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2020 Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25

1. Clemson Tigers
Joseph Ngata, Clemson
Even though Dabo Swinney and Clemson were unable to win their third National Title in four seasons last Monday night, but don't expect the Tigers to slow down anytime soon. They have two Heisman frontrunners back in the fold, with junior QB Trevor Lawrence and senior running back Travis Etienne. Lawrence will probably be the No. 1 NFL Draft selection come spring of 2021, but Etienne's return was a surprise. It's clear that he wanted to end his Clemson career with a National Title, despite getting second or third round grades. Also back offensively is wide out Justyn Ross, along with breakout candidates Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata. The other side of the ball is set as well, thanks to the continuity under coordinator Brent Venables. Venables will ensure the group sees no drop-off in 2020, even losing a number of pieces to the NFL. The defensive line could be particularly strong, as Xavier Thomas keeps getting better.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ryan Day's first season in Columbus was a major success, but the next step is clear: a National Championship. The Buckeyes have enough pieces to do just that, and bringing back a veteran QB in Justin Fields is a major reason why. Fields should be even better in his second year in the offense, and there are several breakout possibilities to keep an eye on. The one I'm the most excited about is going to be receiver Garrett Wilson, who flashed significant potential this past fall. Chase Young may be gone from the defense, but you expect somebody to step up and fill the pass rushing void. The secondary is also going to reload, as they've done consistently this past half decade. Jeffrey Okudah is a huge loss, but Shaun Wade's return will be instrumental in keeping this defense stingy.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Two straight seasons of no National Titles is almost expected in most places in college football, but not in Tuscaloosca. You get the feeling that Nick Saban and the Tide are going to be back with a vengeance looking ahead to 2020, and there are some significant holdovers. Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith were two surefire NFL Draft picks who decided to play their senior seasons. Harris has the chance to be a Heisman favorite, while Smith will form a potent 1-2 combo on the outside with speed demon Jaylen Waddle. The biggest question for the offense is going to be at quarterback, where Tua Tagovailoa moves on. Mac Jones looked good taking over for Tua, but expect him to be pushed by touted true freshman Bryce Young. The other side of the ball was a problem for Alabama, which isn't the Saban DNA. Expect them to really do a 180, as linebacker Dylan Moses is back and healthy, while Patrick Surtain Jr. is going to be a contender for the Jim Thorpe Award in the secondary.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Forget about the 63-28 loss in the CFB Playoff semifinal to LSU, focus on this: Oklahoma has now won five straight Big 12 Titles. That's impressive in any conference, let a lone a Power Five that is often wacky like the Big 12. The Sooners seem like they have the pieces in place to keep this thing rolling, especially with Matt Rhule off to the NFL. Jalen Hurts might be gone at quarterback, but anybody that is plugged into the system seems to have success under Lincoln Riley. Spencer Rattler is expected to be next in line, and will be blessed with some fascinating skill position talent, including Kennedy Brooks, Jadon Hasselwood, Theo Wease and more. As usual, the defense is going to have some question marks, but should get better in their second season under the tutelage of Alex Grinch.
5. LSU Tigers
It's understandable that people are expecting a drop-off in Baton Rouge following the magical 2019 campaign. Not only will they have significant personnel losses (namely Joe Burrow), but the coaching staff was gutted, with passing game coordinator Joe Brady going back to the NFL, and D-Coordinator Dave Aranda taking the HC job at Baylor. But, this team still has serious talent on both sides of the ball, and I don't expect them to fall out of the Playoff conversation. Myles Brennan is slated as the likely quarterback for now, but don't be surprised if the Tigers are involved in the grad transfer market. Whoever takes over at QB will have some amazing receivers to throw to, including soon-to-be juniors Ja'Marr Chase & Terrace Marshall Jr. Chase was dominant all 2019, winning the Biletnikoff Award and capping it off with a dominant performance in the National Championship. The defense also had a great National Championship after an up-and-down year, but losing Aranda is significant. The good news is that the Tigers still have one of the nation's top defenders in Derek Stingley Jr., who played well beyond his years as a true freshman this season.
6. Oregon Ducks
A resurgent 2019 seemed to indicate that Oregon is back in the national conversation, and they look like the team to beat in the Pac-12. Mario Cristobal has done a superb job building the program back up, and there are serious athletes on both sides of the ball. The obvious concern going into 2020 is the absence of veteran QB Justin Herbert, which is a situation to monitor. Tyler Shough threw the ball 15 times in relief of Herbert this past fall, making him the tentative favorite heading into the spring. Don't be surprised if the Ducks are very active in the transfer portal, even as they missed out on Jamie Newman. The rest of the offense has the chance to be special, with Travis Dye and C.J. Verdell forming a 1-2 combo in the backfield once again, while Mycah Pittman looks like a future star at wide out. The defense got some major returns, including veteran Jordan Scott and corner Deommodore Lenoir. The veteran returnees, as well as the return of budding star Kayvon Thibodeaux should make the defense the Pac-12's best.
7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2019's 11-2 season made it three straight double-digit victory seasons in South Bend, making them one of the more consistent programs in college football right now. The ingredients are again in place for this team to be a Playoff contender again. The return of Ian Book at quarterback was an important first step, and it will be interesting to see what he does in this offense. With former OC Chip Long now gone, former ND QB Tommy Rees is the new coordinator. He called a great game in the Camping World Bowl, but can he do it over an entire season? The rest of the offense has holes, but Jafar Armstrong can do it all, and Northwestern transfer Bennett Skowronek could make waves. The defense has the chance to be once again very good, and it's worth keeping an eye on sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. He was really good as a true freshman, and could be one of the best defensive backs in the country in 2020.
8. Florida Gators
The Gators put together an impressive 2019 when you consider their starting quarterback, Feleipe Franks, was out for the year within the first few weeks. Franks is now transferring, leaving the offense in the hands of Kyle Trask, who may actually be an upgrade. Trask played really well down the stretch this fall, even with the lack of help from the Gator ground attack. The Florida defense loses some notable pieces, but they have no shortage of talent ready to step up. The news that cornerback Marco Wilson was returning for his senior season was a surprise, and Gator fans are excited about the potential of fellow defensive back Kaiir Elam. With Georgia possibly taking a slight step back, I think Florida has a great opportunity to retake the SEC East.
9. Georgia Bulldogs
UGA came out as a big winner in the transfer portal market earlier when they managed to land Wake Forest's Jamie Newman. The dual-threat quarterback put up great numbers in the ACC Atlantic, but can that translate to SEC football? The rest of the quarterback room in Athens doesn't inspire much confidence. The rest of the offense is extremely talented, but still unproven in a lot of areas. Expect tailback Zamir White to become the fresh go-to guy with D'Andre Swift off to the NFL, while wide out George Pickens flashed his star potential in the bowl victory over Baylor. The great news is that Kirby Smart still has a great defense coming back, that is full of speed and depth. Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean are going to thrive in another year in the SEC, while cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes will lock things up on the perimeter.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
A dominant Cotton Bowl performance made it clear that linebacker Micah Parsons is one of college football's great defenders, and he returns for another year in Happy Valley. Parsons will have to play an even larger role with some of the losses Penn State suffers on defense, but the offense has the chance to be really good. Sean Clifford was rock-solid this past season, but will be playing in a new offense after OC Ricky Rahne left for Old Dominion. He'll miss his top target, the dynamic K.J. Hamler, but tight end Pat Freiermuth is one of college football's best. It will be interesting to see which one of these running backs shines into the spring and summer, whether it's Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford.
11. Auburn Tigers
The SEC West is going to be wild in 2020, but Auburn won't be lost in the shuffle. Gus Malzahn's group will lose a few important names on defense, but their offense has the chance to be one of the nation's best. The hope is that Bo Nix can large strides under new coordinator Chad Morris, and he'll have plenty of help. Wide receiver Seth Williams is vastly underrated, and Anthony Schwartz should be back on the outside. How the defense is able to recover from the losses of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson will be intriguing. The secondary will need to improve if the Tigers have any shot at taking the division. No Oregon in the non-conference helps, although UNC will be a difficult neutral site matchup on the 2020 schedule.
12. Minnesota Golden Gophers
A resounding Outback Bowl win put a perfect cap on Minnesota's 2019, but the next step is a Big Ten West Title. Head coach P.J. Fleck loses some big names, such as receiver Tyler Johnson and defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., but I expect the Gophers to still be a tough out. Tanner Morgan was superb in his first full season running the offense, but will have to adjust to a new offense under Matt Simon and Mike Sanford Jr. He may miss Johnson, but Rashod Bateman looks like he is a legitimate Biletnikoff Award contender. He was absolutely unstoppable at times this season, and will be the vocal point of the offense next year. What the defense will look like is still unclear, but losing leads like Winfield and Carter Coughlin hurts.
13. Michigan Wolverines
It was a confusing 2019 for Michigan that just never felt right, although a 9-4 record isn't something to completely throw away. A new quarterback will be leading the way with Shea Patterson now gone, with Dylan McCaffrey the likely favorite. He does have explosiveness returning alongside him, but the Wolverines really need to re-establish their power run game. Zach Charbonnet could be in store to be a workhorse, ready for a huge sophomore season. Don Brown is going to be back to lead the defense, but it has issues to solve. The secondary is going to need to improve if Michigan is to overcome a tough schedule. UM should still hover around, but right now, it's hard to see them overtaking Ohio State or Penn State in the Big Ten East.
14. Texas A&M Aggies
Suffering through one of the nation's toughest schedules, it wasn't super shocking to see Texas A&M regress to 8-5 in Jimbo Fisher's second year. It did put some pressure on Fisher and the Aggies heading into 2020, but an easier schedule should set the baseline for an improved campaign. Kellen Mond is back to run the offense, but he was very bad at times in '19. Where is the guy that threw for 430 yards against Clemson in 2018? A&M will need him to re-emerge, and he does have plenty of playmakers to help. Tight ends Jalen Wydermeyer and a healthy Baylor Cupp could work wonders in this offense, but the defense is going to have to improve. They lose pieces on the D-Line, but coordinator Mike Elko has done a really good job in College Station.
15. Wisconsin Badgers
Replacing Jonathan Taylor is a tall order, but you still get the feeling the Badgers won't relinquish the Big Ten West without a fight. Nakia Watson is expected to take over for Taylor as the featured back, and he will run behind a great offensive line per usual. I actually think that the loss of Quintez Cephus may be felt more than Taylor. Cephus was one of their lone playmakers at times in 2019, and I'm not sure who else Wisconsin can look to. You'd think the Badger defense would reload once again in 2020, but losing Chris Orr is significant. However, retaining coordinator Jim Leonhard once again ensures a pretty stout unit.
16. UNC Tar Heels
Sam Howell, North Carolina

I'm betting on a big jump this 2020 from North Carolina, and I think they'll become a popular dark horse pick going into next season. They were a great story this fall, and have one of the nation's best young quarterbacks in Sam Howell. Howell was the real deal all season long, and he'll have a full off-season under his belt at this point. Howell is also blessed with a good supporting cast, including receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. The defense has a little bit more questions, but the return of former QB Chaz Surratt at linebacker is going to be huge. He's a terrific linebacker, and an excellent leader in the locker room. Still, the Tar Heels aren't at the class of Clemson right now, but they still look like a tentative favorite in the Coastal, with Virginia rebuilding.
17. Boise State Broncos
The big win for Boise State this off-season was the fact Bryan Harsin remains their head football coach. The BSU alum has long been rumored for a number of Power Five jobs, but for now remains on the sidelines in Boise. Harsin could have one of his best offenses since becoming Broncos head coach, as they're loaded with skill position talent. George Holani and Robert Mahone are back at running back, while the receiver corps should include Khalil Skair and C.T. Thomas. At quarterback, Hank Bachmeier had a very promising freshman season, and should get the full keys to the offense. Boise State's defense does have some question marks, but after going 12-2 in 2019, the Broncos are still one of the Group of Five's premier programs, and the team to beat in the Mountain West.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Can anybody overtake Oklahoma in the Big 12? There toughest challenger in 2020 might actually be inside the state, as the Oklahoma State Cowboys are a real Playoff dark horse. The Cowboys got a big win earlier this month when running back Chuba Hubbard announced he would return. One of the most explosive runners in recent memory, Hubbard should have won the Doak Walker Award this fall. He'll be joined by another proven offensive weapon in wide out Tylan Wallace, who was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award in 2018 before suffering through injuries this past season. He is one of the top receivers in the sport when 100 percent. Those two should lead a big-play offense that will put up points, but quarterback and O-Line play will be interesting to watch. Spencer Sanders is now the guy at QB, but can he really take the next step? Learning a new offense after the departure of OC Sean Gleeson doesn't help.
19. Texas Longhorns
Even though last season was a major disappointment in Austin, all signs point to a redemptive 2020. Getting Sam Ehlinger back for a senior season was a big win for Tom Herman and the rest of the staff. Ehlinger is a tremendous leader who has proven he can play on the sport's biggest stages and win. However, Ehlinger is going to need help from an offense that struggled to run the ball effectively in '19, and is losing their most trusted wide out, Devin Duvarney. The hope around the Longhorns is that the defense will also be improved after a frustrating fall. They have a new coordinator in former Rutgers head man Chris Ash, and there is no shortage of talent, especially in the back-end. Safety Caden Sterns had a tough 2019, but he has the talent to be an All-American next year.
20. Arizona State Sun Devils
The Pac-12 South promises to be wide open in 2020. Utah will almost surely take a step back with some of their losses, USC is in a weird spot going into the new year, and nobody else inspires much confidence. That leaves Arizona State in unfamiliar territory as the likely favorite in the division. The Sun Devils are coming off an 8-5 year that had some incredible highs and a few brutal lows. The great news is that they have a budding star at the sport's most important position, in QB Jayden Daniels. Daniels looked the part throughout 2019, even playing some of his best ball against several elite defenses. He's a Heisman dark horse to watch throughout the spring. Daniels will miss his favorite target, veteran Brandon Aiyuk, but Herm Edwards managed to bring in a stellar recruiting class, and guys like true frosh Johnny Wilson could surprise. Edwards will also bring back a lot of his defense, which will be especially stout at the linebacker position. That group is now coached by Antonio Pierce, the former NFL star, whose done a superb job with the position group.
21. Cincinnati Bearcats
It's no secret the American Athletic Conference has become the strongest Group of Five conference, but there are questions about who the team to beat will be in 2020 for the league. Memphis will still be tough, and I expect UCF to improve, but the best bet may be Cincinnati. They've now posted back-to-back 11-win campaigns under coach Luke Fickell, and a lot is set to return. Fickell is blessed with a proven veteran at QB in Desmond Ridder, along with a physical defense he has done a great job of crafting. Elijah Ponder and Michael Pitts will anchor an imposing front seven that should play more like a P5 group than Group of Five, while the secondary should also be ripe with experience. Cincy might not have the high-scoring offense of former AAC Champs, but they should win their own way: a methodical offense, and a well-coached, experienced defense.
22. Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State has developed into a consistent fixture near the top of the Big 12 standings under coach Matt Campbell, but you get the feeling they're still waiting for the major breakthrough in Ames. The 2020 group could be the one to really get them over the top, but the Cyclones have to figure out a way to finish off games. Campbell has done a great job with the program, but his teams have struggled to win close ones, which has restricted any chance of making a serious run at a Big 12 Title. Back in the fold in '20 will be QB Brock Purdy, who keeps getting better, as well as budding tailback Breece Hall. ISU averaged over 32 PPG in 2019, a number that should get even better with the experience set to return. The defense has to get more consistent, but guys like linebacker Mike Rose and safety Greg Eisworth puts them in a good spot.
23. Iowa Hawkeyes
Even though Nate Stanley is graduating, Iowa still looks like a Big Ten West favorite looking ahead at 2020. They have a rising star at running back in Tyler Goodson, who should be in store for a big year. He is joined on offense by one of the conference's most versatile players in Ihmir Smith-Marsette, as well as a strong O-Line, bolstered by the return of Alaric Jackson. There are a number of notable names departing from the defense, chief among them being A.J. Epenesa. However, the Hawkeyes reload on defense as well as anybody in the country, and you expect them to be tough once more.
24. Memphis Tigers
Mike Norvell may be off to Florida State, but I don't expect the momentum to stop at Memphis. New coach Ryan Silverfield still has loads of talent remaining from the Group of Five's best team, including a holdover at QB in Brady White. White is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks, and although there have been rumors of him transferring, the plan right now is for him to return to the Tigers. He will be joined by a number of other offensive pieces, including back Kenneth Gainwell and go-to wide out Damonte Coxie. The defense has more question marks, losing end Bryce Huff and a number of other contributors. Yet, it should still be serviceable for Memphis in 2020.
25. Purdue Boilermakers
My dark horse pick peeking ahead towards 2020 resides in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers had a tough 2019 due to injuries and a weak defense, but all signs point up in a big way in 2020. First off, dynamic do-it-all Rondale Moore should be fully healthy, and is a legit Heisman contender when 100 percent. He could form the best 1-2 punch at receiver in the Big Ten, with David Bell looking terrific in his absence. Whoever starts at quarterback should certainly benefit and if it's Aidan O'Connell, he looked rock-solid during his time in 2019. On defense, Markus Bailey will be sorely missed, even though he missed most of 2019 with a torn ACL. However, if you don't know who George Karlaftis is just yet, it's time to get acquainted. He was a huge get for Jeff Brohm and staff prior to this past season, and responded with 7.5 sacks as a true freshman. Paired with vet Lorenzo Neal, who passed on the NFL, Purdue should have a formidable pass rush.


1 comment:

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