Early top 25 for 2020: Clemson, Ohio State lead the way
Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

The 2019 season just ended. There are still draft decisions and coaching hires to be made. Conference media days won't commence for another six months.

But we can still look ahead. And at this point, two teams stand out from the rest.

Of the four schools to reach the College Football Playoff this past season, only Clemson and Ohio State will return their starting quarterback. Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist for the Buckeyes in 2019, while Trevor Lawrence might be the favorite to win the honor in 2020 for the Tigers.

Clemson and Ohio State both recruit well, too, which is why they lead the way in theScore's way-too-early top 25.

1. Clemson (14-1)

The Tigers have made five consecutive playoff appearances, and there's no reason to suspect they won't make it six in 2020. As a junior, Lawrence will have a chance to end his college career with just one loss. Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers will continue to lead a talented receivers corps, even as Tee Higgins moves to the NFL. Dabo Swinney will bring in perhaps the best freshman class in the country.

2. Ohio State (13-1)

In his first year as the starter, Fields threw 41 touchdowns to just three interceptions and nearly led the Buckeyes to the national championship game. Ohio State is losing J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young, and Jeffrey Okudah, among others, but the offense should still be dynamic and explosive.

3. Alabama (11-2)

Nick Saban's program is in unfamiliar territory after missing the playoff for the first time. Alabama will also have to replace quarterback Tua Tagovailoa - either with junior Mac Jones or blue-chip freshman Bryce Young. At least there's good news either way: Najee Harris, who rushed for 1,224 yards in 2019, is returning to Tuscaloosa. So are receivers Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

4. Georgia (12-2)

Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia, where he'll replace Jake Fromm. Michael Shroyer / Getty Images

The Bulldogs likely had their choice of graduate transfer quarterback following the departure of Jake Fromm. They're going with Jamie Newman, who threw for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns in 12 games at Wake Forest. Newman's production tailed off mightily in the second half of the year, but he'll be charged with reinvigorating a Georgia offense that struggled in 2019. Kirby Smart's team will return plenty on defense, including safety Richard LeCounte and cornerback DJ Daniel.

5. Florida (11-2)

The Gators took a step forward in Dan Mullen's second season, losing only to LSU and Georgia. Kyle Trask progressed as a quarterback, and Florida should be a legitimate SEC East contender in 2020. Linebacker Ventrell Miller and cornerback Kaiir Elam will lead a defense that's losing two of its top three tacklers.

6. Penn State (11-2)

While junior receiver KJ Hamler (904 yards, eight touchdowns) is heading to the NFL, Penn State is still returning enough on offense to believe it can make a run at the playoff in 2020. It'll start with quarterback Sean Clifford, who passed for 2,654 yards in 2019. Running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain, and tight end Pat Freiermuth will surround him. Defensively, linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields should lead the way.

7. Auburn (9-4)

Quarterback Bo Nix showed some improvement near the end of his freshman season, completing more than 60% of his passes and throwing no interceptions in his final five games. He'll have to adjust to a new offensive coordinator (former Arkansas head coach Chad Morris), but otherwise, there's no excuse for why the Tigers' offense shouldn't be better in 2020. The unit is returning running back JaTarvious Whitlow and its top three receivers, including Seth Williams. There are more questions about the defense, which is losing its star in Derrick Brown.

8. LSU (15-0)

Derek Stingley could be the best cornerback in college football next season. Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Putting the Tigers at No. 8 is mostly out of respect for what they accomplished in 2019, because few teams have more to replace heading into 2020. Joe Burrow is the obvious departure, but at least seven underclassmen are draft-bound, including running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, receiver Justin Jefferson, safety Grant Delpit, and linebackers Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen. Oh, and passing game coordinator Joe Brady is joining the Carolina Panthers. Still, some talent will remain, including Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase and cornerback Derek Stingley.

9. Oklahoma (12-2)

For the first time since he became head coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley may not have to look to the transfer portal for his quarterback. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, the top QB in the 2019 class, should be ready to handle the offense. The Sooners will need a No. 1 receiver to emerge with CeeDee Lamb gone (hello, Charleston Rambo?), but 1,000-yard rusher Kennedy Brooks is returning. Alex Grinch's defense is losing its leader in linebacker Kenneth Murray, but the unit will still feature talented players like cornerback Tre Brown and lineman Jalen Redmond.

10. Oregon (12-2)

Andy Avalos' defense was one of the best in the country this season and it should be no different in 2020. Defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux could challenge for national awards, while linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia and defensive backs Jevon Holland and Thomas Graham could be All-Pac-12 worthy. If the Ducks can find a viable replacement for quarterback Justin Herbert, they'll be the front-runners in the Pac-12 once again.

11. Wisconsin (10-4)

Yes, Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor and his 2,003 yards are departing the program. But the Badgers - who've won double-digit games in four of the last five seasons and in eight of the last 11 - aren't going anywhere. Quarterback Jack Coan will give the offense experience, but Wisconsin's defense is what makes the team so consistent. The Badgers should be very good in the secondary after returning most of their key pieces.

12. Texas A&M (8-5)

A Texas Bowl win over Oklahoma State gives Texas A&M some momentum entering the offseason. Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

The Aggies beat the teams they were supposed to beat in 2019 and lost to the ones they were supposed to lose to, resulting in a five-loss season based on a brutal schedule. With a young defense, those difficult experiences were meant to gear the Aggies up for a run in 2020, which is very much possible. Few teams will be more experienced than Texas A&M, which could return nine defensive starters. But the results will depend on the evolution of quarterback Kellen Mond, who failed to take a step forward in 2019.

13. USC (8-5)

The hopes for USC in 2020 rest on the arm of Kedon Slovis, who threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns in a terrific freshman season. While he's losing Biletnikoff Award finalist Michael Pittman, Slovis will retain 1,000-yard receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. The defense gave up 29.4 points per game in 2019, but it will return a wealth of experience, including Drake Jackson (11.5 tackles for loss) and Olaijah Griffin (nine pass breakups).

14. Minnesota (11-2)

The Golden Gophers were one of the surprises of the season, and they'll bring back enough offense to be competitive in 2020. Quarterback Tanner Morgan (3,253 yards) and receiver Rashod Bateman (1,219 yards) will return, though they're losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State and leading receiver Tyler Johnson to the NFL. The biggest questions for P.J. Fleck will be on defense, though, because the unit is losing eight starters.

15. Notre Dame (11-2)

It was a somewhat quiet 11-win season for the Fighting Irish, who exited the playoff race early. But Notre Dame ended its season with six consecutive wins by double digits, including a 33-9 pummeling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. Ian Book increased his touchdown total from 19 to 34. His quarterback coach, Notre Dame alumnus Tommy Rees, was promoted to offensive coordinator. But in 2020, the Fighting Irish could struggle to replace receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Cole Kmet.

16. Memphis (12-2)

Kenneth Gainwell accumulated more than 2,000 yards of offense as a redshirt freshman. Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield is now the head coach after Mike Norvell left to join Florida State, and he's inheriting a team that's built to win in 2020. On offense, the Tigers will have one of the more experienced trios in quarterback Brady White (4,014 yards), running back Kenneth Gainwell (2,069 total yards), and receiver Damonte Coxie (1,276 yards). A defense that was passable in 2019 is also bringing back experience, including defensive lineman Joseph Dorceus (14.5 tackles for loss), cornerback Jacobi Francis (eight pass breakups), and safety Sanchez Blake (69 tackles).

17. Michigan (9-4)

All three of Michigan's regular-season losses came to teams ranked in the top 10. The Wolverines were squarely a top-25 team that wasn't elite. Past performances foreshadow a similar forecast for 2020, though Jim Harbaugh faces a tall task of trying to replace a number of key players, including quarterback Shea Patterson. While a new QB settles into place, Michigan will need to rely on running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins.

18. Oklahoma State (8-5)

Every few years, Oklahoma State enters the season with a roster that looks capable of challenging for the Big 12 title. This is one of those years. Quarterback Spencer Sanders, national rushing leader Chuba Hubbard, and receiver Tylan Wallace are all returning, giving OSU one of the best offensive trios in college football. A defense that improved in 2019 will also bring back plenty of production. Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel (five interceptions) and linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga (15.5 tackles for loss) are coming off breakout seasons.

19. UCF (10-3)

UCF managed to win 10 games for the third consecutive season in 2019 and should be competitive again in 2020. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel (3,653 yards) was a find as a true freshman and will only improve with age and experience. The Knights are losing 1,200-yard receiver Gabriel Davis but will return Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams, who combined for 93 receptions. Safety Richie Grant is the face of a defense that could be a top-25 unit.

20. Iowa State (7-6)

Brock Purdy enters his junior season having made 21 career starts. Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

The Cyclones were one of the unluckiest teams in college football in 2019, losing three games by two points or less against ranked teams (Iowa, Baylor, and Oklahoma). They tailed off in the final two games of the season, but quarterback Brock Purdy has the potential to be one of the best pivots in college football this year. Meanwhile, Breece Hall ran for 897 yards as a freshman while ten of Iowa State's top 12 tacklers on defense should be back. The Cyclones haven't strung four consecutive winning seasons together since 1927, but it's something Matt Campbell and Co. have a strong shot of doing.

21. Tennessee (8-5)

The Volunteers might have ended 2919 as a top-25 team. After a nightmarish start to the year, they went 8-3 across their final 11 games, losing only to top-10 opponents Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will return for one more run, as will a trio of running backs (Ty Chandler, Eric Gray, and Tim Jordan) who combined for 1,622 yards in 2019. We'll find out much more about Tennessee when it travels to Oklahoma on Sept. 12.

22. Texas (8-5)

A Sugar Bowl win to cap off the 2018 season inspired top-10 hope for Texas in 2019, but the Longhorns lost five-plus games for the eighth time in 10 seasons. As a result, Tom Herman replaced both of his coordinators this offseason. The Longhorns have star power returning on both sides of the ball in quarterback Sam Ehlinger (3,663 yards) and safety Caden Sterns.

23. Boise State (12-2)

The Broncos matched their highest win total under Bryan Harsin in 2019, and they did it despite a revolving door at quarterback. Hank Bachmeier would appear to be the front-runner to start there in 2020. At running back, George Holani ran for 1,014 yards as a freshman. While Boise State is losing three starters on the defensive line, it will be experienced in the secondary.

24. North Carolina (7-6)

North Carolina won seven games — and nearly defeated Clemson — in Mack Brown's first season. G Fiume / Getty Images

Will the Tar Heels be beneficiaries of a bowl bump? Their 55-13 rout of Temple in the Military Bowl was as impressive a performance as there was in the non-playoff bowl games. That victory should be a solid springboard into 2020, when quarterback Sam Howell (3,641 yards) will look to build off a strong freshman season. Meanwhile, quarterback-turned-linebacker Chazz Surratt (115 tackles, 15 tackles for loss) will be one of the most productive returning players in the ACC. Eight months out from the season, North Carolina and Virginia Tech appear to be the favorites in the ACC Coastal.

25. Indiana (8-5)

The Hoosiers came up short in their bid to win nine games for only the second time in school history, but it was still a tremendous 2019 season for Tom Allen's program. Sustaining momentum in the Big Ten East is always difficult, but Indiana will return experience in bunches on both sides of the football. Both Michael Penix and Peyton Ramsey should be back to compete again for playing time at quarterback. Top target Whop Philyor (1,002 yards) has also elected to return. The defense wasn't great in 2019, but the unit should return seven starters. The Hoosiers are set to open their season with a juicy Friday night game at Wisconsin.

Also considered: Baylor, Appalachian State, Cincinnati, Utah, Washington, TCU, Iowa, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Arizona State

Early top 25 for 2020: Clemson, Ohio State lead the way
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox