College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2020

Examining which teams are poised to improve their win total in 2020

College football’s 2020 season won't get underway until late August, but it's never too early to look ahead and predict which teams are on the rise and are poised for a significant leap in the rankings or win column next year. The 2020 version of college football's teams on the rise features North Carolina, Arizona State, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, and Louisville from the Power 5 ranks, along with Charlotte, Wyoming, East Carolina and Kent State from the Group of 5 conferences. With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed prior to 2020. However, this list reflects teams we think are poised to take a step forward next fall in the rankings or by an increase in wins.

 

There’s a long way to go until the 2020 season officially begins, but here are 20 teams (in alphabetical order) we think are on the rise for next season.

 

College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2020

Arizona State

The Herm Edwards hire was met with plenty of skepticism, but the former NFL coach is off to a solid start in Tempe. The Sun Devils are 15-11 overall, finished 9-9 in Pac-12 play and have earned appearances in bowl games over the last two seasons. Additionally, only one of the team’s four defeats from 2019 came by more than 10 points. With Utah returning only 10 starters and the overall uncertainty surrounding USC, the door is open for Arizona State to make a run at the Pac-12 South title in 2020. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is a rising star under center after throwing for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushing for 355 yards and three scores as a true freshman last fall. New offensive coordinator Zak Hill is tasked with helping Daniels take the next step in his development, but the supporting cast will be under construction early in the 2020 season. Two freshmen – Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum – are likely to emerge as the go-to running backs after the departure of Eno Benjamin, and the receiving corps has to replace its top two targets (Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams). Additionally, the offensive line is counting on two graduate transfers to bolster the trenches in 2020. Arizona State’s defense has showed marked improvement over the last two seasons but will be breaking in a new play-caller after Danny Gonzales and Tony White left Tempe. Former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce and long-time Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis will assume the play-calling duties in 2020. With eight starters back and few glaring holes in the two-deep, the Sun Devils could have the best defense in the Pac-12 South.

 

California

Oregon is the Pac-12’s clear frontrunner for 2020, but the rest of the usual contenders – Washington, Utah, Stanford and USC – are filled with question marks. California has made steady progress under coach Justin Wilcox, increasing their win total to seven after a 5-7 mark in 2017 and finishing 8-5 last year. With both Washington and Washington State breaking in new coaches, the Golden Bears could be the biggest challenger to Oregon in the Pac-12 North. New coordinator Bill Musgrave is tasked with jumpstarting an offense that averaged 21.2 points a game last season. Quarterback Chase Garbers threw for 1,772 yards and 14 touchdowns and went 7-0 in games he started and played a full complement of snaps. If Garbers can stay healthy, the junior is poised for a breakout year. In addition to Garbers’ return, the Golden Bears bring back more than 1,000 rushing yards between Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy, five of the team’s top six receivers and every starter along the offensive line. Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter have brought drastic improvement to California’s defense since arriving in 2017. In 2016, the Golden Bears gave up 42.6 points a contest. However, that total decreased to 28.4 in ’17 and fell to 20.4 in ’18. Behind All-America linebacker Evan Weaver, the defense held teams to 21.9 points a game last fall. Weaver and standout safety Ashtyn Davis have to be replaced, but eight starters coming back should ensure this group ranks near the top of the Pac-12. With both Oregon and Washington coming to Berkeley this fall, an improved offense could give California a shot to win the Pac-12 North and finish in the top 25.

 

Related: College Football's Early Projected Breakout Players for 2020

 

Charlotte

After a successful stint at Austin Peay in the FCS ranks, Will Healy seemed like the right coach to help Charlotte take the next step as a program and compete at a higher level in Conference USA. It didn’t take Healy long to affirm those predictions, as the 49ers set a program record in wins (seven) and earned the school’s first bowl trip (Bahamas) at the FBS level. After a 2-5 start, Charlotte reeled off five victories in a row before falling 31-9 to Buffalo in the Bahamas Bowl. Healy’s team should be positioned for another winning record and bowl trip next season, especially with quarterback Chris Reynolds back after accounting for more than 3,000 total yards and scoring 28 times last fall. Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison and senior Aaron McAllister should form a solid duo to replace Benny LeMay at running back, and standout Victor Tucker (52 catches) headlines one of Conference USA’s top receiving corps. Restocking the offensive line and replacing a couple of key players on defense will be the biggest offseason priority for Healy. End Alex Highsmith is the toughest player to replace after recording 14 sacks in 2019, but the defense will get a boost with the return of safety Ben DeLuca and end Tyriq Harris from injury. Even if Charlotte doesn’t make a huge jump in wins next year, it’s clear this program is one to buy stock in with Healy at the helm.

 

East Carolina

Mike Houston ranked among the top hires in last year’s coaching carousel, and while the final record represented only a one-win jump from the 2018 campaign, East Carolina was a better overall team by the end of the season. The Pirates suffered seven defeats in AAC play but nearly upset Cincinnati (46-43) and SMU (59-51) in November. The late-season improvement should translate into more wins in 2020. Quarterback Holton Ahlers returns after totaling 27 touchdowns last year, and the Pirates feature three talented receivers in C.J. Johnson, Tyler Snead and Blake Proehl. The ECU attack also brings back the team’s top three running backs and a good foundation in the trenches. Improvement on defense could be the deciding factor in a push for a bowl. The Pirates have finished 10th or worse in the AAC in scoring defense in each of the last four years. New defensive signal-caller Blake Harrell won’t have Kendall Futrell (11 sacks) at his disposal, but seven other starters are back on defense, including promising sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian and last season’s leading tackler Xavier Smith (81 tackles).

 

Related: Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2019

 

Florida State

Mike Norvell was a home-run hire for a Florida State program looking to get back among the nation’s elite after an 18-20 stretch over the last three years. And so far, Norvell has pushed all of the right buttons since arriving in Tallahassee. The first-year coach closed fast on the recruiting trail, added a couple of impact transfers and hired a solid all-around staff. Under Norvell’s watch, Memphis averaged more than 40 points a game every year from 2017-19 and equally explosive through the air or on the ground. That’s welcomed news for a Florida State offense that averaged only 25.9 points a game in ACC contests in 2019. Solidifying the quarterback position is the top priority this offseason. James Blackman and Jordan Travis have an edge in experience, but incoming freshmen Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker will factor into the mix. Khalan Laborn hopes to fill the big shoes left behind by Cam Akers at running back, with a couple of incoming recruits and potentially (if awarded a waiver) Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin also expected to push for snaps. Convincing receiver Tamorrion Terry (1,188 receiving yards in 2019) to stick around for his senior year was a huge win for Norvell this offseason. The offensive line has struggled the last couple of seasons, but this group should show some progress in 2020, especially with FIU transfer Devontay Love-Taylor set to anchor one of the tackle spots. The other side of the ball also had a big win around the draft deadline, as standout lineman Marvin Wilson decided to return for his senior campaign. The two-deep returns largely intact, and a return to 100 percent by hybrid linebacker/defensive back Jaiden Lars-Woodbey is a boost to a group that gave up 27.8 points a game last year. Despite the record over the last three seasons, Florida State’s roster still has plenty of talent. Look for Norvell to help this team maximize some of it in 2020.

 

Georgia Tech

Turning around a program through a significant scheme change and also navigating major roster turnover is a tough assignment for any first-year coach. However, Georgia Tech’s 3-9 season in 2019 didn’t slow any of the momentum established from the arrival of coach Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets reeled in the No. 26 overall recruiting class – a significant upgrade from the 50.4 average rank from 2015-19. The 2020 haul should provide instant help on both sides of the ball, and while Collins’ squad might be a year away from a bowl game, this team should show significant improvement this season. Freshman Jeff Sims could push James Graham for the starting nod under center, but the strength of the offense should be at running back behind Jordan Mason and touted newcomer Jahmyr Gibbs. The addition of Vanderbilt graduate transfer Devin Cochran will help solidify an offensive line that was hit hard by injuries and scheme change in 2019. Georgia Tech’s defense surrendered 32.4 points a contest last year, but this unit returns largely intact and adds impact transfer Antonneous Clayton to bolster a pass rush that managed only 17 sacks in 2019. Despite the shortcomings on both sides of the ball in Collins’ debut, the Yellow Jackets lost to Coastal champion Virginia by five points, defeated Miami and fell to Pitt by 10. With another offseason to reset the roster and implement the scheme, look for Collins to have Georgia Tech trending up throughout the 2020 slate.

 

Kent State

By any measure, the 2019 season was a huge success for coach Sean Lewis in his second year on the job. The Golden Flashes improved their win total by five from the previous season, posted the program’s second winning record since 2002, and claimed the first bowl victory in school history. Additionally, all three of the team’s losses in MAC play came by seven points or less, including a 23-16 defeat to conference champ Miami (Ohio). Improvement on offense was a big reason why Kent State won seven games in 2019. After averaging just 5.04 yards a play in 2018, Lewis’ offense improved that mark to 5.83 last season. Quarterback Dustin Crum directed the offense with high precision, completing 69.2 percent of his throws for 2,622 yards and 20 touchdowns to just two picks. He also added 707 yards and six scores on the ground. Crum returns most of his offensive line for 2020, but this unit has to take a step forward after giving up 41 sacks in ’19. Top receiver Isaiah McKoy also returns to help transition a group of pass catchers that lost three other key options. Kent State’s defense has room to improve after giving up 6.3 yards a play in 2019 and is set to lose a key player at every level. While the defense remains a question mark, Crum’s continued development should give the Golden Flashes to improve on last year’s seven-win total in a wide-open race to win the MAC in 2020.

 

Louisville

Louisville was one of the most-improved teams in the nation last season, as the program bumped its win total from two in 2018 to eight under new coach Scott Satterfield. After averaging just 19.8 points a game in Bobby Petrino’s final year, Satterfield directed this group to second in the ACC (33.1 ppg) last fall. It’s no secret Clemson is the overwhelming favorite to win the ACC once again in 2020, but the Cardinals could go from 8-5 to a spot in the top 25. Quarterback Micale Cunningham thrived under Satterfield’s watch, connecting on 62.6 percent of his throws for 2,065 yards and 22 touchdowns while also adding 482 yards and six scores on the ground. Cunningham’s supporting cast is loaded with talent, including one of the ACC’s top returning running backs in sophomore Javian Hawkins (1,525 yards) and standout receiver Tutu Atwell (70 catches). Scoring points won’t be a problem for Louisville in 2020, but the defense has to take a step forward to challenge for a spot in the top 25. The Cardinals surrendered more than 200 rushing yards a game and ranked last in the ACC in points allowed (33.4) last season. On the positive side for Satterfield and coordinator Bryan Brown, most of the two-deep returns intact and another offseason in the scheme should lead to improvement in 2020. An early-season road trip to Clemson and a November date at Notre Dame are tough matchups. However, key swing contests against Wake Forest, Kentucky, Florida State, and Virginia Tech take place in Louisville.

 

North Carolina

The Tar Heels showed marked improvement in Mack Brown’s return to the sidelines in Chapel Hill. After finishing 2-9 and No. 88 in the ESPN SP+ in 2018, Brown guided the program to a 7-6 mark and No. 30 ranking last year. North Carolina started the year with upset wins over South Carolina and Miami and nearly defeated Clemson (21-20) in late September. Of the six losses suffered by Brown’s team in 2019, all came by seven points or less. The emergence of quarterback Sam Howell as one of the nation’s top freshmen played a huge role in North Carolina’s improvement. Howell threw for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns to just seven picks and is primed for an even better 2020 season as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. A strong supporting cast that includes 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter, the return of three full-time starters up front and two big-play threats at receiver in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown surrounds the sophomore for 2020. While the offense stole the spotlight, North Carolina quietly held teams to 23.7 points a game after giving up 34.5 the previous year. Coordinator Jay Bateman has to restock the trenches following the departure of Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge, but the secondary will get a boost from the return of starting cornerback Patrice Rene and safety Myles Wolfolk from injury. Games against UCF and Auburn will test North Carolina right away in 2020, but an Oct. 10 date in Chapel Hill against Virginia Tech could decide the winner of the Coastal Division.

 

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2020

 

Oklahoma State

Mike Gundy raised the bar in Stillwater with six seasons of double-digit victories from 2010-17. The Cowboys have just 15 wins over the last two years, but the program appears poised to rebound in 2020. High-powered offenses are an annual strength for Oklahoma State, and new play-caller Kasey Dunn is stepping into one of the best situations for any first-year coordinator. Running back Chuba Hubbard surprisingly passed on the NFL after leading the nation with 2,094 rushing yards, and receiver Tylan Wallace will return to full strength after missing the final five games due to a knee injury. Quarterback Spencer Sanders had a promising debut derailed by a thumb injury late in the year but still finished with 2,065 yards and 16 touchdown passes. Additionally, this talented trio will have help from an offensive line that returns three starters and adds impact transfer Josh Sills from West Virginia. The offense isn’t the only reason for optimism at Oklahoma State. After giving up 32.5 points a game in 2018, the Cowboys allowed 26.8 last season. With only one starter departing, Oklahoma State’s defense should take another step forward on the stat sheet. Oklahoma is the clear frontrunner to win the Big 12, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gundy’s team get two opportunities against their in-state rival in 2020.

 

Ole Miss

With the Lane Train coming to Oxford, it’s safe to say Ole Miss won’t lack for intrigue in 2020. The Rebels haven’t had a winning season since 2015, but new coach Lane Kiffin inherits some talented pieces to work with on offense this fall. John Rhys Plumlee has the potential to be one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks after running for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns and throwing for 910 yards and four scores as a freshman in 2019. Plumlee will have to compete with Matt Corral for the starting job this offseason, but Kiffin and his staff certainly don’t lack for talent at the position. The backfield features rising star Jerrion Ealy (722 rushing yards in 2019), and the team’s top three statistical receivers from 2019 are also back, including Elijah Moore (67 catches). Ole Miss showed marked improvement on defense last year, surrendering only 26.5 points a contest after allowing 36.2 in 2018. Another step forward is within reach, especially with linebacker Momo Sanogo back after missing nearly all of 2019 due to injury. A restocked defensive line will be under the spotlight in the fall and likely holds the key to more progress on this side of the ball. With the opener against Baylor in Houston, Kiffin will have a chance to make some noise right away in his first year in Oxford. Additionally, some of the toughest matchups on the 2020 slate – Auburn, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State – come in Oxford next fall.

 

Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2020

 

Penn State

Teams on the rise normally refers to programs that can increase their win total for the upcoming year. However, in Penn State’s case, this program makes the list for its College Football Playoff potential. Coach James Franklin’s squad has been on the doorstep of a playoff trip with three 11-win seasons over the last four years. The 2020 Nittany Lions are poised for another run at the top four. New play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca takes over a group that averaged 35.8 points a game last season and features a proven quarterback in Sean Clifford and a deep stable of running backs headlined by Journey Brown. Additionally, tight end Pat Freiermuth is among the best in the nation at his position, and the offense is slated to return four starters up front. With KJ Hamler off to the NFL and a lack of proven options at receiver outside of Jahan Dotson, Ciarrocca and position coach Taylor Stubblefield have to develop more targets for Clifford in order for the offense to reach the next level. Every level of Penn State’s defense lost a key cog from 2019, but thanks to elite recruiting, the drop-off in 2020 should be minimal. Linebacker Micah Parsons ranks among college football’s top defenders, and Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh are back to minimize the loss of Yetur Gross-Matos off the edge. Trips to Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia Tech won’t be easy, but the Oct. 24 date at Happy Valley against Ohio State provides an opportunity to shake up the Big Ten East next season.

 

Tennessee

Jeremy Pruitt’s second season got off to a rocky 0-2 start with losses to Georgia State and BYU, and the going didn’t get any easier after defeats to Georgia and Florida dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in early October. However, that slow start was a distant memory by the end of the year, as Tennessee reeled off seven wins over its last nine games and capped the season with a 23-22 victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. With Georgia and Florida seemingly entrenched as the teams to beat in the SEC East for 2020, a division title might be out of reach for Pruitt’s squad, but the third-year coach seems to have the pieces to finish in the top 25. A defense that held teams to 21.7 points a game in 2019 should be strong once again despite losing linebacker Daniel Bituli and safety Nigel Warrior. The Volunteers will be deeper in the trenches, feature experienced cornerbacks in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson to headline the secondary, and rising star linebacker Henry To’o To’o is poised to push for All-SEC honors. Tennessee’s offense is a work in progress after averaging only 24.2 points a game last season. To take the next step and finish inside of the top 25, Pruitt needs Jarrett Guarantano or another option to solidify the quarterback position after three passers combined to complete just 55.6 percent of their attempts in 2019. The ground game should be a strength behind the one-two punch of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler at running back, and the offensive line should rank among the SEC’s best with Trey Smith passing on the NFL and Cade Mays set to join the mix if awarded a waiver to play right away in 2020.

 

Related: College Football's NFL Draft Deadline Winners and Losers for 2020

 

UAB

The Blazers have won Conference USA’s West Division title in back-to-back years, so it may seem strange to list coach Bill Clark’s team in this space. But consider this: After winning the C-USA title in 2018, UAB had to replace more than 30 players and returned only eight starters for ’19. And if those two obstacles weren’t enough, the Blazers watched quarterback Tyler Johnston III and running back Spencer Brown miss time due to injuries last season. Despite all of those obstacles, Clark’s squad managed to win nine games and earned a trip to the C-USA title game versus FAU. UAB should be the team to beat in Conference USA next fall, as Clark returns a roster that’s capable of a double-digit win total. A healthy year out of Johnston III and Brown will make a difference on a unit that averaged only 23.1 points a game in 2019. The Blazers held teams to 21.6 points a contest last year, and while defensive lineman Garrett Marino and linebacker Fitzgerald Mofor will be missed, this unit returns a strong foundation and could be even better in 2020. Edge rusher Jordan Smith (17.5 TFL) ranks as one of the top returning defenders in Conference USA, and the secondary will get a boost with the return of cornerback Brontae Harris after missing all of 2019 due to injury. A mid-September matchup at Miami will be a good litmus test for Clark’s program, but most of the toughest games in conference play – WKU, North Texas and Southern Miss – are in Birmingham next fall.

 

Wyoming

Boise State is the early favorite to win the Mountain West in 2020, but coach Craig Bohl’s squad could push the Broncos for the division title. Wyoming has won at least eight games and played in a bowl in three out of the last four years and all five of the defeats in 2019 came by 13 points or less. One of those losses came in overtime by three points to Boise State and another came by four on the road to San Diego State. The schedule breaks in Wyoming’s favor for 2020, as Boise State, San Diego State and Air Force all come to Laramie. Defense has been the strength of this program over the last three years, but there will be a new play-caller after Jake Dickert left for Washington State, and the depth chart features some turnover with linebackers Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia and defensive backs Tyler Hall and Alijah Halliburton out of eligibility. While the defense might not be as stingy, there’s optimism for an offense that averaged 25.4 points a game in 2019. Sean Chambers and Levi Williams are two capable options at quarterback, and the offensive line returns intact to clear running lanes for Xazavian Valladay after he ran for 1,265 yards in 2019.

 

Win Total May Not Improve but Program Trajectory is Trending Up

 

Cincinnati

The Bearcats are Athlon’s very early favorite to rank as the top Group of 5 team for 2020. Coach Luke Fickell has guided this team to 11 wins in back-to-back seasons and continues to add talent after inking the No. 1 signing class in the AAC. Both sides of the ball are loaded for Cincinnati in 2020. Quarterback Desmond Ridder anchors the attack on offense, with Gerrid Doaks (526 yards), Ryan Montgomery and Charles McClelland a capable trio to replace Michael Warren's production at running back. The offensive line will get a boost from Michigan transfer James Hudson. Key linebackers Bryan Wright and Perry Young will be missed from a defense that led the AAC in fewest points allowed per contest in 2019. However, the rest of the unit returns intact, while the secondary is slated to get a boost from the return of safety James Wiggins after missing all of 2019 due to injury. A huge showdown at Nebraska on Sept. 26 awaits, but the road date at UCF could decide the winner of the AAC East and the Group of 5 rep for the New Year’s Six bowl.

 

Louisiana

The Ragin’ Cajuns took a big step forward in coach Billy Napier’s second year at the helm. After a 7-7 debut by Napier in 2018, Louisiana won the most games in program history (11) and capped the year with a bowl victory over Miami (Ohio). With back-to-back Sun Belt West Division titles in the books, the biggest remaining hurdle for Napier’s squad is to beat Appalachian State and claim the conference title. With quarterback Levi Lewis and running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas back for 2020, that goal is within reach. Louisiana will have to replace standout guard Kevin Dotson and a couple of key defenders – cornerback Mike Jacquet, end Bennie Higgins and linebackers Terik Miller, Ferrod Gardner and Jacques Boudreaux. However, there’s more than enough talent in place to win the Sun Belt title next season.

 

Miami (Ohio)

The RedHawks were one of the biggest surprises in the MAC last season. Coach Chuck Martin guided the program to a MAC title with a 26-21 victory over Central Michigan and the first overall winning record since 2010. Another trip to Detroit should be a reasonable expectation for Martin’s squad for 2020. Quarterback Brett Gabbert will only get better with another offseason to work as the starter, and most of the players responsible for the production from the running backs and wide receivers is set to return. A defense that held teams to 5.3 yards a play has a few holes to fill but a solid foundation remains in place. A tough non-conference slate – at Pitt, Cincinnati and Army – limits the win total upside. However, Martin’s program is in a good spot entering 2020.

 

Minnesota

After a breakout 11-win season in 2019, Minnesota’s next quest is to win the Big Ten West Division. Coach P.J. Fleck’s squad will be a top 25 team next fall, and there’s no shortage of firepower on offense with the return of quarterback Tanner Morgan, an experienced line and receiver Rashod Bateman. But in order for Minnesota to finish atop the division, Fleck’s defense will have to replace standout edge rusher Carter Coughlin and All-America safety Antoine Winfield.

 

Oregon

In his second year at the helm in Eugene, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal stuffed the trophy case. The Ducks won 12 games (including a victory over rival Washington), knocked off Utah to claim the Pac-12 Championship, and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to finish No. 5 nationally in the final Associated Press poll. In order for Cristobal’s squad to reach the next level and return to the CFB Playoff, finding a replacement for quarterback Justin Herbert is the top priority this offseason. New play-caller Joe Moorhead has a strong track record of success and inherits an offense that isn’t short on options at running back and brings back the nation’s best offensive linemen in Penei Sewell. Cristobal’s decision to hire Andy Avalos as the defensive signal-caller paid immediate dividends last year, as the Ducks held teams to just 16.5 points a game and 4.73 yards a play. With the offense breaking in a new quarterback, Oregon is likely to lean on its standout defense early in the 2020 campaign versus a September slate featuring matchups against defending FCS champion North Dakota State and Ohio State. And here’s a scary thought for the rest of the Pac-12: This unit could be even better with end Kayvon Thibodeaux poised to take another step forward in his development.

 

Podcast: Teams on the Rise, What Actually Matters in Spring Practice and New Transfer Rules

 

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