LSU’s national championship is still incredibly fresh. But that’s not stopping us from looking ahead to the 2020 college football season.
Yeah, the season is over eight months away and the cigar smoke from LSU’s locker room is still lingering in the Superdome. But college football is all about looking ahead. So we’re going to do it.
This list could change a lot by the time August rolls around. But it’s at least our first guess at how the preseason top 25 will look like at the end of next summer.
25. North Carolina (6-6 in 2019)
Could the Tar Heels be the second-best team in the ACC? Freshman QB Sam Howell threw for 38 TDs and just seven interceptions in 2019 and RB Michael Carter is back after a 1,003-yard junior season. LB and leading tackler Chazz Surratt is coming back too after having a breakout season following his mid-career switch from QB. Surratt had 115 tackles and 15 tackles for loss.
24. Tennessee (8-5)
Tennessee managed to rebound from a disastrous start to the 2019 season by winning six straight games to close out the year, including a comeback victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, to finish with an 8-5 record. The Vols still have a ways to go to realistically compete with the likes of Georgia and Florida in the SEC East, but it seems like Jeremy Pruitt has his program on the right track. The Vols travel to Oklahoma in Week 2 next season, so that could be an opportunity to make a statement.
23. USC (8-5)
The Trojans will have one of the more interesting quarterback competitions in the country between Kedon Slovis and JT Daniels. WR Amon-Ra St. Brown is poised for a monster year after a 77-catch, 1,042-yard performance as a sophomore. Safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao return on a defense that will have a new coordinator in 2020 after the firing of Clancy Pendergast. We don’t know who that new coordinator is just yet, however. USC still hasn’t made a hire.
22. Boise State (12-2)
The 2019 Boise State team dealt with a ton of injuries and wasn’t quite as talented as previous Bryan Harsin-led teams but still managed to win 12 games and the Mountain West title. Now with so much talent returning, including quarterback Hank Bachmeier, the Broncos should be the clear favorite to win the conference again and even get back to a New Year’s Six bowl game. The position group dealing with the most losses is the defensive line, including All-American Curtis Weaver. Weaver had 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2019.
21. Iowa (10-3)
Never count out the Hawkeyes under coach Kirk Ferentz. But Iowa needs to replace QB Nathan Stanley and, likely, DE AJ Epenesa. DB Jack Koerner and LB Djimon Colbert are back to lead the defense and RB Tyler Goodson is poised to take on a bigger role after rushing for 638 yards and five scores as a freshman. A 2020 return by Holiday Bowl MVP WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette would be a big boost.
20. Memphis (12-2)
While Mike Norvell left for Florida State and Antonio Gibson and Joey Magnifico are off to the NFL, Memphis should still be one of the most-talented Group of Five teams in the country. The school promoted offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield to head coach and he had a strong debut in the Cotton Bowl, a shootout loss to Penn State. Brady White will be back at QB for one final season and he will have stars like Kenneth Gainwell (1,459 rushing yards) and Damonte Coxie (76 catches, 1,276 yards) back with him on offense.
19. Virginia Tech (8-5)
The Hokies scored big with the arrival of former Rutgers RB Raheem Blackshear over the weekend. Blackshear played just four games in 2019 before redshirting ahead of a transfer and in 2018 was the Scarlet Knights’ top rusher with 586 yards and their top receiver with 367 yards. He’ll join QB Hendon Hooker in the backfield after Hooker emerged as Tech’s starter down the stretch in 2019.
18. Utah (10-3)
Utah has won the Pac-12 South the last two seasons and was a Pac-12 title game win over Oregon away from the College Football Playoff. Now the Utes have to replace stars at quarterback and running back in Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss, not to mention three defensive backs who are leaving for the NFL. But Kyle Whittingham has a knack for developing talent, especially on defense. He also brought in graduate transfer quarterback Jake Bentley from South Carolina. The Utes may not compete for a playoff berth, but it’d be shocking if they weren’t in the mix to win the division again.
17. Texas A&M (8-5)
QB Kellen Mond got some good news when leading WR Jhamon Ausbon announced that he was coming back for his senior season. Isaiah Spiller emerged as the team’s leading rusher as a freshman in 2019 with 946 yards and 10 scores and could easily top 1,000 yards in 2020. DL Justin Madubuike and CB Debione Renfro are off to the NFL but the Aggies return their top three tacklers while pass-rusher Tyree Johnson is back for his junior season.
16. Oklahoma State (8-5)
Oklahoma State has one of the top offensive trios in the country. The Cowboys return running back Chuba Hubbard, wide receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders. Hubbard just led the nation with 2,094 rushing yards, Wallace has 139 catches for 2,394 yards and 20 touchdowns combined over the last two seasons and Sanders threw for 2,065 yards and rushed for 628 yards as a freshman. If the Cowboys take another step forward defensively, there’s a chance they could halt a streak of five straight losses to rival Oklahoma.
15. Michigan (9-4)
Michigan’s offense showed signs of significant life in the second half of 2019. How will it carry over into 2020 without QB Shea Patterson? Dylan McCaffrey enters the season as the favorite for the starting gig after backing up McCaffrey. WRs Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell are back along with RB Zach Charbonnet who impressed with 726 yards and 11 TDs as a freshman. DL Aidan Hutchinson will be asked to take another step forward with the departures of Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow and the return of DE Kwity Paye for his senior season is a great boost.
14. Texas (8-5)
Texas’ win over Georgia in last year’s Sugar Bowl raised expectations exponentially for the Longhorns entering 2019. But maybe 2020 was the year for Texas’ ascension all along. Sam Ehlinger will be back at quarterback for his senior season. Though he loses his top two receivers, UT should be deep at running back and along the offensive line. As it showed in the Alamo Bowl, the defense could be a strength — especially with Joseph Ossai back at linebacker and stud safety Caden Sterns back at 100 percent health.
13. Minnesota (11-2)
A Gopher offense that averaged over 34 points per game could be even better in 2020 with the return of QB Tanner Morgan, RB Mohamed Ibrahim and WR Rashod Bateman. The loss of S Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL is big but it was also expected. DBs Jordan Howden and Benjamin St-Juste return on a defense that loses a lot of seniors so it may be up to the offense to pick up the slack on any defensive dropoff from Minnesota’s first 11-win season in a century.
12. Wisconsin (10-4)
The Big Ten West continues to get better, but Wisconsin is still the class of that division. The Badgers used a late-season run to overtake Minnesota this year, and will have to fend off a pesky Gophers team yet again. The Badgers lose record-setting running back Jonathan Taylor to the NFL, but will have Jack Coan back at quarterback behind an excellent offensive line. Jim Leonhard’s defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten during his time as defensive coordinator and he returns a bevy of talent for 2020, though the players moving on are standout linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun.
11. Auburn (9-4)
Auburn’s defense loses a lot of talent in players like Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. But LB K.J. Britt is back and so is LB Zakoby McClain. QB Bo Nix should improve after he was the first freshman to start at QB for Auburn in generations and WRs Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams are back too. As like in 2019, a tough SEC West schedule may limit Auburn’s potential to get to 10 wins despite the talent still on the Plains.
10. Notre Dame (11-2)
Notre Dame is in the midst of quite a run following the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016. Since then, Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish are a combined 33-5, including an 11-2 record in 2018. The Irish have a lot to replace at the skill positions, but will see the return of Ian Book for his fifth-year senior season at quarterback behind a stellar offensive line. The schedule, with a trip to Green Bay to face Wisconsin and a home game against Clemson, will allow the Irish to be in the College Football Playoff conversation.
9. Georgia (12-2)
The arrival of former Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman answers the question of who would succeed Jake Fromm. But there’s a lot of other replacing to do on the offense. The Bulldogs need to find four starters on the offensive line and a replacement for stud RB D’Andre Swift. WR George Pickens looks like a star, though, and Dominick Blaylock could be healthy for the start of the season after a torn ACL at the end of 2019. The defense will be led by LB Monty Rice and S Richard LeCounte. Both players passed up the draft to return for their senior seasons.
8. Oregon (12-2)
Oregon enters 2020 as the favorite to win the Pac-12 despite the loss of quarterback Justin Herbert. The Ducks are on the heels of a 12-win season that was capped off by beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Unless Oregon looks to the graduate transfer market, former four-star recruit Tyler Shough is expected to fill Herbert’s shoes. He has an array of talent with him on offense, including Penei Sewell, who might be the best lineman in the country. The program got big news on Monday when four defensive starters all announced they will be back in 2020. That defense should be nasty, especially if DE Kayvon Thibodeaux continues to emerge as a star.
7. Penn State (11-2)
The Nittany Lions are positioned to be the top Big Ten East challenger to Ohio State again. QB Sean Clifford should improve on a solid first year as a starter and RB Journey Brown averaged nearly seven yards a carry. The offense needs to replace WR KJ Hamler but the return of TE Pat Freiermuth is a boost. LB Micah Parsons could be the preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year and S Lamont Wade could again be one of the best safeties in the conference.
6. Florida (11-2)
Dan Mullen is 21-5 in his first two seasons at Florida, but has finished second to Georgia in the SEC East both years. Will the Gators move past the Bulldogs in 2020? Offensive standouts like QB Kyle Trask, TE Kyle Pitts and WR Trevon Grimes all return while the secondary will get a boost from the return of Marco Wilson, who weighed a jump to the NFL. The Gators play five of their first six games at home, including hosting LSU on Oct. 10. That precedes the cocktail party against Georgia on Halloween.
5. Oklahoma (12-2)
The Sooners will need to find a fourth starting quarterback in four seasons. But there’s no reason to think that either Spencer Rattler or Tanner Mordecai won’t excel in Lincoln Riley’s offense. Oklahoma announced Monday that former UCLA WR Theo Howard had joined the team as a grad transfer and RB Kennedy Brooks also returns along with C Creed Humphrey. DE Ronnie Perkins and safeties Delarrin Turner-Yell and Patrick Fields are also back to lead a young defense that should get better (again).
4. Alabama (11-2)
Mac Jones looked more than capable after replacing Tua Tagovailoa at the end of the season and WR DeVonta Smith is back to pair with Jaylen Waddle and give the Crimson Tide a potent 1-2 punch on the outside. LB Dylan Moses is back to anchor a defense that featured freshmen linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris as two of its top four tacklers. With RB Najee Harris off to the NFL, Alabama will need to find a new featured rusher but that’s never been an issue for Nick Saban.
3. LSU (14-1)
Uncertainty at the quarterback position is the biggest question mark for Ed Orgeron entering the offseason. With Joe Burrow off to the NFL, Myles Brennan appears to be next in line to run the LSU’s high-flying offense, which may or may not have highly-coveted assistant Joe Brady back in the fold. NFL decisions from RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire and WR Justin Jefferson are also still to come. Even if those guys leave, the roster is stocked with talent on both sides of the ball. Derek Stingley Jr. could emerge as the best cornerback in college football.
2. Ohio State (13-1)
Ohio State came up just short of the College Football Playoff title game in Ryan Day’s first season as head coach, and there’s no reason to think the Buckeyes shouldn’t be back playing on that stage next season. OSU is losing a lot of talent to the NFL, but Justin Fields will be back at quarterback and the next wave of recruits is always ready to step into bigger roles in Columbus. The Buckeyes will have a big test early next year too when they travel to Eugene to face Oregon in Week 2. The Penn State game will also be on the road.
1. Clemson (14-1)
If you want to know why we’re putting Clemson at No. 1, just read what Dabo Swinney had to say Saturday.
“The good news is this is one of the youngest teams I've ever had,” Swinney said. “We've got 80 freshmen and sophomores out of our 120. I think we've got a chance to be a better team next year. I really do. Fifteen [mid-year enrollees] just got there, and we've got a lot of people back, and excited about what our future is, and this is kind of the end of a great decade, and we would certainly love to end it up as National Champs, but we're excited about the Roaring '20s, too.”
Clemson’s players back include QB Trevor Lawrence, WR Justyn Ross, CB Derion Kendrick and LB Baylon Spector. The Tigers are going to be really, really, really good again.
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