The only thing dumber than trying to rank the college football top 25 in August is trying to do it eight months earlier in January. But we as human beings cannot resist the lure of foolhardy predictions based on incomplete information, so here we go. Feel free to get outraged, and keep this handy for mockery once the actual 2020 season begins.
The Tigers were humbled in the Superdome on Monday night, but they will return Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross and other offensive weapons (how many others will depend on some early-entry NFL draft decisions). And the defense, which finished the season No. 6 in yards allowed and No. 3 in points allowed, was young. Throw in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and there’s a reason why coach Dabo Swinney said late Monday in New Orleans, “We’re going to have a really, really good football team next year.”
The top three teams in the SEC are all losing veteran quarterbacks, but the Bulldogs might have scored the coup of transfer season by landing Wake Forest evacuee Jamie Newman, who was second in the ACC in total offense at 287 yards per game. Combine that key transfer with the monster recruiting classes that Kirby Smart has stacked up, and Georgia could be next season’s LSU. (But the offensive line will have to be largely rebuilt.)
3. Ohio State
Justin Fields is back after a Heisman Trophy–finalist season, but he’s going to need a lot of reinforcements at skill positions. The Buckeyes lose four of their top six receivers, and that includes leading rusher J.K. Dobbins. Defensively, end Chase Young and cornerback Jeff Okudah depart and will be likely top-five draft picks. Of course, the cupboard is never bare in Columbus, so Ohio State still looks like the class of the Big Ten.
The expectation is that running back Najee Harris will stay in school, a big boost as the Crimson Tide deals with its annual early-entry roster churn. Mac Jones showed that he can be a capable replacement for Tua Tagovailoa—if he can hold off incoming freshman Bryce Young. The harder work for Alabama will be restoring a defense that has slipped the past two seasons, but a lot of freshmen got valuable playing time in 2019 and should be ready to make bigger impacts in ’20.
5. Penn State
It’s hard to close the scarlet-and-gray gap in the Big Ten East, but the Nittany Lions have a shot at it in 2020. Aside from the not-insignificant departure of all-purpose threat K.J. Hamler, virtually every key skill-position performer from 2019 is back—including quarterback Sean Clifford, who should take another step forward next season. And on defense, monster linebacker Micah Parsons returns as well.
This has been the top recruiting program on the West Coast the past three years, and that talent base will be needed to fill a few holes—notably star quarterback Justin Herbert and the majority of the offensive line. The Ducks do return a guy many believe is the best offensive lineman in the country in Penei Sewell and some studs on defense. The skill-position talent is deep. Ohio State comes to Eugene in the second week of the season in a game that could help clarify playoff prospects.
The latest plug-and-play Sooners quarterback is expected to be sophomore Spencer Rattler, the rare Lincoln Riley QB who should be around for more than one season. He won’t have CeeDee Lamb to throw to, but there will be other options. Defensively, Oklahoma loses leading tackler Kenneth Murray but brings back a lot of experienced players. Bottom line: The Sooners are the best in the Big 12 until proven otherwise, and the best in the Big 12 isn’t good enough to compete for a national title until proven otherwise.
The emergence of Kyle Trask as a reliable quarterback was a major development in 2019 that should continue to pay dividends in 2020. He could have the best tight end in the country to throw to in Kyle Pitts. A few other playmakers must step forward, but that should happen. The SEC’s No. 2 defense last season also has some holes to fill, but the talent is there as Dan Mullen’s recruiting classes begin to stack up.
9. Notre Dame
There are two attractive but difficult additions to the schedule: Clemson at home and Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. Those are in addition to games at USC and Pittsburgh. But with Ian Book and most of the offensive line returning, Brian Kelly has some building blocks. There are a lot of good players to replace on defense. The recruiting consistency of the Fighting Irish will come into play there.
It was fun while it lasted. Replacing Joe Burrow and passing game coordinator Joe Brady will be a massive undertaking. But if it’s Myles Brennan or a transfer, the new LSU QB has certified monsters to throw to in Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall. The defense could require a lot of renovation as well, as players make their decisions on whether to stay in school or go pro.
The rowing of the boat should continue in 2020. The breakthrough season doesn’t look like a radar blip, not with as much returning offensive firepower as the Gophers have. There are several holes to fill on defense, with seven of the top eight tacklers departing. Minnesota opens with four straight home games and then a trip to Maryland, which gives the Gophers a chance to be 5-0 before drawing Wisconsin and Michigan in consecutive games Oct. 10-17. And they continue to avoid Ohio State and Penn State in cross-divisional play.
Luke Fickell is still the coach of the Bearcats, and after winning 22 games the past two seasons, that’s the biggest reason for optimism. Running back Michael Warren rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in three seasons and is going pro, but his production should be replaceable. The return of quarterback Desmond Ridder and most of a solid defense are keys to continued success.
Three early entries off the Badgers offense—star running back Jonathan Taylor, leading receiver Quintez Cephus and center Tyler Biadasz—give Minnesota the opportunity to overtake Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. Chris Orr and Zack Baun (a combined 24 sacks) also depart on the defensive side. Still, Wisconsin will be Wisconsin. Which is to say, very good.
Gus Malzahn has a ton of returning and maturing offensive weapons and a ton of holes to fill on a defense that was often great. If quarterback Bo Nix makes the expected strides forward after an uneven freshman season, the Tigers could threaten Alabama and LSU in the West—but that will be decided late. Auburn will close the season by hosting the Tigers and then traveling to the Crimson Tide.
15. Oklahoma State
Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher, announced during the national championship game Monday night that he is staying in school. Combine that with the announced return of wide receiver Tylan Wallace and the return to health of quarterback Spencer Sanders, and Mike Gundy has his playmaking band back together for 2020.
A mediocre defense needs to improve, but it will be more experienced than this season’s unit.
If Clay Helton had been replaced, the Trojans would be higher on this list—because they do have some players and retained prized offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. As it is, they might be able to overcome their head coach and win the Pac-12 South with Utah expected to take a step back. Quarterback Kedon Slovis looks like a star in the making and will have a good cast around him. But the nonconference schedule remains brutal, with games against both Alabama and Notre Dame.
The Tigers would be a potential top-10 team if coach Mike Norvell hadn’t bolted for Florida State. If the in-house succession plan of promoting Ryan Silverfield works out, look out. Memphis has a very good quarterback in Brady White—if he stays in school—and some dynamite weapons around him, led by 2,000-yard all-purpose runner Kenneth Gainwell. A Sept. 12 game at Purdue could provide a sneaky résumé boost for the winning team.
18. Arizona State
The Sun Devils finished with a surge in 2019, shocking Oregon, beating rival Arizona and defeating Florida State in the Sun Bowl. They lose running back Eno Benjamin to early entry but keep rising star quarterback Jayden Daniels, who had an excellent freshman season. Nine of ASU’s top 11 tacklers are expected to return as well, as the Herm Edwards hire continues to pay dividends.
19. North Carolina
If you’re looking for a team that could make a quantum leap up from 2019 to ’20, the Tar Heels are on the short list. They went 7-6 in their first year under Mack Brown and bring back a lot of key parts, headlined by quarterback Sam Howell on offense and linebacker Chaz Surratt on defense. The UNC buzz will either intensify or be extinguished early—the Heels open with UCF in Orlando and then play Auburn in Atlanta.
The Wolverines are what they are at this stage of the Jim Harbaugh era—never bad, never great, trailing Ohio State and others in the Big Ten pecking order. If a quarterback develops into an elite talent, maybe that will change. Michigan does have its top two rushers and three of its top four receivers returning to help. The defense is losing its top three tacklers. The schedule is tough, with road games at Washington, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State plus home games against Wisconsin and Penn State.
Tom Herman shook up his staff after a disappointing 8-5 season. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger announced he’s coming back. Most of the defensive playmakers are back. The injury luck figures to be better this time around. And Matt Rhule’s departure at Baylor opens an opportunity to move back up the Big 12 pecking order. Still, the days of chronically overrating the Longhorns need to end until they prove they deserve better.
22. Boise State
The Broncos’ 1,000-yard rusher and top passer were both freshmen in 2019, and they will be joined by a large group of seniors on the 2020 team. Boise does have to rebuild its defensive front, but should be very good in the back seven. Bryan Harsin’s team also gets a huge early opportunity with Florida State coming to Boise on Sept. 19.
23. Florida State
The biggest thing holding back the Seminoles the past two seasons was coaching, and Mike Norvell should fix that right away. Beyond that, it’s not like FSU is going to rocket back to the glory days and challenge Clemson for the ACC Atlantic Division title, but there are pieces to build around, particularly on defense and at receiver.
Here’s a stat to remember: 24 of the Boilermakers’ 39 touchdowns in 2019 were scored by freshmen. Their leading rusher, receiver, passer and sacker were all freshmen. And their best player, multipurpose threat Rondale Moore, played only four games. After an injury-riddled season, Jeff Brohm has all the pieces for a bounce-back year and a chance to challenge Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. But the nonconference schedule offers no guaranteed wins (Memphis, Air Force, at Boston College).
25. Texas A&M
The other perpetually overrated team from Texas at least gets Clemson off the schedule this season, so that should mean an automatic one-win upgrade. With 2019 and 2020 classes that rank in the top 10 nationally, it’s time for Jimbo Fisher to start earning that massive paycheck.