “non-conference” FBS games, which includes the Conference USA championship games, but considering it was 3 SEC road games, that UAB game, and a bowl game against a very good Appalachian State team, that’s forgivable, particularly playing a top 15 Kentucky team close in November.  If you thought they learned their lesson, well this year it’s Michigan, Iowa and Duke on the schedule.  Maybe that prepared them better for their divisional title run?  Losing Brent Stockstill might be as large a loss as any team suffers this offseason, the school’s all time leading passer, and the son of the head coach.  He wasn’t just a guy who put up big numbers in a pass happy offense, he finished third in the nation with a 70.3% completion rate.  Whoever replaces him, will probably lean more heavily on standout senior Ty Lee, who is a lock to finish no worst as the second leading receiver in school history, assuming he stays healthy, and only needs 713 yards to pass Richie James for #1.  He’s gone for at least 880 in each of the past two years.  His numbers dropped a bit from 2017 to 2018, as the aforementioned James graduated, and Lee took the primary focus of the defense, with a senior quarterback smart enough to realize that.  But a new kid under center might be looking at #8 all day.  Or maybe they can lean a little more on a running game that has been non-existent for a few years now.  The Blue Raiders returned all three members of a running back rotation that wasn’t very good in 2017, but redshirt freshman Chaton Mobley by passed them all to become a true #1 back.  He only played sparingly in the first 2/3 of the season, running for 128 yards through September and October, but it was a 198 yards day against Western Kentucky that shot him up the depth chart, averaging 80.8 ypg from then out.

KEY PLAYERS
RBChaton Mobley, Sophomore
WRTy Lee, Senior
CJosh Fannin, Senior
.
DTMalik Manciel, Senior
LBKhalil Brooks, Senior
SReed Blankenship, Junior

98. Wyoming Cowboys
#8 in Mountain West

Wyoming fans have to be a little worried, now that Kansas State has hired Chris Klieman, who succeeded Craig Bohl at North Dakota State and went 69-6, with five FCS titles in five years.  DO they have the architect of the best program in the FCS, or was it the guy underneath him?  Are they Michigan State hiring John L. Smith, leaving Bobby Petrino at Louisville; or Colorado hiring Dan Hawkins, and leaving Chris Petersen at Boise State?  Not that Craig Bohl has been bad, but in five years his best year was 8-5, with a Potato Bowl win, when he had the best player in Wyoming program history playing quarterback for him.  Without Josh Allen, the Wyoming passing attack was a complete mess.  Redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal began the year as the starter, and played probably way too long, with his 48.8% completion rate and 5.3 ypa.  But the Cowboys were sort of backed into a corner with the only other options being senior Nick Smith and true freshman Sean Chambers.  They knew what they had in Smith, and there was no sense using a senior in a rebuilding season.  But thanks to the new NCAA redshirting rule, they did give Chambers some run in October.  The problem was, he actually showed some promise, completing 60% of his passes, for 10.6 ypa.  Plus he was a threat with his feet, running the ball actually more than twice as often as he threw it, and averaging 5.6 ypc.  He created a problem though, as how do you send your best quarterback back to the bench, and sell your fan base on it, just in the name of preserving his redshirt?  In a cruel way fate gave Bohl some help, and Chambers wound up breaking his leg against Air Force, ending his season…in his fourth game, thus preserving his redshirt.  Assuming he’s fully healthy going into 2019, still technically as a redshirt freshman, there’s no reason to think he won’t be the starter, which leads to I believe only the second time ever I’ve listed a freshman as a key player in these write ups, going back to 2005.  And before you ask, I don’t remember the other, I just vaguely recall doing it, and it specifically comes to mind.  But the redshirt rule, and the weird circumstance of the team’s best quarterback still qualifying means it’s now uniquely possible.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself as though he’s some savior.  He threw 25 passes.  The Cowboys still finished last in the Mountain West in passing at 131.3 ypg, behind a triple option team, on 5.7 ypa.  If that offense can get the ball anywhere close, Wyoming does have the best kicker in the conference to finish things off.  Cooper Rothe won Mountain West Special Team Player of the Year, missing only one of his 17 field goal attempts, ranking first in the nation at 94.1%, was perfect on PATs, with range beyond 50 yards.  Kicking in Cheyenne sounds nice.  Wyoming wasted a very good defense last year, which finished second, behind Fresno State, in the Mountain West in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense.  Tyler Hall, who played a linebacker/defensive back hybrid position last year, may move to more of a safety this year, with 3/4 of the secondary graduated.  The Cowboys did close on a 4 game winning streak, after a 2-6 start, so maybe some positive vibes going into 2019?

KEY PLAYERS
QBSean Chambers, Freshman
WRAustin Conway, Senior
KCooper Rothe, Senior
.
LBLogan Wilson, Senior
CBAntonio Hull, Senior
STyler Hall, Senior

97. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
#7 in Conference USA

In my formative years of development as a college football fan, Southern Miss fancied themselves the marquee mid-major program, with the same “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime” motto used by Jeff Bower that Bobby Bowden used to build Florida State.  Let’s just say Southern Miss, as good as they got, plateaued a little south of that, with a couple of top 20 finishes in the late 90s.  While they’ve recovered from rock bottom post-Larry Fedora, going 4-32 from 2012-2014, they haven’t won, or even played for a conference title since 2011.  They’ve almost become irrelevant.  The only noteworthy thing they accomplished this offseason is stage a very public internal battle over the attempted hire of Art Briles, without the approval of administration.  On the field, while this doesn’t look like a Conference USA title team, it has a chance to be perhaps the school’s best team since 2011.  There is certainly more top end talent than has been in the program since then, but depth due to a revolving door of players has been an issue.  The upside there is that at the time of this writing, the Eagles have nobody entered into the transfer portal, and are actually looking to pick up defensive end Torrence Brown from Penn State.  The passing game looks to be dynamic if Jack Abraham, who missed two different stints with injuries last year can stay healthy.  He’s got as good a receiver duo as there is in the conference with Quez Watkins and Tim Jones, who lead a deep group that returns their top 5 from a year ago.  The loss of Jay’Shawn Washington at tight end is an underrated loss.  Will they be able to run the ball at all, a year after mustering just 112.6 ypg on 3.1 ypc, with just 11 rushing touchdowns, second worst in Conference USA across the board.  Head coach Jay Hopson has to hope his youth movement there pays off in 2019, with all five starting offensive linemen returning, three of them, the entire left side plus center Arvin Fletcher, returning for their third seasons as starters.  They were blocking for Trivensky Mosley and Steven Anderson, who were thrown to the wolves as a true freshman and redshirt freshman respectively.  It’s not as though running the ball has been an ongoing issue, so the fix could be there.  But can the defense possibly be as good as it was last year, when it led Conference USA in both rushing and passing yards allowed per game.  The pass defense was particularly stingy, surrendering just 5.8 ypa with a defensive pass efficiency of 106.3, both top 10 nationally.  All of the stats suggest that this should have been a much better team last year, so you look for things like penalties, turnovers and record in close games for reasons why a record may flip to be more in line with what you would expect, but nothing is out of whack there for Southern Miss.  They are in the middle of the pack for turnover margin and penalties, and they were 2-3 in one score games, so right about what you would expect.  The infighting within the program does suggest something might be amiss, so while the Eagles turning it around and challenging for the division title would be far from a shock, based on the talent on the roster, none of the factors that would indicate that to be likely are present here.

KEY PLAYERS
WRQuez Watkins, Junior
WRTim Jones, Junior
CArvin Fletcher, Junior
.
DEJacques Turner, Junior
LBRacheem Boothe, Junior
SKy’el Hemby, Junior

96. Toledo Rockets
#5 in MAC

While it may seem really low to have Toledo this far down in the rankings, it’s more a reflection on where I think the MAC is right now than where I have Toledo, which is about similarly positioned within the conference as last year.  The main issue with the offense is a shift from trying to keep everybody happy, to figuring out who you throw the ball to.  The Rockets had the best receiving group in the MAC last year, with three all-conference performers, paired with an all-conference tight end in Reggie Gilliam.  Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson graduated, and Diontae Johnson, who was also the MAC special teams player of the year, after leading the conference in punt return yardage, and finishing second in kick return yardage.  To pile on, Art Thompkins, who was part of a three man stable of running backs, but was the best pass catcher of the three, transferred to Connecticut.  That means 144 receptions, 2,207 receiving yards, and 27 receiving touchdowns walked out the door.  A senior career backup, the #2 running back, and a backup tight end are the three leading returning players in terms of receiving yards.  You would think Mitchell Guadagni would get his job back after a series of injuries, including a season ending broken collarbone, but Jason Candle seems enamored with Eli Peters for some reason, playing Peters in every game but one last year.  He must see something in practice, because Guadagni is a dual threat guy, while Peters is a pure passer…with worse passing numbers.  Peters did win 4 of 5 down the stretch to get the Rockets into a bowl last year, after a 3-4 start under Guadagni, so maybe there is something there, but I tend to think it’s related to other factors.  Toledo had a major edge in special teams against every team they played last year, which figures to take a hit this year.  Not just the above mentioned departure of the conference’s best returner in Diontae Johnson, but the graduation of Jameson Vest.  The Rockets were near the top of the league in kick and punt coverage, and made 75% of their field goals.  The defense wasn’t special, but they got off the field when they needed to, leading the conference in third down defense, second in fourth down defense.  But with the presumed downtick on offense, the defense cannot afford to give up over 430 yards per game again.  The graduation of 6 senior starters does not suggest there will be improvement there.  At least the losses are about as evenly spread out as you can get, two from each level, and one inside and one outside guy on both the line and at linebacker, then one corner and one safety from the secondary.  A guy to watch as a budding star is sophomore defensive end Jamal Hines, who will be given plenty of opportunity to shine after Toledo lost a pair of rush ends from their rotation in Tuzar Skipper and Reggie Howard, who combined for 110 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss.  Hines stepped right into the rotation last year as a true freshman and recorded 3 sacks and 9 tackles for a loss in somewhat limited snaps.  To show just how athletic he is from the defensive end spot, he also tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions.  Toledo was another mid-major hit by the transfer portal, with six players entering their names, including three running backs.

KEY PLAYERS
QBMitchell Guadagni, Senior
TEReggie Gilliam, Senior
CBryce Harris, Senior
.
DEJamal Hines, Sophomore
LBJordan Fisher, Senior
SKahlil Robinson, Senior

95. San Diego State Aztecs
#7 in Mountain West

San Diego State may top the list of teams trending in the wrong direction as 2018 ended.  The Aztecs got off to a very strong 6-1 start, with the lone loss being at Stanford, and included wins over Arizona State and Boise State, on the blue turf.  What happened after that is anyone’s guess.  They lost 4 of their final 5, with the lone win being a one score win over a dismal New Mexico team, and included a loss to a bad UNLV team.  They looked just happy to be done in a no show 27-0 blowout loss to Ohio in the Frisco Bowl.  The problem last year was the offense, and it’s tough to see it improving much.  They still have Juwan Washington, but San Diego State has turned into a running back pipeline, no issue there.  Actually as far as the impossibly high bar that has been set recently for Aztec running backs, Washington actually quite a bit short.  999 rushing yards is quite fine, and he missed 4 games with injuries.  But that slotted him at #64 nationally, after Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey won back to back national rushing titles in 2017 and 2016.  You actually have to go back six years to the last time the Aztecs’ leading rusher fell outside the top eight nationally, and a decade ago was the last time they were outside the top 25.  So it’s clear that the offense wasn’t just contingent on the running game, it was contingent on an elite running game.  Once that slipped to middle of the pack in conference, that house of cards offense fell in a hurry.  They finished dead last in the Mountain West, averaging just 20.6 ppg.  All-conference tight end Kahale Warring was really they only other weapon they had, and they were able to get him the ball less than three times per game, and now he has departed for the NFL.  Ryan Agnew took over for the injured Christian Chapman early last year, and still sort of held the job once Chapman returned, although San Diego State turned to more of a rotation, with neith being very effective.  Chapman graduated, so Agnew needs to progress with his first offseason with real experience under his belt.  It’s not just Warring who departed, but Fred Trevillion, who led the team in receiving as their big play threat, with only 22 catches.  Rocky Long has publicly committed to modernizing his Power I offense.  Considering he didn’t really make any offensive staff changes, it’s still Jeff Horton’s offense, it’s hard to determine how committed to that he is.  I’m not even sure he has the personnel to make the changes.  Agnew does possess more running ability than Chapman did, and did help spark the offense with his legs.  Maybe the offseason could be used to find more designed ways to allow Agnew to use his running ability, rather than just when needed.  Maybe new defensive line coach Brady Hoke can give his replacement, and now boss, Rocky Long, some tips on how he reluctantly had to use Denard Robinson’s unique skill set.  Speaking of Hoke, he has his work cut out for him.  San Diego State limped into a bowl game last year in spite of their offense, namely because of the #1 run defense in the Mountain West, #4 nationally.  While the back seven seems ok, all four members of that run stuffing defensive line graduated.  If there is a noticeable slip up along the line, San Diego State could plummet to the bottom of the Mountain West.

KEY PLAYERS
QBRyan Agnew, Senior
RBJuwan Washington, Senior
CKeith Ismael, Junior
.
LBKyahva Tezino, Senior
CBDarren Hall, Sophomore
STariq Thompson, Junior

94. Florida Atlantic Owls
#6 in Conference USA

What a difference a year makes.  A year ago Lane Kiffin was on his way towards building the next mid-major powerhouse.  His players were calling themselves the best team in Florida.  They had finished 2017 on a ten game winning streak, and were popping up the back end of some 2018 preseason top 25 rankings.  They had games against Oklahoma and Central Florida in September to establish the inside track for the Group of Five New Years Six birth.  Instead, they got rolled twice, losing 63-14 to Oklahoma, and 56-36 to UCF, en route to not only not making a national splash, but not even making a bowl finishing 5th in their division in the worst Conference USA has ever been, closing with a wimper in a home loss to a sub-.500 Charlotte team to ensure there would be no bowl.  Not that it would have likely gone well, the Owls won only 1 game all year against a team with a winning record.  Then they lost three offensive skill position players early to the NFL Draft, one of only 14 teams to lose three or more players early.  I don’t think any of the others finished #95 in the Massey Composite.  The offense put up nearly identical numbers to 2017, fueled by the conference’s best rushing game, with 241.8 ypg.  But both Devin Singletary and backup Kerrith Whyte decided to enter the draft, so the future there is a little more murky.  The solution might be the return of a healthy Tyrek Tisdale.  Tisdale, the one time Florida commit, and subsequently one time Maryland commit, played sparingly in 2017 as a freshman, and missed all of 2018 with knee surgery.  He has the pedigree to be a star, and was ahead of Whyte on the depth chart after spring ball, before missing the year.  It will help if his best lineman, center Junior Diaz, who won Conference USA Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Tulane, wins his petition for a sixth year of eligibility.  Any chance of working their way back to being a factor in the conference race is going to have to come on the defensive side of the ball.  The Owls may have tricked themselves with 10 starters returning from a unit that was maybe more smoke and mirrors in 2017 than actual talent.  The finished third in the conference in scoring defense in 2017, but mostly thank to a top 10 national turnover rate, that masked a subpar yardage number, and allowed the second most passing yards of any defense in the conference.  They only forced 14 turnovers in 2018, including the national low in fumbles forced, and while they had largely similar stats across the board, it resulted in 9 more ppg allowed.  So while maybe they don’t check all of the “returning starters” boxes this year, maybe that’s a good thing.  It seems as though Kiffin is upgrading the talent across the board, the Owls have signed the top class in the conference in two of the past three years, so the inexperienced guys may actually be an upgrade over the vets that got exposed last year.  They better be, five of the six leading tacklers from 2018 are gone, along with the team leaders in sacks.

KEY PLAYERS
QBChris Robison, Sophomore
TEHarrison Bryant, Senior
TBrandon Walton, Senior
.
DELeighton McCarthy, Junior
LBRashad Smith, Senior
SZyon Gilbert, Junior

93. Oregon State Beavers
#12 in Pac 12

Jonathan Smith didn’t take the head coaching job at his alma mater thinking it would be a quick fix, but I’m not sure he fully understood just how far the program was from the one he played for at the turn of the millenium.  The Beavers did get a road win at Colorado, their first, and still only FBS win since 2016.  The quickest spot to find help in trying to turn a program around is at the skill positions, and Smith didn’t disappoint there.  The Beavers didn’t have a single player named to the all-conference first or second teams, but they did get four honorable mentions, and all four were unclassmen running backs or receivers.  That’s led by conference freshman of the year Jermar Jefferson, who finished third in the Pac 12 in rushing.  The problem is everything around them is still a mess.  Oregon State had an experienced offensive line to build behind, with three seniors and two juniors, and managed to rank in the bottom 25 of the FBS in seven of the nine offensive line metrics that Bill Connolly tracks.  That, mixed with quarterback uncertainty, led to a gross misuse of a fairly talented receiving core.  Oregon State had three different quarterbacks see action in at least 8 games, but none more than 9, with all three getting at least one start, but none more than six.  Elevent of those twelve starts were supposed to have moved on, with Jake Luton graduating and Conor Blount transferring to Eastern Kentucky.  Jack Colletto, the lease experienced of the three, returns, but the job appeared to belong to Tristan Gebbia, who transferred from Nebraska when he was beaten out for the starting job there.  He didn’t leave being the backup in Lincoln to be the backup in Corvallis, and Oregon State didn’t sign a quarterback in their 2019 class, so the job appeared his.  But Jake Luton was just granted another season of eligibility, meaning Gebbia could be facing another pouty August.  Gebbia wasn’t Smith’s only pickup through transfer, as he attempts a much needed talent transfusion.  He added three other former 4* recruits, including an additional pair from Nebraska in receiver Tyjon Lindsey, who really adds some depth to that talented group, and linebacker Avery Roberts, along with defensive end Addison Gumbs from Oklahoma.  Offensive guard Nathan Eldridge, who transfers in from Arizona, likely starts immediately on that mess of a defensive line.  But the transfer portal is a fickle mistress, and the Beavers lose three players from the secondary, led by Christian Wallace, who asked for his release last year, changed his mind, returned, but now is leaving again.  The stud RB/DB from Texas , who stunned recruitniks by heading to the Pacific Northwestern over Oklahoma and Texas, hadn’t lived up to his starz, but is the type of raw talent Oregon State is lacking.  Most of the key players from the defense return, and I’m not sure how positive that is.  The Beavers had the worst defense in the Pac 12 across the board, with 45.7 papg, 536.8 yapg, on a staggering 281.8 rushing yapg.  Their run defense was second worst in the FBS, and, as with every time I mention a defensive stat is second worst, I have to add that UConn’s defense set a whole new floor.  The back seven was young a year ago, so there’s a chance the pass defense could be competent, perhaps improving on that FBS worst 0.93% interception rate that produced only 3 on the season, but it’s tough to see the run defense getting any more than marginally better, and you simply can’t win games giving up nearly 300 yards per game on the ground.  The offense will be solid, but not that solid.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJermar Jefferson, Sophomore
WRIsaiah Hodgins, Junior
WRTrevon Bradford, Senior
.
LBAndrzej Hughes-Murray, Senior
LBShemar Smith, Senior
SJalen Moore, Senior

92. Arkansas Razorbacks
#14 in SEC

Transitioning from Bret Bielema’s philosophy to Chad Morris’ was going to be a major overhaul, but I don’t think anyone figured the Razorbacks would actually get worse in 2018 than they were in 2017.  They brought in an offensive minded guy, and his offense was terrible.  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  Arkansas returned four starting offensive linemen, along with their starting tight end and running back, plus a deep stable of receivers.  Even the quarterback battle between Ty Storey and Cole Kelley was seen as a positive thing.  If Arkansas failed again in 2018, it was supposed to be because Chad Morris’ hire only made a bad defense worse.  But the offense simply never clicked, with no quarterback stepping forward.  Storey and Kelley did take the majority of the snaps, primarily Storey, and as a team completed only 54% of their passes, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns.  True freshman John Stephen Jones even got thrown into three games.  To show just how little faith Morris had in being able to fix this, both Storey and Kelley wound up transferring, and Arkansas brings in former SMU quarterback Ben Hicks, who played for Morris before he took the Arkansas job, as a grad transfer.  A lot will be on his shoulders, taking over the offense that finished at the bottom of the SEC in ppg, ypp and turnovers.  The problems for Arkansas didn’t end once the horn finally sounded on the season ending 38-0 loss at Missouri, the quarterback duo were just two of TWELVE Arkansas players who put their name into the transfer portal.  And it’s not as though he went and fixed the defense.  They were slightly better than the previous year, but still gave up 34 or more pointed 8 times, including surrendering 52 to a Mississippi State team in November, who may have had the only offense nearly as bad as their own.  De’Jon Harris is the unquestioned leader of the defense from his inside linebacker position, and probably would have earned all-SEC honors last year if he had played elsewhere.  Everything surrounding him is a question mark though, particularly with Ryan Pulley entering the draft early.  That departure means there isn’t a single returning player on the roster who recorded an interception last year…granted Arkansas only tallied five of them.  Flipping back to the offense, the one bright spot hopefully is Rakeem Boyd, who went from off the two deep to begin the season, to starting by October, and leading Arkansas in rushing.  But he is having shoulder surgery that will keep him out for the spring.  Will that re-open the door for Devwah Whaley?  Whaley is the most talented back on the roster, but injuries and off the field issues have prevented him from realizing his potential.  He should get the bulk of the spring reps now, with T.J. Hammonds also out, and has one last season to live up to what he should be.  But Morris’ offense isn’t built on running the ball.  He does run more of a power spread, and credit to him for adjusting to his talent, but this offense needs to throw the ball more than the 30 times per game they did last year to be successful.  While Hicks does upgrade the quarterback position, he can’t do anything with the play Arkansas got from their receivers last year.  A supposedly deep group only produced two receivers that caught more than 18 passes, and one, leading receiver LaMichael Pettway, recently announced his plans to transfer.

KEY PLAYERS
RBRakeem Boyd, Junior
TECheyenne O’Grady, Senior
TColton Jackson, Senior
.
DTMcTelvin Agim, Senior
LBDe’Jon Harris, Senior
SKamren Curl, Junior

91. Illinois Fighting Illini
#13 in Big Ten

Firing Lovie Smith after 3 seasons that have produced a total of 4 Big Ten wins, would have not drawn an ounce of criticism, but retaining him was, I think, the right move.  There were signs last year that the Illini had turned a corner.  The offense was legitimately great, the defense…well…  Grad transfer A.J. Bush is gone, but sophomore M.J. Rivers played in eight games as a true freshman, starting two when Bush was injured, and certainly exceeded expectations.  He has work to do as a passer, but really this offense is built around their ability to run the ball, and they do that exceedingly well.  That is the one spot Rivers has work to do, to catch up to the threat Bush was with his legs.  The three headed tailback monster returns, led by Reggie Corbin, who finished 4th in the nation at 8.5 ypc.  Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner combined to spell him with 806 yards on 6.1 ypc.  But having the threat of the run from the quarterback spot helped open that all up, and lead the Illini to the conference’s second best rushing attack.  None of that matters if the defense can’t be at a minimum competent, because the Illini were far from that a year ago, finishing in the basement of the Big Ten across the board, giving up nearly 40 ppg on 7.0 ypp and over 500 ypg.  Illinois had an 8 game stretch where they allowed 46 or more points six times, obviously losing all 6.  But the two times they didn’t?  They won.  This offense should continue to put up points, but when your defense is constantly flirting with giving up 50, no offense can overcome that.  If you believe the talent is there, but experience was the issue, then you should expect improvement, with 10 returning starters.  The problem is 2018 was not the season where they mailed it in to go young, that was 2017, when they started three freshmen and three sophomores, leading to 7 returning starters last year.  So maybe having 10 returning starters that includes 6 three year starters helps, but it’s not like most of these 10 returning starters were newcomers last year.  If improvement was coming, it should have already arrived.  Their September 7 trip to Storrs should be interesting, as it may feature the two worst defenses in the nation from 2017.  While Lovie was given another year to get things right, the bar to return in 2020 is probably a bowl at minimum.  To do that Illinois has to do enough work in September, that they enter November with a chance.  Their early and late schedules are winnable, but October is nasty.  September is Akron, Connecticut, Eastern Michigan, and Nebraska at home.  November is Rutgers and Northwestern at home, around trips to Michigan State and Iowa teams who may be inept enough offensively to not take advantage of Illinois’ defensive issues.  Have to beat Akron, UConn, Eastern Michigan and Rutgers; then figure out a way to go 2-2 out of those two road games, or the home games against Nebraska or Northwestern, because October is road games at Minnesota and Purdue around home dates against Michigan and Wisconsin.

KEY PLAYERS
RBReggie Corbin, Senior
WRRicky Smalling, Junior
TAlex Palczewski, Junior
.
DEBobby Roundtree, Junior
LBJake Hansen, Junior
PBlake Hayes, Junior

90. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
#5 in Conference USA

Quick, who shares the current longest bowl winning streak, with five?  Well, Wisconsin is one of the teams, and you probably guessed Louisiana Tech was the other, because it would be weird to stick that fact here otherwise.  So while that’s the upside, the downside is that the reason for that is that Louisiana Tech is finding ways to lose games they shouldn’t, and winding up in bowls they shouldn’t be playing in.  There is too much talent here, for this team to be just 9-7 in conference over the past two years.  Ending 2018 with a home loss on Senior Day to a Western Kentucky team that was 2-9 overall, 1-6 in conference going into the game is just the latest example.  They also can’t seem to get their offense and defense on the same page.  In 2017 they had one of the best offenses in the conference, but a bottom half defense.  Their defense vastly improved last year, thanks to a surprising performance from an inexperienced secondary, but their offense vastly underperformed.  This year, the only question is the defensive line.  That outstanding secondary returns four of their 5 starts, now dripping with experience, led by Amik Robertson, who might be the best cornerback in Conference USA.  The offense is also loaded with talent and experience.  If they play like they should be capable of, with the losses that UAB had this offseason, the Bulldogs home game against North Texas on November 9 could determine who wins the East Division.  That starts with J’Mar Smith getting back to his 2017 form.  The funny thing is that Smith didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his first year as starter, but it was loads better than he did in 2018, when his adjusted yards per attempt fell by a full yard, and his interceptions doubled.  Teddy Veal graduates, but Louisiana Tech’s three other top 4 receivers return, and if Rhashid Bonnette can regain the form he showed earlier in his career, the group could actually be better in 2019 than they were with Veal in 2018.  Veal, attracting more defensive attention saw his numbers drop last year, and Adrian Hardy was the beneficiary, going for 75 receptions, 1145 yards and 6 touchdowns.  Now it’s Hardy who is the guy everyone is circling, and it’s on Bonnette and Utah transfer Alfred Smith to force them out of that.  The running game needs to show improvement.  While Louisiana Tech has a pass first reputation, last year was the first year since 2013 the Bulldogs didn’t produce a 1,000 yard rusher.  Jaqwis Dancy averaged a fine 5.4 ypc, but only got 124 carries, which was most on the team, but over 60 carries fewer than any leading rusher for the program in at least a decade.  That goes hand in hand with averaging over 4 passing attempts more per game, and late in the season it was over 10 more attempts per game than in 2017.  Again, that may be who you think the Bulldogs are, but it isn’t who they have actually been, rising from #82 to #27 in the nation in pass attempts.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJ’Mar Smith, Senior
RBJaqwis Dancy, Senior
WRAdrian Hardy, Junior
.
LBCollin Scott, Senior
CBAmik Robertson, Junior
SJames Jackson, Senior

89. Arkansas State Red Wolves
#5 in Sun Belt

On one hand 2018 feels like a missed opportunity with a senior backfield that looked to be the best in the conference, and they wound up not even playing for a conference title.  On the other hand, with the new divisional format of the Sun Belt, that plopped Appalachian State, Troy and Georgia Southern all in the East, leaving Arkansas State as the top program in the West, the Red Wolves might be the favorite every year to win the division until proven otherwise.  That maybe even includes 2019 in spite of the graduation of both of said seniors, being Justice Hansen, who graduates as the second leading passer in school history; and Warren Wand, who graduates as the school’s second all time leading rusher.  So why the positive vibes?  Well, starting with running back, Wand was the second most prolific running back in school history, true, but he wasn’t actually even the team’s leading rusher last year, his 792 yards slotting in behind true freshman Marcel Murray.  He was a late commit to the Red Wolves 2018 class, and made an immediate impact.  Blake Anderson was able to nearly exactly split the carries between the two a year ago, 11.8 and 10.6, so with Armond Weh-Weh, who was third in carries, also graduated, the only remaining question is whether Murray can handle the additional work.  As good as he was, there is absolutely zero experience behind him.  Alex Roberts, and his 6 carries for 22 yards slots in next.  The defense should be substantially better up front, with only one graduation in the front 6 in their 4-2-5.  It will be interesting to see who Anderson finds on the JUCO circuit as well.  Arkansas State’s 2018 class was rated tops in the conference, bolstered by some late JUCO additions, who did not disappoint.  Both Forrest Merrill and Jerry Jacobs, not on the team in the spring, worked their way not just into the starting lineup, but onto the all-conference teams.  There are 10 JUCOs as part of the 2019 class, including a pair of potential big time receivers in Eugene Minter and Kevin Howard, the later of which had Power 5 offers out of high school.  The most interesting JUCO addition though might be massive offensive guard Ivory Scott from Pearl River Community College, checking in at 345 pounds, and one of the top 10 JUCO offensive linemen in this class.  He’s listed as a guard most places, but can play tackle as well.  So overall, I like this roster, but while the pipeline at quarterback has been solid for a decade now, it’s still too much of a question mark to pick them as division champions.  It might look more like the Fredi Knighten offense from Anderson’s first couple years as head coach, assuming its Logan Bonner who wins the job, more of a running threat than a passing one.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMarcel Murray, Sophomore
WRKirk Merritt, Senior
TEJavonis Isaac, Junior
.
DEWilliam Bradley-King, Junior
DTForrest Merrill, Senior
CBJerry Jacobs, Junior

88. Nevada Wolfpack
#6 in Mountain West

2019 has the makings of a promising season, so long as the quarterback situation could get sorted out.  But a wave of transfers has gutted the Wolfpack, and raised questions about Jay Norvell’s program in general.  When there is a coaching transition, there is generally some roster turnover, due to fit, from both sides.  But the amount of turnover that Nevada had during Norvell’s first 365 days on the job was staggering, even by those standards.  56% of the roster with returning eligibility going into 2018, were off the team, including 52% of scholarship players.  Only 32% of the roster he had to begin 2018, had been with the team for more than one year.  But offseason #2 did not prove to be any more stabilizing, with several players entering their names into the transfer portal, including probably their best returning offensive player (WR Michael Mannix) and their best returning defensive player (LB Gabriel Sewell).  At this point, it’s more than fair to question what is going on with Norvell.  Nevada still enters 2019 with a seemingly better roster than they had in 2018, which won a very surprising 8 games, including 5 of their final 6.  But expecting them to take the step forward from that, as was previously the thought, now seems unlikely.  Fresno State had a large, albeit expected, roster turnover going into 2019, so a division championship is not out of the question.  To do so, the defensive resurgence that the Wolfpack showed over the second half of the season needs to carry over.  Norvell was an offensive coach under Bob Stoops and Todd Graham prior to getting the Nevada job, and hired Hal Mumme’s kid to run his offense.  In other words, Nevada ain’t planning on winning with defense, but they showed up down the stretch last year.  Nevada gave up 34 ppg in 2017, and finished in the bottom 3 in the Mountain West across the board in defensive stats, bottom 25 nationally.  Through the first half of last year, they were giving up 36.0 ppg to FBS teams, and had lost 4 of 6.  Over the second half, they gave up 18.7 ppg, and won 5 of 6.  That looks like a tall task, even if Sewell, and his brother, starting safety Nephi Sewell, had stayed.  The most interesting player on that side of the ball is easily defensive tackle Dom Peterson.  Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel flipped between 3 and 4 man fronts, playing him inside on 4 man, outside when just 3.  But he came out of high school as a 3*, 235 pound outside linebacker, who turned down a Power 5 offer from Syracuse.  He spent his redshirt season apparently full time in the cafeteria, and added 80 pounds, showing up as a redshirt freshman interior defensive lineman, and finishing second on the team in sacks.  As he figures out his new body, and new size, he has a chance to be a freak pass rusher.  He wasn’t the only surprise freshman contributor last year, with true freshman Toa Taua winning Mountain West Freshman of the Year, after running for 872 yards.  He had multiple Power 5 offers, from the likes of Arizona State, Cal, Washington State and Iowa State, so he was expected to be a contributor, but not to totally push returning starter Kelton Moore to the side.

KEY PLAYERS
RBToa Taua, Sophomore
WRKaleb Fossum, Senior
TJake Nelson, Senior
.
DTDom Peterson, Sophomore
CBDaniel Brown, Senior
PQuinton Conaway, Senior

87. Marshall Thundering Herd
#4 in Conference USA

Marshall had all of the pieces in place to reach their first conference championship game since 2014, and while they had a solid season, every time the Thundering Herd played a big game, they came up short.  Losing to Virginia Tech and NC State out of conference is forgivable, but they also drew a very favorable schedule, and lost 2 of the 3 games they had to play against teams that finished above .500 in the conference.  So it’s a 9 win season, where the best win was maybe over FIU?  The offense, particularly the running game, had a major bounceback from 2017, but if Marshall hopes to improve upon 2018, the offense needs to be perhaps the best unit in the conference.  The key to that growth is Isaiah Green, who beat out Alex Thomson to win the quarterback job in the preseason, but looked like the freshman he was too often.  If he can get his completion percentage up from 56.7% up to 60 or 61%, that makes a big difference.  The defense has carried the program the past two years, but there are more questions on that side of the ball than there has been in a while.  Those questions start up front, where Marshall has dominated conference opponents the past two years, averaging 3.31 sacks per game, third in Conference USA, and holding opponents to 31.5% third down conversions, second best.  They get Ty Tyler back, who led the team with 8 sacks; but the rest of the line graduated.  That is where returning production vs. returning starters is important though, as interior pass rushing specialist Channing Hames, who actually finished second with 5.5 sacks, and led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss, likely moves into a starting role.  The problem is he in undersized to play inside except in his specialized role.  So does he get moved around based on situation?  The graduated seniors were so stout against the run, a conference best 2.9 ypc allowed, that teams more or less stopped trying.  Teams passed on 53.3% of their snaps against Marshall, third highest rate in the country.  The secondary looked to be the strength of the team in 2019, so it’s unlikely that would have continued, but Malik Gant declaring early for the NFL Draft does put a bit of a damper on that.  With the other three they do return, and the massive losses suffered at both levels in front of them, I think that’s still a fact, but it’s more of a concern than a fact.  Chris Jackson has taken the next step every time he’s been asked to.  He came in as a lightly recruited wide receiver from Florida, switched to defensive back, and made all-freshman Conference USA, then was honorable mention all-conference as a sophomore, and all-conference as a junior.  In his last year in Huntington he needs to be THE lockdown cornerback in the conference.  If he’s that, and I think he does become that, it opens up a lot.  There is a ton of cornerback depth with Kereon Merrell being given an extra year of eligibility.  Gant is an NFL player though, so his early departure, from a mid-major team, does give me pause.  Add him, and this would have been in the conversation for being a top 20ish secondary nationally.  As it is, it still could be the best in the conference, and with the front seven concerns, it might have to be.

KEY PLAYERS
QBIsaiah Green, Sophomore
TEArmani Levias, Senior
CLevi Brown, Senior
.
DETy Tyler, Senior
LBOmari Cobb, Senior
CBChris Jackson, Senior

86. SMU Mustangs
#8 in American

The American isn’t the easiest conference right now to take a big jump in, but if any team is primed to do so, it would have been SMU.  The Mustangs went just 5-7 last year, but that was after an 0-3 start with a new head coach, against a stretch that was on the road against a very good North Texas team, followed by TCU and Michigan.  The more concerning part was the two losses at the end, even with a forgivable loss to Memphis, followed by the unforgivable one to a 2-9 Tulsa team, that cost SMU a bowl.  In between, SMU was one of the best teams in the conference, winning 5 of 7, with the two losses being on the road at Central Florida, and at home to Cincinnati, in overtime, the two best teams in the conference.  It included a win over then #17, 7-1 Houston.  They started 18 underclassmen, with a new coach, against a gauntlet schedule, playing 4 teams ranked in the top 20 at gametime.  So going from 5 wins to 8 or 9 wins seemed highly possible.  So why “would have”?  The graduate transfer of Ben Hicks, a three year starter who became the school’s all time passing leader midway through his junior season, with hypothetically 19 games left in his career.  Hicks followed one year behind the coach who brought him to Dallas, Chad Morris, to Arkansas.  All is not totally lost, with the play of true freshman William Brown, who saw action in six games last year, valuable substantial action in four of those.  With a not insignificant sample size of 85 pass attempts, he actually had a better completion percentage than Hicks (62.4% to 55.9%), better yards per attempts (7.4 to 6.9), better passer rating (148.9 to 127.3) and better TD:INT ratio (7:1 to 19:7).  I don’t want to say losing your school’s all time leading passer a year early is ever a good thing, but there’s a chance it’s not as bad as it initially appears either though.  He’s not the only option though, as the transfer carousel turns, and brings Texas transfer Shane Buechele into the mix.  He’s got the flashy pedigree, but I actually think Brown winds up beating him out.  Hicks wasn’t nearly the only Mustang to pack up, he’s one of nine offensive players to put their name in the portal.  While none of the others are expected contributors, that’s a major depth hit, no matter who you are, particularly three offensive linemen.  The five receivers who left may have figured no matter who the quarterback was, there was no reason to ever get beyond their second read.  James Proche had a legitimate chance to leave early for the NFL, and decided to return.  Once West Virginia transfer Reggie Roberson Jr. got going, and was healthy, that really opened up things for Proche as well.  Roberson had one 100 yard game in September, and returning from an injury on October 20, he did so in four of his first five games back.  They finished first and fourth in the conference and receiving, and both return.  The talent on defense is mostly in the back seven, led by Texas A&M transfer Richard Moore at linebacker.  The graduation of middle linebacker Kyran Mitchell is a huge loss from a leadership standpoint, but from a talent perspective may be a non-issue.  There is such a glut of safety talent, that they look to show some more 4-2-5 looks, with Patrick Nelson, at only 210 pounds, playing a hybrid position.  The Mustangs made unexpected improvements defensively in Dykes’ first year, but they are too thin on that side still, to not simply find ways to get their most talented players on the field.  No matter how this year goes, the future seems bright with the program.  Sonny Dykes is only 49, even though it seems like a name that has been around forever.  He had good success at Louisiana Tech, before failing at California.  He’s had that taste of Power 5 though, and might be content to coach it out at SMU, which is a solid mid-major job.  He brought in the #69 class in the nation, which ranked #3 in the conference.  There seems to be stability and upgraded talent coming into the program, which really has everything in place to probably be the second best program in the American West, behind Houston.

KEY PLAYERS
WRJames Proche, Senior
WRReggie Roberson, Jr., Junior
GHayden Howerton, Junior
.
LBRichard Moore, Senior
SPatrick Nelson, Senior
SRodney Clemons, Junior

85. Western Michigan Broncos
#4 in MAC

Through October 20, Western Michigan looked to be in great shape to win their second MAC Championship in three years.  They were sitting at 6-2 overall, with very excusable losses to a pair of top 15 teams in Syracuse and Michigan, and 4-0 in the conference.  Then they got thumped at home by 27 by Toledo, where starting quarterback Jon Wassink injured his ankle and was lost for the season, which sent them into a spiral of losing 4 of their final 5.  Oddly the lone win during that stretch was over conference champion Northern Illinois.  The Broncos return plenty of talent in 2018 though, with the upper classes being made up of the historically good recruiting classes P.J. Fleck was bringing in.  With the personnel losses that Toledo and Eastern Michigan suffered, it may come down to a season ending game between the Broncos and the Huskies again, to determine the division champ, played Tuesday night prior to Thanksgiving.  Now Wassink looks healthy, and there is experienced depth.  Per Bill Connolly, no team in the nation returns more production than the Broncos, 85%.  They are the only program to rank in the top 15 in both returning offensive production and returning defensive production.  So why this low?  Well, to chalk the ending of 2018 up to a quarterback injury is a bit disingenuous.  Yes, Keleb Eleby finished up the season in place of Wassink.  He also completed 62.6% of his passes, compared to 61.6% for Wassink, and averaged 218.4 ypg, to Wassink’s 221.6.  So, in other words, he was basically the same dude.  So they weren’t losing because of a dip in quarterback play.  And lets be honest, those 4 losses were not easy to explain away.  As mentioned they got thumped by 27 by Toledo; they lost by 45 to Ohio, and by 31 to BYU.  They lost to a Ball State team that only won 2 other conference games, to the combined 1-15 Kent State and Central Michigan teams.  So that November stretch was worse than the 1-4 record even implies.  They finished #103 in S&P+.  They also play their four most important conference games (Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Ohio and Northern Illinois) all on the road, along with September trips to Michigan State and Syracuse.  I’ll hedge my bets just a little bit.  There should be no concerns about the offense, no matter who is under center.  Jamauri Bogan’s graduation hurts the running back rotation a bit, but in LaVante Bellamy they have the MACs returning rushing leader, with 1,228 yards.  The receiving group is loaded as well.  Michigan grad transfer Drake Harris, who had 27 catches for 255 yards, good for fifth on the team, graduates; but aside from him the top 8 pass catchers return, led by breakout freshman, all-conference Jayden Reed.  This should be the top scoring team in the conference, but the defense has been trending the wrong way.  An experience bunch in 2017 underachieved, and a very raw group last year performed exactly how you would expect.  They surrendered 6.2 ypp, putting them in the bottom third of the conference for a second straight year, primarily due to the conference’s worst pass defense.  They allowed 8.8 ypa, while allowing 30 passing touchdowns, to only 9 interceptions.  The gap between their defensive pass efficiency and the next worst (#11 Kent State), was the same as between Kent State and the fifth best in the conference.  They were heavily reliant on getting pressure from the line, and probably will have to be again, with Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley returning, with their combined 14.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss.

KEY PLAYERS
RBLaVante Bellamy, Senior
WRJayden Reed, Sophomore
GLuke Juriga, Senior
.
DEAli Fayad, Junior
LBDrake Spears, Senior
LBAlex Grace, Senior

84. Air Force Falcons
#5 in Mountain West

As I stated in my Navy write up, it’s always hard to gauge the returning talent on the military academies, because they still heavily favor seniors, more than most programs do.  So that’s not nearly as good a predictor as it is for other schools, because they seem to always lose a lot of production, making them tough to read or predict.  Stars can emerge out of nowhere as seniors.  But the Falcons were actually a young team last year, and now enter 2019 with 16 returning starters, unheard of for the service academies, at least off the top of my head.  The Falcons only missed a bowl once in Troy Calhoun’s first ten years at the school, and after that 2-10 season in 2013, they immediately bounced back in 2014 with a 10 win season, and a division championship in 2015, the first of each since 1998.  But now they’ve missed back to back bowls, albeit with 5-7 records, not the 2-10 disaster of 2013.  The roster looks primed to have another bounce back season.  They return a pair of quarterbacks who started last year, but more importantly to Air Force’s offense, they return their top six rushers.  For good measure they return four of their top 5 tacklers, and their kicking/punting specialist.  The only position that looks to be a major question mark is receiver.  While Air Force does throw more than the other triple option teams, that’s still the position where they can most absorb a blow.  Bringing in solid recruiting classes is not the lifeblood of the service academies, but it doesn’t hurt.  While bringing in a class that ranked #102 overall, and #8 in the Mountain West doesn’t exactly read as something to be excited about, considering the limitations in recruiting, and the hesitation of most recruits to consider the military schools, that actually equates to the Falcons’ best class since 2012.  That group formed the nucleus as upperclassmen that led to a pair of 10 win seasons, and a Mountain West divisional title.  So it would not be crazy to think some of these guys could be the rare contributing Air Force freshman.  The depth chart at receiver is open enough for Deavyn Woullard from Mission Viejo to contribute, the issue is, unlike most schools, being more athletic than anyone on the roster isn’t necessarily an advantage at Air Force for wideouts.  You have to block, and very few freshmen, particularly 5’11, 175 pound ones, can do that.  But he has too much athleticism for Calhoun not to figure out a way to get him on the field.  Last year the only question on the defensive front was whether rising sophomore Jordan Jackson was ready to step into a starting role.  After leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss, and making second team All-Conference, he certainly answered the bell.  With the graduations of Micah Capra and Cody Gessler, he is now the only certainty along the line, and how he transitions to drawing all of the attention will matter, because the back end of the defense struggled last year, the second worst pass efficiency defense in the conference.  John Rudzinski, in his first year as defensive coordinator, moved Jeremy Fejedelem from cornerback to safety, after returning starting safety James Jones IV suffered a torn ACL during August camp that ended his season.  Whether Fejedelem moves back to cornerback now, or pairs with Jones at safety, there is no shortage of experience with starting strong safety Grant Theil also returning.  Whether that translates to any improvement remains to be seen.

KEY PLAYERS
QBD.J. Hammond III, Junior
RBKade Remsberg, Junior
FBCole Fagan, Senior
.
DEJordan Jackson, Junior
LBKyle Johnson, Senior
SJeremy Fejedelem, Senior

83. Colorado Buffaloes
#11 in Pac 12

The very weird Mike MacIntyre era in Boulder comes to an end after six seasons, five of which were miserable, and one of which was the school’s best year since 2001.  The 2016 Buffaloes team went 10-4 overall, 8-1 in the Pac 12, and finished #15/#17 in the polls.  His other 5 teams went a combined 20-41 overall, 6-39 in the Pac 12, never finishing ranked, never going to a bowl, never winning more than 2 conference games in a year.  Fortunately for him, he signed a 5 year extension roughly 22 months before being fired.  Next up is Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, whose only head coaching experience is 5 games as the Jacksonville Jaguars interim coach in 2011.  Hint for new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, who hasn’t been on the sidelines since 2016 for Minnesota, run the Steven Montez to Laviska Shenault Jr. connection into the ground.  Montez threw for 2,849 yards a year ago, and is also the team’s leading returning rusher.  Granted the problem there is that the philosophy last year was to run Travon McMillian into the ground, on 17 carries per game, over three times as many as any other back.  He’s now graduated, as has his top backup, Kyle Evans.  Redshirt sophomore Alex Fontenot was expected to be a major contributor last year, and simply couldn’t get on the field, despite remaining healthy.  He has to be the guy in 2019 that he was expected to be last year, or a Colorado running game, which was not good last year, could really fall off a cliff.  So that’s why it’s Steven Montez to Laviska Shenault, as often as humanly possible.  Shenault went over 1,000 yards, despite missing 3 games.  In terms of yards per game, he led the Pac 12 by over 20 yards per game.  In a conference that has become largely irrelevant, it feels like a true crime that the best receiver plays for one of the most irrelevant program within that conference.  They may have found their next Nate Solder in Will Sherman though.  He doesn’t have that prototypical left tackle body, and came in as an under the radar guard recruit, still listed as a guard last spring coming off his redshirt season.  But Colorado decided to flip him over to left tackle, and move returning starting left tackle Aaron Haigler over to left guard.  That left side anchors an offensive line that returns all five starters, and needs to grow after a full year together, after ranking #116 in run blocking and #86 in sack rate.  Only 7 schools allowed contact behind the line more often than Colorado.  Line cohesion is important, but just how much year over year growth can be expected?  If they can just be mediocre, that would help.  Can Steven Montez basically will this team to a bowl game, with the help of Shenault?  That might be what it takes, and maybe that isn’t crazy.  This team did start 5-0, and reach #19, before losing 7 in a row to end the year.  Win one of those games, and you’re a bowl team.  This is a year, with the unbalanced schedule, the Buffaloes play 5 conference road games; the two teams they don’t play on the crossover are Cal and Oregon State; and the return game from Nebraska suddenly looks formidable the way the Huskers finished 2018.  In other words, I don’t think Colorado flukes their way even to 5 wins again, but Montez is an upper half Pac 12 quarterback, and maybe that’s enough if the league is still down.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSteven Montez, Senior
WRLaviska Shenault Jr., Junior
TWill Sherman, Sophomore
.
DEMustafa Johnson, Junior
LBNate Landman, Junior
LBDavion Taylor, Senior

82. UL Monroe Warhawks
#4 in Sun Belt

Now here is where Connolly’s returning production methodology has a bit of a hole, when accounting for teams that became younger as the season went on.  The Warhawks return 9 offensive starters and 10 defensive starters, but are just 45th in his metric.  Not guys who were forced into starting roles, but younger guys who earned their way into the lineup during the year.  UL Monroe opened the season with 6 senior starters on defense, coming off a year where they were the worst defense in the Sun Belt across the board, allowing an FBS worst 532.1 ypg.  5 of those seniors saw themselves replaced by underclassmen as the season wore on, so that by the end of the year, linebacker David Griffith was the last senior standing.  That youth movement paid off both in 2018 and going forward, with the WarHawks rising to the middle of the conference, allowing 10 fewer points per game and over 100 fewer yards, compared to 2017.  Now they have returning talent, not just returning starters, starting on what has the making of possibly the best defensive line in the conference.  Seniors Donald Lewis and Jaylen Veasley both made the all-conference team, and taking advantage of that kind of talent playing around him, freshman Kerry Starks was able to tie for the team lead in sacks.  Starks was arrested two weeks ago for domestic battery, and immediately suspended.  Not to wade into these waters, but with both parties charged, this feels like one of those incidents that a football program can sweep under the rug with a reduced charge, and the WarHawks best young talent will be back on the field this fall.  Offensively, everything depends on just how good Caleb Evans can be.  Hopes were very high for him last year, there is an article out there proclaiming he could be UL Monroe’s first Maxwell Award winner.  For the record, some guy named Tua Tagovailoa won it, but I’m sure Evans was right there next to him.  In fairness, Evans was 2nd in the Sun Belt in Total QBR as a sophomore, his first year as a starter, and was the top returning player in that category last year.  Instead, Evans saw his yards per attempt fall by almost a full yard, his touchdowns decrease, and his interceptions double.  While the Maxwell seems probably out of reach, he has more talent than he showed last year, and now they need him even more, with their two all-Sun Belt skill position players gone.  He does have all five starters on the line returning, with four of them entering their third or fourth years starting.  It’s not ideal to have no proven players at receiver or running back, but those seem to be the places where even mid-majors can find a dude.  An undersized athletic kid, or a big kid, who might be a touch slow to get that 3rd or 4th star.  It’s the line and quarterback where good players don’t grow on trees at places like UL Monroe, and the Warhawks seem set there.  The program only has one conference title since moving up from what was then 1-AA in 1994, a shared Sun Belt title in 2005, in a weird year where they went 5-2 in conference to get a share of the crown, but lost all four non-conference games and therefore were ineligible for a bowl.  In the weaker division, UL Monroe should be the favorite to reach the Sun Belt Championship Game, and on one single day, anything can happen.  At the very least they should get to their second bowl game in program history, first since 2012.

KEY PLAYERS
QBCaleb Evans, Senior
CBobby Reynolds, Senior
GT.J. Fiailoa, Junior
.
DEDonald Lewis, Senior
DEKerry Starks, Sophomore

81. Louisville Cardinals
#14 in ACC

They didn’t get their Plan A guy, but I actually think as far as Plan B guys go, Louisville hit it out of the park.  People remember the 1-AA power Appalachian State, and obviously the Michigan upset in 2007, and just kind of assumes the current success is just a continuation of that.  But the Mountaineers began trending in the wrong direction during Jerry Moore’s last couple of years, was essentially forced out, then Scott Satterfield took over a team that went 4-8 in their last year at the FCS level, and attempted to transition them to FBS.  After a middling first couple years, he got the program rolling again, going 41-11 overall, and 28-4 in Sun Belt play, with 3 conference championships and a 4-0 bowl record over the past four seasons.  2007 maybe put the name out there for recruiting purposes, but Satterfield brought that program back.  Now he gets a chance to do it at a higher level, and trust me, this roster is a mess.  There is talent, but there are all kinds of issues.  Issues that were allowed to grow and fester, because they had the best player in college football the previous few seasons, masking everything.  But without him in 2018, things got ugly.  The Cardinal went winless in ACC play, and lost their final 9 games of the season, by an average of 31.1 ppg, never being within 18 points over the final seven.  No Cardinal player made any sort of postseason honors list, and the ACC trots out a first, second and third team all-conference, plus honorable mention.  No Louisville player to be seen.  No other school had less than four.  For some reason, Petrino thought the answer to a struggling defense, was hiring Brian VanGorder, as his third defensive coordinator in three years, after he had bombed out at Notre Dame.  The result?  Defense got a whole lot worse.  Cardinals were worse across the board in every category, and last in the ACC.  They gave up 44.1 ppg on 6.9 ypp.  Louisville trailed so early, so badly, that their opponents only attempted 290 passes against them on the season.  But while the defense was expected to be bad, and was simply worse, the nosedive the offense took was totally unexpected, even with the loss of Lamar Jackson.  This was still an offense that returned 4 offensive linemen, all three starting receivers, and still had a quarterback in the wings in Jawon Pass who was a coveted 4 star recruit, who chose Louisville, specifically to play in Petrino’s system, over offers from schools such as Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State.  And it’s not like Petrino had ever struggled to field an offense.  But what had been the ACC’s best offense in 2017, ranking tops in the conference in scoring, yardage and passing, second in rushing; third in the nation in yardage; fell to the very bottom of the conference.  They dropped from 38.1 ppg to 19.8; from 544.9 ypg to 354.7.  You have to believe the talent is there, at least on the offensive side of the ball.  It’s clear Petrino had completely ignored the defense, and simply returning a ton of starters might mean very little.  They need a few years of recruiting classes to begin to rebuild that.  Right away, defensive end Ja’Darian Boykin from Gray, Georgia, seems to be the most obvious immediate impact guy, but defensive end might be the one area on defense the Cardinals are sort of ok.  The fact that four of the five highest rated players in the class play defense is a good start.  Considering how ugly last year was, and how obviously ugly it was from early on, followed by a coaching transition, the fact that Louisville has the lowest rated class in the ACC isn’t a surprise, but the recruiting trail is the area Satterfield remains a mystery in.  He has never played or coached at the Power Five level in any capacity.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJawon Pass, Junior
WRDez Fitzpatrick, Junior
TMekhi Becton, Junior
.
DEAmonte Caban, Senior
DETabarius Peterson, Junior
LBC.J. Avery, Junior

80. North Texas Mean Green
#3 in Conference USA

Seth Littrell took over a program that had produced losing seasons in 10 of the previous 11 seasons, winning 3 or fewer games in seven of those seasons, and now has them on the cusp of their first Conference USA championship.  The offense should be freakishly good.  Jalen Guyton declared early for the NFL Draft, but no matter, he wasn’t even the Mean Green’s best receiver last year.  That would be Rico Bussey, who led the team with 1,017 yards, and earned all-conference honors.  All in all five of their six leading receivers return, including senior Michael Lawrence, who was the returning leader going into last year, and had a “disappointing” junior season, where he and Jaelon Darden combined for 80 catches, 1,008 and 6 touchdowns.  DeAndre Torrey took the starting running back position away from Nic Smith, and wound up with all conference honors himself.  They have a pair of all-conference linemen returning.  The thing that makes it all go is Mason Fine, who was overlooked at 5’11” and 185, but is putting up huge numbers in Conference USA.  He led the conference with 291.8 ypg passing, with a fantastic 27 to 5 TD:INT ratio, on nearly 65% completions.  He enters 2019 as the FBS career passing leader among active players, with 9,081 career passing yards.  With just 18 more yards than he had last year, he’ll graduate in the top 20 in FBS history.  If there is any concern it’s going to be in pass protection, where both starting tackles need to be replaced, from a line that ranked top 40 nationally a year ago in sack rate.  That’s nitpicking.  There’s really no question that the offense is going to be just fine (see what I did there?), but if they are going to overtake a UAB team, that did have a ton of graduations, it’s going to depend on whether the defense can hold up.  North Texas had the worst defense in the conference in 2017, and found a way to reach the conference title game.  But they did so in a season where they won three times allowing over 40 points.  That’s generally not a repeatable statistic.  Littrell didn’t make any personnel or scheme changes, but a year of growth, and the defense improved substantially.  But they played a lot of seniors.  E.J. Ejiya led the team in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss, and he’s gone.  Their starting cornerbacks, Nate Brooks and Kemon Hall, combined for 115 tackles and 11 interceptions, both gone.  Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett was allowed to trust his seniors and cover his deficiencies with a more aggressive style, which led to the Mean Green leading Conference USA in interceptions, and move towards the top in sacks.  A lot of that is gone, and the concern is there that the talent still isn’t present on that side of the ball.  Something that may be of interest is USC poaching offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.  Littrell sat on the fence between continuity and brining in a fresh voice, by hiring Eastern Washington offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder, who had the third most prolific offense in the FCS, and promoting receivers coach Tommy Mainord, to serve as co-coordinators.  Reeder will also coach the quarterbacks, which marks the first time Fine has played for someone other than Harrell at the school.

KEY PLAYERS
QBMason Fine, Senior
RBDeAndre Torrey, Junior
WRRico Bussey Jr., Senior
.
DELaDarius Hamilton, Senior
SKhairi Muhammad, Senior
STaylor Robinson, Senior

79. Northern Illinois Huskies
#3 in MAC

After the disastrous 2016 season, which saw the program go bowl-less for the first time since 2007, Northern Illinois bounced back with a pair of 8 win seasons, including a conference championship last year, almost solely on the strength of their defense.  This was a program which, prior to 2016, churned out offensive talent too, but the past few seasons have seen a significant drop.  Marcus Childers, after taking hold of the quarterback job as a freshman, was supposed to take over after his first full offseason in the program, instead he suffered a sophomore slump.  His yards per attempt, which wasn’t great to being with, fell to a measly 5.5 ypa, fourth worst in the FBS among qualified quarterbacks, and the other quarterbacks at the bottom were primarily due to lousy completion percentages, for yards per completion, his 9.3 was last in the FBS.  He won MAC Freshman of the Year in 2017 thanks to his additional running ability, and low interceptions, but there was regression there as well, doubling his interceptions, while seeing his touchdowns drop, and losing 0.6 ypc from his rushing.  This was behind the most experienced offensive line in the MAC, which now graduates a pair of all-conference players, but sees the other three members return.  Former starter Ryan Roberts, who was moved to tight end, was a candidate to slide back, but instead opted to transfer to Florida State.  The big loss though is Rod Carey, who has been at the school as a position coach, then coordinator, then head coach, for the past 8 seasons.  That is part of life in DeKalb, they don’t make them all like Joe Novak, who built the program from a 3-30 start in Division 1-A from 1996-98, to winning division titles in three of four years from 2002-2005, before “retiring” following the 2007 season, his worst year at the school since 1997.   Since then Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and now Rod Carey have used the school as a stepping stone to the Power Five.  You know in the MAC every coach you hire will either do poorly enough to get fired, or well enough to get poached, so it says something about the stability of the program that their last three hires have been poached, not fired.  It’s up to one of their own now Thomas Hammock, who played for Novak from 1999 through 2002, then retired due to a heart condition just as the program was about to take off.  He returned for two years a decade ago as running back coach, but also finished his degree at Wisconsin, as a grad assistant under Barry Alvarez, and spent the last 5 years as a position coach in the NFL with John Harbaugh and the Ravens.  Sometimes these schools reach to find a connection in their hires, but this feels like a strong hire, with the only questions being whether he’s been out of college football too long, and whether his limited coordinator experience (1 year at Minnesota in 2010) is an issue.  He’ll have his hands full with the offense, with the hope that a really good back seven on defense can compensate for the loss of a nasty pass rushing combo with the graduation of Josh Corcoran, and the early NFL Draft entry of MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Sutton Smith.  They finished 1 and 2 in the MAC in sacks, part of the reason the Huskies averaged more than a sack per game more than anyone else in the conference.  The defense as a whole was outstanding for the second straight year, allowing a conference best 4.8 ypp.  But having those two guys causing havoc up front allows you to do a lot of different things behind them.  The strength now is probably at linebacker with Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh.

KEY PLAYERS
QBMarcus Childers, Junior
RBTre Harbison, Junior
TJordan Steckler, Senior
.
DTJack Heflin, Junior
LBAntonio Jones-Davis, Senior
SMykelti Williams, Senior

78. Ole Miss Rebels
#13 in SEC

All things considered, a 5-2 start, with seemingly decent wins over Texas Tech on a neutral field, and at Arkansas, with forgivable losses to Alabama and LSU (even by a combined 84 points), seemed like a decent start for a program to finish in the conference basement.  Then the bottom fell out with a 5 game losing streak to close the season, including their second consecutive home Egg Bowl loss of over 30 points.  Fortunately the Rebels were incredibly young on one side of the ball, unfortunately that side was the defense, which finished #90 in S&P+, and wasted the 6th rated offense.  No Power 5 team had as lopsided a difference, in favor of the offense.  While Ole Miss was breaking in seven new starters, and starting nine underclassmen, this is two years of Matt Luke, and two years of fielding the worst defense in the SEC.  The problem is next year he doesn’t look to have the offense to bail it out.  Ole Miss was already preparing to have a massive offensive overhaul, with Jordan Ta’amu, who flew way too far under the radar, because of how bad Ole Miss has been.  But then they lost four offensive players early to the NFL Draft, including a dynamic pair of receivers in A.J. Brown, who led the SEC in receiving yards each of the past two seasons, and D.K. Metcalf, who had a season ending neck injury in October, when he was third in the SEC in receiving yards.  They also graduated DeMarkus Lodge, who stepped up with the loss of Metcalf, and finished fifth in the conference, averaging 82.2 ypg over the final five games without Metcalf.  Rebel fans have to hope its system, not talent, in which case breakout freshman Elijah Moore, who had 11 receptions for 129 games in the first week that Metcalf was out, is next up.  Because there is reason to believe in “next man up” at wideout, the bigger loss, even over all three receivers combined, might be left tackle Greg Little, who I’ve seen projected as high as mid-first round.  For good measure, starting tight end Dawson Knox, and his 15 receptions, with no touchdowns, decided he was also NFL ready with a season left.  It all adds up to an offense that returns only 30% of its production, lowest in the entire FBS.  As for all of that returning talent on defense, there’s not a ton to get excited about, but one guy to keep an eye on in 315 pound defensive tackle Josiah Coatney, who is not just a big space eater in the middle, but is surprisingly active and disruptive from that position.  How much time does Matt Luke get?  He breathes Ole Miss football, and there is some understanding that the Hugh Freeze success was not earned, was not necessarily realistic, and left him with a hole to dig out from.  Or maybe they are SEC fans, and expectations are never reasonable.  He did pull in a top 25 class for 2019, and unlike Freeze who was reeling in top recruits from all over the country, the top rated kids in Luke’s class were two JUCO kids from Mississippi; a quarterback from Texas without Texas or Texas A&M offers; and a receiver from Arkansas.  You know, the type of blue chips that Ole Miss should be able to land.

KEY PLAYERS
RBScottie Phillips, Senior
WRElijah Moore, Sophomore
TAlex Givens, Senior
.
DTJosiah Coatney, Senior
LBMohamed Sanogo, Junior
LBQaadir Sheppard, Senior

77. Tulane Green Wave
#7 in American

While some questioned hiring a 55 year old head coach to lead a turnaround at a football program that had been morabund for nearly two decades, since Tommy Bowden, Rich Rodriguez and Shaun King left following the 1998 season.  But after three years, Willie Fritz seems dedicated to the process, and with a new on campus stadium opening in 2014, and the school reaching their first bowl game since moving up to the AAC, things are looking up for the Green Wave.  The next step is finding consistency.  Most of Tulane’s recent success came when the stars aligned with a group of seniors, and fell apart when they left.  The school has not had back to back winning seasons since they had three straight from 1979-81 under Larry Smith and Vince Gibson.  Credit Fritz with making the tough decision to turn away from Jonathan Banks, the senior who had helped the rebuilding process, but simply wasn’t getting it done last year, namely with his rushing numbers way down.  So after 7 starts, and a 2-5 record, Fritz started Justin McMillan, the LSU grad transfer.  The numbers actually don’t look a ton better, but a spark was lit, Tulane won five of their final six games with McMillan under center.  It also helps the Green Wave going into 2019, as Banks has graduated, but McMillan still has another year of eligibility.  He leads a very experienced backfield, with a pair of senior running backs.  The workhorse, 230 pound, Darius Bradwell, who led the team with 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns, on 15.5 carries per game; and the quicker Corey Dauphine, who led the team with 6.3 ypc, while still getting 9.5 carries per game himself.  They need more running from the quarterback position, after Banks’ 50 ypg in 2017 dropped to just 17.1 in 2018, and even McMillan was only at 26.4.  McMillan’s 4.0 ypc was a big uptick from Banks’ 1.5 though.  Terren Encalade graduates after back to back 700 yard receiving seasons, but Darnell Mooney, who led the team in receiving, returns, and Tulane adds one of the weirder transfers in Oklahoma State receiver Jalen McCleskey.  At least it felt really weird when he decided four games into 2018 to quit his team, while being the leading receiver, but now that we’ve had a few months of the transfer portal experience, it kind of just feels like this is the new normal, guys moving around for no obvious reason, and the first sign of a perceived slight.  In his last two full seasons in Stillwater, McCleskey combined for 123 receptions, for 1,457 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Life for a receiver outside of Stillwater is a little different though, going from playing in Gundy’s offense, opposite James Washington, to the American Conference school that throws the ball the least, other than Navy.  New Orleans is probably more fun than Oklahoma I suppose.  The defense last year was carried by their front six, and that group has a chance to be even better.  The Green Wave led the conference in sacks, led by sophomore Patrick Johnson at defensive end, and were second to Cincinnati in run defense, allowing 148.5 ypg on 3.9 ypc.  Tulane played a base 4-2-5, and graduate only one from that group.  The secondary is a different story, where a pair of all conference performers are gone from a unit that allowed 260 ypg, even while getting all of that pressure up front.  There is a good chance that they could be starting a pair of sophomores at cornerback.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJustin McMillan, Senior
RBDarius Bradwell, Senior
WRDarnell Mooney, Senior
.
DEPatrick Johnson, Junior
LBLawrence Graham, Senior
LBMarvin Moody, Junior

76. Buffalo Bulls
#2 in MAC

2018 was nice, the school’s first divisional championship and Conference Championship Game appearance in a decade, coming within a quarter of winning it, but 2019 was what Lance Leipold was building.  All everything receiver Anthony Johnson was graduating, but quarterback Tyree Jackson, a budding NFL prospect was back, with Emmanuel Reed at tailback and receiver KJ Osborn, for an offense that was going to light up the MAC record books in 2019.  But Tyree Jackson put his name in the transfer portal, before just deciding to go to the NFL Draft; then Osborn announced he was transferring to Miami; Reed put his name in the transfer portal; starting tight end Tyler Mabry entered as well; as did Charlie Jones, who after all of those other transfers, found himself slated to be Buffalo’s leading returning receiver.  Now we are left with the leading returning pass catcher being 13 catches for Kevin Marks, a backup tailback.  What should have been one of the most experienced offenses in the nation, now finds itself with only 7 schools returning less production.  That’s coupled with a defense that was always going to be facing massive graduations.  So how does all of that add up to 2nd in the MAC?  Well, part of that is simply how down the MAC was last year, and appears to be next year as well.  #76 in the nation would have only been good for #4 last year in the Massey composite, and 5th the year before that.  The other part is faith in the program that Leipold has built.  He is still upgrading the talent.  Yes, you may not have another quarterback slip under the radar at 5’9”, only to grow into a 6’7” NFL prospect.  But Jaret Patterson came in at running back as a redshirt freshman, and supplanted not just Emmanuel Reed, who led the team in rushing in 2017, but Johnathan Hawkins, who led the team in 2016, before suffering a season ending injury in September of 2017.  Patterson won MAC Freshman of the Year, was named second team all-conference, as is the reason Reed decided to transfer rather than fight for his job back.  I’m still not worried about the offense.  It might not be all-world, like it could have been, but should be good enough, with a talented backfield from the aforementioned Patterson and Marks, who is the better pass catcher.  Then at wideout, it’s time for sophomore Rodney Scott III to take over.  Scott is the second highest rated recruit of the 247 era, a 3* kid out of Miami, who had offers from schools like Alabama, Miami and Florida, apparently.  Makes you wonder about academic issues, particularly with how late he committed to Buffalo.  You would have liked to see him more involved last year, but with two record setting receivers in the mix, he may have struggled to find his groove in spot duty.  Then the line, which was a carousel a year ago, may have finally settled late, with only center James O’Hagan graduating.  While he was the steady force, the hope is the four returning starters, locking in their spots, will provide greater consistency.  On defense, it was more freshman contributors that have to take a big step forward, led by linebacker James Patterson.  2018 saw a nice mix of veteran leadership, and freshman contributors.  Those freshmen are a year older, but are they ready to take on leadership roles?  The gap in production right now in the junior and senior classes is probably the biggest concern this team faces in trying to hold of Ohio again, and this time win in Ford Field.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJaret Patterson, Sophomore
RBKevin Marks, Sophomore
TEvin Kslezarcsyk, Senior
.
LBJames Patterson, Sophomore
SJoey Banks, Senior
STyrone Hill, Junior

75. FIU Panthers
#2 in Conference USA

While all national attention to Conference USA was spent on what Lane Kiffin was doing in Boca Raton, Butch Davis rather quietly got Florida’s other Conference USA team into a bowl in 2017, and then while Kiffin returned tons of talent, got preseason New Years Six hype, and fell flat on his face in 2018, Davis followed it up, with the best season in FIU’s 17 year football history, going 9-4, besting his previous 8-5 season, which matched what Mario Cristobal did in 2011.  Now, Davis returns one of the most experienced teams in the country, to take run at the school’s first Conference USA championship.  Along the perimeter, the Panthers seem set, returning their starting quarterback, a stable of running backs, their three leading receivers, and a strong back seven.  They need to get a whole lot better in the trenches, despite what Conference USA media seemingly believed.  At first glance, that seems ludicrous.  FIU had four of their five offensive linemen named to the all-conference team a year ago, and three of those four return.  They were excellent in pass blocking, but they were aided by a quarterback in Bowling Green transfer James Morgan who was arguably the highest rated recruit in Bowling Green history, a perfect fit for Dino Babers’ offense.  Then Babers left for Syracuse.  Morgan struggled in the air raid, but transferred to FIU specifically because of the similarities between what he thought he was signing up for at Bowling Green, and what Rich Skrosky was planning to run at FIU.  He’s good at getting the ball out quickly, making the right read, and knowing when to flip to a run.  Therein lies the problem, the Panthers couldn’t really run the ball like Skrosky wanted.  As Bill Connolly points out, the overall numbers look ok, but that’s because of Morgan’s ability to know when to go to them.  The Panthers hit on a ton of big plays, but the line ranked #78 in standard line yards, and were #117 in rushing efficiency, while being #7 in rushing explosiveness.  Those four linemen who earned all conference honors probably simply benefitted from voters who simply saw they finished 6-2 in conference, while allowing the fewest sacks in the league, without going much deeper.  The defense has the same problem.  In the back, they should be excellent, led by a pair of all-conference cornerbacks, which could be potentially bolstered by the addition of Iowa transfer who is still applying for an immediate waiver.  But on defense, as on offense, the line is a concern.  The Panthers allowed 4.9 ypc on the ground, second worst in the conference, and they were 12th out of 14 in sacks per game at 1.62.  FIU on paper, should be the favorite to win the league.  They were 6-2 last year, they return the most production from anyone at the top, and Davis is recruiting as well or better than anyone else in the league, so the kids coming up in the program should actually be more talented.  But a lot of the numbers suggest that FIU’s 9-4 record last year was on the upper limit of likely outcomes.  They were 4-1 in one score games, they had the best turnover margin in the conference, and they had the best 4th down conversion rate.  They were only #96 in S&P+, which put them 8th among Conference USA teams, even behind 5-7 Florida Atlantic.  So FIU could actually be better, and wind up with the same record.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJames Morgan, Senior
RBAnthony Jones, Senior
WRAustin Maloney, Senior
.
DENoah Curtis, Junior
LBSage Lewis, Senior
CBStantley Thomas-Alexander, Senior

74. North Carolina Tar Heels
#13 in ACC

Well that went south in a hurry.  Three years after completing an undefeated ACC regular season, winning North Carolina’s only ACC divisional championship, completing their first top 15 season since 1997, and playing for the school’s first conference championship since 1980, Larry Fedora was fired after back to back 9 loss seasons, and some offseason comments regarding football head injuries that didn’t sit well in the current climate.  Now the school turns back to the coach who took them to their greatest extended success in the past four decades, Mack Brown.  Brown left Chapel Hill for Austin, Texas at the age of 46, and returns at the age of 67.  He’s not a long term answer, but this is a school that should be able to make a strong hire, if it’s on solid footing.  So his job isn’t to go win a national title.  It’s to clean up a program that has had a list of on and off field issues recently, and put them in position to hire a coach that can.  Due to all of the suspensions and uncertainty last year, the Tar Heels are not short on guys who have experience, particularly on offense.  That was an offense that averaged 6.0 ypp, fourth best in the ACC, yet only scored 27.4 ppg.  If they can do a better job of capitalizing on their opportunities this year, that alone should get them up closer to 32 or 33 ppg.  They converted barely a third of their third downs, had the third worst turnover margin in the ACC, and they settled too often for field goals.  They scored touchdowns on only 53.3% of their red zone trips, second worst in the conference, and it was them and Virginia below the rest of the conference by a wide margin.  A rather major change occurred since I assembled these rankings, Nathan Elliott, the returning starting quarterback, and leader to resume that role in 2019, decided to leave the football team to be a graduate assistant at Arkansas State.  Cade Fortin is the most obvious next choice, starting in two games last year when Elliott was injured, and being more of a running threat, averaging 5.4 ypc, but he simply is not anywhere close passing.  The Tar Heels barely asked him to throw, and he still completed only 49% of his passes, and averaged under 100 ypg.  Jace Ruder saw even more limited action, but was 4-5 for 80 yards and a touchdown.  The highest rated recruit in Mack Brown’s first class was in state Sam Howell, who is an early enrollee, and certainly has the best pedigree of the three.  He is a dual threat guy, like Fortin, but seems to already be well ahead as a passer.  In what looks to be a lost Year 1 (or is it 2.1?), I wouldn’t be shocked to see the big upside freshman take the job.  But oh, that defense.  When Mack Brown left, he had guys like Dre Bly, Greg Ellis and Brian Simmons.  This unit gave up 34.5 ppg, and was equally bad against the run and the pass.  Jason Strowbridge is steady and reliable in the middle of the line, but the only guy who should feel secure going forward is Trey Morrison, who started every game except the opener at nickelback, and wound up second on the team in pass break ups and sixth in tackles.  He might not be Dre Bly, but at least Brown should be a little reminded of the type of talent he had on that side of the ball when he left.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMichael Carter, Junior
WRDazz Newsome, Junior
TCharlie Heck, Senior
.
DTJason Strowbridge, Senior
CBTrey Morrison, Sophomore
SMyles Dorn, Senior
73. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
#4 in Mountain West

I can’t be the first one to call Hawaii football the Rolo-coaster-vich?  Right?  Nick Rolovich took over the mess of a program from Norm Chow, coming off a 3-9 2015, and immediately turned them into a 7-7 bowl team in 2016.  Then, with some expectations for 2017, Hawaii fell flat, and went 3-9 again, winning only one conference game, just to bounce back and go 8-6, with a 5-3 conference record last year.  It was their first winning season in eight years.  So what do we believe?  That history repeats itself, and the Rainbow Warriors stumble again, or Rolovich continues to rebuild his alma mater into a contender in a West Division where Fresno State lost a ton of talent and Hawaii may actually be the favorite?  Hawaii does not have that problem, returning 79% of their production, best in the conference.  But how much of their success last year was merely a product of their schedule?  Hawaii got off to a 6-1 start, beating three conference bottom feeders, an FCS team, Rice and Navy.  Once the schedule picked up, the Warriors fell off, losing five of their final seven, and being barely competitive in the losses, of 26, 18, 30, 39 and 17.  They did pick up their most impressive win of the season during that stretch, but it was over a San Diego State team that was reeling down the stretch.  It’s no surprise that Rolovich, who thrived under center in June Jones’ run and gun system after Timmy Chang has relied heavily on the passing game, but the difference from some of those Jones teams is that Hawaii is serious about defense.  The Jones teams were tough, but frequently undisciplined and poorly positioned defensively.  Rolovich seems serious about fielding at least a competent defense, and after a dismal 2017 on that side of the ball, Rolovich brought in three new defensive assistant, including new coordinator Corey Batoon from Florida Atlantic.  After being a bottom 25 defense in the nation in 2017, the Warriors were a serviceable unit in 2018, and have one of the most experienced defenses in the country entering 2019.  If they can get the ypp down below 6.0, which seems very doable, the 35+ points a game this offense is going to score should be enough.  This program still has June Jones’ fingerprints all over it, and let’s not pretend like Hawaii is winning on defense.  They just need enough defense to sling the ball all over the yard.  That, Cole McDonald did, nearly 40 times per game, while maintaining an excellent 36 to 10 TD:INT ratio.  The early departure to the NFL of top receiver John Ursua hurts a bit, but Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward return, after combining for 130 catches, 1,835 yards, and 18 touchdowns, as the second and third options.  They also add Auburn transfer Nate Craig-Myers, who never realized his potential there, but has the frame of an NFL wideout, and should certainly see plenty more opportunities than he did at his first stop.  Whether Hawaii was a product of their early schedule, or a program building towards what could be a great 2019 will be determined early, as they open with three straight games against Pac 12 competition.  The first two, home games against Arizona and Oregon State, are winnable, and would make a huge statement that Hawaii is in fact the divisional favorite.  Losing one, or even both, would not necessarily be cause for major concern, but with road games at Washington, Nevada and Boise State in the four weeks to follow, it might make a bowl a tall task, because an 0-2 start, could mean a likely 1-5 start.

KEY PLAYERS
QBCole McDonald, Junior
WRCedric Byrd, Senior
GSolo Vaipulu, Sophomore
.
DEKaimana Padello, Senior
LBSolomon Matautia, Senior
CBRojesterman Farris II, Senior

72. UCLA Bruins
#10 in Pac 12

Congrats on winning the Chip Kelly lottery UCLA!  2018 was going to be a struggle no matter what, you had a lot of graduations, you had coaching turnover, which always leads to more player defections.  But what has transpired has been worse.  You had a 3-9 season, the worst season in Westwood since 1971, you had infighting, and worse you had out-fighting, in the media, twelve, TWELVE, Bruins have entered the transfer portal in addition to the two players leaving early for the NFL Draft.  You had a young team, and were implementing a new style.  Everyone was on board with a small step back to take a big step forward.  Problem was you took too big of a step back, and I’m not sure what the path is going forward.  I think they’ve entered RichRod at Michigan territory where you change systems, alienate the upperclassmen, and then lose bigger than you expected to lose, which hurts morale of the younger classes, and really hurts recruiting.  Such that even when you start to get things turned around, it’s too little, too late.  I felt after one year, that Michigan firing RichRod was inevitable, and I feel the same about Kelly at UCLA.  He’ll get better, he might get them back into a bowl, but he’s ticked off too many people, and the program after one year, is too far behind the program he took over, for him to make it up.  Maybe I’m way off though.  ESPN’s Football Power Index loves the Bruins as one of the major bounceback teams of 2019, ranking them #21 in the nation, up 47 spots from their #68 finish to last year.  Any success is going to be contingent on Kelly and Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s damaged relationship.  Kelly named the true freshman the starter for the opener, and a bad start for him and the team (0-3), plus a shoulder injury, had the Bruins turn to grad transfer Wilton Speight.  All of that is probably fine, but Thompson-Robinson’s father went public and criticised Kelly in the press.  By the end of the year Thompson-Robinson showed promise as a passer, but still seemed hesitant running the ball in Kelly’s system.  Whether it was simplified down for the freshman, or just an attempt to limit hits to protect the previously injured shoulder, this isn’t going to work with a quarterback who runs for 68 yards on the season on 1.4 ypc.  Fortunately the Bruins do have Joshua Kelley back, after considering also going to the NFL Draft.  I’m not sure why he didn’t go, at the rate Kelly rode him into the ground a year ago, with nearly 19 carries per game, 65.8% of the running back carries for the team last year.  To his credit, he’s not simply a product of touches, although he did finish 22nd in the nation in raw carries.  Of the player in the top 25 in carries, only 4 had a higher ypc than Kelley’s 5.5.  UCLA’s defensive assistants should be sending gift baskets to Corvallis for keeping them out of the basement in the conference defensively.  The secondary was serviceable, and has a chance to be excellent this year.  The Bruins had one of the best passing defenses in the nation two years ago, but it has steadily declined each of the past two seasons.  The talent was there last year to be better than it was, and while the graduation of Adarius Pickett hurts, having five of the eight lin the two deep last year be freshmen or sophomores, should pay off this year, led by cornerback Adarius Pickett, who I think will be putting his name in the draft after this junior season.  They have to get more from a front that generated only 15 sacks as a team last year, eighth worst in the nation.  They only suffered one loss along the line, but it’s a big one, in nose tackle Chigozie Nnoruka.  He was a stud JUCO transfer defensive tackle under the previous regime, but was forced to play out of position at nose tackle in Jerry Azzinaro’s 3-4, and now opted instead to transfer to Miami.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJoshua Kelley, Senior
WRTheo Howard, Senior
KJ.J. Molson, Senior
.
LBKeisean Lucier-South, Senior
CBDarnay Holmes, Jrnior
SQuentin Lake, Junior
71. Arizona Wildcats
#9 in Pac 12

Kevin Sumlin should probably send a letter to Chip Kelly to thank him for taking the national spotlight off his Wildcats a bit.  If not for the complete on and off field disaster that occurred at UCLA, the Pac 12 hiring that would be getting second guessed the most would be Sumlin landing in Tucson.  Funny how wrong we all can be.  At this time last year we were writing off Arizona State for hiring Herm Edwards, while divisione rivals landed Kelly and Sumlin.  Edwards maybe inherited more talent than those two, and Arizona didn’t go completely off the rails like UCLA did, but it certainly wasn’t what Wildcat fans expected, bringing back the most exciting quarterback in the nation.  The problems began with Tate, who found himself on the Heisman short list as a sophomore in 2017, passing the ball just 16.2 times per game, but at 8.9 ypa, and 62% completion rates, but running 13.9 times per game, at 9.2 ypc.  He thrived in RichRod’s system.  But much like when RichRod was fired at Michigan, Tate found himself left behind, with a new coach, and a new system, that valued a pocket passer.  To Al Borges’s credit, he did the best he could to tweak his offense to fit Denard Robinson’s skill set, and jammed that square peg into the round hole.  Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone did not seem the slightest bit interested in doing that.  They nearly doubled Tate’s passing attempts, up to 27.5 per game.  While he threw for 85 more yards per game, he did it on fewer yards per attempt, and with a 6% drop in completion percentage.  The starker difference is that his rushing plummeted, not just his attempts, which were less than half of what they were as a sophomore, but his ypc dropped from 9.2 to 3.0, dropping his overall rushing numbers from 1,411 to 224, in the same number of games.  Rumors were heavy that Tate would transfer to a system to better fit his talent.  RichRod is at Ole Miss now by the way.  Tate decided to stay, and all eyes will be on him in the spring, particularly with Sumlin’s first quarterback recruit at the school, Grant Gunnell, enrolling early.  Has Tate improved as a passer, have Sumlin and Mazzone figured out how to not waste his talents?  The skill position triumvirate of Tate, running back J.J. Taylor and receiver Thomas Reid, may be the best in the conference outside of Eugene, so this team should score, if the coaches allow it.  The line also has substantial questions, after being a supposed strength, with three presumed starters in the transfer portal, two of them already confirmed to be gone.  The Wildcats did pick up a JUCO offensive tackle in Paiton Fears, and he may have to contribute right away.  The schedule, on one hand, is forgiving, as the easy part is up front, so they might have a couple games to figure it out.  On the other hand, the easy part being up front, means that if it isn’t figured out until late, there might be little room to make up ground.  They play UCLA and Texas Tech at home, plus a trip to Boulder, with a mid-major and FCS game sprinkled in, in the first five.  But then Washington, USC, Stanford, Oregon, Utah and Arizona State make up six of the next seven.  The defense returns 8 starters from a group that was still bad, but improved from the 2017 unit, which was perhaps the worst Power 5 defense.  They need to iron out the consistency issues, holding four teams to 17 points or less, while also giving up 41 or more points four times.  Their performance to close out 2018 did not exactly inspire confidence, surrendering 34, 69, and 41 over their three November games.

KEY PLAYERS
QBKhalil Tate, Senior
RBJ.J. Taylor, Junior
WRThomas Reid III, Junior
.
DTP.J. Johnson, Senior
LBColin Schooler, Junior
SScottie Young Jr., Junior
70. Temple Owls
#6 in American

While no Temple fan is clamoring for a return to the days of Bruce Arians, Jerry Berndt, Ron Dickerson and Bobby Wallace, the miserable run of football for 20 years, from the mid 80s through the mid 90s, the recent coaching turnover has to be getting frustrating.  At this point guys aren’t even sticking around long enough to prove they can coach.  It seems like if a coach is good enough for Temple to want them, and they aren’t a complete screw up, that’s good enough for some Power 5 school.  Al Golden was there for 5 years, then took the Miami job; then Steve Addazio for two (the second of which he went 4-7) and left for Boston College; Matt Rhule for four before leaving for Baylor; Geoff Collins for two before taking the Georgia Tech job; then Mazzy Diaz for maybe a few hours, before getting the Miami job.  Next up is former Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey.  In fairness, Northern Illinois has gone through the same issue, so for Temple to take their coach is actually a little funny.  The lack of stability is not just at the coaching level, for the second consecutive year, Temple switched quarterbacks midseason.  The Owls went from Logan Marchi to Frank Nutile midway through 2017, which saved their season, and got them into a bowl.  But then Nutile saw himself replaced last year by Frank Russo, with similar results.  Temple went 7-1 in conference, which isn’t enough when you are in the same division as Central Florida.  Now, while Russo returns, there are tons of questions around him.  It starts at running back, with Ryquell Armstead graduating.  Armstead was outstanding, finished third in the AAC in rushing, but even with that, the Owls had the third worst rushing offense in the conference.  Now they need to cobble something together from those guys.  Russo would also benefit from a return to 2017 form from Isaiah Wright.  Wright is always dangerous on special teams, a nation best 3 return touchdowns a year ago, while leading the conference in punt return yardage, and being named AAC Special Teams Player of the Year.  But as a sophomore, Wright also led the team in receiving, but slipped to third last year, in spite of being healthy all season.  Wright is the only proven commodity at the skill positions, so if he is the same player he was in 2018, Temple could struggle greatly to score.  On defense, the issue is going to be replacing a secondary that graduated three of four starters from the best group in the conference.  The easily led the conference, allowing just 5.6 ypa, which was also tops in the nation.  That’s why Daniel Jones of Duke made himself some money with the show he put on in the Independence Bowl, going 30-41 for 423 yards and 5 touchdowns, on 10.3 ypa.  The casual fan tuned in and said “oh, he’s just padding stats against Temple,” but that was a very, very good pass defense, even acknowledging that level of competition had something to do with them being #1 in the nation.  If there is any reason for optimism back there it’s that Temple also replaced three secondary starters a year ago, from a unit that had also finished with the top pass defense in the conference in 2017, although that only put them at #40 nationally.  Unfortunately, there’s a reason Geoff Collins took defensive backs coach Nate Burton with him to Georgia Tech and promoted him to coordinator.  Probably didn’t hurt that Burton is also a Georgia Tech alum.

KEY PLAYERS
QBAnthony Russo, Junior
WRIsaiah Wright, Senior
GJovahn Fair, Senior
.
DEQuincy Roche, Junior
LBShaun Bradley, Senior
SBenny Walls, Senior
69. UAB Blazers
#1 in Conference USA

Call this more of a vote in (a) the program and (b) the “strength” of Conference USA.  Because UAB loses everybody.  Not literally, but damn close.  They started 15 seniors a year ago, who took a program from non-existence to a conference championship in two seasons.  Bill Clark has gone 13-3 in two years at the school, after spending two years shut down.  Keeping Bill Clark away from getting poached by another school was far more important than retaining any player.  As long as he is at the helm, I’m not going to predict much of a dip.  He overcame much larger odds, against a better conference to go 6-2 in league play two years ago.  So graduating a bunch of dudes is small potatoes.  The Blazers only return 36% of their production from a year ago, worst in the nation.  And it’s not as though one side can compensate for the other, both sides of the ball individually ranked in the bottom five.  What returning production the Blazers do have seems to be solely in the legs of Spencer Brown.  Brown wound up third in the league in rushing, and was named first team all-conference.  He did that thanks to 272 carries, fifth most in the country, but only averaged 4.5 ypc, the worst of any back to finish in the top 50 nationally in raw yardage (Brown was 21st in the nation in rushing).  His season long run of 30 yards was the shortest longest run of any player in the top 125.  He’s not going to wow you, but he is going to be good for nearly 20 carries every game.  The problem is those numbers were behind a line that featured four of the ten first or second all-conference linemen.  All four are gone.  As is quarterback A.J. Erdely.  The Blazers split time under center, so all this means is that junior Tyler Johnson III, who played in every game but one, is now the man.  He may help Brown with the workload carrying the ball, he wound up second on the team in rushing a year ago, despite being the part time quarterback.  What got UAB to a conference title was a defense that went from middling to arguably (give or take a Southern Miss) the best in the conference, particularly against the run.  Garrett Marino is back to plug up the middle, but the rest of the front seven has been gutted.  A shaky secondary, which gave up decent yardage per reception, was very reliant on that front seven to relentlessly pursue the quarterback, racking up a conference best 3.43 sacks per game.  The Blazers sacked the quarterback on 10.64% of dropbacks, best in the nation.  But of the 48 sacks they recorded last year, only 7.5 (15.6%) were by players returning in 2019.  Obviously the program had to be rebuilt on transfers, there are 39 of them, from all levels of football, on the roster, but as transfer crazy season is upon us, UAB has nobody in the transfer portal, either in or out.  Clark signed the #6 rated class in the conference for 2019, and the early returns on his 2020 class are even better, top 40 nationally, and #1 in the conference.  So while he did what he needed to do, he is now program building, and UAB looks to be more stable right now that just about anyone.  In a down year, that might be enough to steal a second straight league crown.

KEY PLAYERS
QBTyler Johnson III, Sophomore
RBSpencer Brown, Junior
KNick Vogel, Senior
.
DTGarrett Marino, Senior
LBKris Moll, Junior
CBBrontae Harris, Junior
68. Ohio Bobcats
#1 in MAC

Is this the year that Frank Solich finally gets over the hump?  He’ll be 75 a week into the season, so he doesn’t have many seasons left to win a MAC Championship.  He’ll pass Bill Hess to become the second winningest coach in program history this year, and has a chance to become the winningest in program history next year.  He’s 16 wins behind Don Peden, who coached the Bobcats from 1924-1946.  But I think he’d rather finally win a conference title.  For all of that success; 4 division titles, 6 years of 6 or more conference wins, bowl eligibility in 10 straight seasons, but he’s 0-4 in MAC Championship Games, and the Bobcats haven’t won a league title since 1968.  Similar to UAB, this is not Solich’s best team, but he might have enough in a year where the league looks to still be down.  Primarily because he has the conference’s best quarterback in senior Nathan Rourke.  Rourke finished third in the league in passing efficiency, completing 60% of his passes, with 23 touchdowns to go with only 8 interceptions, but was probably an even bigger threat with his legs, finishing with 860 rushing yards, on 6.2 ypc.  He might be a bit of a one man show early on though.  He was a major part of the reason that the Bobcats had the best rushing game in the conference, averaging 258 ypg, on 6.0 ypc, which was fifth best nationally.  But he had help from a pair of great fifth year senior running backs, A.J. Ouellette, who returned better than ever from an injury two years prior, which limited him to just 3 carries, and led the conference with 1,306 yards, the only back to average over 100 ypg in the MAC, and Maleek Irons, who finished third in the conference.  His top two receivers are gone, but Cameron Odom is back, and showed great upside early in the year, before fading over the second half.  Odom had 20 receptions for 326 yards in the first six games (3.5 rpg and 54.3 ypg), but just 10 receptions for 92 yards in the second half.  The line is solid on the right side, returning a pair of third year starters in guard Hagen Meservy and tackle Austen Pleasants.  The defense should be much improved after running out six new starters in the front seven a year ago.  Ohio dodged bullets, and allowed only 24.6 ppg, third best in the MAC, despite allowing the fifth most yards, and the third most yards per play.  They allowed nearly 8 ypa through the air, but did have a conference best 16 interceptions, as part of the nation’s fourth highest turnovers created rate.  Ohio’s style of offense, which averages over 33 minutes of possession per game, helped hide some of those defensive issues.  But a more experienced group this year should help Ohio replicate those ppg numbers, but without causing us to wonder exactly how they got there.  Getting Javon Hagan to return for his senior year is a huge boost, as the experience shifts for the third straight year, this time back to the front.  Hagan would have been a sure NFL pick, albeit probably a middle round one, if he had left.  If Ohio gets the Nathan Rourke they got from the second half of last season, when Ohio was the best team in the MAC, he is the quarterback who can finally give Solich his conference title.

KEY PLAYERS
QBNathan Rourke, Senior
WRCameron Odom, Junior
TAusten Pleasants, Senior
.
LBJared Dorsa, Junior
SJavon Hagan, Senior
PMichael Farkas, Senior
67. South Florida Bulls
#5 in American

While their early record seemed to defy the experts who thought the Bulls had lost too much to compete for a conference title, the numbers behind the 7-0 start seemed to suggest that South Florida was living a charmed life, and eventually their luck would run out.  Granted, even the biggest disbelievers didn’t expect that 7-0 start and #21 ranking in the polls to be followed by an 0-6 finish.  It’s hard to evaluate South Florida as a 7-6 team though, when they enter the season on a 6 game losing streak, all of the losses by double digits.  Early, it seemed like the well travelled Blake Barnett was finally going to realize his potential from multiple transfers ago, when he was a 5* recruit to Alabama.  Instead, after the first couple of weeks, the team was winning in spite of him.  He only threw for 5 touchdowns after the first three games (in which he threw for 7), and only had a QBR of over 50 once over his final 9 games.  What has to bother Charlie Strong though was the drop off on defense, even in a league becoming increasingly about offense.  The Bulls were the best defense in the conference across the board in 2017, and while they did have some graduations, they were expected to still be in decent shape in 2018, to help carry an offense that suffered far more production loss.  Instead, they gave up 446.6 ypg, third most in the league, primarily due to a run defense that allowed 5.1 ypc, saved from being worst in the conference by, yes again, UConn.  The line only returned one starter from the previous season, and he, Greg Reaves, was moved to linebacker.  That was part out of necessity, and part from the emergence of senior Josh Black, who had been nothing but a rotation player his whole career, and then emerged as a senior to lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss.  With his graduation, and the presumed healthy return of linebacker Nico Sawtelle, who missed seven games with an injury, there is a chance Reaves moves back to end, in the Bulls’ 4-2-5 scheme.  If not, it does make for a nasty two linebacker core, but with massive, massive questions along the line.  The whole thing will look a lot better is South Florida can get more of the big plays they got in 2017, and will put less pressure on the unit to be as sound on a down to down basis.  The Bulls were top five nationally in 2017 in interceptions (20) and tackles for loss (101).  Tackles for loss dropped slightly to #33 in the nation, and interceptions dropped to 60th.  The secondary looks to be improved, from a group that was hardly the problem.  Coaches were high on true sophomore Naytron Culpepper taking over at safety, with the ability to play cornerback.  Instead he was passed over by a freshman, and has since transferred.  That freshman, now sophomore, Nick Roberts looks like an absolute star in the making, and he’s paired with lockdown cornerback Mike Hampton, who made the all conference team a year ago, as a sophomore, in his first year starting.  If the line play doesn’t dramatically improve, teams may see little need to waste their time even trying to pass on this group though.

KEY PLAYERS
QBBlake Barnett, Senior
RBJordan Cronkite, Senior
TEMitchell Wilcox, Senior
.
LBGreg Reaves, Senior
CBMike Hampton, Junior
SNick Roberts, Sophomore
66. Houston Cougars
#4 in American

Houston proved they are serious about being the marquee program in the conference by firing Major Applewhite after only two years and a 15-10 record to poach Dana Holgorson away from West Virginia.  Simply being good mostly, isn’t good enough.  This program seemed right on the cusp before losing Tom Herman to Texas, and they now see Central Florida, and want that.  Really, there’s no reason not to, they see a currently top 10 ranked basketball program, hosting College Gameday, and have the resources the fund it.  He takes over a team that has plenty of offensive weapons, but is a very, very sad case on defense.  That’s where things began to tumble under Applewhite, although I’m not sure how exactly Holgorson is a guy who is going to change that trend.  Yes, Houston was about offense, but they had elite defensive talent, and up until last year had been also one of the best defenses in the league too, even aside from Ed Oliver.  But that side, even starting 7 seniors, plus Oliver last year took a total nosedive, allowing over 500 ypg, which was (everyone together again) the most in the league of anyone not named UConn.  Looking at the returning talent, it’s tough to find much of it.  Seven of the nine leading tacklers are gone.  The Cougars return a solid pair of starting safeties, but how much you want back from a secondary that allowed 277 passing yards per game, is anyone’s guess.  Holgorson is still an elite offensive mind, but offense was not an issue for Applewhite last year.  The Cougars averaged 43.9 ppg, most in the conference, and fifth most in the nation, and yet went 8-5, including losses in four of their last five, and a pair of losses when scoring 49 points themselves.  The other four teams in the top five in scoring lost 5 games…COMBINED.  So unless you think a guy like Holgorson, replacing 8 starters, is actually going to make the defense better in 2019, the question is can the offense be any better?  Actually, it possibly could.  With McKenzie Milton suffering his horrific injury, no AAC school enters 2019 with more certainty at the quarterback position than Houston.  D’Eriq King is dynamic, rushing for 674 yards and 14 touchdowns on 6.1 ypc.  But where he has surprised everyone is in his development as a passer.  There was always room for improvement, but he blew past his supposed ceiling last year, completing 64% of his passes with 36 touchdowns to go with just 6 interceptions, to lead the conference in passing yards, completion percentage, passer rating, and total offense.  Honestly, if not for his reputation going into the year, Milton may not have even won AAC Player of the Year over King.  He returns his top 5 receivers to throw to, although tight end Romello Brooker, and his 7 touchdowns will not be easy to replace.  Patrick Carr gets overlooked as a back in probably the conference with the deepest stable of production, but he averaged 5.7 ypc.  The interior of the line needs to be revamped, but both tackles, who were first year starters a season ago, are back.  With those rave reviews, it’s hard to remember how low I have this team, until you remember everything I just said could be said about last years team, except the defense may actually be worse, and it’s tough to average more points than the Cougars did.  Long term, the program should be fine.  The commitment has never been higher.  You could argue their level of commitment exceeds any other Group of 5 school right now, and they have a wealth of talent in their backyard.  So it should continue to be good enough for now, and better in the future.

KEY PLAYERS
QBD’Eriq King, Senior
RBPatrick Carr, Senior
WRMarquez Stevenson, Junior
.
LBLeroy Godfrey, Senior
SGleson Sprewell, Junior
SDeontay Anderson, Junior
65. Maryland Terrapins
#12 in Big Ten

If nothing else, 2019 hopefully provides the Maryland football program with some stability after a 2018 that was anything but.  That has already been hashed out plenty, and speculating on how much it impacted on the field results is pointless.  It is worth noting that Maryland was one of the hardest teams in the nation to peg last year, looking as good as anyone in the Big Ten on some days, and looking like they belonged in the basement on others.  The beat Texas, should have beaten Ohio State, and their three Big Ten wins all came by 27 points or more.  But they also got throttled by Temple, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State and Michigan, all by 21 points or more.  Gone is Ty Johnson, and his low usage, freaky ypc numbers, but in Anthony McFarland Jr., they found a freshman, who actually put up better ypc, and did it on 11 carries per game, as opposed to just 7 for Johnson.  The chunk play reliant ground game has been a staple of Maryland for a few years now, so it will be interesting to see if the new staff can keep that aspect rolling.  It has made their offense far more fun to watch than a typical offense with similar overall numbers.  It’s not the guy(s) carrying the ball that concern me, it’s the guys blocking for them, with Maryland graduating three all-Big Ten offensive linemen.  Granted, those honors may have been more a product of those rushing numbers, than their actual performance, because the S&P+ numbers for their offensive line, are not pretty.  #83 in the nation in line yards, #108 in stuff rate, bottom ten nationally in sack rate, for both all downs and standard downs.  At least just bottom twenty in passing downs.  Oddly, that may actually be a positive for Maryland fans, that the guys they lost weren’t actually as good as the postseason honors would suggest.  One of the odder decisions of the previous regime was how adamantly they stuck with Kasim Hill at quarterback.  Between the two, Tyrrell Pigrome was the better runner, and Hill thought to be the better passer, except he never looked right passing last year, failing to throw for even 100 yards in six of his ten starts.  Hill suffered his second torn ACL, and entered the transfer portal, but Pigrome is not getting the job by default.  Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson, and incoming four star recruit Lance LeGendre should be in the mix.  It does not appear LeGendre is enrolling early, so him winning the job out of the gate would be surprising.  New defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who at 62 is getting his first solo coordinating job since 1999-2001 under Steve Spurrier at Florida, is tasked with continuing the growth from a year ago.  The Terps rose from being probably the worst defense in the Big Ten in 2017, to firmly in the middle last year, led by an outstanding secondary, that could be even better this year.  Maryland was susceptible to the big passing play, but held opponents to just 54% completions, and forced the second most interceptions in the Big Ten.  With a pair of all-conference cornerbacks returning, the back line will need to lead the defense again.

KEY PLAYERS
RBAnthony McFarland Jr., Sophomore
WRJeshaun Jones, Sophomore
KJoseph Petrino, Sophomore
.
CBAntoine Brooks Jr., Senior
CBTino Ellis, Senior
SAntwaine Richardson, Senior
64. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
#12 in ACC

Very few coaches anymore are allowed to plateau for as long as Paul Johnson did at Georgia Tech.  After a great start, that included the school’s first ACC Championship in 11 years in 2009, his second season.  Since then the Yellow Jackets went 4-4 or 5-3 in ACC in eight of Johnson’s remaining nine seasons, with a 6-2 season in 2014, which included a win as an at large Orange Bowl participant.  That was also the only time during that stretch that Georgia Tech finished ranked.  So, while it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to see his offense at the highest levels of college football anymore, it’s also understandable.  The school hired Geoff Collins away from Temple as their next coach.  A Georgia native, who has made two previous stops at the school, as a graduate assistant under George O’Leary from 1999-2001, then in an administrative role under Chan Gailey in 2006.  By bringing his offensive coordinator, Dave Patenaude, with him from Temple, Collins made clear that the offensive philosophy is in for a major overhaul.  His style is more of the tempo, spread look, that has seemingly become commonplace.  Prior to Temple, he honed his style at Coastal Carolina, where in five years, he had four of his players named as finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which is the FCS Heisman.  Give this thing a minute though.  Transitioning to this offense from a pro style look was much less dramatic than going from a triple option look, and even still Temple ranked #97 in offensive efficiency in his first year in Philadelphia, improving to #56 last year, while setting a school record with 34.9 ppg.  Putting up that many points, while only ranking #56 in terms of efficiency means a lot of pressure on the defense, there are going to be a ton of possessions in Georgia Tech games.  That looks to spell trouble for a group trying to replace 7 starters off a defense that was fairly lousy against the pass a year ago.  The Yellow Jacket pass defense was the worst in the ACC outside of Louisville, ranking second to last in yards per attempt allowed and pass defense efficiency, allowing opponents to complete 64.7% of their passes, worst in the ACC.  The biggest difference is simply going to be the number of plays they are on the field for.  Georgia Tech allowed a respectable 369 ypg last year, fourth best in the ACC, but when you consider that, thanks to their offensive style, they were only on the field for 805 plays (61.9 per game), fewest in the ACC, their 6.0 ypp allowed was actually third worst.  Adjusting to Temple’s pace for last year, that jumps up to nearly 440 ypg allowed.  And that’s assuming a defense with 7 new starters can maintain that same 2018 level.  But all eyes truly are on the offense, where KirVonte Benson returns as running back after suffering a season ending injury in the second game a year ago, but Parker Braun, Georgia Tech’s best player, became the best offensive lineman in the transfer portal, and wound up at Texas.  The quarterback issue isn’t getting fixed this year.  Lucas Johnson, coming off a serious injury himself, is easily the best passer of the group.  Tobias Oliver saw action in 12 games last year, but to show how confident they are in him as a quarterback, he attempted 16 passes, and had 152 rush attempts.  I think it’s more likely he winds up at a different position once the quarterback depth chart fills out a bit.  But James Graham has academic issues, and both quarterback recruits in the 2019 class are dual threat guys who committed to Johnson.  It’s no surprised that Collins jumped on a 3* pro style kid from Tampa as the first commit to his 2020 class.  He may take a second one.  The goal is to avoid the systemic change disaster season, previously mentioned in regards to Rich Rodriguez at Michigan and Chip Kelly at UCLA, that kills the thing before it even gets started.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKirVonte Benson, Senior
WRJalen Camp, Senior
TJahaziel Lee, Senior
.
LBDavid Curry, Senior
STariq Carpenter, Junior
PPressley Harvin III, Junior
63. Georgia Southern Eagles
#3 in Sun Belt

The job that Chad Lunsford has done in his limited time as head coach has been nothing short of remarkable.  Tyson Summers changed the identity of the program, and in less than two years had driven the program straight into a ditch, losing 16 of 18 at one point, sitting at 0-9 late in the 2017 season.  Lunsford was able to win a pair of games in November, including 52-0 over South Alabama, and then rolled through 2018, going 10-3, and handing Appalachian State their lone conference loss.  Changing offensive philosophies goes a whole lot smoother when the quarterback you already had in place, was actually recruited to play the system you are changing back to.  Shai Werts looked infinitely more comfortable in Bob DeBesse’s system, which was more like the Willie Fritz system that everybody identified Georgia Southern with.  He ran the ball 182 times for 908 yards, but was effective when asked to throw, completing 60% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Finding Wesley Fields’ replacement is going to be the challenge.  Unlike most other triple option attacks, the carries were not well distributed.  Fields had 200 carries, and nobody else had even half that.  Granted the pistol option, is not like what Georgia Tech or the service academies ran, so it’s not as important.  Wesley Kennedy III is the most tantalizing talent, with a team high 7.9 ypc last year.  Impressive enough to earn honorable mention all conference honors averaging under 5 carries per game.  Therein lies the problem, is whether he can be stretched out to handle a bigger workload.  Monteo Garrett, who was second on the team in both carries and yardage among running backs, also graduated.  So while Kennedy has the talent, this offense can’t survive without finding more backs to take some of the carries.  Matt LaRoche is an option.  LaRoche was second on the depth chart, as a redshirt freshman, entering summer practice a year ago, but fell down the depth chart.  He needs to show the same thing this spring that the coaches bought into last spring.  This is also a complicated blocking scheme, and the graduation of the two best members of the offensive line means that group has questions too, particularly at center, where no obvious replacement exists.  It seems more likely they shuffle some guys around to move someone over to center, either Aaron Dowdell or Jakob Cooper, and move Lawrence Edwards into the starting group.  Georgia transfer Jake Edwards is pencilled in as the starter at left tackle now.  The defense should be solid again, and the secondary should be improved if they can get better play from their safeties.  Both cornerback spots are locked down with a pair of guys who both should be on the all conference honors list at the end of the year.  There’s no reason with those guys back there, to allow opponents to complete 62% of their passes again.  Improvement there would push this defense to compete with Appalachian State’s as the best in the Sun Belt, but the offense on paper looks far too reliant on Shai Werts right now to be as good as it was last year.  If Kennedy can prove to be the 200 carry back that Fields was, then I’ll be wrong there, but he doesn’t seem to be that guy to me.  The schedule is a whole separate issue.  The Eagles have road trips to both LSU and Minnesota in the first three weeks, then play a four week conference gauntlet starting on Halloween, playing the four best teams in the Sun Belt, other than themselves, in consecutive weeks, three of which are on the road (at Appalachian State, at Troy, vs. UL Monroe, at Arkansas State).

KEY PLAYERS
QBShai Werts, Junior
RBWesley Kennedy III, Junior
KTyler Bass, Senior
.
DERaymond Johnson III, Junior
CBKindle Vildor, Senior
CBMonquavion Brinson, Senior
62. Kansas State Wildcats
#9 in Big XII

Kansas State enters post Bill Snyder World 2.0.  The last attempt at that, from 2006-2008 under Ron Prince, resulted in a 17-20 record and a lone bowl appearance, in the Texas Bowl.  Snyder got the program back to, while not it’s sustained late 90s, early 2000s success, a higher level than many expected he could get them back to.  Namely, a 10-0 start, #2 ranking, with three top 15 wins, before an upset loss at Baylor knocked them out of the national title game in 2012.  But the last four years haven’t been great.  The only time in his career Kansas State finished unranked for four straight years, since his first four from 1989-1992.  His offense sticks out as a bit old fashioned in a pass happy conference.  But rather than taking advantage of playing against defenses built to stop Big XII style offenses, his offenses simply struggled.  The Wildcats weren’t going to put up big passing numbers, but they needed to be efficient when they did, and Skylar Thompson was not.  Kansas State had the lowest completion percentage in the conference, and the second lowest yards per attempt and passing efficiency.  So you simply can’t have a middle of the road running game, and Kansas State did.  Even mediocre, pass-first offensive teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor had better running games than the Wildcats.  That was with Alex Barnes, who passed up his final year of college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.  He had 256 rushing attempts for 1,355 yards in 2018, leading the Big XII in yards, and second in carries.  To say losing him early is a glaring hole is an understatement.  Skylar Thompson, the quarterback, was the second leading rusher.  The third leading rusher?  The backup quarterback.  Fourth, fifth and sixth were a pair of senior, since graduated backs, who COMBINED to average 4.7 carries per game, and a receiver who had 1 carry.  They have to pray that Ball State grad transfer James Gilbert pans out.  New head coach Chris Klieman brought offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham with him from North Dakota State, and while he will certainly change the looks Kansas State gives, there’s no doubt he runs a run first offense, setting nearly every school rushing record a year ago.  He had to abandon that plan in his last stop in the Big XII, 2012 and 2013 at Iowa State, when the Cyclones had one of the worst rushing games in the nation, and forced him to throw the ball more than he wanted to.  Skylar Thompson compares pretty closely to Sam B. Richardson, who Messingham worked with in his final year in Ames, and that resulted in a 3-9 finish, and the second lowest scoring offense in the Big XII.  Granted that would actually be an improvement over Kansas State’s last place finish a year ago.  The Wildcats typically featured one of the best run defenses in the conference, if not the country, so their drop off there a year ago, after the noted improvement in pass defense, really torpedoed their bowl chances.  They surrendered 4.9 ypc, second worst in the conference, despite a massive improvement in their pass defense, which had been the worst in the nation in 2017.  They wound up 4th in the Big XII in passing yards allowed, 3rd in ypa, and 2nd in opponents completion percentage.  Kansas State, in hiring Chris Klieman as the guy who kept the program rolling, as opposed to the guy who built it, is banking on Klieman being to Bohl what Bobby Petrino was to John L. Smith or Chris Petersen was to Dan Hawkins.  We won’t find out in 2019 either way, the offense left behind is going to be rough.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSkylar Thompson, Junior
WRIsaiah Zuber, Senior
TScott Frantz, Senior
.
DEKyle Ball, Senior
LBDa’Quan Patton, Senior
PDevin Anctil, Senior
61. USC Trojans
#8 in Pac 12

Calling Clay Helton’s seat hot is an understatement.  USC’s 2018 was so poor, that everyone forgot that the Trojans were coming off back to back top 10 finishes, which included a Rose Bowl win in 2016, and a Pac 12 title in 2017.  But to finish 5-7, sitting home for the bowls, in the worst Pac 12 ever, may be even lower than anything this program “accomplished” under Paul Hackett.  It was probably the worst USC team since Don Clark’s first team in 1957, and the fact that Helton is back this year is actually a bit of a surprise.  Any improvement in 2019 depends on how big of a step forward J.T. Daniels takes, after being handed the reins to the program as a true freshman.  He had moments, but on the whole struggled more than the team could afford him to, finishing 10th in the Pac 12 in Total QBR, among 12 starters.  After a poor October into November, he did show flashes late in the year once Tee Martin really just let him rip it, throwing it 85 times, for 686 yards over those two games, including a 73% completion rate in a near upset of Notre Dame.  But ultimately it was a 3 game losing streak to close, where a single win would have put the Trojans in a bowl.  Much bigger things are expected out of the passing game this year, with Daniels having a full year in the program, to go with the return of his top three receivers, and best tight end.  Running back remains a question until and unless Stephen Carr can prove he’s 100% healthy.  Where Clay Helton is looking for new offensive coordinators is telling, just running through the list of former Texas Tech quarterbacks.  He first hired fired Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, before Kingsbury failed up into an NFL head coaching job.  Their second choice was Graham Harrell, who had put together the best passing attack in Conference USA at North Texas, and was viewed as a rising star.  Either way, it’s clear Helton wants to pass the ball a lot more, and either way USC fans were ready to move on from Tee Martin, who was viewed as a good recruiter, but poor coach, at a school that never struggled to recruit, with or without him.  The even bigger problem is probably an offensive line that has to figure out how to replace 3 starters from one of the worst lines in the country, despite having two all Pac 12 seniors.  They were slightly better in pass blocking than run blocking, so maybe the air raid makes even further sense.  But the real problem is a defense that graduated 8 starters, including their entire secondary.  Granted, for what was supposed to be a position of strength, the Trojans’ secondary’s inability to create turnovers was a huge problem.  USC had the fourth worst turnover margin among Power 5 teams, mainly due to only 4 interceptions, giving them the second worst interception rate in the FBS at 0.98%.  You combine that with the eighth highest penalty rate in the FBS, and you have a recipe for the whole being less than the sum of its parts.  All of those things are just evidence of a program losing its footing under a coach that really doesn’t deserve to be there, further backed by 10 players transferring out during the offseason.  The flip to the Air Raid offense feels weird at a school like USC, which should every year have the most talent in the Pac 12.  But as far as maximizing the roster USC has in 2019, makes sense, if you are a coach who better win now.  I don’t think the defense is anywhere near good enough to win enough to save his job, and the end result is setting the program back a step farther for whoever takes over in 2020 and changes the system yet again.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJ.T. Daniels, Sophomore
WRMichael Pittman Jr., Senior
WRTyler Vaughns, Junior
.
DEChristian Rector, Senior
DTJay Tufele, Sophomore
LBJohn Houston Jr., Senior
60. BYU Cougars
Independent

Just getting the program back on solid footing was the goal all along after a disastrous 2017 season that saw BYU post its worst record since 1970, two years before LaVell Edwards took over the program.  So in retrospect, I think most Cougar fans would have been on board with a 7-6 season, culminating in a bowl win.  But when you pick up September road wins at Arizona and at Wisconsin, and reach #20 in the polls going into a national prime time game at Washington, expectations change.  After those two early wins, BYU got to bowl eligibility by beating an FCS team, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico State, not exactly murderer’s row.  Although in fairness, the losses weren’t exactly bad either, Washington, Utah State, Northern Illinois, Boise State and Utah.  At least over the less impressive second half of the season, head coach Kalani Sitake turned to youth in the backfield, which should hopefully jump start an offense which has been problematic for a couple of years now.  The passing game got a boost when Tanner Mangum was replaced midway through the season by Zach Wilson.  Mangum never really lived up to his lofty expectations, set by being a high rated recruit, mixed with early success as a freshman when he was thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries.  He battled injuries, inconsistency, and by his own admission, anxiety and depression.  The way he took a senior season benching was commendable, and allowed Wilson to succeed.  With almost the exact same number of attempts on the season (186 to 182), Wilson was 42 points higher in passer efficiency, nearly 5% higher in completion percentage, threw over twice as many touchdowns, while throwing fewer interceptions, and averaged 2.73 yards more per attempt.  He was actually a better runner too, Mangum accounting for negative rushing yards on the season, with a long run of 3 yards, while Wilson had a couple rushing touchdowns, and broke a 36 yarder.  But he’s going to need help, and it’s very unclear where that help might possibly come from.  Matt Bushman is a proven target at tight end, but the fact that he only caught two touchdown passes, is slightly concerning.  An interesting name to keep an eye on is 6’7” freshman Brayden Keim, who originally committed to Weber State, before going on his mission and now walking on at BYU.  He is the type of red zone target that Wilson could become friendly with.  Because the running back and receiver positions look to be huge, huge problems.  At running back, Lopini Katoa took the job last year after the injuries and ineffectiveness of senior Squally Canada.  He did average a team high 5.6 ypc, and also led the team with 8 rushing touchdowns, but averaged just 6 carries per game.  He was a better weapon catching passes out of the backfield than Canada was, so he does provide that added dimension.  BYU returns two of their top three receivers, but when your leader a year ago is a 5’10” player who had 358 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns, there is plenty of room for a new name to emerge.  Defensively, the line and the secondary should be solid enough, but the linebackers could be a major concern.  They have been the strength of that side of the ball the past few years, but only Isaiah Kaufusi returns.  Sione Takitaki and Corbin Kaufusi graduate after leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss, so where the pressure is going to come from remains a mystery.  Isaiah Taufusi is a better coverage linebacker than pass rusher.  Khyris Tonga, at 340 pounds in the middle, is surprisingly active for his size.  The biggest obstacle for BYU is going to be the schedule.  The good news for season ticket holders is that you get home dates with some big names, Utah, USC, Washington and Boise State.  The bad news is that you play all four during the first 8 weeks, and during those 8 weeks you also play road games at Tennessee, at Toledo, at South Florida and at Utah State.  That has to be the most difficult 8 games to start the season of anyone in the nation.  Even finding a way to win 2 of those leaves zero room for error during an easier November that still includes a trip to Boise State.

KEY PLAYERS
QBZach Wilson, Sophomore
RBLopini Katoa, Sophomore
TEMatt Bushman, Junior
.
DTKhyris Tonga, Junior
LBIsaiah Kaufusi, Junior
SAustin Lee, Senior
59. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
#11 in ACC

Wake Forest was one of a handful of ACC teams that I was higher than most on a year ago, and the Deacons let me down.  The Deacons did it largely off the strength of a revitalized offense that was overhauled two years ago and has since set basically every school record in back to back season.  Leading rusher Cade Carney returns, but aside from him, Wake Forest is nearly starting from scratch.  While Carney does return, and was Wake Forest’s back last year, he was 1A to to Matt Colburn’s 1B.  Those 159 carries and 759 yards have to now be found somewhere else?  Is it likely Carney sees an increased workload, that puts him over 200 carries?  Probably, but at the pace Warren Ruggiero wants to go at, he needs to find a second guy.  The irreplaceable talent is Greg Dortch, who redshirted in 2016, making him eligible for the NFL Draft after just two seasons in Winston-Salem, an opportunity he took.  Dortch was the type of elite athlete that Wake Forest does not get, an all-conference/all-American player at both receiver and special teams.  He’s tough to replace at most places, at a school like Wake Forest, impossible.  But the replacement may come through quantity, not quality.  Sage Surratt, who himself redshirted in 2017, had a breakout redshirt freshman season, finishing second on the team in receiving, with a pair of 100 yard games.  He goes from unknown second option to the guy though, and defenses will adjust accordingly.  He will be bolstered by some special freshman talent though.  Wake Forest signed their second best class of the 247 era, and the top two players in the class are a pair of 4* receivers in Donavon Greene and Nolan Groulx, a pair of in state players who individually rate as the first and third best recruits for the program in the past fifteen years.  It’s not an exact science, but receiver seems to translate well to this level, and it’s not like Wake Forest is flush with athletes like that to beat out.  Quarterback remains a battle going into the spring, as neither Sam Hartman or Jamie Newman were able to take control of the job last season.  For what this offense likes to do, I like the more accurate passing of Newman, to keep the pace up, but Clawson seems noncommittal.  The offensive line, which was one of the most experienced units in the nation a year ago has to find a way to replace four starters.  The defense has been much maligned, giving up over 33 points a game last year, leading to Jay Sawvel being fired as coordinator after the 56-27 loss at Notre Dame last year in September.  Tom Gilmore replaced him, but the long time Holy Cross coach, after spending one season as an assistant, returned to head coaching at the FCS level at a different Patriot League school, Lehigh.  Wake promoted defensive backs coach Lyle Hemphill, who served in that capacity at Stony Brook from 2013-2016.  In his final two years Stony Brook finished 1st and 3rd in the FCS in total defense and yards per play, leading to him being named the FCS’s top coordinator in 2015.  The last two years as position coach are his only FBS experience, but he certainly has proven it before at a fairly high level.  The issue is Wake’s defense wasn’t that bad last year, 13th in the ACC in total defense, but 9th in yards allowed per play.  The offensive adjustments are simply going to lead to these types of shootouts.  Essang Bassey is a shutdown corner, but aside from him the secondary looks to continue to be shaky.

KEY PLAYERS
RBCade Carney, Senior
WRSage Surratt, Sophomore
TJake Benzinger, Senior
.
LBJustin Strnad, Senior
CBEssang Bassey, Senior
SLuke Masterson, Junior
58. Vanderbilt Commodores
#12 in SEC

Vanderbilt found a way to exceed expectations off of a disappointing 2017 season, after which the defense was gutted, and found its way into a bowl game.  Four of their six regular season losses came to top 15 teams, and they had chances to beat three of them (Notre Dame, Florida, Kentucky).  All of their losses came to bowl teams.  The flip side to that is that their six wins came against Middle Tennessee, Nevada, Tennessee State and the three worst SEC teams, who were a combined 3-21 in conference games.  In a sport we love for its craziness, Vanderbilt had about the most predictable 6-7 season ever.  The Commodores have plenty of returning offensive pieces, but the one missing piece is a big one, due to the graduation of Kyle Shurmur, perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the country last year.  Not that Vanderbilt has a rich football tradition, but Shurmur finished his career as the school’s all time leader in passing yardage and passing touchdowns, and was second to Jay Cutler in completion percentage among quarterbacks who had at least 350 career attempts.  Former JUCO transfer Mo Hasan is next up by default, but watch for Ball State grad transfer Riley Neal to emerge.  Neal threw for over 7,000 yards in his Ball State career.  Whoever wins the job will have the best running back you’ve never heard of to work with in Ke’Shawn Vaughn.  Vaughn had a solid start to his career at Illinois, before transferring.  He won the job last spring, and took off, finishing second in the SEC at 1,244 yards, on 7.9 ypc, best in the SEC, and 6th in the FBS.  He is paired with Kalija Lipscomb on the outside, who finished 3rd in the SEC, with 916 yards on an SEC best 87 catches.  It feels weird to say this about Vanderbilt football, but just to add to the embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, they also return tight end Jared Pinkney who led all SEC tight ends in receptions (50) and was second in yardage (774).  That glaring hole at quarterback might simply be too much to overcome though.  The defense was expected to struggle though, and struggle it did, the second worst unit in the SEC, above only Ole Miss, finishing 13th in both total defense and yards per play.  They did create a lot of turnovers, an average of 1.7 per game, which helped keep their points per game lower than it probably otherwise deserved to be.  Unfortunately for the second straight year Vanderbilt graduated a lot of seniors, particularly this year in the secondary, led by cornerback JoeJuan Williams, who is looking to be a second day NFL Draft pick.  Tae Daley showed promise last year, moving between cornerback and free safety, but Williams was an all-SEC pick, who took away one side of the field.  A rising star to keep an eye on is inside linebacker Dimitri Moore.  As a redshirt freshman a year ago, Moore won the job, and wound up finishing second on the team in tackles.  With the graduation of Jordan Griffin, Moore is expected to take on more of a leadership role, and solidify the inside while Kenny Hebert, the team’s best pass rusher, just goes nuts on the outside.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKe’Shawn Vaughn, Senior
WRKalija Lipscomb, Senior
TEJared Pinkney, Senior
.
LBKenny Hebert, Junior
LBDimitri Moore, Sophomore
CBTae Daley, Junior
57. Memphis Tigers
#3 in American

Alabama…Clemson…Georgia…Oklahoma…Michigan…Washington…Memphis?  Those are the seven schools currently listed as favorites in all of their 2018 games.  They don’t play Central Florida, and I’d disagree with them being favored over Cincinnati, even at home, but still, a minor quibble.  While the structure of college football leads us to only care about Group of 5 teams inasmuch as they are competing for the lone spot in a bowl we probably won’t watch anyway, and therefore only barely care about that, what Memphis has done over the past few years has been remarkable.  The school had an ok run under Tommy West from 2003-2008, but still never won a division, let alone the conference, even playing down in Conference USA.  But since Justin Fuente got the program running in their second year in the American, in 2014, they’ve won a conference title, another pair of divisional divisional titles, a pair of double digit win seasons, and two AP Top 25 finishes.  They had a pair of NFL quarterbacks in Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson, but even without those guys last year, they rode perhaps the best running back in the nation, Doak Walker finalist, and First Team All-American Darrell Henderson, to another divisional title.  Henderson left early for the NFL, but with Arizona State transfer Brady White returning at quarterback with a deep group of receivers, led by a pair of all-conference players at the top, Memphis should flip back to a more pass happy offense.  Memphis averaged 8.2 ypa a year ago, second best in the conference, but with Henderson running the ball, they only passed it 41.2% of the time, in the bottom quarter nationally.  Memphis didn’t just lose Henderson, but the versatile Tony Pollard, who also declared early, who was used as a tailback, H back, or split out wide.  But be nice to have two backs declare for the Draft early, and still return a 1,000 yard rusher in Patrick Taylor Jr.  Much credit should go to the offensive line, an offensive line that was among the best nationally in run blocking, including #1 in Power Success Rate, meaning 93.1% of the time they converted 3rd or 4th and 2 or less.  They graduate both tackles and the center from the line.  As good as they were in run blocking, they struggled to pass protect, so maybe the tackles won’t be a huge loss.  They’ll just keep running the ball behind all-conference performer Dustin Woodard.  The Tigers will be favorites win the division again, although a road trip to Houston late in the year should determine that.  They have to figure out the UCF problem though to get over that hump for a conference title though.  They seemed to have the Knights dead to rights a year ago, up 38-21 at the half, and UCF playing without McKenzie Milton.  But the Knights outscored Memphis 35-3 in the second half, holding the Tigers scoreless for the final 17 minutes to win.  So while it was a nice year, it remains a question whether they were a product of their schedule, losing twice to UCF, and missing both Temple and Cincinnati, going a combined 1-3 against conference opponents who finished over .500 in league play.  They’ll need the defense to come up much bigger in big games.  They were fine shutting down inferior opponents, but surrendered 41.8 ppg in their six losses.  The Tigers scored over 30 points in four of their six losses a year ago.  The back seven should be solid if they can find someone to play opposite T.J. Carter (Jacobi Francis is the best bet), but the line could have major problems.  They use multiple looks, and may show more 3 man fronts, with Bryce Huff playing with his hand off the ground this year.

KEY PLAYERS
WRDamonte Coxie, Junior
WRPop Williams, Senior
GDustin Woodard, Senior
.
LBBryce Huff, Senior
LBAustin Hall, Senior
CBT.J. Carter, Junior
56. California Golden Bears
#7 in Pac 12

You knew the longer Justin Wilcox’s fingerprints were on this Cal program, the more its defensive identity would begin to take shape.  The Golden Bears seemed even ahead of schedule in Year 2 under Wilcox on that side of the ball, and the 2019 defense could be even better.  Cal only graduates three starters on defense, and while they lose their best pass rusher in outside linebacker Alex Funches, they return all of their other key defenders, with All-Pac 12 players at all three levels.  The improvement in just two years has been remarkable, taking over a roster that surrendered 42.6 ppg in 2016, and improving by 14.2 ppg in his first year, and then another 8 ppg last year, down to just 20.4 ppg allowed.  That’s an improvement of 22.2 ppg in just two year, with a defense last year that had to replace 5 starters in the front seven.  Now he has an experienced group with a two deep filled with guys who have spent multiple years in his system, from a defense whose advanced metrics were even better, ranking #13 nationally overall in defensive S&P+, including top 10 against the pass, which serves them well on the West Coast.  The problem is, as the defense has improved, the offense has fallen off a cliff.  An offense which scored 9.3 ppg fewer in 2017 from 2016, declined by another 6.3 ppg in 2018.  So that defensive improvement has resulted in a net gain of just 6.6 ppg.  The offensive struggles are obviously concerning, because there was no shortage of talent a year ago, with ten returning starters from 2017, and the lone “new” starter being receiver Demetris Robertson, who simply missed all of 2017  with an injury, after being a Freshman All-American in 2016.  All of that talent, all of that experience, added up to the worst offense in the Pac 12, and the second worst offense in the entire Power Five, staying ahead of Rutgers.  Granted one of those returning starters was quarterback Ross Bowers, who started every game in 2017, was named starter going into 2018, started the opener against North Carolina, was pulled after a poor start, and never saw the field again all season.  Unsurprisingly Bowers, and six other Bears announced their plans to transfer.  We’ll see if the decision to let freshman Chase Garbers learn on the fly pays off going into 2019.  Bowers wasn’t exactly a star prior to his benching, but a major reason for the dropoff was the running game, where Patrick Laird excelled in 2017, and was a preseason darkhorse Heisman candidate depending on Cal’s team success, running behind an intact offensive line.  While his 997 rushing yards were fine, it also represented a drop of over 200 yards from his junior season on over 30 additional carries, seeing a drop in ypc from 5.9 to 4.3.  The inability to balance the offense was an ongoing issue all year.  The graduation of Laird, and 3 offensive linemen, the entire left side, suggests improvement in 2019 is unlikely.  The S&P+ gap between Cal’s offense and defense, in favor of the defense, was the second largest in the Pac 12, behind only Michigan State.  Considering how much better the defense should be, and how the only reason to think the offense won’t be worse is that they are no longer starting a freshman quarterback, the Golden Bears are the leader in the clubhouse for that title in 2019.

KEY PLAYERS
QBChase Garbers, Sophomore
TValentino Daltoso, Junior
TJake Curhan, Junior
.
DELuc Bequette, Senior
LBEvan Weaver, Senior
CBCamryn Bynum, Junior
55. Troy Trojans
#2 in Sun Belt

Troy fans felt fortunate to retain Neal Brown last offseason, but they were not as lucky this go around.  It wasn’t losing Brown that had to surprise them as much as who they chose to replace him.  Chip Lindsey, former Auburn offensive coordinator, is an Alabama native, who played for North Alabama, graduated from Alabama, and previously spent one year at Troy as quarterbacks coach in 2010.  But Auburn’s offense struggled mightily last year under Lindsey and Gus Malzahn, and Lindsey was out, heading for the offensive coordinator job at Kansas, when Troy hired him to be their head coach.  In fairness, while Lindsey was a perfect fit for Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, his offensive style clashed with Malzahn, and the whole thing sputtered.  He inherits a turn key offense, that should be ready to roll.  Quarterback Kaleb Barker, who was lost for the season a year ago in early October is back, and people should know his name this year.  He was completing 73% of his passes, and already had 10 touchdowns to go with just 2 interceptions once he was lost, and averaging nearly 5 yards per carry on the ground.  And it’s not the worst case to have a backup in Sawyer Smith who started 7 games himself, completing 63% of his passes.  The Trojans do lose their top three receivers, each of whom had at least 43 receptions, earned all-Sun Belt honors, and combined for 21 touchdowns.  That’s why, despite how good Barker is, Lindsey would be wise to lean heavily on the running game, with B.J. Smith, who finished 1 yard short of the conference rushing title returning behind three senior all-conference linemen.  Jabir Daughtry-Frye is an all purpose change of pace back, who led the team with a 7.0 ypc average, and was fifth on the team with 22 receptions.  He is going to have to carry a larger workload than the 4.1 carries per game he got last year to see any dynamic in playcalling change from a team with the third highest pass to run ratio in the Sun Belt a year ago.  Ultimately, that’s where Lindsey wants to fall too, but it will be interesting to see if he adjusts to his personnel in Year 1.  The conference’s second best defense may have more depth than it did a year ago, but it has a lot of top end talent to replace, losing three senior first team all-Sun Belt players.  It’s the opposite issue from what the Trojans faced a year ago, retaining a few top players, but graduating the bulk of a unit that was best in the conference and #11 nationally in scoring defense in 2017.  It’s no surprise then, that Neal Brown took defensive coordinator Vic Koenning with him to West Virginia, but it’s also no surprise that Lindsey wanted to stay within the program, and promote linebackers coach Brandon Hall to defensive coordinator.  He has experience at the position to boot, coming to Troy after four years as defensive coordinator at FCS Jacksonville State, where his defenses were top 5 in the FCS in his final two years.  Troy shouldn’t miss Brown too much this year, but the clash between offensive styles and offensive personnel, and the fact that Troy’s defense may take another step back, keeps them slightly behind Appalachian State.  But if some receivers emerge, and Lindsey can adapt, there’s no reason to think they can’t win a league title.  It’s going forward with Lindsey that does slightly concern me.

KEY PLAYERS
RBB.J. Smith, Senior
TJ.L. Gaston, Senior
GKirk Kelley, Senior
.
NTAntoine Barker, Senior
LBTron Folsom, Senior
CBMarcus Jones, Junior
54. Texas Tech Red Raiders
#8 in Big XII

If you told Texas Tech fans six years ago that Kingsbury would lead his alma mater for six years, and then make the jump to the NFL head coaching ranks, I think they’d be thrilled, they he led them to the success at the college level as other coaches to make the jump, like Pete Carroll or Steve Spurrier or Chip Kelly or Jim Harbaugh or Nick Saban or Jimmie Johnson or Butch Davis, etc…  Instead Kingsbury inexplicably got the job after six season where Texas Tech never finished better than .500 in conference play, and only even peaked at 4-5 twice.  Kingsbury’s career winning percentage is second worst in school history among coaches who were there more than one season.  The new hire has to be exciting though, Matt Wells, who comes over after winning at Utah State, rebuilding it from bottoming out at 3-9, and reaching 10-2 and a top 25 ranking again last year.  He brings with him from Logan, Utah, his offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, from a team that ranked 3rd in the FBS in scoring, as Texas Tech fans like, but actually were also #38 in scoring defense, something they aren’t accustomed to.  The graduation of linebacker Dakota Allen hurts, but Jordyn Brooks was the heart of the defense, and the best player was Adrian Frye, who might be Texas Tech’s best defensive NFL prospect in a long time, and the Raiders coaching staff didn’t even know what they had.  Frye redshirted as a true freshman in 2017, before starring as a redshirt freshman a year ago, as arguably the best cornerback in the Big XII, leading in passes defended and interceptions, earning first team all conference honors.  Considering Darcel McBath, 11 years ago, taken by the Broncos in the 2nd round is the lone Texas Tech defensive player taken in the first three rounds of the Draft in the past two decades, it’s not a stretch to say Frye is a generational defensive prospect for the school.  Offensively, the school made the decision to move away from the Air Raid offense, which had become identified with the school ever since Mike Leach was hired.  It might take time to balance the attack, but that is precisely what Wells hopes to do, after overseeing an offense last year that was top 30 nationally both running and passing.  Texas Tech didn’t run the ball, and when they did, they didn’t run it well.  Part of that could be due to the heavy reliance on audibles for run plays in the Air Raid offense, and Texas Tech played the bulk of the season with freshman Alan Bowman under center due to injuries and inconsistencies.  When I say bulk, I mean majority…barely.  The Red Raiders used three quarterbacks a year ago, all of whom saw action in at least five games, but all missed at least four, and all started multiple times.  Bowman, who emerged, as a freshman, seems to be the leader, but surprisingly, both Jett Duffey and McLane Carter, who entered 2018 as the top two on the depth chart, returned to Lubbock, rather than transfer.  With a new offense being implemented, Bowman remains the favorite, but it’s likely not as clear cut as it would have been with Kingsbury remaining.  Just how bad was the Texas Tech running game?  Their leading rusher was a backup quarterback who started 3 games.  Ta’Zhawn Henry and Da’Leon Ward, their two leading rushers from the running back position return, and with three upperclassmen all-conference linemen returning, a repeat of their 3.6 ypc average last year has to improve.  That’s made particularly clear with Antoine Wesley declaring for the draft, leaving Texas Tech without their top two wideouts.  T.J. Vasher became a more reliable, but less explosive player last year, when his receptions, which were already the returning leader, nearly doubled, but his ypc fell by over 6 yards, and his receptions per touchdown fell from 4.8 to 7.7.

KEY PLAYERS
QBAlan Bowman, Sophomore
TTravis Bruffy, Senior
GJack Anderson, Junior
.
DTBroderick Washington Jr., Senior
LBJordyn Brooks, Senior
CBAdrian Frye, Sophomore
53. Indiana Hoosiers
#11 in Big Ten

It’s been two 5-7 seasons for Tom Allen, who might find himself on the way out if he’s bowl-less after three seasons.  The Hoosiers have finished with 5 or 6 wins in 5 of the past 6 seasons, so they are always straddling that bowl eligibility line.  They are scheduling to it, going 15-2 in non-conference play over the past five seasons, but just 11-32 in Big Ten games.  They definitely drew the tougher assignment when the Big Ten split up Indiana and Purdue in the divisional realignment, but seeing their in state rival shoot past them, while retaining a coveted coach, has to irk IU boosters.  The season got off to a rocky start when tailback Morgan Ellison, who ran for over 700 yards in 2017 as a true freshman, was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation, and eventually dismissed for sexual assault.  Another true freshman, Stevie Scott, stepped up in his absence, and ran for over 1,100 yards.  He seemed to hit an early wall after going for 388 yards, but on a whopping 69 carries in his first three college games.  But after being held in check by Michigan State, Rutgers, Ohio State and Iowa, Scott exploded to the finish, with 138 yards against Iowa, 96 against Minnesota, 103 against Maryland, 139 against Michigan and 104 against Purdue.  It’s scary to think about what he might do after his first full offseason in a college weight program, because that is a 6’2”, 235 pound frame that still has a lot of work to do.  Indiana has sort of quietly been a running back factory as of late, and Scott looks next in line.  The concern has to be replicating it behind an offensive line that loses three starters, including a pair of all-Big Ten players.  Kevin Wilson may be three years gone, but his philosophy has not, which is why you still see Indiana throwing the ball more often than any Big Ten team, 40.1 times per game, despite having a guy like Scott in the backfield.  That’s why even though Peyton Ramsey, as only a sophomore, was third in the Big Ten in passing yardage, and still at least an average sixth in pass efficiency, you see Tom Allen looking to upgrade the position with Utah transfer Jack Tuttle.  Tuttle was a former top 10 quarterback prospect, who lost out on the Utah job as a true freshman a year ago, decided to try his luck in Bloomington instead, where he’ll be a redshirt freshman in 2019, if the NCAA grants him a waiver.  He has no real reason to be granted one, he’s from California, but his parents are Indiana natives, with his dad playing for the Hoosiers, but the NCAA seems to be handing these waivers out with no rhyme or reason anymore.  The shift from the strength of the Hoosiers being the offense under previous regimes, to the defense, under Allen, who is a former defensive coordinator.  But that fell apart last year, with Indiana giving up 6.0 ypp, second worst in the Big Ten, leading to a reshuffling of the staff.  Mark Hagen is still listed as a co-Defensive coordinator, but linebackers coach Kane Wommack is also now listed as defensive coordinator, and it’s clear that it’s his show.  He’s the son of former Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who Allen and the younger Wommack coached under, in flipping the dismal Rebel defense into the 2012 Landsharks version.  Kane was previously the youngest FBS coordinator when he served in that capacity at South Alabama in 2016 and 2017.  The offense ticked up slightly, primarily due to Ramsey’s growth from a freshman to a sophomore, but Mike DeBord “retired” and the hiring of Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer has generated significant buzz, since Indiana went outside their expected budget to nab him.  The new coordinators both look like great hires on paper right now, but is it too little too late to save Allen’s job?  It would seem a bowl at minimum should be the standard this year.  Once again, Indiana has scheduled to it with Ball State, Eastern Illinois and Connecticut comprising the non-conference schedule.  3-6 in the conference still seems like a tall task in the Big Ten East and a year where the East draws five road games.  Feels like the Hoosiers will once again straddle that 5 or 6 win fence.

KEY PLAYERS
RBStevie Scott, Sophomore
WRDonavan Hale, Senior
KLogan Justus, Senior
.
DTJerome Johnson, Junior
SMarcelino Ball, Junior
SBryant Fitzgerald, Sophomore
52. Virginia Tech Hokies
#10 in ACC

What is going on in Blacksburg?  It seemed as though the Virginia Tech program had grown stale under Frank Beamer, losing 6 games in three of his final four seasons, with the “peak” being 8-5.  They hadn’t finished ranked since 2011, and ranked in the AP Top 15 since 2008.  The questions certainly could be raised if Virginia Tech would ever be back.  But in just Justin Fuente’s first season, he took the Hokies to a 10 win year and their first ACC Championship Game appearance in five years, which included a near shake up win over Clemson.  The Hokies opened 2017 by winning 7 of 8, with the lone loss again being a forgivable loss to Clemson, reaching #12 in the polls.  Since then?  Virginia Tech has been 8-10, including an embarrassing loss to a horrible in-state “rival” in Old Dominion, and multiple off the field questions, including the suspension of a starting quarterback, and fifteen players transferring out following the season.  These were not depth guys either.  Josh Jackson, now healthy, was expected to possibly reclaim his starting quarterback job.  Deshawn McClease was the leading returning rusher, and the presumptive starting running back.  Eric Kumah was second on the team in receiving last year, and Savoy led the team two years ago.  Jackson transferring means Ryan Willis should retain the job, since Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister is the rare transfer who didn’t get a waiver.  Willis was going to be tough to beat, even for a healthy Josh Jackson, coming off a year where he finished fourth in the ACC in both passing yards and passing efficiency.  He and Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton hope to build on their first year connection, which landed Hazelton on the all-ACC team with 51 receptions for 802 yards.  Tre Turner, as a true freshman, wasn’t a factor for most of the season, but came on late, with 15 catches for 286 yards over the Hokies final 4 regular season games, after having just 10 for 209 yards in the first 8.  If he can build off of his close to 2018, the Hokies passing attack should be one of the best in the ACC, bolstered by Dalton Keene, one of the best tight ends in the conference.  But the real issue is whether the defense can get back to what we are accustomed to a Bud Foster defense looking like.  The former Broyles Award winner is beginning his 33rd season at the school, including his 24th as defensive coordinator.  His young 2018 group wound up as one of, if not his very worst ever.  The Hokies allowed 31.0 ppg, but they really weren’t even that good, ranking as the 2nd worst ACC unit in total defense (6.4 ypp), rushing defense (5.5 ypc) and passing defense (7.6).  By the end of the year, Foster was running out only one senior, compared to seven freshmen and sophomores.  So if it was all youth, Virginia Tech’s defense should get back to where we are accustomed to seeing them.  They return 96% of their production, most in the entire FBS.  But a school like Virginia Tech should never find itself in that position.  And it’s not like the freshmen played well enough to prove they earned the right to jump the seniors.  The second most returning production?  Connecticut’s historically bad defense.  This continues to feel like a very thin roster, and on very thin ice.  Fuentes hasn’t had the disaster of a season to put him on the hot seat.  So absent them falling to 3-9 or something like that, he’ll be back, but after a hot start, the program is not trending right under his leadership.

KEY PLAYERS
QBRyan Willis, Senior
WRDamon Hazelton, Junior
TEDalton Keene, Junior
.
LBRayshard Ashby, Junior
SReggie Floyd, Senior
POscar Bradburn, Junior
51. Nebraska Cornhuskers
#10 in Big Ten

2019 Nebraska reminds me a lot of the dilemma I had last year with Texas.  In 2017 Texas had a new coach, a new system, and was fine, but nothing special, and did win 4 of their final 6.  Everyone assumed Year 2 in the new system would be a big step forward, but while the inherited team wasn’t necessarily built for the new coach, it was far more experienced than the Year 2 team.  I didn’t buy into Texas last year, and while I appeared to be correct after the opener, they ultimately proved me wrong.  Now it’s Nebraska’s turn to do the same thing, and I haven’t learned my lesson.  Nebraska also won 4 of their final 6 games last year, with a pair of forgivable losses, on the road at Ohio State and Iowa, by a combined 8 points.  But I’m not really buying in just yet.  Long term?  Sure.  But I still think they are one year away.  The reason is that the offense actually looked great.  Yes, they struggled against Michigan and Michigan State, but everybody did.  In their other games they averaged 34.1 ppg, third best in the conference.  The reason is that Frost inherited maybe the best combination of ability and experience at wideout in the conference, Devine Ozigbo built on his 2017 success, Adrian Martinez was better as a true freshman than even the most optimistic Husker fans could have hoped for.  Martinez returns, and obviously that’s the most important part, but the skill position players around him are mostly question marks.  At running back, Ozigbo graduated, Greg Bell transferred, and Maurice Washington has significant legal troubles.  Senior Wyatt Mazour, who may be the returning leader with 11 carries, doesn’t look like a feature back.  Georgia Tech transfer Dedrick Mills may be the guy.  At wideout J.D. Spielman might be the best in the conference, but there is no Stanley Morgan lined up opposite him.  Those two finished 3rd and 4th in the conference in receiving yards.  But behind them, Nebraska struggled to find anyone else to emerge.  The third and fourth leading receivers were running backs.  Now they’ll have to, at least enough to give Spielman a little bit of breathing room.  The real issue though is the defense, which was among the worst in the conference, despite starting 5 seniors.  The strength should be the line, led by Khalil Davis, and bolstered by the addition of former Oklahoma State player Darrion Daniels as a grad transfer.  The will be tasked with boosting a Cornhusker run defense which surrendered nearly 200 yards per game a season ago.  New coordinator Erik Chinander did not change the base 3-4 defense from the previous regime.  The back seven (or eight) looks to continue to be just as shaky.  Nebraska has an all conference caliber player at each level, but the supporting cast is problematic.  The leader is cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, who is already an All-American Name player, but should contend for actual All-American honors this season.  Chinander coaches towards turnovers, not stops, and that was the problem last year.  His final Central Florida defense was second nationally in takeaways, but only three schools in the Big Ten had fewer than Nebraska’s 17 a year ago.  The defense should be experienced for the second straight year, possibly starting five seniors again.  But that didn’t matter much last year, Nebraska lost five games scoring 28 or more points.  I think maybe they’ll win a couple more of those this year, and sneak into a bowl, but in 2020, look out, this could rival Frost’s 2017 UCF offense.  The question is whether the defense will be close enough to take advantage.  Or maybe this year’s team will go 2018 Texas and surprise me.

KEY PLAYERS
QBAdrian Martinez, Sophomore
WRJ.D. Spielman, Junior
TBrenden Jaimes, Junior
.
DEKhalil Davis, Senior
LBMohamed Barry, Senior
CBDicaprio Bootle, Junior
50. NC State Wolfpack
#9 in ACC

I’ve been higher than most on the Wolfpack over the past couple years, and it has more or less paid off.  But this year could be rough.  NC State quietly had one of the best offenses in the nation last year, second to Clemson in the ACC in ypp, thanks to the conference’s top passing offense.  That’s why the Wolfpack landed five players on the first team All-ACC offense…and now all five are gone.  Eight starters in all are gone from that side of the ball, seven of whom earned some level of all conference honors.  Not only that, but offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz coached himself right into the head coaching job at Appalachian State, so there’s a new face running the show.  Well, not a new face, two of them, and not really new either, but new roles, as running backs coach Des Kitchings, who has one year of coordinating experience at Vanderbilt in 2010, and receivers coach George McDonald who was previously offensive coordinator at Western Michigan in 2005 and 2006 and Syracuse in 2013 and 2014.  It starts with an open quarterback competition, as open as any Power 5 job in the nation, with four quarterbacks, all with three or more years of eligibility, in the running.  None have any meaningful college experience, so I don’t even hazard to attempt to handicap the race right now.  Redshirt freshman Devin Leary was the most highly thought of of the four coming out of high school, but it’s not like he was some blue chipper.  That would all be well and good if whoever won the job had Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers and their combined 173 receptions, 2,233 yards and 11 touchdowns to throw to, but both declared early for the NFL Draft.  Emeka Emezie had a very respectable 53 reception, 616 yard, 5 touchdown season, but it’s a big jump in how defenses to go from a distant 3rd option to the best proven option.  For good measure the line has to replace three all-conference starters, and a 1,000 yard running back is gone from what was the conference’s second worst rushing attack to begin with.  At least they perhaps have the best kicker in the league?  The pleasant surprise last year was how well the defense held up after losing all members of what was maybe the best defensive line in the nation in 2017.  They were one of the conference’s better run defenses, although they surprisingly struggled against the pass, particularly giving up big plays.  The big find was Isaiah Moore who took over the middle linebacking spot as a redshirt freshman, and established himself as the leader of a young defense.  A lot more is going to be asked from that side of the ball this year though, to not just be surprisingly competent, but actually good.  Of the four starters lost, only Germaine Pratt is going to be obviously missed.  The one year Ted Roof co-coordinator experiment ended when he followed Drinkwitz to Appalachian State as defensive coordinator, but it seems like the co-coordinator is what Doeren wants to do, by bringing in Tony Gibson to replace him.  Gibson’s track record as a coordinator isn’t great, but he’s an outstanding recruiter, and NC State probably wasn’t going to entice him with a lesser position.

KEY PLAYERS
WREmeka Emezie, Junior
TJustin Witt, Junior
KChristopher Dunn, Sophomore
.
DEJames Smith-Williams, Senior
LBIsaiah Moore, Sophomore
SJarius Morehead, Senior
49. Oklahoma State Cowboys
#7 in Big XII

On paper, replacing the Mason Rudolph to James Washington connection seemed daunting, but Dillon Stoner and Jalen McCleskey were still a formidable duo, Justice Hill was a Heisman candidate at running back, coming off a 1,400 yard season, and when has Mike Gundy ever struggled to find a quarterback?  Jalen McClesey transferred a few games into the season.  Justice Hill got hurt and had his lowest rushing output in Stillwater.  Jared Cornelius, who ended spring ball atop the depth chart, but was expected to wind up behind grad transfer Dru Brown and top recruit Spencer Sanders, wound up remaining the best option at quarterback, but did so averaging 80 yards less than Rudolph had the year before, while having one of the worst completion percentages in the Big XII, and leading the conference in interceptions.  That’s not to say Oklahoma State’s offense was bad.  But this program is built on a reliance of being elite, the year before they were top 4 nationally in passing, scoring and total offense, and being just merely good led to the worst season for the program since Gundy’s first, in 2005.  Cornelius agraduated, so now it’s Sanders’ quarterback job to lose, even though Dru Brown is back, and the Cowboys brought in another strong freshman in Brendan Costello.  You would have thought, with the new redshirt rule, Gundy would have gotten Sanders some snaps, at least in the Liberty Bowl, but he didn’t.  So this really is a trust in Gundy, trust in the recruiting rankings situation.  Hill went pro a year early, as was expected, but sophomore Chuba Hubbard might make the transition easier.  Hubbard had 740 yards last year, and actually had a higher ypc than Hill, on only 34 fewer carries.  Hubbard had 100 yard games in three of the four games to close the season once Hill got hurt, including a 145 yard, 8.1 ypc game in the Liberty Bowl.  Tyron Johnson made the surprising decision to go pro early, but Oklahoma State returns their breakout star from a year ago, Tylan Wallace, who had 86 catches for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman, along with solid complimentary piece in Dillon Stoner, and a tight end in Jelani Woods, who was honorable mention all-conference as a freshman.  Oklahoma State has never had a shortage of pass catchers.  It may have a bit of a different look this year as Gundy hired Sean Gleeson away from Princeton, replacing Mike Yurcich, after six years, who returned to his home state to join Ohio State’s staff.  The defense is always a concern in Stillwater, but it could be particularly a concern this year, particularly against the run.  Oklahoma State returned a supposedly strong line from 2017, that featured three seniors, and a junior…and they couldn’t stop anyone, giving up 185 ypg on the ground, and opponents knew it, running on the Cowboys 40.2 times per game, most in the Big XII.  Three starters graduated, and the best on the line Jordan Brailford, left early for the NFL Draft.  So now, arguably the worst run defense in the conference outside of Waco has an entirely new starting defensive line.  The back seven, particularly the secondary in the 4-2-5 scheme looks to be in much better shape.  They weren’t terrible last year, but simply could not get off the field, generating a Big XII worst 5 interceptions, heavily reliant on a pass rush which generated the most sacks in the conference.  The problem is that Jordan Brailford and Jarrell Owens, the starting ends, led the team and combined for 15 of those sacks, both graduated.  The four leaders in tackles for loss are also gone.  So we’ll see if the back end was the product of a departed pass rush, or if they really can hold up.

KEY PLAYERS
WRTylan Wallace, Junior
TEJelani Woods, Sophomore
TTevin Jenkins, Junior
.
LBCalvin Bundage, Senior
CBA.J. Green, Senior
SMalcolm Rodriguez, Senior
48. Duke Blue Devils
#8 in ACC

In a normal year, we might be talking about how Duke has an offense built around one of the best pure passers, a veteran laden defense, and the rest should fall into place.  Instead, it was a weak quarterback draft class, weakened farther by Justin Hebert returning to Oregon, and Daniel Jones decided to throw his hat in the ring.  Word is his performance in subsequent workouts has validated that decision, but that doesn’t make it any easier on David Cutcliffe, who was relying on Jones to cover up some major issues on offense this year, and instead has to add quarterback to the issues.  Hard to believe, but Cutcliffe is now entering his 12th year at Duke.  That makes him the co-dean of ACC coaches, and the eighth longest tenured Power Five coach.  He has taken Duke, which had only been to 8 bowls prior to his hire, two in the previous 47 years, to bowls in six of the last seven seasons.  But offensively, this may be the tallest task he’s had to face, and one maybe not even his great offensive mind can solve.  It’s not just Jones who is gone, but his top three receivers, and his starting tight end.  Backup tight end Noah Gray is the only returning receiver or tight end who had more than 10 receptions last season.  Might mean leaning heavily on the electric Deon Jackson, who excelled in special teams, but also led the team in rushing.  Getting Brittain Brown, who was the starter going into the season, back healthy will help ease some of that burden.  Duke only ran the ball 47.4% of the time last year, third lowest in the ACC, and the only two lower, Louisville and North Carolina, were almost exclusively playing from behind.  The makeup of this team necessitates a change, and with his other duties, I’m not sure you want to add a ton to Jackson’s 14.4 offensive touches per game, which means its Brown’s 9.0 that need to get up closer to 12.  He isn’t the pass catcher that Jackson is, so there are ways to get them on the field together, which the Blue Devils should look to do.  Jackson is capable of splitting out.  As far as replacing Jones, senior Quentin Harris is the favorite.  He started two games last year when Jones was hurt, and saw action in all but one game.  As a passer, he is severely limited.  In those two starts he only threw 30 total passes, and only completed 40% of them.  He did run 46 times on the season though.  With more returning talent at wideout, that may not be the direction Cutcliffe wants to go, but considering what he’s working with, that could be the wrinkle.  The positive is that the defense, particularly the secondary, has a chance to be outstanding.  The Blue Devils were a top 15 national pass defense two years ago, but graduated four of five starters, and then lost all-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert, the lone returning starter, in the second game of 2018.  Now, the only loss is linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who left early for the Draft.  Not to undersell that, he was Duke’s best defender, but this is a unit that by the end of the year was starting zero seniors, and adds back in Gilbert, and Dylan Singleton, who was all-ACC last year, but missed the final three games.  Even without those guys, Duke held opponents to just 6.2 ypa, second best in the ACC, better even than Clemson.  The line was the issue last year, as they struggled to generate pressure, with just 1.85 sacks per game, while allowing 5.0 ypc on the ground.  All four starters return though, led by Victor Dimukeje, who has been starting since his freshman season, and should find himself on postseason honors lists this year.  If Jones had come back, I’d trust Cutcliffe enough to figure out the rest offensively, with this experienced defense, and be a frontrunner to reach the ACC Championship Game, but without him, it will be enough just to make it seven bowls in eight years.  Both Cutcliffe and the school seem fine with the status quo.

KEY PLAYERS
RBDeon Jackson, Junior
TRobert Kraeling, Junior
GRakavius Chambers, Junior
.
DEVictor Dimukeje, Junior
SDylan Singleton, Senior
SMarquis Waters, Senior
47. Baylor Bears
#6 in Big XII

The job Matt Rhule did last year in Waco got very overlooked.  He took over a program racked by scandal, plagued with in fighting over the way Art Briles’ tenure ended, with major roster defections, and not exactly much of a pre-Briles history to build upon.  After a 1-11 debut in 2017, Baylor turned it around, beat Texas Tech in the finale to get bowl eligible, then beat Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl to finish a 7-6 season.  Granted Briles success changed Baylor’s ceiling, but even in normal times, a 7 win season would have been cause for celebration, something they hadn’t done since their SWC days, but considering the state of the program just a year earlier, was truly remarkable.  Unsurprisingly, the Bears played pretty poorly on defense.  Even in their peak years, it wasn’t on the defensive side of the ball.  But Matt Rhule is building this program a little differently than his predecessor, and I think one of the reasons Baylor could surprise, is that I think defensively, they could take a big step forward.  A year ago Baylor gave up the worst ypp in the Big XII, at 6.5, thanks to a run defense that couldn’t stop anyone, allowing 5.4 ypc.  The secondary was actually pretty good, and returns all-Big XII players at both cornerback and secondary.  They allowed the third fewest passing yards in the Big XII, by allowing the third lowest opponents completion percentage.  Baylor went to a bowl with the worst defense in the Big XII, even with a solid secondary.  If the front seven can be just adequate, 9 wins is not out of the question.  The anchor of that front seemed to be a pair of pretty solid pass rushers, but B.J. Thompson’s transfer puts a wrinkle in those plans.  The offense looks to be flush with playmakers at the skill positions though.  Charlie Brewer was the school’s sixth different starting quarterback in less than three seasons when he was inserted late in his freshman year.  He was good again in his first full season, as a sophomore, but his accuracy remains an issue.  He threw a Big XII high 13 interceptions, and a 60% completion rate in the Big XII won’t get it done.  Maybe the Big Ten, but this is a league where half the starters wound up north of 65%.  Jalen Hurd, a Tennessee running back transfer, turned receiver, who was the conference newcomer of the year last year is gone, but that just re-establishes Denzel Mims as the #1 option, as he was in 2017.  He has over 1,800 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons.  Chris Platt did not look like his 2016 pre-ACL tear version, but was still a very reliable third option, so him being granted a sixth year of eligibility, another offseason removed from his knee surgery, is a big deal.  I just picked John Lovett to list as a key player, but you could pick either Lovett or JaMychal Hasty.  Hasty probably has more upside, but simply hasn’t shown it.  But they finished last season with identical ypc, but Hasty missed two games, to Lovett’s one, and averaged 7.5 carries per game to 9.1.  But the difference between them might not even be 1-a to 1-b.  If Hasty ends up with more yards, I wouldn’t be surprised.  They want him on the field because he can do more as a pass catcher, where Lovett is a non-factor.

KEY PLAYERS
QBCharlie Brewer, Junior
RBJohn Lovett, Junior
WRDenzel Mims, Senior
.
DEJames Lynch, Junior
LBClay Johnston, Senior
SChris Miller, Senior
46. Florida State Seminoles
#7 in ACC

For the second consecutive year, Florida State was able to challenge for the title of biggest disappointment.  So I’m going to go ahead and vastly modify my expectations from them this time.  At this time last year the excuse was that Deondre Francois missed basically all of the 2017 season.  Francois was healthy last year, he simply wasn’t good.  He tied for the conference lead in interceptions, and was 9th in passing efficiency.  Things went from bad to ugly when he was dismissed in February after his girlfriend accused him of abuse.  He still averaged 36 pass attempts per game, second only to Ryan Finley of Syracuse, simply because the Seminoles could not run the ball at all.  That wasn’t supposed to be the case, with a 1,000 yard back in Cam Akers returning, with four starting linemen.  Akers wasn’t good, but the line was downright terrible.  They allowed the second most sacks in the ACC, and paved the way for an ACC worst 2.8 ypc on the ground.  In average line yards, the Seminoles line was dead last in the FBS.  It was all such a mess that even just one year into his tenure Willie Taggert felt the need to make moves.  UMass took offensive coordinator Walt Bell off his hands, by curiously hiring him as their head coach.  Bell was seen as a great recruiter, but I have not been impressed with his offenses.  He also fired offensive line coach Greg Frey, a Florida State alum, one year after hiring him away from Michigan.  He’s trying to make the offense more explosive by hiring former Baylor offensive coordinator/offensive line coach combo, Kendall Briles and Randy Clements.  Clements coached the Big XII offensive lineman of the year every year from 2012 to 2015.  The line may take some time, but Florida State always has the athletes, that the offense should never get this bad.  Problem is with the line likely to be equally bad, and quarterback remaining a problem, how much can the coaching changes actually help?  Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook may take over the quarterback job over James Blackman, who held the role as a true freshman in 2017 following the injury to Francois.  But it was unclear if Hornibrook was even going to retain his starting job in Madison, to show you where Florida State is right now.  Hornibrook was one of three quarterback transfers into Tallahassee, joined by Western Michigan transfer Wyatt Rector and Louisville transfer Jordan Travis, after Florida State did not add a quarterback in the 2019 class.  The defense was decent, but was certainly not outstanding, and the offense kept them on the field far too often.  They only allowed 5.2 ypp, third best in the ACC, but were on the field 107 more plays than their offense, resulting in ranking 9th in the ACC in total defense, and 11th in scoring defense.  They’ll have do it now without Brian Burns, who may have been the best defensive lineman in the league, considering the lack of talent around him.  Him and his ACC best 0.83 sacks per game are gone a year early to the NFL.  The Seminoles only started two seniors by the end of last year, so if the pass rush can get figured out, the rest should be ok, led by the secondary.

KEY PLAYERS
RBCam Akers, Junior
WRTamorrion Terry, Sophomore
TJauan Williams, Junior
.
DTMarvin Wilson, Junior
CBStanford Samuels III, Junior
SHamsah Nisirildeen, Junior
45. Utah State Aggies
#3 in Mountain West

Matt Wells inherited a program from Gary Andersen in pretty good shape, slowly let it bottom out, and then rewarded the school’s patience with him by delivering a 10-2 season last year…and then bolting for Texas Tech.  The transformation from what had been a defensive football team under Andersen and Dave Aranda was completely transformed into one of the best offenses in the country.  In just two years, Wells, along with offensive coordinator David Yost, who was hired for the 2017 season, elevated the offense from #107 in scoring in the FBS to #3.  Yost was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant, and he followed Wells to Lubbock.  Utah State turned back to an old friend in Gary Andersen, who coached the Aggies from 2009-2012, winning the school’s first conference title in 15 years in 2012, the best season for the program since going 9-1-1 and finishing #10 in 1961.  Since leaving the school, Andersen had an imperfect marriage at Wisconsin, then a disastrous 7-23 two and a half year stint at Oregon State.  Andersen is entrusting the keys to what was one of college football’s best offenses a year ago to fired Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford, who held the coordinator job at Notre Dame prior to that.  He is familiar with the conference, playing and coaching at Boise State previously.  How seamless the transition is depends on just how good quarterback Jordan Love is, because the supporting cast isn’t close to the 2018 version.  All-conference running back Darwin Thompson, coming off a 1,000 yard campaign while averaging nearly 7 ypc, departed early for the NFL, as did tight end/H-back Dax Raymond.  The other three of the five leaders in receiving yards all graduated.  An offensive line which returned all five starters a year ago, now returns just one.  Love really is that good though.  He put the nation on notice in the season opener last year when he lit up a Michigan State team, that while not as good as thought at the time, had a defense that was far better than expected, with over 300 passing yards, and 31 points, the most scored against the Spartans defense all season.  Love led the Mountain West in passing efficiency, in his first full season as the starter.  The running game should be in good hands with senior Gerold Bright stepping into the spotlight.  He ran for 888 yards on 6.3 ypc a year ago.  But there are no obvious fixes at receiver and offensive line.  Savon Scarver is the most athletic player on the team.  He has proven himself as a returner, but has been inconsistent at best.  He had only 9 catches, but averaged over 17 yards per reception, and two of them went for scores.  Jordan Nathan is the leading returning receiver, but Scarver is the one with star potential if he puts it together.  The defense graduated 5 seniors, but returns most of their top end talent.  They are perfectly built to continue the 3-4 defense played last year, with an elite space eater in the middle in Christopher Unga, backed by the best group of linebackers in the Mountain West.  It’s unclear what new coordinator Justin Ena, who previously ran a 4-3 when he was a coordinator at the FCS level, plans to run.  Last year the defense relied heavily on creating turnovers, creating the most in the nation.  Those things tend to regress towards the mean.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJordan Love, Junior
WRSavon Scarver, Junior
KDominik Eberle, Senior
.
NTChristopher Unga, Senior
LBTipa Galeai, Senior
LBDavid Woodward, Junior
44. Purdue Boilermakers
#9 in Big Ten

For the second straight year Purdue fans dodged a poaching of their head coach.  Last year it was a helmet school in Tennessee, this offseason it was his alma mater, Louisville.  It’s one thing to reject a lateral move, but to turn down a helmet job and your alma mater, who is left to fear?  The NFL?  Now if Jeff Brohm could just get his offense and defense to align in up years, he’d really have something.  He had a surprising debut in 2017, mainly due to a veteran defense, with underrated talent, that was just in need of coaching.  Then last year he showed off his offensive chops with a talented and experienced offense, that helped a defense that struggled at times.  Now, it swings back on the defense to carry the weight.  The head of that defense is middle linebacker Markus Bailey, who might be the preseason favorite for the Butkus-Fitzgerald Award.  The senior decided to return to West Lafayette after finishing second in the conference with 115 tackles, and leading Purdue with 5.5 sacks.  He does have the fortune to play behind big Lorenzo Neal, who at 6’3” and 315 pounds, has to be in the conversation for largest single digit jersey in the nation.  He first became known for taking the personal foul penalty in the opener against Northwestern last year, which cost the Boilermakers a chance to get the ball back with a shot at the win.  But after that he also became a massively (in both senses of the word) disruptive force in the middle on a defensive line where he was surrounded by three new starters, all of whom now return.  As great as the front seven looks, it’s on the secondary to improve.  Purdue allowed 284.7 passing yards per game, most in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to complete 62.3% of their passes, on 7.7 ypa.  Nick Holt threw redshirt freshman Kenneth Major out there, and the 19 year old responded, and going into 2019 is the only certainty in that back group.  The front seven has a chance to be better than the 2017 group, but it’s all for naught if the secondary doesn’t improve.  Purdue has finished in the bottom two of the conference in passing yards allowed in both of Nick Holt’s seasons.  The offense loses every major contributor from 2018, save one.  But oh boy, that one…  Rondale Moore is the single most exciting player I’ve seen in the Big Ten since Ted Ginn, except he’s bigger, and I think better.  It got to the point late in the year where it seemed like the offense was almost trying too hard to force him touches, but he still generally responded.  Even when he was “shut down” he still had solid games.  Really you just have to try and limit his yac yards, and prevent big plays.  Aside from Moore, there is plenty of uncertainty, starting with an offensive line that loses four seniors.  At least Elijah Sindelar has plenty of experience, sharing the QB1 role with David Blough in 2017, and still getting a start last year as the backup, when Blough was hurt.  The remaining skill positions are not in nearly as good as shape.  Purdue had a deep stable of backs last year, but D.J. Knox and Markell Jones both graduated, and the rest underperformed.  Zander Horvath, who finished 5th on the team with 42 yards is the leading returning running back.  If the answer is to get Rondale Moore more carries out of the backfield, you have the issue of Jared Sparks, who was 5th on the team in receiving, being the only other wideout with more than 8 receptions a year ago.  Two of Purdue’s three highest rated recruits are receivers, David Bell and Milton Wright.  They have a chance to see plenty of opportunities right out of the gate, although neither enrolled early, so spring ball will give someone else a chance to emerge.

KEY PLAYERS
WRRondale Moore, Sophomore
TEBrycen Hopkins, Senior
TMatt McCann, Senior
.
DTLorenzo Neal, Senior
LBMarkus Bailey, Senior
CBKenneth Major, Sophomore
43. Arizona State Sun Devils
#6 in Pac 12

It’s early, but so far the Herm Edwards experiment hasn’t been the complete disaster everyone assumed it would be.  His first year was uneven, with a pair of big wins over Michigan State and Utah, both of whom were ranked in the top 15 at the time, but also 6 losses in probably the weakest Power 5 division, missing out on the Pac 12 title game.  Now the conference’s third least prolific passing offense has to try and figure out how to cope with the graduation of multi-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkins, and the early departure of N’Keal Harry, the most physically gifted receiver in the conference, and likely no worse than the third receiver taken in the NFL Draft.  Kyle Williams showed flashes as a sophomore that he was ready to break out, but even with Harry eating up coverages across from him, Williams’ junior year fell flat.  He’ll have another chance, along surprise performer Brandon Aiyuk, to lead the receivers this year.  The Sun Devils are quite set at starting running back, with Eno Benjamin, the Pac 12’s leading rusher, returning.  How many more carries can his body take though?  Benjamin didn’t just lead the conference in carries, he had 45 more carries than any other player.  Isaiah Floyd (45 carries), Trelon Smith (11 carries) and A.J. Carter (4 carries) had the other 60 combined running back carries for the team.  Smith, along with two other backs, already announced their plans to transfer, leaving a thin backfield even thinner.  If Benjamin misses any time, this offense could get really ugly, and even if he doesn’t it’s hard to envision it working with any meaningful reduction to his workload.  The quarterback job is wide open, it’s three freshmen, and Dillon-Sterling Cole, whose experience consists of two incomplete passes last season.  The defense, particularly the back eight in Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme, has a chance to be really, really good.  But the line could be really, really bad.  Arizona State had the conference’s third worst run defense a season ago, and that was with big Renell Wren in the middle.  Wren may have been the most disruptive nose tackle I saw all season.  Jalen Bates on one side of Wren, along with two other linemen, have announced their intentions of transferring.  George Lea likely takes over in the middle, but those three man lines in college football generally swing with that man in the middle, and they weren’t good last, even with one of the best.  The back seven was young, talented, and undisciplined.  That’s part of the reason the Sun Devils’ defense was far better in passing downs than standard downs.  But they had the Pac 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in true freshman Merlin Robertson, another true freshman, Aashari Crosswell, be named all conference, and it was sophomore Chase Lucas who led the team in interceptions.  Last year they also started a number of seniors, six were at least part time starters.  This year, there is none of that, with the projected spring depth chart only having one senior and two juniors.  As many as eight underclassmen could be starting.  So the ones who were ahead of schedule last year need to not just improve their play, but become leaders too.  Guys like Wren and Koron Crump and Jalen Harvey aren’t there for that anymore.

KEY PLAYERS
RBEno Benjamin, Junior
WRKyle Williams, Senior
CCohl Cabral, Senior
.
LBMerlin Robertson, Sophomore
CBChase Lucas, Junior
SAashari Crosswell, Sophomore
42. Pittsburgh Panthers
#6 in ACC

I mentioned yesterday that the Pac 12 South was the worst Power 5 division.  Well, then the contender is the ACC Coastal.  The difference is that at least Pitt won that division.  They did so with a 6-2 conference record, even though they were otherwise 0-5 in FBS games.  It continued a theme with Pitt under Pat Narduzzi where the Panthers have a better winning percentage in ACC play (.625), than they do in non-conference (.400).  Four of those eight non-conference wins are against FCS opponents, so it’s actually .250 against FBS non-conference opponents.  Either way, an ACC Championship Game birth, the first division title for the school, maybe kept Narduzzi’s seat from becoming too hot, but didn’t cool things enough for him not to tinker.  At times the Panthers’ running game looked great, churning out perhaps the single best effort ever in their win over Virginia Tech, running for 13.7 ypc on 36 carries, and having the highest overall ypp in at least the last 15 years in the FBS.  Overall though, Pitt was #12 in the ACC in scoring, and even that “great” rushing attack was only third best per carry in their own conference.  So offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is out, and former UMass head coach Mark Whipple is in.  The early returns from spring practice is the team plans to throw the ball more…a lot more.  That’s not incredibly hard to do when you averaged just 22.6 pass attempts per game.  That was almost 5 fewer passes than the next lowest non-option ACC team.  At least on the rare occasion Georgia Tech threw and caught the ball it worked, averaging a conference best 8.6 ypa, and an NCAA best 21.0 yards per completion.  Pitt had the ACC’s second worst yards per attempt average (6.3) and were bottom 20 nationally in yards per completion (11.0).  The offense needed an overhaul anyway, but the returning personnel made the matter more urgent.  The Panthers lost both all-conference running backs, four all-conference offensive linemen, and an all-conference fullback, who was probably the best fullback in the nation, with the obvious caveat that only about a dozen teams play one with any sort of significance.  That means Kenny Pickett is going to have to get a whole lot better.  The expectations on Pickett were probably unfair.  Pickett was handed the QB1 job in the season finale of 2017, and led the upset of #2 Miami.  We didn’t see enough of him for that game not to be the takeaway.  While he wasn’t bad, he didn’t do enough when he was asked to do something.  He avoided interceptions, but he was 10th in the league in passer rating, and only completed 58% of his passes.  He was viewed as a dual threat guy, and was given the permission and play calling to exploit that with 8.4 carries per game, but averaged just 1.9 ypc, on a team that averaged 5.6.  Yes, sacks are part of that, but that was the other problem, how many sacks he took.  For a team that threw the ball as  rarely as it did, and had five, yes all five, linemen be named all-conference, there’s no excuse for taking 33 sacks.  Pickett took sacks on 9.85% of dropbacks, 12th most nationally.  You would expect a guy with little starting experience to suffer early, but Pickett actually got worse as the season wore on, up to 13.75% over the final quarter of the season, sixth most.  Whipple wants to put more on him, can he handle it?  Narduzzi is very hands off with the offense, so it’s been Pitt’s defensive failures which have fallen on him.  There is a good chance this will be his best defense at Pitt, based on where the talent lies.  He’s very dependent on his defensive backs succeeding without help.  It’s why his early Michigan State defenses were bad, the previous staff left him no secondary, and some solid front sevens couldn’t cover for it in his scheme.  Same deal at Pitt.  So while the front seven looks to be worse than last year, the secondary should be his best, led by a pair of senior all-ACC players in Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin.  If they take a step forward, it makes the entire scheme look a lot smarter.

KEY PLAYERS
WRMaurice Ffrench, Senior
CJimmy Morrisey, Junior
KAlex Kessman, Junior
.
DERashad Weaver, Junior
CBDane Jackson, Senior
SDamar Hamlin, Senior
41. Tennessee Volunteers
#11 in SEC

A lot of coaches rebuilding a program go young, knowing they aren’t going to win right away anyway.  Jeremy Pruitt really had no choice on offense.  Even coming out of the spring he was at most going to start one senior, depending on whether Stanford grad transfer Keller Chryst won the quarterbacking job.  He didn’t, which means the Vols return all eleven offensive starters, 91% of their offensive production, second most nationally behind only Southern Miss.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that they are returning 91% of the production from an offense that was second worst in the SEC, pretty much across the board.  S&P+ was a lot more forgiving to the Tennessee offense, thanks to the nation’s second toughest schedule.  Western Kentucky made one decision for Pruitt, by hiring away offensive coordinator Tyson Helton as their new head coach, and the Vols made a big hire by poaching Jim Chaney from Georgia.  The first task is revitalizing the running game, which has been among the nation’s worst for a few years now.  Breaking in four new starters last year along the offensive line, it was unlikely that the running game was going to be good, but I don’t think fans expected it to fall from the second worst in the SEC, to the worst.  The line was the fourth worst in the FBS in standard line yards, but was dead last in stuff rate, with running plays being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 32.6% of attempts.  If they get that figured out, Jarrett Guarantano was actually a pleasant surprise to me.  He was the most experienced (in the Tennessee program) quarterback that Pruitt inherited, but he seemed to give him every opportunity to lose the job, having him compete with Will McBride in the spring, and freshman J.T. Shrout in the fall, along with bringing in Chryst as a grad transfer.  Guarantano reclaimed his job, and put up solid stats, particularly considering how poor the line play and running game were.  It will be interesting to see if Chaney wants to increase the pace at all.  The Vols moved at the 4th slowest pace of the Power 5, averaging 2.05 plays per minute.  You combine that with a lousy offense, and you get 61.1 offensive plays per game.  Only Georgia Southern, with the slowest pace, and nearly no passing game, had fewer.  The defense had no youth crutch to rely on, they started five seniors, and while it was not up to Tennessee standards, it was still a big improvement over 2017, when they gave up over 250 ypg on the ground, one of the worst in the country, and certainly the worst in the SEC, but improved to 9th in the SEC, allowing 155.2 ypg on 4.2 ypc.  The slower pace mentioned above helped there too, as S&P+, while liking the offense more than traditional stats did, was not nearly as high on the overall defense.  While the graduations, and the early entry of Quart’e Sapp (despite his very weird 2018) hurt, the best players do return, with a full offseason of what has already proven to be much better defensive coaching.  The most intriguing has to be cornerback Bryce Thompson, who decommitted from South Carolina last spring, flipped to Tennessee after spring practice had already begun, and was a major contributor the entire season, leading the team in interceptions.  A year ago, the team broke spring without even having him on the roster, and now he might be their best defender.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJarrett Guarantano, Junior
RBTy Chandler, Junior
WRMarquez Callaway, Senior
.
LBDaniel Bituli, Senior
LBDarrell Taylor, Senior
CBBryce Thompson, Sophomore
40. Stanford Cardinal
#5 in Pac 12

For those who think Stanford and David Shaw have earned the benefit of the doubt, I counter with, this is me giving them the benefit of the doubt.  On paper Stanford could truly, truly struggle this year, for the first time since the early Jim Harbaugh days.  Whether they figure it out thanks to the return of quarterback K.J. Costello, who is one of the best 2020 NFL Draft prospects at quarterback, or sink, depends on how much Tavita Pritchard showed us last year is for real.  The first year offensive coordinator promised that he was going to open it up more, and while he did, it’s unclear how much of that was was by design, and how much was due to having to adjust on the fly to never having a healthy Bryce Love, and Cameron Scarlett proving that Stanford running back wasn’t simply a plug and play position.  Why not to take them at their word?  Once they actually had a few weeks to prepare for their Sun Bowl game, did they adjust and put wrinkles into their newfound passing success?  Nope, the exact opposite.  They threw 17 passes, and ran the ball all afternoon, with very little success.  So with a full offseason, barring another injury issue, why believe David Shaw will do anything but David Shaw things?  Maybe he knows the only guy he has who can win him games is his quarterback.  Love and Scarlett both graduated, so the job may fall to Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox, who were even worse than Scarlett.  Speights had more touches, despite somehow averaging under 4 ypc behind that line.  And that line will not be THAT LINE this year.  Walker Little is as good an offensive line recruit as Stanford has ever gotten, and in just two years, has validated the hype.  But the entire rest of the line either graduated, or in the case of guard Nate Herbig, left early.  The receiver situation isn’t much better.  Trenton Irwin graduated, JJ Arcega-Whiteside left early, as did tight end Kaden Smith.  So you have backup tight end Colby Parkinson, and then Osiris St. Brown, and his 8 catches.  Calling Parkinson a backup tight end is underselling the situation.  He began the year as the “starter,” Kaden Smith just had such a monster year.  They played plenty together, and with Arcega-Whiteside at 6’3” and Irwin at 6’2”, Stanford mismatched teams to death by sending out four guys on routes at 6’2” or taller.  Stanford returns the eighth least offensive production from the Power 5, and none of the teams ranked below them retained their quarterback.  So among major teams with a returning starting quarterback, none have less surrounding returning production than the Cardinals.  And that’s from an offense that began by averaging the second fewest yards in the Pac 12 to begin with.  They had the Pac 12’s second worst running game, and never fully adjusted.  The Cardinal defense, always reliable, finished 9th in the Pac 12 in yards allowed, primarily due to giving up 264 ypg through the air.  On both offense and defense, Stanford fared far better in points per game (scored and allowed) than they did yards, suggesting that they weren’t as good as their scores would indicate.  Any improvement depends on the linebackers growing up in a hurry.  The Cardinal knew that Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri were graduating, but the matter was exacerbated by the retirement of Sean Barton.  Gabe Reid, a role player, pass rush specialist will be asked to vastly expand his role.  They have a budding star at cornerback in Paulson Adebo, who made all-conference as a freshman, leading the team in interceptions, and not afraid to get in there and tackle, although they’d probably prefer their cornerbacks don’t have to tackle as much this year.  He had plenty of opportunities opposite Alijah Holder last year, and now who lines up opposite him is a question mark.  The coaches rave about Obi Eboh’s athleticism, but his role hasn’t really been expanded much in his four seasons on campus.

KEY PLAYERS
QBK.J. Costello, Junior
TEColby Parkinson, Junior
TWalker Little, Junior
.
DEJovan Swann, Junior
LBGabe Reid, Junior
CBPaulson Adebo, Sophomore
39. TCU Horned Frogs
#5 in Big XII

The last time TCU had an off year, 2013, they followed it by going 23-3 over the next two years, with a conference championship and a pair of top 7 national rankings.  So when the Horned Frogs followed up a disappointing 2016 with an 11-3 season, a #9 finish, and a Big XII Championship Game appearance, it looked like 2016 was just a blip.  They reached the top 15 of the polls in September last year, gave Ohio State all they could handle, but lost 6 of 8, including by 25 to Oklahoma and 37 to West Virginia.  Starting quarterback Shawn Robinson announced he was transferring, but I don’t think any TCU fans shed a tear.  He was fine, but never could put it all together, and his turnovers were a problem.  Mike Collins, a transfer from Penn, saw action in 9 games, and was willing to go down the field more, averaging 3 yards more per completion, but with a substantially lower completion percentage, albeit with the interceptions.  That said, Collins might be #4 on the depth chart right now.  True freshman Justin Rogers may have gotten a look last year, but he still wasn’t fully recovered from an injury his senior year of high school, so he wound up redshirting.  They brought in former Kansas State player, Alex Delton, as a grad transfer.  They also signed Max Duggan, a 4*, the highest rated player in their 2019 class, who enrolled early, and was on campus for spring ball.  The spring game did little to sort things out, with both Collins and Delton out injured, and Rogers still clearly not 100%.  Rogers looked to have the better arm and decision making over Duggan, but reports are that Duggan moved around well, and Rogers did not.  TCU has to travel to West Lafayette the second week of the season to play at Purdue, so ideally you’d want it figured out by then.  But, if not, the rest of September (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, SMU, Kansas, all at home) should give everyone plenty of opportunities.  All eyes are there, because quarterback looks to be the lone missing piece between 11-3 in 2017 and 7-6 in 2018.  The running backs are steady, Jalen Reagor might be the most dynamic player in the conference, and the offensive line, which returns four starters, allowed the fewest sacks in the conference.  The defense did graduate a lot of talent, but that has to just be plug and play at this point with Gary Patterson.  TCU didn’t finish #1 across the board again in the Big XII defensively (scoring, total, rushing, passing), slipping all the way to #2 in scoring and rushing, but I think that’s still plenty to challenge for a trip to Dallas.  The strength in right in the middle of that line with as good a pair of interior linemen as exists in the country.  Ross Blacklock suffered an August achilles injury last year that cost him the entire season.  If he is back and 100%, the 2017 Big XII Defensive Freshman of the Year joins all-Big XII tackle Corey Bethley in the middle.  TCU held opponents to 3.6 ypc running last year, without him.  But this is the Big XII, and if you can’t get after the passer, your defense is in trouble, no matter how good you are on the line.  Bethley racked up 5 sacks last year, but the graduation of both ends, who finished first and second on the team in both sacks and tackles for loss are gone.  Mix in the graduation of Ty Summers, who was their best pass rushing linebacker, and the one concern for this defense is going to be finding sacks.  I trust Patterson to get that straightened out, because he always does.  It comes down to the quarterback, because everything else seems to be in place, just like 2017 and 2018, and that one position resulted in a 4 win drop.

KEY PLAYERS
RBDarius Anderson, Senior
WRJalen Reagor, Junior
TLucas Niang, Senior
.
DTCorey Bethley, Junior
LBGarret Wallo, Junior
CBJeff Gladney, Senior
38. Boston College Eagles
#5 in ACC

Tough to figure out what to make of Boston College’s 2018 season.  I was all in on them, had them as a top 20 preseason team.  They got as high as #17 in early November, before ending the season on a 3 game losing streak, and their bowl game being cancelled.  So a 7-5 season is certainly not bad.  But what was their best win?  At Wake Forest?  They had 11 players on the all-conference teams, only Clemson had more from the ACC.  So considering the pits that this team was, just a couple years ago, having that much talent feels like a step in the right direction.  But I think it’s a half step backwards this year, with 10 of those 11 graduating, or leaving for the NFL.  Their best player, A.J. Dillon, is back for his third, and almost certainly final season in Chestnut Hill, after running for 2,700 yards over his first two seasons.  But how much can he shoulder?  He’s had 527 carries over two years, and his ypc dropped by 0.4 ypc from his freshman year.  He was held to 4.0 ypc in three of four November games, with the one exception being 56 yards on 12 carries against Clemson.  And when Dillon missed two games, Ben Glines ran for 197 yards on 6.0 ypc over those two games.  So was a lot of that on the offensive line?  An offensive line that returned all five starters from 2017, plus an all-ACC tight end?  Four of those six are now gone.  That sets the tone on both sides of the ball, where trench play goes from the team’s strength to a major question mark.  But a lot of my optimism was based on how talented and experienced the running game was, and that going from freshman to sophomore, quarterback Anthony Brown would vastly improve.  He really didn’t, struggling to complete only 55% of his passes, third worst among ACC starters.  The Eagles passing game was almost solely depended on the big play, averaging more yards per completion than any ACC school, save Georgia Tech.  The hope was that Kobay White and Jeff Smith, in their first seasons as starters, would separate themselves as targets.  While they did lead the team in receiving, it was more of a committee effort, with eight players tallying at least 12 receptions, but only two with more than 20, and none with more than 33.  The passing game is now without its biggest deep threat, in Smith, along with all-conference tight end Tommy Sweeney, so who compliments White, who now needs to be a 50 receptions type guy, is up for grabs.  Ben Glines, who plays both tailback and receiver, and filled in when Dillon was hurt, might be the best option, but first year coordinator Mike Bajakian would clearly prefer someone else step up so Glines isn’t counted on as the #2 at two positions.  Sophomore C.J. Lewis probably gets next crack.  Bajakian spent the last four years as an NFL quarterbacks coach, but had previously been coordinator under the Chip Kelly/Butch Jones duo, at Central Michigan, then Cincinnati, then Tennessee.  He coached a pro-style read-option offense that actually fits Brown’s skill set far better than former coordinator Scott Loeffler’s did.  So that is reason for optimism.  The problem is not just on the offensive line, but on the defensive as well, where Boston College graduates three all-conference players as well.  The Eagles don’t have any obvious replacements for Wyatt Ray and Zach Allen, who combined for 15.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss on the edge.  Tanner Karafa, the lone returning starter, is a solid interior pass rusher.  The secondary was equally gutted, including cornerback Hamp Cheevers declaring early after leading the ACC with 7 interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.    The Eagles were third in the ACC in ypp allowed last year, but this group looks to be a huge step back.

KEY PLAYERS
QBAnthony Brown, Junior
RBA.J. Dillon, Junior
TBen Petrula, Junior
.
DTTanner Karafa, Senior
LBIsaiah McDuffie, Junior
LBMax Richardson, Junior
37. Virginia Cavaliers
#4 in ACC

You can start to see Bronco Mendenhall’s program take shape, but now they need to learn how to finish.  After a 5-1 start in 2017, which included a dominating win on the blue turf in Boise, the Cavaliers lost 6 of their final 7.  Last year a 6-2 start saw them enter the polls at #23 going into November, the first time they had been ranked since the November 20, 2011 poll, and only the second poll they had appeared on since 2007, before losing three of four to finish the regular season, the lone win being over first year FBS program Liberty.  Arizona State transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins exceeded all expectations in his first year on campus.  Everyone knew he could run, so finishing third in the ACC in total offense isn’t a shock, but he was also third in completion percentage and passing efficiency, fourth in yards per attempt.  One one hand, you’d probably like to limit his 212 carries from a year ago, third most nationally among quarterbacks, but the problem is he is easily the best runner on the team with Jordan Ellis graduated.  Ellis and Perkins combined for 427 of the Cavaliers’ 499 carries last year (85.6%).  Their third leading rusher was a now graduated receiver, and fourth averaged 3.1 ypc on 26 attempts.  That 3.1 ypc back is P.K. Kier, who probably starts spring atop the depth chart by default, but I’d be surprised to see him there.  Lamont Atkins, who only got 4 carries last year, and incoming freshman Mike Hollins look to have more talent.  Not to undersell a guy who led the ACC in receptions and receiving touchdowns, but I’m less concerned about replacing Olamide Zaccheaus.  Virginia has guys ready to step up.  Hasise Dubois had 52 catches for 578 yards, and is a steady possession guy, and Joe Reed I think is ready for a breakout.  He’s already as good a returner as there is in the league, and even though he only had 25 receptions, he averaged nearly 19 yards a catch and 7 of them went for touchdowns.  Only 3 ACC players had more.  Bronco is a defensive guy, and you are really starting to see the impact he’s having on that side of the ball.  In 2017, Virginia was held back by a defense that finished 12th in the ACC in scoring, thanks to one of the worst run defenses in the nation, second worst in the ACC.  In 2018, even after ushering five senior starters out the door, the Hoos jumped up to third in the ACC in scoring defense and total defense, from 13th to 4th in rushing defense.  The continued improvement in the front seven is the story for this side of the ball going into 2019.  Chris Peace, the team’s best linebacker, graduated, but the rest of that front seven, a 3-4, returns intact.  Getting a full healthy season out of Jordan Mack, who missed four games last year, is critical.  He has finished second on the team in tackles each of the past two seasons, but that number was 114 in 2017, and just 66, in 2/3 of a season, last year.  The secondary is the only mild question mark, with the graduation of safety Juan Thornhill, who has been Virginia’s best and most versatile defender the past few years, moving to cornerback at times.  The corners are solid, led by Bryce Hall, and a deep group behind him, but safety is the glaring weakness defensively.  The schedule looks very manageable as well.  A road game in South Bend is tough, but Virginia should be big favorites in their other non-conference games.  Then in ACC play, they get Florida State and Louisville as their crossover games, quite possibly the two worst Atlantic Division teams.  S&P+ projects a 10-2 record, which would be the best season in a long time in Charlottesville.

KEY PLAYERS
QBBryce Perkins, Senior
WRJoe Reed, Senior
WRHasise Dubois, Senior
.
LBJordan Mack, Senior
LBCharles Snowden, Junior
CBBryce Hall, Senior
36. West Virginia Mountaineers
#4 in Big XII

It’s hard not to view 2018 as a wasted opportunity.  West Virginia had an elite passing attack, led by one of the top offensive minds in the country, and found themselves #7 in the country less than a week before Thanksgiving, in control of their Big XII Championship Game destiny, and lost back to back games to fall clear out.  They lost those two by a combined 7 points, and scored 97 points, but those 7 points changed the whole narrative of the season.  With Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings all moving on, and Dana Holgorson jumping to a Group of 5 job at Houston, the easy write up is about how much the program is about to drop off.  Holgorson was a fine coach, and he wasn’t going to win defensive struggles, but he ignored it too much, his teams played too undisciplined, and ultimately what was his greatest accomplishment?  In seven years in the Big XII he lost five or more games five times, finished ranked only twice.  And it’s not as though they took a flier on his successor, hiring Troy head coach Neal Brown, who I actually think is an upgrade.  And I think West Virginia will be just fine, it just might look a little different, although both Brown and Holgorson cut their teeth in the Air Raid offense.  Quarterback certainly doesn’t appear to be a strength.  Jack Allison had a trial run in the Camping World Bowl, when Grier decided to sit out, and against Syracuse’s decidedly unremarkable defense he completed less than 50% of his passes, with an interception and no touchdowns.  They also added grad transfer Austin Kendall from Oklahoma.  Both players have the pedigree, but little supporting evidence at this level.  Brown has proven that he will adapt more to his talent than Holgorson did, and that means running the ball a lot.  The Mountaineers still have a great offensive line, even with the graduation of left tackle Yodny Cajuste.  They have three talented backs to spread carries between.  Kennedy McKoy got the most use last year (12.1 cpg), but Martell Pettway had the highest average per carry, and Leddie Brown was third on the team in rushing, while still averaging 8.3 carries per game.  It might surprise people that the Mountaineers had the third most effective run game in the Big XII last year, but it wouldn’t surprise them that West Virginia still only ran 46.05% of the time, the most pass happy offense, in a pass happy league.  So the talent is there to be a more ground focused team, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brown pivot more in that direction.  The defense finally has talent and experience in the secondary, particularly with new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning moving away from West Virginia’s long time 3-3-5 defense, into a four man secondary.  So 3/4 of that secondary will be manned by returning all-conference players.  Now how a secondary that allowed 8.0 ypc on 63.5% passing, both third worst in the conference, had that many all-conference players, I’m not sure.  They did create a lot of turnovers, 15 interceptions, second most in the Big XII, despite only facing the second fewest pass attempts.  They’ll have to produce, because the front seven likely won’t be as good, with linebacker David Long, 2018’s Big XII Defensive Player of the Year, deciding to go pro early.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKennedy McKoy, Senior
TColton McKivitz, Senior
GJosh Sills, Junior
.
CBJosh Norwood, Senior
CBKeith Washington Jr., Senior
SKenny Robinson Jr., Junior
35. Fresno State Bulldogs
#2 in Mountain West

It’s time to see just how much of a program Jeff Tedford has built in just his third year at Fresno State.  Fresno State lost 62% of their production, second most in the nation, between graduations, and a pair of defensive studs leaving early.  But it seems unlikely that there is less talent than when Tedford took over on the heels of a 2016 team that went 0-11 against FBS competition, turning them into division champions in his first year, and conference champions last year.  While he may have more overall talent, he doesn’t have Marcus McMaryion under center, who made everyone better.  This group will test Jeff Tedford’s reputation as a quarterbacks coach, and honestly I’m surprised he wasn’t able to land a grad transfer.  Senior Jorge Reyna is the only quarterback on the roster with any college experience, and it consists of 12 pass attempts last season in mop up duty.  Redshirt freshman Steven Comstock might have the highest ceiling, but nobody looks like a sure thing.  With Jaden Casey, one of the top 10 dual threat quarterbacks in the nation coming in 2020, it seems like 2019 would have been perfect for a one year grad transfer bridge.  Granted maybe those grad transfers took a look at the fact that this is a roster with only one returning wide receiver who had more than 4 receptions last year, and ran for the hills.  So running is what Fresno State should be doing a lot more of this year.  The Bulldogs have three backs in their rotation, led by breakout back Ronnie Rivers, who was off the two deeps entering fall practice last year, and wound up leading the team in rushing, but joined by Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit.  All three showed that they can be weapons in the passing game, and they may be relied upon even more there this year.  But for the running game to thrive, they need improvement along the line, in spite losing all three interior linemen.  What they will get is a boost from a return of a healthy Netane Muti.  Muti was a Hawaii signee, who wasn’t admitted academically.  How you aren’t admitted academically to Hawaii is beyond me, but Hawaii’s loss was Fresno State’s gain.  He was so good as a freshman in 2017, they moved him to left tackle last season, and moved two year starter Christian Cronk to the right side.  He suffered a ruptured achilles in the second game though, and missed the entire season.  The defense is led by the best secondary in the conference.  If Mike Bell had returned for his senior season, it would have been downright unfair, boasting probably the first and second best safeties in the Mountain West, to pair with an all-conference cornerback in Jaron Bryant.  The Bulldogs led the conference allowing just 5.9 ypa on just 51.7% completions, fourth best nationally.  The line also appears set, with all four starters returning, but its a group, while solid against the run, needs to create more pressure.  They were #105 in the nation in adjusted sack rate.  Really, the only question on defense is the linebackers, where what was already going to be a tough situation was exacerbated by Jeff Allison, who was second in the Mountain West with 132 tackles, declaring early for the Draft.  Redshirt freshman Sherwin King is drawing rave reviews from his coaches, and could be the breakout star.

KEY PLAYERS
RBRonnie Rivers, Junior
TEJared Rice, Senior
TNetane Muti, Junior
.
DEMykal Walker, Senior
CBJaron Bryant, Senior
SJuju Hughes, Senior
34. Missouri Tigers
#10 in SEC

Missouri’s 8-5 season is better than it sounds when you consider they had a 6 week stretch in the middle where they played #2 Georgia, at South Carolina, at #1 Alabama, Memphis, #12 Kentucky and at #13 Florida.  They did pick up solid road wins at Florida, Purdue and Tennessee.  But it does feel like if 8-5 is what Missouri can do with an elite quarterback like Drew Lock, how much better can it get in the SEC East, with Georgia rolling, Florida seemingly back on their feet, and Tennessee presumably getting better?  It’s probably going to have to start on defense, which loses Terry Beckner Jr. from the line, but otherwise returns all of their key pieces from a group that has vastly improved over the past two seasons, and looks likely to improve again.  The most obvious place for improvement is on the back end where a young group last year with just one senior and two juniors in the two deep could safely put the 2017 disaster in the rear view mirror.  They have allowed the most passing yards in the SEC for two years running, but have held opponents to a very respectable 55.7% completion rate.  They just need to limit the big plays allowed, surrendering over 14 yards per completion last year, bottom 15 nationally.  You have to hope a lot of that is youth issues, because the group simply looks better than their raw numbers.  Getting an actual pass rush better than #91 in the country will help, but the loss of Beckner, along with Terez Hall, makes where that comes from a mystery.  The offense, even without Drew Lock, should continue to be fine.  Barry Odom bolstered his depth chart with the addition of Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant, whose only fault was not being Trevor Lawrence.  He’s not Drew Lock, but he’s a very good college quarterback, and has 18 games of starting experience at the highest level.  Granted with the fastest pace in the SEC, Missouri ran a ton of plays in general, but even with Lock, they ran the ball 42.5 times per game.  They did that by utilizing three backs.  All three could have been back, but Damarea Crockett, who started the first three games, and was actually the least effective of the three, decided to go pro before he lost even more carries to Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie.  Crockett did have 147 carries a year ago, so where will those now come from?  Possibly Bryant, who is a better runner than Drew Lock, who himself wasn’t bad, and got 55 carries.  The passing game certainly appears to be less explosive.  Bryant doesn’t have Lock’s arm, and he doesn’t have Emanuel Hall, the ultimate deep threat.  Hall led the team in receiving yards, despite missing four games, and finishing third in receptions, 22 behind Johnathan Johnson.  But he averaged 22.4 yards per catch, second highest in the nation.  The Tigers have two strong pass catching options returning in the said Johnson, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, but I’d expect some lengthier drives.  True sophomore Kam Scott, who played in every game, and got two starts, but only caught 8 passes, is a solid option to have a breakout season if he can fill Hall’s shoes.  Missouri is ineligible for a bowl game this year, due to NCAA sanctions, which also gave seniors the option to transfer without penalty, and yet not a single one did.  They actually had two players other than Bryant transfer in, being quarterback Shawn Robinson from TCU and receiver Jonathan Nance from Arkansas.  That tells me the program Odom has is rock solid.

KEY PLAYERS
RBLarry Rountree III, Junior
WRJohnathan Johnson, Senior
TEAlbert Okwuegbunam, Junior
.
LBCale Garrett, Senior
CBDeMarkus Acy, Senior
STyree Gillespie, Junior
33. Boise State Broncos
#1 in Mountain West

I’m not sure the natives are getting restless or anything, but for the standards set by what had become the marquee mid-major program, the last few years haven’t exactly met the standard.  It’s not as though Boise State fell off the map or anything, but over the last four years, Boise State has no New Years Six appearances, three or more losses each season, only one conference title, a peak final ranking of #22, and an 0-3 record in the regular season games against Power 5 opponents.  Those may not seem that bad, but the last time Boise State went even back to back years with three or more losses was 1997 and 1998, which was also the previous time they went consecutive years without a conference title.  Since finishing #15 in 2002, they had finished ranked in the top 18 in 10 of 13 years, and never going consecutive years outside that.  They haven’t finished ranked that high since 2014.  All that said, the Broncos are still the favorites to win the Mountain West this year, as they are every year, and if they can find skill position players, they should be well positioned for a New Years Six bid if the AAC beats itself up.  Now replacing that backfield is no small feat, with the graduation of Brett Rypien, who ranks second all time in Boise State history for passing yards; and Alexander Mattison was #8 in the nation in rushing last year, with 1,415 yards.  This is where somehow not finding a ton of playing time for a backup quarterback in a year where you went 10-3 and half of your wins were by 20 or more points makes no sense.  Unless Bryan Harsin knew his best option was coming in 2019.   Out of the incumbents, Jaylon Henderson is not much of a passer, but is a good athlete, and Chase Cord won’t be ready to go until fall at the earliest, while recovering from a torn ACL.  Hank Bachmeier from Murrieta, California, is the highest rated quarterback recruit ever for the school, who chose the blue turf over offers from schools such as Georgia, Tennessee and Cal.  He’s 6’3” but needs to add to his frame a bit.  Boise State also added Kaiden Bennett, to show you what they thought of their returning depth chart, and he’s more of an athlete, and likely redshirt candidate.  Running back is an equal mess.  Andrew Van Buren showed flashes early last season, but was almost non existent in the second half, running for just 31 yards on 8 carries over the final six games.  The options at receiver seem better.  While the top two are gone, the Broncos used a deep stable of options, with ten players tallying double digit receptions, and behind the top two departures, they have four returning players who all had 25 or more.  To that group they added tight end Austin Griffin, the #1 JUCO tight end recruit in the nation, who should contribute immediately.  As I said though, while the skill position losses are massive, everything else is ready to go, with an offensive line that returns entirely in tact, and a defense with 7 returning starters, among the top 25 in returning production.  The front seven, led by Curtis Weaver, who was second in the conference with 9.5 sacks, was outstanding.  They were third against the run, and led the conference in sacks.  The difference between essentially the same defense, but a year older, being great, not just good, is whether the secondary figures it out.  Even with all that help in front of them the Broncos allowed opponents to complete 62.8% of their passes, just barely avoiding being the worst in the Mountain West, and having the second lowest interception rate as well.  Kekoa Nawahine is the one proven commodity in the back group, but cornerback Avery Williams has the athleticism, just needs to work on his ball skills.  He was targeted too often for what his skill set would suggest.

KEY PLAYERS
TEAustin Griffin, Junior
TEzra Cleveland, Junior
GJohn Molchon, Senior
.
DECurtis Weaver, Junior
CBAvery Williams, Junior
SKekoa Nawahine, Senior
32. Minnesota Golden Gophers
#8 in Big Ten

I’ve been on board with P.J. Fleck being all style, no substance, and that his shtick won’t stick at this level.  I’m starting to change my tune, particularly if the defensive play after he switched coordinators by firing Robb Smith, and promoting Joe Rossi, carries over into 2019.  After an embarrassing loss at Illinois, in which the defense surrendered 55 points, marking the second time in three weeks they had given up over 50 points, Fleck made the switch.  The result was a 3-1 finish, with blowout wins over Purdue by 31, at Wisconsin by 22, and over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl by 24, where the defense allowed just 14.8 ppg.  The top defensive players on the Gophers have no question marks.  They have an elite player at each level, led by Carter Coughlin, who passed up the chance to leave early for the NFL after finishing third in the Big Ten with 9.5 sacks.  The linebacker, turned defensive end, has been discussed as being moved around even more as a senior, to try and counter teams planning their blocking schemes against him.  Prepare to see him on either the short side or strong side of the field, on the line or off of it, hand down, hand up.  In what might be the deepest group of pass rushers I can recall in the Big Ten, Coughlin has a claim to be the best.  The issue with Minnesota’s front shouldn’t be getting to the quarterback, it should be stopping the run, allowing 5.2 ypc a year ago.  New guy in charge, but Illinois running up and down the field on them is still fresh in my mind.  Thomas Barber probably didn’t anticipate being back for his senior year, after the sophomore year he had, but his junior season was a bit of a letdown by comparison.  With Blake Cashman gone, it’s all on him now.  But the highest ceiling, but most nerve wracking return is Antoine Winfield Jr., who was phenomenal as a freshman, but was injured more most of the past two seasons, playing in four games in each, and already receiving his NCAA waivers for each, making him a fourth year junior.  He’s already a multi-time Academic All-Big Ten.  He’s a smart player, from good genes, who looked primed for stardom as a true freshman.  You never know how a guy is going to come back from multiple season ending injuries, one to his hamstring, one to his foot.  If healthy, and 100%, given his smarts and skills, he could make this his defense.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but not only is the Minnesota offense not a concern, but I’m actually kind of excited to watch it.  The Gophers return 9 starters, with the two graduated players being offensive linemen…and the three returning were two freshmen and a sophomore a year ago, who all earned some sort of all-conference honor.  The Gophers thought they were set at running back a year ago, and they were, just not for the reasons they thought.  They thought they were pairing Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith back up, but Brooks had a season ending injury preseason, and Smith was lost for the season two games in.  Enter redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, a complete unknown, who wound up running for 116 ypg, second most in the Big Ten.  He’s back, and now as are redshirt seniors Brooks and Smith.  Given the injury history, and the position they play, it’s iffy to expect them to be what they were, but if they are even close, Minnesota has the best stable of running backs in the conference.  They also might have the best receiver not named Rondale Moore, in senior Tyler Johnson.  Johnson is part of what was a trend this offseason of Gopher players with a chance to go pro, deciding to return, which I think speaks to Fleck’s players certainly buying in.  The continued emergence of Rashod Bateman will only continue to help, as even with Tyler Johnson finishing second in the conference in receiving yards, Minnesota was still only #10 in the Big Ten in passing yardage.  A second option, and better accuracy from whoever winds up being Minnesota’s quarterback.  Tanner Morgan completed 58% of his passes, and Annexstad 51% of his, and combined Minnesota had the 16th highest interception rate in the nation, at 4.05%.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMohamed Ibrahim, Sophomore
WRTyler Johnson, Senior
TDaniel Faalele, Sophomore
.
DECarter Coughlin, Senior
LBThomas Barber, Senior
SAntoine Winfield Jr., Sophomore
31. Michigan State Spartans
#7 in Big Ten

I said last year that as much of a bounceback as 2017 was for Michigan State, staying healthy was the biggest key, because for a preseason top 15 team, they still had almost zero depth.  We saw last year that to be the case.  Quarterback Brian Lewerke missed 3 games, and never looked fully healthy; top running back L.J. Scott missed 8 games; from their top receiving group, Felton Davis missed six games, Cody White missed four, Jalen Nailor missed five, and Darrell Stewart missed two; and three of the five starting offensive linemen missed four or more games.  The result was a miserable offense, and the waste of a good defense.  S&P+ ranked the defense on par with the 2013 Rose Bowl version, but while that offense ranked at least mediocre, in the 60s, this group was #112.  The defense has a chance to be just as good this season.  Justin Layne declared early for the NFL, but Josiah Scott returns healthy, after being the Spartans’ best cornerback prior to an injury that cost him nearly all of 2018.  They return six of the front seven, including the entire defensive line from what was the best run defense in the nation.  All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes suffered a broken leg in Michigan State’s Redbox Bowl loss, but seems to be on track to start the season.  So can the offense at least be mediocre?  If it is, it’s going to start in the passing game.  The post injury Brian Lewerke made people forget that he wasn’t bad at all to begin last season.  He opened the year through two games completing 69.4% of his passes, averaging over 300 yards per game.  If he’s healthy, he’s easily Michigan State’s best option at quarterback.  Spring game’s being what they are, he confirmed there that, Purdue win aside, the gap between him and Rocky Lombardi is huge.  He’s aided by a group of receivers that should be among the conference’s best, if healthy.  For all the hand wringing about the offensive play calling last year, Michigan State actually threw the ball 52.9% of the time, third most frequently in the Big Ten.  What has been missing from the Spartan offense, after being a staple of Dantonio’s best teams, has been contributions from the tight ends.  We have seen nearly nothing from them in the post-Connor Cook years.  Based on recruiting rankings, Matt Dotson and Trenton Gillison are Dantonio’s highest rated tight end combo, but Dotson has had drops issues, and Gillison hasn’t much seen the field.  The biggest problem with the offense last year though was the running game, and the offensive line.  Injuries were part of it, but even to begin the year, the Spartans offensive line struggled in both run and pass protection.  Against Utah State, the Spartans had to rely on read option to get anything on the ground.  It was also clear that there’s more to being a running back than athleticism, because guys like Connor Hayward and La’Darius Jefferson, once called upon, looked uncomfortable in the position.  If recruit Aaron Young hadn’t flipped, he’d probably find himself starting by some point this year, because fellow freshman Ant Williams Jr., whose film I like less, looks right now like he has a solid chance to win the job himself.  The top end talent in East Lansing is still enough that if the injury gods swing back like they did in 2017, the Spartans could factor into the Big Ten East race; but they also look a couple injuries away from struggling for bowl eligibility again, with a two deep that doesn’t look on par with comparable Big Ten foes, like Minnesota and Purdue.

KEY PLAYERS
QBBrian Lewerke, Senior
RBConnor Heyward, Junior
WRCody White, Junior
.
DEKenny Willekes, Senior
DTRaequan Williams, Senior
LBJoe Bachie, Senior
30. Army Black Knights
Independent

What Jeff Monken has done at Army is truly remarkable.  To take a program, with all of its built-in obstacles, which had had one winning season (7-6) since 1996, and now produce three in a row, three bowl wins for a school that had three bowl wins in its history, and then complete an 11-2 season in 2018, complete with a 70-14 trouncing of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, and a final AP ranking of #19.  That was Army’s best finish since finishing #3 in 1958, and only their second final ranking since.  At only 51, on one hand it’s surprising nobody has been able to hire Monken away.  On the other hand, they see Paul Johnson’s run at Georgia Tech, and perhaps see the general mediocrity, rather than the fact that a ton of schools would love to have Georgia Tech’s last decade.  Monken learned under Johnson, a graduate assistant at Hawaii, then running backs coach under Johnson at Georgia Southern, then Navy, then Georgia Tech.  He took that offensive style with him, following Johnson at Georgia Southern, then to a military academy.  But compared to the other triple option teams, Monken cranked it up even further.  Air Force ran the ball 79.2% of the time; Georgia Southern was at 82.1%; Navy at 83.2%; Georgia Tech at 84.8%; and Army, way up at the top, at 88.2% of the time.  In that 70-14 beatdown of Houston, Kelvin Hopkins Jr. attempted 3 passes, completing them all.  Hopkins isn’t there to throw though, and he ran the ball effectively, for over 1,000 yards on the season, on 4.9 ypc, best of Army’s top five rushers.  He wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty in short yardage situations either, leading all FBS quarterbacks with 17 rushing touchdowns.  Monken does need to replace senior fullback Darnell Woolfolk, who saw entirely too many carries, 221, in this style of offense.  His efficiency slipped from 2017, getting nearly 50 more carries, but his ypc drop by nearly 0.9 ypc.  Nine players did get more than 16 carries last season, but seven were seniors.  Connor Slomka had the most carries after Hopkins and Woolfolk last year, but is more of a battering ram, with 5 touchdowns; while Kell Walker has more explosiveness.  Ideally both wind up around 150 carries this year, but underclassmen simply don’t play much at any of the military academies, so it could wind up being a guy like Artice Hobbs IV who emerges in now his junior season.  Defensively, the strength of the Black Knights shifts from the front to the back.  Last year Army was ranked in the top 25 nationally against the run, on on sack rate, but they gave up 7.8 ypa passing.  The secondary is a lot more experienced this year, but with converted cornerback Jaylon McClinton playing safety, their 1.69% interception rate, in the bottom 20 nationally, has to improve.  McClinton had 2 of the team’s five on the season, with graduated Mike Reynolds having the other two.  Elijah Riley may be the one of the two, better suited to play safety, with questionable hands, but good tackling ability, finishing third on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.  The schedule looks exceptionally manageable, with a road game at Michigan in Week 2, and the next toughest game, against Tulane at home?  FPI has the Black Knights favored in every game except the Michigan trip, being a double digit favorite in 7 of the other 11.

KEY PLAYERS
QBKelvin Hopkins Jr., Senior
RBKell Walker, Senior
GJaxson Deaton, Senior
.
LBCole Christiansen, Senior
CBElijah Riley, Senior
SJaylon McClinton, Senior
29. South Carolina Gamecocks
#9 in SEC

I was more bullish on South Carolina than probably pretty much anyone last year, particularly factoring in schedule, which these rankings don’t.  In my Game-by-Game predictions, I believe I had South Carolina rolling into Clemson at 11-0, before losing there, and in the SEC Championship Game.  Instead, the Gamecocks just sort of did what they should do.  They were 7-0 against unranked teams, during the regular season, and 0-5 against ranked opponents.  Deebo Samuel, who was South Carolina’s best player, named All-SEC at three different positions, graduated, but otherwise, the skill position players seem to be in outstanding shape, led by a running back duo of Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson.  Muschamp used three back last year, but Ty’Son Williams decided he was too talented to be third in the pecking order for carries again, and it’s hard to argue with him, and announced last weekend that he’s transferring to BYU.  While nobody can replace all the ways Samuel contributed, as far as strictly receiver goes, the Gamecocks seem to still have plenty of talent between Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith, who combined for 100 receptions, 1,519 yards, and 11 touchdowns, as the #2 and #3 options.  As far as the big uglies go, that’s where the Gamecocks have massive question marks, graduating three starters, plus their top two blocking tight ends.  Kiel Pollard was the best pass catching option at tight end, but isn’t the best blocker.  That just means the team that ran the second least in the SEC a year ago, in spite of having two primary backs averaging 5.0 ypc or better, may run even less.  So can Jake Bentley finally perform like South Carolina fans expected him to?  Nobody is more underrated than a touted quarterback who proves to be mediocre.  You’d think Bentley was absolute trash, instead he’s a guy who finished fourth in the SEC in yards per attempt, and fifth in Passer Rating.  It’s the interceptions that draw the ire of Gamecocks fans most though.  He had 14 of them, four more than any other SEC quarterback, coming off a year where he had 12.  But to hear the online chatter, you’d expect Ryan Hilinski to show up as a true freshman, and take the job away from him.  For all of the questions about the offensive line, the defensive front has no such issues, returning all but one from their front seven, including their entire starting line.  That should be a welcome change from a group that struggled to stop the run a year ago, particularly in the red zone, giving up over 2 touchdowns per game on the ground, most in the SEC.  To that group they add Zacch Pickens, the #1 rated DT recruit in the nation.  The Gamecocks landed three 4* defensive line recruits, three of the top five recruits in the class, so there should be a deep rotation to work with.  T.J. Brunson at middle linebacker is not flashy, but he has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, and should do so again if healthy.  The secondary is a whole other issue.  South Carolina has struggled against the pass each of the past two seasons, and for the second season in a row, they have to replace multiple starters from the group.  Jamyest Williams is probably the most talented, and can play either corner or safety, but he’s already dealing with his second significant injury of his career, and it’s unclear how close to his potential he can play.  Losing four defensive backs to transfers isn’t helping the situation.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJake Bentley, Senior
RBRico Dowdle, Senior
WRBryan Edwards, Senior
.
DTJavon Kinlaw, Senior
LBT.J. Brunson, Senior
PJoseph Carlton, Senior
28. Northwestern Wildcats
#6 in Big Ten

One of these days I’ll stop writing off Northwestern after a bad September, maybe about the time Fitzgerald’s teams stop torpedoing in those first few weeks.  In 2018 in was a 1-3 start with a dismal showing against Duke, and an unforgiveable home loss to Akron.  The Wildcats went 8-2 the rest of the way, with a the losses coming to top 5 teams in Notre Dame and Ohio State.  Along the way they piled up 4 wins over top 20 teams, and reached their first Big Ten Championship Game.  For an encore?  Clayton Thorson, the four year starting quarterback will have to be replaced.  To be fair, for a guy who was billed as a possible top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft going into the season, Thorson’s final campaign was somewhat underwhelming, finishing 9th in the conference in passing efficiency, and 11th in yards per attempt, while throwing more interceptions than any non-Rutgers quarterback in the Big Ten.  Northwestern won with defense, and running the ball, sort of.  To be fair, Northwestern was a horrible rushing team, both with Jeremy Larkin, and once he was forced to retire.  It wasn’t until they found freshman Isaiah Bowser, that the Wildcats were able to get somewhat back on track on the ground, even if they forced it at times.  Bowser was only the feature back for the final eight games of the year.  But in those eight he averaged 108 rushing ypg, third best in the conference.  But he did it on just 4.4 ypc, the lowest of any back to finish in the top 10 in the conference in rushing.  His workload was heavy, 23 or more carries in 6 of those 8 games.  Northwestern was one of the most pass happy teams in the nation over the first half of the year, in the top ten nationally, but over the final quarter of the season, they were running the ball 52.4% of the time, which isn’t crazy, but does put them in the top half of FBS teams based on run load.  T.J. Green split time early in the season with Thorson, when Thorson was still not fully recovered from his torn ACL in the 2017 Music City Bowl, but all eyes are on Hunter Johnson, the former 5* recruit, who simply knew he wasn’t ever going to play ahead of Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, and so transferred to Northwestern.  But all internal reports suggest both quarterbacks are in it.  The Wildcats do lose their best receiver in Flynn Nagel, who graduated, and best offensive weapon in Cam Green, who retired.  Northwestern definitely needs the Bennett Skowronek from the first half of last season, not the second, or the passing game could really struggle.  The team won last year with great defensive front play, and that group looks to be even better, with all three all-Big Ten first, second and third team players returning.  The Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa fronts got all the attention last year, but Northwestern’s run defense was right on their heels.  The problem is that an iffy secondary loses its one bonafide star in Montre Hartage, as well as fifth year senior Jared McGee.  It was a group that had to replace three starters from the leakiest pass defense in the conference, and wound up near the basement again, with the worst opponents completion defense, third worst yards per attempt allowed, and fourth worst pass efficiency defense.  Senior Trae Williams sort of won the job by default last year, and while not being overly impressive, was never passed by anyone.  As likely the lone senior starter back there this year, it’s his secondary now.  Every Big Ten game for Northwestern was decided by 10 points or less, except one, and Northwestern went 8-1 in those games.  A three game lead over the field in the Big Ten West evaporates without being so good in close games.  Granted, Northwestern is also consistently the least penalized team, so maybe there is something to their discipline in those late moments.

KEY PLAYERS
RBIsaiah Bowser, Sophomore
WRBennett Skowronek, Senior
TRashawn Slater, Junior
.
DEJoe Gaziano, Senior
LBPaddy Fisher, Junior
LBBlake Gallagher, Junior
27. Appalachian State Mountaineers
#1 in Sun Belt

Appalachian State lost their coach, but that’s about it, from a team that went 11-2, and had Penn State dead to rights in the opener.  I hope Mountaineer fans enjoyed that one, because they didn’t really play another good game the rest of the season, every game being decided by double digits, including their lone loss.  The offense in particular looks unstoppable, coming off back to back years being the top scoring offense in the Sun Belt, raising their average to 37.3 ppg last year.  What had been the conference’s best rushing attack seemed doomed when all-conference senior captain Jalin Moore suffered a season ending injury in Week 5, while averaging 6.3 ypc.  Instead, sophomore Darrynton Evans stepped up, after totalling 9 carries to that point of the season, ran for 1,060 yards over the final 9 games, on 6.6 ypc.  The Mountaineers will be heavy favorites to win their fourth straight Sun Belt title, and even doing it going undefeated in conference play, which they have yet to do, still might feel a little hollow.  The next goal for this program has to be a New Years Six bowl, and from the Sun Belt, anything less than undefeated won’t even have a shot.  That means also winning both of their Power 5 games.  The way the program are now, winning at North Carolina is almost assumed, so the 2019 season almost singularly boils down to a November 9 trip to Columbia, to face South Carolina.  To take that next step, it’s time for the new coaching staff to trust Zac Thomas.  The running game should be outstanding still.  A full season of Evans running behind a line with three returning all-conference players.  But we saw last year, that doesn’t work against better competition.  Penn State held Moore and Evans to a combined 97 yards on 21 carries (4.6 ypc), almost 2 yards per carry below their season average.  Appalachian State nearly pulled that game out because Zac Thomas threw the ball a season high 38 times, for 270 yards, which was over 100 yards above his season average.  The Mountaineers were 15th in the nation in rush rate in 2018, passing the ball only 38% of the time.  New head coach Eliah Drinkwitz threw the ball over 50% of the time last year as NC State offensive coordinator.  Even accounting for being taken out in garbage time, that’s an additional 100 passes over the course of the season, or between 8 or 9 more attempts per game.  That would put Appalachian State as the second most pass happy team in the Sun Belt, so while I don’t think he goes as far, expect a difference look.  There’s no reason to think he can’t handle the workload, after leading the Sun Belt in passing efficiency among qualified quarterbacks.  He was #13 nationally in Total QBR (#5 in Raw, which doesn’t adjust for competition), two spots ahead of Ryan Finley, who Drinkwitz worked with last year.  He is a slightly different quarterback, with the second lowest points expected on pass plays of quarterbacks in the Top 20, while Finley was #8; but Thomas was 5th highest on run attempts, while Finley was 6th worst.  Not to say he can’t throw the ball, he still completed 63% of his passes.  The offense just needs the defense to be close to what it was last year, when it led the Sun Belt in scoring defense, total defense, run defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, etc…you get it.  The front seven looks to be fine, even with the graduation of Myquon Stout from the middle of the three man front, led by a linebacking group that is probably the best in the Group of 5, and would hold up just fine in a comparison to a great deal of Power 5 teams.  The question is in the secondary, where it’s Desmond Franklin, and a lot of question marks, particularly at cornerback, where Clifton Duck decided to enter the NFL Draft a year early, a problem Appalachian State doesn’t typically have, to join graduating senior Tae Hayes on their way out of Boone.  This was a pass defense that allowed just 5.3 ypa last year with an opponent passer rating of just 98.0, both were #2 in the nation.  It’s naive to think there isn’t depth there, but it’s also unclear who much the play of the front was aided by a nationally elite pass defense, considering the pass rush was not.

KEY PLAYERS
QBZac Thomas, Junior
RBDarrynton Evans, Junior
TVictor Johnson, Senior
.
LBJordan Fehr, Senior
LBAkeem Davis-Gather, Senior
SDesmond Franklin, Senior
26. Kentucky Wildcats
#8 in SEC

Kentucky showed athletic departments everywhere what is possible with a little patience.  It took six years, but Mark Stoops took over a terrible team, made them respectable by Year 2, a bowl team in Year 4, and then a 10 win team that won the Citrus Bowl and finished #11 in the polls.  It was the best team in Lexington since 1977 went 10-1, but was ineligible for the SEC title or a bowl trip, due to NCAA sanctions, but did finish #6 in the polls.  That bought Stoops a lot of leeway, and while many are expecting him to cash that chip in this year, I’m not so down on the Wildcats.  The offense has a chance to still be very good.  There is no replacing Benny Snell, who left early for the NFL Draft, but Asim Rose looks ready to break out.  He averaged only just under 6 carries per game, but averaged 6.2 ypc on those limited, but not statistically insignificant number of carries.  Now Benny Snell had 289 carries, fourth most in the nation, so those additional touches have to come from somewhere, because it’s doubtful that Rose gets anywhere near that number.  The easy answer is, nobody, that this shifts from being Snell’s offense to being quarterback Terry Wilson’s.  Only 12 teams threw the ball less frequently than Kentucky, and half of them were triple option teams.  Wilson is a dangerous runner, but he showed plenty to evidence that he can handle increased passing responsibilities.  He completed a high number of passes, third highest in the SEC at 67.2% of passes, but a lot of safe, short throws, relying on yards after catch, averaging just 10.7 yards per completion, in the bottom 20 of the FBS.  What is unclear is whether that system was due to Wilson, or due to his receivers, or lack thereof.  Dorian Baker returned from an injury that cost him all of 2017, and looked like a shell of his former self, while Tavin Richardson’s performance declined from his 2017.  Lynn Bowden burst onto the scene.  I’m not entirely sure he’s a receiver, so much as a playmaker, and with Snell in the backfield, splitting him out seemed like the best way to just get the ball in his hands.  He did finish with 67 receptions, the only receiver to tally more than 16.  The graduation of Baker, David Bouvier, and tight end C.J. Conrad, along with Snell’s departure, and Richardson’s transfer, means that after a year of underperformance, Kentucky is actually worse off this year.  The most experienced player aside from Bowden is junior Josh Ali, who had 10 receptions last year.  Justin Rigg, who started two games last year as a true freshman, may develop into a weapon at tight end.  What concerns me more is the defense, that is relying heavily on a linebacking core, which itself is without Josh Allen, depending on whether you count him as a defensive end or linebacker.  The remaining linemen all return, but aside from Allen, there wasn’t a ton of production there, even with Allen drawing double teams.  Kentucky’s defense ranked #5 nationally in sack rate, without a single other lineman tallying more than 3 sacks.  The secondary graduates all four starters from a group that was solid, but not spectacular.  They were sound tacklers, who gave up a lot of completions, and didn’t force many turnovers, but did a good job of limiting yardage, and hoping eventually they’d get a sack to put their opponent behind the sticks.  The linebackers have a chance to be very special though.  Kash Daniel, in his first year in the middle of that defense, proved to be Kentucky’s best run stopper, a sound tackler, and Jamar Watson, a pass rush specialist, can now fill Josh Allen’s role.  He was second on the team in sacks a year ago, despite only getting limited play time.  Then you have DeAndre Square, an outstanding cover linebacker, a converted safety, who was forced into a starting role in the Citrus Bowl, and responded with 6 tackles and a sack.  Fellow true sophomore Chris Oats looked solid in a backup role as a true freshman, and looks primed for a bigger task.  More than anything, Kentucky has been dipping into the guys that Michigan State was landing earlier in Dantonio’s tenure.  A lot of these names I recognize as 3* Ohio players who don’t warrant an Ohio State offer, but are now picking Kentucky over Michigan State.  There are 20 Ohio players on the roster.  While I don’t see a repeat of the school’s best season in over 40 years, I don’t think they are going to fade away again either.

KEY PLAYERS
QBTerry Wilson, Junior
RBAsim Rose, Junior
WRLynn Bowden, Junior
.
LBKash Daniel, Senior
LBJamar Watson, Junior
SDavonte Robinson, Junior
25. Miami Hurricanes
#3 in ACC

What a weird couple of years in Coral Gables.  Alum Mark Richt comes in, takes a team with no expectations up to #2 in the nation on Thanksgiving, on the cusp of the Playoff, but loses three in a row.  Then takes a team with solid expectations in 2018, loses four in a row in the middle of the season, doesn’t even get bowl eligible until the second to last game, and then resigns after the season.  7-6 considering the schedule, where the only two ranked teams were LSU on a neutral field, and Pitt at home, is really bad, but the talent remains.  After being the Temple head coach for less than three weeks, Manny Diaz returned to Miami as head coach, after serving as defensive coordinator for the past three years.  And the defense was more than fine, even last year.  While the turnover chain got all the attention (and it was FAR too much oversaturation, and far too often imitated), the defense as a whole was outstanding.  It was actually even better last year, when they finished #2 in the nation in total defense, and led the nation in tackles for loss and pass defense, allowing just 140 yards per game.  The defense should continue to shine, with 3 All-ACC players returning.  The loss of Sheldrick Redwine from safety hurts, the converted cornerback allowed Miami to match him up on receivers without issue, but Trajan Bandy returns, as Miami’s best defensive back.  It’s the early departure of Joe Jackson that hurts more, the Hurricanes best pass rusher on the line, from a team that thrived on creating pressure.  The compensation will be a group of linebackers that might be the best in the nation at attacking the quarterback, while still holding opponents to just 3.5 ypc on the ground.  In 2017 the offense did enough, and they took advantage of all the turnovers.  While the defense was still creating turnovers in 2018, the offense was giving the ball right back, with the most turnovers in the ACC, falling from #5 nationally in turnover margin to #85.  So turnovers are why Miami only ran 66 plays per game, and why they were second worst in the ACC in total offense, but even per play they were in the bottom third of the league, thanks to a non existent passing game.  Mark Richt could have handled it better.  He insisted senior Malik Rosier was his guy, until he kept underperforming.  Then Richt went with redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, until he struggled.  Rather than let the freshman learn, he went back to the departing senior in a meaningless Pinstripe Bowl.  Having two quarterbacks who struggle to throw the ball, and then not letting either one gain momentum is how you end up in the bottom 20 in the nation in yards per attempt and interception percentage, worst in the ACC in both.  Perry was expecting a challenge from redshirt freshman Jarren Williams, a top 100 recruit from 2018, but Miami also added Ohio State transfer Tate Martell, who was granted a waiver…because…Justin Fields got one too?  To show how Miami fans feel about Perry, a Miami SB Nation blog with over 2,000 votes, presumably mostly Miami fans, had Perry finish 3rd among their five quarterbacks, for who should start in 2019.  Whoever wins it, has some pretty good weapons to throw to, the strength of this Miami offense.  It got a boost when Jeff Thomas, who led the team in receiving last year, despite being dismissed from the program prior to the final three games, did an about face on his plans to transfer to Illinois State, and announced he has been reinstated, because that’s the way the U operates when anybody but Mark Richt is in charge.  Lawrence Cager taking a grad transfer to Georgia hurts, but Mike Harley is undersized, but maybe the most dangerous of the bunch.  Brevin Jordan, who was maybe the best tight end in the conference last year as a freshman, could be in line for an even bigger year, reunited with his high school quarterback, Martell; and a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos, who should make an even more concerted effort to get the ball to the tight end.

KEY PLAYERS
WRJeff Thomas, Senior
TEBrevin Jordan, Sophomore
GNavaughn Donaldson, Junior
.
LBShaquille Quarterman, Senior
LBMichael Pinckney, Senior
CBTrajan Bandy, Junior
24. Washington Huskies
#4 in Pac 12

It’s been a while since the football in Seattle was this consistently good, but since Chris Peterson got his program up and running in Year 3, few have been better.  Over the past three years, Washington has won two conference titles, gone to three New Years Six bowls, including a Rose Bowl, and had the fifth best winning percentage among Power Five teams, trailing only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.  But he hasn’t faced a task like this.  #24 overall, and #4 in the Pac 12 may seem low for a coach and a program who have earned more benefit of the doubt than this.  But honestly, even ranking them this high makes me nervous.  The offense loses their entire starting backfield, including four year starter, and former Pac 12 Player of the Year, quarterback Jake Browning; and the school’s all-time leading rusher (by 1,300 yards), Myles Gaskin, who had four 1,200 yard seasons, and sits at #13 all-time in NCAA history.  Gaskins replacement is less concerning, Salvon Ahmed was arguably better last year, averaging nearly a full yard per carry more, although getting less than half of Gaskins’ carries.  That, durability, is the biggest question.  Gaskin only missed two games in his four years, totalling 945 carries.  He gets to run behind a line that surprisingly has four starters back, with Trey Adams electing to return.  The one time sure fire first round NFL pick has dealt with injuries the past two seasons, and decided to prove he was healthy, rather than cut his losses and see what he can get now.  You have Ahmed, behind that line, with a very unsettled quarterback situation, and while the Huskies already ran the ball more often than any Pac 12 team, you might see that number tick up, even without Gaskin.  The problem is finding someone to share carries with.  Quarterback is far less settled.  Jake Haener was the backup a year ago, but may find himself down at fourth or fifth on the depth chart this year behind three freshmen and a transfer.  Peterson was able to redshirt both of his top 100 quarterback recruits a year ago.  Jacob Sirmon is the better passer, but Colson Yankoff offers more running ability, which is what Washington has had success with from Tuiososopo to Locker to Browning.  Then the Huskies added another top 100 recruit this year in Dylan Morris, who is already enrolled and competing in spring drills.  Throw former blue chip Jacob Eason into the mix, who was a former starter at Georgia, who lost his job to Jake Fromm, and you have a ton of raw talent, but very little proven on the field.  Far more concerning is what will happen with the defense, what has been Washington’s bread and butter.  They’ve led the conference in scoring and total defense in each of the past two years, but had six seniors graduate, and a pair of defensive backs declare early for the draft, leaving them with only three returning starters, and that’s if you count nickelback Myles Bryant, who in fairness was all-conference, as were SIX Husky defensive backs.  Elijah Moldon has a ton of raw ability, and is already an elite returner, but they are going to need him to go from the 5th or 6th corner in the rotation, to locking down one of the two starting jobs.  All in all, based on Bill Connolly’s metrics, Washington lost 64% of their defensive production from last season, the most of any school in the country.  Surprisingly, nobody poached either co-coordinator, either for a head coaching job, or to pay them for defensive autonomy, so at least coaching continuity continues.

KEY PLAYERS
WRAaron Fuller, Senior
TTrey Adams, Senior
CNick Harris, Senior
.
DTLevi Onwuzurike, Junior
CBMyles Bryant, Senior
CBElijah Molden, Junior
23. Auburn Tigers
#7 in SEC

I was very high on Auburn last year, and distinctly remember other disagreeing with my take strongly.  A season opening neutral site win over Washington appeared to vindicate me, and while a 1 point home loss to LSU is forgivable, going back to back with a two touchdown loss to Mississippi State, followed by a home loss at Tennessee, is not.  Their other two losses, at Georgia and at Alabama, were not horrible, but the margins of 17 and 31 were.  The offense never seemed to fit together right, between Malzahn’s style, Chip Lindsey’s style, and Jarrett Stidham’s skill set.  Those who watched the Music City Bowl saw how it was supposed to go, scoring 56 points in the first half.  Those who only saw that performance would probably struggle to figure out how Auburn finished 10th in the SEC in per play offense, and 11th in total offense.  So while Chip Lindsey is now the head coach at Troy, he was leaving either way.  He had already taken the same position at Kansas.  Guys don’t usually jump laterally from Auburn to Kansas on their own volition, even with the caveat that you are going from working for Gus Malzahn to Les Miles.  And Stidham declared early for the Draft.  But while the coordinator and quarterback are gone, there’s a chance the whole thing will click better this year.  Malik Willis returns after being the #2 quarterback last year, seeing action in 8 games.  But while Stidham wasn’t mobile enough for Malzahn, Willis’ arm is very problematic.  The job may go to true freshman Bo Nix, the #1 dual threat quarterback recruit in the nation last year.  If that isn’t enough, he just happens to be the son of Patrick Nix, the Auburn legend, who quarterbacked Terry Bowden’s undefeated team.  So you know who the fans want.  He can hurt you with his legs too, maybe not to the same degree as Willis, and Auburn should be running the ball plenty.  Kam Martin wasn’t nearly as effective in 2018 as he was with his limited touches in 2017, but getting him back for a senior year behind breakout freshman JaTarvious Whitlow and an offensive line that returns all five starters should help boost an offense that was an unthinkable 11th in the SEC in rushing.  It’s an offense that tried to fit it’s scheme to it’s talent, which is commendable when so many stubborn coaches try to fit their talent into their scheme, but at Auburn it simply didn’t work, and Malzahn did not like going from #7 to #26 to #63 over the past three years in terms of run call rate.  Between the talent set of the quarterback, the depth at running back, and the experience on the line, this team should throw the ball far less anyway, but mix in the mess at receiver, and it’s even more obvious.  They had a great possession-deep threat combo between the graduated Ryan Davis (69 catches, 7.9 ypc) and the early departed Darius Slayton (35 catches, 19.1 ypc), but now have to lean more on Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, who were productive freshmen, but have to grow up quickly.  On defense it starts and stops with the line, which could be the best in the nation.  It was already in the running for that title if projected first round pick Derrick Brown had left early, as expected.  Instead, he shocked Tiger fans by returning for his senior year to push that group over the top.  Even with Jamel Dean turning pro, the secondary still should be good.  The linebackers are a major concern though, after starting three seniors a year ago.  The projected starters entering the spring combined for 37 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions, in limited action last season.  Omen Pappoe, the #1 rated outside linebacker recruit in the country, is enrolled early, and has a chance to start from Day 1.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJaTarvious Whitlow, Sophomore
WRSeth Williams, Sophomore
TPrince Tega Wanogho, Senior
.
DENick Coe, Junior
DTDerrick Brown, Senior
SDaniel Thomas, Senior
22. Cincinnati Bearcats
#2 in American

While things appeared to be slowly turning around on the field, and in recruiting, I don’t think anyone expected a Cincinnati program, who had gone 3-13 in conference play over the previous two seasons, to go 11-2, and be playing Central Florida the weekend before Thanksgiving in a de facto conference title game, with ESPN College Gameday in attendance.  Cincinnati was outclassed in that game, but the season, which included wins over UCLA and Virginia Tech, where their only other loss was in overtime at Temple, who was 7-1 in conference, cannot be called anything but a rousing success.  It was not as though the 2017 Cincinnati team was young, and just needed a year of growth.  Particularly on offense, it was the exact opposite.  Really the only thing that seemed certain was that Hayden Moore was returning as quarterback.  Fickell thought otherwise, and pulled Moore after only two series, which included a fumble on a sack that gave UCLA a short field for a touchdown.  Redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder was inserted, and the Bearcats outscored UCLA 26-10 the rest of the way for the win.  Ridder was not great, by QBR it turned out to be his second worst game of the season, but Cincinnati won, and the job was Ridder’s, who went on to win AAC Freshman of the Year.  He helped turn around an offense that finished dead last in both total offense and scoring offense in the AAC in 2017, to finish fourth in each in 2018.  Same for a rushing offense that jumped from second worst, also up to fourth, bolstered by his running ability, and the emergence of Michael Warren II.  Warren entered fall practice behind Gerrid Doaks on the depth chart, but took advantage of Doaks’ groin injury which held him out all season, to finish second in the conference with 1,353 rushing yards.  If Doaks is back to 100%, and with Ridder having a better grasp of the offense, the Cincinnati run game could be electric.  It may have to be, because Kahlil Lewis was the only threat they had on offense last year, and he graduated.  They do have an all-conference tight end in Josiah Deguara.  Whether or not the conference’s best defense maintains its level of play depends on how quickly a very inexperienced line comes together.  The Bearcats ran our four all-conference seniors on the line last year, which shut opponents run games down, allowing just 3.3 ypc and 102.4 ypg, both best in the conference, and top ten nationally.  In S&P+ they were #6 nationally in run defense, particularly strong in short yardage situations, allowing just 47.8% successful conversions, 2nd best in the nation.  The strength of the defense may simply shift to the back seven, which was no slouch itself last year.  The Bearcats had the conference’s top pass efficiency defense, allowing just 48% opponents completion percentage, and they only lose one starter from the back seven, returning the entire secondary intact.  Not only is the entire starting secondary back, three of them are still only juniors this year.  They do need to get better at creating pressure.  For how good they were elsewhere, they shouldn’t have been as middling as they were in that department.  Central Florida is still the class of the American, and proved it last year when they met up, but Cincinnati is closing the gap.  You do wonder if they can keep Fickell if a Big Ten team comes calling.  Houston raised the bar for what AAC schools are willing to do to compete with the Power 5.

KEY PLAYERS
QBDesmond Ridder, Sophomore
RBMichael Warren II, Junior
TEJosiah Deguara, Senior
.
LBPerry Young, Senior
SJames Wiggins, Junior
PJames Smith, Junior
21. Mississippi State Bulldogs
#6 in SEC

I was higher than most on Mississippi State last year, although I didn’t think their defense would be even as good as it was, and I didn’t think Nick Fitzgerald and the offense would regress as much as they did.  Having seen what Joe Moorhead did with what seemed to be a broken offense in Happy Valley, I’m still a believer that he’ll get that thing figured out.  You had a senior three year starting quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, who became more and more of a runner each year.  His pass attempts, passing yardage and passer rating fell every year.  His completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns were all worse as a senior than they were as a sophomore.  So what went up?  His rush attempts.  Up to 221 last year, but with a ypc that was a full 2 yards lower than it was as a sophomore.  So while the Bulldogs lose their quarterback, they return a lot of the other pieces, and overall I think the unit will actually be better.  Junior Keytaon Thompson, who saw action in nine games as Fitzgerald’s backup a year ago is probably the frontrunner to replace him.  But if the problem with the offense was Fitzgerald’s arm, then Thompson sure doesn’t look like the answer.  He completed just 46% of his passes last year (although he did have 6 touchdowns to just 1 interception), but averaged 9.4 yards per carry on the ground on 24 carries.  Incoming 4* recruit Garrett Shrader enrolled early, and may be a factor in the race.  He reminds me a little bit of a bigger Trace McSorley.  He can beat you with his legs if he needs to, got a bit of a gun slinger edge to him, but probably has a better arm than anyone on the roster.  Oh, and McSorley is 6’0”, Shrader is 6’5”.  Kylin Hill can expect to see his usage increase.  He led all running backs with 117 carries, but was in a bit of a time share with returning starter Aeris Williams, and still had over 100 fewer carries than Fitzgerald.  With both Williams and Fitzgerald gone, Hill needs to get a lot more touches.  He was 6th in the SEC among qualified players, with 6.3 ypc, and was also the team’s second leading receiver in catches, with 22 receptions.  His 8.0 yards per catch needs to improve.  If he has those hands, he needs to actually be a weapon with them.  Balance is the key from a unit that was #6 in the nation in Rushing S&P+, but #93 in Passing.  The defense has to overcome the loss of a historic level of NFL talent in Starkville.  The Bulldogs potentially have three first round picks from the defense gone, and four guys who will likely be drafted.  Oddly though, the cupboard is not bare, just get ready to meet these linebackers.  Middle linebacker Errol Thompson, looks like the next star ready to step up.  He probably should have been all-SEC last year, but was lost in the Bulldogs’ defensive star shuffle.  He is an elite run stopper, who pairs well with the athletic Willie Gay Jr.  Gay was simultaneously second on the team in sacks, while tying for the team lead in interceptions.  Having the always reliable, always in position Thompson, next to the uber athlete, loose cannon, Gay, works really well.  Leo Lewis rounds out the unit.  Last year some said Mississippi State’s starting defensive line and secondary compared to any of the top ones in the nation, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, whoever.  The Bulldogs just lacked the depth of those programs.  We are about to find out just how much depth Mississippi State had, because the program is starting nearly from scratch in those two areas.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKylin Hill, Junior
WROsirus Mitchell, Junior
TStewart Reese, Junior
.
LBErrol Thompson, Junior
LBWillie Gay Jr., Junior
CBCameron Dantzler, Junior
20. Washington State Cougars
#3 in Pac 12

Mike Leach now comfortably has Washington State operating at a level we haven’t seen since the late 90s and early 2000s, and before that?  Never?  The next step is getting over the hump.  In each of the past two seasons, the Cougars entered the Apple Cup in control of their own Pac 12 destiny, ranked #14 in 2017 and #7 in 2018, and in each of those years, Washington kept them from reaching the conference championship game.  He’s a quarterback away from having his best offense in Pullman.  I know that’s a big if, but how often has Mike Leach struggled to find a quarterback.  Last year it was East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew coming in as an unknown, and spending a good deal of the season on the fringe of the Heisman discussion, while being named Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year.  It appears the Cougars will go the transfer route again, with the addition of former Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud.  Gubrud set the FCS record in 2016 with 5,160 passing yards, and was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (FCS Heisman).  Leach saw up close what he could do, when Gubrud completed 85% of his passes, for 474 yards and 5 touchdowns in an upset win over Washington State three years ago.  Gubrud was limited in spring practice due to an injury, that was initially feared to cost him the entire spring.  While the starting spot remains undecided, Minshew didn’t even arrive until August next year, so I wouldn’t worry about being behind.  Aside from that, the offense is loaded, and with a lot of young guys, who seem primed to take a big step forward.  The line returns four starters, including a pair of All-Pac 12 players, led by Abe Lucas, who last year as a freshman was already in the discussion for the conference’s best tackle.  He probably slides over to left tackle for 2019.  Running back James Williams left early for the NFL, but he was already being pushed by Max Borghi, who was a finalist for the conference’s freshman of the year, and was a weapon out of the backfield, finishing fourth on the team in receptions, as the backup running back.  But as far as receivers go, there simply might not be enough balls to go around, with the Cougars returning their top four receivers, and seven of their top eight.  The most talented is Tay Martin, who at times looks like a legit top NFL prospect, and then disappears.  He had three games of at least 7 catches and 120 yards, he had five or more catches in seven games.  But he also had five games with 25 or fewer yards.  He’s got a lanky 6’3” frame, and could stand to put some weight on, but really consistency and staying engaged is his issue.  As is typically the case with the Air Raid offense, the Cougars want to play just enough defense.  While in Tracy Claeys first season, they weren’t bad, it was a far cry from just how good the 2017 version was.  That unit was second in the Pac 12 in total defense, and was top 30 nationally in S&P+.  Last year that slipped, particularly against the run, which was perhaps expected when (depending on whether you counted Chima Onyeukwu as a lineman or linebacker) they had three new starters on the line.  They did excel at generating pressure, leading the Pac 12 with 3.0 sacks per game, on 9.21% of attempts, #12 nationally.  But the back, while sound in tackling, allowed an opponent completion percentage of nearly 62%.  That gap should only grow wider this year with a really strong pair of safeties, but having to replace both graduating cornerbacks.  Marcus Strong actually led the team in interceptions last year, so he should be ok, but the opposite spot is a huge question mark.  George Hicks is penciled in for now, but he is a junior with very little playing time.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMax Borghi, Sophomore
TAbe Lucas, Sophomore
CFrederick Mauigoa, Senior
.
LBJahad Woods, Junior
SJalen Thompson, Senior
POscar Draguicevich III, Junior
19. Iowa State Cyclones
#3 in Big XII

While the Cyclones may have lost a lot of star power, overall this is the best roster Matt Campbell has had in Ames, and Iowa State fans are glad he’ll be around to coach it.  True freshman Brock Purdy took the starting job away from 6th year senior Kyle Kempt last year, and ran with it, completing over 66% of his passes, and finishing third in the Big XII in pass efficiency, behind only Kyler Murray and Will Grier, two guys you may have heard of.  Purdy has seen his career take off in record time.  He wrapped up the regular season of his high school career without a single Power Five offer, then after a huge performance in the state playoffs saw late offers from schools such as Alabama and Texas A&M, who both landed official visits.  Iowa State won out, and with a late commitment, he wasn’t able to enroll early.  Seeing what this kid can do with an actual offseason on campus, should be exciting.  Right now I’d say he is the best quarterback in the Big XII.  Between him and an offensive line that returns five starters, they have a good start.  He just needs to find some dudes to get the ball to.  If Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery had returned for their senior seasons, this would be my dark horse Playoff contender, without them, someone is going to have to step up at both running back and receiver.  The most talented is tailback Kene Nwangwu, who is already an All-Big XII returner, leading the conference in kick return yardage, at 26.8 yards per return.  He also saw the most carries a year ago of any of the backup tailbacks, but considering the gap between him and Montgomery, who led the Big XII in rushing attempts, was over 200 carries, that’s a big workload to take on.  The top two rated recruits in the Cyclones’ 2019 class, Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock, their only two 4* recruits, are both tailbacks.  Hall was on campus for the spring, Brock was not.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see those two at the top of the depth chart by November.  What makes Iowa State interesting is their defense, which returns 8 starters from what was the Big XII’s best a year ago.  What makes them terrifying is how good their line could be.  They return all four starters from a group that led the Big XII, and finished top 10 nationally against the run, allowing just 3.3 ypc, and ranked #16 in the nation in defensive line sack rate.  They return six starters in the front seven, all of which are seniors.  Not to sleep on how good they were against the pass, second in the Big XII at both passing yards allowed per attempt and per play.  They did graduate both starting cornerbacks, but if there was one area they weren’t quite as good in, it was pass coverage, allowing nearly 63% completions, fourth worst in the Big XII.  But they sure could tackle, allowing just 11.0 ypc, #19 nationally, and easily the best in the conference.  The back is led by safety Greg Eisworth, a JUCO transfer who originally didn’t qualify at Ole Miss.  He led the Cyclones in tackles, and was named first team All-Big XII, as well as defensive newcomer of the year.  Can you win in the Big XII with a truly elite defense?  That remains to be seen.  Oklahoma has dominated by playing no defense at all.  If Iowa State develops weapons at the skill positions to compliment Purdy, then I return to Iowa State as maybe being the best CFP bet in Vegas, considering the odds, and a schedule that has both Iowa and Texas coming to Ames.  It may set up requiring them to beat Oklahoma twice, once in Norman, and once in Arlington.

KEY PLAYERS
QBBrock Purdy, Sophomore
TECharlie Kolar, Junior
GJosh Knipfel, Senior
.
DEJaQuan Bailey, Senior
DTRay Lima, Senior
SGreg Eisworth, Junior
18. Wisconsin Badgers
#5 in Big Ten

Off the top of my head, I believe I had Wisconsin ranked higher in my 2018 preseason rankings than I ever had them before (#4).  The other time I was way more bullish on the Badgers than everyone else (2005), it worked out well.  This time?  Not so much.  Wisconsin still did Wisconsin things, they led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and per carry, and were fourth nationally.  Jonathan Taylor led the nation in rushing.  The offensive line graded out as the best in the nation in line yards, and run blocking.  But the end result was 8-5, just 5-4 in the Big Ten, just the third time since 2003 that Wisconsin finished the year unranked.  The reason was that everything else that Wisconsin usually does on a spectrum of good enough to very good, simply was bad.  It started with the passing game, where Alex Hornibrook rotated between being injured or ineffective, or both.  He dropped in every measurable; completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD;INT ratio, passer rating, and Jack Coan looked nowhere near ready for the job.  That’s why Wisconsin fans, always quick to poo poo recruiting rankings, are tentatively excited about Graham Mertz, who is Wisconsin’s highest rated QB recruit ever, and their highest rated recruit period, since 2007*, turning down Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, among others, and then broke every All-American Bowl record in January.  Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State, but can he beat out Jack Coan?  Paul Chryst always plays these things close to the vest, but if he doesn’t it either means (1) Coan is the most improved player in the Big Ten; (2) Mertz is overrated; or (3) Chryst is still playing by an outdated set of rules regarding freshmen quarterbacks.  Only one of those two possibilities is a good one for Wisconsin fans, so I’m going to assume Mertz is the starter, because with Michigan in Madison in Game 3, you don’t have much time to realize you made the wrong call. A lot of blame is always heaped on the quarterbacks, but there was plenty to spread around.  As good as the offensive line was in run blocking, they were the opposite in pass blocking, ranking #104 in sack rate, 14th worst in the entire FBS on standard downs.  Three of Wisconsin’s four All-Big Ten linemen are gone.  Wisconsin seems to always have more guys ready, but the pass blocking is a continuing concern, considering the pedigree of the guys who weren’t getting it done in front of the guys who will be starting this year.  Hence the * above, meaning that Mertz would be the highest since 2007, if not for his classmate, Logan Brown, the second highest rated Wisconsin recruit ever.  Offensive line, particularly for a guy not enrolling early to get in a college weight room, is a different animal, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Brown force his way into the starting group.  The receiving group was thrown a curve early, when their best two receivers were suspended.  Quintez Cephus is gone, but Danny Davis did return.  He’s not a #1 guy, he just sort of was by default.  The result was a group that only had 3 receivers record more than 1 reception on the season.  All three are back, to be presumably better, but it’s still the glaring weakness on the offense.  Expect Jake Ferguson, who emerged as a freshman to be the best tight end, to have an increased role.  The defense should get back on track.  A dip was expected after losing 8 starters off a group that was the best in the Big Ten, and top 5 nationally in every major category, but the gaffs from the newbies was noticeable.  The Badgers had four All-Big Ten players, and all four graduated, but the rest of the group, who all returns, has to get a lot better.  The overall numbers aren’t bad, but when things went south, they went south.  In Wisconsin’s five losses they gave up 22, 24, 31, 37 and 38 points.  22 to Penn State is fine, but 38 to Michigan; 37 to Minnesota; 31 to Northwestern, one of the conference’s worst offenses; 24 to BYU, who was #72 in the FBS?  Wisconsin allowed 30 or more points three times in the previous four seasons combined; and it was twice in Big Ten Championship Games, and once to Alabama.  They did it three times in a month and a half last season, and not to particularly great offenses.  This unit has more depth and experience, but less top end NFL talent than last year.  We’ll see how that flip works.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJonathan Taylor, Junior
TEJake Ferguson, Sophomore
CTyler Biadasz, Junior
.
LBZach Baun, Senior
SEric Burrell, Junior
SScott Nelson, Sophomore

17. Texas Longhorns
#2 in Big XII

For a team supposedly going through a transition phase, Texas has actually been fairly old each of the last two years.  Rarely do you see a coach entering Year 3 needing to replace six starters on offense and eight starters on defense, but that’s where Tom Herman sits.  The Longhorns did lose 4 games last year, but it was as impressive a four loss season as I can recall.  The Maryland game was the opener, and seemed like eons ago.  The Oklahoma State loss is a black eye.  But the fluke late game Will Grier heroics loss to West Virginia, and the Big XII Championship loss, when they fell apart over the final 12 minutes are totally fine, and Texas was overall 5-2 against ranked teams (at the time), with wins over USC, TCU, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Georgia.  It was that Georgia win that made it feel for the first time in forever like Texas was back.  It was their first BCS/NY6 bowl game since the 2009 National Championship loss to Alabama.  Since going to their first Cotton Bowl in 1943, Texas had only gone more than 4 years without playing in a major bowl once, the 6 year gap between the 1984 and 1991 Cotton Bowls.  So to say Texas fans were starved for that was an understatement.  The offense should continue to hum thanks to a quarterback who I think will be in New York City on December 14 in Sam Ehlinger.  Ehlinger put it all together in 2018 after a few costly turnovers in key moments in 2017.  He more than doubled his touchdown passes, while actually decreasing his interceptions, on substantially more attempts.  He did all that while remaining a threat as a runner.  Nobody was confusing him with Kyler Murray, he averaged less than 3 yards per carry, and didn’t have a run longer than 18 yards all season.  But he had a nose for the end zone, unafraid to use his 6’3”, 235 pound frame, totaling 16 rushing touchdowns on the season, second most among quarterbacks, and first among non triple option quarterbacks.  The next step is stretching the field more.  Herman is going to live on the high percentage stuff, and getting the ball out quick, but the Longhorns need to at least be a threat to go over the top.  They averaged just 11.7 ypc, which resulted in a ton of third downs, trying to dink and dunk their way down the field.  That resulted in 207 third downs, more than any team in the Big XII.  Fortunately it worked out, they converted 46.4% of their third downs, #13 in the nation, and 80% of their fourth down attempts, #2 nationally.  But that’s a dangerous way to live, for an offense, that still with a mind like Herman’s and a talent like Ehlinger, was far too mediocre overall.  He still has plenty of weapons.  Tre Carter was fine, but the young talent at running back is better, if less experienced.  Keaontay Ingram probably deserved more carries than he got last year, and the reports out of Austin are that he has improved on that by leaps and bounds.  Even with Lil’Jon Humphrey leaving early for the NFL, there is a deep talent pool at receiver.  If anything stops this team from returning to Arlington in December, it will probably be the defense, which has to replace eight starters from a unit who was better than their raw numbers a year ago.  In terms of yards per play allowed, they were #3 in the Big XII, third against the run, fourth against the pass.  Let’s start with the good.  The safeties.  I don’t think there’s a better group out there.  Caden Sterns was Big XII Defensive Freshman of the Year, First Team All-Big XII, and a future First Round pick.  Fellow freshman B.J. Foster, was third on the team in tackles for loss, despite being a backup safety.  He was all over the field in the Sugar Bowl with Sterns out.  And he probably still won’t start, because the other starter from last year, Brandon Jones, an All-Big XII player himself, is also back.  If there’s a way to get all three of these guys on the field, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando needs to figure it out, because literally every other position is a massive question mark.  Linebacker Jeff McCullough is the only player in the front seven with extensive experience.

KEY PLAYERS
QBSam Ehlinger, Junior
CZach Shackleford, Senior
KCameron Dicker, Sophomore
.
SCaden Sterns, Sophomore
SBrandon Jones, Senior
SB.J. Foster, Sophomore
16. Oregon Ducks
#2 in Pac 12

The best news Oregon got this offseason was no news at all.  Head coach Mario Cristobal, who was the initial favorite for the vacant Miami job, only a year after losing Willie Taggert to Florida State, is still the head coach in Eugene.  Quarterback Justin Herbert, who was seen at the time as being the likely #1 QB in the Draft (although Murray may have ended up passing him in the end too), decided to return for his senior year.  But let’s not overblow the Herbert news.  NFL guys love him.  He’s good.  He has a big arm.  He’s not an elite college quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, not accurate enough.  He wasn’t All Pac-12, not even honorable mention.  He was 5th in the Pac 12 in Passing Efficiency, 9th in Completion Percentage.  That’s not to knock him either, he’s a very good quarterback, but I think his NFL stock has bumped up his perception for those who haven’t seen him play.  He was a solid, middle of the pack Pac 12 quarterback last year.  Where this team can thrive if they can get back to running the ball like Oregon runs the ball.  When Mario Cristobal arrived, and was co-coordinator with Marcus Arroyo, the Ducks got back to their bread and butter on the ground.  Last year, with Cristobal in charge, and Arroyo as the lone coordinator, there was better balance, but the run production fell.  Part of the problem is that Tony Brooks-James’ production fell from when he was backing up Royce Freeman, to when he took over starting duties.  By the end of the year, he was third on the depth chart, with 36 carries in the Ducks’ first three games, and 21 over the final ten.  He was replaced by 5’9” redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell, who was more of a workhorse, than an explosive threat.  He finished with over 1,000 yards, but on only 5.0 ypc, which was the lowest ypc for an Oregon leading rusher since Terrence Whitehead had 4.4 ypc for the 2005 team that finished 74th in the nation in rushing.  Incoming freshman Sean Dollars has a lot of De’Anthony Thomas in him, and may be that lightning.  The offensive line returns all five starters, so that should help, but all three interior guys are in their third year starting, and that group underperformed last year.  Herbert should have an immediate influx of talent to throw the ball to, when a year ago the struggled to find a complimentary piece to the departed Dillon Mitchell.  Both the aforementioned Verdell and Dollars are better pass catching backs than James-Brooks, or Travis Dye, who wound up #2 by the end of last year.  And the incoming WR class is an absolute haul.  The Ducks added three 4* WR recruits, and got a grad transfer from Penn State in Juwan Johnson, who still looks the part, even if the production in Happy Valley never matched the hype.  The defense has a couple NFL guys in the front seven, but it’s the secondary that excites me the most.  They have three ball hawks playing around a sure tackler in Nick Pickett.  With Jevon Holland stepping into the spot vacated by Ugo Amadi, the Ducks essentially have three elite cover guys in the back.  Thomas Graham Jr. was second in the nation in passes defended, with 18, and also had three interceptions.  Whether he’s good, or overly targeted, I don’t have the numbers.  With essentially four returning starters, with how much Holland played, Oregon should finish substantially higher as a pass defense.  But a lot of that depends on improving what was one of the worst pass rushes in the country.  Jordon Scott is a true NFL nose tackle, and eats up a ton of space, but at this level he needs to also be more disruptive behind the line.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJustin Herbert, Senior
RBC.J. Verdell, Sophomore
GShane Lemieux, Senior
.
NTJordon Scott, Junior
LBTroy Dye, Senior
SJevon Holland, Sophomore
15. Iowa Hawkeyes
#4 in Big Ten

While there were schools who lost more talent early to the NFL Draft than Iowa, I don’t think there was any school, other than maybe Oklahoma (if you are counting Murray as a player who potentially could return, even though we all knew before the season he wasn’t), who had their fortunes changed by early Draft entries than the Hawkeyes.  The fact that I still have them in my top 15 tells you how highly I thought of them hant Fant, Hockenson, Hooker and Nelson returned.  A lot is based on having the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten, with Nate Stanley returning under center for his senior season.  At this point Stanley’s inconsistencies just have to be who he is.  Iowa was great last year in blowing out every opponent they were supposed to beat, and losing every big game.  Through their first 11 games, Iowa had beaten the seven easiest teams on the schedule, all by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 27 points.  But their four toughest games, lost all of them.  Maybe they proved something to close out the season when they won a close one over a late surging Nebraska team, and then beat #18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.  The Hawkeyes could sputter along and get another 7 or 8 win season, but to win those close games, the big games, they need Stanley to show up, like he did a couple years back against Ohio State.  It’s not for a lack of protection either.  While the middle of the line struggled to create much running game, the tackles kept Stanley upright, allowing just 1.2 sacks per game, best in the Big Ten.  Now Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are a pair of junior third year starters.  There’s a chance both head off to the NFL after the season, but for 2019, it gives Iowa the best pair of offensive tackles in the Big Ten.  Perhaps out of necessity the receivers should be more involved in the passing game this year.  It’s Iowa, I’m sure a tight end will emerge, but there is nobody with proven results as of now.  Sure handed Nick Easley graduated, but Iowa returns the two guys who were likely their best receivers, in Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith.  Smith-Marsette is probably the best athlete on offense, and the one guy who you just want to get the ball in his hands and let him make plays.  Lost in the hype surrounding Michigan’s, and to a lesser extent Michigan State’s, defense last year was how dominant Iowa was on that side of the ball.  Particularly considering that they lost 8 starters from a 2017 unit that was one of Ferentz’s worst in Iowa City, allowing nearly 360 yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten.  They were led by the emergence of A.J. Epenesa on the end opposite proven commodity Anthony Nelson.  The two combined for 20 sacks and 30 tackles for loss, the highest sack total for two teammates in the conference.  That line wasn’t just a bunch of pass rushers, they were even better against the run, allowing just 3.3 ypc, second best in the Big Ten.  As has become tradition, Iowa found another elite defensive back to come out of nowhere and help lead the secondary.  This time it was Amani Hooker, who wasn’t even a full time starter the year before, although Iowa fans were really big on.  He became the second consecutive Hawkeye, and third in four years, to win the Tatum-Woodson Award as the Big Ten’s best defensive back, helping Iowa lead the conference in interceptions for the second straight year.  He also became just the second safety in the eight years the award has existed to win it.  My likely breakout secondary candidate this year?  Cornerback Michael Ojemudia.  Ojemudia finished 1 off the team lead in interceptions, and led all cornerbacks in tackles and passes defended, even while missing four games.

KEY PLAYERS
QBNate Stanley, Senior
WRIhmir Smith-Marsette, Junior
TAlaric Jackson, Junior
.
DEA.J. Epenesa, Junior
CBMichael Ojemudia, Senior
SGeno Stone, Junior
14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Independent

Notre Dame players and fans were adamant this was not 2012 all over again, when they won ugly, but never lost, to get into the BCS Championship Game, just to be run off the field by Alabama.  The Irish again reached the postseason undefeated, although this one had a better resume, with some really good wins, and some blowout wins, particularly once making the switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book at quarterback, following back to back close calls against Ball State and Vanderbilt.  The end result was another shellacking, this one courtesy of Clemson.  Right now it just seems like Alabama and Clemson are on a different level than everyone else, particularly once the chips are down in the playoff, so calling Notre Dame fraudulent feels harsh.  The offense, while the graduation of Dexter Williams, and early Draft entries of Alize Mack and Myles Boykin are not nothing, could still be better than expected.  The entire offense got a boost once Book took over, and that was without a full offseason and camp getting the first team reps.  At running back Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. should split carries, as they did last year while Dexter Williams was suspended.  Armstrong, I think is the better back, and as a converted receiver, is certainly the better receiving threat, but Jones, at 5’11”, 220 is tough to bring down.  I think they compliment each other well, and Kelly did a good job of playing the hot hand last year.  Neither one is the NFL prospect that Williams was, but together the Irish may be better off.  Notre Dame loses Boykin at receiver, but Chase Claypool seems ready to step right in, and Chris Finke is ultra dangerous in the slot.  The interest guy to watch is Cole Kmet, who stands 6’6”, but has a ways to go in terms of athleticism.  The offensive line has to be better.  The Irish lost two first round picks at tackle the year before, but oddly were decent pass blockers, but the experienced middle of the line got absolutely no push in run blocking.  The defense has a lot to replace up front, but the secondary, even with the early departure of cornerback Julian Love, should continue to be excellent.  The Irish ranked #8 nationally in S&P+ Pass Defense, in spite of an average pass rush, with the 6th best opponent passer rating in the country, #3 in opponent yards per attempt.  Tony Pride Jr. takes Love’s spot as Notre Dame’s shut down corner, and should be fine there.  The bigger question is whether Houston Griffith takes the next step forward to become starter caliber.  Notre Dame’s front had a really good defensive end rotation, all of whom return, but up the middle the Irish have a lot of problems.  Both Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner graduate from the middle of the line, as does middle linebacker Te’von Coney.  Asmar Bilal may slide over at linebacker, but I would bet eventually it’s an underclassman who steps up into that role.  The special teams is probably the biggest question mark, after the graduation of the school’s all time leading kicker, Justin Yoon, and a four year starter at punter in Tyler Newsome.

KEY PLAYERS
QBIan Book, Junior
RBJafar Armstrong, Junior
WRChase Claypool, Senior
.
DEJulian Okwara, Senior
CBTony Pride Jr., Senior
SJalen Elliott, Senior
13. Penn State Nittany Lions
#3 in Big Ten

Time to see what you’ve got James.  James Franklin’s seat was already hot after just two seasons, when Joe Moorhead and Trace McSorley showed up in his life.  Five years in, when he’s had those two guys, he’s gone 22-5, including 16-3 against Big Ten teams, with a Big Ten title, and a 2nd place divisional finish.  The three years without both of them?  23-16 overall, 12-13 in the conference, with 6th, 4th and 3rd place divisional finishes.  Now, for the first time since 2015 he has neither of them.  The recruiting has been very good, but the attrition this offseason has also been unparalleled.  While they didn’t have the splash name that got all the attention, the Nittany Lions lost 11 players through the transfer portal, and another three early to the NFL Draft.  So why #13?  You have to start with the defense, which greatly overachieved last year, and is set up for a really big 2019 with 5 returning all-conference players, at least one at every level.  They lost 9 starters from 2017, and still wound up fourth in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed, led by arguably the conference’s best pass defense.  Penn State led the Big Ten in yards per attempt allowed, and touchdowns allowed, finishing second to Michigan in total yardage, and completion percentage.  Cornerback Amari Oruwariye is off to Sundays, but Penn State still has an All-Big Ten pair in safety Garrett Taylor and cornerback John Reid, who is now a full year removed from a knee injury that cost him all of 2017.  The Nittany Lions’ defense is built off the pass rush, and even with the early departure of Shareef Miller, Penn State is well poised to lead the Big Ten in sacks for the third consecutive season, ranking second to only Clemson a year ago in sacks per game.  Yetur Gross-Matos, who wasn’t even projected to start going into the fall, benefitted from Miller on the opposite side, and actually led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss, finishing second in the Big Ten in the later.  While the loss of Miller will allow for some increased attention, the ability of Robert Windsor to be a dominant pass rusher from the middle of the line helps even that out.  While the offense lost a lot, 56% of their production, 15th most in the FBS, it was nearly as much a year ago (49%, 26th most).  Last year it was McSorley and a lot of nothing returning.  This year, quarterback is a question mark, but the offense around that spot looks more settled.  It was expected to be a Tommy Stevens-Sean Clifford battle for the quarterback job through the spring and fall, but after having his weird special plays in the playbook under McSorley, it seems like Stevens wanted a guarantee.  He had a nagging injury in the spring, Clifford was impressive, so without a guarantee, Stevens left.  Clifford saw action in four games last year, and while 7 pass attempts is nothing to judge off of, he was 5-7 for 195 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Ricky Slade’s usage was very perplexing last year.  While he seems to now be the clear starter, it’s unclear why he didn’t get more touches last year.  He had some fumble issues, but not enough to give a guy who averaged nearly 6 yards per carry on 25 carries, with 4 touchdowns, in September, 20 carries for the rest of the season.  11 of which came against Maryland.  In KJ Hamler, Penn State has a star receiver in the making.  He led the Big Ten in yards per catch among qualified players, with 18.0, but he needs to be getting more than 3.2 catches per game.  If Justin Shorter, who came in last year as a 5* true freshman, but struggled to prove worthy of burning his redshirt, can live up to his billing, they, along with All-Big Ten tight end Pat Friermuth, should give Clifford plenty of options to work with.

KEY PLAYERS
WRK.J. Hamler, Sophomore
TEPat Friermuth, Sophomore
GSteven Gonzalez, Senior
.
DEYetur Gross-Matos, Junior
CBJohn Reid, Senior
SGarrett Taylor, Senior
12. Utah Utes
#1 in Pac 12

After a rocky transition to the Power 5, failing to post a winning conference record in their first three Pac 12 seasons, Utah has turned it around to validate their inclusion.  A year after reaching their first Pac 12 Championship Game, the Utes look primed to win their first Pac 12 title.  Just like 2018, 2019 will be led by the defensive side of the ball.  The Utes had 10 of their 11 defensive starters named to the All-Pac 12 team last year, and six, including three first teamers, return.  Just how great Utah was against the run, after only returning one player from the front seven, was a big surprise.  They moved Chase Hansen from safety to linebacker, just to get a talented body up there.  The result was a front that ranked #11 in Run Defense S&P+, and #6 in ypc allowed.  They weren’t just strong against the run, but also had the second highest sack rate in the Pac 12.  It seems unlikely to drop off too much, considering the line talent they are bringing back, most surprising being senior defensive end Bradlee Anae, who has led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons, and was expected to go pro, but opted to return for his senior season.  What should put this team over the top is an offense that is flush with skill position experience.  A full strength Utah offense may be looking to defend a Pac 12 title, not win their first.  The Utes played without starting quarterback Tyler Hundley or running back Zack Moss, and still only lost 10-3, with Washington’s lone touchdown coming courtesy of their defense.  If Utah was within a touchdown of a Pac 12 title with a banged up offense that generated just 3.6 ypp, 12 first downs, and 21:28 time of possession, their full strength offense should be enough.  The only question is the offensive line, which graduated three seniors, being their three all-conference performers on the line.  The line was very good last year when the Utes stayed on schedule, #27 in standard down line yards and #23 in opportunity rate.  It’s once they got off schedule, that things got dicey, #105 in passing down line yards, and low across the board in sack rate.  Keeping Tyler Huntley upright this year is of paramount concern.  They have to improve on their 7.58% sack rate.  Andy Ludwig, who was offensive coordinator under Whittingham at Utah from 2005-2008, returns to that role, after bouncing around a bit, most recently spending the last four years at Vanderbilt.  His task is to get Huntley to get the ball out quicker.  Both because this is a run first offense, that can’t afford sacks, and because Huntley has proven injury prone, missing four games in 2017, and six last year.  The dropoff at running back was perhaps even more stark once Zack Moss went down.  Armand Shyne, who played in every game, and started five, averaged 1.8 ypc less than Moss.  I said this when I had Michigan State so high last year, that I liked their starters as much as anyone, but they could less afford injuries than anyone ranked in the same vicinity.  This year that team is Utah.  Their starting 22 is good enough to get them into the Playoff, but any sort of injuries would unravel them quicker than any other top 20 team.  On special teams, Utah has had a run of elite kickers and punters, winning a Lou Groza and three Ray Guy Awards since 2014, so they have a solid pipeline, but having to replace both their kicker and punter is always a scary task.

KEY PLAYERS
QBTyler Huntley, Senior
RBZack Moss, Senior
WRBritain Covey, Junior
.
DEBradlee Anae, Senior
DTLeki Fotu, Senior
CBJaylon Johnson, Junior
11. Oklahoma Sooners
#1 in Big XII

Not many picked Oklahoma to return to the College Football Playoff after the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.  Turns out they had another Heisman Trophy winner sitting on their bench, and the offense actually scored more point without Mayfield.  For the Sooners to reach their fourth College Football Playoff in five years, they may need a similar performance, from albeit a much more known commodity.  Rather than put it on the shoulders of junior Austin Kendall, Lincoln Riley went out and got Jalen Hurts as a grad transfer from Alabama.  As opposed to a walk on transfer in Mayfield, or a baseball-first backup in Murray, Hurts is a much more known commodity.  But that also means we know his ceiling, and remember him getting benched in a National Championship Game, while his backup led the Crimson Tide to a comeback win.  The offense may look slightly different this year.  The Sooners’ pass attempts per game dropped by about 2 going from Mayfield to Murray, and even that number is well above where anyone should be comfortable with Hurts.  But just how good Oklahoma is at running the ball gets overlooked.  The Sooners led the nation in rushing yards per attempt and S&P+ Run Offense, and yes, Kyler Murray’s 1,000 rushing yards on 7.2 ypc helped, but that was the second consecutive year S&P+ rated the Oklahoma ground game tops.  Rodney Anderson, who missed all but two games last season, left early for the NFL, but both Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon return, after combining for 2,003 yards on 7.1 ypc, with 25 rushing touchdowns a season ago.  The backfield is loaded.  The pass catching options are more limited with Marquise Brown leaving early and Carson Meier and Myles Tease graduating.  CeeDee Lamb is proven, and Grant Calcaterra at tight end is very good.  Beyond that, it’s a lot of question marks.  Lee Morris is a reliable 5th year senior, but he sort of is what he is, albeit that might be the only other experienced option.  Sophomore Charleston Rambo, who had a good game in the Sugar Bowl loss, is the most intriguing option, but four of Oklahoma’s five highest rated recruits included the #1, #3 and #11 receivers, and the #3 tight end.  All four enrolled early, and all four have a chance to contribute immediately.  Aside from the fact that Hurts isn’t going to threaten over the top as much as Murray did, the other reason all that skill position talent may find less operating room is the offensive line, which has rated #4 and #2 in the country in average line yards each of the past two seasons.  Now they have to figure out how to replace two graduates and two early NFL Draft entries, the four of which missed a combined ONE GAME last year.  For now it seems like they could be starting four sophomores and a junior, with the only real experience coming from center Creed Humphrey.  The problem is that there is little room for error on that side of the ball, because as great as the offense has been, it’s had to be, because the defense has been equally bad.  Mike Stoops was fired midway through the season as defensive coordinator, with Ruffin McNeal promoted, to no avail.  Now they’ve brought in Alex Grinch, who served one year at Ohio State, after doing the impossible and giving Mike Leach a great defense in Pullman.  The task will be similar here as the Sooners ranked dead last in the Big XII in scoring defense (33.3 ppg), total defense (453.8 ypg on 6.1 ypp), and pass defense (294 ypg on 8.4 ypa with a 64.5% opponents completion percentage).  Teams with defense that bad aren’t supposed to compete for championships.  The teams around them in yards allowed were teams like Rice and East Carolina.  While I don’t think Oklahoma is going to be a 3-9 AAC team or a 2-11 Conference USA team anytime soon, it does show how unlikely going 12-2 with a Big XII title and a Playoff appearance with a defense that awful is.  The offense basically has to be easily the best in the country, with a Heisman winner playing the most important position.  I don’t think Oklahoma can pull that off three years in a row.

KEY PLAYERS
RBKennedy Brooks, Sophomore
WRCeeDee Lamb, Junior
TEGrant Calcaterra, Junior
.
NTNeville Gallimore, Senior
LBKenneth Murray, Junior
CBTre Brown, Junior
10. Syracuse Orange
#2 in ACC

While it didn’t necessarily seem as though it was trending in any one direction, Dino Babers’ program broke out in Year 3, and Syracuse had its best season in 17 years, going 10-3 and finishing #15 in the final polls.  Since going 10-3 and finishing #14 in 2001, the Orange hadn’t ever finished ranked, had been to just three bowls, and had only had a winning conference record three times, never since leaving the Big East for the ACC.  It’s easy to write it off as a one season flash in the pan, with a schedule aided record, but I actually think the Orange are for real, as long as Babers remains in upstate New York.  For real as in a threat to Clemson?  On one hand, no.  On the other, they beat them in 2017, and should have beaten them in 2018, in Death Valley, if not for a comeback led by a third string quarterback.  But there were plenty of other metrics, not just human polls, that were on board.  They finished #18 in the Massey Composite.  Babers up tempo offense still seems to have an edge over ACC defenses.  The Orange averaged 15.75 possessions per game, most in the nation, and 82.92 plays per game, second most.  Only eight teams played at a faster pace than the Orange’s 2.70 plays per minute.  But of those pace teams, Syracuse was the most effective (although it would take a much deeper dive than I’m willing to take to find out all of the reasons) at getting opponents to play at their pace, of any team in the nation.  Of the top 11 pace teams in the nation, none had opponents play at as quick a pace as the Orange.  While Babers isn’t going to change his mentality, you do wonder how much of that tempo was aided by a senior quarterback, who had been starting at least some games since his freshman year.  Eric Dungey graduated as the school’s all time passing leader, and also finished second in rushing yards for a quarterback, behind only Bill Hurley, who played in the 70’s, but about 400 yards ahead of some dude named Donovan McNabb, who is now third on that list.  Sophomore Tommy DeVito is the likely successor, and he saw decent action last year as a redshirt freshman, appearing in 8 games, and throwing 87 passes.  As a passer he should be fine with experience, but he is nowhere near the runner that Dungey was.  And Dungey’s running ability was worked into the offensive scheme with increasing frequency as his career progressed, and some adjustments will have to be made.  Otherwise the ground game, which averaged over 200 yards per game, looks to be in great shape, when leading rusher, Moe Neal, who averaged 5.6 ypc, elected to return for his senior season.  He’s now joined by Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams, who averaged 9.2 ypc as a sophomore, on 59 carries.  The receiving group is in equally fantastic shape, losing Jamal Custis, but returning three players who had over 40 receptions, including Taj Harris, who was a breakout true freshman star last year.  They also add transfer Trishton Jackson, who was the #1 receiver at Michigan State at one point.  Considering the pace Syracuse plays at, both ways, thus averaging the most possessions per game, the fact that they were 6th in the ACC in scoring defense is actually quite remarkable.  They were not terrible on a per play basis, finishing 7th in the ACC, but they were very opportunistic, finishing 4th in the nation in takeaway rate, and 6th in turnover margin, first in the ACC in both.  6th nationally in third down defense and 5th in sacks per game, 2nd in the ACC behind Clemson in both.  Some of those are things, that frequently revert to the mean, so while Syracuse’s defense isn’t bad at all, considering they were on the field for 73 plays per game, it still should result in more than 27 ppg allowed.  They do return seven starters, led by Andre Cisco, who may have been the best safety in the ACC last year, as a true freshman, so they per play numbers should come down to compensate.  What should continue to be outstanding is the special teams, with both kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter earning first team All-ACC honors, helping a special teams unit rank #2 in S&P+, and both returning for 2019.  Receiver Sean Riley also led the ACC in punt return yardage, averaging 16.4 yards per return, 5th best in the nation.

KEY PLAYERS
RBMoe Neal, Senior
WRSean Riley, Senior
KAndre Szymt, Sophomore
.
DEAlton Robinson, Senior
SAndre Cisco, Sophomore
PSterling Hofrichter, Senior

9. Central Florida Knights
#1 in American

This is just about the hardest team to figure, because I have no idea how good they actually are.  They’ve lost only one game over the past two seasons, so they are clearly the tallest of the midgets, but how much taller?  Then you have the McKenzie Milton issue.  Arguably the most dynamic quarterback in the nation, who suffered a horrific knee injury in the Knights’ regular season finale.  When I was compiling these rankings back in January, there was too much uncertainty there.  Was he done forever?  Was he returning in 2019?  Partway through 2019?  How close to 100% would he be if/when he did return?  I chose to treat it as though he was a returning player, which now seems certainly wrong.  He is able to walk some without crutches now, but even by his own words, he’s planning a 2020 return.  That would send UCF way down in these rankings, at least into the low teens.  Darriel Mack Jr. did not exactly instill a lot of confidence in replacing Milton down the stretch.  He was 5-14 for 81 yards and 51 rushing yards finishing that USF game, and 11-30 for 97 yards with -3 rushing yards in the Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU.  He did play well against Memphis in the AAC Championship Game, digging the Knights out of a big early hole with 348 passing yards and 59 rushing yards.  It’s the lack of consistency that is most concerning, with a completion percentage below 37% in two of those three games, and averaging just 2.7 ypc.  Maybe with a full offseason to tinker the offense away from Milton’s strengths it will go better.  If Milton was back and 100%, this would otherwise be the most loaded offense of the Central Florida three year renaissance.  It starts up front with the return of four offensive linemen, including three first team all-conference players, from a line that ranked top 15 in the nation nearly across the board in offensive line metrics, including #8 in line yards.  They’ll be blocking for a fantastic running back duo of Greg McCrae, who ran for 1,182 yards on 8.9 ypc, and Adrian Killins, who somehow was the one of the two to earn all-conference honors, while running for 715 yards on 4.9 ypc.  As far as targets go, the Knights return five of their top six receivers, including receiving leader Gabriel Davis, as well as their top tight end.  In other words, if this offense doesn’t work, it’s 100% on Mack.  Their defense was actually better by most metrics last year than it was in 2018, but overall it still feels like they are playing with fire, regarding overly relying on turnovers.  The Knights have led the AAC in turnover margin each of the last two years, finishing #2 and #3 in the nation, respectively.  Hell, just being very good in back to back years is tough enough, but to be top 3 nationally?  Just for comparison, the two teams ahead of UCF last year, Georgia Southern and Kansas, were #49 and #126 in 2017, and the one team ahead of them in 2017, Wyoming, fell to #48 last year.  That’s how you wind up second in the AAC in scoring defense, while ranking 8th in total defense.  For comparison, the 8th best scoring defense, Navy, allowed 11 more points per game than UCF.  On the other hand, UCF only won one game last year (31-30 at Memphis) by less than 11 points.  So maybe the gap is just that wide.

KEY PLAYERS
RBGreg McRae, Junior
WRGabriel Davis, Junior
CJordon Johnson, Senior
.
LBNate Evans, Senior
CBNevelle Clarke, Senior
SRichie Grant, Junior
8. Michigan Wolverines
#2 in Big Ten

For some teams, the fact that there is eight months of offseason is a very, very good thing.  Michigan fits that bill, with the way the season ended.  One game away, against a seemingly overmatched Ohio State team, from playing a Northwestern team they had already beaten, for their first Big Ten title in 14 years, and first ever College Football Playoff.  Two blowout losses, and 103 points surrendered (from a defense who had given up 102 over their previous eight games combined) later, and it felt like the sky was caving in.  Eight months should give some perspective, and a chance to take a breath.  Is the defense going to be as loaded as it was in 2018?  Seems doubtful, with three players declaring early for the draft, two of them picked in the first round, and overall four defenders gone of Top 3 round NFL Draft caliber out of six departed defenders overall.  But this should be the best offense in Ann Arbor since at least one of the RichRod-Denard teams.  As much heat as that side of the ball took, they aren’t actually that far away, they were ranked #25 in Offensive Efficiency.  The problems were that things offenses are evolving to do, Michigan wasn’t, and there were missed chances to be better.  Michigan was #9 in Pass Offense Efficiency, and #38 in Run Offense Efficiency, yet called running plays at a higher rate than any Big Ten team other than Maryland and Wisconsin.  They averaged 2.00 plays per minute, the third slowest tempo of any non-triple option team in the country.  The addition of Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator has Michigan fans optimistic that Harbaugh is finally willing to change.  Another thing Gattis can do, is a better job of playing to Shea Patterson’s strengths.  Patterson is not a pocket passer.  He has a strong arm, and can go downfield, but it’s not the system he is comfortable in.  When he was rolling out, when he was taking what the defense was giving him, he was frighteningly effective.  When you could keep him in the pocket, force him to go through his progressions, he struggled.  That’s why Michigan was #9 in Offensive Passing Efficiency, but only #52 in Passing Downs Efficiency.  Patterson in 3rd and long was a different cat.  The line needs to take a big step forward too, if you are going to focus around a power run game, you can’t be #74 in the nation in successful conversions on 3rd or 4th and 2 or less.  The Wolverines recruit too much talent at the lines to be getting pushed around in those situations.  The running back situation is probably the only unit on the team that is a major question mark.  Karan Higdon graduated, Chris Evans is suspended for academic issues, Maury O’Samuels was kicked off the team, and true freshman Zach Charbonnet missed spring with an injury.  What does this all add up to?  Hopefully passing.  A lot of it.  Now I know it’s Michigan, and the highest they’ve ranked in the past decade plus in pass play percentage was #64 in 2015, which is the only time under Harbaugh they cracked the top 100.  But look what Michigan did in 2004, when they had major question at running back until Hart took control of the job, but a deep receiving core of Edwards, Avant and Breaston, and were #50.  That’s all I’m asking for.  Michigan’s current receivers have struggled with injuries and inconsistencies, but it’s a very talented group, and one I think is ready to break out.  Defensively, I’m simply not that concerned.  The secondary should still be very good, I think Lavert Hill is better than either David Long or Ambry Thomas, although Josh Metellus struggled a lot late in the year being asked to do too much.  Injuries late in the year revealed just how much depth the Wolverines had on the line, so losing Gary, Mone and Winovich isn’t nearly the obstacle we would have guessed it to be.  Once again, the question is depth, but I suspect once again the depth is there, just unproven.  My one concern is linebacker, where Michigan has had a historic (for them) run of mediocrity since the 2006 group of Harris, Crable and Burgess left.  Devin Bush broke that, and was the first elite linebacker Michigan has had since.  Now without him, Khaleke Hudson needs to shake his disappointing junior season, and resume the trajectory he was previously on.  Kind of a weird scheduling quirk, but you’d think the years Michigan got two of their three East rivals at home would be the year to make a run, but Harbaugh is 0-4 at home against Ohio State and Michigan State, and 24-0 in all other games, while winning both games in East Lansing.

KEY PLAYERS
QBShea Patterson, Senior
WRDonovan Peoples-Jones, Junior
GBen Bredeson, Senior
.
LBKhaleke Hudson, Senior
CBLavert Hill, Senior
SJosh Metellus, Senior
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
#1 in Big Ten

I think about 99% of fan bases would love for a “down” season the consisted of going 13-1, winning Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles, and finishing #3 in the polls.  To hear the talk going into the Michigan game, after surviving Maryland, you’d have thought the Buckeyes were playing for bowl eligibility, not a Big Ten title.  For only the second time in about two decades there is some uncertainty during the offseason.  Last time, the result wasn’t so good, and while this time certainly has some obviously similarities to the lead in to 2011, there are plenty of differences too.  One of the uncertainties, maybe got cleaned up a little?  Or not?  The quarterback transfer portal was all over Columbus this season.  Dwayne Haskins went from total unknown, to leaving for the NFL Draft two years early.  That meant Justin Fields, who went to Georgia fully aware that Jake Fromm was a good quarterback, got a waiver to be eligible immediately at Ohio State, because…Jake Fromm was a good quarterback?  That meant that Tate Martell, who from what I saw looked nowhere near ready to be a starting quarterback, and who was prepared to backup Dwayne Haskins, also got a waiver to be immediately eligible at Miami, because…he had planned on backing up Haskins, not Fields?  Fields is also largely an unknown, but from what limited reps both got, looked based on the eyeball test to be capable of doing more things than Martell did.  Both clearly were used more for their legs than their arms, so perhaps drawing any conclusions there is fruitless.  The Buckeyes probably have the top running back-receiver duo in the conference, but April and August are for finding them some help.  Dobbins is fantastic, but who takes Mike Weber’s 193 touches?  K.J. Hill and his 70 receptions are back, but how do you replace the combined 167 receptions of Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin?  A healthy Austin Mack would go a long way towards solving the second question.  He was third on the team in targets when he was lost for the season during the Purdue game.  He both claims to be 100%, and that his foot still hurts.  He should be a go, but until he shows that he is the same guy he was pre-injury, the cause for concern is legitimate.  Chris Olave began to emerge at the end of last season, and several Buckeye outlets think he is ready to become a star.  The compliment to Dobbins is far dicier.  It seems under Mike Yursich’s new offense, there is more room for a true undersized speed back in the backfield, rather than just as H-back.  Demario McCall may suddenly find himself as a perfect fit in Day/Yursich’s offense, after being a bit of a tweener in Meyer’s.  Still, it’s hard to expect the offense to be nearly as good as last year’s so still putting the Buckeyes as the Big Ten favorite depends on the defense being a lot better than last year.  That shouldn’t be a hard ask.  Just two years ago Ohio State had a top 10 defense nationally, allowing just 300 ypg.  Trying to replace 6 starters, and then losing their best player three weeks into the season, the 2018 defense fell off a cliff, allowing over 100 yards per game more, fifth most in the Big Ten.  They were particularly burned by big plays, surrendering 12.6 ypc, fourth worst in the conference.  That was a defense that wasn’t starting any seniors, and if you don’t count Nick Bosa, who only played the first two complete games, only lost Dre’Mont Jones from their starting group, give or take a Kendall Sheffield, whether or not you count him as a starter, in what was more of a three man cornerback rotation.  May went and raided Don Brown’s staff to try and upgrade the defensive coaching, taking Greg Mattison and Al Washington, and also hiring 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley in a total defensive staff overhaul.  Only defensive line coach Larry Johnson remained.  The biggest task for the new group is getting more out of the linebackers.  Tuf Borland actually seemed to regress from his freshman season, although Malik Harrison played better down the stretch.  It’s Ohio State, the talent is always there.  Michigan State seems too far away, Penn State has to go to the Shoe, and even in Ann Arbor, I have a tough time seeing Ohio State lose The Game until I see it.  Even with more uncertainty in Columbus than we’ve seen since 2011, the Big Ten title still goes through Columbus.

KEY PLAYERS
RBJ.K. Dobbins, Junior
WRK.J. Hill, Senior
TThayer Munford, Junior
.
DEChase Young, Junior
LBMalik Harrison, Senior
SJordan Fuller, Senior
6. Georgia Bulldogs
#5 in SEC

Georgia still reached the SEC Championship Game, and went into December controlling their own destiny, and you can argue just how much anyone cared about the Sugar Bowl, but it’s still hard to view the end of last season as anything other than a disaster.  For the second consecutive season the Bulldogs had their dreams dashed because they couldn’t hold a lead against Alabama.  This time blowing a 14 point third quarter lead to a backup quarterback, after a missed chip shot field goal that would have given them a three score lead.  It was the 16 play, 80 yard, 7+ minute drive to tie the game that was the back breaker, with Jalen Hurts converting three third down conversions with passes of 10 yards or more.  That was the problem too often last year, is that while the defense was good, it was not great, like it was in 2017, dropping from #7 to #29 in the nation in ypp allowed, and not coming up big in big moments.  They gave up 27.8 ppg over the final four games of the season, which included UMass and Georgia Tech, and in their lone regular season loss, let LSU score 36.  The back seven looks to be both experienced and loaded, but the front, in a league known for dominating defensive lines, is what holds Georgia back from getting farther than they did last year.  The Bulldogs averaged only 1.8 sacks per game a year ago, #84 in the country.  D’Andre Walker had 7.5, nobody else on the team had more than 2.  Where is the pass rush going to come from?  Offensively, Georgia was hit hard by early draft departures, losing one-half of their running back tandem, their top two receivers, and their starting tight end, all a year early.  Still, most teams would kill for a backfield of Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift.  Fromm too often gets passed over among elite quarterback talk, simply because of the style of Georgia perhaps?  He was third in the nation in Total QBR last year, behind only Kyler and Tua, ahead of Dwayne Haskins, Trevor Lawrence, Will Grier, etc…  He’s doing that with the worst Run Expected Points Added of any quarterback in the top 40, one of only four in the top 40 with an actual negative points added per run.  D’Andre Swift averaged 6.4 ypc, splitting time with Elijah Holyfield.  So there are no questions there, but at the rate Georgia runs the ball (which at 60.3% was second highest in the SEC) another back needs to step up to shoulder the load.  Granted, at this point does anyone doubt that Georgia is going to find another running back?  Brian Herrien, who averaged 5.9 ypc on 50 carries a year ago, and James Cook who had 41 carries for 6.9 ypc seem like the obvious choices.  Zamir White was a tantalizing talent out of high school, but after redshirting as a true freshman last year with a torn ACL, you do wonder what he has.  And with this much competition among underclassmen, and another 4* freshman on the way in Kenny McIntosh, you wonder if White finds himself buried.  It’s a good problem to have for Georgia.  Receiver is a much different issue.  Jeremiah Holloman, who started 5 games and had 24 receptions is the only guy with any sort of meaningful experience.  There is a major opportunity for new guys to contribute here, with the Bulldogs reeling in two of the top 5 receiver recruits in George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock.  They could both find their way into the starting group, with Pickens on the outside, and Blaylock in the slot.  They also have an interesting resurrection option in Demetris Robertson, a Cal transfer, originally from Georgia, who was the #1 WR in the 2016 class.  He saw limited action last year, but was getting a lot of work in the spring as the #1 guy in the slot.  The line is a competition that should go into the fall at several positions, but not left tackle, where junior Andrew Walker is almost certainly in his last season in Athens.  He was First Team All-SEC as a sophomore, and in the CBS 2020 mock draft released yesterday, Thomas was slotted #2 overall to the Cardinals.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJake Fromm, Junior
RBD’Andre Swift, Junior
TAndrew Thomas, Junior
.
LBTae Crowder, Senior
SRichard LaCounte, Junior
SJ.R. Reed, Senior
5. Florida Gators
#4 in SEC

How much of an upgrade was Dan Mullen over Jim McElwain?  Florida went 4-7 in 2017, and went 10-3, finishing #7 in the polls last year, lost five players early to the NFL Draft, and I still think they’ll be even better this year.  The talent always has been there.  In 2017, Florida got whipped up and down the field by Michigan and Florida State, last year, they closed the season by beating those teams, by a combined score of 82-29.  Mullen took largely the same personnel that was one of the 20 worst offenses in the nation in 2017, and averaged 13 more points per game, going from #108 to #37.  The biggest transformation was quarterback Feleipe Franks, who shook off a very average (at best) freshman effort, and seized control of the quarterback job, when a lot of people assumed true freshman Emory Jones was going to take it from him.  Franks improved his passer rating by 30 points, his completion percentage by 4%, his yards per attempt by 1.3 ypa, and most impressively he went from accounting for 9 touchdowns (including rushing and passing) to 8 interceptions as a freshman, and 31 touchdowns to 6 interceptions as a sophomore.  There may be some limited packages for Jones, but it seems to be Franks’ job now, but he is one shaky performance away from Jones or Kyle Trask taking it away.  He will have to make a lot more happen on his own, losing four starters off of what was one of the best lines in college football, ranking #12 in the nation in line yards, and were #1 in passing down sack rate, surrendering a sack only 0.9% of the time in such situations.  The remaining skill positions are flush with experience, particularly receiver, where every key contributor returns.  While Jordan Scarlett left early for the NFL, senior Lamical Perine, who had the better season, did not.  Dameon Pierce, who ran for 424 yards on 6.1 ypc as a true freshman, seems more than ready to step up into Scarlett’s vacated role.  The only question is whether his second half fade last year was freshman fatigue, level of competition, or limited use as the schedule ramped up.  He began the year with efforts of 75, 87, 63, 30 and 40, but didn’t play against Kentucky or LSU, and finished with 10, 9, 19, 77, 15, and -1, with the 77 coming in the SEC’s “bye week” against Idaho.  The defense lacks the obvious star power of last year, with Cece Jefferson graduating, and Jachari Polite, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Vosean Joseph all leaving early for the NFL.  But they still return 7 starters from a unit that allowed just 20 ppg.  The defense is led from the back, with a group that might be the best secondary in the country.  If Gardner-Johnson had returned, you could take away the might.  C.J. Henderson had no choice but to return, but probably would have been selected if eligible.  Gator fans shouldn’t plan on him for 2020 though.  He is the star of a group that allowed just 178.9 passing yards per game, 2nd best in the SEC.  They get back Marco Wilson, who became the fourth cornerback in school history to start opening day as a true freshman in 2017, but was lost for the season in just the second game last year as a sophomore.  They’ll have to figure out a way to do it with significantly less pass rush.  The Gators were 15th in the nation in sack rate last year, thanks to a front line that struggled at times against the run, but were 5th in defensive line sack rate on standard downs.  Polite was their dominant lineman, with Jefferson playing the RUSH specialist role.  Both are gone, as is linebacker Vosean Joseph, who was really the only linebacker to excel in that role.  Jabari Zuniga should play one end spot, but is better as an edge holder than a pass rusher.  The answer may be Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, who led the Cardinals with 7 sacks in 2017, before suffering a season ending injury in the opener against Alabama last year.

KEY PLAYERS
QBFeleipe Franks, Junior
RBLamical Perine, Senior
WRVan Jefferson, Senior
.
DEJabari Zuniga, Senior
LBDavid Reese II, Senior
CBC.J. Henderson, Junior
4. Texas A&M Aggies
#3 in SEC

While Texas A&M didn’t pony up $75 million to Jimbo Fisher to go 9-4, doing it in his first season was quite satisfying, after Kevin Sumlin had failed to win more than 8 since 2013; and Fisher’s 5-3 SEC mark was the Aggies first over .500 conference season since 2012.  Not to mention how impressive than 9-4 season was, with losses to both national title game participants, along with road games at Mississippi State and Auburn, but with a pair of home wins over top 15 teams.  Massey’s composite computer rankings slotted Texas A&M at #10 in the final rankings, the highest 4 loss team, ahead of Washington and Texas.  Year 2, expectations are going to go up.  SEC Championship?  Probably not just yet, but I think New Years Six Bowl at least needs to be the target.  The schedule actually gets tougher.  They do get Alabama at home, but now have road games at Clemson, Georgia and LSU.  To summarize, that means they play 4 of the other 5 teams in my top six, three of them on the road.  It’s time for this passing game to explode.  The loss of tight end Jace Sternberger will hurt some, but that would have just given them an embarrassment of riches.  The Aggies return their six leading receivers, and have the certainty of Kellen Mond being the starter going into the season.  Mond started for a portion of 2017, before losing the starting job to Nick Starkel, who was expected to maintain that status for 2018.  Instead Mond played in every game, threw over 400 passes, while Starkel threw 22 passes across five games of mop up.  Starkel transferred, but is still within the division at Arkansas.  Mond needs to improve his accuracy and limit his hits to take the next step.  His 57.3% completion rate was third worst among SEC starters, while his 149 carries was second among quarterbacks, only Nick Fitzgerald having more.  With that deep and experienced group of receivers, there’s no excuse not to improve in those area.  He’s always going to have enough options, that he shouldn’t be forcing plays, be it either dumb passes or unnecessary runs.  Even replacing Sternberger, Fisher was able to land the #1 tight end recruit in the nation, Baylor Cupp, who enrolled early.  The reason Texas A&M, under a supposed offensive genius in Kevin Sumlin, went from 5.5 ypp to 6.3 ypp, was the improvement in the running game.  The 2017 Aggies were one of the SEC’s worst rushing teams, with 4.0 ypc, and jumped up to #3 at 5.3 ypc, heavily riding junior Trayveon Williams, who led the conference in rushing with 1,760 yards and 271 carries, second most in the SEC.  With him gone, there is nearly no experienced ball carrier returning.  Jashaun Corbin was able to get 61 carries as a true freshman, and did average 5.7 ypc, but he got no carries against Clemson, 2 against Alabama, 1 against LSU, etc…  10 carries against UL Monroe, or 8 carries against Northwestern State, doesn’t exactly prepare you to be a feature back in the SEC.  The Aggies numbers were up across the board offensively, but re-establishing the program’s defensive reputation was probably more important.  A lot of that was new defensive coordinator Mike Elko finally getting a bunch of upperclassmen to realize their potential.  That means the guys returning in 2019 are not, really any key contributors from last year.  The Aggies’ seven leading tacklers, all six players with at least 2 sacks, and over half of their interceptions, are not returning in 2019.  What certainty they do have is in the secondary, which was the biggest area of weakness.  They were heavily reliant on a pass rush that was first in the SEC and #7 nationally in sacks per game.  The front seven needs to be nearly totally replaced, but I think it’s clear that Kevin Sumlin was not struggling to recruit, and a lot of those guys were unknowns going into last year.  I think Elko will again mine a lot of talent from this defense, that was underperforming under the previous regime.  If that secondary is going to lead, the most obvious area to find improvement was in creating turnovers, after having one of the worst interceptions rates in the country last year.

KEY PLAYERS
QBKellen Mond, Junior
WRQuartney Davis, Junior
WRJhamon Ausbon, Junior
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CBDebione Renfro, Junior
CBCharles Oliver, Senior
SLarry Pryor, Senior
3. LSU Tigers
#2 in SEC

It certainly feels early to say a coach after only two full seasons, the most recent of which was a 10-3 season that ended with a #6 ranking and a Fiesta Bowl win is in need of at least a College Football Playoff appearance, but for Ed Orgeron, with the amount of talent he has returning, it probably is.  LSU fans maybe got a little bit spoiled there in the decade from 2001-2011, when they won two national titles, played for another, and won 4 BCS bowls.  In the five years of the College Football Playoff, the Tigers have yet to make an appearance, probably the most successful school in the immediate pre-playoff era, who hasn’t yet qualified.  They have more returning, experienced talent than any team in the country though.  Based on Connolly’s metric, LSU ranks #15 in the nation in returning production.  They are the only school ranked in the top 45 of the final Massey Composite ranking that is among the top 20 in returning production.  It’s silly that a defense could lose Devin White, probably the best defensive player in the country, and Greedy Williams, according to some the best cornerback in the country, and still be this stocked, but the Tigers are, even in the back seven.  Safety Grant Delpit certainly would have gone pro had he been eligible, but the now true junior returns off of his consensus All-American 2018 season to lead a secondary that should be just fine, even with Williams leaving early.  LSU has churned out NFL cornerbacks going back to Saban now, and the next name to learn is Kristian Fulton.  Fulton barely played in his first two seasons, seeing action in three games combined, and wasn’t on the two deep going into last season.  Scouts love him, and given LSU’s history, he should be a household name, and a Day 2 NFL Draft pick next year at worst.  Michael Divinity benefitted big time from the attention in pass blocking given to White, and may find himself having to more frequently take on blockers this year.  Jacob Phillips was very good at the middle linebacker spot, but may move into White’s rover position, depending on how ready redshirt freshman Micah Baskerville is to fill the spot.  The LSU offense, at first glance, was very LSU.  They averaged just 5.5 ypp, second worst in the SEC, but they threw the ball 29.8 times per game, most they had in a decade.  They threw the ball 43% of the time, which was 91st most in the country.  May not sound like much, and it wasn’t, but they had only ranked inside the top 100 one other time in that frame.  That also means they should be well equipped to handle their offensive strengths going into 2019, returning their three leading receivers, and their top tight end.  They also have Joe Burrow with a full offseason in the program, after transferring in from Ohio State prior to last season.  As far as running backs go, LSU has seemingly always had a guy there, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire needs to show that he can be that guy, or it’s time to move on to somebody else.  Nick Brosette graduated, but he never was really more than just a guy who could handle a lot of carries.  Giving Brosette and Edwards-Helaire a combined 386 carries, when they averaged just 4.39 ypc, is beyond nonsensical.  4* 2018 recruit Chris Curry saw very limited action last year, and maintained his redshirt, and true freshman John Emery Jr. arrives in the fall, as the second highest rated running back recruit for LSU in the last 20 years, behind only Leonard Fournette.  For good measure, Tyrion Davis, the #8 RB recruit in the nation, from Baton Rouge, is coming in the fall too.  The chances that one of those three breaks out seems very high, but this is a team that should be passing the ball at a frequency well outside their comfort range.  Particularly if an offensive line, which returns three starters, but struggled in pass blocking last year, takes a step forward.

KEY PLAYERS
QBJoe Burrow, Senior
WRJustin Jefferson, Junior
TEStephen Sullivan, Senior
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LBMichael Divinity Jr., Senior
LBJacob Phillips, Junior
SGrant Delpit, Junior
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
#1 in SEC

Alabama has lost big games under Nick Saban.  The 2011 LSU game, the Kick Six game in 2013, the 2015 Sugar Bowl and the 2016 National Championship, but it was always close, or fluky, and ultimately fine.  Never has Alabama lost a big game that made you take even a half step back to reevaluate things like their four touchdown loss to Clemson in the National Championship Game last year.  So on the back of that, and another mass NFL defection, it might be Alabama coming back to the pack again?  Nah.  There may be some minor questions involving the running game, but the passing game should be lights out.  Don’t call Nick Saban old fashioned.  Saban was blessed with the best quarterback he’s ever coached, and he let him throw it around.  The 29.2 attempts per game is thrown by how often the Tide shot out to a big lead and stayed there.  Of Tua Tagovailoa’s SEC record 43 touchdown passes, 31 (72%), came in the first half of games.  Tagovailoa is back for one more go round, although he left twice last year with injuries.  The backup situation if that happens again is far murkier now.  He’s got his four top receivers coming back with him, led by Jerry Jeudy, who is probably the best receiver in the nation.  Alabama has produced a bunch of NFL receivers under Saban, but to have this elite an NFL quarterback-receiver combo is terrifying.  Really the only issue is at tight end, where Irv Smith declared early for the Draft.  Miller Forristall is reliable, but is a blocker, not known for his hands.  The fact that Cameron Latu was moved from linebacker to tight end in the spring, and is now a possible starter is not a good sign.  The running game lost both Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs early to the NFL, but Najee Harris, who had 783 rushing yards, was the most impressive of the bunch, even though he was third in carries.  At the rate Alabama runs the ball, really the only question is whether Brian Robinson Jr., who was not impressive at all last year, steps up into that top rotation, or one of the younger guys passes him.  The problem is that neither Jerome Ford or Chadarius Townsend showed much in the spring to prove worth of passing him.  The Tide did ink Trey Sanders, the #1 running back recruit in the nation, but he won’t arrive until August.  The line also has to replace the entire left side, including left tackle Jonah Williams, the first offensive lineman chosen in the draft, and center Ross Pierschbacher, the fourth center off the board.  The Alabama defense is always going to be the Alabama defense as long as Saban is there, but there was some slippage last year.  The Tide ranked #7 in Defensive S&P+, which may seem quite fine, but it was the first time since 2013 that they weren’t #1, and the first time since 2010 they were outside the top 3, matching their low of the post first year Nick Saban era.  In fairness, maybe we finally blindly overestimated Alabama’s ability to simply reload after losing 8 starters and 47% of their defensive production.  Only 2 SEC schools lost more.  That shouldn’t be the case this year.  Now, Alabama is always going to lose a ton a defensive talent to the NFL, but this year will be more within their normal parameters.  The strength is right in the middle with Dylan Moses, who is both the leader and the best player on defense.  When your middle linebacker is your best player and your leader, that tends to lead to good things.  Combined with Anfernee Jennings as an elite pass rusher on the outside, the linebackers look to be the obvious strength.  It’s in front and behind them that don’t look to be quite as good as last year.  Raekwon Davis returning for his senior season was huge, with the departure of Quinnen Williams, the best defensive lineman in the country, and the graduation of senior Isaiah Buggs, who led the team with 9.5 sacks.  That whole Alabama front depends on that dominant force in the middle, and while he may take a big step forward, the gap from Williams to Phidarian Mathis was massive last year.  Granted at this time last year Williams was engaged in a battle just to be a starter, and Saban still brought in a JUCO transfer to be safe, so things change, but the reports were that true freshman D.J. Dale passed Mathis during spring ball.  That could be good or bad, but particularly at nose guard, I’m wary of just how ready an 18 year old can be physically.  This Alabama team on paper looks better than last years, but there is only one game that matters in Tuscaloosa right now, and has Alabama closed what looked like a large gap between them and Clemson THAT much?

KEY PLAYERS
QBTua Tagovailoa, Junior
WRJerry Jeudy, Junior
TAlex Leatherwood, Junior
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LBDylan Moses, Junior
LBAnfernee Jennings, Senior
SXavier McKinney, Junior

1. Clemson Tigers
#1 in ACC

For the record, I had Clemson #1 last year, and never wavered on it.  Figured I’d go down with the Tiger ship, when it looked to everyone like Alabama was the best team.  Well, at least I got one thing right with this last year.  And just like we started with the same team at the bottom as last year, we finish with the same team up top, as boring as it might be.  An offense which moved up and down the field on Alabama, proving the 4th best scoring offense in the nation during the regular season was no fluke.  The scariest part was that some of Clemson’s freshman seemed to actually find their footing in the Playoff, rather than be scared by the big stage.  The playoff games were quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s second and third highest passing totals of the year.  Receiver Justyn Ross, from Alabama, set a career high in receptions and yards in the Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame…then broke them against Alabama.  Tee Higgins had been the #1 option all season, earning All-ACC honors, and now he might be #2 on his own team.  Travis Etienne, who went for 1,658 yards, fourth highest in the nation, on an ACC best 8.1 ypc, and will carry the rushing load again.  Adam Choice graduated, and Tavien Feaster, who was the starter to begin 2017, before being supplanted by Etienne, chose to transfer, so the Tigers are fairly thin at the position.  But it also means more carries for the exciting J-Lynn Dixon, who averaged 8.8 ypc on 62 carries as a true freshman.  The offensive line lost a pair of all-conference lineman to graduation, including Mitch Hyatt, who started every game over four seasons, and was named ACC best OL each of the past two.  The Cowboys getting him as an undrafted free agent might be the steal of the draft.  No worries, Clemson still returns three other all-conference offensive linemen.  If there is any question mark on this team, it’s the defensive front, which was pegged going into last season as the best…resoundingly.  They didn’t disappoint, ranking #1 overall in line yards.  But while Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant shunned the NFL a year ago to hunt a national title, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence did not, leaving the Tigers in need of replacing four All-American defensive linemen, three of whom went in the first 17 picks of the NFL Draft, the fourth having to wait for the fourth round.  Even Albert Huggins, who acquitted himself very well filling in for Dexter Lawrence in the playoff, while the later was suspended for PEDs, has graduated.  Xavier Thomas, who saw solid time last year as a true freshman, looks like a future pro, but beyond him, the entire line is just question marks, a far cry from last year.  Clemson recruits well enough that this is all relative, but the gap between best positional group in the country, and biggest question mark on the team is enough to go from national champ to Playoff loss.  The linebackers aren’t much better off.  Isaiah Simmons led the team in tackles, and was the team’s best coverage linebacker, but the graduated Kendall Joseph, and the now pro Tre Lamar were the best players.  Simmons is the lone returning starter in the entire front seven. So why the optimism?  Well, by Tanner Muse returning, the Tigers have probably the best safety duo outside of Austin, Texas, in the country.  Junior cornerback A.J. Terrell is probably the most sure NFL prospect on the entire defense as of now.  Had Trayvon Mullens elected to return, the Tigers would have simply flipped from having the best defensive line in the nation to having the best secondary.  As it is, it should still be very good.  The only mild question is just how much teams try to pick on sophomore Kyler McMichael, who should start opposite Terrell.  They’ll also have to adjust to the fact that it’s unlikely the group in front of them leads the country in sacks for a third straight year.  But it really comes down to, who is going to stop them?  On paper, this looks like the best offense I’ve ever seen while doing these write ups.  Their offense actually put up a better per game average over their final 9 games, once Trevor Lawrence was healthy and starting, but against obviously better competition, than it did against scrubs in the first five games.  The sky really seems like the limit.  Just beware of Syracuse!

KEY PLAYERS
QBTrevor Lawrence, Sophomore
RBTravis Etienne, Junior
WRTee Higgins, Junior
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CBA.J. Terrell, Junior
STanner Muse, Senior
SK’Von Wallace, Senior

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