The Associated Press released its preseason college football Top 25 Monday. No disrespect to the involved voters or the AP itself, but the thing is a mess.
Nine teams are ranked that are not playing football this fall, starting with Ohio State at No. 2. It’s nonsensical, but 2020 is the Season of Bad Options in the sport, and the AP rankings fit right in with that theme.
The news organization says it will change things up going forward by restricting voting to teams that actually play games. For the time being, though, the current AP rankings give new resonance to the all-time favorite fan pejorative: “They ain’t played nobody.”
Here at Sports Illustrated, we crafted a Top 25 of our own about a month ago (which you can view at the bottom, and then published a Top 20 in the magazine earlier this month. That was before four FBS conferences canceled fall football.
But we are nothing if not flexible, so this is our remodeled and downsized preseason ranking. The traditional Top 25 is out. The Still Standing 16 is in.
Why 16? Well, it’s 60% of 25, and only 60% of the FBS leagues are still playing. So, mathematically, it is a proportionate ranking. (And once you start doing the ranking of the remaining teams that aspire to play this fall, everything beyond 16 feels pretty counterfeit anyway.)
Since the College Football Playoff is persisting, with its newly announced ranking show schedule starting Nov. 17 and a Dec. 20 Selection Sunday, we might as well persist alongside them until further notice. It’s all strange and unsatisfying, but for now let’s co-opt an old saying as our words to live by: rank ‘em if you got ‘em.
The last time we saw Trevor Lawrence in a game uniform, he was sinking into a locker room chair in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after his worst performance as a Tiger. Previously unbeaten as a collegian, the sophomore quarterback had been dramatically outplayed by LSU’s Joe Burrow in a 42–25 loss in the College Football Playoff championship game. “It sucks,” Lawrence said after recording a career-low 101.8 passer rating. But that defeat will prove to be a one-time experience for a player many predict will be the No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft.
Lawrence is back, with plenty of elite company, including senior Travis Etienne, the leading rusher in school history, and senior receiver Amari Rodgers. The entire defensive line returns and it welcomes Rivals.com’s No. 1 recruit, 6′ 5″, 290-pound tackle Bryan Bresee, centerpiece of the nation’s top recruiting class. “We’re going to have a really, really good football team,” coach Dabo Swinney said after the LSU loss. Good enough to make a sixth straight CFP appearance, and to send Lawrence off as one of the college game’s all-time greats. —Pat Forde
Player to Watch: With Tee Higgins gone to the NFL and Justyn Ross out for the year after neck surgery, can Joseph Ngata become Lawrence’s big-play target and the Tigers’ next star wide receiver? Big (6′ 3″, 215 pounds) and fast, he drew raves at fall camp last year and showed flashes as a freshman.
Plenty of teams would accept an 11–2 record, a Citrus Bowl bid and a second-place finish in the country’s most difficult division, the SEC West. Not Alabama. Last year the Crimson Tide had arguably their worst season since 2013. And that means it’s time for a rebound.
With the return of senior back Najee Harris, who scored 20 touchdowns last year, Nick Saban’s biggest job will be filling the Hawaii-sized hole left by Tua Tagovailoa. But the coach has strong options. Mac Jones, a junior who had four starts last year and a 68.8% completion rate, will have to fend off freshman Bryce Young from Pasadena, Calif., who arrives as the top-ranked quarterback of the 2020 recruiting class. Alabama also needs to replenish the ranks at receiver after the departures of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, both first-round NFL draft picks. But the Tide still have some of the best wideouts in the country, including senior Devonta Smith, who set a single-game school record last year with 274 yards against Ole Miss, and junior Jayden Waddle, who in 2019 led nation in punt returns (24.4 yards per) and caught six touchdown passes. —Ross Dellenger
Player to Watch: Defensively, the Tide have five returning starters, but they also get back a pair of linebackers who missed last year due to injury: senior Dylan Moses and grad student Joshua McMillon. Moses is the heartbeat of the Tide; as a sophomore in ’18 he led the team with 86 tackles and was a finalist for the Butkus Award.
With eight new starters on offense, why are the Bulldogs ranked this high? It’s simple: dominant recruiting under Kirby Smart. All that talent is ready to fill the open positions on offense (sophomore WR George Pickens tantalized with his Sugar Bowl MVP performance) plus select spots on an experienced defense that allowed just 12.6 points per game last seasons, the fewest by a Georgia team in 39 years.
Where the Bulldogs must reinvent themselves is inside the helmet; they experience one spectacular meltdown every season. It came at Auburn in 2017, when an undefeated team unraveled in a 40–17 loss. In ’18, LSU ended another unbeaten run with a 36–16 thumping. Last year Georgia was 5–0 and a 24-point favorite against a bad South Carolina team and lost 20–17 in Athens, spoiling a shot at the playoff. Those heartbreakers have prevented Smart from beginning to catch his mentor, Alabama coach Nick Saban, in championship rings. Speaking of which, the two are scheduled to meet in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 17, Smart’s third attempt at beating Saban after two agonizing losses. —P.F.
Player to Watch: Welcome to the latest edition of QB drama in Athens. After Jake Fromm vs. Jacob Eason (2017), Fromm vs. Justin Fields (’18) and Fromm vs. Fans Who Miss Fields (’19), now Georgia has two transfers competing:pro-style junior J.T. Daniels from USC and double-threat senior Jamie Newman from Wake Forest.
It’s becoming quite clear who Lincoln Riley’s nemesis is: the SEC. A team from that conference has ended his first three seasons as Oklahoma’s coach, each time in a CFP semifinal: Georgia (2017), Alabama (’18) and LSU (’19). The Sooners scored an average of 36.7 points in those losses—but surrendered an average of 54.0. Clearly, they are a good defense away from winning it all.
The hiring of coordinator Alex Grinch last offseason resulted in a marked improvement—Oklahoma gave up 357.1 yards per game, down from 453.8—but as the year wore on, the defense wore down. With eight starters back, the unit can perhaps finally prove a worthy complement to the Sooners’ high-powered offense.
Oklahoma’s last three starters at quarterback—Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts—have earned two Heisman trophies and a second-place finish. Their successor is redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, who already has Heisman hype despite having attempted just 11 college passes. But expect growing pains: OU lost three of its top four wideouts from last year, including first-round pick CeeDee Lamb, and saw RB Kennedy Brooks, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, opt out of 2020. —R.D.
Player to Watch: As Rattler goes, so go the Sooners. The 6-foot 200-pounder from Phoenix signed with Lincoln Riley as the consensus No. 1 QB recruit in the 2019 class. At Pinnacle High, he threw for an Arizona state record 11,083 yards, completing 70.6% of his passes, with 116 TDs and 33 interceptions.
Dan Mullen and the Gators can’t get over the hump called Georgia. For three seasons the SEC East rival has stood in their way of the conference championship game, but for how much longer? Mullen became the first Florida coach to open his tenure with back-to-back double-digit-win seasons
It feels as if the Gators are thisclose to greatness—and achieving it will depend on a QB many believe is the SEC’s best. Senior Kyle Trask is good enough to send incumbent Feleipe Franks packing to Arkansas. Trask threw for 300 yards in three of his last four games and finished with 25 TDs and seven INTs, but many of his top targets are gone, including Freddie Swain and Van Jefferson. Trask’s sophomore backup, Emory Jones, is a powerful runner whom Mullen uses as he did Dak Prescott early in his career at Mississippi State.
Under coordinator Todd Grantham, Florida’s defense has been one of the best in the nation the last two years, carrying a sometimes sluggish offense to ugly victories. But 2020 presents problems … such as the departure of much of the front seven. At least senior safety Shawn Davis is back to anchor the secondary. —R.D.
Player to Watch: Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore, might be one of the best running backs no one has heard of. A former No. 2–ranked recruit at the position, he suffered a left knee injury in October 2018 that derailed his tenure as a Hurricane. Florida has other RB options, but Lingard intrigues.
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish won at least 10 games for the third straight season in 2019, for only the second time in school history. While that’s partly an accounting trick (they played fewer games during the olden days), it’s also a testament to what coach Brian Kelly has constructed in his decade at South Bend. Notre Dame might not be winning national titles, but the program is consistently relevant.
Continuing the current run could hinge on a new crop of skill-position talent. Among the returnees no running back had 50 carries last season, and no receiver caught a dozen passes. The Irish have intriguing freshman options (TE Michael Mayer, WR Jordan Johnson, RB Chris Tyree), but those players are coming in behind schedule. At least senior QB Ian Book will be operating behind a very good, very experienced line.
Third-year coordinator Clark Lea is a coaching star in the making, having produced the school’s two best scoring defenses since 2012. He’s retooling a bit, but senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (80 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, four passes broken up) is a high-impact centerpiece. —P.F
Player to Watch: Last November, Irish fans were down on Book and panning Brian Kelly for a perceived pattern of QB regression. Then Book rallied Notre Dame to win its last six games, and the grumbling ceased. New OC Tommy Rees, promoted from QB coach, needs to get peak efficiency from the inconsistent senior.
7. Oklahoma State
There has been more noise surrounding Oklahoma State than just about any program this offseason, and none of it has to do with the loaded returning roster. Maybe coach Mike Gundy made himself a national piñata—from callous comments about wanting the players back on campus in May to “run money through the state” to his infamous One America News Network T-shirt—to take pressure off his players? Nah.
Get past all that, though, and the actual football product should be excellent. Ten starters return on defense, almost all of them upperclassmen. Offensively, the Cowboys have the nation’s leading rusher—and most public Gundy critic—in 6′ 1″, 207-pound junior Chuba Hubbard and an armada of receivers. Quarterback is the growth area, with Spencer Sanders likely to improve after a solid freshman season. He needs to cut down interceptions (11 in 247 attempts), but his passing numbers should jump with senior receiver Tylan Wallace back after missing the last five games of 2019 with a knee injury. Gundy’s other problem, beyond self-sabotage, is Oklahoma: He’s 2–13 against the Sooners. —P.F.
Player to Watch: Hubbard has gained at least 100 yards in each of the 15 games in which he’s had at least 18 carries. He rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 TDs last year, which should have earned more recognition. Challenging his coach politically in June raised his profile, which might actually help his Heisman hopes.
Ed Orgeron expected a wave of departures from his national championship team, but what happened in Baton Rouge was downright cruel. Nine underclassmen left early. Of the 22 starters, 14 are gone. The Tigers lost their leading passer, leading pass catcher, leading rusher, leading tackler and leading sacker. The man who overhauled the offense, passing game coordinator Joe Brady, is now with the Carolina Panthers, and the man who oversaw the defense for four years, Dave Aranda, is now coaching Baylor. Aranda’s replacement is Bo Pelini, the former Nebraska coach, who is turning a 3–4 system into a 4–3. His assets include star cornerback Derek Stingley.
Schematically, the offense of coordinator Steve Ensminger is likely to remain similar to the one Heisman Trophy–winning QB Joe Burrow guided to a 15–0 record. Whether it’s as dominant—well, that’s a tall challenge. Redshirt junior Myles Brennan takes the reins after having thrown just 70 passes in his career. While five of Burrow’s top eight targets from last season are gone, at least junior Ja’Marr Chase is back after piling up a nation-leading 1,780 yards last year. —R.D.
Player to Watch: A consensus All-America as a true freshman, the 6′ 1″, 195-pound Stingley is ready for his encore. All he did last year was lead the SEC in interceptions (six) and passes defended (21). The school describes Stingley on its website as “arguably the most impactful true freshman in LSU history.
9. Texas A&M
This is Year 3 for the Seventy-Five-Million-Dollar Man. So far the Aggies haven’t exactly reaped the benefits of giving Jimbo Fisher a guaranteed 10-year contract at $7.5 million annually, because records of 9–4 and 8–5 aren’t what the big-money boosters had in mind, but maybe now is the time. Fisher’s machinations have been pointing toward 2020.
The Aggies bring back almost every significant starter from ’19, including a senior quarterback in Kellen Mond (2,897 yards passing and 500 rushing last year), a talented receiver in senior Jhamon Ausbon, a stable of solid running backs and a defense that could have as many as three All-SEC players in sophomore lineman DeMarvin Leal, senior middle linebacker Buddy Johnson and senior cornerback Elijah Blades.
The schedule, per the norm in the SEC West, is brutal, with trips to Auburn and Alabama and a home game against LSU, but Fisher has amassed enough talent to begin making some noise in the country’s most difficult division. The biggest hole is up front on defense, where coordinator Mike Elko must replace lineman Justin Madubuike and his 11 1/2 tackles for loss. —R.D.
Player to Watch: It’s not often that a sophomore tight end is pivotal, but Jalen Wydermyer is an exception. At 6′ 5″ and 260 pounds, he is the latest supersize TE to be featured in Fisher’s pro-style offense. As a true freshman Wydermyer started 11 games, gained 14.0 yards per catch and led Texas A&M with six receiving TDs.
The hallmark of Luke Fickell’s three seasons at Cincinnati has been winning the close ones: The Bearcats are 10–3 in one-score games, piling up 22 victories in the past two seasons. Then, in February, the program won its biggest close one: Fickell snubbed Michigan State to keep building at Cincy. Also, well-regarded defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman turned down an NFL job.
With what this team has in place—plus a regression in UCF and a coaching change in Memphis—the Bearcats are the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference. Junior QB Desmond Ridder, a two-year starter, guides the offense, and the defense is loaded. The biggest concern is replacing RB Michael Warren II, who rushed for 2,594 yards the past two seasons and iced some of those nail-biters with clock-killing runs. Senior Gerrid Doaks (1,039 career rushing yards as a backup) will now carry the load. The only AAC team to beat Cincinnati last year was Memphis, which did it twice, both times in Memphis. This year the Tigers must come to Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats have a 13-game winning streak. —P.F
Player to Watch: Free safety James Wiggins was a hitter and a ballhawk in 2018, racking up 54 tackles and four interceptions. The 6-foot, 205-pound senior missed last season after tearing his left ACL days before the opener, but he returns to lead a secondary that will be the strongest unit on either side of the ball.
It has been 11 years since the Longhorns’ last Big 12 title. Eleven. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s proclamation of “We’re back!” during a postgame TV interview following a 2018 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia was followed by an 8–5 season in which Texas struggled to defeat Kansas, lost at Iowa State and got beaten by 10 by TCU.
Ehlinger’s decision to return to Austin for his senior year revived talk of a Longhorns championship, and there is reason for hope. Last year Texas struggled with injuries at running back and defensive back, but both groups head into 2020 healthy, with experience and talent. Fourth-year coach Tom Herman has said he expects five-star freshman RB Bijan Robinson to play this season.
The defense will no doubt look different. Coordinator Todd Orlando was replaced by former Rutgers coach Chris Ash, who is converting the 3–4 scheme into a 4–3. Ash has a weak spot to address at linebacker while Herman now must figure out how to replace one of the best receiving duos in school history, Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay (a combined 364 career catches for 5,094 yards). —R.D.
Player to Watch: It all comes down to fourth-year starter Ehlinger. With 3,663 yards, a 65.2% completion rate and 32 touchdown passes last year, he showed off a rocket right arm and more toughness than most at his position. Despite playing through a rib injury in 2019, he ran for 663 yards and seven touchdowns.
Bo Nix’s career started with a bang last year and ended in a whimper. Nix and the Tigers stunned Oregon in a season-opening comeback effort, but he struggled, as you’d expect, in meetings with three top-10 teams—all losses. To add to that misery, the Tigers then lost to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl.
In Year 2, Nix has a new play-caller, from head coach Gus Malzahn to OC Chad Morris, and an offensive line that will feature just one returning starter. The offense also loses its two-year backfield workhorse, JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow. More growing pains await for a team that, in the SEC’s new 10-game scheduling alignment, adds a road test at South Carolina and a home game against Tennessee to a slate that annually includes Georgia, Alabama and LSU.
One of the best defensive lines in program history last season, Auburn’s front will look different this year, as Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson took off to the NFL. The defensive backfield also lost some key contributors, including a second team All-SEC selection and two NFL draft picks, including first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene. —R.D.
Player to Watch: Big Kat Bryant possesses more than just a fun name. He’s now the old veteran on a defensive front that lost, as mentioned above, a host of talent from 2019. A reserve for much of his career, the once-highly touted signee has his time to shine.
Coming off an AAC championship and Cotton Bowl appearance, with a returning 4,000-yard passer and 1,400-yard rusher and leading receiver and eight defensive starters, what’s not to love about the Tigers? Coaching uncertainty, that’s what. Ryan Silverfield steps in for Mike Norvell without ever having been a head coach or even a full-blown coordinator (he was offensive line coach and run-game coordinator last three years). Norvell also was the play caller for an offense that averaged more than 40 points per game the past three seasons.
But a rookie head coach’s best friend is a glut of experienced talent, and Silverfield has that. If quarterback Brady White and receiver Damonte Coxie get in a full season, they could break the school records for career yards passing and receiving, respectively. Kenneth Gainwell is a big-play machine from anywhere on the field. And there is some preseason buzz about sophomore running back Rodrigues Clark.
Defensively, Memphis picks up coordinator Mike MacIntyre on the rebound from Mississippi (and before that Colorado, where he was the head coach). He has a lot of pieces to work with, including a quality back seven and disruptive end Joseph Dorceus. —P.F.
Player to Watch: As a redshirt freshman, last season Gainwell finished sixth in the nation in yards from scrimmage per game, topping the 2,000-yard mark. He was among the national leaders in long scrimmage plays and had a rare 200-yard double, hitting that mark in separate games rushing (against Louisiana-Monroe) and receiving (against Tulane). Gainwell has evolved from a low-profile recruit from Yazoo City, Miss., with few FBS scholarship offers to a potential early-entry NFL player after this season, since he redshirted his first year on campus.
14. North Carolina
The hype surrounding Mack Brown’s second Tar Heels team has gotten pretty thick, pretty fast. We’re here to add to it. Following years of underachieving under Larry Fedora, Brown immediately upgraded performance and recruiting, and now has a team plenty capable of winning the ACC’s perpetually up-for-grabs Coastal Division.
Quarterback Sam Howell is a rising star, throwing for more than 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns as a precocious freshman. He has two returning 1,000-yard receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, and a 1,000-yard running back in Michael Carter. But UNC’s best player might be linebacker Chazz Surratt, who was a wrecking ball in 2019. UNC might have been ticketed for an even higher ranking if not for mass opt-outs from the secondary. Three defensive backs decided not to play this season, including Virginia Tech transfer Bryce Watts and versatile D.J. Ford, who was effective as both a blitzer and in coverage.
Nine of North Carolina’s first 10 games were decided by seven points or less, a sign of playing up or down to the level of competition. The high point was actually a loss, by a single point, to Clemson, when Brown unsuccessfully went for two and the win late in the game. The Heels won their final three by a combined 152–30 against meh competition (Mercer, North Carolina State and Temple), but that was a statement. With 17 returning starters, expect more authoritative wins. —P.F.
Player to Watch: Brown’s two master strokes thus far: flipping Howell on signing day from a Florida State commitment; and moving Surratt from quarterback to linebacker. The latter is not your average position change, but it has unleashed a beast. Surratt led the team in tackles (115) and tackles for loss (15), and tied for the most sacks (6.5).
15. Florida State
The Seminoles have gone from, arguably, the country’s most stable and successful football program over the last 40 years to a drama-filled mess of instability. The ‘Noles haven’t won more than seven games since 2016 and have a third different head coach since 2017.
Mike Norvell is now in charge of saving one of college football’s most storied schools, and he is armed with a veteran quarterback in James Blackman who hasn’t necessarily reached his potential. Can you blame him? He is operating under a fourth different offensive coordinator and the FSU O-line has used nine and eight different starting combinations over the last two years—one of the highest in the country.
The strength of FSU lies on its defensive front, where the nation’s No. 1 ranked 2017 recruit, Marvin Wilson, is joined by three returning starters and a host of transfers, including Deonte Williams (Baylor), Fabien Lovett (Miss. State) and Jarrett Jackson (Louisville). The defensive backfield is deep, too, including Asante Samuel, who led the ACC with 14 pass breakups last season, and Meiko Dotson, a transfer who tied for the nation lead with nine interceptions in 2019. —R.D.
Player to Watch: While Wilson is likely the top draft prospect, Blackman is the key for 2020. He’s put up some big numbers since becoming in 2017 the first true freshman QB to start a season opener at FSU since 1985.
16. Appalachian State
With a 24–3 record the past two seasons and five bowl wins in the last five years, this program has been built solidly enough to survive coaching turnover—but three head coaches in three years is a lot. Shawn Clark succeeds Eli Drinkwitz, who succeeded Scott Satterfield. The good news is that Clark bridges both regimes, having been an offensive line coach at App since 2016; the bad news is that he’s never been a head coach. (App did get in 13 spring practices, which is more than many FBS teams.)
Despite losing third-round NFL draft pick running back Darrynton Evans, the best offensive in the Sun Belt should keep humming. Marcus Williams Jr. steps into the starting role at running back after three straight seasons with at least 500 rushing yards. Quarterback Zac Thomas returns for his third year as a starter, and he has three wideouts who had at least 598 receiving yards last year back as well. They are operating behind a veteran offensive line that is relatively light and agile (nobody at 300 pounds or heavier).
The Mountaineers have big holes to fill defensively in run support, where senior linebackers Jordan Fehr, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook combined to make 286 tackles in 2019 and safety Josh Thomas added 72 more. But they return what might be the league’s top overall player in junior cornerback Shaun Jolly. —P.F.
Player to Watch: Jolly was lightly recruited out of Stone Mountain, Ga., but has turned into a budding star at App State. Last year he returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns, and Pro Football Focus graded him on par with LSU’s Stingley Jr. as the top two pass defenders in the nation at their position. Jolly is just trying to keep up with his family members—his father played football at Middle Tennessee State, brother ran track at Georgia and sister played soccer at Alabama.
SI’s Original Top 25:
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
8. Notre Dame
10. Oklahoma State
13. Texas A&M
17. North Carolina
20. Arizona State
21. Virginia Tech
24. Boise State
More NCAA Coverage From SI.com Team Sites:
Three Players Key to LSU’s Defense of Its National Title
Carolina Connection: First Week Back on Campus Brings Hurdles
There’s More to Alabama QB Mac Jones Than Most Realize
Oklahoma Expecting Even More Improvements on D in Year 2