John Clay

John Clay’s Top 25: Alabama and Clemson lead pack again, but watch out for Georgia

This year’s road to SEC Championship ‘more of a battle,’ Fromm says after win

Jake Fromm, quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs, spoke on the teamwork players showed against the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday afternoon. Fromm also said this year's journey to the SEC Championship has felt like 'more of a battle' compared to 2017.
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Jake Fromm, quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs, spoke on the teamwork players showed against the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday afternoon. Fromm also said this year's journey to the SEC Championship has felt like 'more of a battle' compared to 2017.

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2019 College Football Preview

Watch for the Lexington Herald-Leader’s 2019 College Football Preview special section in the print edition on Sunday, Aug. 25. Click below to view all the stories for that section that have been published on Kentucky.com.

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My preseason Top 25:

1. Alabama: Clemson sunk the Crimson Tide’s battleship 44-16 in last year’s College Football Playoff title game, but Nick Saban’s stockpile is angling for a comeback story. If Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the best draft-eligible quarterback in the nation, then Jerry Jeudy is certainly the best draft-eligible receiver. Bama is always deep in front-line talent and Saban executed an offseason staff overhaul that should pay dividends.

2. Clemson: Yeah, we know, the defending national champions have the triumphant trio of superhero quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and wide-out Justyn Ross back on offense, but it’s holes in the Tigers’ defense that should worry insufferable coach Dabo Swinney, who’s probably already plotting who doesn’t get a title ring this time next year.

3. Georgia: A national championship is the trophy fish Georgia quarterback/outdoorsman Jake Fromm has yet to hook. This could be the year of the big catch for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs, who boast a blue ribbon offensive line, a talented defense and the accurate Fromm, who staked UGA to a 28-14 lead over Alabama in last year’s SEC title game before the Bulldogs went bust.

4. Oklahoma: Alabama’s Jalen Hurts is the latest quarterback to take the transfer train to Norman, following Baker Mayfield (Texas Tech) and Kyler Murray (Texas A&M). Hurts isn’t as talented as his predecessors, but the Sooners’ seminal question resides on the other side of the ball, where new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will try to build a defense the OU offense can be proud of.

5. Ohio State: Urban Meyer — or Urban Liar as Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi calls him — has retired again, meaning he is the odds-on favorite to be USC’s coach in 2020. Young Ryan Day leads the Buckeye brigade, which has a stud on defense in outside linebacker Chase Young and a question mark at quarterback in Georgia transfer Justin Fields.

6. Michigan: You’d have to think the countdown clock is ticking on Wolverines Coach Jim Harbaugh, who has yet to get the Blue and Maze into the College Football Playoff. This might be his best shot, with a veteran quarterback in Shea Patterson, the makings of a nasty defense and Ohio State scheduled to visit Ann Arbor.

7. Florida: Just when it looked like the Gators were on their way back to national prominence, plenty of offseason trouble popped up in the tropics. A half-dozen Gators have allegedly been accused of sexual assault or battery. If head coach Dan Mullen can get a grip on his guys, Florida has the talent to be a top-10 team.

8. LSU: Head coach Ed Orgeron is trying his level best to convince people he’s more than just cajun growling noises. The Tigers were a surprising 10-3 last year with wins over Miami, Auburn, Georgia and UCF. The heady Joe Burrow returns at quarterback and Grant Delpit, the nation’s best safety, leads the defense.

Tua Tagovailoa
Alabama dual-threat quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, shown carrying the ball late in the 2018 season, is expected to be the overall No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Butch Dill AP

9. Texas: Snubbed by the CFP committee, Georgia may have sulked its way through its 28-21 Sugar Bowl loss to Texas, but it was still a statement win for Tom Herman’s Longhorns. Sam Ehlinger is back at quarterback and running back Kenny Ingram is poised to crack the 1,000-yard mark. Meanwhile, the defense could be the Big 12’s best. A sleeping giant awakes?

10. Utah: Kyle Whittingham might be the best coach you’ve barely heard of. He’s 120-61 over 14 seasons with the Utes, including a 9-5 mark last year. Fourteen starters are back off that team, including senior quarterback Tyler Huntley and 1,000-yard rusher Zack Moss. Utah’s defense allowed just 19.4 points per game last season. Ladies and gentlemen, your favorites to win the Pac-12.

11. Oregon: Quarterback Justin Herbert surprised a few people when he decided to postpone the start of his NFL career and return to Eugene for his senior season. Herbert is just one of 10 returning starters on offense, including 1,000-yard rusher CJ Verdell. Mario Cristobal’s defense has gone from giving up 41.4 points per game in 2016 to 25.4 last season.

12. Notre Dame: OK, so the Irish may not have deserved to be in last year’s CFP semifinals, where Notre Dame was beaten 30-3 by Clemson. Still, the 2018 campaign was a confidence-builder for head coach Brian Kelly. If he can rebuild a defense that lost five starters and get the most out of quarterback Ian Book, the Irish might get another crack at the semifinals this season.

13. Texas A&M: It didn’t take long for Jimbo Fisher to disprove the notion he’s all hat and no cattle. His former program, Florida State, might be foundering, but Fisher’s Aggies are on the rise, thanks to quarterback Kellen Mond and a tough defense guided by second-year coordinator Mike Elko. A Sept. 8 game at Clemson is a tough early test, but Alabama comes to College Station on Oct. 12.

14. Washington: All eyes in the Pacific Northwest will be on quarterback Jacob Eason, the Georgia transfer who is charged with keeping the rebuilding Huskies in the CFP hunt. Only nine starters return for Coach Chris Petersen, who is 32-9 over his last three seasons at Washington. The schedule should help the transition. Utah, Oregon and Washington State all must come to Seattle.

15. Iowa: Head coach Kirk Ferentz is “Basic Mike,” the boring old coach who does the same thing year after year, like have the Hawkeyes in the hunt for Big Ten and national honors. No different this year, thanks to veteran quarterback Nate Stanley and standout defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who has NFL scouts drooling.

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Louisville fans will have a chance to check out quarterback Ian Book and Notre Dame when the Irish visit Cardinal Stadium for their season opener on Sept. 2. Mark J. Terrill AP

16. Michigan State: Has anyone ever seen Michigan State Coach Mike Dantonio smile? The sour Spartan was in no mood for grins last year with his team sliding all the way to 7-6 after a 10-3 season in 2017. State has plenty of talent returning, but the only way Dantonio sheds his scowl is if Brian Lewerke comes through at quarterback.

17. Penn State: Even head coach James Franklin might have to check the names on the roster given the high number of new faces that will populate the Penn State depth chart this season. Quarterback and heart of the team Trace McSorley graduated while backup Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State. Luckily, Franklin has recruited well. Or will see if he has.

18. Stanford: Injuries occupied a major storyline in The Cardinal’s so-so 9-4 finish in 2018. Head coach David Shaw is hoping for better medical luck to go with quarterback K.J. Costello, who threw for the second-most yards (3,540) in school history last year. That Costello opted to keep his place in Palo Alto rather than roll the dice on the NFL gives you reason to believe Stanford will be better in 2019.

19. Auburn: It won’t be the offense that removes offensive-minded head coach Gus Malzahn from the hot seat. It’ll be Auburn’s stingy defense, led by stud defensive tackle Derrick Brown, plus standout ends Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson. If Malzhan can hold up his end of the bargain by developing, a starting quarterback, the Tigers might actually challenge Bama in the SEC West. Might.

20. TCU: When the Horned Frogs slipped from 11-2 in 2015 to 6-7 in 2016, head coach Gary Patterson guided his team back up to 11-3 in 2017. Now after a 7-6 finish last year, time for Patterson to do it again. The Frogs did win four of their last five last season and the hope is Kansas State transfer Alex Delton will settle the dust at quarterback.

21. UCF: No one is saying the Golden Knights have another shot at a faux national title, but it’s hard to ignore UCF’s 25-1 record over the past two seasons. Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush takes over Josh Heupel’s offense, but the defense is the sticky point in the home of sticky weather. The Knights gave up 40 or more points in three of their last six games last season.

22. Wisconsin: Nebraska and Purdue are the trendy picks in the Big Ten West — whatever happened to Leaders and Legends, by the way? — but we’re sticking with the reliable Badgers. Jonathan Taylor may be the nation’s best running back and true freshman Graham Mertz, the nation’s No. 3 ranked pro-style recruit, may be just what head coach Paul Chryst needs at quarterback.

23. Washington State: For as much love as Mike Leach gets for his Air Raid offense and quirky personality, the Cougars went 11-2 last season thanks to an improved defense that ranked fourth in the Pac-12. Eastern Washington grad transfer Gage Gubrud takes over at quarterback, but redshirt senior Anthony Gordon was making a run at him late in camp. Gubrud led EWU to a 45-42 win over Leach and Co. in 2016.

24. Iowa State: There’s a reason NFL teams have been sniffing around ISU Coach Matt Campbell. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, the Cyclones could be ready for a breakout campaign behind a defense that led the Big 12 in points allowed and rushing defense, while finishing second in total defense. Defensive end JaQuan Bailey leads the way.

25. Miami: Former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz seems the perfect fit to get the U back to its nasty self. After all, Diaz isn’t afraid to gamble, installing true freshman Jarren Williams at quarterback. And Miami returns six starters on a defense that allowed just 19.5 points per game last season.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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