An early look at the top 25 college football teams for 2020
It’s never too early to think about next season, so with college football’s 2019 season complete after LSU defeated Clemson in the national championship, Athlon Sports is here with its way-too-early top 25 preseason rankings for 2020. Clemson takes the top spot in the very early top 25, followed by Ohio State at No. 2. Alabama checks in at No. 3 as a slight favorite over LSU (No. 4) in the early SEC projections. Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida, Georgia, Notre Dame and Wisconsin round out the top 10 for college football preseason rankings.
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline is still a few days away, and coaching moves, transfers, injuries and recruiting moves are still taking place. With that in mind, this top 25 ranking could look a lot different by May once all of the personnel moves and changes are completed. However, the strengths and weaknesses for all 130 CFB teams are largely recognizable at this point. The early rankings take into account early schedule projection, overall team strength and where teams stand after the 2019 season and prior to spring practice.
Here is Athlon’s way-too-early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2020, followed by other teams to watch this offseason: (originally posted on Jan. 9 and updated on Jan. 15)
Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2020
Coach Dabo Swinney’s team fell short in the national championship game against LSU, but this team should start at the top of the list for 2020 contenders. The Tigers will have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but quarterback Trevor Lawrence is back, and the roster will be restocked with elite talent. In addition to co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, Lawrence’s supporting cast could lose running back Travis Etienne and receiver Tee Higgins early to the NFL. Lyn-J Dixon would fill the void at running back if Etienne departs, with Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, Joseph Ngata, and Frank Ladson forming one of the nation’s top receiving corps. The biggest concern on offense has to be the line. Left tackle Jackson Carman will be the only returning starter next fall. Clemson’s defense is going to lose a handful of key players (Chad Smith, K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse), and linebacker Isaiah Simmons and cornerback A.J. Terrell both could depart for the NFL. But as usual, coordinator Brent Venables will keep his defense performing at a high level. Tyler Davis anchors the trenches and should challenge for All-America honors after a breakout freshman year. The schedule also is very manageable. The Tigers should be favored in all 12 regular-season matchups, with a Nov. 7 game at Notre Dame the toughest on the 2020 slate.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat in the coaching transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day and were a couple of plays away from a shot at the national championship. Ohio State will be back in the mix once again in 2020, as quarterback Justin Fields directs one of the nation’s top offenses after throwing for 3,273 yards and 41 scores to just three picks and running for 484 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first year in Columbus. Fields won’t have J.K. Dobbins (2,003 rushing yards), but Master Teague (789), Marcus Crowley (237), and Steele Chambers (135) will keep the ground game performing at a high level. Binjimen Victor and K.J. Hill depart the receiving corps, but there are plenty of targets in place thanks the emergence of Chris Olave (12 TDs) and Garrett Wilson (30 catches) in 2019. The Buckeyes will have a strong foundation in the trenches thanks to the return of left tackle Thayer Munford, center Josh Myers and guard Wyatt Davis. Day has to replace co-coordinator Jeff Hafley, and a defense that limited teams to just 13.7 points a game loses end Chase Young, tackles Jashon Cornell, Robert Landers and DaVon Hamilton, along with linebacker Malik Harrison and standout defensive backs Jeff Okudah (CB), Damon Arnette (CB), and Jordan Fuller (safety). While those losses are hefty, Ohio State still has a ton of talent on that side of the ball to lean on, including breakout candidates in defensive end Zach Harrison and cornerback Shaun Wade. A Sept. 12 showdown at Oregon and an Oct. 24 game at Penn State highlight the 2020 schedule for the Buckeyes.
With Tua Tagovailoa off to the NFL, and LSU looking to replace Joe Burrow, the race to win the SEC West won’t lack for intrigue. Nick Saban’s team gets a small edge over the Tigers for the top spot in the division in the early rankings for 2020. At quarterback, Mac Jones (14 TDs to 3 INTs) has the edge in experience, but five-star recruit Bryce Young will be tough to keep on the sidelines. Alabama’s receiving corps remains strong despite Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs’ departure to the NFL. DeVonta Smith (68 catches) decided to return, with Jaylen Waddle (33) and John Metchie poised for supporting roles on the outside. Even if Najee Harris (1,224 yards) departs for the NFL, the Crimson Tide won’t lack for options at running back. Brian Robinson (441 yards), Keilan Robinson, and redshirt freshman Trey Sanders will keep the ground game performing at a high level. All-America right tackle Jedrick Wills must be replaced, but the line should rank among the nation’s best with Alex Leatherwood back at left tackle and Evan Neal, Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown anchoring the interior. Alabama’s defense wasn’t quite up to its usual dominant level, as this group allowed 18.6 points a game – the highest since 2007. However, despite injuries and attrition taking a toll, this unit was still one of the best in the SEC. Getting linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon and lineman LaBryan Ray back from injury will help the defense overcome the personnel departures of end Raekwon Davis, cornerback Trevon Diggs, and linebackers Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings. A youth movement up front should pay dividends in 2020, but finding pass rushers to replace Jennings and Lewis, along with rebuilding the safety group ranks high on the list of priorities for Saban. Alabama opens with USC in Arlington, hosts Georgia on Sept. 19, and plays at Baton Rouge on Nov. 7.
Replacing Joe Burrow is the top offseason task for coach Ed Orgeron and will determine just how high LSU rises in the rankings next year or repeats as national champs. Unless the Tigers pursue a grad transfer, Myles Brennan is in line to take over at quarterback for Burrow. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and receiver Justin Jefferson could go to the NFL, but the skill talent is in good shape with Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery at running back, while the receiving corps should be anchored by Biletnikoff Award recipient Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall. Tight end Thaddeus Moss is another weapon for the new quarterback to utilize. The offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the best in college football for 2019 and will have a couple of holes to fill with guards Damien Lewis and Adrian Magee out of eligibility. Tackles Saahdiq Charles and Austin Deculus and center Lloyd Cushenberry still form a strong trio to build around in the trenches. As usual, LSU’s defense should rank among the best in college football. Coordinator Dave Aranda has a few personnel losses to address, as end Rashard Lawrence and cornerback Kristian Fulton depart after the national championship. Safety Grant Delpit could leave for the NFL too. The Tigers will miss Fulton in the secondary, but cornerback Derek Stingley is already among the best in college football after a standout freshman campaign. A visit from Texas tops the non-conference slate, with a showdown versus Alabama looming on Nov. 7.
The Sooners should enter the 2020 season favored to win their sixth consecutive Big 12 title and ranked among the top contenders to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. Lincoln Riley’s high-powered offense has to find a new quarterback after Jalen Hurts finished his eligibility, but the position should be in good hands with Spencer Rattler – the No. 1 QB recruit in 2019 – or Tanner Mordecai next fall. Kennedy Brooks (1,011 yards), Trey Sermon and T.J. Pledger lead a strong backfield. While CeeDee Lamb declared for the NFL draft, Rattler or Mordecai have plenty of targets on the outside with Charleston Rambo, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, UCLA transfer Theo Howard and tight end Austin Stogner. If center Creed Humphrey returns, Oklahoma will return six players with starting experience in the trenches, likely ensuring this group ranks among the best in the nation. The Sooners made strides on defense under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch. More improvement seems likely in 2020, especially with more talent and depth coming from the recruiting trail. Standout linebacker Kenneth Murray declared for the NFL, but help in the trenches will come in the form of junior college signees Perrion Winfrey and Joshua Ellison. Caleb Kelly rejoins the linebacker unit after a redshirt year, but this unit has to replace cornerback Parnell Motley, and the availability of end Ronnie Perkins early in the year due to a suspension is uncertain.
6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons, and coach James Franklin’s squad is primed for another run at double-digit victories. New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca inherits a group that averaged 6.1 yards per play last year and brings back quarterback Sean Clifford (2,654 yards and 23 TDs) and a deep group of running backs, headlined by Journey Brown (890 yards). Finding a go-to receiver to replace KJ Hamler is a priority, but tight end Pat Freiermuth (43 catches) passed on the NFL for another season in Happy Valley. Four starters are back up front, providing optimism Penn State can cut down on its sacks allowed (32) from 2019. Linebacker Micah Parsons ranks among college football’s top returning defenders next fall, and the secondary got a boost with Tariq Castro-Fields’ decision to return for 2020. Coordinator Brent Pry is losing a few starters off a group that limited teams to just 16 points this season, but there’s more than enough young talent to keep the defense playing at a high level. Road matchups against Virginia Tech, Michigan and Nebraska are tough, but Penn State gets Ohio State at home on Oct. 24 next season.
The Gators have posted 21 victories and two New Year’s Six bowl wins over coach Dan Mullen’s first two years in Gainesville. The next step: Win the SEC East. Reaching that goal will require this program to reload a bit on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Kyle Trask kept the offense performing at a high level after Feleipe Franks was lost for the year due to injury, as he threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns. Emory Jones could push Trask for the starting job, but even if he doesn’t, the sophomore will be a factor in the rushing attack after averaging 6.1 yards per carry over 42 attempts. Lamical Perine departs the backfield, but Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis should be a capable one-two punch, especially if the offensive line develops behind four returning starters. Four out of the top six wide receivers depart, with tight end Kyle Pitts (54 catches), Trevon Grimes (33), and Jacob Copeland (12) headlining the reshuffled receiving corps. A defense that finished second in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game begins the offseason looking to replace a couple of key contributors in the trenches – Jabari Zuniga, Adam Shuler and Jon Greenard – and linebacker David Reese. Standout cornerback CJ Henderson left for the NFL, but Marco Wilson decided to return and Kaiir Elam is primed for a breakout year in 2020. Georgia transfer (and former five-star prospect) Brenton Cox will be a player to watch under coordinator Todd Grantham. Florida plays five of its first seven games at home, including an Oct. 10 matchup against LSU. However, the Oct. 31 game against Georgia in Jacksonville will be the biggest on the 2020 slate.
It’s a close call between Florida and Georgia for the very early spot atop the SEC East rankings. With Jake Fromm off to the NFL, we give a slight edge to the Gators – for now. However, the Bulldogs have the edge in roster talent, and the addition of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman should solidify the quarterback position for 2020. Newman will be working with a strong supporting cast and is tasked with getting the ball to sophomore receiver George Pickens will be a priority. Coordinator James Coley has to develop more targets outside of Pickens, so the progression of Dominick Blaylock (recovering from a torn ACL) and incoming freshmen Marcus Rosemy, Jermaine Burton and Arian Smith is crucial. Despite losing D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien, don’t expect the ground game to miss a beat. Zamir White is a rising star, and he will be joined by James Cook, Kenny McIntosh, and incoming freshman Kendall Milton to form a deep stable of backs. New offensive line coach Matt Luke has to retool up front after guard Solomon Kindley and tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson entered the NFL draft. Additionally, guard Ben Cleveland’s status is unsettled, and Cade Mays decided to transfer. Center Trey Hill is back, but there are a lot of changes coming in the trenches. Coach Kirby Smart’s defense led the SEC by holding teams to 12.6 points a game and 4.29 yards a snap in 2019 and will be strong once again in 2020. Safety J.R. Reed and lineman Tyler Clark will be missed, but the depth and talent development at every level should be on display next fall. Cornerback Eric Stokes is one of the best in the SEC, and freshmen linebackers Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean will benefit from another offseason to work under Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. Georgia gets Alabama in crossover play with the SEC West next season but Auburn visits on Oct. 10 and a bye week is slated before the Oct. 31 showdown against Florida in Jacksonville.
9. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly’s program reset after a 4-8 mark in 2016 has paid off in a big way. The Fighting Irish are 33-6 over the last three years and will be a playoff contender once again in 2020. An offense that averaged 36.8 points a game in 2019 will have a new play-caller after Chip Long was let go following the end of the regular season. However, the new guy is set up for immediate success. Quarterback Ian Book passed on the NFL after accounting for 3,034 passing yards and 34 scores and finishing second on the team with 546 rushing yards. Book’s supporting cast could get instant help from potential impact freshmen Chris Tyree (RB), Jordan Johnson (WR), and Michael Mayer (TE). The freshmen trio is crucial following the departures of running back Tony Jones (857 yards), receivers Chase Claypool (66 catches) and Chris Finke (41), and tight end Cole Kmet (43). Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek is also expected to help right away at receiver. The offensive line should be a strength with Liam Eichenberg at left tackle, along with the return of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey from injury. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is a rising star, and just like last offseason, he will have a few question marks to address at every level. The return of end Daelin Hayes from injury will help to bolster the pass rush after the departures of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton are two rising stars for Lea to build around this offseason. Some retooling is needed in the secondary after the departures of safeties Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and cornerback Troy Pride. Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor will help fill the void left behind by Gilman at safety. Notre Dame opens the season in Ireland against Navy and also gets Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in early October. The November slate features a trio of interesting contests, as Clemson and Louisville visit South Bend, and Kelly’s team heads west to play USC on Nov. 28.
The Badgers have the most appearances (six) of any team for the Big Ten Championship Game, and Paul Chryst’s squad begins 2020 as Athlon’s very early favorite to win the West Division. Running back Jonathan Taylor closed out a terrific career in Madison with 2,003 yards and 21 scores this season. Nakia Watson (331 yards) flashed potential in a limited role and is slated to shoulder more of the workload next fall with Garrett Groshek. Developing standouts along the offensive line is an annual tradition for Wisconsin and the staff will have to plug a few gaps at guard and center with Tyler Biadasz off to the NFL. Assuming he returns, left tackle Cole Van Lanen will be the anchor for this unit in 2020. Quarterback Jack Coan was steady (2,727 yards and 18 TDs) in his first year and another step forward is a reasonable expectation next fall with tight end Jake Ferguson and receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis returning. The passing game was dealt a setback when Quintez Cephus (15.3 ypc) declared for the NFL. Jim Leonhard’s defense ranked near the top of the Big Ten by holding teams to 16.9 points a contest in 2019. Leonhard won’t have to replace much, as only two seniors rank among the top 20 tacklers. However, those two departures are significant, as linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun leave big shoes to fill. Wisconsin gets Michigan and Iowa on the road next fall, but Minnesota and Nebraska come to Camp Randall Stadium. And there’s an intriguing Oct. 3 date against Notre Dame in Lambeau Field to highlight the non-conference slate.
The race to win the 2020 Pac-12 title appears to be wide open, and the Ducks bring stability to the table for coach Mario Cristobal coming off a 12-win season and a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Replacing offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and quarterback Justin Herbert are the top offseason storylines for the Ducks. If Cristobal doesn’t pursue a transfer at quarterback, Tyler Shough (12 of 15 for 144 yards in 2019) would be the early front-runner, with freshmen Cale Millen and Jay Butterfield also in the mix. A backfield that features CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio is the strength of the offense in 2020, and this trio will be running behind the best offensive lineman in college football in left tackle Penei Sewell. However, Cristobal will have to find four new starters to join Sewell up front. Oregon’s defense ranked among the best in the Pac-12 last season and will have to carry this team early on with the offense in transition. End Kayvon Thibodeaux is primed for a monster 2020 after flashing potential in the final stretch of the season. Cornerback Thomas Graham and safeties Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze return to anchor the secondary, while the arrival of five-star freshmen Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell will alleviate the question marks at linebacker following the departure of Troy Dye. Oregon will be tested right away in 2020, as Ohio State visits Autzen Stadium on Sept. 12. In Pac-12 play, the Ducks get Arizona State, USC and Washington in Eugene.
The Wolverines appear to be a step behind Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East Division next fall, but another nine-win season should be within reach for coach Jim Harbaugh’s team. Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey are set to battle for the quarterback job, and the winner will benefit from the return of Ronnie Bell (48 catches), Nico Collins (37), and tight end Nick Eubanks (25) on the outside. The development of Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil will add to the depth and talent in the receiving corps. The Wolverines will be deep at running back thanks to the return of Chris Evans from a season-long suspension to team with Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet. Line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his hands full with just one returning starter in the trenches for 2020. Michigan’s defense has to play better in big-time matchups, as this group allowed at least 28 points in all four of the team’s losses last year. Next year’s defense has a solid core of front-line talent, especially up front with the return of Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp. Linebacker Cameron McGrone and safety Dax Hill are breakout candidates, while cornerback Ambry Thomas’ return is crucial with Lavert Hill off to the NFL. The Wolverines open at Washington and catch Wisconsin and Penn State in back-to-back games at home before the midway point of 2020. The toughest road tests in conference play take place at Minnesota, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
After a breakout 2019 season, the Golden Gophers have their sights set on another run at the Big Ten West Division title. Minnesota has plenty of staying power for next year, especially on offense under new co-coordinators Matt Simon and Mike Sanford. Zack Annexstad returns after missing all of 2019 due to injury but unseating Tanner Morgan at quarterback could be tough after he threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns. Morgan won’t have Tyler Johnson (86 catches) to throw to, but the cupboard isn’t empty at receiver. Rashod Bateman (60 catches) and Chris Autman-Bell (28) are a good starting point on the outside. Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams will handle the ground game with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks out of eligibility. All five starters are back up front, but there’s room to improve after giving up 30 sacks in 2019. The question marks are more significant on defense, as tackle Sam Renner, linebackers Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber, edge Carter Coughlin and defensive backs Chris Williamson and Benjamin St-Juste have finished their eligibility. And after earning All-America honors for 2019, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. departed early to the NFL. The Golden Gophers play their first four games at home next fall and Michigan visits Minneapolis in mid-October. However, Fleck’s squad ends the year at Nebraska and gets Wisconsin in Madison on Oct. 10.
Yes, Texas underachieved relative to some preseason expectations in 2019. However, three of the team’s five losses came by seven points or less – and that’s with a rash of injuries hindering the development of a young defense. While this group had injuries to navigate, coach Tom Herman made some key staff changes, dismissing defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in favor of Chris Ash. That move, along with the development of the team’s young talent (and better luck in the health department), should translate into some improvement in 2020. Joseph Ossai should be a big part of the solution after a monster performance in the Alamo Bowl, and a healthy Caden Sterns at safety should shore up the pass defense next fall. Of the top 25 tacklers from Texas’ 2019 stat sheet, only three were seniors. The Longhorns also have a new coordinator on offense with former Oklahoma State coordinator Mike Yurcich taking over play-calling duties. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger (39 total TDs) ranks among the top returning signal-callers in college football for next season, but Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson will be missed at receiver. Brennan Eagles, Jake Smith and Malcolm Epps are tasked with picking up the slack in the passing game. Keaontay Ingram (853 yards) returns at running back, but Roschon Johnson (649) and freshmen Jordan Whittington (redshirt) and Bijan Robinson will push for carries. Despite losing center Zach Shackelford, the line should be solid for Yurcich and Herman, especially with Samuel Cosmi passing on the NFL to return to Austin. The Sept. 12 matchup against LSU in Baton Rouge is a huge barometer test for this team after a disappointing 2019 campaign. The annual showdown in the Cotton Bowl versus Oklahoma is slated for Oct. 10, but the Longhorns host Baylor, TCU and Iowa State in the second half of the year before closing at Oklahoma State.
15. Texas A&M
Texas A&M had high expectations for 2019, but a brutal schedule was tough to overcome. While the Aggies finished 8-5, this program ranked No. 21 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings prior to bowl season and No. 24 by Football Outsiders’ F+ ratings. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s squad faces a schedule that’s more favorable in 2020, as LSU visits College Station and the non-conference slate features Colorado instead of Clemson. Fisher has to get better play out of quarterback Kellen Mond for the Aggies to become serious SEC West title contenders. Redshirt freshman Zach Calzada could push Mond for the starting job with a big offseason. The offensive line returns nearly intact, running back Isaiah Spiller just missed 1,000 yards in 2019, and the receiving corps brings back No. 1 target Jhamon Ausbon and tight end Jalen Wydermyer. Baylor Cupp was expected to play a huge role in the passing game until a leg injury in the fall, and his return should give the Aggies one of the better tight end duos in college football. Despite returning only four starters, Texas A&M’s defense cut its yards per play allowed to 5.3 from 5.8. Justin Madubuike’s early departure to the NFL is a big loss up front, but the rest of the group returns largely intact. Safety Demani Richardson is a rising star on the back end, Tyree Johnson, Jayden Peevy, Bobby Brown and DeMarvin Leal anchor the trenches, and linebacker Buddy Johnson is back after leading the team with 77 stops in 2019. Punter Braden Mann (47.1 avg.) will be missed on special teams.
Auburn is one of the toughest teams to sort out for 2020. The good: Quarterback Bo Nix should continue to develop after a solid freshman campaign. Nix threw for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 313 rushing yards and seven scores. The arrival of Chad Morris as offensive coordinator should help add some variety to coach Gus Malzahn’s passing game. The Tigers also return a deep backfield, as JaTarvious Whitlow (763 yards), D.J. Williams (400), Shaun Shivers (286), and freshmen Tank Bigsby and Mark Antony-Richards are back for 2020. Nix will also benefit from the return of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove at receiver. The bad: Only one starter is back on the offensive line. Additionally, a defense that limited teams to 19.5 points a game has to replace tackle Derrick Brown, ends Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson, cornerbacks Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene and safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas. Coordinator Kevin Steele should prevent a major drop-off in production, and there’s a solid core of replacements waiting to step up, including Derick Hall and T.D. Moultry up front, along with Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood at safety. The linebacker unit will be a strength with Owen Pappoe, Zakoby McClain and K.J. Britt returning. Punter Arryn Siposs (43.8 avg.) departed early for the NFL. After getting Alabama and Georgia at home in 2019, Auburn gets both on the road and plays North Carolina on Sept. 12 in Atlanta. Texas A&M, LSU and Kentucky come to Jordan-Hare Stadium next fall.
The Bearcats have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons under coach Luke Fickell and begin 2020 as Athlon’s very early favorite to be the top Group of 5 team. Running back Michael Warren declared for the NFL Draft, but Cincinnati has a capable set of options in place to keep the ground game performing at a high level. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back for his third season as the team's starter. The offensive line entered 2019 as a concern and surrendered 35 sacks. The arrival of transfer James Hudson from Michigan should improve this unit, but guards Chris Ferguson and Morgan James have to be replaced. Fickell also has to identify a couple of playmakers for Ridder on the outside with tight end Josiah Deguara and receiver Rashad Medaris out of eligibility. Cincinnati’s defense has led the American Athletic Conference in fewest points per game allowed over the last two years, and this unit should remain strong despite the departure of linebackers Bryan Wright and Perry Young. First-team All-AAC defender Elijah Ponder and Michael Pitts (9.5 TFL) anchor the front seven, with rising star cornerback Ahmad Gardner and safeties Ja’von Hicks and Darrick Forrest back to lead the way in the secondary. The schedule features road trips to UCF, SMU, Temple, and Nebraska, while Memphis visits Nippert Stadium next fall.
18. Boise State
The Broncos have a few major question marks to address this offseason, but this team will once again push to be the top Group of 5 squad in 2020. The quarterback position is in good hands with Hank Bachmeier back after a promising freshman season, and there’s a strong collection of skill players in place with George Holani and Robert Mahone heading up the ground game, and Khalil Shakir, CT Thomas, and Octavius Evans back at receiver. Coach Bryan Harsin’s offense will have a new coordinator, and the offensive line has to be rebuilt after Ezra Cleveland departed early for the NFL, leaving just one starter in place for 2020. Boise State’s defense also has to reload up front, as Chase Hatada, Sonatane Lui, David Moa, and All-America edge rusher Curtis Weaver depart. The linebacker unit should be a strength with Ezekiel Noa back from injury, along with Riley Whimpey (second-team All-Mountain West) returning. Kekoa Nawahine departs the secondary, but cornerback Jalen Walker and defensive back Kekaula Kaniho are back after earning all-conference honors in 2019. A healthy DeAndre Pierce would also help the pass defense after the safety was limited to nine games over the last two years due to injuries. Key non-conference games against Florida State and BYU take place in Boise, but the road schedule in Mountain West play features trips to Hawaii, Wyoming and Air Force.
19. Oklahoma State
After winning 10 games every year from 2015-17, the Cowboys are just 15-11 over the last two seasons. Coach Mike Gundy received good news this offseason when running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace decided to return for 2020, teaming with quarterback Spencer Sanders to form one of the Big 12's top offensive trios next fall. Hubbard (2,094 rushing yards in 2019) should have plenty of help in the backfield with LD Brown, Jahmyl Jeter, and Deondrick Glass fighting for carries. In addition to Wallace, Dillon Stoner (52 catches) and Braydon Johnson (21) are back on the outside for 2020. The addition of West Virginia transfer Josh Sills will bolster a line that loses two starters on the interior but brings back All-Big 12 tackle Teven Jenkins. Oklahoma State’s defense took a step forward in coordinator Jim Knowles’ second year in Stillwater, holding opponents to 5.79 yards a play and 26.8 points a contest. More improvement should be expected in 2020, as the defense won’t lose much. Cornerback A.J. Green is the biggest departure, but a young line should develop, and linebacker Calvin Bundage is back from injury. Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel and linebackers Amen Ogbongbemiga and Malcolm Rodriguez rank among the Big 12’s top returning defenders next fall. Oklahoma State’s schedule features road trips to TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State. However, Texas and Iowa State come to Boone Pickens Stadium next year.
20. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech turned its 2019 season around after a 45-10 loss to Duke in late September. Coach Justin Fuente’s squad would go on to win six of the next seven games before falling to Virginia and Kentucky to close out the year. Optimism should be high in Blacksburg next fall, as the roster had just five seniors on it in 2019. Quarterback Hendon Hooker settled into the starting job in the second half of the season and should benefit from a full offseason to develop as the No. 1 signal-caller – assuming he holds off Quincy Patterson and Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister. Deshawn McClease (843 rushing yards) left for the NFL, but Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert and sophomore Keshawn King should pick up the slack on the ground. Virginia Tech should have one of the ACC’s top receiving corps thanks to the return of Tre Turner, Damon Hazelton and tight end James Mitchell. The offensive line has room to improve this offseason, but every player who started a game in the trenches is back for 2020, and Coastal Carolina transfer Brock Hoffman will push for snaps at center. Justin Hamilton has a huge task ahead in replacing long-time coordinator Bud Foster on defense. While Hamilton will be learning on the job next fall, just two seniors – Reggie Floyd and Jovonn Quillen – ranked among the team’s top 20 tacklers in 2019. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby and cornerback Caleb Farley will be All-America candidates next fall. The transition to a new coordinator is always a wild card, but the returning talent suggests Virginia Tech should be able to improve on its per-game allowed average (24.7) in 2020. The Sept. 12 game versus Penn State is a huge opportunity for Fuente’s team right out of the game, and key ACC games against Virginia and Miami take place in Blacksburg. However, the road schedule features contests at Louisville, Pitt, and North Carolina.
Kirk Ferentz has to replace starting quarterback Nate Stanley, but a strong foundation remains in place for 2020. Spencer Petras is the early front-runner to replace Stanley, and the sophomore has plenty of help already in place with rising star Tyler Goodson (638 yards) at running back and the team’s top five statistical receivers from 2019, including Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy. Left tackle Alaric Jackson passed on the NFL, and Tyler Linderbaum is back to anchor the interior after a standout freshman season. This unit will have a void at right tackle after Tristan Wirfs declared for the NFL Draft. Iowa’s defense finished second in the Big Ten in fewest points allowed per game (14.0) but new faces will have to step up in 2020. Leading tackler Kristian Welch (87) is gone at linebacker and two other key players - safety Geno Stone and end A.J. Epenesa - are leaving early for the next level. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia also departs, but there’s depth at the position with Julius Brents, Riley Moss, and D.J. Johnson back for 2020. All-America kicker Keith Duncan returns after nailing 29 of 34 attempts this season. Rival Iowa State visits on Sept. 12, but the Hawkeyes have a tough road slate next fall with dates at Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State. Key Big Ten West games against Nebraska and Wisconsin take place in Iowa City.
22. North Carolina
Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill is off to a good start. The Tar Heels have landed solid back-to-back recruiting classes and finished 7-6 in 2019 with all six defeats coming by seven points or less. With quarterback Sam Howell (3,641 yards and 38 TDs) only going to get better in his second year on campus, Brown’s team should be in the thick of the race to win the ACC’s Coastal Division next fall. Howell’s supporting cast is led by 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter at running back, and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Charlie Heck – a second-team All-ACC tackle – is the only departure up front. The Tar Heels showed marked improvement on defense under new coordinator Jay Bateman in 2019. After giving up 34.5 points a game in ’18, North Carolina surrendered only 23.7 this year. The emergence of Chazz Surratt as one of the ACC’s top linebackers certainly helped the defensive improvement, and the former quarterback will be one of this unit’s anchors for 2020. Solidifying the defensive line with Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge moving on is the top priority this offseason. Safety Myles Dorn is a big loss on the back end, but Myles Wolfolk, Cam’Ron Kelly and Patrice Rene return after missing huge chunks of the ’19 season due to injury. North Carolina opens 2020 with two intriguing non-conference games – at UCF and versus Auburn in Atlanta – and faces road trips to Miami and Virginia. However, key games against Virginia Tech and Pitt take place in Chapel Hill.
23. Iowa State
Close calls defined Iowa State’s 2019 season. The Cyclones had six losses but five came by fewer than 10 points, including three by no more than two points. With a little better luck in 2020, coach Matt Campbell’s team should rebound into contention for a finish in the top three of the Big 12. Quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall headline an offense that averaged 32.2 points a game in 2019. Tight end Charlie Kolar’s decision to pass on the NFL was huge since No. 1 receiver Deshaunte Jones (76 catches) and La’Michael Pettway (55) expired their eligibility. The Cyclones have a big question mark up front with four starters departing Ames. Iowa State has finished in the top three of the Big 12 in scoring defense for three consecutive years and another finish near the top of the conference is within reach. Underrated nose guard Ray Lima, linebacker Marcel Spears and safety Braxton Lewis must be replaced, but coordinator Jon Heacock can build around safety Greg Eisworth, linebackers O’Rien Vance and Mike Rose and edge rusher Will McDonald. The Cyclones will be tested right away with a trip to Iowa in Week 2, along with road trips to Oklahoma State, TCU, and Texas next fall. Oklahoma and Baylor visit Jack Trice Stadium in 2020.
The Tigers were the top Group of 5 team in 2019, but coach Mike Norvell left for Florida State. Ryan Silverfield was promoted to ensure continuity, and the first-year coach is already off to a good start as receiver Damonte Coxie didn’t jump to the NFL, and quarterback Brady White decided to return for one more season. Running back Kenneth Gainwell (1,459 yards) is back after a strong freshman season, and Kylan Watkins (325) can pick up some of the slack on the ground with Patrick Taylor (350) out of eligibility. Silverfield has to replace standout center Dustin Woodard, and playmakers have to emerge to replace Antonio Gibson and tight end Joey Magnifico. The Tigers have to replace a couple of key seniors on defense, including defensive end Bryce Huff – the unit’s only all-conference player in 2019. However, cornerback T.J. Carter should return to bolster the secondary after suffering a knee injury late in the season. Memphis will have a huge opportunity for a Power 5 win at Purdue on Sept. 12 next fall, but a home game versus UCF and road dates at Cincinnati, Navy, SMU, and Tulane loom large in the quest to get back to the New Year’s Six.
Under Matt Rhule’s watch, Baylor improved its win total from one (2017) to seven (’18) and 11 (’19). Can the Bears take the next step and win the Big 12 title with Rhule off to the NFL? In order to reach that goal, the new coach has to rebuild a defense that showed marked improvement in 2019. After giving up 31.7 points a contest in ’18, Baylor allowed only 19.8 this season. However, this unit is losing several key starters, including end James Lockhart, tackle Bravvion Roy, linebackers Blake Lynch and Clay Johnston, safety Chris Miller and cornerback Jameson Houston. Additionally, All-America lineman James Lynch (19.5 TFL) decided to jump early to the NFL. The outlook is better on offense, as quarterback Charlie Brewer, running backs Trestan Ebner and John Lovett and a solid foundation in the trenches with a couple of starters returning next fall. While the line brings back a few key pieces, this unit has to play better after giving up 38 sacks in 2019. Go-to receiver Denzel Mims (66 catches) departs, pushing Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed into bigger roles next season. The road slate in Big 12 play is not kind in 2020. Baylor hits the road for games against Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, and West Virginia.
The Next Tier - Teams That Just Missed the Top 25
It’s a new era for Washington football, as Jimmy Lake replaces Chris Petersen as the program’s head coach in 2020. Lake is a rising star in the coaching ranks and has developed some of the Pac-12’s top defenses during his tenure in Seattle. The first-year coach has to answer a couple of big-time questions on offense to contend for the Pac-12 title. Lake has to hire a new play-caller after Bush Hamdan was let go, and the Huskies have to break in a starter at quarterback due to Jacob Eason leaving for the NFL. Dylan Morris, Ethan Garbers and Jacob Sirmon are slated to battle to replace Eason and all three rated as four-star prospects out of high school. Running back Salvon Ahmed also left for the NFL, but the backfield has options with Richard Newton, Sean McGrew, and Cameron Davis. Receiver Terrell Bynum and tight end Cade Otton should become the focal points in the passing game with receiver Aaron Fuller (59 catches) out of eligibility and tight end Hunter Bryant departing early for the NFL. Washington’s line also must be retooled with tackles Trey Adams and Jared Hilbers and center Nick Harris departing Seattle. While the question marks on offense are obvious, Washington’s defense in a wide-open Pac-12 could carry this team into contention for the North Division title. The Huskies lose Myles Bryant in the secondary and have a little retooling to do in the front. However, this group is loaded with potential, starting with cornerback Elijah Molden and Kyler Gordon in the secondary, linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, as well as Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon up front. The opener against Michigan will be a huge measuring stick contest for both teams. Lake also didn’t get any favors in conference scheduling, as Washington gets Washington State, Utah, USC, Oregon and California on the road in 2020.
After an 0-2 start with losses to Georgia State and BYU, the Volunteers rallied to finish 8-5 in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s second season. Provided the offense gets consistent play out of Brian Maurer, Jarrett Guarantano, J.T. Shrout or freshman Harrison Bailey at quarterback, another step forward is within reach for Tennessee in 2020. Whoever wins the quarterback job won’t have Jauan Jennings or Marquez Callaway to throw to, but Ty Chandler and Eric Gray are back to form a solid one-two punch on the ground. Also, the development of offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright will continue to solidify the trenches, especially with Trey Smith coming back next season. Tennessee’s defense allowed only 21.7 points a game in 2019 after giving up 27.9 in ’18. Three key seniors – linebacker Daniel Bituli, safety Nigel Warrior and linebacker Darrell Taylor will be missed – but more improvement should be noticeable for this group in 2020.
The Knights just missed our very early top 25. Coach Josh Heupel’s squad will once again showcase one of the nation’s top offenses with quarterback Dillon Gabriel at the helm after a strong freshman campaign. Gabriel is joined by Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae at running back, while Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams become the go-to receivers after Gabriel Davis left for the NFL. Two starters – tackle Jake Brown and center Jordan Johnson – depart from the offensive line. UCF’s defense finished third in the AAC in fewest points allowed per game and will return largely intact. Cornerback Aaron Robinson and safety Richie Grant form a strong duo in the secondary, while the front has to replace linebacker Nate Evans and all-conference lineman Brendon Hayes. Two games against ACC teams – North Carolina and Georgia Tech – highlight the non-conference portion of the 2020 slate. UCF also has a favorable path in conference play, as Cincinnati, Temple and Tulane all come to Orlando. A trip to Memphis could be crucial in the AAC title race.
Oregon ranks as Athlon’s very early favorite to win the Pac-12, but keep an eye on coach Justin Wilcox’s team next fall. A healthy year from quarterback Chase Garbers under new play-caller Bill Musgrave should allow the Golden Bears to push for a spot in the top 25. The ground game is solid with Christopher Brown and Marcel Dancy back, while four of the team’s top five receiving options are back. California’s offensive line should also take a step forward with most of the lineup set to return in 2020. Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter have elevated the program’s defense among the best in the Pac-12, but this unit loses All-America linebacker Evan Weaver and safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis. However, the news isn’t all bad, as linebacker Kuony Deng and cornerback Camryn Bynum are two of the Pac-12’s top defenders going into 2020. Washington and Oregon come to Berkeley next year, but road trips to USC, Arizona State and Washington State are on tap.
In the very early rankings, it’s a close call between USC, Utah and Arizona State in the Pac-12 South. The development of quarterback Kedon Slovis and a deep receiving corps of playmakers is enough to push coach Clay Helton’s team into the discussion for the top 25. The defensive coordinator hire is crucial, as there is more talent than last year’s stat sheet on this side of the ball would suggest. The non-conference schedule features Alabama and Notre Dame, while the Pac-12 slate is highlighted by road trips to Utah and Oregon.
The Mountaineers are on their third coach in three years, but there’s enough talent to push for a spot in the top 25. Quarterback Zac Thomas is back to lead the way on offense, but the defense has to replace five all-conference performers. Despite losing running back Darrynton Evans (1,484 yards) early to the NFL, Marcus Williams (652 yards), Daetrich Harrington (319), and Camerun Peoples will keep the ground game performing at a high level, especially with four starters back up front. Road non-conference games at Wisconsin and Wake Forest provide an opportunity for Appalachian State to earn marquee wins in 2020.
Other Teams to Watch
The Falcons have big holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but senior quarterback Donald Hammond III might be enough to keep Air Force as the top competition (along with Wyoming) to Boise State the Mountain Division next year.
Herm Edwards has Arizona State on the right track. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is already one of the Pac-12’s top signal-callers, and the arrival of coordinator Zak Hill should help the sophomore take the next step. Daniels’ supporting cast has to be restocked, but the Sun Devils should be among the best in the Pac-12 on defense.
Mike Norvell is a home-run hire for Florida State. How quickly can the first-year coach figure out the quarterback position and offensive line?
The Hoosiers are coming off their best season (eight wins) since 1993. Coach Tom Allen’s squad doesn’t lose a ton of senior starters, and quarterback Michael Penix is back from injury. The opener at Wisconsin will be a huge test for this team in its quest to match the 2019 win total.
All-purpose threat Lynn Bowden departs, but the Wildcats get quarterback Terry Wilson back after missing nearly all of 2019 due to injury. Coach Mark Stoops’ squad should have one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and defenses next fall.
Billy Napier has this program on the rise after an 11-win season in 2019. Quarterback Levi Lewis and running back Elijah Mitchell are back to help the Ragin’ Cajuns push Appalachian State for the Sun Belt title.
The Cardinals improved their win total by six games in coach Scott Satterfield’s first year. With quarterback Micale Cunningham, receiver Tutu Atwell, and running back Javian Hawkins returning, Louisville could be the No. 2 team in the ACC’s Atlantic next fall.
The Midshipmen have to replace quarterback Malcolm Perry and a handful of key seniors on both sides of the ball. However, it’s safe to assume coach Ken Niumatalolo will find a way to keep this team near the top of the AAC.
Quarterback Shane Buechele and receiver Reggie Roberson highlight an explosive SMU offense. However, the Mustangs lose some key seniors on defense and finished 2-3 over their final five games.
Max Duggan is a promising quarterback, and the Horned Frogs bring back a solid core to build around on defense. However, TCU has won seven or less games in three out of the last four years.
The Utes have claimed the Pac-12 South title in back-to-back years, but coach Kyle Whittingham loses several starters off a standout defense. Additionally, quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss have finished their eligibility.
While Jamie Newman is a big loss, Wake Forest is set at quarterback with Sam Hartman ready to take over again as the full-time quarterback. The Demon Deacons also received good news this offseason when receiver Sage Surratt and end Carlos Basham passed on the NFL.