News & Analysis

PFF College Football Rankings: Updated 2020 preseason top 25

With multiple college football teams and conferences announcing plans to postpone their fall seasons, most notably the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC, an update to our preseason team rankings is in order.

Using the PFF ELO system, which serves as the base power metric for our NCAA simulation — with allowances for recruiting rankings, returning players and market information — here is our updated college football top 25 ahead of the 2020 season.

1. CLEMSON TIGERS

If you recall, Trevor Lawrence got off to a rocky start in 2019 and earned the worst PFF game grade of his career against Georgia Tech in Week 1. To no one's surprise, though, he quickly turned it around — from Week 2 on, Lawrence's PFF grade ranked second to only LSU's Joe Burrow among college quarterbacks.

Lawrence returns in 2020 for what will likely be his final year before he heads to the NFL. The team also returns running back Travis Etienne, who has been the most valuable non-quarterback in college football since 2018. And yes, the season-ending injury to wide receiver Justyn Ross is a damaging blow, but Clemson's receiving corps will still be in excellent shape with Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. Those two form the second-most valuable returning QB-WR connection from 2019.

The Tigers lost a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but enough ability remains to alleviate some of those concerns. Starting corner Derion Kendrick is poised to take a step forward after allowing 50 or fewer yards in all but one start in his first full year, and cornerback Mario Goodrich is one of PFF's favorite breakout candidates for 2020.

2. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Most programs would struggle significantly with having to replace the production lost from two wide receivers who were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, but not Alabama. The Crimson Tide still have college football’s best wide receiver duo in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. The two rank first and second, respectively, among FBS wideouts in percentage of targets to result in a 15-plus yard play since 2018 (Waddle 33%, Smith 32.9%). That dynamic duo, in addition to running back Najee Harris, makes life much easier for quarterback Mac Jones.

Jan 1, 2020; Orlando, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) throws the ball during the first quarter of the 2020 VRBO Citrus Bowl against the Michigan Wolverines at Camping World Stadium. Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On defense, Alabama has a rising star in Christian Barmore, who looks like the next great interior defensive lineman to come out of the program, as well as a great outside cornerback duo in Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe. And don’t forget about linebacker Dylan Moses, either, as he makes his return after missing all of 2019 due to injury (racked up 48 stops and missed just five tackles on 107 attempts in his career prior to). We just don’t have many bones to pick with the Crimson Tide, despite them losing a plethora of talent.

3. LSU TIGERS

LSU’s 2019 National Championship team was the best we have ever come across during our time grading college football (since 2014). However, a significant chunk of the team left the college ranks for the NFL this past April, and that saw the Tigers lose more value — in regard to wins above average — than any other team in college football.

Still, they return a few standout pieces, one being wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Chase was the second most valuable non-quarterback in college football last year, and he has the best ball skills of any receiver in the country. On defense, LSU still has Derek Stingley Jr., who eventually beat Chase for the title of most valuable non-quarterback in the country. The secondary won’t skip a beat with him playing alongside promising up-and-comers Cordale Flott and Elias Ricks. However, the offense will undoubtedly take a step back in 2020 as it transitions from Joe Burrow to Myles Brennan.

4. GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Jake Fromm was a good and viable game manager for Georgia, but Jamie Newman is an immense upgrade. Newman can lead a potent downfield passing attack with his arm talent and has far better mobility. And for anyone pounding the table for JT Daniels to start over Newman — look beyond his “five-star recruit” title.

In his lone season as a starter for USC, Daniels produced a wins above average mark that ranked 129th among FBS quarterbacks. Newman will have one of the top wide receiver duos to throw to in George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock, who ranked first and second, respectively, in receiving grade last year among true freshman wide receivers in the Power Five.

On defense, the Bulldogs have a player in every position group who should be considered as one of the best at the position in college football. The defensive line features Malik Herring, who is fresh off a 90.5 PFF grade in 2019. At linebacker, Nakobe Dean is another star in the making; he produced the highest grade of any true freshman at the position in 2019. Cornerback Eric Stokes and safety Richard LeCounte will lead the secondary, as they have both earned grades above 80.0 in each of the past two seasons.

5. FLORIDA GATORS

With a top-notch set of playcallers and a little bit of luck, last year’s Florida team had the biggest difference in actual wins and implied wins (won three more than suggested). Quarterback Kyle Trask displayed dependable accuracy, which is the top trait for success in a quarterback, but also had poor decision-making. He generated a -13 differential in big-time throws and turnover-worthy plays last year, which was tied for fourth-worst in the country. The good news is that there is a lot of potential for him to tap into within Florida’s receiving unit. Tight end Kyle Pitts is a proven piece and a prime candidate for the 2020 Mackey Award.

At wide receiver, the Gators have an electric playmaker in Kadarius Toney, but he hasn’t had many opportunities due to injuries and a stacked wide receiver room. They also have Trevon Grimes, who is looking for a bounce-back year after lowering his 73.8 PFF grade in 2018 to 61.5 in 2019.

On the other side of the ball, Florida's secondary is stacked with two of the five best safeties in the SEC — Donovan Stiner and Shawn Davis — as well as a rising star in cornerback Kaiir Elam. The big question here is whether Marco Wilson can get back to his 2017 form. Wilson earned a 78.3 coverage grade at outside corner that year, tore his ACL in 2018 and then produced a 61.0 coverage grade when playing on the outside in 2019.

(Note: The statuses of Tonry, Grimes and Jacob Copeland for this season is currently unknown. The three were not at Florida's first practice.)

6. OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Ever since Lincoln Riley came to town, the Sooners have had the most valuable quarterback room of any FBS team — and it really hasn’t been close. First-time starter Spencer Rattler will take over a good situation and have a decent slew of weapons at his disposal, with big-play threat Charleston Rambo leading the way. More than 28% of his targets went for a 15-plus yard gain in 2018 — only the since-departed CeeDee Lamb had a higher rate in the Big 12.

The Sooners’ secondary has notoriously been its Achilles’ heel over the past few years, and that’ll be no different in 2020. The unit ranked seventh in the Big 12 in expected points added per pass allowed in 2019 and will be without Parnell Motley in 2020, the best corner the team has had in the PFF College era.

7. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

Notre Dame's defense has been one of the best in college football in each of the past two seasons, ranking seventh among Power Five programs in terms of expected points added per play allowed over that span. It looks like the unit will maintain that status in 2020.

The Fighting Irish return four of their six most valuable defensive players from a season ago, and they also have a couple of stars in the making in safety Kyle Hamilton and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Serving as a backup last year, Hamilton ranked 14th among returning safeties in win shares added to their team, while Owusu-Koramoah is poised for a big 2020 after continuously improving throughout his first full season.

Fifth-year senior Ian Book leads the offense and could have his best year yet, as he closed out 2019 with the 10th-best PFF grade in the FBS over his final five games. If anything is going to bring Notre Dame down, it's a lack of established receivers. They have promising up-and-comers, but much of their 2019 production is gone with the losses of Claypool, Kmet and Finke.

8. AUBURN TIGERS

Auburn might have lost five huge pieces from its great defense last year (cornerbacks Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene; safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas; and interior defensive lineman Derrick Brown), but the unit will still be the backbone of the team’s success in 2020. Cornerback Roger McCreary, the third-most valuable Auburn player in 2019, is one of the five best players at the position in the SEC, and safeties Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday look poised for big years after each performed well as rotational pieces in the past two seasons.

Oct 26, 2019; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive back Roger McCreary (23) celebrates his interception with Daniel Thomas (24) in the second half against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Not to mention, the Tigers return off-ball linebackers K.J. Britt and Zakoby McClain, who ranked second and third, respectively, in the SEC in PFF grade. The Auburn offense is what gives us pause. Quarterback Bo Nix failed to crack the top 100 in clean pocket passing grade as a true freshman — one of the most predictive metrics of future play.

9. TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Texas A&M has the second-best quarterback in the SEC in our eyes. Kellen Mond was the 17th-most valuable quarterback in the FBS back in 2018, and he improved that mark to 11th in 2019. You can count on Mond both through the air and on the ground, and he’ll also have great receivers at every other skill position in 2020.

The Aggies have an up-and-coming talent at tight end in Jalen Wydermyer, as he is coming off a freshman year that saw him earn the highest receiving grade of any SEC tight end. Meanwhile, wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon produced a PFF grade that ranks eighth among the 20 qualifying SEC wide receivers who return in 2020.

Wideout-turned-running back Ainias Smith rounds out this talented unit, and he is primed to break out as a premier dual-threat at the position. There’s just a lot to like about this offense as we head into 2020.

10. TEXAS LONGHORNS

Sam Ehlinger isn’t perfect, but it’d be foolish not to call him one of college football’s top quarterbacks. He ranked sixth in the entire FBS, regardless of position, in wins above average generated in both 2018 and 2019. He might bail on clean pockets a tad too soon at times, but he can generate value with his arm and legs (rushing grade above 70.0 in each of past two years). Texas generated the fifth-highest rate of positive expected points added on run plays among Power Five offenses in 2019, with Ehlinger and returning running back Keaontay Ingram being the key reasons why.

However, Texas’ offense as a whole could take a small step back in 2020 due to the state of the receiving unit. The Longhorns lost their top two receivers from 2019 in Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson, and the next men up — Brennan Eagles, Jake Smith and incoming Michigan transfer Tarik Black — haven’t given us much reason to believe they can immediately replace that lost production.

The defense is good by Big 12 standards and features one of the conference’s top corners in D’Shawn Jamison. He performed well in his first college action last season, ranking sixth in the conference in PFF grade.

11. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Tennessee’s secondary was its go-to strength last year, as the unit finished sixth in the SEC (and 17th among Power Five defenses) in expected points added allowed per play. The good news for Vols fans is that they return all but one of the key contributors from that group.

Meanwhile, the ball is in Jarrett Guarantano’s court on offense — he could be the reason they succeed, but he could also be the reason they fall short of expectations. His play over the past couple of years is best described as inconsistent — one week he may post a PFF grade above 90.0; the next week he might have a game in the 40.0s.

12. KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Kentucky looked set for disaster in 2019 before Lynn Bowden Jr. saved the year. Thanks to him, the Wildcats had the second-most efficient rushing attack in the SEC and the 10th-most efficient rushing attack in the Power Five. Bowden is now off to the NFL, but the return of quarterback Terry Wilson could help boost a passing game that slowly slipped away in 2019.

However, last year's offense generated more expected points added per play than the Wilson-led unit of 2018, and we still have concerns with Wilson's ability as a passer. His performance under pressure was poor (he ranked 129th in passing grade in 2018), and his downfield passing was inconsistent.

The defense will still be just as strong in 2020 as it was in 2019, though. It returns all the critical cogs from a secondary that combined to form the fourth-best PFF grade in the SEC last year.

13. MEMPHIS TIGERS

Brady White (the AAC’s third-highest graded quarterback in 2019), Kenneth Gainwell and Damonte Coxie help make up the best offense in the conference and the 12th-best offense in the country. While the Tigers do have an easily above-average defense, Cincinnati and UCF both edge them out in that category.

But if Jacobi Francis, who starts opposite of Carter, can clean up his play (60.1 coverage grade in 2019), that could change. Either way, Memphis’ offense gives the team a slight edge for the conference title as of now.

14. BAYLOR BEARS

Charlie Brewer took a pretty significant step backward in 2019, as he cut his 1.28 win shares from 2018 nearly in half (0.69). Still, most programs wish they had a quarterback they could depend on to come close to producing a mark like Brewer’s last year — it was good enough to rank 20th among FBS quarterbacks.

Losing wideout Denzel Mims is a significant blow, as he saw 45 more targets than any other wide receiver on the roster and was the conference’s third-highest graded receiver. Now, Baylor’s best receiver is running back Trestan Ebner (first among FBS RBs in receiving grade in 2019), and that can be viewed as both a good and bad thing.

On defense, the Bears have the conference’s top outside cornerback duo in Kalon Barnes and Raleigh Texada (ranked second and eighth, respectively, among Big 12 cornerbacks in PFF grade last year).

15. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

Mississippi State suffered through below-average quarterback play in each of the past four years, but that ugly streak comes to an end with the arrival of K.J. Costello. Forget about his injury-riddled 2019 — do you remember his 2018 season, when he was the second-highest-graded quarterback in the Pac-12 behind only Gardner Minshew?

This new offense is also set to turn running back Kylin Hill into a dual-threat star, as he has averaged 10.7 yards after the catch per reception in his career while breaking 16 tackles on 44 receptions. The offense isn't going anywhere but up in 2020. We sadly can't say the same for the defense.

Cornerback Tyler Williams and safety Marcus Murphy are potential breakout candidates in 2020, but the secondary's coverage ability outside of those two quickly drops off. The veteran presence in the secondary comes from safety C.J. Morgan, who is coming off a year in which he earned a 41.1 coverage grade.

16. IOWA STATE CYCLONES

Among all current FBS quarterbacks with at least 350 dropbacks since 2018, Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy ranks behind only Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence in passing grade. He has proven to carve up defenses when in rhythm. The receiving unit, led by tight end Charlie Kolar — the most valuable Power Five tight end in 2019 — is in great shape and has a rising player in running back Breece Hall, who developed into a legitimate dual-threat player as his first college season progressed.

Oct 12, 2019; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones tight end Charlie Kolar (88) runs after a catch during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

From Week 7 and on, no Big 12 running back produced more 20-yard plays as a runner and receiver than Hall’s 12. On defense, the Cyclones return three key coverage standouts in safeties Lawrence White and Greg Wisworth and linebacker Mike Rose. Each played a key role in the team allowing the Big 12’s third-lowest rate of positive expected points added per pass in 2019.

17. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

Kansas State went from having one of the worst passing offenses in 2018 to one of the best in 2019, and that success will extend into 2020. Quarterback Skylar Thompson took a step forward, as he increased his win shares from 0.1 in 2018 to 0.45 in 2019 and had a nice deep ball on play-action attempts. The receiving unit will be even better, too, as it has a couple of breakout candidates in Malik Knowles and Phillip Brooks who performed well in 2019 despite injuries.

On defense, Kansas State’s pass rush is led by Wyatt Hubert, who recorded 52 pressures in 2019 — 19 more than any returning edge rusher in the conference. Their coverage unit is something to monitor, though — while the group ranked first in expected points added per pass allowed in the Big 12, it ranked second-to-last in coverage grade and ball production.

18. MIAMI HURRICANES

For three straight years now, Miami has failed to produce positive expected points added per play on offense and has been below-average in that mark relative to the 130 FBS teams. With the addition of quarterback D’Eriq King, the Hurricanes have a chance to snap that bad streak. King generates significant value both through the air and on the ground. He’ll make a best friend out of Brevin Jordan, who earned the third-best receiving grade among ACC tight ends in 2019.

The Hurricanes’ current set of wide receivers might hinder the offense’s success, though. They have something in Jeremiah Payton, who was the 54th-ranked recruit nationally in 2019, but the returners with significant experience — Mike Harley, Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope — all produced receiving grades below 61.0 in 2019.

While Miami loses Gregory Rousseau (opted out), it still has one of the best edge rushers in the country in Quincy Roche, who comes in from Temple after earning a 93.5 PFF grade last season.

19. UCF KNIGHTS

With a rising star in Gabriel and a potent backfield in Bentavious Thompson and Otis Anderson, who were the 27th- and 28th-most valuable running backs, respectively, in the FBS last year, UCF’s offense will still easily be in the top tier of college football. UCF has three playmakers in the secondary who many teams wish they had just one of in Robinson, Gowan and Collier. The Knights will be in a tight race for the AAC title with Cincinnati and Memphis.

20. OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard had more yards after contact in 2019 than all but 14 FBS running backs had total rushing yards. He will be relied on to put up gaudy numbers again in 2020, as the Cowboys produced more expected points added per play on running back carries than they did passing the ball last year. Quarterback Spencer Sanders can do some damage on the ground with his legs, but his passing leaves a lot to be desired. His 58.0 passing grade was the second-lowest in the Big 12 in 2019.

Luckily, he has an explosive receiver in Tylan Wallace who can help move the ball with his after-the-catch ability. Oklahoma State’s defense has one of the best safety duos in the country with Kolby Harvell-Peel and Tre Sterling — the two finished 10th and 19th, respectively, in wins above average among FBS safeties a year ago. The cornerback unit is shaky, especially with A.J. Green now departed, but the secondary is still stronger than most in the Big 12.

21. APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS

No other Group of Five team generated more value in regard to PFF wins above average in 2019 than Appalachian State (ranked 11th in the FBS), and the team is in prime position to repeat that honor in 2020. If there’s something to be concerned about with the Mountaineers this year, it’s that they can't really count on Zac Thomas to win a game with his arm. He had a 62.2 passing grade in games when he attempted 25 or more passes in 2019.

22. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

Two of the most entertaining players to watch in the ACC form Virginia’s lanky, hybrid linebacker duo — Noah Taylor and Charles Snowden. They were the Cavaliers’ two most valuable players on the defensive side of the ball. In addition to that pair, the pass-rush unit has another standout in interior defensive lineman Aaron Faumui, who tied for the fourth-most pressures generated among Power Five interior defenders (40) in 2019.

The secondary, however, isn’t as strong. Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount both took steps back in 2019, but they still managed to produce average coverage grades. The offense may have lost Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, but it returns a formidable receiving unit led by Terrell Jana, who was responsible for more win shares in 2019 than anyone currently on the roster. That will help out either Brennan Armstrong or Keytaon Thompson under center.

23. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

Led by beefcakes on the defensive line, Florida State fields one of the five best defenses in college football. Marvin Wilson and Cory Durden ranked first and second, respectively, among ACC interior defensive linemen in pass-rush grade in 2019, and Robert Cooper ranked fourth in the conference in run-defense grade.

Aug 31, 2019; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles defensive tackle Marvin Wilson (21) before the start of the game against the Boise State Broncos at Doak Campbell Stadium. Credit: Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary has no shortage of talent, either. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and safety Hamsah Nasirildeen both finished in the top five in coverage grade last year among ACC cornerbacks. On offense, there are a few weaknesses — starting with the offensive line. Not a single returning lineman produced a positive wins above average value last year.

At quarterback, James Blackman didn’t protect the ball too well in 2019, falling outside the top 100 in the FBS in turnover-worthy play rate. However, he will be aided by some playmaking receivers in Tamorrion Terry and D.J. Matthews.

24. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES

The Hokies suffered a big-time loss with cornerback Caleb Farley opting out of the 2020 season. They still have one of the best corners in the ACC in Jermaine Waller, but Farley being in the mix would have made for easily the best cornerback duo in the ACC and one that would rank top five in all of college football. The two ranked first and second, respectively, in the conference in PFF grade at the position in 2019.

The offense is led by quarterback Hendon Hooker, who looked fairly solid for his first time ever seeing the field with Virginia Tech in 2019. He started from Week 6 and on, and was the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in the ACC in that span. He led the Hokies to the fourth-most efficient passing offense in the conference over that time frame.

25. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

Mack Brown has this Tar Heels program on the rise and poised to become a dangerous squad in 2020 and beyond. He dominated the recruiting pool and managed to flip Sam Howell’s commitment upon arrival. And after Year 1, Howell should already be viewed as one of the five best quarterbacks in the entire country. Only Trevor Lawrence had a better true freshman season among Power Five quarterbacks in the PFF College era in regard to wins above average.

Howell has a nice deep ball and a great connection with wide receiver Dyami Brown (nine deep passing touchdowns were second-most in FBS in 2019). In addition to Brown, Howell has Dazz Newsome, who produced the third highest-grade among ACC wide receivers last year.

The rushing attack has a great one-two punch in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, as those two were key reasons why the Tar Heels produced the third-most rushes of 10-plus yards by running backs among Power Five offenses in 2019. The defense isn’t as potent as the offense, but it’s still strong with up-and-comers Storm Duck, Don Chapman and Chazz Suratt leading the way.

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