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College football rankings: Clemson, Ohio State lead way-too-early top 25 for 2020 season

Sporting News — (Bill Bender)

How can you create a top 25 for the 2020 season when 2019 isn’t even finished?

Because we can, they're fun to talk about and everyone else is going to do them, too. Way-too-early rankings are a rite of passage in college football: It's the ultimate poll that doesn’t matter, but it does give us a frame of reference — and something to talk about — heading into next season.

Clemson and LSU will conclude the 2019 season in Monday's College Football Playoff championship game, and both teams are bound to be in the top five heading in 2020. The remaining top five schools are the ones we believe are truly capable of winning a national championship in the Playoff era.

The rest? Well, like we said, it's just fun to talk about. We’ll continue updating this through the NFL Draft deadline, National Signing Day, spring football and the rest of the long offseason. With that in mind, here is Sporting News’ way-too-early top 25 for the 2020 college football season.

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College football rankings: Top 25 for 2020 season

25. Boise State

The Broncos are still the class of the Mountain West, and despite a humbling loss to Washington in their bowl game, there’s enough back for coach Bryan Harsin to make another run at a possible New Year’s Day 6 bowl. Hank Bachmeier needs to take control of the starting quarterback job after an uneven freshman year. George Holani and Robert Mahone will run behind an offensive line that must replace three starters on the interior. The defense must find a replacement for edge rusher Curtis Weaver. Florida State comes to Albertsons Stadium on Sept. 19.

24. UCF

UCF had a few hiccups in 2019, but the Knights return a talented quarterback room with Dillon Gabriel, Darriel Mack Jr. and perhaps McKenzie Milton, who did not play a down in 2019 after suffering a gruesome leg injury. The Knights will be right back in the mix the American Athletic Conference, and third-year coach Josh Heupel has maintained the program’s high standards. They will have chances to prove it against up-and-coming ACC contenders in North Carolina and Georgia Tech.

23. Virginia

The Cavaliers are one of four ranked ACC teams on our rankings. Bronco Mendenhall led a veteran team to the ACC Coastal Division championship, and Virginia showed in the Orange Bowl loss to Florida that it isn’t that far off from something more. Replacing dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins and receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed won’t be easy, but the strength of this team will come from a defense that could return Zane Zandier, Noah Taylor and Charles Snowden. All three had more than 10 tackles for loss in 2019. Virginia will compete for another division title.

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22. Arizona State

Herm Edwards has the Sun Devils in position to make a run at the Pac-12 South championship. Quarterback Jayden Daniels should make the jump as a sophomore after finishing with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions, but they will need to find a replacement for Eno Benjamin at running back. Jermayne Lole has breakout potential at defensive lineman. Four of Arizona State’s five losses came by 10 points or fewer in 2019, and they get Utah at home next season. Road trips to Oregon and USC are the most difficult part of the schedule.

21. North Carolina

The momentum under Mack Brown is real. The Tar Heels enjoyed a winning season in his first year, and recruiting is ticking in the right direction again. Sam Howell set the FBS record for touchdown passes by a true freshman, and he should continue to evolve as a sophomore. The Tar Heels were the only team that challenged Clemson in the ACC in 2019, and that trend could continue in 2020. We’ll see if the Tar Heels are ready for something more in the first two weeks against UCF and Auburn, but regardless this team likely will be the chic pick to win the ACC Coastal. We’re on board with that.

20. Cincinnati

Luke Fickell is right at home with the Bearcats, a program that has won 11 games each of the last two seasons. Michael Warren II is off to the NFL, but if quarterback Desmond Ridder returns it would be beneficial for a program that continues to recruit well in state and should be able to challenge for the American Athletic Conference championship. This is a Group of 5 buster in the making, and the big nonconference game is at Nebraska on Sept. 26.

19. Louisville

Scott Satterfield led the Cardinals to eight wins in an impressive turnaround in Year 1, and there’s no reason to believe that growth won’t continue in Year 2. Malik Cunningham emerged as the right quarterback with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions, and the offensive line play should continue to improve. Javian Hawkins could emerge as a legit Doak Walker Award candidate in this offense, too. More depth is needed on defense, but this is the best bet to challenge Clemson in the ACC Atlantic.

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18. Utah

The Utes lose several key playmakers — including Pac-12 leading rusher Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley on offense and defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu — but Kyle Whittingham still has a team capable of winning the Pac-12 South for the third straight season. Incoming South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley will get one more chance at it, and it’s our bet he wins the starting job and keeps the Utes on the outskirts of the Playoff conversation again. The opener against BYU will be telling.

17. Oklahoma State

Spencer Sanders proved to be a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, and the return of running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace make this one of the best offensive trios in college football. Still, the Cowboys are 8-10 in Big 12 play the last two seasons, so it’s a big year for Mike Gundy to prove this team can still compete. We put the Cowboys here over Baylor, Iowa State and TCU. Feel free to argue.

16. Texas A&M

The Aggies have consecutive top-10 recruiting classes to build their team in 2020, meaning more difference-makers to help Kellen Mond enjoy his senior season. Isaiah Spiller is back too, and this offense should be much better after a year of experience. The defense is mostly together. For third-year coach Jimbo Fisher, it comes down to making that jump against top-10 teams. The Aggies are 1-7 in that situation the last two seasons. The crossover schedule is more friendly against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but Texas A&M still visits Auburn and closes the season at Alabama before taking on LSU at home.

15. Michigan

It's the same old story in Ann Arbor for sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines return a talented roster, and the quarterback battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton will be the focus of the spring. Nico Collins' return was huge, and the offensive line has improved. Daxton Hill is a breakout player in the secondary, but the question remains: When will this team break through against Ohio State and win a Big Ten championship? September tests at Washington and at home against Wisconsin won't be easy.

14. Wisconsin

The Badgers proved they were the best team in the Big Ten West in 2019, and there might be a heated quarterback battle between Jack Coan and Graham Mertz this spring. Jonathan Taylor is gone, and the defense must replace Zack Baun and Chris Orr. Paul Chryst has been able to replace these moving parts, but it will be a challenge this year in an improving division. A four-game stretch from Sept. 19-Oct. 10 against Appalachian State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota will tell us everything.

13. Texas

We're not going to say that three-word catchphrase out loud, but perhaps we were a little early. Sam Ehlinger returns for his senior season, and the Longhorns' young talent showed how good they can be in the Alamo Bowl victory against Utah. Receivers Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith should thrive in increased roles on offense, and the offensive line will be better. The defense will be improved around linebacker Joseph Ossai, who had 13.5 tackles for loss in 2019. It comes down to winning those close games: The Longhorns have six losses of seven points or fewer the last two seasons. The Sept. 12 trip to LSU will come with the same hype as it did in 2019.

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12. Minnesota

“Row the Boat” some more. P.J. Fleck can build off an 11-win season with the talent the Gophers return, including Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman in the passing game. Minnesota's entire offensive line is back, though the defense will miss All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The Gophers are going to generate a lot of buzz this offseason, but the schedule is tougher this time. A two-week stretch in October against Wisconsin and Michigan will be the turning point.

11. Auburn

We're going to talk about Gus Malzhan's job security all offseason again, but the Tigers bought some time by winning the Iron Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix returns and should improve his consistency as a sophomore. JaTarvious Whitlow will be healthy. The defensive line loses Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe, but at least returns Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell. The schedule is brutal, and it closes with LSU and Alabama in the final two weeks. Who made that again?

10. Florida

Dan Mullen led the Gators to back-to-back New Year's Day 6 Bowl wins, and he has upgraded the talent with each recruiting cycle. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones will fight for the quarterback job, but it would be hard to take that away from Trask given how he filled in this season. The return of cornerback Marco Wilson is a lift for a talented defense that loses CJ Henderson. Florida is close to getting back to the SEC championship game, but Georgia remains the biggest hurdle.

9. Penn State

James Franklin signed a longterm extension, and he continues to build the program toward a Playoff breakthrough with big recruiting classes. Sean Clifford, Journey Brown, Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson lead what should be a high-scoring offense, while Micah Parsons can step into Yetur Gross-Matos’ role as one of the best defenders in college football. Road trips to Virginia Tech and Michigan in the first five weeks won't be easy, but it still comes down to Ohio State. The Buckeyes which visit Happy Valley on Oct. 24.

8. Notre Dame

The return of veteran quarterback Ian Book is the biggest plus for Brian Kelly heading into his 11th season, and Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith need to step up at running back. Javon McKinley, Braden Lenzy and Tommy Tremble give Book solid options in the receiving game. Secondary will be a question mark on defense. The schedule is fun with a trip to Ireland against Navy in the opener, an Oct. 3 visit to Lambeau Field for Wisconsin and the Nov. 7 blockbuster against Clemson in South Bend. The Irish are 33-6 the last three seasons. They will be in the Playoff conversation again.

7. Oklahoma

The Sooners are facing the backlash of a fourth Playoff loss in six seasons, but Lincoln Riley didn't go to the pros and Oklahoma is still the favorite to win the Big 12. Spencer Rattler had a year to learn behind Jalen Hurts, and that will pay off. Jadon Haselwood is the next breakout star at receiver, and the defense will face the same old questions with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. September features a visit from Tennessee and a trip to Army. The Sooners still have a lot of questions, but that might not be answered unless they get back to the Playoff.

6. Oregon

The Ducks are trending upward under Mario Cristobal, and the next step is the College Football Playoff. The loss of quarterback Justin Herbert is the first order of business, but the new starter (who could come from the transfer portal) will run a talented offense that could still include Johnny Johnson III and CJ Verdell around an offensive line that features Penei Sewell. Sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux leads the defense, and five-star linebacker Justin Flowe will be an instant-impact player (don’t forget about fellow five-star linebacker Noah Sewell, younger brother of Penei). Ohio State visits Autzen Stadium on Sept. 12 for an early test.

5. Georgia

Jake Fromm is gone, as well as the vast majority of Georgia's offensive line. But the Bulldogs will be in position to make the same run to the SEC championship game around a talented roster Kirby Smart has built with a string of top-five recruiting classes. There will be a wide-open battle and the transfer portal could factor in. Zamir White and James Cook will keep the ground game going, and George Pickens could emerge as the best receiver in the FBS. Rising redshirt-sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari could make the jump to All-American. The road trip to Alabama on Sept. 19 is the next chance to win the big game.

4. LSU

What will LSU and Ed Orgeron do for an encore without Joe Burrow and Joe Brady? Myles Brennan will finally get his shot at quarterback, and Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. are back for another season. The Tigers lose a ton to the NFL Draft (seven draft-eligible juniors, including running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire), but LSU's defense returns enough pieces to build around sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and another loaded recruiting class. Coordinators Steve Ensminger and Dave Aranda stayed put, too. Texas and Alabama visit Tiger Stadium, but there are road trips to Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M.

3. Alabama

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., safety Xavier McKinney and linebacker Terrell Lewis are gone, and Nick Saban faces the challenge of getting back into the College Football Playoff for the first time. The quarterback battle among Mac Jones, Taulia Tagovailoa and freshman Bryce Young will be the focus of the spring, and there likely won't be an answer until the opener against USC. Receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are back, and the return of running back Najee Harris is huge for an offense that could rely more on its run game in 2020. Dylan Moses' decision to return should help shore up a defense that wasn't up to Alabama’s championship standard. Georgia visits Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 19. We'll know then if this team can handle LSU and Auburn in November.

2. Ohio State

The Buckeyes lost star players J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young and Jeff Okudah to the NFL, but Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields returns to a still-loaded roster. The receiving corps will be the deepest in the country. Expect Garrett Wilson to be a breakout star while five-star receiver Julian Fleming joins the fun. Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers return to a nasty offensive line. Shaun Wade's decision to return to school helps a defense that will rebuild the line around Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison. Road trips to Oregon and Penn State are the biggest potholes to another Playoff run. Second-year coach Ryan Day can work with that.

1. Clemson

The beat goes on under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers figure to suffer some attrition to the NFL, but the offense runs around the junior trio of Trevor Lawrence, Lyn-J Dixon and Justyn Ross. Clemson also has the No. 1 recruiting class coming in, and defensive lineman Bryan Bresee will play right away. Coordinators Tony Elliott and Brent Venables stayed on, and that continuity should lead to a sixth straight ACC championship run. Including conference title games, the Tigers have won 22 straight in the ACC. The toughest game on the schedule is the Nov. 7 trip to Notre Dame.