Athlon ranks every FBS team for 2020
College football's 2020 season is slated to start in late August, but it's never too early to project where all 130 teams will finish at the end of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced several schedule changes and many challenges await the fall slate. However, Athlon Sports released its top 25 in May and now it's time to project the rest of the teams 26-130. Clemson takes the top spot at No. 1, with Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma as the other projected playoff teams. Penn State, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Oregon round out the top 10.
Cincinnati ranks as the projected top Group of 5 team this fall, but Boise State, Memphis, UCF, Appalachian State and Louisiana aren't far behind. UAB is Athlon's highest-ranked team from Conference USA for 2020, with Buffalo ranked as the projected winner from the MAC.
DISCLAIMER: This is not a preseason 130 ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
College Football Top 130 Team Rankings for 2020
Walt Bell’s rebuilding effort at UMass is set to continue into the 2020 season. The Minutemen finished Bell’s first year in Amherst with a 1-11 record, as the program’s lone victory came at Akron. Outside of that win, no other game was decided by less than 21 points. Closing that gap and showing improvement overall rests on both sides of the ball. Offensively, junior college recruit Kyle Lindquist and Andrew Brito will compete for the starting quarterback job. Just two starters are back up front, and there’s turnover at running back after Bilal Ally entered the transfer portal. Receiver Jermaine Johnson Jr. (37 catches) is a promising sophomore for Bell to build around in 2020. Tommy Restivo is set to take over the defensive signal-caller duty this fall, but he’s got a tough job on tap. UMass gave up 52.7 points a game, nearly 300 rushing yards a contest and 7.8 yards a snap last fall. Only five starters are back for 2020, and the defense must find a replacement for standout cornerback Isaiah Rodgers.
Dana Dimel has won just two games in two years at UTEP, and with only seven starters back, 2020 appears to be another rebuilding season in El Paso. The Miners defeated FCS member Houston Baptist by two in last year’s opener but only one loss was decided by one score. In other words, this team has a long way to go in order to avoid the C-USA West cellar. A backfield featuring Quardraiz Wadley, Deion Hankins and Josh Fields represents the team’s biggest strength. However, the line has only two returning starters and a quarterback battle between Gavin Hardison and TJ Goodwin will be settled in fall practice. The Miners have finished last in C-USA in scoring defense in two out of the last three years. Nine of the team’s top 15 tacklers from 2019 are gone, with end Praise Amaewhule, cornerback Josh Caldwell and linebacker Jayson VanHook leading the effort in ’20.
128. New Mexico State
After finishing 7-6 and playing a bowl for the first time since 1960, New Mexico State is just 5-19 over the last two years. However, rebounding back to a winning mark in 2020 won’t be easy. Josh Adkins – the projected starting quarterback – decided to transfer in the spring, leaving junior college recruit Jonah Johnson and redshirt freshman Weston Eget to battle under center. The skill talent has to be restocked with running back Jason Huntley and the team’s top three receivers from 2019 out of eligibility. Michigan transfer O’Maury Samuels should help the ground game right away. Robert Downs III (22 catches in 2019) is likely the go-to target, with some help also coming from the junior college ranks. The defense allowed 41 points a game last fall but returns a promising group of linebackers to build around in 2020. Rashie Hodge Jr. (90 tackles) and Devin Richardson (69) anchor a front seven that suffered an offseason setback when tackle Roy Lopez transferred to Arizona. The secondary will be under construction with three new starters in 2020.
The Zips were the only team at the FBS level to finish 2019 without a victory. Second-year coach Tom Arth looks like the right choice to get this program on track, but it will take a couple of seasons to rebuild the roster. Akron returns a promising quarterback in Kato Nelson (194.1 total yards a game in 2019), and he’s tasked with jumpstarting an offense that managed only 10.5 points a contest last fall. The supporting cast is under construction. Akron returns only two starters from a line that surrendered a whopping 58 sacks, and the team’s rushing attack managed just 1.8 yards per carry in 2019. The receiving corps should be a strength thanks to the return of Nate Stewart, Jeremiah Knight and Julian Hicks. Defensively, the Zips have a lot of work to do. Arth’s group gave up 5.7 yards a snap but surrendered 36.3 points a contest last fall. Six starters return, and improvement against the run (213.5 yards per game allowed) is a priority. Games against Youngstown State, New Mexico State and UMass in non-conference play provide a couple of opportunities for wins.
126. Bowling Green
Scot Loeffler’s rebuilding project at Bowling Green continues into its second year. The Falcons finished 3-9 last season but beat rival Toledo 20-7 in mid-October. Improvement in the win column for 2020 hinges on both sides of the ball showing marked progress. Offensively, Loeffler is likely to lean on Boston College transfer Matt McDonald at quarterback to spark an offense that averaged only 16 points a game and just 4.6 yards a snap in 2019. However, the return of running back Andrew Clair from injury should help, with receiver Julian Ortega-Jones and tight end Quintin Morris providing playmakers on the outside. Just two starters are back along the offensive line. Bowling Green’s defense will lean on six returning starters to improve a group that allowed 38.6 points and 242.8 rushing yards a game and 7.03 yards a snap last year. With the Falcons in rebuild mode, matching last season’s win total (three) would be a good encore for Loeffler.
125. Texas State
The Bobcats have won three or fewer games in each of the last five seasons, and with nine returning starters back for 2020, second-year coach Jake Spavital has his work cut out for him once again. The former West Virginia offensive coordinator could turn to Memphis transfer Brady McBride over Tyler Vitt at quarterback to spark an offense that managed only 18.4 points a game in 2019. Junior college transfer Brock Sturges was a key pickup at running back, and four of the team’s top six statistical receivers from last year are back. Spavital has only two starters returning up front, but there’s hope for improvement if McBride is an upgrade at quarterback. The Bobcats ranked third in conference-only games by holding teams to 5.6 yards a snap last fall. Repeating or improving on those numbers will require some retooling, especially at linebacker following the departure of Bryan London, Nikolas Daniels and Frankie Griffin. Exceeding last year’s three wins would be a good 2020 for Spavital in his rebuilding effort in San Marcos.
124. Old Dominion
Since winning 10 games and earning the program’s only bowl appearance in 2016, the Monarchs have trended in the wrong direction and watched their win total decrease in each of the last three years. New coach Ricky Rahne is a good fit and a promising hire, and the former Penn State coordinator’s offensive background is a timely addition. Old Dominion averaged 16.3 points a game and just 4.1 yards a snap in 2019. Redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff would appear to have the inside track on the starting quarterback spot, but Stone Smartt, Steven Williams, and Messiah deWeaver will push for snaps. The Monarchs return their top three statistical receivers from last season, including Eric Kumah (18 catches in four games) and Aaron Moore (26). Lala Davis (337 yards) is expected to slide into the No. 1 running back role with Kesean Strong departing, while four returning starters hope to guide improvement along a line that allowed 52 sacks in 2019. The outlook is a little better on defense. End Keion White (19 TFL) leads a group that held teams to 29.8 points a game and 5.7 yards a snap. The linebacker unit should be one of the better groups in C-USA, while cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement ranks as one of the league’s top defensive backs. After winning one game last fall, a good debut for Rahne would be a couple of victories in conference play.
The 2020 season marks a new era for UConn. The Huskies departed the AAC in favor of the Big East in basketball and other sports, with the football program charting an Independent course. Coach Randy Edsall’s squad has won just six games over the last three years, but 17 returning starters provide some optimism this team should take a small step forward in 2020. Sophomore Jack Zergiotis (1,782 yards and nine touchdown passes) is the favorite to start at quarterback, with Steven Krajewski returning as the backup. Cameron Ross (60 catches) returns as the No. 1 receiver, with Matt Drayton and tight end Jay Rose working as secondary options. Running back Kevin Mensah (1,013 yards) is a bright spot on an offense that managed only 18.9 points a game last fall. After a disastrous 2018 season, UConn’s defense showed some small improvement. The Huskies gave up 8.8 yards a play in ’18 but cut that total to 7.0 last fall. While the defense gave up 40.5 points a contest last season, it was nearly 10 points fewer (50.4) than the unit surrendered in ’18. With 10 starters back, Edsall and coordinator Lou Spanos hope this unit takes another step forward on the stat sheet.
New coach Jeff Traylor has extensive ties to the state of Texas from his days as a high school head coach and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. However, Traylor is a first-time head coach at the FBS level and did not have coordinator experience during stints as an assistant at Arkansas, SMU and Texas. While there’s a learning curve for Traylor, UTSA is a program with a lot of potential for 2020 and beyond. The new staff has some intriguing options at quarterback, starting with New Mexico State transfer Josh Adkins, former LSU signal-caller Lowell Narcisse, and junior Frank Harris. Regardless of who wins the battle under center, the offense needs to do a better job of generating big plays and has to get the ball in the hands of running back Sincere McCormick (983 yards) this fall. New coordinator Tyrone Nix is shifting UTSA to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, hoping to improve a group that surrendered 33.9 points a contest, gave up 74 plays of 20 yards or more, and ranked near the bottom of C-USA in rush defense. The strength of the 2020 group is up front thanks to the return of Jaylon Haynes, Lorenzo Dantzler along with edge rushers DeQuarius Henry and Solomon Wise. With some promising weapons on offense and depth at quarterback, improvement on both sides of the ball could lead UTSA to push for a bowl in Traylor’s debut.
ULM is a tough job, but Matt Viator guided the program to six wins in 2018 and just missed a bowl last fall with a 5-7 mark. Getting to the postseason in 2020 will require a quarterback to emerge to replace Caleb Evans, who ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 311.1 total yards a game last fall. Sophomore Colby Suits is the early favorite to replace Evans, but junior college recruit Jeremy Hunt will also get a look. Running back Josh Johnson (1,298 yards) is back after a breakout year, and most of the receiving corps returns, including All-Sun Belt tight end Josh Pederson. Defense has been an issue for ULM over the last couple of seasons, and there’s a lot of work ahead for Viator and coordinator Mike Collins after surrendering 38.7 points a game and 6.7 yards a snap in 2019. Cornerback Corey Straughter is one of the top Group of 5 defenders, and with seven other starters back, there’s hope for improvement.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
120. South Alabama
The Jaguars are hoping for a breakthrough in coach Steve Campbell’s third year at the helm. Finding a spark for an offense that managed only 18.4 points a game in 2019 is the top priority this offseason. Desmond Trotter showed late-season promise at quarterback, and there are big-play weapons on the outside in the form of Kawaan Baker and Jalen Tolbert. Four starters are back up front, but there’s a significant vacancy at running back with Tra Minter out of eligibility. South Alabama’s defense cut its yards per play allowed by a full yard last season, but a rebuilt line is a concern for 2020. The situation is better at linebacker and in the secondary. The Jaguars host key swing contests versus Texas State, ULM and Georgia State in new Hancock Whitney Stadium. If Trotter picks up where he left off at the end of 2019, Campbell’s team should show improvement in the win column.
119. New Mexico
The Lobos get high marks for the hire of Danny Gonzales, but the first-year coach is stepping into a major rebuilding effort. Gonzales – a former New Mexico player and assistant – inherits a program that’s won only eight games over the last three seasons. The Lobos finished 10th in the Mountain West in scoring (22.3 ppg) and last in points allowed (37.2) in 2019. Addressing the offense starts with a healthy season out of quarterback Tevaka Tuioti. The offensive line returns only two starters (but both are All-Mountain West candidates) – center Kyle Stapley and tackle Teton Saltes – along with the top three statistical receiving options from last fall. Freshman Nathaniel Jones is worth watching at running back, but Bryson Carroll (536 yards) and Micah Gray likely have the inside track for carries. Gonzales’ ability to lure Rocky Long back to Albuquerque was one of the top coordinator hires of the offseason. Considering the defensive acumen of Long and Gonzales, the Lobos should be better on this side of the ball despite returning only four starters in 2020.
New is the best word to describe UNLV’s 2020 season. There’s a first-year coach (Marcus Arroyo), and thanks to the Raiders moving to Las Vegas, the Rebels will play in a new stadium (Allegiant Stadium). While Arroyo’s arrival and the facility upgrade are both long-term boosts to the program, UNLV is likely headed for a transition year in 2020. The transfer of Armani Rogers leaves Kenyon Oblad and TCU transfer Justin Rogers (if granted a waiver) to battle for the starting job. Running back Charles Williams (1,257 yards) is underrated nationally, and the winner of the quarterback battle has five of the team’s top six receivers – including Randal Grimes (44 catches) – to utilize this fall. Three starters are back up front, including standout guard Julio Garcia and both tackles. UNLV’s defense has not finished higher than seventh in the conference in points allowed since 2014. Last year’s group surrendered 33 points a contest and 6.3 yards a play. With just four starters back, this unit enters the fall with question marks at every level.
117. Eastern Michigan
Chris Creighton is one of the MAC’s top coaches, so the Eagles should be in the hunt for their fourth bowl game in five years this fall. The schedule isn’t kind with road trips to Ohio, Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Western Michigan, but Creighton should find a way to keep this team in the mix for six victories. Junior Preston Hutchinson showed promise in a 357-yard passing performance against Western Michigan last fall and has the inside track to replace Mike Glass under center. Little experience returns at running back, but the receiving corps is a strength and three starters are back up front. After holding teams to 4.6 yards a play in 2018, Eastern Michigan’s defense regressed last fall by allowing 6.1. Only five starters are back, so Hutchinson and the passing game may simply need to outscore a lot of MAC opponents to reach six victories in 2020.
116. Northern Illinois
Thomas Hammock’s return to DeKalb and his alma mater resulted in a 5-7 mark last fall. And the going for 2020 didn’t get any easier when four key players – defensive linemen Jack Heflin and Matt Lorbeck, tight end Mitchell Brinkman and center CJ Perez – decided to transfer at the end of the spring semester. The path to improvement starts on offense. The Huskies managed just 22.8 points a game and scored just 14 times through the air. Quarterback Ross Bowers is supported by three returning starters up front and a solid receiving corps, but there’s a vacancy at running back after Tre Harbison transferred to Charlotte. The transfer of Lorbeck and Heflin hinders a line that was slated to rank among the best in the MAC, but the linebacker unit should be a strength with Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux leading the way. Question marks remain in the secondary with four new starters for 2020.
115. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers finished 5-7 in Jamey Chadwell’s first year as the full-time head coach, but this program was on the cusp of something better with four losses coming by seven points or less. A run to a bowl game is within reach for 2020. Chadwell has two experienced quarterbacks to choose from in Fred Payton or Bryce Carpenter, with four starters back along a solid offensive line. Running back CJ Marable averaged 118.2 all-purpose yards a game last season and is one of the top returning playmakers in the Sun Belt for 2020. Six starters return from a defense that allowed 30.5 points a game last fall, but the secondary is under construction. End Tarron Jackson (10 sacks) is one of the league’s top linemen, and the return of linebacker Silas Kelly from injury is a boost to the run defense.
114. North Texas
After registering back-to-back nine-win seasons, the Mean Green slipped to 4-8 last fall. Getting back to a bowl will require coach Seth Littrell to find a replacement for record-setting quarterback Mason Fine and improve a defense that allowed 32.5 points a contest in 2019. Sophomores Austin Aune and Jason Bean are slated to battle for the job under center, with the winner inheriting plenty of skill talent, including running back Tre Siggers and receivers Jaelon Darden and Jyaire Shorter. The line was a question mark last season and is unsettled going into the fall with just two returning starters. New defensive coordinator Clint Bowen can aim to improve by leaning on a pair of talented linebackers (Tyreke Davis and KD Davis) and disruptive nose tackle Dion Novil (13 TFL). However, the secondary ranked seventh in pass efficiency defense in Conference USA and features three new starters for 2020. How fast the Mean Green reload up front and settle the quarterback battle will determine how high Littrell’s squad climbs in Conference USA’s West Division.
Related: Conference USA 2020 Predictions
Even though Rice has just five victories over the last two years, Mike Bloomgren has this program trending in the right direction. A tough non-conference slate featuring LSU, Houston and Army won’t provide much room for error to get to a bowl game, but the Owls ended 2019 on a three-game winning streak and appear poised to build on that in ’20. TCU transfer Mike Collins could provide a spark to a passing game that averaged only 166 yards a contest last fall but features one of the conference’s top receiving duos in Brad Rozner (55 catches) and Austin Trammell (60). A healthy Juma Otoviano alleviates concern at running back after the team’s top two rushers from 2019 departed. Three starters off a line that surrendered 34 sacks must be replaced. After giving up 36 points a game in 2018, the Owls held teams to 25.9 last fall. With 10 starters back, there’s optimism that improvement should continue. Linebacker Blaze Alldredge is one of C-USA’s top returning defenders, with Elijah Garcia and De’Braylon Carroll back to anchor the trenches.
112. Georgia State
If the Panthers find a quarterback to replace Dan Ellington, coach Shawn Elliott’s squad should make its third bowl trip in four years. Freshman Cornelious Brown gained valuable experience last season and will compete with fellow freshmen Kierston Harvey, Mikele Colasurdo, and Vanderbilt transfer Jamil Muhammad for the starting nod. The rest of the offense is in good shape, as four starters are back to anchor the line, four of the top five receiver return, and the one-two punch of Destin Coates and Seth Paige will fill the void left behind by Tra Barnett at running back. Georgia State’s defense has plenty of room to improve after allowing 36.2 points a game and 6.7 yards a snap. The good news: The returning group is experienced. The Panthers bring back nine starters and add a couple of Power 5 transfers to add more depth and talent. A schedule that features road trips to Troy, Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Charlotte and Alabama won't be easy to navigate.
Chip Lindsey’s second year at Troy begins with a big question mark at quarterback. Kaleb Barker (3,628 yards and 30 TDs) finished his eligibility at the end of the 2019 season, leaving Parker McNeil, Gunnar Watson and Jacob Free to battle for the job. Whichever quarterback gets the nod under center inherits one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps, along with the return of running back B.J. Smith after missing most of 2019 due to a knee injury. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but Troy has to improve on defense after giving up 34.8 points a contest and 6.2 yards a snap last year. Linebacker Carlton Martial is an All-America candidate after racking up 126 tackles (18.5 for a loss) in 2019. With a handful of swing games at home – Georgia State, Coastal Carolina and ULM – some improvement on defense, combined with a quarterback emerging provides a path to bowl eligibility for the Trojans.
The Flames finished 8-5 and earned the program’s first bowl victory in coach Hugh Freeze’s debut in 2019. Getting back to the postseason will require replacements to emerge for prolific quarterback Buckshot Calvert and receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (1,396 yards). Freeze’s receiving corps will miss Gandy-Golden’s ability, but DJ Stubbs (401 yards), CJ Yarbrough and Noah Frith is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. Former Auburn signal-caller Malik Willis will compete with another transfer in Chris Ferguson (Maine) to start under center. The Flames bring back three starting offensive linemen, and Joshua Mack (774 yards) is slated to take over as the team’s No. 1 running back for Frankie Hickson. Liberty’s defense showed improvement under the play-calling of Scott Symons last fall but brings back only four starters for 2020. The team’s top three tacklers are gone, and cornerback Kei’Trel Clark decided to transfer in July. Charlotte transfer Anthony Butler should provide a boost at linebacker, while end TreShaun Clark (4.5 sacks) is a key cog in the trenches.
109. San Jose State
The Spartans just missed a bowl in coach Brent Brennan’s third year at the helm, finishing 5-7 overall with five losses coming by 10 points or less. A run to six wins in 2020 isn’t out of the question, but Brennan has to replace quarterback Josh Love (3,923 yards and 22 TDs) and continue to improve a defense that allowed 31.9 points a game in 2019. Former Texas A&M and Arkansas signal-caller Nick Starkel is likely to replace Love under center, and he figures to have one of the Mountain West’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Tre Walker (79 catches) is one of the nation’s most underrated players, while two other players return that caught over 40 passes last season. Leading rusher DeJon Packer departed, and there’s a need to spark the ground game overall after averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. The Spartans have made progress on defense over the last three years but more is needed in 2020. With eight starters back, there’s optimism coordinator Derrick Odum can guide this group to another step forward on the stat sheet.
Related: Mountain West 2020 Predictions
Butch Davis has guided FIU to three consecutive bowl games and another trip to the postseason should be within reach for 2020. Replacing quarterback James Morgan tops the list of offseason priorities, with Kaylan Wiggins, Caleb Lynum, Stone Norton and Maryland graduate transfer Max Bortenschlager set to compete in the fall. D’Vonte Price, Arkansas transfer Maleek Williams, Lexington Joseph and Shaun Peterson should ensure the ground game is solid, and FIU’s receiving corps – featuring Georgia transfer JJ Holloman – ranks among the best in C-USA. Seniors D’Antne Demery (LT) and Shane McGough (center) form a good foundation in the trenches for the new quarterback. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Panthers can lean on a defense that returns six starters and should show improvement after allowing 27.2 points a game. Davis’ group has all-conference picks at each level, while recent transfers in linebacker Tyson Maeva (Boise State), cornerback Josh Turner (Iowa), and end Alexy Jean-Baptiste (Arkansas) should play a bigger role in 2020. FIU’s schedule provides enough toss-ups to get bowl eligible, especially if one quarterback emerges as the clear leader on offense.
Greg Schiano is the right hire at the right time for Rutgers. But make no mistake: This is a massive rebuilding effort and it will take a couple of years to turn things around. The Scarlet Knights averaged 5.7 points a game in Big Ten contests last fall, and new play-caller Sean Gleeson inherits a group with question marks all over the depth chart. Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral should push Artur Sitkowski for the starting quarterback job, but three new starters must be found up front and there's not much in the way of proven targets at receiver. Gleeson should lean heavily on the trio of Isaih Pacheco, Aaron Young and Kay'Ron Adams at running back this fall. Schiano's background on defense suggests this unit should take a step forward after giving up 36.7 points a game last fall. The Scarlet Knights ranked last in the Big Ten against the run and points allowed, but eight starters returning provides optimism for improvement.
Turning Kansas into a consistent bowl team in the Big 12 wasn't an overnight operation for coach Les Miles. The Jayhawks finished 3-9 in Miles' debut last fall and could struggle to hit that three-win mark in 2020. The offense returns one of the Big 12's top skill talents in running back Pooka Williams Jr. and two standout receivers in Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson. However, the quarterback position is a question mark, and there's plenty of uncertainty up front. Defensively, Kansas is in a similar position. The Jayhawks surrendered 36.1 points a game and ranked last in the Big 12 versus the run. With only three returning starters, Miles and coordinator D.J. Eliot are breaking in a lot of new faces this fall.
105. Kent State
The Golden Flashes are trending up under third-year coach Sean Lewis. The program is coming off a 7-6 record last season – just the second for Kent State since 2002 – and the first bowl victory in school history. Getting back to a bowl will rest on the right arm of quarterback Dustin Crum, as the senior returns as the MAC’s No. 1 signal-caller for 2020. Crum accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense and 26 overall scores last fall. A couple of key receivers have departed, but Isaiah McKoy (57 catches) is back, and three starters return to provide optimism for improved protection (41 sacks allowed last year). Kent State’s defense has allowed over six yards a play for three consecutive seasons and stopping the run will be an issue after this group allowed 244.7 rushing yards a game in 2019. A schedule featuring road trips to Buffalo, Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois won’t provide much room for error to get to a bowl.
104. Middle Tennessee
Last year’s 4-8 record marked the first time Middle Tennessee posted a losing season since 2011. However, the Blue Raiders have been a steady bowl team since joining C-USA in 2013, so the odds are high for a rebound in ’20. For Stockstill’s team to return to the postseason, the offense must lean heavily on quarterback Asher O’Hara. The junior led C-USA in total offense (306.2 ypg) and accounted for 29 overall scores. A couple of transfers in Martell Pettaway (West Virginia) and Amir Rasul (Florida State) provide some extra punch to the ground game, with experienced options like Jarrin Pierce, CJ Windham and Jimmy Marshall back at receiver. Middle Tennessee's defense regressed to 10th in the conference in points allowed and struggled to stop the pass (65.3 completion percentage allowed to opposing quarterbacks) last season. With only three starters returning, this unit will be in transition mode to start 2020. The return of safety Reed Blankenship after missing a chunk of ’19 due to injury is a boost to the secondary. The path to bowl eligibility is aided by a crossover schedule that misses the projected top three teams – UAB, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech – from the West Division.
103. Western Michigan
The Broncos were on the doorstep of a MAC West title last season, but a 17-14 loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26 prevented a trip to Detroit. Little separates the top four in the division, so coach Tim Lester’s group should be in the mix once again. Additionally, key games against Toledo, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan take place in Kalamazoo. New quarterback Kaleb Eleby showed promise in a limited stint as the starter in 2018 and should push for all-conference honors in his first full year as the No. 1 option. Skyy Moore (15.7 ypc) is the top target for Eleby, while Sean Tyler and Jaxson Kincaide have big shoes to fill in replace LeVante Bellamy at running back. Western Michigan’s defense gave up 35.1 points a game in 2018 but cut that total to 23.5 last fall. With six starters back – including standout linebacker Treshaun Hayward – and the addition of a couple of transfers in the secondary, coordinator Lou Esposito should build on last year’s finish.
102. East Carolina
Mike Houston has East Carolina trending in the right direction. The Pirates finished 2019 playing their best ball of the season, losing by a combined 11 points against Cincinnati and SMU. Another step forward is likely in 2020, but Houston’s squad will need to simply outscore a lot of teams to overcome some of the defensive concerns. East Carolina gave up 7.3 yards a play in AAC games and surrendered 33.7 points a contest. Departures hit the defensive line hard, but the arrival of Appalachian State transfer Chris Willis should help. The outlook for the back seven is better, as linebacker Xavier Smith will contend for all-conference honors, and the secondary is anchored by standouts Ja’Quan McMillan (cornerback) and Tank Robinson (safety). Alabama transfer Nigel Knott is another name to watch in the secondary. Scoring points won’t be hard thanks to the continued development of quarterback Holton Ahlers and one of the AAC’s top receiving corps. Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden will help to bolster a ground game that averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in 2019, while NC State transfer Justin Chase adds to an offensive line that returns just two starters.
New coach Jeff Scott is a good hire, but the former Clemson offensive coordinator may need a year or two to rebuild the program back into bowl contention. Both sides of the ball enter 2020 with question marks to address. The new staff inherits an offense that ranked 11th in the AAC in scoring, while the defense gave up 28.9 points a contest. Former North Carolina quarterback Cade Fortin will battle with Jordan McCloud for the starting nod under center. Whichever quarterback wins the job won’t be operating with an empty cupboard, as the ground game features Kelley Joiner (364 yards) and Johnny Ford, along with transfer Darrian Felix (Oregon). Tight end Mitchell Wilcox is gone, and a go-to receiver must emerge, but there’s experience back in the receiving corps thanks to the arrival of transfer tight end Mitchell Brinkman and the return of receivers Randall St. Felix, Eddie McDoom and Bryce Miller. Improvement is desperately needed up front after allowing 45 sacks in 2019. Six starters are back on defense, including shutdown cornerback K.J. Sails and linebacker Dwayne Boyles. A line that struggled to stop the run in 2019 is under construction.
100. Ball State
Mike Neu delivered the best year of his four-season stint at his alma mater in 2019. The Cardinals just missed a bowl, finishing 5-7 and losing each of their last three games by four points or less. Neu’s team is poised to take the next step in 2020. The offense led the MAC in scoring (34.8 points a game) and brings back three starters up front, along with quarterback Drew Plitt, receiver Justin Hall and running back Caleb Huntley. In other words, scoring points won’t be a problem in 2020. But getting over the hump and into the postseason will require improvement on defense. Ball State gave up 6.03 yards a play in MAC games last fall and registered only 15 sacks. The potential is there for improvement. This group brings back seven starters, including a pair of standout cornerbacks (Antonio Phillips and Amechi Uzodinma II) and linebacker Jaylin Thomas (97 stops). The road schedule isn’t easy. The Cardinals face Buffalo, Central Michigan, Toledo and Miami (Ohio) on their own turfs in 2020.
99. Georgia Southern
The gap between Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the projected 130 for 2020 is significant, but coach Chad Lunsford’s squad should earn its third straight bowl trip. Quarterback Shai Werts directs an option attack that averaged 253.2 rushing yards a game in 2019, with running backs Wesley Kennedy and J.D. King providing support. Some retooling is needed up front, and the Eagles could use more big plays (only two of 40 yards or more) in the passing game. There’s room to improve on defense after giving up 6.1 yards a play in Sun Belt contests last fall. Raymond Johnson III is back to anchor the line, and the linebacker unit should be among the best in the conference. Big concerns remain in the secondary following the departure of cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson and safety Donald Rutledge.
98. Colorado State
Steve Addazio was a surprise hire at Colorado State, but the former Boston College coach has plenty to work with. The Rams ranked third in the Mountain West in yards per play (6.24) last fall, so the potential for an explosive offense is in place. Quarterback Patrick O’Brien (2,803 yards and 13 TDs) is back, along with All-America candidate and receiver Warren Jackson (77 catches for 1,119 yards). Fellow receiver Dante Wright and tight end Trey McBride form a strong trio of targets, but the offense needs more out of the line (27 sacks allowed) and ground game (4.02 ypc). Defensively, the Rams are shifting to a 4-3 alignment after utilizing the 3-4 last year, and this unit has to get tougher against the run after finishing ninth in the league. While there are holes to fill, Addazio’s defense returns a good foundation, including linebacker Dequan Jackson, linemen Ellison Hubbard and Manny Jones and cornerback Rashad Ajayi.
97. Utah State
Replacing first-round pick Jordan Love tops the list of fall priorities for coach Gary Andersen and new play-caller Bodie Reeder. Junior Henry Colombi was the early favorite to replace Love, but he decided to transfer in July. Sophomore Andrew Peasley and Utah transfer Jason Shelley will battle for the job this fall. The winner of the starting job inherits an offensive line that should be a strength with all five starters back, and the skill talent is headlined by running back Jaylen Warren (569 yards) and receivers Jordan Nathan (56 catches) and Deven Thompkins, along with tight end Carson Terrell. Utah State struggled to stop the run (allowed over 200 yards a game) and finished sixth in the Mountain West in points allowed (30.7), so there’s plenty of work ahead this fall. Andersen and coordinators Stacy Collins and Frank Maile are shifting to a 3-4 look, along with moving Nick Heninger from linebacker to end, and safety Troy Lefeged to linebacker/nickel. The addition of transfers C.J. Pollard (USC) and Marcus Moore (UCLA) also provide instant help. A schedule that features road trips to Boise State, Colorado State, Nevada and Wyoming won’t be easy.
Derek Mason enters his seventh season facing several pressing concerns for a program that's won two or fewer SEC games in four out of his six years at the helm. Vanderbilt's offense is under the direction of a new coordinator (Todd Fitch), must replace three of the SEC's most talented skill players in running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney and receiver Kalija Lipscomb. Also, the Commodores are likely to start a quarterback — either Jeremy Moussa or Ken Seals — that doesn't have a snap of experience at the SEC level. On the positive side, Vanderbilt's defense has 11 returning starters off a unit that allowed 31.8 points a game in 2019. Mason's team is filled with question marks — not an ideal scenario for a program coming off a 3-9 mark in 2019.
The Buffaloes are on their third coach in three years after Mel Tucker left for Michigan State. Karl Dorrell previously worked at Colorado as an assistant and went 35-27 as UCLA's head coach from 2003-07. Dorrell has a lengthy to-do list ahead this offseason. The Buffaloes have potential to be solid on defense with seven returning starters, but the offense loses top playmaker Laviska Shenault Jr. and uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position. The schedule — at Texas A&M, Oregon, at USC, at Stanford and at Washington — is very unforgiving.
After earning three consecutive bowl trips (2016-18) for the first time in program history, Army slipped to 5-8 last fall. The Black Knights’ 2020 schedule is filled with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but coach Jeff Monken’s squad has the pieces on both sides of the ball to return to a bowl. Quarterback Jabari Laws showed promise in nine appearances last fall and returns to direct an offense that averaged 28.5 points a game in 2019. If Laws has to miss any time or is slow to recover from a late-season knee injury, backup Christian Anderson is capable. Monken has to replace the team’s top two rushers from last season, but the cupboard isn’t empty. Fullback Sandon McCoy (576 yards) and running back Artice Hobbs IV are back and ready to run behind a veteran offensive line. New defensive coordinator Nate Woody has seven returning starters to deploy in 2020. This unit will miss linebacker Cole Christiansen and cornerback Elijah Riley, but Arik Smith (83 tackles) should fill the void left behind by Christiansen while Kwabena Bonsu (six TFL) and Edriece Patterson (five) add playmaking ability in the trenches.
93. Central Michigan
The Chippewas were drastically better in coach Jim McElwain’s first year at the helm. After winning just one contest in 2019, Central Michigan improved its win total by seven games to finish 8-6 overall. Claiming back-to-back MAC West Division titles could hinge on how fast McElwain can find a quarterback. David Moore is suspended for the first five games, leaving Daniel Richardson as the likely starter this fall. The good news: Central Michigan plays only one MAC game in that span and still has running back Kobe Lewis (1,074 yards) and one of the league’s top receiving corps in place. Defensively, the Chippewas return one of the top lines in the conference, anchored by end LaQuan Johnson and tackle Robi Stuart. Linebacker Troy Brown is a first-team All-MAC for 2020 by Athlon Sports, with safeties Devonni Reed and Willie Reid leading the way on the back end.
The Rockets are Athlon’s pick to win the MAC West, but there’s no clear front-runner for 2020. Coach Jason Candle’s squad will be looking to rebound after missing out on a bowl for the first time since the 2013 season last fall. A high-powered offense is usually a staple at Toledo and improving on last year’s offensive output (27.3 ppg) hinges on better play inside the red zone (10th in the MAC) and more consistency at quarterback. An injury to Mitchell Guadagni forced Candle to play three other quarterbacks – Eli Peters, Carter Bradley and DeQuan Finn – last fall. Peters, Bradley and Finn are back to battle for the job again, but it’s no secret the strength of the offense will be running backs Bryant Koback (1,187 yards) and Shakif Seymour (741). This duo will have a standout line clearing the way, especially with center Bryce Harris back from injury. Candle hopes new co-coordinators Vince Kehres and Craig Kuligowski get the defense back on track. Toledo allowed 32.2 points a game and surrendered 6.6 yards a snap last fall. Seven starters are back, including end Jamal Hines and safety Tycen Anderson but plenty of question marks remain going into the fall. Toledo hosts two of its top contenders from the West – Ball State and Central Michigan – and Ohio in crossover play with the East. It also misses Buffalo and Miami (Ohio).
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
91. Fresno State
If a surprise contender emerges out of the West Division, Fresno State could be the pick. The Bulldogs hit a home run with the hire of Kalen DeBoer as head coach, and the former play-caller under Jeff Tedford inherits a team that lost seven of its eight games in 2019 by 10 points or less. Washington transfer Jake Haener has the inside track at quarterback, with running back Ronnie Rivers set to lead the way on the ground once again. Tight end Jared Rice will be missed, but Zane Pope (47 catches), Keric Wheatfall (18.1 ypc), and Jalen Cropper form a promising trio of weapons on the outside. The offensive line was hit hard by injuries last fall, but that experience should translate into a solid group with four starters back. After holding teams to 4.7 yards a snap in 2018, Fresno State’s defense surrendered 5.73 in 2019. New play-caller William Inge has to find a way to spark the pass rush (just 19 sacks last year), eliminate some of the big plays allowed, and get off the field on third downs (ninth in Mountain West). Linebacker Justin Rice headlines a defense with five returning starters and plenty of upside to show improvement in 2020. Fresno State’s schedule currently doesn't include Wyoming or Boise State in crossover play, with San Diego State and Hawaii coming to Bulldog Stadium.
The Rainbow Warriors are the reigning division champs, but face a couple of obstacles to a repeat in 2020. New coach Todd Graham has been successful at tough jobs – Tulsa and Rice – and should find a way to win at Hawaii. However, the transition to a new staff or scheme in a limited offseason isn’t easy, and both sides of the ball have question marks to address. New quarterback Chevan Cordeiro played well behind Cole McDonald over the last two years and is a breakout candidate as the full-time starter. Three of the team’s top four receivers are gone from 2019, but the cupboard isn’t empty. Jared Smart (87 catches) is back, and the addition of transfer Rico Bussey (North Texas) and Aaron Cephus (Rice) provide instant help. Miles Reed (908 yards) will be running behind one of the Mountain West’s top offensive lines. The question marks for Graham are greater on defense. The Rainbow Warriors gave up 31.9 points and 202.8 rushing yards a game last season. Additionally, the defense generated only 17 sacks and allowed 41 plays of 30 yards or more. Five of the team’s top 10 tacklers from last fall are gone, including cornerback Rojesterman Farris II, linebacker Solomon Matautia and end Kaimana Padello. Hawaii’s Mountain West schedule features games against Boise State and Air Force in crossover play, along with road tests at Fresno State and San Diego State.
Charlotte is a program on the rise with Will Healy at the helm. The 49ers earned their first winning season and bowl appearance last fall and should be poised to match both of those marks in 2020. An offense that averaged 6.3 yards a snap and 29.8 points a game leads the way and is guided by one of the top quarterbacks in the conference (Chris Reynolds) and a talented group of receivers featuring Victor Tucker (52 receptions for 909 yards in 2019). Replacing back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Benny LeMay will be tough, but Aaron McAllister and Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison should be an effective one-two punch. Healy’s biggest concern on offense rests with a rebuilt line and how the group transitions to a new play-caller (Mark Carney). Charlotte’s defense finished 11th in Conference USA last fall, surrendering 32.4 points a contest. The departure of linebacker Jeff Gemmell and edge rusher Alex Highsmith adds to the challenge of improvement. The return of safety Ben DeLuca from a season-ending injury boosts the secondary and six other starters are back for 2020. The 49ers have manageable crossover matchups – UTEP and at North Texas – but have road trips on tap for key East battles against Marshall and FAU.
88. Arkansas State
High-scoring and entertaining back-and-forth games could be a staple of the 2020 season for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have significant concerns on a defense that allowed 34.2 points a game last year, and only three starters are back this fall. A healthy season out of lineman Forrest Merrill should help, and the addition of UConn transfer Tahj Herring-Wilson is a boost for a rebuilding secondary. While the defense has its share of question marks, scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Blake Anderson’s squad. The Red Wolves have two capable quarterbacks – Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher – ready to direct an offense that averaged 33.7 points a game last season and scored at least 30 points in 10 contests. Jonathan Adams will slide into the No. 1 receiving role to replace Omar Bayless, with Marcel Murray (820 yards) anchoring the ground attack. The offensive line allowed 40 sacks last fall but all five starters are set to return. Road trips to Michigan, Memphis, Appalachian State, and Louisiana dot the schedule, but Arkansas State’s high-powered offense should be enough for the program to go bowling for the 10th consecutive year.
The Golden Hurricane were better than last year’s 4-8 record suggested. Of the team’s eight defeats, five came by 12 points or less. With a little better luck behind a high-powered offense, coach Philip Montgomery’s squad should push for a bowl in 2020. Quarterback Zach Smith (3,279 yards) leads a group that averaged 26.4 points a game in 2019 and is poised for a big jump in production thanks to the return of running backs Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor, receivers Sam Crawford and Keylon Stokes, and four starters in the trenches. Concerns remain about a defense that surrendered 31.3 points a game in 2019. Seven of the team’s top 13 tacklers are gone, including linebacker Cooper Edmiston and end Trevis Gipson (eight sacks). Just one starter is back in the secondary and more pass rush is needed after generating just 14 sacks in 2019. Tulsa misses Memphis in conference play and hosts SMU, Tulane and East Carolina in key swing games for bowl eligibility.
Mike Locksley's rebuilding effort in College Park continues into 2020 with numerous question marks on both sides of the ball. After scoring 62 percent of its points in three games (Howard, Syracuse and Rutgers), Maryland will be looking for more offensive consistency this fall. Quarterback Josh Jackson has shown flashes of potential and has an underrated group of playmakers on the outside to target, including Dontay Demus and incoming freshman Rakim Jarrett. Little experience returns at running back, and the line has to be patched after giving up 38 sacks in 2019. The outlook isn't much better on defense after the Terrapins surrendered a whopping 41.8 points a game in Big Ten action last season. A couple of junior college recruits could provide instant help while safety Nick Cross is a rising star and a key part of the rebuilding effort for Locksley. With a tough schedule on tap, exceeding last year's three wins might be tough in 2020.
Little separates the top three teams in the East Division, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Frank Solich’s squad book a trip to Detroit in December. However, in order to win the East, Ohio has to find a quarterback to replace standout Nathan Rourke. His brother – Kurtis Rourke – could be the answer. The winner of the quarterback competition inherits an offense that averaged 34.3 points a game and brings back three starters along the line, leading rusher O’Shaan Allison (869 yards), and the top six statistical receiving options from 2019. Ohio’s defense held teams to 25.8 points a contest in MAC play, and there’s a strong foundation with nine returning starters. This unit gave up 5.95 yards a snap last fall, but with the experience in place, a step forward on the stat sheet is likely. The Bobcats host Buffalo but play at Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 17.
84. Miami (Ohio)
The reigning MAC champs should be in the mix to repeat for the division title. Coach Chuck Martin’s squad had some good fortune by going 5-0 in one-score games, but even with some regression there, the team itself should improve with 16 returning starters. Sophomore Brett Gabbert impressed in his first year under center, and his development should help a unit that averaged only 24.1 points a game. The offensive line ranks among the best in the conference, Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton form a solid one-two punch at running back, while Jack Sorenson and Jalen Walker lead the targets on the outside. The RedHawks have a few holes to plug at every level on defense, but this year’s group is one of the best in the conference, as Kameron Butler (5.5 sacks) is back to anchor the pass rush, with last year’s leading tackler (Ryan McWood) returning at linebacker. The secondary ranks among the best in the MAC with cornerback Emmanuel Rugamba and safeties Mike Brown and Sterling Weatherford in place. The Nov. 10 date at Buffalo looms large in the MAC East title race.
83. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs have been a model of consistency under Skip Holtz. Coming into the 2020 season, this program has recorded six consecutive winning records and earned a bowl trip each year in that span. And even in a rebuilding year, extending the streak of winning seasons to seven should be a lock for 2020. New quarterback Aaron Allen gained valuable experience in a two-game stint as the starter last fall, but Abilene Christian transfer Luke Anthony and redshirt freshman Jakson Thomson are also in the mix. Until the quarterback situation stabilizes, Holtz can lean on running back Justin Henderson (1,062 yards). Last year’s No. 1 receiver Malik Stanley will be missed, but the Bulldogs bring back five others who caught at least 21 passes in 2019. The rebuilding effort is greater on defense. New coordinator David Blackwell inherits just two returning starters from a group that held teams to 21.8 points a game. The good news for Blackwell? There’s experience at all three levels, and a couple of transfers – safety Khalil Ladler and lineman Gerald Wilbon – add instant help. Replacing shutdown cornerback Amik Robertson won’t be easy. Catching UAB and Marshall is a nice break for a team in rebuild mode.
82. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles have yet to exceed more than eight victories under coach Jay Hopson. Could that change in 2020? With 15 starters back and the addition of a handful of junior college transfers, the door is open for a run at nine (or more) victories. Quarterback Jack Abraham threw for 3,496 yards last fall and connected on 67.9 percent of his throws but also tossed 15 picks. He won’t have go-to target Quez Watkins, but the Golden Eagles have plenty of weapons on the outside with Tim Jones (73 catches) and Jaylond Adams (48). New play-caller Matt Kubik has to get more production out of a ground game that managed only 3.5 yards a carry and ranked 13th in the conference in production. With four starters back up front, along with running backs Kevin Perkins (547 yards), Trivenskey Mosley (back from injury), and freshman Frank Gore Jr., there’s optimism for improvement. Tony Pecoaro returns to Hattiesburg after calling the defensive signals from 2016-17 and has plenty of pieces to work with, including end Jacques Turner (5.5 sacks), linebacker Racheem Boothe and Ky’el Hemby, as well as Rachaun Mitchell in the secondary. The Week 2 matchup versus Louisiana Tech could decide which team emerges as the biggest challenger to UAB. And if the Golden Eagles can win that one, a de facto West Division title game could take place in Birmingham on Nov. 28.
The Owls have won two out of the last three C-USA titles, and another conference championship is within reach under new coach Willie Taggart. However, the lack of offseason practice for a team returning just nine starters under a new staff creates some obstacles. The offense was expected to be dynamic with quarterback Chris Robison at the helm. Last year, he averaged 260.1 total yards a game and 30 overall scores and led the offense to an average of 36.4 points a contest. However, Robison was off the roster in the fall, leaving Nick Tronti as the projected starting quarterback. The backfield one of the deepest in Conference USA, but question marks remain up front, and the receiving corps needs a quick transition from a handful of transfers to help the offense maintain its 2019 form. New coordinator Jim Leavitt plans to make a timely shift on defense to more of a 3-4 approach. FAU doesn’t have much in the way of proven talent up front, but edge rusher Leighton McCarthy is a good place to start the rebuilding effort, and linebacker Keke Leroy can be an impact defender provided he returns to the team after missing from the roster in the spring. The secondary also has to identify two new starters at cornerback. A road trip to Marshall won't be easy, but the Owls host both WKU and Charlotte.
Related: Conference USA Predictions for 2020
The Thundering Herd was the only team to beat C-USA champ FAU in league play last season, but a late defeat to Charlotte prevented a trip to the conference title game. Coach Doc Holliday’s team needs more out of its offense (25.8 ppg in 2019) to win the East this fall. That task got a little tougher in July after quarterback Isaiah Green entered the transfer portal. With Green departing the program, redshirt freshman Grant Wells is the frontrunner to start under center. With an inexperienced quarterback taking over, the offense will have to lean even more on four starters back along the offensive line, and reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Brenden Knox (1,387 rushing yards) leading the way on the ground. Marshall’s defense returns only four starters from a group that held teams to 25 points a game last fall, but there’s plenty of talent present to ensure a quick rebuild. Linebacker Tavante Beckett is a first-team All-C-USA selection by Athlon Sports, and end Darius Hodge (seven sacks) will create plenty of havoc off the edge. Matchups against Pitt and Boise State dot the non-conference schedule, but FAU and Charlotte both come to Huntington this fall.
As mentioned a couple of times in the AAC team write-ups here, there’s not much separation in the middle of the league. Temple had one of the conference’s top defenses last season, limiting teams to 25.9 points a game and 4.93 yards a play. However, just four starters are back, with key seniors departing in linebackers Sam Franklin, Shaun Bradley, Chapelle Russell, as well as defensive backs Benny Walls, Harrison Hand and Ayron Monroe. Additionally, All-America end Quincy Roche transferred to Miami. Coach Rod Carey’s defense still has a good foundation in place, so a steep drop-off shouldn’t be expected. However, for the Owls to have a chance to push for a finish in the top five of the standings, the offense probably has to pick up more of the slack. The good news: Quarterback Anthony Russo (2,861 yards and 21 TDs) is back, along with receiver Jadan Blue (1,067 yards) and running back Re’Mahn Davis. The Owls also have the makings of a solid offensive line with three starters back. Temple’s conference schedule features matchups against the projected top four – Cincinnati, UCF, Memphis and SMU – and road games at Tulane and Navy.
78. San Diego State
Brady Hoke is back for his second stint as San Diego State’s head coach. From 2009-10, Hoke went 13-12 and guided the program to a Poinsettia Bowl berth before becoming the head coach at Michigan in 2011. Unlike last time, Hoke isn’t inheriting a rebuilding project. The Aztecs won at least 10 games in four out of the last five years and bring back 13 starters off a team that went 10-3. Defense is the unquestioned strength of Hoke’s 2020 squad. San Diego State led the Mountain West in scoring defense (12.7 ppg) and held teams to 4.7 yards a play. Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks anchor a strong defensive line, with three starters returning from a secondary that allowed just 10 touchdown passes in 2019. Thanks to a standout defense, San Diego State’s offense won’t have to score 30 points to win every week. However, this unit has a new full-time quarterback (Carson Baker) and didn’t have its usual standout ground game last fall. Receivers Kobe Smith and Jesse Matthews and tight end Daniel Bellinger are back as the top targets for Baker, and the Aztecs should have one of the top lines in the Mountain West. The road trip to Nevada could decide the division title.
Picking Nevada may come as a surprise to some. However, with four new coaches in the West Division, the Wolf Pack’s continuity at head coach (Jay Norvell) and quarterback (Carson Strong) could be the difference in a tight division. Strong threw for 2,335 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last fall and should be able to put up better numbers in 2020 with receivers Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks back, along with four starters up front. Running back Toa Taua (807 yards) anchors the ground game. New defensive signal-caller Brian Ward inherits a group that has a ways to go after giving up over six yards a play last fall. The good news: End Dom Peterson is one of the top defenders at the Group of 5 level, and three starters are back in the secondary. Uncertainty surrounds the schedule, but Nevada is slated to host San Diego State, Fresno State and Wyoming and won’t have to play Boise State in crossover play.
The 2020 season could be a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcats enter this season on a seven-game losing streak and face a difficult schedule featuring crossover games against Oregon and Washington, along with road trips to UCLA, Utah and Oregon State. Quarterback Grant Gunnell is talented, and the offense could thrive provided the line holds up. Arizona's defense has not finished higher than eighth in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed in each of the last six years. New play-caller Paul Rhoads hopes to change those fortunes, but concerns remain up front and in the secondary.
75. Georgia Tech
Second-year coach Geoff Collins has Georgia Tech on the right track, but another rebuilding season is likely in order. The Yellow Jackets showed progress late in the 2019 season and return 17 starters to help navigate a brutal schedule that features projected top 25 teams in Clemson, UCF, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. As expected, the transition from an option attack to a spread offense wasn't easy. Georgia Tech managed only 16.7 points a game and scored 17 or fewer in six contests. Sophomore James Graham will face a push from freshman Jeff Sims to start at quarterback, but the strength of the offense should be at running back with Jordan Mason leading the way. Receiver Ahmarean Brown (18.9 ypc) is an emerging star, and better luck in the health department should help the offensive line. The Yellow Jackets allowed 32.4 points a game last season but should improve thanks to the return of linebacker David Curry, cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Juanyeh Thomas. Florida transfer Antonneous Clayton should provide instant help in the trenches.
New coach Sam Pittman inherits a program that hasn't won an SEC game since 2017 and faces a brutal schedule in '20. However, Pittman has pushed the right buttons since returning to Fayetteville, including a fast close to National Signing Day and a solid staff that features coordinators Kendal Briles (offense) and Barry Odom (defense). Florida transfer Feleipe Franks is expected to start under center, and the Razorbacks have an underrated group of skill players around him, including running back Rakeem Boyd and receivers Michael Woods and Treylon Burks. The offensive line has been an issue over the last few years in Fayetteville and remains a concern again in 2020. The defense has allowed at least six yards a play in five consecutive seasons and has question marks at every level. Replacing standout tackle McTelvin Agim, linebacker De'Jon Harris and safety Kamren Curl won't be easy. Transfer Xavier Kelly (DL), Jerry Jacobs (CB) and Levi Draper (LB) will push for time.
Led by one of the league’s top coaches (Lance Leipold), an All-American running back in Jaret Patterson, and a defense that brings back seven starters after limiting teams to 21.3 points a game, Buffalo is Athlon’s pick to win the MAC in 2020. Patterson is one half of a dynamic tandem at running back, as backup Kevin Marks (1,035 yards in 2019) returns to run behind one of the top Group of 5 offensive lines. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease (1,193 yards) was efficient after taking over the starting job following an injury to Matt Myers in 2019. Vantrease’s top target should be Antonio Nunn (49 receptions), but the passing game won’t need to post huge totals with Patterson and Marks leading the way. Buffalo’s standout defense returns plenty of star power, including ends Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce (17.5 sacks), linebackers Kadofi Wright and James Patterson and safety Tyrone Hill. The month of November will be crucial for Leipold’s team. The Bulls host Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 10 and play at Ohio on Nov. 18.
Tyson Helton’s debut at WKU got off to a rocky start with a loss to FCS member Central Arkansas, but the program rebounded in a big way. The Hilltoppers finished last season with a 9-4 mark, with both of its losses in C-USA play coming to the two teams that finished ahead in the standings – Marshall and FAU. Also, WKU crushed Arkansas 45-19 in Fayetteville. There’s no clear front-runner in the East for 2020, but Athlon gives a slight edge to WKU. The Hilltoppers are powered by one of the top Group of 5 defenses, holding teams to just 20.1 points a game last fall. This unit is led by standout DeAngelo Malone (11.5 sacks), with the linebacker and secondary units ranking near the top of the conference. Helton’s background on offense suggests this unit should take a step forward after averaging only 25.4 points a game last fall. Maryland transfer Tyrrell Pigrome could be the answer under center, with Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas also in the mix. WKU has the top-rated offensive line in the conference by Athlon Sports, with 1,000-yard rusher Gaej Walker back at running back and Jahcour Pearson, Jacquez Sloan and tight end Joshua Simon rounding out a key group of weapons in the passing game. The Hilltoppers play at UAB in crossover play, but Marshall visits Bowling Green on Oct. 10.
Replacing quarterback Malcolm Perry (2,017 rushing yards) is a tough task for coach Ken Niumatalolo, but don’t expect the Midshipmen to slip too far in the AAC. With teams bunched together after the top tier, the outcome of a couple of different games could play a huge role in shaping the middle of the league. For the Midshipmen to finish in the top half of the conference, sophomore Perry Olsen, senior Dalen Morris or converted receiver Chance Warren have to take control under center. While Perry’s production on the ground will be missed, the rushing attack still has options with the return of Jamale Carothers (734 yards), Nelson Smith (571), and CJ Williams (298). Three new starters need to be found up front, but Peter Nestrowitz and Billy Honaker is a good foundation to build around. Niumatalolo’s decision to hire Brian Newberry as defensive coordinator paid big-time dividends for the group last season. Navy allowed 6.5 yards a snap and 33.5 points a game in 2018 but cut those totals to 5.3 per play and 22.3 a contest last fall. Losing striker Jacob Springer to transfer was a setback, but seven starters are back, including linebacker Diego Fagot, cornerback Michael McMorris and end J’arius Warren. After improving from three wins in 2018 to 11 last fall, Navy’s path to the top five in the AAC hinges on the quarterback position.
The Cougars should be better in coach Dana Holgorsen’s second season. Last year, injuries and decisions by a couple of key players (including QB D’Eriq King) to take a redshirt year limited Houston to a 4-8 record. Quarterback Clayton Tune (1,533 yards and 11 TDs) showed promise in a tough spot last fall and should take a step forward with more reps as the starter. There’s no shortage of weapons to deploy, as running backs Kyle Porter (616 yards) and Mulbah Car (375) are back, along with one of the AAC’s top receiving corps, led by Marquez Stevenson (907 yards). Houston surrendered 35 sacks last season but better luck in the health department would help the offensive line provide better protection. Defensively, the Cougars have work to do after giving up 34 points a game and 6.8 yards a snap in 2019. Seven starters return, and a handful of transfers have arrived to provide instant help or depth in 2020.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
Tulane has reached new heights under coach Willie Fritz, winning 14 games over the last two years and claiming back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in program history. A third postseason trip is within reach, as the Green Wave return one of the league’s top defenses behind linebacker/end Patrick Johnson and one of the AAC’s top lines. The secondary is anchored by Jaylon Monroe – one of the AAC’s top cover corners – and safeties Larry Brooks and Chase Kuerschen. Replacing quarterback Justin McMillan tops the list of offseason priorities for coordinator Will Hall. Keon Howard – a talented transfer from Southern Miss – played well last year and will get the first opportunity to replace McMillan. Dynamic running back Corey Dauphine was granted an extra year of eligibility but suffered a torn Achilles this summer and will miss 2020. The Green Wave are still in good shape in the backfield with Amare Jones, Cameron Carroll, Stephon Huderson, Tyjae Spears and Ygenio Booker forming a deep corps of options. Oklahoma transfer Mykel Jones and tight end Tyrick James top the list of weapons for the new quarterback on the outside, while three starters form a strong foundation up front. Tulane’s schedule is favorable in league play. Fritz’s squad hosts Navy, Temple and Memphis and doesn’t have to play Cincinnati.
68. Boston College
New coach Jeff Hafley arrives in Chestnut Hill after spending the 2019 season as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Hafley is a rising star, but a limited offseason and a tough crossover schedule (at Virginia Tech and North Carolina) add to the challenge of being a first-year coach. Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec was granted a waiver for 2020, which means he and Dennis Grosel (48.4 percent, 9 TDs and 2 INTs) will battle for the nod under center. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the offense will lean on one of the ACC's top offensive lines, along with breakout candidate David Bailey at running back. Hafley's background on defense should boost a group that ranked near the bottom of the league and gave up 6.5 yards a snap in ACC games last fall. New faces need to emerge up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit is a strength thanks to the return of Max Richardson. Boston College has made a bowl in four consecutive years, so a six-win season wouldn't be a surprise. However, in order to avoid a losing mark, the Eagles have to show improvement on defense, and generate more production out of Grosel or Jurkovec under center.
The Orange took a step back last fall, regressing from a 10-3 record in 2018 to a 5-7 mark in '19. Coach Dino Babers is counting on two new coordinators — Sterlin Gilbert (offense) and Tony White (defense) to help get the program back on track, but only nine starters are back for 2020. Syracuse ranked as one of the ACC's top offenses in '18 but took a major step back last year. Improvement on that side of the ball starts with better play up front after surrendering 50 sacks, and quarterback Tommy DeVito must take a step forward in his second season as the starter. The receiving corps also needs new playmakers to emerge after No. 1 target Trishton Jackson left. The return of tackle McKinley Williams from injury adds to help to a front featuring just one returning starter (end Josh Black) and a new group of linebackers. Safety Andre Cisco is one of the best in the ACC. With NC State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Florida State visiting Syracuse, Babers' team has a favorable home slate to find a way to get to six victories.
After missing out on a bowl for just the second time in seven years, the Blue Devils hope the arrival of Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice provides a spark for an offense that managed only 25.3 points a game in 2019. Brice is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including running back Deon Jackson (641 yards), tight end Noah Gray and four starters return along the offensive line. Duke's defense allowed 29.2 points a game last season, but six starters are back and improvement is expected. End Chris Rumph is one of the ACC's top edge rushers, with safety Michael Carter set to anchor the secondary. The Blue Devils are due for a little better luck after posting a minus-11 turnover margin last season. However, the margin for error will be thin to get to a bowl. Duke plays Notre Dame in non-conference play and potential swing games against NC State, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Miami take place away from Durham. If Brice provides a spark for the offense, getting to six wins should be within reach for coach David Cutcliffe's squad.
65. Air Force
The Falcons won 11 games and finished No. 22 in the final Associated Press poll last fall, which marked the best season under coach Troy Calhoun. Quarterback Donald Hammond was expected to be one of the Mountain West's top signal-callers in 2020, but his status is cloudy after the program announced during the summer he was not in good standing. If Hammond is out for the year, Warren Bryan, Chance Stevenson, Zachary Larrier, Max Massingale and Haaziq Daniels will battle to start under center. The winner of the quarterback battle is supported by Kadin Remsberg (1,050 yards) and Timothy Jackson (745) on the ground game, and even though three starters must be replaced in the trenches, tackle Parker Ferguson and guard Nolan Laufenberg is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. Air Force won’t throw it often, but Calhoun has to replace the offense’s top three receiving targets from 2019. Replicating last year’s defensive performance (19.8 ppg allowed and 5.5 ypp) will be tough with just five starters back. Coordinator John Rudzinski has a good foundation in place thanks to the return of linebacker Demonte Meeks and end Jordan Jackson. But this group will miss lineman Mosese Fifita, linebacker Kyle Johnson and safety Jeremy Fejedelem. Although Air Force has to play Wyoming on the road, Boise State comes to Colorado Springs and the crossover slate currently doesn’t feature San Diego State or Nevada.
It’s a toss-up between Wyoming and Air Force for second in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division. The Cowboys get the nod in Athlon’s picks, as coach Craig Bohl’s squad brings back 11 starters from a team that won eight games and lost four others by five points or less. Bohl has two capable quarterbacks in Sean Chambers and Levi Williams, with Chambers likely holding an edge to start in 2020. The receiving corps is thin on proven options, but the strength of the offense rests with running back Xazavian Valladay and a line that brings back four starters. Wyoming has finished first or second in the Mountain West in scoring defense in each of the last three years. While a new play-caller (Jay Sawvel) is in place, don’t expect the standard to change. There are holes to fill at linebacker with Logan Wilson off to the NFL and safety Alijah Halliburton out of eligibility. However, the line is among the best in the Mountain West, and there’s a solid foundation in place among the back seven. With both Boise State and Air Force coming to Laramie, Bohl’s team has a chance to contend for the Mountain West title in 2020.
The Blazers have won the West Division in back-to-back years, and coach Bill Clark’s team enters 2020 as a heavy favorite to win the conference. UAB’s defense has ranked near the top of the conference in each of the last three seasons and should be a shutdown group once again. The linebacker unit features a dynamic edge rusher in Jordan Smith (10 sacks) and first-team All-C-USA pick in Kristopher Moll (104 tackles). Garrett Marino’s presence in the trenches will be missed, but the cupboard is far from bare. A secondary that limited teams to a completion percentage of 51.7 brings back four starters from 2019, plus the return of lockdown cornerback Brontae Harris, who missed all of last fall due to injury. The Blazers have room to improve on offense after managing only 23.1 points a game last year. However, injuries to quarterback Tyler Johnston III and running back Spencer Brown played a role in the uni's production. With both back to 100 percent, look for this group to see a jump in production. All five starters are back up front, and the receiving corps features Austin Watkins (1,092 yards) and a couple of other experienced weapons. UAB’s schedule features a road trip to Miami in non-conference play and date at Louisiana Tech. However, both Southern Miss and WKU come to Birmingham. A 10-win regular season is within reach.
The Cougars have posted three winning seasons over Kalani Sitake’s four years at the helm. While the 2020 schedule is in flux, Sitake’s squad should push for another winning mark and bowl trip. Due to injuries, three quarterbacks received significant playing time last season. That experience should pay off in 2020, as Zach Wilson is expected to start unless Jaren Hall or Baylor Romney makes a strong case for the No. 1 role in the fall. Tight end Matt Bushman (47 grabs) is underrated nationally, but BYU needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver following the departure of three of the team’s top targets from 2019. Sione Finau, Lopini Katoa and Jackson McChesney lead the way at running back, while the offensive line is a strength thanks to the return of center James Empey, left tackle Brady Christensen and guard Tristen Hoge. BYU’s defense took a step back on the stat sheet in 2019, surrendering 5.6 yards a snap – up from 4.7 the previous fall. Nose tackle Khyiris Tonga leads the way up front for a solid group of linebackers, and the return of safety/cornerback Zayne Anderson and cornerback Chris Wilcox from injury should bolster the secondary.
After winning just four Big Ten games in coach Lovie Smith's first three years, Illinois posted four conference victories and returned to the postseason in 2019. Getting back to a bowl is a reasonable goal for Smith's team in 2020. The Fighting Illini return an underrated offensive line to protect quarterback (and Michigan transfer) Brandon Peters (18 TDs), and the defense showed significant improvement after giving up 39.4 points a game in '19. Illinois held teams to 26.2 last fall and brings back five starters, including standout linebacker Jake Hansen and safety Sydney Brown. A plus-10 turnover margin will be tough to replicate, but six wins and another postseason berth are within reach if the defense continues to progress, and Peters takes a step forward in his second year as the starter.
60. Washington State
New coach Nick Rolovich is one of the offseason's top hires, and running back Max Borghi is underrated nationally. No quarterback on the roster has attempted a pass at the FBS level, and big-time improvement is needed from a defense that allowed 31.4 points a game and ranked last in the Pac-12 against the run. Swing games against UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford take place away from Pullman.
59. Oregon State
The Beavers showed big-time improvement in coach Jonathan Smith's second season at the helm. Taking the next step and getting to a bowl requires a return to full strength by running back Jermar Jefferson, and quarterback Tristan Gebbia to settle into the job. Top receiver Isaiah Hodgins must be replaced and three new starters are set to take over up front. Oregon State's defense was better after struggling mightily in 2018 but more improvement is needed. Hamilcar Rashed leads a talented linebacker group.
A year after winning the Big Ten West Division, Northwestern posted its worst season (3-9) in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. An offense that averaged 12.7 points a game and 3.9 yards a play in Big Ten action was primarily to blame, and Fitzgerald took steps to address this by hiring Mike Bajakian to call plays and landed Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey to start at quarterback. Ramsey needs playmakers to emerge, but a solid foundation — led by standout left tackle Rashawn Slater — is in place up front, and running back Isaiah Bowser is back to 100 percent after missing most of 2019 due to injury. Despite the anemic offense last fall, Northwestern's defense held teams to 23.6 points a game and 5.06 yards a snap. This unit will be strong once again, as nine starters return, including linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Expect the Wildcats to rebound back to a bowl in 2020.
57. Texas Tech
Matt Wells' debut in Lubbock was hindered by season-ending injuries to standout offensive lineman Jack Anderson and quarterback Alan Bowman. Despite those losses, the Red Raiders were competitive in the Big 12, losing five games by 10 points or less. If Bowman can stay healthy, Wells' team should push for a bowl in 2020. As usual in Lubbock, Texas Tech isn't hurting for skill players, as running back SaRodorick Thompson and receivers T.J. Vasher and Erik Ezukanma are poised to challenge for All-Big 12 honors. Improving the defense remains a priority. The Red Raiders finished ninth in the Big 12 in scoring defense and allowed 6.6 yards a snap last year. Texas Tech has finished seventh or worst in the Big 12 in scoring every season since 2010.
56. NC State
Last year's 4-8 record marked the program's first losing season since 2013 under coach Dave Doeren. Injuries and roster turnover from a team that won nine games in back-to-back years played a huge role in last season's regression. While the Wolfpack are unlikely to rebound to nine wins in 2020, better luck in the health department, along with a correction in turnover margin (minus-13 last fall), should equal a trip to a bowl. New coordinator Tim Beck inherits some promising pieces on offense, including running back Zonovan "Bam" Knight, receivers Emeka Emezie and Devin Carter, along with four starters back on the line. Quarterback Devin Leary (8 TDs to 5 INTs) is expected to get the nod under center and should be better in his second year as the starter. New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is switching the group to a 3-3-5 approach, which should work well with some of the pieces coming back, including tackle Alim McNeil and linebackers Payton Wilson, Vi Jones and Isaiah Moore. Injuries took a toll on the secondary last season and was a big reason why NC State allowed quarterbacks to complete 64.3 percent of their passes. A schedule featuring toss-up games against Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest should be enough for the Wolfpack to find a way to get to six wins in 2020.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2020
55. West Virginia
The Mountaineers finished 2019 on a high note by winning two out of their final three games to get to 5-7 in coach Neal Brown's first season in Morgantown. Another step forward to reach a bowl in 2020 isn't going to be easy. The schedule features a non-conference game versus Florida State, along with road trips to Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. Quarterback Jarret Doege gave the team a spark in the last three games of last season and should be able to build on that. However, the offense struggled to get the ground game going (2.6 yards per carry in Big 12 games), and the line remains a major concern. Led by standout lineman Darius Stills, defense is once again the strength of this team. Both starting cornerbacks from 2019 must be replaced, but a solid front and safeties Tykee Smith and Sean Mahone provide a good foundation to lean on in 2020.
Chip Kelly is known for high-powered offenses, but UCLA has finished eighth and 11th in scoring within the Pac-12 over the last two years. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to take a big step forward for the Bruins to get to a bowl, and Kelly has to find the right answers up front and replace 1,000-yard rusher Joshua Kelley. UCLA's defense has finished 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed for three consecutive years. Concerns remain for 2020 with only three returning starters, and the linebacker group is thin. The Bruins do catch a break in scheduling: They miss Oregon and Washington in crossover play and have five Pac-12 home games.
The 2019 season marked the first time Stanford has won fewer than eight games under David Shaw. A rebound to that mark will be tough to attain, but the Cardinal should be better in 2020. Quarterback Davis Mills is a rising star to team with one of the league's top receiving corps. The return of tackle Walker Little after missing nearly all of 2019 due to injury is a boost up front. Defensive improvement is needed after allowing 29.8 points a game last fall and question marks remain in the front seven. Getting Washington State and Oregon State at home is huge.
The Mustangs took a big step forward in coach Sonny Dykes’ second year in Dallas. After a 5-7 mark in 2018, SMU finished 10-3 – the program’s first double-digit win season since 1984 – on the strength of an offense that averaged 41.8 points a contest. Quarterback Shane Buechele threw for nearly 4,000 (3,929) yards last fall and is the top Group of 5 signal-caller for 2020. James Proche will be missed at receiver, but Reggie Roberson (43 catches) and tight end Kylen Granson headline a group of talented playmakers on the outside. The team’s top two running backs – Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman are gone – but four starters provide a strong foundation up front. Expect SMU to be involved in its share of shootouts once again, as the defense enters 2020 with plenty of question marks after allowing 33.4 points a game last fall. This unit suffered key departures up front and in the secondary, with the linebacker unit returning as the strength with Richard McBryde, Delano Robinson, and Richard Moore in place. A favorable home schedule – Memphis, Navy, Houston, and Cincinnati all visit Dallas – and the return of Buechele gives Dykes’ team a chance to compete for a spot in the AAC title game.
New coach Eli Drinkwitz arrives in Columbia after a successful one-year stint at Appalachian State, and his background on offense will be put to the test right away with an offense that returns just four starters after averaging 25.3 points a game in 2019. Drinkwitz has two intriguing quarterbacks — Shawn Robinson and Connor Bazelak — to choose from, but question marks remain up front after an uneven performance in the trenches, and there's little in the way of proven receivers. The one-two punch of Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie at running back is one of the better tandems in the SEC. Missouri allowed only 19.4 points a game on defense last year, so it's no surprise Drinkwitz retained coordinator Ryan Walters. Linebacker Nick Bolton anchors another strong group with seven returning starters, and this unit will have to carry the team until the offense develops. Despite the question marks, a favorable schedule gives Drinkwitz a chance to guide the Tigers to a bowl in 2020.
50. Michigan State
New coach Mel Tucker will have his work cut out for him in 2020. The cancellation of spring practice hindered Tucker and his staff's ability to implement new schemes on both sides of the ball, as well as find a new quarterback following the departure of Brian Lewerke. Junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne or sophomore Theo Day are set to battle for the job under center, and the winner of this competition will be tasked with jumpstarting an offense that managed only seven passing plays longer than 40 yards over the last two years. Cody White and Darrell Stewart will be missed at receiver, but Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed and sophomore Jalen Nailor are a good starting point. Running back Elijah Collins needs more help up front but he is one of the bright spots on offense. Defense hasn't been a problem in East Lansing the last couple of seasons, and Tucker's background, along with the hire of coordinator Scottie Hazelton should keep this unit performing at a high level. Only three starters are back, so there's plenty of uncertainty on the depth chart for 2020. In addition to the difficult East Division matchups, the schedule features crossover games at Iowa and a home date versus Minnesota.
The injury bug hit Purdue hard last season. Season-ending ailments to quarterback Elijah Sindelar, receiver Rondale Moore and key defenders Lorenzo Neal (DT) and Markus Bailey (LB) prevented the Boilermakers from making a bowl for the first time under coach Jeff Brohm. With Moore's dynamic all-around ability back in the lineup, Purdue's offense should have one of the better receiver combinations in the nation, as sophomore David Bell (86 catches) delivered a breakout year last fall. Uncertainty remains at quarterback with Aidan O'Connell, Jack Plummer and UCLA transfer Austin Burton competing for the job. Purdue also needs better play up front and has to find more production out of a ground game that averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. New defensive signal-caller Bob Diaco inherits a group that allowed over 30 points a game last year, but Neal, end George Karlaftis, linebacker Derrick Barnes and cornerback Cory Trice provide a good foundation.
48. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs won't lack for intrigue with Mike Leach taking over, but the lack of spring practice hurts a team making a significant shift to the Air Raid on offense. Stanford transfer K.J. Costello is a good fit for Leach's offense, while Kylin Hill might be one of the nation's most underrated running backs. The pieces are in place for a solid line, but Leach has to find playmakers at receiver. After holding teams to 4.1 yards a play in '18, the Bulldogs surrendered 6.3 last year. New coordinator Zach Arnett plans to implement a 3-3-5 approach, and similar to the offense, question marks surround every level. Linebacker Erroll Thompson should thrive in this defense. A trip to NC State in Week 2 will serve as a good barometer for Leach's squad, but a brutal October — Texas A&M, at Alabama, at LSU and Auburn — awaits this fall.
47. South Carolina
The 2020 season could be a make-or-break campaign for Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks have watched their win total decline from nine in 2017 to seven in '18 and four last year. Under Muschamp's watch, South Carolina has never finished higher than ninth in the SEC in scoring offense. That's where the question marks begin this season. New coordinator Mike Bobo inherits an offense with question marks at every position and has to help quarterback Ryan Hilinski reach his potential as a sophomore. Despite the loss of standout tackle Javon Kinlaw, defense should be a strength in Columbia. Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu form a standout duo in the secondary, with Zacch Pickens, Aaron Sterling and top recruit Jordan Burch anchoring the trenches. A schedule featuring crossover games versus Texas A&M and LSU isn't easy. Also, the Gamecocks play at Kentucky and play at rival Clemson to close 2020.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2020
46. Kansas State
Chris Klieman delivered one of the best debuts by a new coach last fall, guiding K-State to an 8-5 finish and a winning record (5-4) in Big 12 games. Klieman will have his work cut out this offseason, as the Wildcats return just nine starters and face five Big 12 contests — including swing games against West Virginia, TCU and Baylor — on the road. Finishing in the top half of the Big 12 requires a rebuild in the trenches. All five starters along the offensive line are gone, and the defense only brings back one (Wyatt Hubert) off a group that ranked eighth in the conference versus the run. Quarterback Skylar Thompson is primed for a big senior year, and Klieman's defense can build around a solid group of linebackers and secondary this fall.
45. Wake Forest
For the first time in program history, the Demon Deacons have played in four consecutive bowl games. Coach Dave Clawson's squad should extend that streak in 2020. With Jamie Newman transferring to Georgia, 2018 starter Sam Hartman is set to take over once again at quarterback. Top target Sage Surratt (1,001 yards in nine games) leads the way for Hartman on the outside, with redshirt freshman Donavon Greene primed for a breakout year. Restocking the offensive line is Wake Forest's biggest question mark, but the addition of Maryland transfer Terrance Davis should help. Defense has been an issue the last couple of years in Winston-Salem, but there's optimism for improvement with nine starters back. End Carlos Basham Jr. (10 sacks) is one of the ACC's top defenders, with Ryan Smenda and Ja'Cquez Williams back at anchor the linebacker position. The secondary — especially at cornerback — remains a concern going into the fall. Matchups against Notre Dame and Appalachian State await in non-conference play.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
The defending ACC Coastal champs check in fifth in Athlon's 2020 ACC Coastal Division predictions, but there's little separation between the teams after North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has established a strong culture and track record, so don't expect a major drop-off despite losing quarterback Bryce Perkins. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong and Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson are set to battle to replace Perkins, who accounted for 33 overall scores and over 4,000 yards of total offense in 2019. All five starters are back along the offensive line, but question marks remain at running back and receiver Terrell Jana moves into the go-to role with Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois out of eligibility. Defense should be the strength of Mendenhall's 2020 squad. Nine starters are back from a group that allowed 27.1 points a game last fall. Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor anchor a strong linebacker unit, while end Aaron Faumui leads the way up front. The safety tandem of Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount forms a key piece of a solid secondary. Virginia opens with a neutral site matchup against Georgia, followed by a trip to Clemson on Sept. 26 and a home game against North Carolina on Oct. 3.
TCU missed on a bowl game last fall for just the third time since Gary Patterson's first full season (2001). With just seven returning starters, Patterson has plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but there's some optimism for improvement in 2020. For starters, quarterback Max Duggan impressed as a freshman and should be even better in 2020. The rising star quarterback is also helped by the arrival of former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill in an off-field role and return of Doug Meacham to help play-caller Sonny Cumbie after the offense averaged 30.3 points a game (seventh in the Big 12) in 2019. The arrival of five-star prospect Zachary Evans is a boost to an inexperienced backfield, and transfer T.J. Storment adds an experienced option to a line that returns only one starter. Duggan needs to find a new go-to target after Jalen Reagor departed to the NFL, but help is on the way with Nebraska transfer JD Spielman set to arrive in time for the 2020 season. As usual, TCU should be near the top of the Big 12 on defense. The Horned Frogs have finished first or second in the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed for six consecutive years. Patterson's group returns only four starters, but this group figures to find the right answers. TCU lost six of its seven games by one score last fall. With improvement on offense, the Horned Frogs could easily jump into the top half of the conference.
42. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have a new coach (Shawn Clark), but don’t expect many things to change in Boone. Clark – the program’s third coach in three years – has a strong foundation in place on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Zac Thomas is back, along with standout receivers Corey Sutton and Thomas Hennigan, the Sun Belt’s top offensive line, and a couple of options to fill the void left by running back Darrynton Evans. Appalachian State’s defense held offenses to just 20 points a game in 2019 and is anchored by standouts Demetrius Taylor (DL), D’Marco Jackson (LB), and Shaun Jolly (CB). The Mountaineers’ toughest matchups in league play – Louisiana and Arkansas State – take place in Boone.
The Ragin’ Cajuns posted the best season in school history last fall by winning 11 games, claiming their second Sun Belt West Division title in a row, and defeated Miami (Ohio) for the program’s first bowl victory since 2014. With 18 wins and back-to-back division titles, the only missing piece in coach Billy Napier’s successful two-year stint in Lafayette is a Sun Belt title. Louisiana has the necessary pieces in place to do just that in 2020. An offense that averaged 37.9 points a game last fall is led by quarterback Levi Lewis (3,050 yards and 26 TDs) and the dynamic one-two punch at running back of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Go-to receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley has to be replaced, but there’s talent waiting to step up, and the line is among the best in the conference. The defense showed marked improvement last fall, holding teams to just 19.7 points a contest after allowing 34.2 a game in ’18. New coordinator Patrick Toney should be able to build on that success with seven starters back. The Ragin’ Cajuns catch Appalachian State in the regular season once again in Boone. That game could be crucial for home-field advantage in the conference title game and should be the first of two meetings between these programs.
Last season's eight victories marked the program's highest win total (eight) since 1993. With 17 starters back, there's a good chance Indiana matches or exceeds that mark in 2020. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a big-time talent but needs to stay healthy after missing significant chunks of the last two years due to injury. Penix has three returning starters up front and a strong group of options at the skill positions, including running back Stevie Scott III, receiver Whop Philyor and tight end Peyton Hendershot. The Hoosiers have a solid defense in place with nine starters back, as this group held teams to 24.4 points a contest. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen is a rising star, and linebacker Micah McFadden should be among the best in the Big Ten at his position. If Penix can stay healthy, a nine-win 2020 campaign isn't out of the question for coach Tom Allen's squad.
Small improvement from Pitt's offense might be enough for coach Pat Narduzzi's team to return to the ACC Championship Game in 2020. The Panthers averaged 21.2 points a game and just 5.2 yards a play last season. A variety of reasons contributed to the lackluster production, including a lack of big plays, red zone issues, turnovers inconsistency up front, and running the ball. After having two 1,000-yard rushers in 2018, A.J. Davis (530 yards) was the team's leading rusher last fall. Four starters are back to provide a good foundation up front, and senior quarterback Kenny Pickett returns after throwing for 3,098 yards last season. Eight starters return from a defense that held teams to 22.5 points a game and led the ACC with 51 sacks. Tackle Jalen Twyman anchors one of the nation's top defensive lines, and additional help is on the way with Rashad Weaver returning from an injury. The Panthers also boast one of the nation's top safety tandems in Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin. Swing games versus Florida State, North Carolina and Miami take place away from the Steel City.
38. Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin inherits an Ole Miss program without a bowl appearance since 2015. While Kiffin won't lead the Rebels to an SEC West title in 2020, the first-year coach inherits two proven quarterbacks in Matt Corral and dangerous dual-threat option John Rhys Plumlee (1,023 rushing yards). All-purpose threat Jerrion Ealy is primed for a breakout season in Kiffin's offense, and Elijah Moore leads a talented group of receivers. Ole Miss allowed 6.3 yards a play and 36.2 points a game in '18 but cut those totals to 5.8 a snap and 26.5 per contest in '19. Building off that improvement hinges on restocking the trenches and adapting to a new play-caller. Ole Miss has to play Florida in crossover play but catches rival Mississippi State in Oxford.
Expectations were high for Nebraska last season, but coach Scott Frost's second year in Lincoln didn't go according to plan. Instead of contending for the West Division title, the Cornhuskers finished 5-7 and missed a bowl for the third year in a row. For Nebraska to get to the postseason and post a winning record, Frost has to jumpstart an offense that averaged 25.1 points a game in Big Ten contests. A return to full health from quarterback Adrian Martinez should provide a boost, with sophomore receiver Wan'Dale Robinson poised to become one of the top all-purpose talents in the Big Ten. Nebraska should get better play out of its offensive line after an uneven year, but Frost needs instant help from the incoming recruiting class to fill the void at receiver behind Robinson. The defense showed some improvement on the stat sheet last season, with the secondary poised to be the strength of this group in 2020. However, the Cornhuskers will have several new faces in the front seven in 2020. Considering Nebraska's final five games take place against Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, starting fast will be a priority this fall.
Just because Utah returns only nine starters and loses several key members of a team that has won back-to-back South Division titles, don't count out coach Kyle Whittingham's team from making another run at the conference championship. The Utes have to rebuild a defense that allowed only 15 points a game last fall, but Whittingham has a strong track record of success on this side of the ball. The winner of the quarterback battle between Jake Bentley and Cameron Rising has a good supporting cast to utilize, including tight end Brant Kuithe, receiver Britain Covey and four starters back along the offensive line. Utah has to play at California and hosts Washington but misses Oregon in crossover action. Also, the Utes get USC at home and play at Arizona State on Nov. 21 — plenty of time to break in new starters on both sides of the ball.
35. Florida State
The Seminoles are just 18-20 over the last three years, but there's new hope in Tallahassee with Mike Norvell at the controls. After a successful stint at Memphis, Norvell inherits a roster that has talent but has underachieved in recent seasons. While challenging Clemson for ACC supremacy is unrealistic, some improvement should be notable in Tallahassee. Florida State brings back 10 starters on defense, including All-America tackle Marvin Wilson and rising star cornerback Asante Samuel. After giving up 27.8 points a game in 2019, new coordinator Adam Fuller has to get this group to play up to its potential. Norvell's background on offense is a huge plus for a team that enters 2020 with question marks at quarterback and along the offensive line. Junior James Blackman is the front-runner under center, but freshmen Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker and sophomore Jordan Travis will push for the job. FIU transfer Devontay Love-Taylor and the continued development of guard Dontae Lucas are two factors to suggest the offensive line could show some small improvement this fall. Receiver Tamorrion Terry is among the best in the nation, and Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin will help fill the void left behind by Cam Akers.
New coach Jimmy Lake is a rising star and a big reason why Washington has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in each of the last six years. The Huskies should be among the nation's best on this side of the ball, but question marks surround the offense once again. Jacob Sirmon, Dylan Morris and Ethan Garbers are set to battle to replace Jacob Eason and more playmakers must emerge at wide receiver. Washington also plays five Pac-12 road games, including dates at California, Utah, USC and Oregon.
The Golden Bears have increased their win total from five to seven to eight under Justin Wilcox. Going up another level requires improvement on an offense that has finished last in the conference in scoring in each of the last two years. If Chase Garbers can stay healthy, the junior has potential to rank among the league's top quarterbacks. Wilcox has brought dramatic improvement to the defense during his three-season tenure, and with eight starters back, this unit ranks among the best in the Pac-12. A home slate featuring Oregon, Utah, Washington, Stanford and UCLA is favorable.
The Wildcats are coming off their best two-year stretch (18 wins) since 1976-77. Coach Mark Stoops' squad should push for a top-25 finish if quarterback Terry Wilson continues to develop as a passer after missing nearly all of 2019 due to a knee injury. Wilson needs playmakers to emerge outside, but the backfield is stocked with options, and the offensive line ranks among the best in the nation. Kentucky's defense held teams to just 19.3 points a game, allowed nine touchdown passes and surrendered only 5.3 yards a snap last season. The 2020 version should be just as strong for Stoops, as edge rusher Boogie Watson (6.5 sacks) and a strong secondary lead the way. The Wildcats play at Auburn in crossover play and also hit the road for key swing games against Louisville and Tennessee. Wilson's development will decide how high Kentucky climbs in the East this fall.
31. Arizona State
After a terrific freshman season, the Sun Devils will place their hopes of winning the Pac-12 South on the right arm of quarterback Jayden Daniels. The sophomore should thrive under new play-caller Zak Hill, but improvement along the offensive line and restocking the receiving corps and backfield remain question marks going into the fall. New co-defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce will shift Arizona State to more 4-3 looks this fall. With seven starters back, this unit should rank among the best in the Pac-12. A key swing game against Utah takes place in Tempe, and Arizona State doesn't have to play Washington in crossover play with the North Division.
After a disappointing 6-7 debut, Miami coach Manny Diaz is hoping another wave of transfers and coaching changes can get the program back on track. For the second year in a row, the Hurricanes dipped into the transfer portal to find key contributors. Quarterback D'Eriq King (Houston), offensive tackle Jarrid Williams (Houston), end Quincy Roche (Temple), and kicker Jose Borregales are all slated to play key roles for the team in 2020. King is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback but faces a quick transition to new play-caller Rhett Lashlee's offense without the benefit of a complete offseason. The line surrendered a whopping 51 sacks last fall, so it's up to new assistant Garin Justice to find the right mix to protect King. Defense wasn't a problem last year and certainly won't be again in 2020. Roche and Gregory Rousseau form one of the top defensive end tandems in the nation, linebacker Zach McCloud is back from a redshirt year, and there's enough experience and talent to quickly solidify the secondary. With Pitt and North Carolina coming to Miami, provided the offense jells behind King and the offensive line, the Hurricanes have a chance to surprise in the Coastal.
The Cardinals showed marked improvement in coach Scott Satterfield's debut. After a 2-10 record in 2018, Louisville went 8-5 and finished second in the Atlantic Division last fall. Exceeding eight victories and finishing in the top 25 is within reach if Satterfield's team shows improvement on defense after giving up 33.4 points a game and over 200 rushing yards a contest. Seven starters are back on defense, but stopping the run, generating pressure on the quarterback and secondary play remain a concern. There are fewer question marks on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Micale Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell form one of the nation's top trios for an attack that averaged 33.1 points a game — up from 19.8 in 2018. Replacing standout left tackle Mekhi Becton is likely to be junior Adonis Boone. With Florida State and Wake Forest coming to Louisville, Satterfield's team should have a favorable path to second in the Atlantic.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2020
New coach Ryan Silverfield inherits a team that went 12-2 and made an appearance in the Cotton Bowl after finishing 2019 ranked as the top Group of 5 team. Make no mistake, former coach Mike Norvell is going to be missed. However, Silverfield – a first-time coach – surrounded himself with a good staff and returns 13 starters. An offense that averaged 40.4 points a game in 2019 is in good hands with quarterback Brady White, running back Kenneth Gainwell and receiver Damonte Coxie in place. White’s supporting cast is strengthened by the return of receiver Pop Williams and tight end Sean Dykes from injuries, and three starters are back to anchor one of the top offensive lines in the AAC. New defensive signal-caller Mike MacIntyre is one of the top Group of 5 assistant hires for 2020. The Tigers showed improvement on this side of the ball last season, and with seven starters back, more progression is expected. A healthy year out of cornerback T.J. Carter will make a big difference in the secondary, while O’Bryan Goodson and Joseph Dorceus provide a strong foundation up front. The conference slate features a home game against UCF, but Memphis has to play SMU, Cincinnati, Navy, and Tulane on the road.
Dave Aranda was a strong hire to replace Matt Rhule, and the former LSU defensive coordinator inherits one of the league's top quarterbacks in Charlie Brewer. The Bears still need improvement up front after allowing 38 sacks last fall, and go-to receiver Denzel Mims must be replaced. The bigger concerns for this team reside on defense. Baylor led the Big 12 in scoring defense (19.8 ppg), but this group brings back just two starters — a rebuilding effort made tougher by the cancellation of spring practice. The Bears could be in for some regression after five games by one score and recording a plus-11 turnover margin last fall.
Jeremy Pruitt has Tennessee headed in the right direction and sporting a six-game winning streak coming into the 2020 season. The gap between Georgia and Florida to Tennessee is still significant, and Pruitt's squad has a few obstacles to overcome in order to be a top-25 team. The schedule features games against Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia and Alabama — all projected to finish in Athlon's top seven — and the offense needs more consistency out of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to improve a unit that averaged only 24.2 points a game last fall. After struggling up front the last couple of seasons, Tennessee's offensive line ranks as one of the best in the nation. The Volunteers gave up 27.9 points a contest in 2018 but lowered that total to 21.7 last season. Only five starters return, but the depth up front has improved, sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o is a rising star, and cornerback Bryce Thompson will challenge for All-SEC honors.
Kirk Ferentz's team has to break in a new quarterback (Spencer Petras) and must navigate a tough schedule, but the Hawkeyes will be a factor in the West Division title hunt. Petras is a promising prospect under center, and he's got a strong supporting cast at his disposal, which includes one of the Big Ten's top receiving corps and an emerging star in running back Tyler Goodson. Indiana transfer Coy Cronk adds to a solid offensive line already set to feature two likely All-Americans in Alaric Jackson and center Tyler Linderbaum. Iowa's defense held opponents to 14 points a game last season but has a few holes to fill in the trenches. Despite the turnover up front, the Hawkeyes won't slip far on the stat sheet next season.
24. Virginia Tech
With Hendon Hooker at the controls, Virginia Tech was a different team after a 2-2 start to the 2019 season. The Hokies won six of their final nine games and all three defeats came by nine points or less. Expect coach Justin Fuente's team to push North Carolina for the top spot in the division, especially as Hooker should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter, and the Hokies return 10 starters from a defense that finished fifth in the ACC in fewest points allowed per game (24.7). The arrival of transfer running backs Khalil Herbert (Kansas) and Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers — if awarded a waiver) should add some punch to an offense that averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in ACC contests. The offensive line should rank among the best in the ACC. New defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has big shoes to fill in replacing long-time play-caller Bud Foster. The good news: Hamilton inherits a group with nine starters back, including All-America candidate and linebacker Rayshard Ashby. Standout cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the 2020 season, but Jermaine Waller returns to anchor a solid secondary.
23. Boise State
The Broncos have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but coach Bryan Harsin’s squad is poised to rank once again among the top Group of 5 teams in college football. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier is a rising star, and there’s no shortage of targets at receiver to utilize, including Khalil Shakir (63 catches), CT Thomas and Octavius Evans. George Holani and Robert Mahone anchor a deep backfield, but big question marks remain up front with just one returning lineman. The question marks in the trenches extend to the defense. The line lost three key contributors, along with edge rusher Curtis Weaver. Tackle Scale Igiehon and Utah transfer Jackson Cravens are two players to watch up front. The linebacker unit is set with Ezekiel Noa back from an ACL injury, along with Riley Whimpey (83 tackles). The starting spots at safety are up for grabs, but cornerbacks Avery Williams and Jalen Walker, along with nickel back Kekoa Nawahine provide a strong foundation on the back end. Barring a schedule change, road trips to Wyoming and Air Force await Harsin’s team in 2020.
The Knights have won at least 10 games in each of the last three years, and coach Josh Heupel’s squad should be in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 team once again in 2020. UCF’s high-powered offense generated 43.4 points a game and 6.9 yards a snap last fall. A repeat of those totals is likely, as quarterback Dillon Gabriel is primed for an even better sophomore campaign. Gabriel won’t have big-play threat Gabriel Davis to throw to, but the receiving corps is in good hands with Tre Nixon, Marlon Williams and tight end Jake Hescock in place. A deep stable of running backs is headlined by versatile senior Otis Anderson and former 1,000-yard back Greg McCrae, and the line brings back three starters, including Parker Boudreaux and standout guard Cole Schneider. While UCF’s offense is prolific and generates most of the attention in Orlando, the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. The Knights held teams to 23 points a game and allowed just 4.6 yards a snap in 2019. Coordinator Randy Shannon has to replace standout linebacker Nate Evans, but all three units are in great shape for 2020. Safety Richie Grant and cornerback Aaron Robinson led the way for a secondary that held teams to a completion rate of 52.4 percent, while tackle Kenny Turnier (13.5 TFL) anchors the defensive line. The showdown against Cincinnati in Orlando in late November could decide which team hosts the AAC title game.
It’s a close call between Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis for the top spot in the AAC for 2020. The Bearcats get the edge in Athlon’s AAC picks, as coach Luke Fickell’s team has posted back-to-back 11-win seasons and returns 10 starters off a defense that held teams to just 20.6 points a game last fall. Some retooling is needed at linebacker, but the defensive line and secondary rank as the best in the AAC. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is a rising star, and safety James Wiggins returns after missing all of 2019 due to a knee injury. Cincinnati has room to improve on offense after averaging 29.6 points a game last season. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was banged up at the end of last year and a return to full health should help the offense get back on track. A replacement for standout running back Michael Warren must be found, but Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, Gerrid Doaks and Charles McClelland is enough to keep the ground game performing at a high level. An inconsistent offensive line should be significantly better with Michigan transfer James Hudson anchoring the group at left tackle. The Bearcats have to play at UCF but host Memphis. With a standout defense, even just a small amount of improvement on offense should boost Cincinnati to be the top Group of 5 team in 2020.
The Golden Gophers were the Big Ten's biggest surprise last season. After finishing 7-6 in 2018, coach P.J. Fleck guided the program to just its second double-digit win total since 1905. The emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman helped Minnesota's offense emerge as one of the best in the conference, and despite Bateman's decision to enter the NFL Draft in early August, there's enough firepower returning to keep Fleck's team in contention for the division title. Morgan is supported by five returning starters up front, while running back Mohamed Ibrahim takes over at running back. Edging Wisconsin for the top spot in the West could hinge on how far the defense progresses after losing key players at every level, particularly All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Fleck's squad catches a break in scheduling, as Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Iowa come to Minneapolis in 2020.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis and the nation's top receiving corps put USC in the driver's seat to win the Pac-12 South in 2020. Shoring up the offensive line will remain a concern into the fall, but the Trojans also have to navigate a tough schedule and improve a defense that has underachieved in recent years. A revamped staff should help on that side of the ball, especially with big-time talents like Jay Tufele and Drake Jackson poised to create havoc up front.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2020
18. North Carolina
Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill is off to a fast start. North Carolina finished 7-6 in Brown's first year back on the sidelines, with all six defeats coming by a touchdown or less. With quarterback Sam Howell poised to be even better as a sophomore, along with two standout receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, the Tar Heels won't have trouble scoring points. Additionally, Howell has help from 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter, and four starters are back on an offensive line that needs to get better in 2020. Quietly, North Carolina showed marked improvement on defense last fall. After giving up 34.5 points a game in 2018, the defense held offenses to 23.7 points a contest in '19. Coordinator Jay Bateman has a few holes to fill up front, but the linebacker and secondary units should be strong. The Tar Heels open with UCF and Auburn, but Virginia Tech and Pitt — two games that could decide the Coastal Division — take place in Chapel Hill.
17. Iowa State
The Cyclones have posted a winning Big 12 record in three consecutive years for the first time in program history. A trip to the Big 12 Championship Game should be within reach in 2020, especially as coach Matt Campbell's team returns one of the league's top quarterbacks (Brock Purdy) and a defense that has ranked near the top of the Big 12 in each of the last three seasons. Purdy has plenty of weapons to utilize, as tight end Charlie Kolar is poised to challenge for All-America honors, running back Breece Hall is a rising star, and receiver Tarique Milton averaged 20.6 yards per catch last season. The offensive line is Campbell's biggest concern and will likely determine whether or not Iowa State gets to the Big 12 title game. The Cyclones host Oklahoma but play Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas away from Ames.
It's no secret the 2020 season is an important one for coach Tom Herman. After posting 10 victories and playing in the Big 12 title game in 2018, the Longhorns regressed to 8-5 last fall. Last year's disappointment forced Herman to revamp his staff, which included two new coordinators in Chris Ash (defense) and Mike Yurcich (offense). The lack of spring practice is a concern, but Yurcich should have a relatively seamless transition into the play-caller role. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is one of the best in college football, and big-play threat Brennan Eagles is poised to become the No. 1 receiver with Devin Duvernay off to the NFL. Some question marks remain up front, but the ground game should be more productive in 2020 with the arrival of five-star freshman Bijan Robinson to add to a deep backfield that features Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson. The Longhorns regressed on defense last season, but improvement is likely with Ash calling the plays, along with better luck in the injury department. Linebacker Joseph Ossai and safety Caden Sterns should be two of the league's top defenders. The road trip to Oklahoma State on Nov. 27 could determine second place in the Big 12.
An early-season schedule featuring matchups at Michigan State and Minnesota, along with home games versus Penn State and Wisconsin, isn't the easiest slate for a program breaking in four new starters on the offensive line and needing to settle on a quarterback. However, that's the task ahead for coach Jim Harbaugh and second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in 2020. Two promising options — Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey — will battle for the starting job under center this fall, and the winner hopes to build off a promising end to the 2019 season. The Wolverines have a deep collection of running backs, and receivers Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell form a big-time tandem on the outside. Michigan's defense should be near the top of the Big Ten once again under coordinator Don Brown. Linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Dax Hill are two of the conference's top rising stars on defense.
14. Oklahoma State
It's a close call between Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State for second place in the Big 12. The Cowboys get a small edge here, as coach Mike Gundy's team hosts both Texas and Iowa State in Stillwater and return 19 starters off a squad that won eight games last season. Of those 19, eight come from an offense that's poised to break out in 2020. Quarterback Spencer Sanders had a promising debut last year, and the receiving corps is among the best in college football thanks to the return of No. 1 target Tylan Wallace after his 2019 season ended early due to a knee injury. Running back Chuba Hubbard (2,094 yards) is among the nation's top skill players, and a solid offensive line was bolstered with the arrival of West Virginia transfer Josh Sills. Oklahoma State's defense is a work in progress, but this group showed some improvement last fall by limiting teams to 26.8 points a game — down from 32.5 the previous year. With 11 starters back, more improvement is expected for 2020.
Related: Ranking the Big 12 Coaches for 2020
Gus Malzahn's Tigers enter the year with big question marks in the trenches, but if sophomore quarterback Bo Nix takes a step forward under new play-caller Chad Morris, Auburn will contend for nine or 10 victories once again. An inconsistent offensive line is starting over with four new full-time starters, but there's good skill talent at running back and Seth Williams (14.1 ypc) is one of the SEC's top receivers. Although defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has to restock the line and rebuild the secondary, the linebacker unit is among the best in college football, and plenty of young talent returns to suggest a minimal drop in production. Auburn's schedule features a non-conference showdown against North Carolina and road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama.
The Badgers have won four out of the last six West Division titles, so it's no surprise coach Paul Chryst's team is the projected champion for 2020. Nine starters are back from a defense that allowed only 16.9 points a game and held teams under 100 rushing yards a contest. Assuming coordinator Jim Leonhard restocks at linebacker, this group should be even better in 2020. A committee approach will be employed to replace prolific running back Jonathan Taylor, and quarterback Jack Coan has to hold off promising redshirt freshman Graham Mertz for the starting nod. As usual, the offensive line should be a strength in Madison. The offense's biggest concern could be at receiver where Quintez Cephus and his big-play ability will be missed. Wisconsin doesn't have to play Ohio State or Penn State in crossover games with the East, while Minnesota comes to Madison.
11. Texas A&M
Texas A&M seems primed to take a step forward in coach Jimbo Fisher's third year in College Station. The Aggies return the most starters (16) of any team in the West Division, including quarterback Kellen Mond. The senior needs to play better against the league's top competition, but the offensive line also has room to improve with four starters back. Fisher has plenty of talent at the skill positions to deploy, including running back Isaiah Spiller, receiver Jhamon Ausbon and tight end Jalen Wydermyer. With eight starters returning, there's optimism for a big jump in production on defense. The Aggies ranked ninth in the SEC by allowing 22.5 points a game last fall. Filling the void left behind by tackle Justin Madubuike and improving the pass defense will be a priority this fall. After a brutal schedule last year, the slate is considerably lighter in 2020. Texas A&M trades Georgia for Vanderbilt, hosts LSU and does not play Clemson in non-conference action.
The Ducks are Athlon's pick to win the Pac-12, as coach Mario Cristobal's team can lean on a standout defense, left tackle Penei Sewell and a strong set of running backs until Tyler Shough or Anthony Brown settles in at quarterback. The Week 2 showdown versus Ohio State is a huge measuring stick game for Cristobal's revamped offense. Both Washington and USC come to Eugene in 2020.
9. Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s schedule is going to look a lot different due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decisions by the Pac-12 and Big Ten to play conference-only matchups. However, regardless of how the schedule shapes up, coach Brian Kelly’s team should be among the top 10. Steady senior quarterback Ian Book leads the way for an offense that averaged 36.8 points a game in 2019. New play-caller Tommy Rees hopes to elevate this group to the next level, and there’s plenty of help in the trenches with all five starters back. Restocking the supporting cast around Book is critical after the departure of running back Tony Jones and receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke and tight end Cole Kmet. Incoming freshmen Michael Mayer (TE), Jordan Johnson (WR) and Chris Tyree (RB) could help, but the offense needs help from options like Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy at receiver. Northwestern transfer Ben Skowronek should also be in the mix. A return to full strength should help Jafar Armstrong claim the starting job at running back. Coordinator Clark Lea has to reload at defensive end and in the secondary, but don’t expect the Fighting Irish to fall too far off last year’s defensive totals (17.9 ppg allowed). Safety Kyle Hamilton is a rising star, while linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah should challenge for All-America honors. The return of Daelin Hayes from injury helps to alleviate concerns at end following the departure of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.
Related: Big Ten Football 2020 Predictions
The reigning national champions return only eight starters, but coach Ed Orgeron's team won't drop too far in the West Division. Joe Burrow leaves big shoes to fill, offensive assistant Joe Brady left for the NFL, the line has four new starters, and the Tigers have to replace running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and receiver Justin Jefferson. That's a lot to replace in one offseason. The rebuilding effort starts with quarterback Myles Brennan and the top receiver in college football in Ja'Marr Chase. Bo Pelini is back in Baton Rouge and plans to shift LSU's defense to more of a 4-3 scheme. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is arguably the top returning defensive player in the nation, and the arrival of North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox adds needed depth and talent to the linebacker unit. Orgeron's team faces tough road tests at Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M but Alabama and Texas both come to Baton Rouge in 2020.
As mentioned above, it's a close call atop the SEC East. The Bulldogs return eight starters from arguably the top defense in college football in 2020 but winning an SEC or national title hinges on how far the offense develops. After a sluggish year offensively, coach Kirby Smart hit the reset button and hired Todd Monken as play-caller and brought in Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman at quarterback. With no spring practice, this duo won't have much time to get up to speed in the fall. Also, the Bulldogs are breaking in three new starters up front and have to find more playmakers to surround George Pickens at receiver. As usual, the ground game won't be an issue. The early trip to Alabama will tell us a lot about Georgia's offense.
Picking between Florida and Georgia for the top spot in the East Division was the toughest prediction of the preseason for Athlon Sports. Yes, the Bulldogs have more overall roster talent and have won three in a row in this rivalry, but a small edge goes to the Gators. Continuity on offense with the return of quarterback Kyle Trask under coach Dan Mullen is huge with a limited offseason, and Florida should see some improvement from a line that struggled in 2019 but added transfer Stewart Reese from Mississippi State. Kyle Pitts is one of the top tight ends in the nation, with running back Lorenzo Lingard and receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney rounding out a solid corps at the skill positions. Florida's defense finished second in the SEC in fewest points allowed (15.5) and returns five starters. This unit should be strong once again, especially with one of the SEC's top cornerback duos (Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam), along with a talented defensive line. The East is likely to come down to the annual showdown in Jacksonville, but Florida has an easier crossover (LSU) than Georgia, and road trips to Tennessee and Ole Miss are manageable.
5. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have claimed 11 victories in three out of the last four years, so the next hurdle in coach James Franklin's tenure is a trip to the CFB Playoff. Getting there in 2020 could hinge on how fast the offense thrives under new play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca and how far quarterback Sean Clifford develops in his second year under center. Tight end Pat Friermuth and receiver Jahan Dotson form a good starting point in the passing game, but more weapons must emerge. The offensive line is one of the best in the conference, and the backfield ranks near the top of college football with Journey Brown poised for a big year as the No. 1 option. Penn State's defense held teams to 16 points a game last season, and despite returning only five starters, this should be a standout group once again. Linebacker Micah Parsons is a first-team All-American, and there's a collection of talent waiting to emerge in the trenches. This group needs to get a little better against the pass and eliminate some of the big plays allowed last year. The road schedule is tricky with dates at Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana. However, Ohio State — Penn State's biggest competition for the East Division — comes to Happy Valley.
For the third year in a row, Oklahoma is breaking in a new starting quarterback. And for the third season in a row, there's very little concern in Norman. New quarterback Spencer Rattler is primed for a breakout year under coach Lincoln Riley, and he has one of the top offensive lines at his disposal. The receiving corps needs to be restocked due to a couple of offseason injuries and the departure of CeeDee Lamb, but there's plenty of talent waiting to emerge. Oklahoma's defense showed improvement under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch last fall. After giving up 6.1 yards a snap in 2018, Grinch helped this group lower that total to 5.6. Every level of the defense has concerns going into 2020, but another step forward should be a reasonable expectation. However, has the defense progressed enough to win a playoff game? Road trips to Iowa State and TCU won't be easy, but Oklahoma should find its way back to the Big 12 title game for the sixth year in a row.
3. Ohio State
With Heisman contender and All-America quarterback Justin Fields leading the way, the Buckeyes have their sights set on another run at the national title. Fields should be even better in his second year in coach Ryan Day's offense, and the receiving corps ranks among the best in college football. He also has one of the nation's top offensive lines, and the arrival of Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon bolsters a backfield losing J.K. Dobbins. The biggest question mark in Columbus comes on defense. Ohio State returns only three starters and must replace standouts in defensive end Chase Young, linebacker Malik Harrison, cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and safety Jordan Fuller. Additionally, there's a new play-caller in Kerry Coombs. The trip to Penn State won't be easy. However, even with the losses on defense, this is clearly the top team in the Big Ten.
Even though Alabama missed the CFB Playoff for the first time since its inception in 2014, Nick Saban's dynasty in Tuscaloosa isn't over. Instead, the Crimson Tide have the necessary pieces in place to win it all in 2020. Quarterback Mac Jones played well in relief of Tua Tagovailoa last year and will compete with five-star freshman Bryce Young to start in the fall. Whoever wins the job has a strong supporting cast that includes arguably the best offensive line in the nation, running back Najee Harris and two All-America-caliber receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Alabama's defense slipped on the stat sheet last year, but better luck in the health department — especially in the front seven — will make a big difference. The return of linebacker Dylan Moses should help the run defense and overall communication. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II is a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports, but the rest of the secondary is new. The home clash against Georgia will be a huge opportunity for Alabama to take its claim for the top of the SEC once again.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2020
The Tigers have won five consecutive ACC championships, so it's no surprise coach Dabo Swinney's team is a heavy favorite to claim No. 6 in 2020. Clemson also is a popular pick to win it all in this coming season. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne headline an explosive offense, while a favorable schedule should give coordinator Tony Elliott plenty of time to find the right answers up front and break in a couple of new receivers after Justyn Ross was lost for the year due to a neck injury. Frank Ladson, Joseph Ngata, Amari Rodgers and tight end Braden Galloway headline the list of targets for Lawrence on the outside. As usual, Clemson will have one of the nation's top defenses. Coordinator Brent Venables brings back a loaded line, and cornerback Derion Kendrick anchors a rebuilt secondary. The Tigers are likely to be favored by double-digits in all 12 games this fall.