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SB Nation FanPulse Top 25 lays out path from 2019 college football season preview to 2020 NFL Draft

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Here’s how things are shaping up at the college level with the season beginning

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College football is nearly here.

Things kick off in Week 0 next Saturday with the best Week 0 matchup ever with Miami taking on Florida both of whom are stacked with NFL talent.

But since our SB Nation FanPulse Top 25 dropped last week, we have a sense of the baseline heading into the season and Los Angeles Rams fans’ early interest in the 2020 NFL Draft:

You can sign up for SB Nation’s college football FanPulse here if you’re interested. While you’re at it, you might want to sign up for the Read Option, the newsletter for SB Nation’s college football hub, the Banner Society, which is scheduled to launch this week.

That being said, let’s look at the college football season setup from the top 25 and what it might mean for next spring when we get to the 2020 draft.

Pro Football Focus rankings available from their Preseason 2020 NFL Draft Guide available now.

#1.) Clemson Tigers (AP: 1, Coaches: 1)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Sky-high expectations
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR Tee Higgins (PFF 25th overall, WR6)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ATH Isaiah Simmons (PFF 12th overall, S1)

The reigning national champions go into 2020 with nearly everyone expecting them to be in the mix at season’s end. With the best quarterback in the country in QB Trevor Lawrence (a near shoe-in to be the #1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft), tons of speed around him on offense and plenty of talent on defense, and an offensively easy schedule for a team of this caliber, it’s easy to understand why they’re favorites (tied with Bama) to win the 2020 natty and atop the FanPulse top 25.

As for the best prospect for the Rams next spring, I nearly went with A.J. Terrell (PFF 36th overall, CB6) over ATH Isaiah Simmons. With both of the Rams’ starting cornerbacks in CB Aqib Talib and CB Marcus Peters on expiring contracts and the Rams’ history of not paying their defensive backs market rates, I could see the Rams either in play in free agency or the draft for a starting cornerback. Plus, Simmons is a bit of an unconventional tweener playing some slot. some linebacker and some of what many call an “overhang” safety position. That might set him up well as a potential replacement for ILB Cory Littleton (also in a contract year). Ultimately, Simmons is just too damn good not to go for even with some position confusion at the NFL level.

#2.) Alabama Crimson Tide (AP: 2, Coaches: 2)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Dealing with the SEC gauntlet
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR Jerry Jeudy (PFF 2nd overall, WR1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LB Anfernee Jennings (PFF N/A overall, EDGE16)

Alabama should be in fine position to make a run again with a stacked roster and QB Tua Tagovailoa running the offense, but the schedule is tricky.

An early trip to South Carolina opens their conference schedule, but its trips to Texas A&M midseason and Auburn late that could be trip ups not to mention LSU coming to Tuscaloosa. The one unknown of course is, should Bama get through this, who they’d face in the SEC Championship. Georgia nearly took Bama down in each of the last two years in the national championship in 2017 and in the SEC Championship last season. Overall, there are many more potential pitfalls for Bama than there are for Clemson.

And I went with Jennings for the Rams over LB Dylan Moses (PFF 40th overall, LB2), but it’s Bama. There’s an embarrassment of riches. There’s a fine chance that whatever the Rams’ needs are heading into the draft that Alabama will have a prospect in play there.

#3.) Georgia Bulldogs (AP: 3, Coaches: 3)

Biggest storyline heading into season: ...Bama
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: LT Andrew Thomas (PFF 21st overall, OT3)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LT Andrew Thomas

Kirby Smart has helped the Dawgs out of the Mark Richt without any major program pitfalls...except for the crimson wall they can’t get by. Two years ago, UGA fell to Alabama in the national championship when Tagovailoa jumpstarted his collegiate career staging a comeback with Georgia leading Bama 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter. Last year, the SEC Championship was the stage for Tagovailoa to cede to the starting QB he replaced in Jalen Hurts to help finish a comeback as Bama was down 14-28 midway through the third.

Now that Smart’s early recruiting classes are coming in, Georgia is, as always, proving a fertile talent bed for NFL talent. Thomas leads the way as a legit prospect to become a franchise left tackle. That would certainly be an attractive option for the Rams with LT Andrew Whitworth all but certain to retire after this season, but Thomas is likely to go well before the Rams are on the clock. There’s plenty of other talent for Rams fans to be interested in though. RB D’Andre Swift (PFF 38th overall, RB2) could be the first running back of the clock next April. QB Jake Fromm (PFF 39th overall, QB4) could be a first-round quarterback. RG Ben Cleveland (PFF N/A overall, IOL4) could go before Day 3. And tons of other Bulldogs could factor in both thereafter or see their stock rise over the course of the season.

Were it not for Bama, we’d be talking about Georgia as the class of the SEC...even with a matchup with Notre Dame in September!

#4.) Oklahoma Sooners (AP: 4, Coaches: 4)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Heisman x3?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR CeeDee Lamb (PFF 9th overall, WR3)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: C Creed Humphrey (PFF 33rd overall, IOL2)

2017, QB Baker Mayfield.

2018, QB Kyler Murray.

2019...Jalen Hurts?

Hurts transferred from Alabama to help lead OU in 2019 in his final season of eligibility. Could he make it three Heismans in a row for OU quarterbacks? Head Coach Lincoln Riley will certainly have the system in place for him to do so with PLENTY of talent on offense. The bigger question for OU is if they can get the defense in order after finishing 96th in points allowed last year. But the question they don’t want to face?

...

What if Texas really is back?

It’s been a running joke for years as UT fell off at the tail end of the Mack Brown era and into Charlie Strong’s time. But last year, the Longhorns had enough offensively to rock OU’s defense in the Red River Shootout to upset Oklahoma 48-45. It was OU’s only loss until the playoff loss to Alabama, 34-45, including a vengeance offering in the Big XII Championship topping UT, 39-27. So while it’s easy to see OU running through the Big XII again this year, that game in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas between those two age old rivals looms on October 12.

Draft-wise, OU’s obviously heavy on the offensive side, but keep an eye out for LB Kenneth Murray . He was a beast in 2018, and with LB Tre Norwood having already succumbed to a knee injury ending his 2019 season before it started, Murray will be square in the middle of evaluators’ focus all year.

#5.) Ohio State Buckeyes (AP: 5, Coaches: 5)

Biggest storyline heading into season: PLAYOFFS!!! (oh and a new coach after that last guy)
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Chase Young (PFF 3rd overall, EDGE1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: CB Jeffrey Okudah (PFF 10th overall, CB2)

Somehow, tOSU’s only involvement in the last four incarnations of the playoffs has been 2017’s pasting by Clemson. Suffice to say, they’ve been the best program of the last four years of the teams most often looking in.

And given their ranking to start the year...welp.

Ohio St. is heading into their first full season under Head Coach Ryan Day after (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD IT BEFORE) the ignominious exit from former HC Urban Meyer.

Somewhat like OU, they’re dealing with a rival program that has been nipping at their heels for years; unlike OU, they’ve had more success with their nipple (I think that’s how that word works). Ohio State has beaten Michigan seven times in a row meaning UM HC Jim Harbaugh is 0-4 facing the Bucks. But that regular season cherry on the sundae on Nov. 30 is going to be must-watch stuff regardless of what precedes it.

Young could be a top 5 pick. RB J.K. Dobbins (PFF N/A overall, RB8) is built for the NFL. I do wonder if ILB Tuf Borland (PFF N/A Overall, N/A ILB) is set to be James Laurinaitis 2.0. The big unknown is QB Justin Fields who transferred from Georgia. If he’s the next legit dual-threat QB, he could push the Buckeyes into the playoffs.

#6.) Michigan Wolverines (AP: 7, Coaches: 7)

Biggest storyline heading into season: 0-4...
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (PFF N/A overall, WR15)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LB Khaleke Hudson (PFF N/A overall, LB13)

Has it really only been four years of Harbaugh football at UMich? It feels like 20. I don’t know if that’s something that resonates more with non-fans of the Wolverines or more with fans.

The biggest theme of his time at UM? Underwhelming expectations. Harbaugh impressed so much in Year 1 that it raised the bar for the program starting unranked but finishing 12th. That bar was probably set too high.

Pre-2016? 7th. Post-2016? 10th.

Pre-2017? 11th. Post-2017? Unranked.

Pre-2018? 14th. Post-2018? 14th...BUT ON THE BACK OF THAT 62-39 BEATDOWN FROM OHIO STATE.

And that’s what Michigan’s season really comes down to. The top 5 teams so far are honed in on the playoffs (though Georgia has a bit of a similar path through Bama). Michigan is honed in on OSU. If they miss out on the playoffs but beat Ohio State? Michigan fans will feel fine heading into 2020. Another L to OSU especially with Ryan Day in Year 1, and it’s going to get ugly in Ann Arbor.

Draft-wise, they’re not stacked. This is more of a team that is just timing right. It’s an offense led by QB Shea Patterson (PFF N/A overall, QB9), though many are looking to freshman running back Zach Charbonnet out of Los Angeles to provide a spark for new Offensive Coordinator Josh Gattis. Defensively, the Wolverines sent LB Devin Bush and EDGE Rashan Gary through the 2019 NFL Draft’s first 12 picks. They have talent to replace, but talent has been the problem.

November 30th, folks.

#7.) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (AP: 9, Coaches: 9)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Blue bloods...bleed
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: OL Tommy Kraemer (PFF N/A overall, IOL8)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: EDGE Julian Okwara (PFF 14th overall, EDGE3)

Imagine an NFL team not in a division. Just on their own. Drafting as well as the best teams, playing the best teams every year...but just not in the divisional alignment.

Enough, Notre Dame. Join the Big Ten, and get it over with.

As for draft talent, it’s not a stacked team at the top. They will supply depth though. And the developing talent on the line (anyone interested in ND linemen?) is very attractive.

#8.) Florida Gators (AP: 8, Coaches: 8)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Chaos
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: CB CJ Henderson (PFF 22nd overall, RB4)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: EDGE Jabari Zuniga (PFF N/A overall, EDGE15)

Dan Mullen showed up last year and guided UF to just their second 10-win season in the last six years. An early loss to an upstart Kentucky team that ended Florida’s 31-game winning streak over UK wasn’t a fair estimation of their season especially given how well the Gators played down the stretch culminating in a 41-15 pasting of Michigan in the Peach Bowl.

Now though, expectations have grown. And Florida gets tested early this Saturday to kick off the college football season by facing the Miami Hurricanes in Orlando. Should they survive that challenge, they kick off SEC action two weeks later against that Kentucky team looking to build a winning streak of their own. Three teams in the FanPulse top 18 loom in Auburn, LSU and Georgia with a rivalry matchup at the end of the regular season in Florida State capping things off.

It’s going to be chaotic. Especially with QB Feleipe Franks at the helm:

Plenty of talent for NFL fans to look for out of Gainesville, but Rams fans should keep an eye on Zuniga. Could be fitting should Dante Fowler, Jr., not get re-signed to fill his spot with an edge rusher from his alma mater.

#9.) Texas Longhorns (AP: 10, Coaches: 10)

Biggest storyline heading into season: IS TEXAS BACK?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR Collin Johnson (PFF N/A overall, WR10)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: C Zach Shackelford (PFF N/A overall, N/A IOL)

Texas has 12 games on the schedule. Circle two.

Sep. 7, v. LSU.

Oct. 12, v. Oklahoma.

Losing both could mean Tom Herman’s exit from Austin. A 1-1 record between the two would be demoralizing but could still offer a positive season especially if the win is over Oklahoma. But if they go 2-0 in those two...they’re back.

The results in recent years have matched the draft offerings. As UT slipped in recruiting, they slipped in performance and in development, but Herman has recruited MUCH better than Charlie Strong did. The underclass looks strong with two very, very good recruiting hauls the last two years. Suffice to say, Texas will have a much stronger role in drafts to come...after 2020.

WR Collin Johnson could be a first-round wideout, but there’s not a ton right now to look for out of Austin ahead of some Day 3 candidates. QB Sam Ehlinger (PFF N/A overall, QB7) could be a nice long-term backup option though.

#10.) LSU Tigers (AP: 6, Coaches: 6)

Biggest storyline heading into season: My kingdom for some offense
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: S Grant Delpit (PFF 8th overall, S1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: CB Kristian Fulton (PFF 6th overall, CB1)

No program has had more talent in the last decade with less to show for it than LSU. Since that infamous 2011 season in which LSU lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship, the Bayou Bengals haven’t topped 10 wins once and rattled off four consecutive seasons with less than double digit wins spanning the Les Miles-Ed Orgeron transition all while feeding a TON of talent to the NFL.

So here we are again. The roster is absolutely stacked except at quarterback where LSU is again rolling with QB Joe Burrow who transferred out of Ohio State and threw for less than 3,000 yards last year with a paltry 16 passing TDs which tied for 62nd nationally. It’s just hard to see anything different going down in 2019. Even if LSU gets by Texas in Week 2, what are the chances they slip up a couple of times in SEC action? 100%? Nearly?

Talent-wise, NFL fans need to pay attention even if the results on offense are annoying. Delpit’s a top 10 pick. Fulton could play his way to similar draft stock. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson could play his way into the first round. EDGE Michael Divinity, Jr. (PFF N/A overall, EDGE12), isn’t far behind. The wideouts are going to factor early in the 2021 NFL Draft. And that young offensive line could produce three drafted linemen next spring.

#11.) Texas A&M Aggies (AP: 12, Coaches: 11)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Can they survive the schedule?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: DE Justin Madubuike (PFF N/A overall, DI7)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: DE Justin Madubuike

A&M plays the teams ranked #1, #2, #3, #10 and #18 on the FanPulse top 25 this year. That’s a hell of a gauntlet.

They nearly upset things last year by unseating Clemson, but looked completely outmatched against Bama. The losses to Mississippi State and Auburn were unsettling, but then there was that seven-overtime classic against LSU. And Jimbo Fisher, predictably, has them recruiting well already.

It’s probably unfair to expect them to get through that schedule, but they’re going to be very good and very watchable.

Plenty of talent all around. With a young team, there’s a ton of prospects who aren’t highly rated right now that are going to blow up and play their way into top 150 boards especially on the offensive line and at the edge. I don’t know if the NFL can accept a quarterback like Kellen Mond (PFF N/A overall, QB11), but man is he fun to watch.

#12.) Oregon Ducks (AP: 11, Coaches: 13)

Biggest storyline heading into season: The Pac-12’s best hope?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: QB Justin Herbert (PFF 7th overall, QB2)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ILB Troy Dye (PFF N/A overall, LB6)

If Oregon weren’t in the Pac-12, would they be getting more hype? Quite possibly.

There’s Justin Herbert, maybe the country’s best quarterback, protected by a very good offensive line, maybe the country’s best offensive line. There’s RB CJ Verdell who topped 1,000 rushing yards as a freshman. And then there’s the defense with Dye and CB Thomas Graham Jr. and DT Jordon Scott and CB Deommodore Lenoir. Oh, and did I mention Oregon came down to LA to poach the #1 recruit in the country in DE Kayvon Thibodeaux?

The Pac-12 isn’t getting much love heading into 2019. That’s understandable and fair. It would likely take an undefeated team to get into the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised though if that’s the 2019 Oregon we’re looking at.

#13.) Washington Huskies (AP: 13, Coaches: 12)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Post-Browning drowning?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: LT Trey Adams (PFF N/A overall, OT15)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LT Trey Adams

Jake Browning played quarterback at UW for the last 12 years.

It’s a fact. Don’t look it up.

Now, though, he’s moved on to the NFL. In his stead is Jacob Eason, the former Georgia starter who steps in with two years of eligibility left. The bar is high, though. Washington has won double digit games in each of the last three years with two Pac-12 trophies. October 19 looms as what could be a conference-deciding game between Washington and Oregon.

Talent-wise, they remain well-stocked and could easily add a fifth Husky to the Rams to join CB Marcus Peters, LB Cory Littleton, S Taylor Rapp and DT Greg Gaines. Adams is a fine left tackle prospect. OL Nick Harris (PFF N/A overall, IOL3) has played left guard, right guard and now center. Rams Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Co-Offensive Coordinator Aaron Kromer just got a little excited. And CB Myles Bryant could be one of the better slot corners this year.

#14.) Penn State Nittany Lions (AP: 15, Coaches: 14)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Can the offense help the defense at all?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos (PFF N/A overall, EDGE9)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos

Penn State’s season, save for the blowout against Michigan, was about the thin margins of college football.

Up 26-14 midway through the 4th quarter, Penn St. couldn’t stop then-OSU QB Dwayne Haskins from leading a comeback for a 27-26 win (and a memorable playcall to run the ball on 4th and 5 that James Franklin probably wants back...). Two weeks later, it was a grittier but similar affair against Michigan State as the Spartans scored a touchdown with seconds left to win 21-17.

Two losses. Five points. And that was, essentially, the season.

With Michigan and OSU in front of them this year and QB Trace McSorley gone, the Nittany Lions will lean on a very talented defense largely because of a very young offense. No quarterback has even been officially named yet. Whomever is named the starter, it’ll either be sophomore Sean Clifford or freshman Will Levis. His running back will be sophomore Ricky Slade. His wideouts will be sophomores and freshman. The likely starter at left tackle, Rasheed Walker, is a freshman.

It might work. It should improve. But man is that a ton of inexperience on one side of the ball.

So look to the defense for NFL talent at least early on. Gross-Matos could play his way into the top half of the first round. CB Tariq Castro-Fields looks the part. And DT Robert Windsor is a breakout candidate.

#15.) Utah Utes (AP: 14, Coaches: 15)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Breakout campaign?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: CB Jaylon Johnson (PFF N/A overall, CB18)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: CB Jaylon Johnson

Every year, there’s a team like Utah: not a ton of top talent, but a really well-balanced team with seniority and good coaching. Does that make them underrated as a team that will likely outperform a number of the teams ranked ahead of them? Does it make them overrated as they likely don’t have the superior talents to really compete with the teams that make it through the season at the top?

Kyle Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer in 2004 guiding the Utes out of the Mountain West and into the Pac-12 in 2011 in their best era of the program. The results haven’t quite matched the end of last decade, but Utah has been ranked in the Top 25 at one point in each of the last five seasons. That they finished the last two outside the Top 25 is extra motivation heading into this year, and likely extra pressure given the expectations.

Johnson’s their best prospect right now, but RB Zack Moss (PFF N/A overall, RB3) is the headliner. Big DT Leki Fotu is going to solve some team’s nose problem. And S Julian Blackmon could play his way into Day 2.

#16.) UCF Knights (AP: 17, Coaches: 17)

Biggest storyline heading into season: LET THE GROUP OF FIVE IN
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: S Richie Grant (PFF N/A overall, S6)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LB Nate Evans

The Group of Five’s best, UCF has taken the mantle from Boise St. as the pest that interrupts the Power Five’s stranglehold on the rankings. It’s a bit strange that it’s UCF doing it given that just four seasons ago they went 0-12...such is the volatility of the Group of Five.

Undefeated in 2017. Just a bowl loss to LSU in 2018. What would it take for UCF to be considered for the playoffs? Obviously more than an undefeated resume. There are non-conference challenges on the schedule from Stanford Cardinal and the Pittsburgh Panthers, but that’s not enough to improve the strength of schedule to compare to the teams above them in the rankings. But let’s say there are no one-loss teams. Could UCF finally get into the playoffs in that scenario?

As is to be expected, not a ton of identifiable NFL talent right now. Grant’s the obvious candidate, though he’s Day 2-3 range right now. I’ll go with Evans instead.

#17.) Wisconsin Badgers

Biggest storyline heading into season: Bounceback likely...but is it necessary?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: C Tyler Biadasz (PFF 13th overall, IOL1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: C Tyler Biadasz

Oh, Wisconsin. You do you.

You run the ball. And you block well. And...you run the ball and block well.

Good for you.

And now you reload.

RB Jonathan Taylor (PFF N/A overall, RB4) is back along with Biadasz, but there’s HUGE turnover with four new starters. And yanno...the rest of the team.

In terms of the draft, it’s a reload. Right now, it’s Biadasz and Taylor, but they’ll have guys in the mix midseason. And by this time next year we’ll be talking about other offensive linemen and running backs (O hai, RB Nakia Watson, OT Cole Van Lanen (PFF N/A overall, OT10) and OT Tyler Beach!).

#18.) Auburn Tigers (AP: 16, Coaches: 16)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Spoilers supreme
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: DT Derrick Brown (PFF 18th overall, DI1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LT Prince Tega Wanogho (PFF 31st overall, OT5)

Auburn is here to fuck up the party.

Last year, it was a season-opening win over Washington and the early November win over Texas A&M and a near-undoing (one point loss from a field goal as time expired) of LSU spread across four other losses. QB Jarrett Stidham, now with the New England Patriots, threw for more than 245 yards twice. He threw for less than 200 yards six times.

The year prior, Auburn lost to Clemson early, LSU midseason and Georgia late but beat Alabama to end the regular season and then beat undefeated Georgia in the SEC Championship. The committee put Georgia and Alabama in the playoffs who ultimately met in the championship as Auburn lost to UCF giving UCF and Group of Five proponents their strongest argument for inclusion since Boise St. beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

This year, Auburn starts with Oregon with Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama on the docket.

FINE, AUBURN. JUST COME RUIN THE SEASON ALREADY.

I said above that “No program has had more talent in the last decade with less to show for it than LSU.”

Auburn’s right there.

They’ve got a top 10 prospect in Brown with a first-round left tackle prospect in PTW. EDGE Marlon Davidson could play himself into Round 1 discussions. RT Jack Driscoll (PFF N/A overall, OT13) could be the first right tackle prospect taken. OLB Nick Coe might have the most upside on the defense. And if the offense takes off, we’re going to add names to that group.

#19.) Iowa Hawkeyes (AP: 20, Coaches: 19)

Biggest storyline heading into season: No, seriously. Iowa.
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: RT Tristan Wirfs (PFF 16th overall, OT1)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: EDGE A.J. Epenesa (PFF 5th overall, EDGE2)

Iowa? Iowa?!

Since 2011, Iowa has been ranked in the preseason AP top 25 once. In 2016, they were ranked 17th in the preseason; they finished unranked going 8-5. They were unranked in the preseason every other year two, but yanno. Finishing in the top 25 twice seems more like an anomaly because it was.

Iowa is a program in the heartland of the Big Ten recruiting talented workhorses who play a good version of 1980s football. Good for them.

Hayden Fry took over the program in 1979 and oversaw things through 1998 after which Kirk Ferentz took the reins and hasn’t looked back since. Good for them.

The only two programs who have coaches that were hired before 2005 are Iowa with Ferentz (1999) and TCU with Gary Patterson (2001). Since then, Iowa has finished in the top 25 just seven times. TCU? Twelve, but that includes moves from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big XII. TCU finalized their move to the Big 12 for the 2012 season. They’ve been ranked in the top 25 in-season every year; Iowa has been ranked therein just the last four years.

I’m not saying we should rate TCU above Iowa. I’m saying that’s the kind of battle Iowa is in heading into 2019 in the Big Ten.

Epenesa and Wirfs are top prospects. Left tackle Alaric Jackson (PFF N/A overall, OT11) is going to attract attention; strong play could put him in the top 50 range. And RB Mekhi Sargent could be the recipient of a strong roster around him.

#20.) Iowa State Cyclones (AP: 21, Coaches: 24)

Biggest storyline heading into season: WAIT, WHAT
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: DT Ray Lima
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LB Marcel Spears Jr.

Do we understand what we’re doing here? Talking ISU preseason? They come in at 20 in our FanPulse preseason rankings and 21st in the AP. The last time they came in among the top 25 preseason? 1978 at 20th. Before that? Never.

Folks, this is the second time that the Cyclones have been in the top 25 going into a season...in the history of football.

Yes, this is about Head Coach Matt Campbell. And yes, this is about QB Brock Purdy and his college football-y-ness.

And yes. We’re talking about the fact (fact) that everyone on this planet should be rooting for ISU this year. Forget Oklahoma and Texas later in the season. El Assico comes mid-September. Ready thyself.

#21.) Northwestern Wildcats (AP: N/A, Coaches: 25)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Pat Fitzgerald is still here to make us all go to sleep
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: ILB Paddy Fisher (PFF N/A overall, LB8)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ILB Paddy Fisher

It’s Year 14 of Pat Fitzgerald as head coach at Northwestern. A standout collegiate linebacker at NU, Fitzgerald needed just 10 years after his collegiate career ended to rise up the ranks to take over as head coach. He’s brought a yeoman linebacker’s mentality to the program. Worklike. Physical. Direct. Not flashy. Very Big Ten.

At times, it’s had the Wildcats in this position. Threatening the blue blood programs and nipping at their heels. But that’s their role. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

And here we are.

The first time Paddy Fisher’s name hit TST was back in August of last year as a mock draft target. He might well be again come mock draft season in early 2020. I think he’s probably better suited as a 4-3 MLB, but he’s a fantastic prospect regardless. And EDGE Joe Gaziano had a solid 2018. If he can build on it, he might be someone that could go in the top 150 picks.

#22.) Miami Hurricanes (AP: N/A, Coaches: N/A)

Biggest storyline heading into season: ACC’s open door behind Clemson
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: LB Shaquille Quarterman (PFF N/A overall, LB7)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: LB Shaquille Quarterman

Remember back at the end of the 2016 season when so many (including several self-serving ACC head coaches...) jumped to proclaim the ACC the best conference in college football?

It might now be the Power Five’s worst.

Louisville and Florida State have collapsed. Virginia Tech is on the verge of the same. While Syracuse have had a nice jump under Head Coach Dino Babers, who’s about to get flooded with offers if Syracuse make good on their potential this year, it’s Miami who’s likely to play the secondhand supporting program behind Clemson to try and lift the ACC brand.

They’re starting with the plate full facing Florida this Saturday but then settle into ACC play comfortably. If they can get to their November 2 matchup with FSU with just one loss (or less?) on the docket, they could be playing themselves into top 10 contention at that point. And if they then get by that point, Head Coach Mark Richt is going to have quite the recruiting pitch available regardless of how they finish down the stretch.

Draft-wise, Quarterman’s a stud. I could see him as a Round 2 guy right now. WR Jeff Thomas has a skill set to like, but they need better quarterback play to help see his ceiling this year. They just settled on their starting QB last week in redshirt freshman Jarren Williams. We’ll see how he powers that offense, but the defense has guys like CB Trajan Bandy, EDGE Jonathan Garvin and the OLBs in Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney.

#23.) Michigan State Spartans (AP: 18, Coaches: 20)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Bounceback needed, but is it possible?
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Kenny Willekes (PFF N/A overall, EDGE8)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ILB Joe Bachie (PFF N/A overall, LB9)

This decade, MSU has only had three seasons in which they won less than 10 games.

In 2012, they went 7-6; the next year, they went 13-1.

In 2016, they went 3-9; the next year, they went 10-3.

Last year, they went 7-6. This year?

They’re set up well to start the season off on the right foot, but their path through the Big Ten East late this year is brutal. At OSU. At Wisconsin. At Michigan. Double digit wins is probably asking too much which might lead to fans asking more from Head Coach Mark Dantonio.

There’s plenty of talent in East Lansing. Willekes would be a potential upgrade from Samson Ebukam, but at some point the Rams are going to have to make a significant investment, more than Willikes, at the edge. Bachie’s a fine inside backer much like Fisher from Northwestern. DT Raequan Williams (PFF N/A overall, DI12) could be the cream of the Spartan crop by season’s end. S David Dowell is impressive. The real key for MSU is health. They were so banged up last year. If they can just avoid injuries, they should be much better this year.

#24.) Nebraska Cornhuskers (AP: 24, Coaches: N/A)

Biggest storyline heading into season: HYPE UP
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: WR JD Spielman
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ILB Mohamed Barry

Few teams that had such a disappointing 2018 season are getting more preseason hype than Nebraska, and for good reason. Despite going 4-8 in the first year under new Head Coach Scott Frost, they looked much better down the stretch as the offense opened up (save for that 9-6 loss against Michigan St...). After starting 0-6, the Huskers finished 4-2 down the stretch. The three losses to Northwester, OSU and Iowa came by a total of just 11 points. QB Adrian Martinez looked impressive as a freshman, but the real intrigue is of what’s to come.

Frost took over at UCF after that 2015 0-12 season. In 2016, they went 6-7. In 2017, they went 13-0 and Frost turned over perhaps the best Group of Five program to incoming head coach Josh Heupel. So if Frost’s magic touch is going to boost Nebraska in Year 2, it could be a really interesting team especially once we get past their home game against Ohio St. midseason.

Not a ton of talent right now, but a glow up in 2019 could have Frost streaking across the Big Ten recruiting map in a way they haven’t been able to since the early Bo Pelini years.

#25.) Virginia Tech Hokies (AP: N/A, Coaches: N/A)

Biggest storyline heading into season: The Justin Fuente hype is dead
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: S Reggie Floyd
3k’s prospect for the Rams: ILB Rayshard Ashby

After guiding Memphis to 19 wins in 2014 and 2015, VT Head Coach Justin Fuente was brought in to take over for longtime HC Frank Beamer. The first two years went to plan as the Hokies won 19 games in 2016 and 2017.

Last year, though, they went 6-7 with a loss against...Old Dominion. Ouch.

The young defense had pre- and midseason injuries, so there’s reason to believe in a bounceback there. The bigger issue was the offense underwhelmed far beyond expectations. QB Ryan Willis has to get more out of that side of the ball to help DC Bud Foster in his final season before retiring.

Va Tech’s last losing season was 1992. There’s plenty of reason to think they won’t repeat their 2018 failures this year.

Talent’s a bit unusually thin in Blacksburg. We need to see the benefit of Fuente’s early recruiting classes these next two seasons, but it could be a thin offering from VT in the draft next year.


A couple of teams that made the AP and coaches poll that didn’t make the FanPulse top 25:

N/A.) Syracuse Orange (AP: 22, Coaches: 22)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Cuse back?!
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Alton Robinson (PFF 37th overall, EDGE5)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: EDGE Alton Robinson

From the late 1980s into the Paul Pasqualoni era, Syracuse were one of the better programs joining the old Big East in 1991. But after Pasqualoni left, the program went into disarray. Since 2001’s 10-win season, Syracuse hadn’t ever had a season with double digit wins.

Until last year.

Baber had successful stints at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green before landing at Syracuse. Now, he looks ready for the next step up. Cuse is ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1998. Should their 2019 build on last year’s 10-win season, they’ll have the problem of having to replace Babers without suffering the same kind of collapse they did after Pasqualoni.

Robinson is easily the top prospect, but the edge rusher across the defense from him, Kendall Coleman, could play his way into Day 2 discussions. S Evan Foster has a future too.

N/A.) Washington State Cougars (AP: 23, Coaches: 21)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Mike Leach is the weirdest coach in the sport, and we should love him for it
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: C Frederick Mauigoa
3k’s prospect for the Rams: C Frederick Mauigoa

Mike Leach is the wackiest, zaniest, least predictable coach in football.

And we’re getting a Hard Knocks-type show on WSU this year:

This is gonna be nuts.

It’s a Leach program. Not a ton of talent. Not a ton of sense. They might go 10-3, they might go 5-8.

They will be fun.

N/A.) Stanford Cardinal (AP: 25, Coaches: 23)

Biggest storyline heading into season: Pac-12 spoiler amid nation’s toughest schedule
Best 2020 NFL Draft prospect: OT Walker Little (PFF 20th overall, OT2)
3k’s prospect for the Rams: CB Paulson Adebo (PFF 30th overall, CB5)

This is the lowest Stanford has been ranked in the preseason since David Shaw was named head coach and for obvious reason. This will be nearly an entirely new Stanford team with just three returning starters on offense and five on defense.

And then there’s the schedule. Non-conference? How about Northwestern, UCF and Notre Dame to go with the Pac-12 North schedule? Yikes.

There is talent to work with though. Little and Adebo could both be first-rounders. QB K.J. Costello (PFF 35th overall, QB3) will provide some stability on offense.

But this is such a green team, it’s going to be an exercise in novelty for the most part.


And a couple of prospects from outside the top 25 (or so) teams:

  • Virginia CB Bryce Hall (PFF 11th overall, CB3) is going to be tough to evaluate this year. He’s fantastic, but teams are sure to attempt to avoid him. UVA’s not the pushover they had been at times in the last 10 years, but a back-to-back against Notre Dame and Miami will be a major test overall and for Hall individually.
  • I’m not as high on Colorado WR Laviska Shenault (PFF 15th overall, WR4) as many, but I doubt the love subsides. With QB Steven Montez operating the offense, Shenault should have TONS of highlights.
  • Surprised not to see the TCU Horned Frogs ranked? They had a rough 2018 even losing to (gulp...) Kansas as the offense imploded averaging less than 15 points over their last five games. WR Jalen Reagor (PFF 4th overall, WR2) might be the best wideout you haven’t heard of if the drama out of Ft. Worth made him a second story as QB Shawn Robinson injured his shoulder, got surgery and then transferred to Missouri alleging medical malfeasance. They’ll likely enjoy more stability this year.
  • Speaking of, Missouri just missed out on the AP poll with the most votes of any team that didn’t make the top 25, and missed out on the coaches’ poll...entirely due to current sanctions on the team being appealed. So while Mizzou might miss out on a bowl game, this might be the best Tigers team under fourth-year Head Coach Barry Odom. TE Albert Okwuegbunam (PFF N/A overall, TE3) might be the best tight end in the country. DT Jordan Elliott (PFF N/A overall, DI6) is a transfer from Texas who broke out last year. And CB DeMarkus Acy (PFF N/A overall, CB14) is very physical, but needs to up his ball skills this year to get beyond mid-Day 3 range.
  • ...

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North Texas Mean Green QB Mason Fine is very good and his team is very good and if we win Conference USA, I might disappear for a few days. In a good way.


College football is always a roller coaster. Last year was a bit flatter of a ride than usual, but that gives reason to think the chaos is going to get a boost this year.

The early non-conference schedule has plenty of top matchups with Florida-Miami on Saturday in Week 0, Oregon-Auburn in Week 1, and Clemson-A&M and Texas-LSU in Week 2. Once we settle into October in conference play, we should have a sense of how these teams will look this year.

And then, into the fray.

Welcome back, college football.