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Notre Dame is two wins away from a college football national championship, but the Fighting Irish better get it done this year because they are one of our top candidates for regression in 2019.
One of the only ways to remain a factor in college football year after year is to get old and stay old. You want senior leadership on the roster, but too much of it means a bit of a rebuilding year the following season.
And rebuilding is just a fancy word for regression—unless you get lucky and have a bunch of freshmen or sophomores break out a year ahead of schedule.
We’re not saying these eight teams are going to stink next year. Each one will likely be expected to win at least six games and make a return to a bowl game. But due to roster turnover, each of these teams should be expected to win at least two fewer games in 2019 than they won in 2018.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
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John Locher/Associated Press
In 2016, Fresno State suffered 11 losses. Over the past two seasons, the Bulldogs have averaged 11 wins, including winning both of their bowl games. Were it not for Bill Clark’s work reviving a UAB program that was defunct for two years, Jeff Tedford would have gotten much more deserved love for national coach of the year.
But now comes the hard part: replacing most of the offense.
Four of Fresno State’s starting offensive linemen are seniors. So are five of the seven wide receivers who caught a pass this season, as well as two of the four tight ends. And worst of all, QB Marcus McMaryion will graduate after throwing for 3,629 yards with a 25-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio this season.
They do get to hang onto running backs Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims, and the top tight end (Jared Rice) ought to return as a fifth-year senior. At least there are a few building blocks there. That’s still a lot of roster turnover, though.
And that’s just the offense.
The Bulldogs are also losing three of their seven leading tacklers, one of which (Anthoula Kelly) was a cornerback who had four interceptions and 16 passes defended this season. The other two—outside linebackers George Helmuth and James Bailey—both ranked top three on the team in tackles for loss and sacks.
Some good news: Boise State and Utah State are each losing a bunch of key starters this offseason, as well, which should keep Fresno State from losing too much ground on the other Mountain West Conference contenders. But season-opening games against USC and Minnesota could be a disaster as the Bulldogs rebuild their offense and break in new pieces on defense.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Kentucky won nine games in a season for the first time since 1984. The Wildcats had been a respectable 7-6 in each of the past two years, but they operated at a whole new level of excellence this year, suffocating opponents with their defense.
But with most of the key pieces of that defense graduating, a return to .500 football is a reasonable expectation.
The biggest name of the bunch is Josh Allen, who was arguably the best defender in the country. The senior edge-rusher/linebacker led the Wildcats in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
Second-leading tackler Mike Edwards, third-leading tackler Darius West and fifth-leading tackler Jordan Jones are also graduating. So is Derrick Baity Jr., who led the team in passes broken up. In fact, basically the entire secondary needs to be replaced because the Wildcats did most of their damage with seniors.
The offense isn’t exactly returning intact, either. Benny Snell Jr. has already announced he is forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft. Tight end C.J. Conrad, No. 2 WR David Bouvier and No. 3 WR Dorian Baker are all graduating, too.
At least Lynn Bowden Jr. will be back, and backup running back Asim Rose is a strong candidate for a big 2019 breakout. But losing Snell and most of the defense will likely be too much to overcome.
If there’s any good news, it’s that the schedule is rather forgiving. The Wildcats have a cushy four-game nonconference slate at home and don’t have to face Alabama, Auburn or LSU in league play. They might be able to back their way into another eight wins. But their rankings in ESPN’s FPI or Bill Connelly’s S&P+ likely won’t be anywhere near as good as this year.
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Gerry Broome/Associated Press
It’s rather incredible that North Carolina State lost Nyheim Hines, Jaylen Samuels and Bradley Chubb from last year’s roster and actually got a little better. But it’s going to be next to impossible for the Wolfpack to thrive yet again after this offseason’s mass exodus.
QB Ryan Finley—and three-fifths of his starting offensive line—is graduating. The Wolfpack do have Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman as the potential QB-in-waiting, but he has yet to play a college game, leaving redshirt freshman Matt McKay (eight career pass attempts) as the most experienced quarterback on the roster. That could change via the graduate-transfer market, but as things currently stand, QB is a legitimate concern for NC State.
Moreover, starting RB Reggie Gallaspy II is graduating, WR Kelvin Harmon (1,186 yards this year) has already declared for the draft, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if RS JR Jakobi Meyers (1,028 receiving yards) decides to join him. Even if Meyers does stay, though, Dave Doeren needs to do a near-complete makeover on this offense.
The defense is going to look a little different, too, with leading tackler Germaine Pratt out of the picture. NC State also needs to replace defensive end Darian Roseboro and free safety Dexter Wright. The Wolfpack do have enough returning pieces to be respectable on defense, but it might need to be one of the 10 best defenses in the nation to make up for everything lost on offense.
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Northwestern went 0-3 in nonconference play and got five of its eight Big Ten wins by a single-possession margin. Even without accounting for roster changes, some regression to the mean seems inevitable for one of the luckiest division winners in power-conference history.
There is quite a bit of attrition, though.
QB Clayton Thorson and top WR Flynn Nagel are both graduating, meaning the Wildcats need to replace both parts of their best offensive strike. While they’re at it, three starting offensive linemen were redshirt seniors, so they’ll be gone, too. (Maybe that will be addition by subtraction, though, because this unit gave up a ton of sacks and didn’t do much run blocking, either.)
On defense, all three leading tacklers will return, which is excellent news. But the secondary takes a sizable hit with the departures of Montre Hartage and Jared McGee. Outside linebacker Nate Hall will also graduate, as will defensive tackles Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt.
Others on this list are looking at much more turnover than that, but it’s enough to shake things up and cause Northwestern to take a step backward from its first division title.
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Let’s be sure to state up front that this is not some sort of prediction that Notre Dame is destined for a return to the 4-8 season from two years ago. Rather, it is a reasoned assumption that of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, the Fighting Irish are the least likely to get back there again next year.
Star running back Dexter Williams is out of years of eligibility, and TE Alize Mack has already announced his plan to enter the draft. Top WR Miles Boykin and No. 3 WR Chris Finke are both listed as seniors, but neither one played as freshmen in 2015 and could potentially return as graduates next year. It’s still too soon to say just how depleted the offense will be, but even if it’s just Williams and Mack, those are huge holes to fill.
The bigger concern is on defense, where the Fighting Irish need to replace starting linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, as well as defensive tackles Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner. There’s a good chance CB Julian Love will also leave early for the draft, which would hurt. Defense was this team’s strong suit, holding all 12 opponents to 27 points or fewer, and this secondary would not be the same without Love.
Special teams will also need a makeover with place kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome both gone after Notre Dame’s run in the playoff ends.
Again, Notre Dame isn’t likely to crash and burn. But even a 9-3 record would be significant regression after an undefeated season.
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Brad Tollefson/Associated Press
Thanks to solid recruiting year over year, Texas is on the short list of teams who could lose more than half of its starters and still have more than enough talent to contend for a conference title the following season.
That theory will be put to the test in a big way, though, especially if any of the draft-eligible wide receivers decide to leave early. Devin Duvernay will most likely return for a senior season, but both Lil’Jordan Humphrey (79 receptions, 1,109 yards, 9 TD) and Collin Johnson (65 receptions, 945 yards, 7 TD) have second-round or third-round draft potential worth considering.
Even if everyone who can come back does so, there are a ton of holes to fill.
On offense, five starters graduate—three of the linemen, tight end Andrew Beck and running back Tre Watson. And it’ll be wholesale changes on defense with all three linemen, two of the three linebackers and three of the starting defensive backs out of the picture. The three leading tacklers, the top four guys in tackles for loss and the top two players in passes defended will all be gone. Safeties Caden Sterns and Brandon Jones will return, and that’s about it.
In all, that’s 13 starters graduating with the possibility of a couple more standout wide receivers leaving, too. The Longhorns get to keep QB Sam Ehlinger for at least one more year, and head coach Tom Herman presumably isn’t going anywhere. But can that be anywhere near enough for another appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl?
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Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Chris Petersen is one of the best in the business, boasting a career 81.3 winning percentage. His idea of regression is going from 13-0 to a still-solid 10-3 season with Boise State, or leading Washington from a 12-2 season ending in the College Football Playoff to a 10-3 trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
But even for a coach who has been able to maintain excellence through any sort of rebuilding process, this is a lot of roster movement to stomach.
The good news is left tackle Trey Adams is expected to return for a fifth season, and Georgia transfer Jacob Eason figures to take the reins at QB now that he will be eligible.
But we’re talking about an offense losing four-year starting QB Jake Browning and four-year starting RB Myles Gaskin. Even though Salvon Ahmed has been a stout backup to Gaskin for the past two years, replacing a guy with more than 5,000 career rushing yards won’t be easy. The Huskies are also losing starting tight end Drew Sample and right tackle Kaleb McGary.
The defense is the real problem, though. Defensive linemen Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson both graduate. So do linebackers Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett as well as defensive backs JoJo McIntosh and Jordan Miller. And it’s a reasonable expectation that cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp will both declare for the draft.
That would mean Washington loses six of its seven leading tacklers, all 11 of its interceptions and most of its passes defended, which is a tough pill to swallow for a team that has been leaning heavily on its defense for the past four years. Unless Eason is just incredible in his return to action, it could be a .500 season for the Huskies.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
This was arguably West Virginia’s most successful season under Dana Holgorsen.
The Mountaineers spent the entire year ranked No. 17 or higher in the AP poll, and they were at least tangentially in the College Football Playoff picture for most of the campaign. A last-minute loss to Oklahoma State and a subsequent 59-56 shootout loss to Oklahoma left the ‘Eers with an 8-3 record that doesn’t do justice to how much of an offensive force this team was.
If West Virginia was just losing the two guys sitting out the Camping World Bowl—QB Will Grier and OT Yodny Cajuste—it would be more than OK.
However, that duo is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Mountaineers are also saying goodbye to wide receivers Gary Jennings Jr. and David Sills V, who accounted for 272 receptions, 3,889 yards and 47 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Starting tight end Trevon Wesco (24 receptions for 352 yards this year) is also graduating, so just about the entire passing attack will be different in 2019.
Considering we’re talking about a unit that ranks third in the nation in passing yards per game and fourth in yards per attempt, that is significant roster turnover. Hard to imagine this team averaging better than 42 points per game again next season, though stranger things have happened.
The defensive attrition isn’t anywhere near as worrisome as it is on the offensive side of the equation, assuming David Long Jr. returns as a fifth-year senior to anchor the D. But the Mountaineers do lose a couple of key D-linemen in Kenny Bigelow Jr. and Ezekiel Rose, as well as starting defensive backs Toyous Avery and Dravon Askew-Henry.