2020 College Football Crystal Ball: Playoff Picks, Dark-Horse Predictions and More

Who do our writers see emerging from an unorthodox fall season as the national champ come January?
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The 2020 college football season promises to be unlike any other. With only 76 of the 130 FBS programs currently playing this fall, fan attendance reduced or even eliminated across the country and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still threatening postponements and cancellations, the next few months are shaping up to be a roller-coaster ride. 

Three of the five Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, SEC) will kick off in September, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 remain sidelined until a potential winter or spring season. While the fall 2020 season officially started last week, the first Power 5 action comes Thursday night, when Miami hosts UAB. The SEC, meanwhile, won't start until Sept. 26, with plans to play a 10-game conference-only season.

Despite the uniqueness of 2020, all signs point to there still being a traditional College Football Playoff and national champion. Last month, Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde revealed their preseason top 16. Now, they're back with their playoff picks, plus predictions for dark horse, biggest disappointment, breakout player and more.

College Football Crystal Ball 2020

College Football Playoff Predictions:

Pat Forde predicts Clemson vs. Georgia and Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the playoff, with an Alabama vs. Clemson title game. Ross Dellenger predicts Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Georgia in the playoff, with an Alabama vs. Clemson title game.

Who will win the national championship?

Forde: Clemson. Trevor Lawrence exits college football with one of the great three-season résumés in the game's history, making the CFP title game every season and winning two of the three. But the big stat-maker for the Tigers might be running back Travis Etienne, since Lawrence is working with a less experienced receiving corps. With the return of a dominant defensive line, Clemson will get back to manhandling opponents up front. 

Dellenger: Clemson. Behind Lawrence’s big arm, Etienne’s big legs and a nasty defense, the Tigers will claim their third national championship in the last five years, even if this one will come with an asterisk. For the first time in a while, the Tigers may actually get tested in the regular season. Circle their Nov. 7 matchup with Notre Dame. 

Which Power 5 team will be the biggest disappointment?

Forde: Here's a weird trend: The season after Auburn beats Alabama, there is a notable regression. In 2011, after winning the national title the previous season, the Tigers went 8–5. In 2014, after playing for the national title the previous season, the Tigers went 8–5. In 2018, after winning the 10 games and the SEC West the previous season, the Tigers went—you guessed it—8–5. While quarterback Bo Nix is back this season and should take a step forward in his play, there are major personnel losses to deal with in addition to the usual brutal schedule.

Dellenger: LSU. A year after rolling to a 15–0 record and the national title, the Tigers are in rebuilding mode. They lost a whopping 17 starters off that squad, including Heisman winner Joe Burrow and his best three receivers. Four players opted out, and several more transferred. LSU’s 10-game, SEC-only schedule includes trips to Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M and home a game against Alabama.

Which under-the-radar team will be a surprise playoff contender?

Forde: If Oklahoma State can put its summer of tumult behind it and figure out its Oklahoma problem, the Cowboys could win the Big 12 and make the playoff field. Mike Gundy might have the best running back (Chuba Hubbard) and the best wide receiver (Tylan Wallace) in the country, plus a returning quarterback and nearly his entire starting defense. The Sooners are the major impediment, per usual, having beaten Oklahoma State five straight times. But if ever there were going to be a year for the Pokes, this looks like it.  

Dellenger: We’re not quite sure how “under-the-radar” Notre Dame is, but the Irish are definitely a playoff contender. However, we’ll go even more off the radar for this pick: North Carolina. Coach Mack Brown seems to have the Tar Heels roaring, and with talented QB Sam Howell calling the shots and no Clemson on the regular season schedule, Mack might be back to leading a team to a championship. 

Which coach will be on the hottest seat by midseason?

Forde: On Oct. 10, Vanderbilt will host South Carolina. The losing coach in that game—Vandy's Derek Mason or South Carolina's Will Muschamp—is going to be feeling a lot of heat. Especially since both teams could be 0–2 going into that contest. Muschamp is in Year 5 and Mason in Year 7; by the end of it, the only thing saving them both might be department finances that make buyouts prohibitive.

Dellenger: Like the players themselves, this COVID-19 year might give the coaches a free pass. That said, Mason is sliding on some thin ice lately and it might just crack beneath the weight of a 10-game, SEC-only schedule. The Commodores’ first three games: at Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina. 

Who will be the fall's biggest breakout player?

Forde: Alabama receiver–kick returner Jaylen Waddle is hardly an unknown, but now he's moving into a starring role for the Crimson Tide after losing two first-round draft picks at his position. Waddle scored eight touchdowns in 2019: six receiving, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return. That total should rise with an increased number of targets in the Alabama passing game.

Dellenger: Not sure we’ll see anything like what LSU QB Joe Burrow did in 2019, but Tennessee RB Eric Gray seems destined for stardom this year. The sophomore exploded last last season as the Volunteers’ best running back, and he’ll be working behind one of the SEC’s most experienced offensive lines. College football will know his name by November.