Preseason college football power rankings: Can anyone stop Alabama vs. Clemson?

Monday, August 5, 2019

The top of our preseason college football power rankings should surprise no one. Clemson, coming off a 44-16 throttling of Alabama in the national title game, stays on top, but the Crimson Tide are right behind at No. 2. The prospect of Clemson vs. Alabama, Part V is very real.

Among the teams looking to break up the Tigers vs. Tide monopoly on the national title are Georgia, Oklahoma (now featuring Jalen Hurts!), Ohio State (now featuring Ryan Day and Justin Fields!) and many more. See how all the contenders stack up below.

Voters: Andrea Adelson, Edward Aschoff, Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly, Heather Dinich, David Hale, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Ivan Maisel, Myron Medcalf, Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough, Mark Schlabach, Tom VanHaaren

No. 1 Clemson

The defending national champions start at No. 1 on the strength of what they have coming back on offense, starting with preseason Heisman candidate Trevor Lawrence. The true sophomore led the No. 3 offense in the country a year ago, with the Tigers averaging 527 yards per game. With Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and three starters back on the offensive line, expect this unit to be even more dynamic. To put into greater perspective how dominant many expect the Tigers to be this season, they placed 13 of their 22 starters on the preseason all-ACC team -- eight on offense. Clemson has work to do to replace its starting defensive front, but Xavier Thomas is a star in the making. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons is a preseason All-America candidate, and the starting secondary is strong. -- Andrea Adelson

No. 2 Alabama

Whether you buy Alabama's reasons for why it lost to Clemson or not, the fact remains that this team is motivated by how it ended last season. And a hungry Nick Saban-coached team is a dangerous one. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa says he's in the best shape of his college career, and with his top four receivers back, including Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy, the offense could be in for another monster year. -- Alex Scarborough

No. 3 Georgia

"Do more" is the motto in Athens these days as the Bulldogs are trying to get over the hump from really good to great. Standing in the way, of course, is Alabama. The offense is well-positioned, with quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D'Andre Swift and offensive tackle Andrew Thomas all returning. It's the defense, which must replace cornerback Deandre Baker and linebacker D'Andre Walker, that raises some questions. -- Scarborough

No. 4 Oklahoma

Two newcomers are under the microscope in OU's preseason camp: quarterback Jalen Hurts and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Hurts, the Alabama transfer who follows two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 NFL draft picks, will get most of the attention, although coach Lincoln Riley maintains that the QB1 job still must be claimed. Grinch might become the more significant addition, though, if he can improve one of the nation's worst defenses. Although Grinch is a strong tactician who understands how to complement an Air Raid offense, his impact on the defense's psychology has been most significant. "Coach Grinch has put in a mentality that we're going to go out there and try to make the offense play on our terms," linebacker Kenneth Murray said. -- Adam Rittenberg

No. 5 Ohio State

New coach Ryan Day would probably prefer to have an established quarterback room rather than breaking in transfers Justin Fields and Gunnar Hoak, but Fields is a former No. 1-ranked recruit and fits well within the system. Despite losing quite a bit at quarterback and receiver, Ohio State should return enough to propel the Buckeyes to success this season. The defense should be a strength, returning most of the top performers, and despite losing Urban Meyer, the continuity with the rest of the staff and the additions Day has made should equate to a smooth transition. -- Tom VanHaaren

No. 6 Michigan

The Wolverines are sitting directly behind Ohio State in the power rankings, and Jim Harbaugh and his staff need to get past the Buckeyes this season to propel the program toward its lofty expectations. Everything is set up for Michigan to have a big run, with continuity at quarterback with Shea Patterson returning, an experienced offensive line and a new offensive coordinator to modernize the offense. Don Brown's defense will have some big pieces to replace, but Brown has proven his ability to produce a top defense season after season. -- VanHaaren

No. 7 LSU

Is this really the year LSU's offense steps into the 21st century? Coach Ed Orgeron says it's finally time, with new passing-game coordinator Joe Brady on board. If that happens, with quarterback Joe Burrow returning, the Tigers might actually be ready to take the next step. The loss of linebacker Devin White hurts the defense, but safety Grant Delpit is poised to show why he's one of the best defenders in college football. -- Scarborough

No. 8 Notre Dame

There's surprisingly little buzz around Notre Dame, a 2018 CFP team with a returning starter at quarterback (Ian Book) and a stout defense led by dynamic ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. Notre Dame's starting 22 should be able to compete with anyone. The key in camp will be building depth on both sides and upgrading the speed at positions like wide receiver and linebacker. Notre Dame expects its offensive line to be among the nation's best, and new running backs coach Lance Taylor should help a group that will need to produce more for the Irish to make another playoff push. -- Rittenberg

No. 9 Florida

A lot of last season was about rebuilding the confidence of quarterback Feleipe Franks, and it showed, as his QB rating jumped 30 points under new coach Dan Mullen. But this year, Mullen says we should see it all come together. If it does, and Franks' production matches his proverbial arm talent, we could see the Gators' offense take off and Florida truly challenge Georgia for SEC East supremacy. -- Scarborough

No. 10 Texas

Defense undoubtedly will be the key area in camp, as Texas must replenish a front seven that returns only one major contributor in Malcolm Roach. The Longhorns will be younger on D but possibly better, and if they can fast-track some of their recruiting success, they should once again challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship. The massive media scrum around Sam Ehlinger at Big 12 media day confirmed the Texas quarterback will be a headline-generator all season, and hopes are very high for an offense that should be more dynamic in the run game with young backs Keaontay Ingram and Jordan Whittington. -- Rittenberg

No. 11 Oregon

On paper, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented roster in the Pac-12, especially with star quarterback Justin Herbert deciding to return to school after last season. Nineteen starters are back in Eugene, including all five offensive linemen, and a historic recruiting class headlined by the No. 1 player in the country in Kayvon Thibodeaux makes the Ducks a trendy dark-horse playoff team. -- Edward Aschoff

No. 12 Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher's second Aggie team should be fascinating. Expectations are very high for junior quarterback Kellen Mond and an offense that returns most of its receiving corps and line, but which must replace 1,700-yard rusher Trayveon Williams. The defense seeks more balance against the pass but likely will need young linemen like Bobby Brown III, Tyree Johnson and incoming freshman DeMarvin Leal to blossom. This team might still be a year away because of one of the nation's toughest schedules, but the progress in camp, especially that of top recruits like Leal and tight end Baylor Cupp, will be revealing. -- Rittenberg

No. 13 Utah

The media picked the Utes to win the Pac-12 title, and with 15 starters back to a team that won the Pac-12 South last year, you have to like their chances. Thousand-yard rusher Zack Moss is back, and so is a healthier Tyler Huntley, who packed on 25-plus pounds of muscle during the offseason. -- Aschoff

No. 14 Washington

The reigning Pac-12 champs are in total rebuild mode on defense, with nine starters gone. There's a lot of potential on defense, and safety Myles Bryant is a star, but there will be growing pains early in the season. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is the favorite to start under center, and having seven starters and one of the nation's best offensive lines back should help that transition. -- Aschoff

No. 15 Penn State

This will be an interesting season for the Nittany Lions, who are now without quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders. Luckily for Penn State, the defense is stout, and returning leading tackler Micah Parsons is primed to take a step forward in his sophomore season. If the offense can find playmakers, this could be a sneaky team to watch. -- VanHaaren

No. 16 Auburn

There's a lot to like on the Plains this offseason. The defense brought back star defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, and the offense has promising young playmakers in running back JaTarvious Whitlow and wideout Seth Williams. But none of that will matter if coach Gus Malzahn can't find a productive quarterback, whether that's Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix. Both are talented, but both are freshmen who are bound to experience some growing pains. -- Scarborough

No. 17 UCF

Can UCF make it three consecutive undefeated regular seasons? The first question surrounds quarterback, where coach Josh Heupel insists there is an open competition. But after Darriel Mack Jr. injured his ankle in a non-football-related activity, Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush became the prohibitive favorite to start the season. UCF also must replace its veteran defensive front, including leaders Titus Davis, Joey Connors and Trysten Hill, along with linebacker Pat Jasinski. But with a bevy of speedy skill players back and a secondary that features future NFL pick Richie Grant, make no mistake: The Knights feel they have even more to prove this season after a loss to LSU in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl ended their 25-game winning streak. -- Adelson

No. 18 Iowa

The Hawkeyes are going to have to replace a lot on defense, but junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa is back and looking to improve upon his outstanding 2018 season in which he had 10.5 sacks. The offense is losing tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson but returning quarterback Nate Stanley. There are enough big pieces on both sides that Iowa should be able to put together a very good season and compete for a shot at representing the West in the Big Ten Championship game. -- VanHaaren

No. 19 Nebraska

Nebraska's 2018 season started off extremely shaky under new coach Scott Frost, but almost midway through the season, the team started to click. The Huskers won four of their last six games and went back and forth with Ohio State before losing 36-31. They showed a lot of improvement, and Frost is hoping that continues with sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez running the offense. The offense should be better given the extra time in this system, so Nebraska could make some noise in the conference and nationally if they can build off the end of last season. -- VanHaaren

No. 20 Stanford

The Cardinal would like to find the right offensive identity this season. Bell cow Bryce Love is gone, but having 3,500-yard passer K.J. Costello back affords the Cardinal the chance to continue last year's more pass-first approach. Getting a greener defense back to playing Stanford football is a priority, too. -- Aschoff

No. 21 Syracuse

The big question Dino Babers faced at media day was whether last season's success is sustainable. Much of that will depend on what he gets out of quarterback Tommy DeVito. To be sure, DeVito is a totally different player from Eric Dungey, who could not only run and throw but brought his own physical stamp to the game. DeVito has patiently waited his turn. Syracuse does return one of the best defensive-end duos in the country in Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson, along with freshman All-American safety Andre Cisco and Lou Groza winner Andre Szmyt. Babers has worked tirelessly to upgrade the talent in this program, and headed into Year 4, all signs are pointing toward a Syracuse team that is ready to be a consistent winner. -- Adelson

No. 22 Wisconsin

The Badgers had a somewhat odd season in 2018, finishing 8-5 overall. The defense ranked 54th in rush yards allowed per game, and the offense ranked 118th in passing yards per game. Starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook decided to transfer after freshman Graham Mertz made his way to campus, and Mertz is battling with Jack Coan, Chase Wolf and Danny Vanden Boom. Running back Jonathan Taylor returns, which should help the new quarterback, and the defense should be able to bounce back after both sides saw injuries that hampered performance. -- VanHaaren

No. 23 Army

Jeff Monken has led Army on a historic run -- 29 wins since 2016, consecutive double-digit-win seasons -- and the program shows no signs of slowing down. Avoiding complacency might be Army's biggest challenge in camp, although academy players are better equipped than most to maintain the grind. Senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. leads an offense that expects to average more than 300 rushing yards again. The preseason intrigue will be on defense, where most of the front seven departs, along with talented coordinator Jay Bateman (North Carolina). But Monken promoted John Loose to replace Bateman and maintain the structure of the scheme. -- Rittenberg

No. 24 Michigan State

Quarterback Brian Lewerke dealt with an injury last season that severely hampered the Spartans' offense. Michigan State finished 115th in total yards per game on offense and continually relied on its defense to keep the team in games. The defense returns leaders Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes, and Lewerke is seemingly healthy. If Michigan State can keep Lewerke upright and productive, they should be able to improve on the 7-6 record from last season. -- VanHaaren

No. 25 Iowa State

The Cyclones' preseason media forecast, third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Texas, certainly raised eyebrows for a team that last won a conference title in 1912. But a closer study of Matt Campbell's roster justifies the prediction. Iowa State should have the league's best defense, boasting stars at all three levels (linemen JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima, linebacker Marcel Spears Jr., safety Greg Eisworth). Sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy has an extremely high ceiling. ISU's camp priority will be replacing do-it-all running back David Montgomery -- at least four players are in the mix -- and big-play receiver Hakeem Butler. A very talented tight end group should be featured more in the passing game. -- Rittenberg

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