Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide and Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers are a tier above the rest of the nation’s football programs. These two schools have met in the College Football National Championship Game three times in the last four years and have each won the national title twice over that stretch. It feels inevitable that we will see these two teams back at the top of the college football landscape in 2019.
Teams at the top of the second tier looking to dethrone Alabama and Clemson include the Georgia Bulldogs, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Oklahoma Sooners, and LSU Tigers. But don’t be surprised if one or two of the five teams listed below has a breakout season and plays its way into a College Football Playoff spot.
1. Oregon Ducks, 2018 Record: 9-4
Quarterback Justin Herbert was projected to be a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. But Herbert shockingly decided to return to school instead of entering the draft, and his return gives the Oregon Ducks the chance to put a magical season together.
Herbert will be protected by the nation’s most experienced offensive line, comprised of four 2018 All-Pac-12 lineman and an Alabama transfer. All of this experience will come in handy when the Ducks face the Auburn Tigers in Week 1 in Arlington, Texas. With a win in that game, Oregon would be off to the races.
2. Texas Longhorns, 2018 Record: 10-4
Could this be the year that the Texas Longhorns finally put it all together and get back into the College Football Playoff hunt? There are big holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and this lack of experience could hurt Texas in 2019, especially in their week two matchup against the LSU Tigers.
But that key out-of-conference game comes at home. And Tom Herman has compiled a top-three recruiting class in both 2018 and 2019, so many of those holes are going to be filled by some extremely talented underclassmen. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger took a big step forward in his development last year; another one in 2019 could mean big things for the Longhorns.
3. Miami Hurricanes, 2018 Record: 7-6
Last year’s Miami Hurricanes defense was one of the most disruptive in the country, and this havoc-based scheme should enjoy success again in 2019. Miami is also loaded at skill positions on offense. The team’s fate rests in the hands of a quarterback battle between Tate Martell N’Kosi Perry, and Jarren Williams.
Fortunately for the Hurricanes, the schedule shapes up nicely for them to have time to figure this out. After a likely loss to Florida in Week 1, a winnable game at North Carolina comes in Week 2 and then is followed by five straight home games. As long as one of these three quarterbacks emerges as a capable signal-caller, the Hurricanes have the talent to play their way into an ACC Championship Game against Clemson.
4. Utah Utes, 2018 Record: 9-5
The defending Pac-12 South champions return all of the key components of a team that remained competitive last season even after losing its starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to injury late in the season. Huntley and Moss are back too, and they’ve got unfinished business to attend to.
Washington doesn’t figure to be as good as it was in 2018, and the Utes don’t have Oregon or Stanford on their regular-season schedule. There are a few landmines still on the schedule, but the Utes may have the defense and experience to avoid them.
5. Missouri Tigers, 2018 Record: 8-5
The SEC East figures to be a two-horse race between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators, but don’t sleep on the Tigers. Former Clemson Quarterback Kelly Bryant takes over on offense and will help Missouri to offset the loss of Drew Lock.
Most importantly, the schedule shapes up about as perfectly as an SEC team can ask for. The Tigers get Florida at home and don’t have to face Alabama, LSU, Auburn, or Texas A&M. A game against Georgia in Athens looms large, but outside of that one, there aren’t any other clear losses on the schedule.