Ranking the Top 25 teams for 2020
Let’s try this again.
Ranking the Top 25 teams for an upcoming season in January is a little bit like that first significant other you have. You make mistakes, you learn things about yourself and you try to move on to the next relationship with a better understanding of how to make things work.
(If you married your first and only significant other, well, you’re unlike the rest of us.)
I say that because I’ll admit that there were things I didn’t account for when doing my rankings. For example, I had no idea that LSU would lose that many underclassmen to the NFL Draft. I didn’t know that we’d see big-time transfers potentially impact places like Georgia and Ohio State. I didn’t know what we’d see coordinator shifts at places like LSU and Oregon.
Oh, and I also didn’t know the whole “a pandemic is going to force 2 Power 5 conferences not to have a fall season” thing.
Unlike the preseason AP Top 25, I will not be ranking teams that aren’t playing. That means we’re going to see teams much higher here than in other places. You’ve been warned.
For these rankings, this is based more on what we saw last year than what we could see by season’s end. As I always say, I’m not trying to predict where a team will finish. I rely a lot on percentage of returning production, as well, though it’s not always a deal-breaker. I’m evaluating them mostly based on how good I feel about them starting the season.
So, let’s try this again.
Here are the Top 25 college football teams in 2020:
25. Florida State
Let’s start with a team that was a disaster for the past 3 years. FSU is only in this spot because it returned the likes of Marvin Wilson and Asante Samuel Jr. from a defense that wasn’t a total train wreck last year. That group entered spring ranked No. 9 in percentage of returning production. It has been a strange first offseason for Mike Norvell, much of it was his own doing. He is not a proven program rebuilder, either, but he did have some dynamic offenses at Memphis. There’s plenty of room for improvement there, especially if James Blackman can get some help up front.
24. Kansas State
Has it been a weird offseason in Manhattan? Absolutely. Does it concern me that Kansas State was wildly inconsistent in 2019? Sure. But sometimes, you just bank on solid coaches improving in Year 2. That’s what I think Chris Klieman will do. Coming off an 8-win season, Kansas State handed Oklahoma its only regular-season loss. Skylar Thompson is quietly one of the most experienced returning quarterbacks in the country. Combine that with what should be a sure-handed tackling team because Klieman’s teams always are, and hey, there’s a chance that Kansas State could make a push to a Big 12 Championship berth.
The Dave Aranda era arrives after Matt Rhule’s stunningly quick rebuild in Waco. Can Aranda pick up where Rhule left off after earning a Sugar Bowl berth? That’ll be easier said than done. Baylor was ranked No. 108 in percentage of returning production after it lost studs like go-to receiver Denzel Mims and defensive standouts James Lynch and Grayland Arnold. It’s certainly a transition year. Fortunately, Charlie Brewer is back to run Larry Fedora’s up-tempo offense. And while there are major defensive losses to replace, Aranda will get to work with tackling machine Terrel Bernard. Even if 2020 is a bit of a step back, Baylor’s floor could certainly be higher than we realize.
Speaking of teams fresh off New Year’s 6 Bowl losses, why isn’t Virginia higher on this list? Well, QB Bryce Perkins is gone, and that offense ranked No. 95 in percentage of returning production. That’s for a team that didn’t look like it was worthy of sharing the field with Clemson in the ACC Championship. Now the offense is in the hands of Brennan Armstrong, who beat out Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson. But the good news is that Bronco Mendenhall returns his 3 leading tacklers and a whole bunch of production from last year’s defense.
Yeah, I know. I’m doing the thing when I got excited about a high-profile quarterback transfer and I’m talking myself into a team’s potential. Guilty. D’Eriq King is all sorts of intriguing, especially with Rhett Lashlee running that offense. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a major part of this ranking. Losing Gregory Rousseau to an opt-out certainly hurt that defensive line, and I’m not all in on the Hurricanes being able to protect King with that offensive line. But I’m banking on Manny Diaz understanding how to maximize the potential of a defense and of course, I’m also banking on King to be the electric player he was when we last saw him play a full season in 2018.
20. Virginia Tech
The loss of Caleb Farley (opt out) certainly doesn’t suggest that Year 1 of the post-Bud Foster era will be the best season yet of the Justin Fuente era. I’m not totally sold on quarterback Hendon Hooker’s potential and I’m not convinced Fuente is ever going to have a reliable ground game. But I still think there’s plenty to like in Blacksburg. That was a different team after that stunning home loss to Duke, and Fuente deserves credit for that. A team loaded with experience (No. 6 in FBS pre-Farley opt-out) who averaged 8 wins under Fuente has a sneaky shot to make its first conference title game in 4 years.
I almost had Memphis in my Top 25 in January. I have them there now because, in the post-Mike Norvell era, I realized how much I like what’s coming back for last year’s Group of 5 representative in the New Year’s 6 (perhaps my best and only good preseason prediction from last year). Veteran starting quarterback Brady White is back after what was clearly his best season to date. Damonte Coxie also returns after a huge junior season (1,726 yards, 9 TD catches). Elite RB Kenny Gainwell opted out, and that certainly stings, but I love, love, love the addition of Mike MacIntyre as the new defensive coordinator for a group that returns 77% of its production on that side of the ball. The Tigers will be just fine without Norvell.
Is there Scott Satterfield stock available? Can I buy the rest of it? What a turnaround we saw from the Cardinals in his first season at Lousiville. A 2-win team that lost 22 scholarship players became an 8-win squad, which ranks No. 13 in FBS in percentage of returning production. The run defense has to improve, but Louisville is loaded with experience at linebacker. Micale Cunningham qualifies as “the best quarterback that nobody is talking about” after his breakout season. An experienced team looks destined for another step up in Year 2 of the Satterfield era.
The Vols might not be back on an SEC Championship level just yet, but Jeremy Pruitt righted the ship in a major way at the end of last season. Tennessee is finally at the level it needs to be in the trenches, though it would be helpful if they could find a replacement for top pass-rusher Darrell Taylor. It would also be helpful if we had a clue what the quarterback situation looked like. The good news is that the Vols should be able to build around that ground game, and with Pruitt’s ability to coach up a defense, all signs point to Tennessee being more of the team that we saw down the stretch as opposed to the team that couldn’t beat Georgia State and BYU.
I know I’m not as high on Auburn as others are. Why? I have major concerns about Bo Nix in Chad Morris’ offense after losing 4 starters on the offensive line. Someone who was extremely well protected last year is going to be asked to do a lot more. Based on the struggles Nix had throwing the ball last year and running — he didn’t rank among the top 45 FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards — I’m in wait-and-see mode for the talented Auburn starter. But this is a “that’s why Kevin Steele makes $2 million” type of season. Even after losing generational players Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, Steele is poised to lead his 5th consecutive top-20 defense with K.J. Britt and Big Kat Bryant leading the way. That’ll allow Auburn to compete with the SEC’s best.
Before you tell me about losing Lynn Bowden, let me tell you about a Kentucky team that returns a healthy, more versatile Terry Wilson with 4 of 5 starters from one of the nation’s best offensive lines who will be blocking for one of the nation’s most underrated running back trios. Did I talk you into Kentucky being worthy of its first preseason Top 25 ranking since the Jimmy Carter administration? OK, that didn’t happen. It should have. What about the fact that Mark Stoops’ defense, which ranked No. 14 in scoring last year, returns 78% of last year’s production? Not sold? Well, you should be, especially after how last year’s squad turned a disastrous start into another 8-win season. These aren’t your dad’s Wildcats, and they’re not even your older brother’s Wildcats.
Man, I hope we see McKenzie Milton in 2020. If there’s a kid worth rooting for in college football, it’s him. The good news is that if Milton isn’t able to return or he’s not at the level he was at before his devastating 2018 injury, the Knights still have Dillon Gabriel. After some early issues, he led the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense. That group has a veteran offensive line, and the UCF defense returns 75% of its production. Consistency was an issue during last year’s regular season, but a defense that allowed just 3.49 yards per carry has a lot of production returning. Josh Heupel’s team has a legitimate shot to earn its 3rd New Year’s 6 Bowl berth in 4 years. The Boise State-like build is in full effect in Orlando.
Is this enough respect for Luke Fickell? It should be. Fresh off an 11-win season, Fickell staying at Cincinnati was one of the more underrated non-moves of the offseason. That 2019 team lost valuable All-AAC tight end Josiah Deguara and stud tailback Michael Warren but it still ranks No. 31 in percentage of returning production. Former Alabama running back Jerome Ford is set to take Warren’s place after receiving immediate eligibility. He and 3rd-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder should form a capable 1-2 punch. It’s Fickell’s defense that’ll really make the Bearcats an intriguing team to watch. A top-25 unit returns 76% of its production, including a loaded secondary led by safeties Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins (Wiggins actually doesn’t count much on the returning production stat because he tore his ACL in last year’s season’s opener against UCLA, but he was a second-team All-AAC player in 2018). Don’t sleep on the Bearcats.
12. Oklahoma State
There’s a strong case that Chuba Hubbard is the best returning running back in college football. There’s a stronger case that Oklahoma State deserves to start in the top 15 because it ranks No. 9 in percentage of returning production. The Cowboys return 10 starters on defense after showing noticeable improvement last year (Oklahoma was the only team to hit 30 points on OSU in the final 6 games). Mike Gundy is expecting big things from sophomore quarterback Spencer Sanders after a promising freshman season. If OSU can overcome a weird offseason, there’s a lot to like in Stillwater.
I’m a Sam Howell believer. Are there non-believers? The sophomore quarterback would be talked about a lot more had his freshman season happened at a traditional power, but those 38 touchdown passes and 3,641 passing yards fueled a “better than the record” showed season. Mack Brown’s squad might have overachieved, but the young Heels also lost all 6 of their games by 7 points or fewer. Howell’s deep ball prowess will pair extremely well with underrated backfield duo Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. UNC has to find some answers up front after losing Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, but with preseason All-American linebacker Chazz Surratt back to lead that defense, Brown’s squad has as good a shot as anyone to meet Clemson in the ACC Championship, and that includes Notre Dame.
10. Texas A&M
If you ranked the Aggies in the top 10 to start the year before teams didn’t have fall seasons, that was getting ahead of your skis and projecting a schedule instead of ranking based on the previous season and returning talent. It wasn’t not based on the fact that the Aggies played 300 minutes of football against teams that finished in the top 15 and they led for just 7 minutes and 42 seconds of that time (Iowa State and Texas were much more competitive against elite teams). It definitely wasn’t based on the 1 top-15 finish the program has in the 21st century, either. It was based on Jimbo Fisher in Year 3 with the SEC’s most experienced quarterback having their best season yet as a result of that previously-favorable schedule. That’s a bit flawed, in my opinion. My high ranking of A&M is more based on 2 things: 1.) Big Ten and Pac-12 teams aren’t eligible and 2.) the belief that Mike Elko’s defense should take a big step forward with guys like Bobby Brown and the Aggies’ 3 top tacklers returning. That’ll be the backbone of a team that has been a clear notch below the conference’s elite under Fisher.
9. Iowa State
Iowa State is my “they could get lucky in this weird year and make the Playoff” team. I say that because, in a time like this, I think teams with proven veteran quarterbacks and solid, experienced coaches stand to benefit. Matt Campbell already beat the likes of Lincoln Riley, Tom Herman and Mike Gundy. He’s not scared of anyone. Brock Purdy has major weapons with tight end Charlie Kolar and promising freshman tailback Breece Hall. This is Iowa State’s most experienced returning team in school history coming off a 7-win season in which all 5 losses were by 10 points or fewer. The Cyclones had a habit of some weird late losses, and they were better than what their record indicated. Campbell is set to make this his 4th consecutive winning season in Big 12 play in this conference-only season … and perhaps even threaten for a New Year’s 6 Bowl.
Last year’s Texas team was overrated from the jump because of the whole “we’re baaaaack” deal. What many ignored was that despite returning QB Sam Ehlinger, that group was No. 121 in percentage of returning production. It showed. This year, however, the Longhorns rank No. 21 in that department. Ehlinger is back for what’s seemingly his 12th year of college, and Texas got a boost at defensive coordinator with former Rutgers coach Chris Ash. He’ll have 8 returning starters to work with. And perhaps there could be some regression to the mean for a Texas team that lost 4 of its 5 games by 10 points or fewer.
7. Notre Dame
Raise your hand if you’re excited to see Notre Dame play an ACC schedule. I certainly am, and I’m here for all the pettiness if the Irish somehow make it to the ACC Championship in this bizarre year. With QB Ian Book back, that’s not far fetched at all after another season with 11-plus wins. Notre Dame’s early draft departures certainly hurt, which is a big reason the Irish rank No. 102 in percentage of returning defensive production. But the good news is standout linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is back from the nation’s No. 13 defense, led by 3rd-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea. This Irish team is built well to handle what should be an improved ACC.
Why don’t I have Oklahoma ranked ahead of an SEC contender? In the past 3 years, we watched the Sooners lose in the Playoff semifinal to Alabama, Georgia and LSU. That was with Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. As talented as Spencer Rattler is, it seems a bit ambitious to assume that this is the year Oklahoma shows it’s better than the SEC’s elite. By the way, the Sooners lost tailbacks Kennedy Brooks (opt out) and Trey Sermon (transferred to Ohio State). But it’s still Lincoln Riley, who has done nothing but crank out Big 12 titles and 12-win seasons. And the Sooners’ improved defense under Alex Grinch does return 70% of its production. Oklahoma’s best chance at getting over the semifinal hump rests with that defense.
The Tigers, in a weird way, are an extremely tricky team to rank. On one hand, we’re talking about a group that just had the best season in college football history. Ed Orgeron is still in Baton Rouge, as is Steve Ensminger, who called 70% of the plays for that historic offense. There’s a veteran defensive line led by Tyler Shelvin, and the offensive line has loads of potential. But there are still unknowns galore with LSU, mainly QB Myles Brennan. Can he hold up for an entire SEC season and become an elite SEC starter? He has the weapons to make that happen, but he’s still a first-time starter. Oh, by the way, Ja’Marr Chase opted out. He would’ve been the SEC’s best offensive player in 2020. That’s significant, obviously. And that defense, which Orgeron said he expects to be “much better,” still lost 6 players in the first 4 rounds of the NFL Draft. Getting back to the Playoff would be no small feat.
Yes, I believe the Gators have the ability to take another step in Year 3 with Dan Mullen. Even though he needs to improve his deep ball, I’m a Kyle Trask believer, and in a year when teams probably wish more than anything that they have a veteran quarterback, Florida has that. Trevon Grimes has major breakout potential, Kyle Pitts is among the top 2-3 tight ends in America and Kadarius Toney might be the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands in the SEC. This offensive line returns 4 starters after an inexperienced group was mediocre at best. Defensively, Kaiir Elam is going to become a household name in a secondary that should be one of the nation’s best with Shawn Davis and Marco Wilson back. After consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl victories to start the Mullen era, there’s no excuse for Florida not to win the East. But yes, there’s a bit of a “see it before we believe it” attitude with that ranking.
Why do I have Georgia ranked ahead of Florida? This isn’t a prediction saying Georgia will beat Florida, but this is more an acknowledgment of the fact that 1 team has prevented the other from winning the East each of the past 2 years. One team returns 80% of its production from the No. 1 scoring defense in America. That team is Georgia. The talent at every level of the defense with Jordan Davis, Monty Rice and Richard LeCounte suggests this will be Kirby Smart’s best unit. As for the offense, it’s a total mystery. Replacing 4 starters on the line is one thing. Implementing a new offense with a new coordinator and a new quarterback during a pandemic is another, and that challenge got even tougher after Dominick Blaylock went down with a season-ending knee injury. But even if there’s a steep learning curve, last year’s group finished No. 4 in the AP Top 25 despite the fact that it had a 6-game stretch without exceeding 27 points. The Dawgs are set up to win a whole bunch of games, regardless of whether Todd Monken’s offense takes off.
Think about this: Alabama returned Dylan Moses, Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood and DeVonta Smith, all of whom could have been picked in the first 2 rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. That’s huge. So is the fact that Mac Jones led an offense that averaged 40 points per game in 2 matchups against top-25 defenses away from home. It’s a small sample size, yes, but he’ll throw to Smith and Jaylen Waddle, which is easily one of the top receiving duos in the country. Keeping Steve Sarkisian was also massive for a group that was historically good last year even without Tua Tagovailoa playing roughly 1/3 of the season. Alabama’s defense dealt with unprecedented youth in the front 7, yet it still finished No. 13 in scoring. With Moses, LaBryan Ray and Josh McMillon back healthy, the Crimson Tide should look much more like a Nick Saban defense than they did in 2019. Alabama should be the SEC’s preseason favorite, and any predicting the program’s demise are doing so prematurely.
Cliché? Sure. Boring? I guess. Fair? Definitely. The Trevor Lawrence-led Tigers ran into a buzzsaw in the 2019 National Championship Game. That was the only thing separating them from their 3rd national title in 4 years. That group doesn’t just return Lawrence. Travis Etienne was one of the nation’s best backs last year, and he made the surprising announcement to return. It’s a bummer that Clemson won’t have Justyn Ross, who will miss the 2020 season with a spinal issue. Clemson needs to find answers there, and if an Isaiah Simmons 2.0 could emerge, that would certainly help. Still, the foundation of Lawrence and Etienne is as proven as any in college football. Love him or hate him, Dabo Swinney played in 4 of the last 5 national championships. The Tigers are money in the bank until further notice.