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Updated Way-Too-Early Top 25 college football rankings

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After a month of transfers, coaching moves, NFL draft entries and a second signing day, it's time to update the Way-Too-Early Top 25. Oklahoma is the big mover this time, as Lincoln Riley, fresh off coaching back-to-back Heisman winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, landed top QB transfer Jalen Hurts out of Alabama.

Read our first rankings from Jan. 7.

1. Clemson Tigers

2018 record: 15-0, 8-0 ACC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 1

Returning starters: eight offense, four defense, one special teams

Key losses: DE Austin Bryant, DE Clelin Ferrell, DL Christian Wilkins, DL Dexter Lawrence, WR Hunter Renfrow, LB Kendall Joseph, CB Trayvon Mullen, OT Mitch Hyatt

Outlook: The defending national champion Tigers lost a boatload of star players to the NFL draft, but they still might have the easiest path to return to the College Football Playoff for a fifth straight season.

Clemson's offense should again be explosive, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence, tailback Travis Etienne and receiver Justyn Ross returning. The Tigers will have to rebuild their stout defensive front and replace two starting linebackers.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's ability to keep his coaching staff intact is a big reason the Tigers will annually stay in the CFP mix. The Tigers will have three assistants -- co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables -- earning more than $1 million in 2019.

Clemson hosts Texas A&M and plays at South Carolina in nonconference games in 2019. The Tigers will be overwhelming favorites to win a fifth straight ACC crown. -- Mark Schlabach


2. Alabama Crimson Tide

2018 record: 14-1, 8-0 SEC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 2

Returning starters: seven offense, five defense, one special teams

Key losses: NG Quinnen Williams, LB Christian Miller, LB Mack Wilson, OT Jonah Williams, C Ross Pierschbacher, TE Irv Smith Jr., RB Damien Harris, RB Josh Jacobs

Outlook: Alabama suffered its worst defeat under Nick Saban in the College Football Playoff National Championship, lost seven underclassmen to the NFL draft and is expected to hire seven new assistant coaches.

Still, the Crimson Tide signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the FBS, and with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and an ultratalented receiver corps coming back, Alabama once again looks like the team to beat in the SEC.

There's no question that Alabama's coaching staff turnover has taken a toll the past couple of seasons. But the Crimson Tide had to replace six assistant coaches in 2017 and still won 14 games and another SEC title.

Former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian is returning as offensive coordinator, and co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding is one of only three holdovers from the 2017 staff. Former Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood is expected to be named offensive line coach.

The Tide once again have a very manageable nonconference schedule. They play Duke in Atlanta and host New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina. Alabama plays SEC road games at South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. -- M.S.


3. Oklahoma Sooners

2018 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big 12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 6

Returning starters: four offense, 10 defense, zero special teams

Key losses: QB Kyler Murray, WR Marquise Brown, OT Bobby Evans, OT Cody Ford, G Ben Powers, G Dru Samia

Outlook: Can the Sooners not miss a beat after losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the second straight season?

OU coach Lincoln Riley might have found a more-than-capable stopgap in Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts, who went 26-2 as a starter and came off the bench to help the Tide beat Georgia 35-28 in the SEC championship game.

The Sooners will have to replace four starting offensive linemen and star receiver Brown. OU brings back receiver CeeDee Lamb and signed Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease Jr., who were ranked Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, among receivers in the ESPN 300.

As many as 10 starters are expected back from what was a very porous defense this past season, but Riley hired Ohio State's Alex Grinch as his new defensive coordinator to replace Mike Stoops, who was fired after six games. The Sooners play nonconference games against Houston, FCS foe South Dakota and UCLA in 2019. -- M.S.


4. Georgia Bulldogs

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 3

2018 record: 11-3, 7-1 SEC

Returning starters: six offense, seven defense, two special teams

Key losses: CB Deandre Baker, C Lamont Gaillard, TB Elijah Holyfield, TE Isaac Nauta, WR Mecole Hardman, WR Terry Godwin, WR Riley Ridley, DE Jonathan Ledbetter

Outlook: Georgia fell painfully short against Alabama for the second straight season and then looked pitiful in a 28-21 loss to Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart put together another top-two recruiting class, though, and his roster is slowly starting to match the Tide's in terms of depth.

Quarterback Jake Fromm and what might be the best offensive line in the FBS should make the Bulldogs the SEC East favorites again. They'll have to find depth behind tailback D'Andre Swift and find playmakers for their depleted receiver corps. Co-offensive coordinator James Coley takes over the playcalling after Jim Chaney left for Tennessee.

The Bulldogs bring back most of their playmakers on defense, but they'll miss Baker, the Jim Thorpe Award winner. Georgia needs to develop pass-rushers -- keep an eye on juco transfer Jermaine Johnson and Nolan Smith, the No. 2 defensive end in the ESPN 300. It still isn't clear who is going to replace departed defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who was named Colorado's coach. -- M.S.


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Ryan Day has big recruiting shoes to fill

Ohio State's Ryan Day has a big challenge to keep up with Urban Meyer's recruiting success.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

2018 record: 13-1, 8-1 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 4

Returning starters: five offense, 10 defense, one special teams

Key losses: QB Dwayne Haskins Jr., DT Dre'Mont Jones, DE Nick Bosa, WR Parris Campbell, WR Terry McLaurin, RB Mike Weber, OT Isaiah Prince, G Malcolm Pridgeon, C Michael Jordan

Outlook: You probably heard shouts of "O-H!" around the Buckeye State on Friday afternoon, as the NCAA approved quarterback Justin Fields' waiver application, granting him immediate eligibility for the 2019 season. While more waivers are being granted and every quarterback transfer is significant, Ohio State really needed to get the green light on Fields, especially after Tate Martell transferred to Miami.

The Buckeyes now replace the most prolific single-season passer in team history (Haskins) with their highest-rated quarterback recruit since Terrelle Pryor in 2008. Fields will lead an offense that returns running back J.K. Dobbins, wideouts K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor, and others.

The Fields news ended a week when Ohio State finalized a recruiting class that slipped to No. 17 in ESPN's national rankings. The size of the class (17 players) undoubtedly led to Ohio State's lowest rating in quite some time, and the Buckeyes still landed an excellent centerpiece in five-star defensive end Zach Harrison. Spring practice will be about integrating Fields and bolstering a defense under new leadership with co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley. -- Adam Rittenberg


6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

2018 record: 12-1

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 5

Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, zero special teams

Key losses: DT Jerry Tillery, LB Te'von Coney, LB Drue Tranquill, RB Dexter Williams, G Alex Bars, C Sam Mustipher, TE Alize Mack, CB Julian Love, WR Miles Boykin

Outlook: The Irish brought in the nation's No. 14 recruiting class, highlighted by several excellent prospects along the line of scrimmage. For Notre Dame to replicate last year's success, its offensive line must take a step forward this spring. If it does, the Irish have enough to be a more consistently dynamic unit.

Quarterback Ian Book is going through an entire offseason as the starter and has talented pass-catching options in wideouts Chase Claypool and Chris Finke and tight end Cole Kmet, a likely breakout player this fall. Center Trevor Ruhland is a key player to watch this spring, as he's expected to step in for standout Sam Mustipher. Notre Dame's offense likely will need to carry more of the burden this fall as the Irish lose elite players at all three levels of the defense.

Kelly's staff returns almost intact, as Notre Dame lost only one assistant (running backs coach Autry Denson). The Irish fully believe they can get back to the playoff but will need a strong offseason to build depth in key areas. -- A.R.


7. Texas Longhorns

2018 record: 10-4, 7-2 Big 12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 8

Returning starters: five offense, three defense, two special teams

Key losses: LB Gary Johnson, LB Anthony Wheeler, DB P.J. Locke III, CB Kris Boyd, DL Charles Omenihu, RB Tre Watson, OT Calvin Anderson, WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey

Outlook: A 10-win season, a memorable upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and a top-five recruiting class? Yep, Texas is back, folks.

If the Longhorns are going to contend for a CFP spot in 2019, they'll have to replace a lot of firepower on defense. Look for junior college transfer Caleb Johnson and early enrollees De'Gabriel Floyd and Marcus Tillman Jr. to get long looks at linebacker this spring.

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is back to lead the offense, and he lost only one of his top targets with Collin Johnson deciding to return to school. Former USC signee Bru McCoy and Jordan Whittington, the top two athletes in the ESPN 300, were big additions. It's unclear whether McCoy will be eligible to play in 2019.

Texas plays nonconference games against Louisiana Tech, LSU and Rice in 2019, with Big 12 road games at West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State and Baylor. -- M.S.


8. Florida Gators

2018 record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 7

Returning starters: five offense, seven defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Jordan Scarlett, OT Jawaan Taylor, OT Martez Ivey, DE Jachai Polite, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, LB Vosean Joseph

Outlook: The Gators made big strides in coach Dan Mullen's first season, winning 10 games and upsetting Michigan 41-15 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Now the question is whether quarterback Feleipe Franks can continue to improve enough to challenge Georgia in the SEC East. The Gators are going to have to replace four starting offensive linemen and Scarlett, their second-leading rusher from 2018.

There are even bigger holes to fill on defense, after Polite, Chauncey-Gardner and Joseph turned pro early. They combined for 209 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks last season.

Mullen and his staff were able to start reloading with a top-10 recruiting class, including No. 4 athlete Kaiir Elam, who is expected to play in the secondary in college.

Florida opens the 2019 season against Miami in Orlando, Florida, and will leave the Sunshine State only four times for road games at Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Missouri. -- M.S.


9. Michigan Wolverines

2018 record: 10-3, 8-1 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 11

Returning starters: eight offense, five defense, two special teams

Key losses: LB Devin Bush, DE Rashan Gary, DE Chase Winovich, FS Tyree Kinnel, RB Karan Higdon, OT Juwann Bushell-Beatty, WR Grant Perry, TE Zach Gentry, CB David Long

Outlook: The sting of Michigan's poor finish to the 2018 season lessened a bit after the team added a new offensive playcaller and finalized the Big Ten's top-rated recruiting class. Josh Gattis left Alabama to become Michigan's offensive coordinator and could give the downfield passing attack a much-needed jolt.

Gattis has coached wide receivers at Alabama, Penn State, Vanderbilt and Western Michigan. His arrival could signal bigger contributions from a talented receiving corps that includes Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black if he can stay healthy. The Wolverines also promoted analyst Ben McDaniels to quarterbacks coach as Pep Hamilton departed for the XFL. Michigan ranked 79th in pass offense in 2018.

The Wolverines also signed the nation's No. 8 recruiting class, highlighted by five-star safety Daxton Hill and defensive line prospects Mazi Smith, Christopher Hinton, Michael Morris Jr. and David Ojabo. Coordinator Don Brown has a lot of star power to replace on defense, and the position competitions in the front seven will be particularly notable when spring practice begins. -- A.R.


10. Oregon Ducks

2018 record: 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 12

Returning starters: 10 offense, seven defense, two special teams

Key losses: DE Jalen Jelks, OLB Justin Hollins, LB Kaulana Apelu, FS Ugochukwu Amadi, WR Dillon Mitchell

Outlook: The Ducks finished with a mere 11 voting points in the final AP poll but will head into 2019 riding the Pac-12's most encouraging offseason. That started, of course, in December, when quarterback Justin Herbert announced that he will return to Eugene for his final season, despite being in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft.

When Herbert declared, it was already clear that the Ducks were going to finish with one of the nation's best recruiting classes, and that was solidified last week after Oregon's class finished ranked sixth nationally. The headliner is defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, ESPN's No. 1-ranked overall player, who figures to make an immediate impact as the Ducks look to replace first-team All-Pac-12 DE Jalen Jelks.

The Ducks' top receiver, Dillon Mitchell, was the team's only underclassman to enter the NFL draft, and he's a significant loss. Mitchell caught 75 passes for 1,184 yards, and no one else caught more than 38 passes for 433 yards (Jaylon Redd). -- Kyle Bonagura


11. Texas A&M Aggies

2018 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 9

Returning starters: six offense, five defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Trayveon Williams, LB Otaro Alaka, S Donovan Wilson, DT Daylon Mack, DE Landis Durham, DE Kingsley Keke, G Keaton Sutherland, TE Jace Sternberger, LB Tyrel Dodson, C Erik McCoy

Outlook: The Aggies' $75 million investment in coach Jimbo Fisher is already paying dividends. Texas A&M won nine games in a season for the first time since 2013, routed NC State 52-13 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl and signed the No. 3 recruiting class.

The Aggies lost offensive line coach Jim Turner, who left for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals are reportedly interested in interviewing Mike Elko, one of the top defensive coordinators in the FBS. Elko also interviewed for Temple's head-coaching vacancy.

The Aggies will have to navigate a very difficult schedule in 2019, with road games at Clemson, Georgia and LSU, but they might be the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West in the near future.

Fisher has done a nice job restoring quarterback Kellen Mond's confidence, and the Aggies' top five receivers were only sophomores this past season. Star tailback Williams is turning pro along with standout tight end Sternberger.

The Aggies' recruiting haul included No. 1 offensive tackle Kenyon Green, No. 3 safety Brian Williams, No. 8 defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal and No. 2 tight end Baylor Cupp. -- M.S.


12. LSU Tigers

2018 record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 10

Returning starters: eight offense, seven defense, one special teams

Key losses: CB Greedy Williams, LB Devin White, DT Ed Alexander, CB Terrence Alexander, G Garrett Brumfield, TE Foster Moreau, RB Nick Brossette, K Cole Tracy

Outlook: The Tigers took a few steps forward in coach Ed Orgeron's second full season, winning 10 games and beating UCF 40-32 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

The big question heading into the spring, besides replacing two of their best players on defense, is whether quarterback Joe Burrow can continue to develop. He should improve with a full offseason under his belt. Orgeron hired New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady to coach receivers and serve as passing game coordinator.

The Tigers will have to replace Brossette, who ran for 1,039 yards with 14 touchdowns last season. Incoming freshman John Emery, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN 300, might get the first crack at replacing him.

LSU will also undoubtedly miss White and Williams, but early enrollee Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN 300, might be LSU's next great defensive back.

The Tigers play a nonconference game at Texas on Sept. 7 and also play at Alabama on Nov. 9. -- M.S.


13. Washington State Cougars

2018 record: 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 13

Returning starters: eight offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Gardner Minshew, OT Andre Dillard, WR Kyle Sweet, DE Logan Tago, LB Peyton Pelluer, DB Hunter Dale, CB Darrien Molton

Outlook: On Saturday, Washington State confirmed that quarterback Gage Gubrud will transfer from Eastern Washington, where he was twice a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS offensive player of the year. Gubrud threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2016 -- and tallied a win against Wazzu in Pullman -- and he gives Mike Leach another experienced transfer quarterback to coach. It worked about as well as possible last season when East Carolina transfer Gardner Minshew came in and led the Cougars to a school-record 11 wins.

Whoever wins the starting job will have several talented receivers to throw to. Eight returners caught at least 20 passes last season, including Tay Martin (69 catches, 685 yards) and Dezmon Patmon (53 catches, 374 yards). Talented RB James Williams, who caught 83 passes out of the backfield in 2018, opted to enter the NFL draft, but Max Borgi's presence should allow for a relatively seamless transition.

The Cougars' recruiting class finished ranked No. 59 nationally, but Leach has shown over his career that he and his staff can develop and win with lesser-regarded prospects. Four-star linebacker Jamir Thomas is the team's top-ranked recruit, but the Cougars didn't land anyone ranked in the ESPN 300. -- K.B.


14. UCF Knights

2018 record: 12-1, 8-0 AAC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 14

Returning starters: eight offense, six defense, zero special teams

Key losses: OT Wyatt Miller, DE Titus Davis, DT A.J. Wooten, LB Pat Jasinski, SS Kyle Gibson, K Matthew Wright, P Mac Loudermilk

Outlook: The Knights finished the regular season unbeaten for the second year in a row under new coach Josh Heupel before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, which ended their 25-game win streak.

They'll have a quarterback battle this spring, after former Notre Dame starter Brandon Wimbush joined the team as a graduate transfer in January. He'll battle rising sophomore Darriel Mack Jr., who started the final two games after McKenzie Milton suffered a serious knee injury. It's unclear when Milton will be able to return.

The Knights lost three of their starting defensive linemen but addressed the need by signing a whopping eight ends and tackles in their recruiting class. Junior college transfers Jalen Pinkney and Noah Hancock and Virginia Tech transfer Cam Goode might be able to help right away.

UCF plays two nonconference games against Power 5 opponents: Stanford on Sept. 14 in Orlando, Florida, and at Pitt on Sept. 21. -- M.S.


15. Syracuse Orange

2018 record: 10-3, 6-2 ACC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 15

Returning starters: five offense, eight defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Eric Dungey, WR Jamal Custis, OT Cody Conway, G Aaron Roberts, OT Koda Martin, DT Chris Slayton, LB Kielan Whitner, LB Ryan Guthrie

Outlook: After going 4-8 in each of coach Dino Babers' first two seasons, the Orange turned the corner in 2018, winning 10 games for the first time in 17 seasons and defeating West Virginia 34-18 in the Camping World Bowl. Tommy DeVito starts the spring as the successor to Syracuse all-time leading passer Dungey, who threw for 9,340 yards with 58 touchdowns in four seasons. The Orange also flipped quarterback David Summers from Maryland after backup Chance Amie transferred in January.

Syracuse will get a closer look this spring at two transfer players who excelled in their bowl games last season: running back Abdul Adams, an Oklahoma transfer, and receiver Trishton Jackson, a Michigan State transfer.

The recruiting class also included junior college offensive tackle Darius Tisdale and Canadian offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron. Syracuse has to replace both of its starting offensive tackles from last season.

The Orange will play only one Power 5 nonconference opponent (Maryland) and will play ACC road games at Duke, FSU, Louisville and NC State. -- M.S.


16. Penn State Nittany Lions

2018 record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 17

Returning starters: six offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Trace McSorley, WR DeAndre Thompkins, LB Koa Farmer, CB Amani Oruwariye, S Nick Scott, RB Miles Sanders, G Connor McGovern, OT Ryan Bates, DE Shareef Miller

Outlook: There has been a lot of roster intrigue since Penn State's Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky. Five PSU underclassmen entered the NFL draft, while 11 others (mostly graduated players) have entered the transfer portal. On the positive side, Penn State signed a small (18 players) but decorated recruiting class (No. 13 nationally) that includes two ESPN 300 running backs in Noah Cain and Devyn Ford.

Penn State will be a young team in 2019 but arguably a more talented one after the past few recruiting classes. Quarterback will be the biggest spring storyline, as Tommy Stevens finally gets his chance to be the starter, but he must beat Sean Clifford. "I've got so much confidence in Tommy," coach James Franklin said. "It's going to be a tremendous spring."

The Lions are still looking for up-the-middle depth on defense, but there's some star power on the unit now, with linebacker Micah Parsons, end Yetur Gross-Matos and others.

-- A.R.


17. Washington Huskies

2018 record: 10-4, 7-2 Pac-12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 16

Returning starters: seven offense, two defense, two special teams

Key losses: LB Ben Burr-Kirven, CB Byron Murphy, S Taylor Rapp, LB Tevis Bartlett, S JoJo McIntosh, DL Greg Gaines, DE Jaylen Johnson, QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, OT Kaleb McGary

Outlook: The concerns are obvious: Washington needs to replace nearly its entire starting defense and four-year starters at quarterback and running back, and the offense has been on a downward trajectory the past couple of seasons. Still, until there is reason not to, we should give coach Chris Petersen the benefit of the doubt. The Huskies have won at least 10 games the past three seasons and have consistently been among the best recruiting teams in the Pac-12.

This year's recruiting class finished ranked 15th nationally and features a pair of four-star defensive tackles in Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele who should be able to help keep the recent tradition of strong defensive line play alive. More good news came Sunday when the Huskies flipped longtime USC receiver commit Puka Nacua.

For Washington, though, the most interesting storyline headed into 2019 will be related to the quarterback competition to replace Jake Browning. The assumption is that Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is the favorite. A local product, Eason started as a true freshman in 2016, but after an injury sidelined him early in the 2017 season, he was replaced by Jake Fromm and transferred shortly after the season. Browning's backup in 2019, Jake Haener, will be in the mix along with yet another Jacob -- Jacob Sirmon -- and Colson Yankoff. -- K.B.


18. Utah Utes

2018 record: 9-5, 6-3 Pac-12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 18

Returning starters: eight offense, seven defense, zero special teams

Key losses: OT Jackson Barton, G Jordan Agasiva, LB Chase Hansen, LB Cody Barton, FS Corrion Ballard, SS Marquise Blair, K Matt Gay, P Mitch Wishnowsky

Outlook: After winning its first Pac-12 South title, there is a case for Utah to be ranked even higher going into 2019, as some view the Utes as the Pac-12 favorites.

Assuming Zack Moss is healthy, he has a chance to be the best running back in the Pac-12. His average of 121.3 yards per game ranked second in the conference last season, but an injury cost him four games. It will be interesting to see how Moss -- and the entire offense, really -- looks under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, whom Utes fans will remember from his prior stint as the team's OC (2005-08). Ludwig has been at Vanderbilt the past four years, following time at Cal, San Diego State and Wisconsin since leaving Salt Lake City.

The Utes didn't end up with a particularly impressive recruiting class -- ESPN ranked it 61st nationally -- but it's not a group the Utes need to get much out of right away because it has a very experienced core returning. Utah is particularly deep on the defensive line but needs to replace three starters on the offensive line.

Another thing going in Utah's favor: its schedule. The Utes have a manageable nonconference slate (at BYU, Northern Illinois, Idaho State) and miss both Oregon and Stanford during Pac-12 play. -- K.B.


19. Northwestern Wildcats

2018 record: 9-5, 8-1 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 19

Returning starters: six offense, seven defense, one special teams

Key losses: QB Clayton Thorson, OT Blake Hance, G J.B. Butler, WR Flynn Nagel, DT Jordan Thompson, LB Nate Hall, S Jared McGee, CB Montre Hartage

Outlook: Pat Fitzgerald has established a consistent winner at his alma mater, a defense-oriented program that wins ugly but wins often (36 wins in the past four seasons and its first Big Ten West Division title in 2018). The next step is to consistently compete for the division and win the league for the first time since 2000.

It likely will take more from an offense that has been among the nation's worst in generating explosive plays. Enter Hunter Johnson, the Clemson quarterback transfer whom ESPN rated as the top pocket-passer in the 2017 recruiting class. Northwestern doesn't get quarterbacks as naturally gifted as Johnson, so this could be the spark the offense needs.

Fitzgerald finalized a fairly standard recruiting class earlier this month, ranked 43rd nationally and toward the bottom of the league. But it's notable that two four-star receivers, Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz, headline the group. Northwestern has a new offensive line coach in Kurt Anderson, who will oversee a group that underachieves at times. -- A.R


20. Stanford Cardinal

2018 record: 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: Not ranked

Returning starters: three offense, five defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Bryce Love, WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside, TE Kaden Smith, WR Trent Irwin, OL Nate Herbig, LB Bobby Okereke, CB Alijah Holder

Outlook: If there is one thing Stanford can't be accused of, it's lack of ambition. All three of Stanford's nonconference opponents in 2019 finished ranked in the final AP Top 25 (No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 11 UCF and No. 21 Northwestern). The Cardinal might have the most difficult four-game stretch to open the season, with games at USC and home against Oregon, the opener against Northwestern and a cross-country trip to UCF.

For the first time in a long time, Stanford will enter a season with a bit of an identity issue. The Cardinal developed a reputation as a power-running game bully over the past decade, but poor offensive line play in 2018 required the offense to lean more heavily on the passing game. Do the Cardinal try to tip the scale back the other way, or will they embrace the pass even more following the departure of Bryce Love?

There were seven ESPN 300 recruits in Stanford's recruiting class, which ranked No. 21 nationally, including receiver Elijah Higgins, who has a chance to help from day one. -- K.B.


21. Wisconsin Badgers

2018 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 21

Returning starters: six offense, seven defense, one special teams

Key losses: G Michael Deiter, OT David Edwards, G Beau Benzschawel, LB Andrew Van Ginkel, LB T.J. Edwards, LB Ryan Connelly, S D'Cota Dixon, OT Jon Dietzen

Outlook: Not surprisingly, things have been quiet in Madison since the end of the season. Wisconsin didn't add to its 19-man recruiting class signed in February, and the haul ranked 29th nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. The most notable morsel of news is significant, though, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook returned to participate in winter workouts.

Hornibrook's recurring head injury sidelined him for four games last season, and while he twice was cleared to return, his symptoms returned. If he stays symptom-free, he will be the favorite to start for the fourth consecutive season. But Jack Coan gained valuable experience in 2018, and Graham Mertz -- ESPN's top-rated pocket passer and No. 21 overall recruit in the 2019 class -- is already on campus and will practice this spring.

Even with Heisman Trophy contender Jonathan Taylor returning at running back, Wisconsin must upgrade its passing game after finishing 118th in yards per game and 121st in interceptions per attempt last season. There are also holes to fill on both lines and at linebacker as the Wisconsin defense tries to get back to performing like it did from 2013 to 2017. -- A.R.


22. Iowa Hawkeyes

2018 record: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: Not ranked

Returning starters: six offense, four defense, one special teams

Key losses: TE T.J. Hockenson, TE Noah Fant, WR Nick Easley, DE Parker Hesse, DE Anthony Nelson, CB Amani Hooker, S Jake Gervase, LB Jack Hockaday

Outlook: The Hawkeyes should be a factor in an increasingly improving Big Ten West division, as quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his third season as the starter. He's among the nation's most underrated quarterbacks and needs 23 touchdown passes to set the Iowa career record.

The key will be creating enough explosiveness around him. Iowa is in a bit better shape at wide receiver with Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette emerging, but it lost two star tight ends -- Fant and Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner -- to the NFL draft as underclassmen.

Earlier this month, Iowa signed a solid recruiting class (No. 36 nationally), led by offensive linemen Tyler Endres and Ezra Miller, who add to an already talented group. If the Hawkeyes can replace the experience they lose along the defensive line and build around A.J. Epenesa, they'll be a real threat in the division. -- A.R.


23. Auburn Tigers

2018 record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 23

Returning starters: six offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Jarrett Stidham, HB Chandler Cox, WR Ryan Davis, DT Dontavius Russell, LB Darrell Williams, LB Deshaun Davis, CB Jamel Dean, WR Darius Slayton

Outlook: All eyes will be on Auburn's quarterback and offense when the Tigers open spring practice before what might be a make-or-break season for embattled coach Gus Malzahn, who has more than $40 million left on his contract.

After Stidham declared for the NFL draft, incoming freshman Bo Nix, the No. 4 pocket-passer in the ESPN 300, will battle Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood and former minor league baseball player Cord Sandberg for the starting job.

Malzahn plans to continue to call offensive plays, after doing so in the Tigers' 63-14 rout of Purdue in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. All five starting offensive linemen are expected back, which will help while breaking in a new quarterback. The good news for Auburn is that defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson and nickelback Javaris Davis elected to return to Kevin Steele's defense instead of leaving for the NFL. Owen Pappoe, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the ESPN 300, was the gem of Auburn's recruiting class.

Auburn's 2019 schedule is again among the most difficult in the FBS. The Tigers open the season against Oregon in Dallas, play SEC road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU, and play Georgia and Alabama at home. -- M.S.


24. Nebraska Cornhuskers

2018 record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 24

Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: WR Stanley Morgan Jr., RB Devine Ozigbo, LB Dedrick Young II, LB Luke Gifford, S Aaron Williams, S Tre Neal

Outlook: Scott Frost followed a big second half of his first season as coach of his alma mater with Nebraska's highest-rated recruiting class since 2011.

The Cornhuskers' class ranked 18th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten, according to ESPN. Frost and his staff signed players from 15 states, including four from Georgia.

Quarterback Luke McCaffrey, the brother of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, was the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback. Versatile athlete Wandale Robinson of Frankfort, Kentucky, and safety Noa Pola-Gates of Gilbert, Arizona, were also highly rated.

Rising sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez passed for 2,617 yards with 17 touchdowns while running for 629 yards with 8 scores in 2018. He'll miss leading receiver Morgan and leading rusher Ozigbo.

Defensively, Nebraska will lose four of its top five tacklers, including two linebackers and two safeties. Next season, Nebraska plays Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa at home and doesn't play Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State in the regular season. -- M.S.


25. Army Black Knights

2018 record: 11-2

First 2019 Way-Too-Early rank: 25

Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, zero special teams

Key losses: FB Darnell Woolfolk, C Bryce Holland, OT Austin Schuffert, LB James Nachtigal, S James Gibson, LB Chandler Ramirez, LB Kenneth Brinson

Outlook: What will the Black Knights do to follow one of the more remarkable seasons in the 125-year history of the program? They won 11 games for the first time, took Oklahoma to the wire before falling in overtime and blasted Houston 70-14 in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, tying the FBS record for the most lopsided result in a bowl game.

Army has been fortunate to keep coach Jeff Monken around, and he'll have a team capable of winning 10 or more games again in 2019. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who became the first Army player to run and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season, will be back to lead the offense. Woolfolk, who ran for 885 yards, and Holland, the leader of the offensive line, are significant losses.

Army promoted John Loose to defensive coordinator to replace Jay Bateman, a Broyles Award finalist, who left for North Carolina. Army opens the 2019 season against Rice and plays at Michigan the following week. -- M.S.


Falling out of the rankings: Iowa State, Missouri