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College Sports: SportsDay’s way-too-early top 25 poll: Three Big 12 programs make the list; Which Texas school just missed the top 10?

The 2018 college football season comes to an end Monday night when Alabama and Clemson meet for the fourth straight year in the College Football Playoff. And for the third time in the past four years, it’s for the national championship. But the end of the 2018 college football season also signals the start of discussion for the 2019 college football season.

With that in mind, SportsDay writers, editors and college contributors all put together their way-too-early 2019 college football ballots. Here’s the poll that came together as a result:

1. Alabama: 199 (7 first-place votes)

Our top team last offseason is at the top of this year’s poll, too, receiving all but one first-place vote. With Heisman Trophy finalist Tua Tagovailoa and reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy returning for their junior seasons, the Crimson Tide offense should remain one of the nation’s most dangerous, even with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley leaving for Maryland.

2. Clemson: 193 (1)

Like Alabama, Clemson will return the vast majority of its playmakers on offense because they couldn’t go pro even if they wanted to. True freshmen Trevor Lawrence (QB) and Justyn Ross (WR) and true sophomores Tee Higgins (WR) and Travis Etienne (RB) will all be back in 2019, with the latter likely to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.

3. Georgia: 181

The Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl loss to Texas didn’t deter our pollsters much. The two-time defending SEC East Champions should be favorites to make it a three-peat. But the recent transfer of QB Justin Fields to Ohio State means Georgia’s QB depth will be considerably thinner next year, putting more pressure on QB Jake Fromm, who will be a third-year starter in 2019.

4. Oklahoma: 167

It’s never easy to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning QB. But if there’s a program that can do it, why not put your money on the one that did exactly that a year ago? The Trey Sermon-Kennedy Brooks backfield tandem should ease the pressure on QB Austin Kendall, while the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is expected to make waves on the other side of the ball, too.

5. Ohio State: 165

Dwayne Haskins is expected to head to the NFL Draft, leaving a potentially QB competition between former Texas A&M QB commit Tate Martell and Georgia transfer Justin Fields — if Fields is successful in petitioning for a waiver to gain immediate eligibility. The Buckeyes will be without Urban Meyer, but Ryan Day’s test run during Meyer’s suspension in 2018 went very well.

6. Florida: 156

The Gators punctuated Year 1 of the Dan Mullen era in style, picking up a convincing win over Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Florida’s 10-win season was just their second in six seasons. Along with making huge strides on offense, the Gators also improved on defense under Todd Grantham, making huge year-over-year jumps in sacks, turnover margin and scoring defense.

7. Michigan: 143

The Wolverines will lose a number of key contributors on defense, with All-Americans Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and David Long all leaving school early for the NFL draft. But not all draft decisions were bad news for Jim Harbaugh and Company this offseason: QB Shea Patterson will return for his senior season, and he’ll have his top three WRs back in Ann Arbor next fall, too.

8. LSU: 137

The Tigers snapped UCF’s 25-game win streak in the Fiesta Bowl. Now they’re our pollsters’ pick to be the SEC West’s top team not named Alabama. LSU will face LSU-like expectations for the first time under Ed Orgeron. Fans will find out early if that hype will be met when the Tigers head to Austin to take on Texas in a Week 2 battle that could be between a pair of top-10 teams.

9. Texas: 136

After telling fans that Texas is “back” following the Longhorns’ Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, Sam Ehlinger will be back, too, as Texas’ starting QB. And he’ll have company, too, with Collin Johnson recently announcing he’ll return for his senior season. If Todd Orlando’s defense continues to play like one of the Big 12’s best in 2019, the Longhorns might find themselves in the CFP discussion.

10. Notre Dame: 134

The Fighting Irish cruised to a playoff berth in 2018 on the heels of what ended up being a favorable schedule. If they make a return trip in 2019, they’ll certainly have to earn it. Their 2019 schedule includes a September trip to Athens to take on Georgia, an October trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan and a November trip to Stanford to close its regular season against the Cardinal.

11. Texas A&M: 119

After entering the 2018 season with one of the SEC’s most uncertain QB situations, the Aggies will flip the script in 2019, with Kellen Mond giving them one of the conference’s most stable signal-calling situations. With a dramatic 7-OT win over LSU and a convincing Gator Bowl win over NC State, expectations should be high for Year 2 of the Jimbo Fisher era in College Station.

12. Washington: 112

The Pac-12 desperately needs one of its teams to earn a playoff berth to give the conference a reputation boost. Washington is the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in this year’s poll. You’ll rarely be disappointed having faith in a Chris Petersen-coached team, but the Pac-12 still seems to have an uphill climb ahead of it, with every other Power 5 Conference having a school in the top 5.

13. Oregon: 105

No Pac-12 school has no more positive momentum than the Ducks. Oregon picked up a bowl win over Michigan State last month, posted the conference’s top-ranked recruiting class of the early signing period and received the surprising news that QB Justin Herbert — a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in this spring’s NFL draft — will return to Eugene next fall.

14. Penn State: 84

The Nittany Lions may need to lean more on their defense in 2019 while they look to replace three-year starter Trace McSorley at QB and 1,000-yard rusher Miles Sanders at RB. Sanders announced his intention to go pro last week, becoming the fifth Penn State junior to do so, joining linemen Shareef Miller, Kevin Givens, Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates.

15. UCF: 81

The Knights no longer hold the nation’s longest win streak, but they still own some respect from our pollsters, coming in as the highest-ranked non-Power 5 school by 10 spots. Much of their success in 2019 could depend on the health of QB McKenzie Milton, who is currently rehabbing from a knee injury he suffered in 2018 that led to a premature end of his season.

16. Iowa: 67

The Hawkeyes edge out Wisconsin as our pollsters’ top-ranked Big Ten West school. Led by A.J. Epenesa, Iowa should boast the division’s top returning defense. And with QB Nate Stanley already having announced his return, Iowa’s offense should have some stability as well. The only bad news for Hawkeye fans: Iowa draws both Michigan and Penn State as crossover opponents.

17. Wisconsin: 60

The Badgers return reigning Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor at RB. With more than 4,000 yards rushing in his first two seasons in Madison, Taylor should be a Heisman contender next fall. The level of help he gets at the QB position could determine Wisconsin’s level of success in 2019 — the Badgers struggled in the second half of the season once Alex Hornibrook got injured.

18. Utah: 58

The Utes are the Pac-12 South Division’s lone representative in this year’s poll. With a light nonconference schedule and its five divisional games being against schools that went 7-5, 5-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 3-9 last year, Utah could be a great under-the-radar pick to flirt with a double-digit win total.

19. Iowa State: 49

The Cyclones are still awaiting the decisions from offensive cornerstones David Montgomery (RB) and Hakeem Butler (WR), but even if the two go pro — which is the most likely scenario — Iowa State’s future is bright under Matt Campbell. Brock Purdy should give Iowa State stability at QB in 2019 and beyond after early valuable playing time as a true freshman this fall.

20. Missouri: 44

Florida and Georgia are the more traditional names picked to win the SEC East, but the Tigers could be a great dark-horse candidate with arguably that division’s most explosive offense — even with the departure of QB Drew Lock. Kelly Bryant landed in Missouri after transferring from Clemson, and he should have plenty of weapons at his disposal on offense.

21. Auburn: 31

After an uncharacteristically poor season offensively in 2018 (Auburn ranked 78th in total offense), the Tigers will have plenty of opportunities for rebirth in 2019. Former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham announced his decision to leave early for the NFL draft, and Gus Malzahn will return to his offensive roots and reclaim play-calling duties this fall.

22. Washington State: 28

The Cougars will need to replace QB Gardner Minshew, who put up video game-like numbers in 2018. One of Minshew’s top weapons, do-everything RB James Williams, is leaving early for the NFL. But Mike Leach has shown his system can still thrive as stars come and go. One name to remember: RB Max Borghi, who could end up being Leach’s most productive RB ever.

t-23. Northwestern: 21

Missouri isn’t the only school in our top 25 that will be aided by a Clemson transfer QB. The Wildcats are also gaining help from Clemson, this in the form of transfer Hunter Johnson, one of the 2017 class’ top-ranked recruits. He’ll replace multi-year starter Clayton Thorson at QB. Northwestern can be a factor in a Big Ten West division loaded with good teams but absent of great ones.

t-23. Syracuse: 21

Dino Babers inherited a 4-8 Syracuse team and turned the Orange into a 10-win squad in just three years. Now we’ll see what he can do with a QB not named Eric Dungey — who served as a four-year starter and was a mainstay under Babers. Tommy DeVito, who looked good when called to action this fall and has more of the pass-first mentality Babers favors — looks like the next-man up.

25. Army: 20

Army’s early season battle with Oklahoma that ultimately went into OT looked like less and less of a fluke as the season went on and the Black Knights continued to shine. In fact, Army’s Week 4 loss to Oklahoma ended up being its last loss of the season, closing with nine straight wins en route to an 11-2 record. Its Week 2 trip to Ann Arbor next fall is worth circling on your calendar.

Others receiving votes: Virginia Tech (18), Fresno State (12), Mississippi State (12), TCU (11), Nebraska (9), Arizona State (5), Florida State (4), Houston (4), Kentucky (4), USC (4), Baylor (3), NC State (2), Virginia (1)

Poll voters: Ben Baby, Scott Bell, Chuck Carlton, Spenser Davis, Reece Graham, Alex Miller, Dean Straka, Brett Vito

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