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Wayne Staats | NCAA.com | January 29, 2020

College football rankings: Preseason Top 25 for the 2020 season

Mansfield's 2010 reenactment of the first-ever night football game in 1892

The final whistle of the 2019 college football season has sounded. Let's start talking 2020, yes? Here are my preseason top-25 rankings for the 2020 college football season.

Trying to rank the preseason Top 25 in a season that doesn't start for months can be a headache, but it's also an opportunity for fun. Just last year, Minnesota surprised every expectation to win 11 games. Which teams will shock the country in 2020?

College football rankings: Preseason Top 25 for 2020-21 season

NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 17

1. Clemson (14-1 in 2019)

This was set regardless of what happened in New Orleans. QB Trevor Lawrence could be the clear Heisman favorite going into 2020, plus he'll get to throw to Justyn Ross. And in big news, RB Travis Etienne, the Tigers' all-time leading rusher, said he's coming back for 2020. There will also be turnover on the offensive line and with losing key defensive standouts, but DC Brent Venables will keep this a powerful unit. The incredible recruiting class will help.

2. Ohio State (13-1)

The Buckeyes won't have J.K. Dobbins anymore, but OSU will continue to have a potent ground game (Master Teague) and a dynamic QB in Justin Fields (51 total touchdowns in 2019). The defense will lose star Chase Young and others, but CB Shaun Wade is among those returning. Circle Sept. 12: Ohio State goes to Oregon.

3. Alabama (11-2)

Tua Tagovailoa is gone, but the offense should still be among the nation's best — no matter which player lines up at QB. Mac Jones passed for 327 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl win vs. Michigan, plus there's 5-star QB Bryce Young. On defense, linebacker Dylan Moses returns after missing last season with a torn ACL.

4. LSU (15-0)

Yes, Heisman winner Joe Burrow is headed to the NFL after a historic senior season, with Myles Brennan possibly taking over for head coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers might also lose other offensive players. But Biletnikoff winner Ja'Marr Chase will be back in Death Valley. However, LSU will lose DC Dave Aranda, who's left to become the Baylor head coach.

5. Georgia (12-2)

UGA loses a bunch of stars, from QB Jake Fromm and RB D'Andre Swift to its experienced offensive linemen. But when it comes to talent, Georgia will again be up there among Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. The Bulldogs got a boost with Wake Forest transfer QB Jamie Newman picking UGA. And the Dawgs will again have one of the top defenses in the country.

6. Oregon (12-2)

It's going to be strange not seeing Justin Herbert at Oregon anymore. But besides that, the Ducks are loaded and will be the clear Pac-12 favorites. Though Tyler Shough is probably the leading candidate to take over as the starting quarterback, that position isn't set yet. But Oregon has Outland winner Penei Sewell and DE Kayvon Thibodeaux (nine sacks) ready to dominate.

2019 RANKINGS: The final AP Poll Top 25 of the season

7. Oklahoma (12-2)

The Sooners should remain the Big 12's best — OU has won the conference title game four years in a row and in seven of the last eight seasons. Sure, Jalen Hurts and CeeDee Lamb are gone, but coach Lincoln Riley should continue to be the perfect QB whisperer with former 5-star recruit Spencer Rattler possibly taking over. As always, it comes down to defensive improvement.

8. Penn State (11-2)

The Nittany Lions might have the best linebacker in the country in Micah Parsons, who had 14 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in the Cotton Bowl win. Offensively, QB Sean Clifford goes into his second year as a starter and has TE Pat Freiermuth and a group of dangerous running backs with new OC Kirk Ciarrocca (from Minnesota). The schedule isn't easy, though: at Virginia Tech, at Michigan, vs. Iowa and vs. Ohio State by the end of October.

9. Florida (11-2)

Yes, the Gators have to solve rival Georgia. But Florida has gone 10-3 and 11-2 in Dan Mullen's first two seasons, including a pair of New Year's Six wins. QB Kyle Trask took over for the injured Feleipe Franks and looked great with his 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Next season could very well be the time the Gators return to the SEC East perch.

Florida QB Kyle Trask scores in the Orange Bowl vs. Virginia Florida QB Kyle Trask helped the Gators win the 2019 Orange Bowl against Virginia. He'll be back in 2020.

10. Auburn (9-4)

The Tigers were a fascinating team. They beat eventual Rose Bowl champion Oregon, ended rival Alabama's title hopes and battled with LSU and Georgia in close losses and also lost to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl to end the season. Still, it was a 9-win season. Another step forward will likely depend on improvement (and consistency) from QB Bo Nix in his sophomore season.

11. Notre Dame (11-2)

After a blowout loss to rival Michigan, the Irish quietly won out to go 11-2 one season after making the College Football Playoff. With QB Ian Book's return, Notre Dame should be potent on offense. And the defense should be strong, though the secondary is the biggest question mark there. The schedule is also tough: vs. Navy in Dublin, vs. Wisconsin at Green Bay, home against Clemson, home against Louisville and at Southern California to end the season.

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12. Oklahoma State (8-5)

The Cowboys got a big, big boost as star RB Chuba Hubbard announced he'll be coming back for another season. Hubbard led the country with 2,094 rushing yards, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt while rushing for 21 touchdowns. Spencer Sanders and Tylan Wallace form a strong QB-WR tandem.

13. Texas A&M (8-5)

Considering the Aggies played at Clemson, at Georgia, at LSU and had two home games against Auburn and Alabama, there's no shame in losing five games this year. But that still marked the gap between A&M and contending for SEC West titles (or more). With QB Kellen Mond set for a third year as the starting quarterback, 2020 could be special if things break right. Oh, Clemson and Georgia are now off the schedule, too.

14. Texas (8-5)

The Longhorns started in the top 10 and lost by only 7 to LSU but then fell to 6-5. Reason for optimism? the 'Horns crushed Texas Tech and then No. 11 Utah in the Alamo Bowl by 28 to end the season on a positive note. And QB Sam Ehlinger will be back. However, a euphoric bowl win in the 2018 season didn't exactly mean good things for 2019.

Texas QB Sam Ehlinger Texas QB Sam Ehlinger (11) is back for his senior season after leading the Longhorns to an Alamo Bowl win vs. Utah.

15. Michigan (9-4)

The Wolverines are still way behind rival Ohio State. If 2019 wasn't the year, when can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan do it? The quarterback battle is something to watch (Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton). LB Cameron McGrone should be a leader on defense. There are also road games against Washington, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State.

16. Wisconsin (10-4)

The Badgers and Paul Chryst get the benefit of the doubt here, as RB Jonathan Taylor is going to the NFL and LBs Chris Orr and Zack Baun have finished their college careers. However, save for a rare off year in 2018, Wisconsin has proven to be the Big Ten West's best. QB Jack Coan (should he hold his job over Graham Mertz) might be asked to do more. The schedule won't be easy, either. The Badgers play Appalachian State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota in four consecutive weeks.

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17. North Carolina (7-6)

Why not have some fun? Sure, UNC went only 7-6, but the losses were by a combined 26 points. The biggest reason for optimism is obvious: QB Sam Howell. The highly regarded freshman was better than any fair expectation by passing for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions this past season. He has a bunch of talent around him, too, including RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams (totaling almost 2,000 combined yards) and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.

UNC QB Sam Howell plays against rival N.C. State UNC QB Sam Howell might be one of the nation's best quarterbacks as a sophomore.

18. Minnesota (11-2)

It's difficult to climb into the top-10 and become a championship contender. It's perhaps harder to stay there consistently. That's the task ahead for P.J. Fleck, who led the Gophers to an 11-2 season and another statement win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota loses a ton on defense (All-America pick Antoine Winfield Jr.) and top running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and WR Tyler Johnson — and OC Ciarrocca is now at Penn State. But QB Tanner Morgan (3,253 passing yards, 30 TDs) will still get to throw to Rashod Bateman (1,219 yards, 11 TDs).

19. Southern California (8-5)

The potential is there. QB Kedon Slovis finished with 3,502 passing yards and brings back a bunch of skill players led by WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. The defense could also be better once the new coordinator is hired. But the truth remains the Trojans have gone 5-7 and 8-5 the past two seasons.

20. UCF (10-3)

After going 25-1 in 2017 and 2018, it was inevitable the Knights "fell" to 10-3 (6-2 AAC) in 2019. QB Dillon Gabriel had a good freshman season with his 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns — and UCF also has Darriel Mack Jr. and the possible return of McKenzie Milton after his serious knee injury. The Knights open the season at home against North Carolina and also play at Georgia Tech later in September.

21. Cincinnati (11-3)

Coach Luke Fickell has lead the Bearcats to 11-win seasons in each of the last two years and were close defeats to Memphis away from playing in a New Year's Six game. QB Desmond Ridder will lead the offense, while the defense should again be the AAC's best. RB Michael Warren II will be missed, however.

Cincinnati has won 11 games in each of the last two seasons. Cincinnati and coach Luke Fickell won 11 games in both 2018 and 2019.

22. Utah (11-3)

The Utes could have made the College Football Playoff. But a blowout loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and then another blowout loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl added a sour taste to the 2019 season. Now QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, DE Bradlee Anae, and others standouts (like in the secondary) have to be replaced. South Carolina transfer QB Jake Bentley could take control. But coach Kyle Whittingham has won at least nine games in five of the last six seasons.

23. Iowa State (7-6)

The Cyclones got crushed by Notre Dame in the bowl game, but they were also close to picking up wins against teams like Oklahoma (failed 2-point conversion) and Baylor (lost on a field goal on the final play of the game). QB Brock Purdy is back, as are a bunch of other returning starters.

24. Iowa (10-3)

Three-year starter Nate Stanley has to be replaced, but the Hawkeyes should again field another typically strong offensive line for its group of leading returning rushers (Tyler Goodson first with 638 yards) and will again be stout defensively, no matter the departures. But Iowa does have road games against Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State. Losing star DE A.J. Epenesa to the NFL stings, as expected as it might have been.

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25. Arizona State (8-5)

The Sun Devils have gone 7-6 and 8-5 in Herm Edwards' first two seasons. But Arizona State won their final three teams of the season, which included beating eventual Rose Bowl champion Oregon. QB Jayden Daniels could be one of the most exciting players in the country after his 2,943 passing yards (17 touchdowns with only two interceptions) and 355 rushing yards last season as a freshman.

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