News & Analysis

PFF College: Way-too-early 2020 top 25 rankings

With the 2019 college football season coming to a close, it’s time to take a look ahead to 2020. Using PFF’s wins above average (WAA) to dive into the returning rosters while keeping in mind teams' 2019 ELO rankings and incoming recruiting classes, this is the way-too-early top 25 for the 2020 college football season:

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State may be losing the third most WAA, but it also returns the most WAA in the FBS — headlined by quarterback Justin Fields. In his first year with the Buckeyes, Fields’ 92.5 passing grade was second to only Joe Burrow this year, and he is one of the top two returning quarterbacks in college football. He’ll have two of the top 25 wide receivers returning to college football at his disposal in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and while J.K. Dobbins is gone, they should be more than fine at running back. The Buckeyes were third in expected points added per play in 2019, and they’ll likely post a number similar to that with Fields under center.

On the other hand, the defense does take a massive hit losing key guys such as Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. They allowed the second-fewest expected points added per play last season — and Okudah and Arnette were a big part of that.

Former four-star recruit Sevyn Banks showed a lot of promise during his limited action in 2019, totaling four combined pass breakups and interceptions on his nine targets in coverage. He’ll likely be starting at outside corner alongside Cameron Brown, who owns freakish speed and allowed just eight of 20 targets to be caught in 2019. The defense may not be on the same level as this past season, but quarterback play trumps all, and with Fields, anything is possible for the Buckeyes.

2. Clemson Tigers

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence failed to show up when he was needed in the National Championship game — there’s no question about that. He still finished the year with an elite 91.0 PFF grade, topping his record-setting true freshman campaign in 2018 when he had a 90.7 grade. Even with producing one of the five best PFF grades we saw from a quarterback this season, Lawrence still had a lot of room for improvement. He got off to an incredibly slow start, ranking 48th among FBS quarterbacks in PFF grade through his first four games. Clearly, he came around and got back to elite form, adding value through the air and on the ground.

Travis Etienne is one of the rare running backs to bring a lot of value to their respective team — he improved his receiving immensely and produced the fourth most WAA for a non-quarterback this past season. As for the receivers, Lawrence will be losing the reliable Tee Higgins, who was the fifth highest-graded FBS receiver, to the NFL this past year, but he’ll still have one of the top returning receivers in Justyn Ross, who is one year removed from posting the second highest grade at his position as a true freshman. Losing Isaiah Simmons hurts, but the Tigers still bring back the second most WAA overall and fifth most when taking out quarterbacks.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

As of now, the SEC is running through the Georgia Bulldogs. They return the second most WAA among non-quarterbacks as a team, with Eric Stokes and George Pickens leading the way. And they were fortunate enough to land the biggest graduate transfer of this offseason in Jamie Newman. During Newman’s 2019 season at Wake Forest, he displayed traits that Jake Fromm couldn’t touch — such as tight-window accuracy and effective deep passing — while displaying far superior athleticism. His tight-window passing grade and deep-passing grade (20-plus yards) both were second to only Joe Burrow this season. That’s pretty good company. Getting him out of Wake Forest's up-tempo, RPO system will allow Newman to do what he does best — beat defenses with his arm instead of his legs.

4. Oregon Ducks

Taking quarterbacks out of the conversation, Oregon has arguably the best roster top to bottom in college football. They return the most WAA in the FBS when excluding quarterbacks, in large part because of their elite secondary. Defensive backs Jevon Holland, Mykael Wright, Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir all rank among the top 30 returning corners/safeties, and they also have the best offensive tackle PFF has ever seen in Penei Sewell. On top of that, they have one of the best young pass-rushers in college football in Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was the second-ranked recruit in the country in 2018 and produced an 80.0 pass-rush grade, 15 combined sacks and hits and a 16.2% win rate in his true freshman campaign. The loss of Justin Herbert isn’t as big as an impact as some might think, however, the quarterback situation is still up in the air. The favorite is Tyler Shough, who was the seventh-ranked quarterback in the 2018 class, but he’ll have competition from a handful of young signal-callers, including Jay Butterfield — the third-ranked quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class.

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jedrick Wills and Trevon Diggs are all on their way to the NFL and are projected to be snatched up in the first round. These losses hurt the Crimson Tide, but there is no shortage of talent on the roster with these departures. Quarterback Mac Jones performed well but not great, producing a 78.7 PFF grade when taking over for the injured Tagovailoa. And he'll have big competition with true freshman Bryce Young, who’s a five-star recruit and number one quarterback in the 2020 class, and Tua’s little brother Taulia Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide will bring back two of the top five returning wide receivers in college football in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Smith toasted numerous defensive backs, including Derek Stingley Jr., in press coverage this past year, ranking first in raw PFF grade and gathering an insane 18.2 yards per target.

6. LSU Tigers

LSU’s 2019 season could not have been better. With the best player PFF has ever seen in the college era (since 2014), Joe Burrow, leading the charge, they went undefeated and won the National Championship. They had an all-around great team that was strong in almost every position group, which has led some to claim them as the best team in college football history. LSU was certainly the best team we have seen in the PFF College era, but we must remember who they’re losing from this historic squad when ranking them for 2020 — no team took a bigger hit with draft declarations and graduates than the LSU Tigers:

Most WAA lost from 2019 to 2020 due to graduation and NFL draft declares
1. LSU Tigers 6.39
2. Utah Utes 3.96
3. Ohio State Buckeyes 3.66
4. Alabama Crimson Tide 2.94
5. Oklahoma Sooners 2.79
6. Clemson Tigers 2.57

No quarterback has recorded a higher PFF grade or WAA total in a single season than Burrow, and the Tigers will have to replace the eventual first-overall pick. Four-star 2017 recruit Myles Brennan will likely be the Tigers' starter, and he saw only 44 dropbacks in blowouts this past season. Not to mention, they’ll have to replace first-round talents Kristian Fulton (CB) and Grant Delpit (S), as well as wide receiver Justin Jefferson — who had an absurd amount of production. They do, though, return the most valuable non-quarterback and the number one returning defensive back in college football in Derek Stingley Jr., as well as the number one returning wide receiver in Ja’Marr Chase. They’ll still have a talented team, but the quarterback position is too murky for them to be in the top five.

7. Oklahoma Sooners

With Jalen Hurts out, 2019 No. 1 quarterback recruit Spencer Rattler (likely) steps in. He’ll luckily be behind an offensive line that returns five of its six main members and allowed minimal quick pressure and have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Oklahoma landed graduate transfer Theo Howard, who didn’t drop a single one of his 68 targets in his last collegiate season and is destined to see numerous downfield opportunities. Charleston Rambo is among the top 25 returning wide receivers and can attack the middle of the field like a champ. Not to mention, the Sooners have three of the top 25 running backs on their roster.

8. Washington Huskies

Cornerbacks Elijah Molden and Trent McDuffie highlight the 2020 Washington squad, ranking third and 11th, respectively, among returning defensive backs. Molden has locked down the slot the past two seasons, producing a two-year PFF grade at that alignment that ranks second. As a true freshman in 2019, McDuffie impressed in coverage on the rare plays he was tested deep by allowing just one 20-plus yard catch on eight such targets. He missed only one tackle on 45 attempts and can hit with some great power.

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

There’s still a lot of room for improvement for Irish quarterback Ian Book. The stat book will show he threw 34 touchdowns and just six interceptions, but it’s important to put these things into context. Against Power-5 competition, Book had just a 67.6 passing grade while producing 13 big-time throws and 13 turnover-worthy plays. Against non-Power-5 competition, Book had a 92.5 passing grade while producing nine big-time throws and one turnover-worthy play. His pocket presence is poor, but luckily he’ll be behind an offensive line that returns four starters who all are featured in the top 30 returning linemen. If Book progresses in 2020, the Irish can easily creep up the rankings. They’ll also have one of the best young defensive backs in Kyle Hamilton, who impressed in his true freshman campaign by producing an 89.8 coverage grade.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin loses four of its most valuable players in Jonathan Taylor, Zack Baun, Chris Orr and Quintez Cephus to the NFL but has a consistent roster from top to bottom that lands the team at No. 10. Safety Eric Burrell is the best returning talent in 2020 — he had a two-year PFF coverage grade among the 10 best at his position and allowed just a 32.4 passer rating in that stretch.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota shocked the college football landscape in 2019, finishing regular-season play with a 10-2 record and capping its season off with an upset victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Tanner Morgan was a big reason for that — he finished the year with the seventh highest passing grade and is the fourth most valuable Power-5 quarterback returning in 2020. The wide receiver duo of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman made its mark as one of the best tandems in the country, as each ranked in the top 15 in PFF receiving grade. Johnson will be taking his talents to the NFL, but Bateman’s elite route-running remains.

12. Texas Longhorns

The biggest reason for Texas slotting in at No. 12 in this way-too-early top 25 is its signal-caller, Sam Ehlinger. He was the fifth most valuable Power-5 quarterback in 2019 — behind Joe Burrow, Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts — and has a two-year PFF overall grade that ranks seventh.

13. Iowa State Cyclones

Among all Iowa State Cyclones to take the field since 2014, the two most valuable seasons have come from Brock Purdy in each of the past two years. He’s the heart and soul of this Iowa State team, and his performance on the field will dictate how far they’ll go in 2020. He can make something out of nothing under pressure, but his decision making on a throw-for-throw basis has to improve, as he has the 22nd most turnover-worthy plays over the past two years.

14. North Carolina Tar Heels

Sam Howell displayed an outrageous, rocket-launcher arm as a true freshman in 2019. He had the second most 20-plus yard touchdowns in the country —behind only Joe Burrow — and could complete passes as far as 40 yards downfield at a high level. Slot receiver Dazz Newsome was the recipient of these downfield targets and produced the second highest PFF grade on those from the slot. This offense is loaded with weapons all around Howell.

15. Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia Tech cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller make their team's secondary one of the best in the country. Waller has a knack for the ball and was rarely beaten in tight coverage, allowing just two of 17 contested targets to be caught. Farley made one of the biggest jumps in PFF coverage grade from 2018 to 2019, improving from 59.3 to 90.3. The two are some of the top returning defensive backs in college football and lead the way to form the third-best unit returning in 2020:

Most 2019 WAA returning at the cornerback position in 2020
1. Oregon Ducks 1.44
2. LSU Tigers 1.25
3. Virginia Tech Hokies 1.03
4. Washington Huskies 0.97
5. App State Mountaineers 0.96

16. Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions' offense was never the team's strong suit, and losing wide receiver K.J. Hamler to the NFL doesn’t help matters, either, but the defense remains strong with Micah Parsons on the field. Parsons was the most valuable linebacker, proving to be stout in run defense and in rushing the passer as a blitzer. He also wraps up on tackles better than any other player at his position. The quarterback position ultimately drives success, though, so Sean Clifford’s 69.6 passing grade won’t cut it if Penn State wants to have a chance at a Big Ten upset.

17. Michigan Wolverines

There isn’t one single player who jumps out on Michigan’s roster — instead, they have a group of solid guys who generate positive value. On the offensive side of the ball, wide receivers Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Giles Jackson have generated positive WAA for the Wolverines. On the defensive side of the ball, Ambry Thomas performed exceptionally well in his first year as a starter. Thomas was in press coverage on 81% of his coverage snaps and was stellar on downfield throws, allowing eight catches on 30 targets of 10-plus yards.

18. Louisville Cardinals

The Louisville offense has become a menacing one to face. After ranking 121st in EPA per play in 2018, the Cardinals improved in that facet to 25th in 2019. Players such as wide receiver Tutu Atwell, quarterback Micale Cunningham and running backs Hassan Hall and Javian Hawkins were a big part of that.

19. Florida Gators

Before Florida fans start complaining over their team's No. 19 ranking, they should keep in mind that the Gators are losing three of their six most valuable players — Jonathan Greenard, Freddie Swain and Van Jefferson — and Kyle Trask rarely impressed on a game-to-game basis. Trask had just two game grades above 70.0 all season long. On the bright side, the Gators return one of the best young cornerbacks in Kaiir Elam, who allowed just 10 catches on 23 targets and was responsible for six combined pass breakups and interceptions. A healthy Kadarius Toney should help matters, too.

20. Auburn Tigers

Before Auburn fans start complaining like the Florida fans, they should remember who their quarterback is. He was named “SEC Freshman of the Year,” but his performance on a throw-for-throw basis says otherwise. Nix ranked 108th among the 130 FBS quarterbacks in WAA that held a negative value — meaning he hindered his team’s success more than he helped it. He had more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws on the year, which is cause for concern entering 2020. Not to mention, six of the eight most valuable players for Auburn will be no longer with the team.

21. Appalachian State Mountaineers

Appalachian State was a three-point loss away from an undefeated record that would've caused chaos in the college football landscape — sparking expansion debate. They’ll have the opportunity to do that in 2020. There is talent across the board returning for the Mountaineers, but none are better than cornerback Shaun Jolly. He finished the year with an elite coverage grade (91.4), totaling 15 combined interceptions and pass breakups.

22. Memphis Tigers

The most valuable Memphis Tiger from the 2019 season was running back Kenneth Gainwell, who was one of the best dual-threat backs in the FBS. He was the only running back to produce a rushing and receiving grade above 85.0. Quarterback Brady White has shown promise in the past with his 80.3 passing grade in 2018 but took a step back to a 75.6 mark in 2019. He’ll need to progress if the Tigers are to claim back-to-back AAC titles.

23. Cincinnati Bearcats

Quarterback Desmond Ridder had one of the more disappointing 2019 seasons. After producing a 76.2 passing grade in his first year as a starter in 2018, he dropped that to 65.0 in 2019. Meanwhile, true freshman cornerback Ahmad Gardner was vital to the Bearcats' defensive success this season, producing a 90.0 coverage grade and 39.4 passer rating allowed.

24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The return of running back Chuba Hubbard is obviously good for Oklahoma State, as he can make some game-changing plays that most running backs can’t. He had 15 runs that resulted in a gain of 30 or more yards in 2019, four more than anyone else. The Cowboys also bring back a top wide receiver in Tylan Wallace, who was elite on underneath targets by producing a perfect passer rating — which is much needed, considering their quarterback situation is less than ideal. Spencer Sanders performed well below average, producing a 58.0 passing grade.

25. Boise State Broncos

Wide receivers Khalil Shakir and CT Thomas have been key in Boise State’s offensive success, and that’ll be no different in 2020. The two are among the three most valuable returning Broncos, and Shakir has etched his name in as one of the best slot receivers in the FBS, with his 90.1 slot receiving grade ranking fourth best. If true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier can improve upon his 69.3 passing grade, the Boise State offense can get cooking in 2020.

Teams on the outside looking in (no particular order): San Diego State, TCU, UCF, Air Force, Kentucky, BYU, Iowa, SMU, Indiana, Texas A&M, USC

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