An early look at the top 25 college football teams for 2020
The 2020 college football season is scheduled to officially begin on Saturday, Aug. 29, but it's never too early to start thinking about top 25 rankings and what might transpire this fall. Each FBS season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture. However, the list of favorites for this year starts with familiar contenders: Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State.
Clemson is Athlon Sports' projected national champion, with Alabama at No. 2, followed by Ohio State at No. 3. Oklahoma is the last projected playoff team at No. 4. Penn State, Florida and Georgia headline the next trio of teams, with LSU, Notre Dame and Oregon rounding out the projected top 10. The 2020 season concludes with the national championship on Jan. 7 in Miami Gardens, Fla. in Hard Rock Stadium.
The Athlon Sports 2020 preview magazines are on newsstands nationwide on June 2 and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. The SEC and National preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
An important note on Athlon's top 25 for 2020: This is not a preseason 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. Here are Athlon's projected top 25 teams in college football for 2020.
College Football's Projected Top 25 Teams for 2020
Kirk Ferentz’s team has won at least eight games in six out of the last seven years, so even with personnel question marks on both sides of the ball, Iowa should be a tough out in the Big Ten once again in 2020. Sophomore Spencer Petras has completed six of 11 throws for 25 yards in his first two years on campus and is slated to replace Nate Stanley under center. Petras’ development is crucial for Iowa’s hopes of pushing Minnesota or Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, but the sophomore also has plenty of help from a strong supporting cast. Running back Tyler Goodson (638 yards) is a breakout candidate, while a deep group of options returns at receiver, including Ihmir Smith Marsette (44 catches), Tyrone Tracy (36), Brandon Smith (37), Nico Ragaini (46), and tight end Sam LaPorta (15). Tristan Wirfs is a big loss in the trenches, but a strong foundation remains with Alaric Jackson, Indiana transfer Coy Cronk and rising star Tyler Linderbaum at center. Iowa brings back five starters from a defense that held teams to 14 points a game and 4.8 yards a snap. Rebuilding the defensive line is the top priority for coordinator Phil Parker after the departure of standout A.J. Epenesa (11.5 sacks) and tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff. End Chauncey Golston and tackle Daviyon Nixon is a good starting point, but more options must emerge. The linebacker unit must replace leading tackler Kristian Welch, and the secondary lost two key cogs in safety Geno Stone and cornerback Michael Ojemudia. The schedule features crossover games at Ohio State and Penn State, along with a road date at Minnesota on Sept. 18.
24. Virginia Tech
The Hokies return 19 starters off a team that won six out of their last nine games, with the three defeats in that span coming by nine points or less. Coach Justin Fuente’s decision to switch to Hendon Hooker quarterback provided a spark in early October, as Virginia Tech scored 30 or more points in five out of its final seven games. The offensive line should be among the best in the ACC, while the arrival of transfer Khalil Herbert (Kansas) and potentially Raheem Blackshear (waiver pending) provide help for a backfield losing last year’s leading rusher Deshawn McClease (843 yards). Receiver Tre Turner (34 catches for 553 yards) and tight end James Mitchell should push for All-ACC honors, but the Hokies could use more playmakers to emerge in 2020. With Hooker’s development under Fuente this fall, this offense should see an uptick in production (30.8 ppg). There’s no shortage of intrigue on defense. Long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster retired at the end of 2020 and former player Justin Hamilton will assume the play-calling duties. Hamilton has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks and inherits a defense that returns 10 starters after holding teams to 24.7 points a game in 2019. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby and cornerback Caleb Farley should contend for All-America honors. Virginia Tech will be tested early with a non-conference matchup against Penn State on Sept. 12 but the ACC Coastal could be decided on Oct. 10 when Fuente’s team goes to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina.
23. Boise State
The Broncos have won two out of the last three Mountain West titles, and coach Bryan Harsin’s squad is well-positioned to do it again in 2020. As usual, Boise State won’t be hurting for firepower on offense. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier is back after a promising freshman season, with George Holani (1,014 yards) anchoring the ground game. Despite losing John Hightower, the receiving corps is in great shape. Khalil Shakir is one of the Mountain West’s top targets, with CT Thomas and Octavius Evans and tight end John Bates also back. However, a glaring concern remains up front. Boise State returns just one starter along the offensive line – tackle John Ojukwu – from a group that allowed 27 sacks last fall. The question marks in the trenches continue on defense, as linemen Sonatane Lui, Chase Hatada, David Moa and edge rusher Curtis Weaver departed. Rising star Demitri Washington should help replace Weaver’s production off the edge, and Utah transfer Jackson Cravens also could provide an instant impact at defensive tackle. The linebacker and secondary units figure to be a strength. The question marks along both lines of scrimmage will be tested early in September matchups against Air Force (Sept. 12) and Florida State (Sept. 19). Additionally, the Nov. 21 date at Wyoming looms large for the Mountain West title picture.
A dynamic offense has carried UCF to 35 wins over the last three seasons, and the 2020 version should be more than enough to keep coach Josh Heupel’s team in the mix to return to a New Year’s Six bowl. Leading the way for the Knights’ high-powered attack is quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who returns after throwing for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. Former starter McKenzie Milton missed last year after suffering a serious leg injury late in the ’18 campaign and his status for 2020 remains uncertain. But with Gabriel directing the attack, UCF should average more than 43 points a game for the fourth year in a row. There’s room for the offensive line to improve in 2020, and Gabriel won’t lack for support thanks to the return of running backs Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae. Top receiver Gabriel Davis departs, but there’s plenty of speed and talent on the outside, including Tre Nixon (49 catches) and Marlon Williams (51). UCF’s defense was quietly effective last season, holding teams to just 4.6 yards a play and 23 points a game. Eight starters are back, including nearly all of a secondary that finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense. The schedule features a home opener against North Carolina and a road trip to Memphis in mid-October. The Nov. 21 showdown versus Cincinnati will be crucial for positioning at the top of the AAC.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the AAC between UCF, Cincinnati and Memphis, but Athlon Sports gives a small edge to the Bearcats in 2020. Coach Luke Fickell’s team has won 11 games in each of the last two years and came close to beating Memphis (29-24) for the AAC title last fall. Fickell’s background is on defense, so it’s no surprise this side of the ball leads the way. The Bearcats held teams to 20.6 points a game in 2019, and this unit could be even better with 10 starters back. Restocking the linebacker unit is the top priority for Fickell and coordinator Marcus Freeman, but the defensive line and secondary are loaded with talent and experience. The return of safety James Wiggins from injury bolsters a pass defense that finished 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense last year. Cincinnati doesn’t need an explosive offense to win the AAC in 2020, but this group has room to improve after averaging 29.6 points a game last season. A healthy season from quarterback Desmond Ridder will help, while the offensive line should get a boost thanks to the arrival of Michigan transfer James Hudson at tackle. More playmakers must emerge at receiver, and Gerrid Doaks, Jerome Ford and Charles McClelland are tasked with replacing Michael Warren (1,265 rushing yards) at running back. Transfers Michael Young (Notre Dame) and Jordan Jones (Arkansas) should help at receiver. The good news for Fickell: With the showdown against UCF in late November, he’s got plenty of time for the offense to find its rhythm.
After a breakout 2019 campaign, the Golden Gophers have their sights set on pushing Wisconsin once again for the Big Ten West Division title. An improved offense was a big reason why Minnesota won 11 games last year and is easily the strength of the team for 2020. Quarterback Tanner Morgan ranks among the top Big Ten signal-callers after throwing for 30 touchdowns and 3,253 yards, and Rashod Bateman (60 catches for 1,219 yards) will assume the No. 1 receiver role after the departure of Tyler Johnson. The offensive line is set with all five starters back, and Mohamed Ibrahim moves into the No. 1 role at running back with Rodney Smith out of eligibility. The only uncertainty surrounding the offense is how this group will adapt to new co-coordinators Matt Simon and Mike Sanford Jr. after Kirk Ciarrocca left to become the new play-caller at Penn State. Minnesota held teams to 22.5 points a game last year, but there are question marks surrounding the defense. Four of the top players from last season’s group are gone, including All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Fleck’s team misses Ohio State and Penn State in Big Ten crossover play and catches Michigan at home. Within the division, Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue come to Minneapolis. However, the annual showdown – and likely defacto West Division title game – against Wisconsin is in Madison.
The Trojans rebounded from a disappointing 5-7 2018 season to finish 8-5 and second in the Pac-12 South last fall. Coach Clay Helton is hoping for another step forward thanks to the return of a high-powered offense and a retooled defensive staff. Quarterback Kedon Slovis was a breakout star in his first year on campus, throwing for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns to just nine picks. The Trojans are loaded with talent at receiver, with freshmen Gary Bryant, Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford joining a group that already features Tyler Vaughns, Drake London and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Jumpstarting a ground game that managed only 3.9 yards per carry and replacing both starting offensive tackles are the top concerns for play-caller Graham Harrell. Despite its talent edge, USC has not finished higher than fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in each of the last four years. Helton hopes former Texas play-caller Todd Orlando can change the Trojans' defensive fortunes, and there’s no shortage of talent to work with thanks to the return of 11 starters. Lineman Jay Tufele and edge rusher Drake Jackson are two of the Pac-12’s top defenders for 2020, and there’s plenty of young talent poised to develop in the secondary. The opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas is a huge barometer for Helton’s squad. Arizona State, Washington and Notre Dame visit the Coliseum in 2020, but road trips to Utah, Oregon and Stanford await this fall.
18. North Carolina
Mack Brown is already off to a fast start in his return to the sidelines in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels improved their win total by five games from 2018, with all six defeats coming by seven points or less. With a little better luck in close games, along with the development of rising star quarterback Sam Howell, Brown’s team is Athlon’s pick to the win the ACC Coastal in 2020. Howell threw for 3,641 yards and 38 scores last fall and is only going to get better as a sophomore. He’s supported by a strong cast of skill players, including one of the nation’s top receiving corps thanks to the return of Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, along with a standout backfield in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. North Carolina’s defense also took a significant step forward in 2019. After giving up 34.5 points a game in 2018, the Tar Heels cut that total to 23.7 a contest last fall. Some retooling is needed up front with Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford departing, but the linebacker and secondary units should be solid. Non-conference matchups against UCF and Auburn are on tap to start 2020, and road tests are slated for Virginia and Miami. However, the de facto ACC Coastal championship game against Virginia Tech takes place in Chapel Hill.
17. Iowa State
A lack of spring practice is a concern for every team, but Iowa State is positioned to navigate these uncertain times with one of the Big 12’s top coaches (Matt Campbell) and a star at quarterback in junior Brock Purdy. Campbell has led the Cyclones to three consecutive winning records in Big 12 play, and there’s no question the program’s established culture will be a huge plus with the limited offseason. Purdy led all Big 12 quarterbacks by throwing for 306.3 yards a game in 2019 and could be a candidate to jump to the NFL early with another strong campaign. Breece Hall anchors the ground game after a strong freshman season, with tight end Charlie Kolar and receiver Tarique Milton back as the top options in the passing game. Restocking an offensive line that had an uneven 2019 campaign is the top priority this offseason. Iowa State has finished inside of the top three in the Big 12 in scoring defense for three consecutive years and that streak is likely to continue this fall. Nine starters return, including linebacker Mike Rose, safety Greg Eisworth, and end JaQuan Bailey. Of the program’s six losses last season, four came by seven points or less. With a little better luck in the turnover department (minus-three margin), Campbell’s team could play its way into the Big 12 title game. Oklahoma comes to Ames this season, but the Cyclones have to navigate tough road trips to Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas.
It’s no secret the 2020 season is an important one for Texas coach Tom Herman. After a 10-4 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2018, the Longhorns regressed to 8-5 last fall. As a result, Herman hit the reset button on his staff, bringing in two new coordinators and five other assistant coaches. Injuries and youth played a role in last season’s record, and with better luck in health and player development, a return to the Big 12 Championship Game isn’t out of the question. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger returns for his senior year after back-to-back standout seasons. Ehlinger won’t have Devin Duvernay or Collin Johnson back on the outside, but the Longhorns have talented playmakers waiting in the wings like Michigan transfer Tarik Black, Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith. Left tackle Sam Cosmi anchors an offensive line with three starters back, while Keaontay Ingram headlines a talented backfield. Improvement on defense is a must for Texas in 2020. New coordinator Chris Ash plans to utilize more 4-3 looks, and talent won’t be an issue thanks to the return of linebacker Joseph Ossai (13.5 TFL), safety Caden Sterns, cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, and linemen Keondre Coburn and Ta’quon Graham. Last year’s group allowed 6.3 yards a snap in Big 12 games and finished 90th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Modest improvement in both totals, along with more pass rush and better play against the run are needed. Key Big 12 games against TCU, Baylor and Iowa State take place in Austin, but the Longhorns catch LSU in non-conference play and must deal with Oklahoma State on the road in the regular-season finale.
Jim Harbaugh’s team heads into 2020 with potential but also plenty of question marks to address. The Wolverines have won nine or more games in four out of the last five seasons and matching that total will require Harbaugh’s squad to navigate a tough schedule that features road dates at Washington, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State and a home slate featuring Wisconsin and Penn State. Michigan has two talented quarterbacks – Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton – vying to replace Shea Patterson. Four offensive line starters also must be replaced, but Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins are a strong one-two punch at running back, and Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell return at receiver. Don Brown’s defense must reload a bit after losing linebackers Khaleke Hudson, Josh Uche and Jordan Glasgow, along with cornerback Lavert Hill. However, the Wolverines aren’t likely to fall too far from last year’s defensive pace (20.7 ppg allowed), especially with rising stars like linebacker Cam McGrone, safety Daxton Hill and end Aidan Hutchinson leading the way in 2020.
14. Oklahoma State
With 19 returning starters and an experienced two-deep in place, the pieces are there for coach Mike Gundy’s team to emerge as the No. 2 team in the Big 12. New play-caller Kasey Dunn inherits the keys to a high-powered offense, which is led by rising star quarterback Spencer Sanders and Heisman Trophy candidate Chuba Hubbard (2,094 rushing yards in 2019) at running back. The Cowboys return their top three receivers, including Tylan Wallace (53 catches for 903 yards), back after missing the final five games due to a knee injury. West Virginia graduate transfer Josh Sills adds to an offensive line that returns three starters and ranks among the best in the Big 12. Continued improvement on defense is the biggest key to a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game. After giving up 32.5 points a game in 2018, the Cowboys allowed 26.8 in ’19. Coordinator Jim Knowles still has a lot of work ahead, but last year’s improvement, combined with nearly the entire starting lineup returning, provides optimism for another step forward in 2020. End Trace Ford is a rising star, the linebacker unit features a couple of standouts in Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga and safety Kolby Harvell-Peel should push for All-America honors. Oklahoma State has five road trips in Big 12 play, but two of its three biggest games – Texas and Iowa State – take place in Stillwater.
The Tigers have the fewest returning starters (seven) of any team in the SEC for 2020. Returning starters aren’t necessarily the best indicator for success, but it’s clear coach Gus Malzahn’s team has a lot to replace this fall. A defense that held teams to just 19.5 points a game in 2019 needs to reload up front after the departure of standouts Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. The secondary was also hit hard by departures, including safeties Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson, and cornerbacks Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene. The losses on defense are heavy, but Auburn boasts one of the nation’s top linebacker units and has plenty of talent waiting to step up in the trenches and in the secondary. The concerns in the trenches extend to the offense. Malzahn and new play-caller Chad Morris have to rebuild a line that lost four starters, with center Nick Brahms back to anchor the group in 2020. Quarterback Bo Nix averaged 219.6 total yards a game as a freshman in ’19 but will have to elevate his play to compensate for some of the losses on both sides of the ball. Nix does have plenty of help. The receiving corps – led by big-play threat Seth Williams – is among the best in the SEC. Leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow transferred, but Auburn has a handful of promising options at running back, including D.J. Williams, Mark-Antony Richards and Tank Bigsby. Texas A&M and LSU visit the Plains this fall, but Malzahn’s squad has to play Georgia and Alabama on the road.
With four trips to the Big Ten Championship Game over the last six years, it should be no surprise Wisconsin is Athlon’s pick to win the West Division in 2020. Few question marks surround this team, but coach Paul Chryst’s squad has a couple to address on offense. Who will fill the void left behind by Jonathan Taylor at running back? The Badgers may not lean on one option, instead choosing to rotate Nakia Watson, Garrett Groshek, Isaac Guerendo and freshmen Julius Davis and Jalen Berger in the backfield. Quarterback Jack Coan was steady (69.6 completion percentage) and didn’t make a lot of mistakes (five picks), but redshirt freshman Graham Mertz has more upside at the position. Can Mertz make a push for the starting job in the fall? Replacing go-to wide receiver Quintez Cephus is another priority, and the offensive line features a rebuilt interior with three new starters. Wisconsin’s defense held teams to 16.9 points a game in 2019 and ranks again among the best in the Big Ten. Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s group brings back nine starters, with linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun (24 combined sacks in 2019) leaving big shoes to fill at the position. The non-conference slate includes a home game against Appalachian State and a neutral-site meeting versus Notre Dame in Green Bay. Minnesota and Nebraska come to Madison, but the Badgers hit the road for key conference matchups versus Michigan and Iowa.
11. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher is off to a good start in College Station, but the third-year coach hopes his team is ready to contend for the SEC West title. Both Alabama and LSU have personnel losses to address, and with an experienced roster and a more favorable schedule, the Aggies could push for 10 victories in 2020. Quarterback Kellen Mond returns after throwing for 2,897 yards and adding another 500 on the ground. The senior is among the SEC’s top quarterbacks, but Fisher needs him to take a step forward in his final year in College Station. Isaiah Spiller and all-purpose threat Ainias Smith anchor the ground game, with Jhamon Ausbon and tight ends Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Cupp – a talented freshman who missed all of 2019 due to injury – headlining the receiving options. Additionally, four starters returning provide optimism for improvement along the offensive line. The Aggies return the bulk of talent from a defense that held teams to 5.3 yards a snap last fall. However, replacing standout tackle Justin Madubuike won’t be easy, and there’s room to improve in the pass rush and in the secondary. If Mond takes a step forward and the defense continues to progress under coordinator Mike Elko, back-to-back games against Alabama and LSU in late November could loom large in the SEC West.
The Ducks have to replace quarterback Justin Herbert, but coach Mario Cristobal’s team is Athlon’s pick to win the Pac-12 once again in 2020. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown and sophomore Tyler Shough are expected to battle to replace Herbert in fall practice. The winner of this job inherits a strong supporting cast, including 1,000-yard rusher CJ Verdell and a handful of playmakers in the receiving corps – Johnny Johnson III, Jaylon Redd and Mycah Pittman. Dominant left tackle Penei Sewell will have four new starters around him, but there’s enough talent and experience to prevent a major drop in performance up front. The offense is also under the direction of a new play-caller, as Joe Moorhead arrives after spending the last two seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State. Oregon is known for its high-powered offenses, but the defense is the strength of this program for 2020. The Ducks return eight starters from a unit that held teams to just 4.7 yards a play and 16.5 points a game last season. Rising star Kayvon Thibodeaux (nine sacks in 2019) anchors the trenches, and the secondary features three All-America candidates in Thomas Graham, Jevon Holland and Deommodore Lenoir. Troy Dye will be missed at linebacker, but the arrival of top recruits Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell bolsters a group still featuring Isaac Slade-Matautia, Mase Funa and Sampson Niu. Oregon opens with arguably the toughest two-game stretch of any team in the nation with home matchups against North Dakota State and Ohio State. The Ducks also pay a visit to Berkeley against California, but home dates are on tap against Washington, USC and Arizona State.
9. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly’s program reset after a 4-8 mark in 2016 resulted in a 33-6 record over the last three years. The Fighting Irish are poised to contend for double-digit victories once again, but a trip to the CFB Playoff will require the program to knock off Clemson in South Bend in early November, as well as navigate a couple of roster concerns. Senior quarterback Ian Book is among the best in the nation, and all five starters return to form one of the top offensive lines in college football. Book’s supporting cast is under renovation this fall. Leading rusher Tony Jones (857), tight end Cole Kmet (43 catches), and No. 1 receiver Chase Claypool (66) all must be replaced. Incoming freshmen Chris Tyree (RB), Jordan Johnson (WR) and Michael Mayer (TE) will have an opportunity to make an impact right away. Despite losing a couple of key cogs, Notre Dame’s defense didn’t miss a beat on the stat sheet last year by holding teams to 17.9 points a contest. The 2020 version is led by standout linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton, but coordinator Clark Lea is going to have a busy fall trying to restock at defensive end and in the secondary.
The bar is set high for Ed Orgeron and LSU after one of the best one-year runs by any team in college football history in 2019. The Tigers won the national championship behind quarterback Joe Burrow and a high-powered offense, but many of the key pieces on both sides of the ball have moved to the NFL. While a repeat is a tall task, Orgeron’s team still has enough returning talent to hit double-digit victories in 2020. Much of LSU’s fortunes hinge on the development of quarterback Myles Brennan. The junior has played well in limited opportunities, but 2020 will mark the first time he’s started a game in Baton Rouge. Brennan will be throwing to a standout group of receivers, including the nation’s top receiver in Ja’Marr Chase (84 catches for 1,780 yards), running mate Terrace Marshall, and five-star freshman Arik Gilbert at tight end. A trio of backs is slated to replace Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but a glaring concern remains an offensive line that returns only one starter. Bo Pelini returns to LSU to handle the defensive signals after Dave Aranda left to be the head coach at Baylor. Pelini plans to shift the defense to more 4-3 looks, and as usual, the Tigers are overflowing with athleticism, speed and talent at every level. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is back after a standout freshman season, and North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox should provide instant help at linebacker. The Sept. 12 matchup against Texas is a good barometer for Orgeron’s rebuilt team, but in addition to the annual showdown versus Alabama, LSU has to face Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida on the road this fall.
The Bulldogs are one of the most intriguing teams to watch this season. A defense that limited teams to just 12.6 points a game last year returns mostly intact and is arguably the best in college football once again. Coach Kirby Smart and coordinator Dan Lanning have to replace standout safety J.R. Reed and a couple of linemen, but there’s no shortage of talent and options. Safety Richard LeCounte is one of the best at his position, with cornerback Eric Stokes poised to contend for All-America honors. Rising star Azeez Ojulari is expected to emerge as one of the top pass rushers in the SEC this fall. However, the other side of the ball is a source of uncertainty. Smart decided a significant overhaul was needed after averaging only 23.6 points in SEC games last season. But without spring practice, installing a new offense won’t be easy for new play-caller Todd Monken. Additionally, Georgia has several new faces stepping into prominent roles. Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman should be a good fit for Monken’s scheme, but the senior quarterback is stepping into a new role without much practice time against some of the nation’s top defenses. The offensive line needs time to jell with just two returning starters, and the Bulldogs have to find more playmakers to support rising star George Pickens on the outside. Zamir White, James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton are more than capable of replacing the one-two punch of D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien, so there’s no concern about the ground game. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (27 of 33 FGs last year) also departs. How high the Bulldogs climb likely hinges on the outcome of two games: at Alabama and the annual clash with Florida in Jacksonville.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the SEC East. Georgia has an edge in overall roster talent, but the Gators have a small advantage in crossover play (at home versus LSU compared to at Alabama for the Bulldogs), and coach Dan Mullen’s team has more continuity in staff and scheme. Quarterback Kyle Trask ranks among the top signal-callers in the SEC after stepping into the starting role after Feleipe Franks’ season-ending injury and guiding the offense to an average of 31.1 points in league play. There’s some turnover at the skill positions, but plenty of talent remains, including tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney and Jacob Copeland. Pending waivers of transfers Lorenzo Lingard (running back) and Justin Shorter (receiver) could add more options for Mullen this fall. Improvement is needed in the trenches after the Gators averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in SEC games and allowed 25 overall sacks. The late addition of Mississippi State transfer Charles Reese adds needed depth and talent to a unit slated to return three full-time starters. Despite some turnover at every level, Florida should rank among the best in the SEC on defense once again. Georgia transfer Brenton Cox will help a pass rush losing Jonathan Greenard (10 sacks) and Jabari Zuniga. Rising star Kaiir Elam will team with Marco Wilson to replace first-round pick CJ Henderson, giving coordinator Todd Grantham one of the SEC’s top cornerback duos for 2020. Linebacker is Grantham’s biggest concern, especially after David Reese (92 tackles) expired his eligibility.
5. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have won 11 games in three of the last four years and also made an appearance in three New Year’s Six bowls in that span. The missing piece: A trip to the CFB Playoff. Penn State could check that box in 2020, especially with coach James Franklin’s team hosting Ohio State on Oct. 24. Both sides of the ball are in good shape, leaving few question marks for the upcoming season. Offensively, new play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca can build around quarterback Sean Clifford and one of the deepest groups of running backs in college football. The offensive line should take a step forward with four starters returning. Ciarrocca’s biggest concern rests with the playmakers on the outside. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is likely to be a preseason All-American, and Jahan Dotson returns after averaging 18.1 yards per reception in ’19. However, KJ Hamler left early for the NFL so no returning receiver had more than 10 catches last season. Penn State’s defense has ranked near the top of the Big Ten in fewest points allowed over the last three years and that’s not expected to change in 2020. Linebacker Micah Parsons is one of college football’s top returning players and anchors a group that held teams to just 16 points a contest in ’19. End Shaka Toney should ensure the pass rush won’t miss a beat with Yetur Gross-Matos gone, while the secondary can lean on Tariq Castro-Fields, Jaquan Brisker and Lamont Wade to improve after allowing 11 completions of 40 or more yards last season. Penn State has a huge road showdown at Virginia Tech in Week 2 and catches Big Ten foes Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska away from Happy Valley. Even if the Nittany Lions lose to Ohio State, an 11-1 record would put this team in position for a top-five finish and an outside chance at the CFB Playoff.
The 2020 season marks Lincoln Riley’s fourth year on the sidelines at Oklahoma. Since replacing Bob Stoops and using three different starting quarterbacks, Riley has led the Sooners to three Big 12 titles and three trips to the CFB Playoff. While Jalen Hurts had a prolific 2019 season, Riley’s track record and the development of quarterback Spencer Rattler should ensure the offense is potent as ever. Rattler – a five-star recruit in the 2019 class – performed well in limited action last season and is already among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy this fall. Kennedy Brooks (1,011 yards) leads the way at running back, and the offensive line ranks among the best in college football with all five starters back, including All-America center Creed Humphrey. Riley will be looking for a couple of playmakers to emerge at receiver this fall after CeeDee Lamb (1,327 yards) left early for the NFL. Additionally, Jadon Haselwood was injured in the spring and UCLA grad transfer Theo Howard also is recovering from an offseason injury. The arrival of coordinator Alex Grinch brought some improvement to the defense last fall. Oklahoma gave up 5.3 yards a play in conference play and limited teams to 27.3 points a contest. With more talent coming via the recruiting trail and nine starters returning, Grinch’s defense could take another step forward in 2020. However, linebacker Kenneth Murray, nose guard Neville Gallimore, and cornerback Parnell Motley leave big shoes to fill. As usual, the annual showdown versus Texas in Dallas will be critical for playoff hopes, and the Sooners have to hit the road to play Iowa State. Oklahoma State, Baylor and Tennessee all come to Norman in 2020.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat in Ryan Day’s first season. Behind a high-powered offense and a defense that held teams to 13.7 points a game, Ohio State came within a couple of plays from earning a trip to the national championship. Day’s team is equipped for another playoff run in 2020. Quarterback Justin Fields accounted for 51 overall touchdowns in his first year with the program and will be even more of a focal point with J.K. Dobbins off to the NFL. Master Teague was next in line at running back, but an offseason injury clouded his status for 2020. Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon is likely to handle the bulk of the carries at running back. Even though two key targets – K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor – are gone at receiver, Fields won’t be hurting for options. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are two of the top targets in the Big Ten, with help also coming in the form of a strong freshman class. Day has to replace two starters up front, but this unit should still rank among the top offensive lines. Despite returning only three starters, Ohio State’s track record and overall talent level suggests the defense will be solid once again. However, losing difference-makers like end Chase Young, cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Jeff Okudah, safety Jordan Fuller, and linebacker Malik Harrison will have some impact. New play-caller Kerry Coombs can build around one of the Big Ten’s top linebacker groups, cornerback Shaun Wade and rising star end Zach Harrison. The rebuilt defense will be tested right away at Oregon on Sept. 12, and the Oct. 24 date at Penn State is likely to decide the winner of the Big Ten East Division – and whether or not Ohio State goes undefeated in the regular season for the second year in a row.
In 2019, the Crimson Tide missed the CFB Playoff for the first time since the inception of the four-team bracket in 2014. Don’t expect that trend to continue in 2020. Replacing Tua Tagovailoa under center isn’t going to be easy, but Mac Jones played well in three late-season starts and is poised to handle the spotlight in Tuscaloosa. If he stumbles or doesn’t win the job in the fall, five-star freshman Bryce Young will get a look. Regardless of who is under center, they may not need to win too many games through the air. That’s due to arguably the nation’s top offensive line, along with a deep stable of running backs that includes Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders. Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy will be missed at receiver, but DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are two of the best playmakers in college football. Alabama’s defense wasn’t up to its usual standard last fall, yet still held teams to 18.6 points a contest. Getting back to an elite level will require Saban and coordinator Pete Golding to reload in the secondary around standout cornerback Patrick Surtain, along with developing edge rushers to replace Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis. The return of middle linebacker Dylan Moses after missing all of 2019 due to a knee injury is a big boost to the front seven. Additionally, LaBryan Ray’s return to the lineup after missing a good chunk of last season, and the development of Christian Barmore, DJ Dale and Byron Young provide optimism for an improved defensive line. Alabama will be tested right away with games against USC and Georgia in September. Auburn and Texas A&M also come to Tuscaloosa, but an undefeated season could hinge on the Nov. 7 date at LSU in Baton Rouge.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are Athlon’s pick to win it all in 2020. Clemson has made an appearance in each of the last five playoffs, won two out of the last four national titles, and has lost a total of five games over the last five years. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and a deep receiving corps are back to anchor an offense that averaged 43.9 points a game last fall. Left tackle Jackson Carman is the only returning starter up front, but Swinney has plenty of talent and some experience in returning personnel to find the right fit in the trenches. Clemson has not finished below third nationally in scoring defense in each of the last three years. Coordinator Brent Venables continues to develop elite groups, and it all starts with the best defensive line in college football for 2020. This unit is headlined by tackle Tyler Davis and end Xavier Thomas, with incoming freshmen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy expected to push for snaps. The all-around versatility of linebacker Isaiah Simmons will be missed. Venables will be looking for the right mix at that position in the fall, but James Skalski (90 tackles) is a good place to start. Cornerback Derion Kendrick and safety Nolan Turner are back to anchor a secondary looking to replace cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse. The schedule is very manageable for Swinney’s team and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this program favored by double digits in most games. A road trip to Notre Dame on Nov. 7 is the toughest matchup on the slate.