The SDS way-too-early Top 25 for 2020
Oh yeah. We’re already turning the page.
LSU completed its perfect season Monday night, whipping Clemson to win the national championship. The 2019 season is officially in the books, and we’re on to 2020.
As is always the case, ranking the preseason Top 25 this far in advance is subject to change. We’re still just under a week from the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft.
Transfers happen. Injuries happen. Even coaching changes happen.
A preseason ranking is based on how good I believe a team will be when it takes the field in Week 1. It doesn’t factor upcoming strength of schedule into account. Ever. That’s foolish.
This ranking does factor in the obvious things like returning starters, transfer additions, recruiting classes coaching staff continuity, previous season performance, etc. By ranking one team ahead of another, it’s not definitively saying “this team will win when they play each other.”
So, based on the information we have right now, here’s my way-too-early Top 25 for 2020 (and if I didn’t rank your team it’s obviously because I hate them and believe they’ll go 0-12 next year):
I’m not getting ahead of my skis to say that the Vols deserve to start in the Top 25. They played extremely well in the latter half of the season and ended on a 6-game winning streak to somehow reach 8-5.
After entering the year with more returning production of any team in America in 2019, it’ll be a different feel for the Vols in Year 3 of the Jeremy Pruitt era. Replacing leaders like Jauan Jennings and Darrell Taylor won’t be easy, but with All-American Trey Smith back and the addition of Cade Mays from Georgia — he’s working on gaining immediate eligibility in bizarre fashion — the Vols should finally be able to bully some people up front. If the quarterback situation didn’t look like a mess, the Vols’ hype train would be rolling along even faster.
I’ll be honest. A lot of this is just based on my belief that Scott Satterfield is a darn good football coach. That’s the only way to explain how a 2-win Louisville team that lost 22 scholarship players won 8 games in Year 1. The Cardinals’ biggest issue was a disastrous run defense, but that group will return a bunch of starters on that defense, especially at linebacker. Louisville has a wealth of skill position guys back on offense, including promising young quarterback Micale Cunningham. The Cardinals figure to be in that wide-open race to be considered the ACC’s 2nd-best team.
Texas is baa … nope. Not back. Well, if by “back” you mean back in the Top 25 to start the season for the 4th consecutive year under Tom Herman, then sure, Texas is back. And Sam Ehlinger is back, too. Unfortunately for Ehlinger, his top 2 targets are gone. So why rank a Texas team that won 7 regular-season games? Well, a top 20 scoring offense returns one of the country’s better quarterbacks and it brings back 8 starters — with a new coordinator — on defense. The Longhorns certainly needed some help in that department.
Joe Burrow and Justin Jefferson leave no doubt in LSU’s matchup vs. Texas
Tigers beat the Longhorns, 45-38 🐯
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 8, 2019
So despite UCF falling out of the “we deserve to be in the Playoff” discussion, it wasn’t a horrible year in Orlando. It was still a 10-win season that yielded a top 5 offense. This is the Boise State-like consistency that UCF was hoping to build. Now with the possibility of McKenzie Milton returning (alongside a veteran offensive line), it remains to be seen what exactly this offense will look like. The safe bet? It’ll put up a ton of points and Josh Heupel will have people talking about his team as a worthy candidate to win the New Year’s 6 Bowl bid for the Group of 5.
Was there a quieter Power 5 team that won 10 games than Iowa? The Hawkeyes are expected to lose 1st-round draft prospects A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs, as well as safety Geno Stone, who already announced his intentions to skip his final year of eligibility. Add in the loss of 3-year starter Nate Stanley and it’s fair to wonder if Iowa will start the season ranked. But with Tyler Goodson and Ihmir-Smith Marsette, we saw against USC that this offense — which returns senior All-Big Ten left tackle Alaric Jackson to anchor the offensive line — has promising weapons. As long as replacing Stanley doesn’t prove to be a nightmarish endeavor with Spencer Petras, the Hawkeyes should have a say in who wins the Big Ten West.
20. Iowa State
Last year, I thought that the Cyclones were getting a bit too much preseason love because the losses of David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler were harder to replace than some realized. But now, with Brock Purdy entering his 3rd year as a starter with Matt Campbell, Iowa State is in much better position than it was a year ago. I say that despite the 2-4 finish to the season. All-American tight end Charlie Kolar is back, as is versatile tailback Breece Hall and deep-ball threat Tarique Milton. In fact, Iowa State returns as much experience as it ever has as a program. That bodes well for one of those 2019 Minnesota-type seasons.
All of the Bearcats’ losses during an 11-win season under 3rd-year coach Luke Fickell came to New Year’s 6 Bowl teams. All Fickell did was close out his 2nd consecutive 11-win season, and to the delight of many in Cincy, he’s coming back for a 4th year. That’s huge for a team that lost star tailback Michael Warren. The thing that’s going to carry the Bearcats is a loaded returning defense. Besides bringing back breakout guys Darrick Forrest and Ja’Von Hicks, All-AAC safety James Wiggins returns after missing 2019 with a torn ACL. There will be plenty of preseason talk about Cincinnati’s chances at reaching a New Year’s 6 Bowl.
18. Boise State
For what it’s worth, this ranking is dependent on Bryan Harsin not leaving for Washington State. But assuming he’s back, yeah, pencil the Broncos in for another Top 25 start. If that happened, it would mark the 10th such occurrence since 2005 (10 of 16 seasons), which is a remarkable feat for a Group of 5 program. Fresh off a 12-win season, there are actually a ton of questions to answer. Like, how who will start at quarterback? How will the O-line look after losing 4 starters? Who will replace the team’s top edge rusher, Curtis Weaver, after his early NFL departure? But at this point, I trust Harsin and his staff to develop talent around some veteran skill position guys on both sides of the ball.
I know the sky is falling after that dreadful recruiting class signed by perceived lame duck coach Clay Helton. The influx of true freshman talent won’t be there like it has been in past years. But the Trojans return the promising sophomore-to-be Kedon Slovis to lead the offense. The offense projects pretty well with lots of experience at receiver and an offensive line that’ll return the majority of its starters. But defensively, USC has to clean up a mess after it struggled mightily against elite competition, which resulted in the firing of coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Utah lost 5 players who earned AP All-America honors in 2019. That’s stunning for a place that doesn’t recruit at an elite level. That group of All-Americans doesn’t include senior quarterback Tyler Huntley, who is gone after earning 1st-team All-Pac 12 honors. Now, a team with Jake Bentley as its presumed favorite to start at quarterback is a borderline top 15 team? Yes.
This offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters from one of the top rushing attacks in America. And while this defense has key holes to replace, it’ll still bring back leading tacklers Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd for a group led by Broyles Award finalist Morgan Scalley. The Utes will again compete with Oregon for the Pac-12 crown.
I’m a Dylan McCaffrey believer more than I am a Michigan believer. I think the Wolverines will have a different offensive identity than they did with Shea Patterson, and I think that 2nd year with Josh Gattis will benefit a group that returns leading receiver Nico Collins and leading rusher Zach Charbonnet. As is often the case with the Wolverines, though, I question how they’ll defend teams with elite athletes, and also how that offensive line will block against NFL-caliber defensive fronts. Oh, and I also question why in the world Don Brown still believes in a single-high safety.
First play of the game? Michigan covers Jerry Jeudy 1-on-1 and pays dearly.
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 1, 2020
14. Texas A&M
There’s a stat about A&M that I remind myself whenever I get excited about Kellen Mond returning in Year 3 with Jimbo Fisher. It’s not a stat that’s meant to say the Aggies can’t have a strong season, or that this program — which returns a whopping 19 starters (as of now) from the team that played in the Texas Bowl — is going to come up short of some high preseason expectations.
The stat is simple: A&M played in 300 total minutes against teams that went into bowl season as top 13 teams … and the Aggies led for just 7 minutes and 42 seconds. It lost those games, too. And look, I know the 2020 schedule is favorable. But in the same way I didn’t penalize A&M in 2019 my preseason ranking for the brutal schedule, I’m also not going to reward A&M in my preseason 2020 ranking because of the favorable schedule. Let’s see it first.
This is tricky on a variety of fronts. On the surface, you’d say a team that won 9 regular season games with a true freshman quarterback dealing with arguably the most difficult schedule in college football should be a preseason top 10 lock. Add in the fact that the Tigers return their top tailback (Boobie Whitlow), their top receiver (Seth Williams) and one of the top defensive coordinators in America (Kevin Steele), and yeah, there’s potential on The Plains.
So what’s there to question? Besides the development of Bo Nix, the holes in the defensive line are obviously massive with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson graduating, but Auburn is also bringing back 1 returning starter on the offensive line. The Tigers have plenty of talent, but the inexperience in the trenches could hold the Tigers back from being a preseason top-10 team.
Losing Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State wasn’t ideal, and neither was watching top defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. leave early. That’s from a team that had Tyler Johnson, Rodney Smith and Carter Coughlin graduate. And 5 of Minnesota’s top 6 tacklers from 2019 are gone. So why such a high preseason mark? Besides the fact that I think P.J. Fleck knows what he’s doing, this entire offensive line returns to block for Tanner Morgan, who was the Big Ten’s second-team quarterback. That’s with Rashod Bateman, who was the conference’s top receiver as a sophomore.
Tough to make a better catch than this one from Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman. pic.twitter.com/taXgpnkiJS
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) August 30, 2019
The Gophers are still going to put up a ton of points and contend in the Big Ten West following an 11-win season.
Jonathan Taylor’s departure hurts, but it’s not the end of the world. Nakia Watson is the favorite among several Wisconsin backs who could have big seasons behind an offensive line that returns only 2 starters, but is in good position to reload. Perhaps the biggest question is how Wisconsin will handle the quarterback room that features Jack Coan and fan favorite redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Also, how will the Badgers fare without invaluable veteran linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr? Who are we kidding. It’s the Badgers. All they do is find the next 2-star, former walk-on and develop him into an NFL player.
10. Notre Dame
The good news? Ian Book is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country, and he returns to a team that won 11 games this past season. The Irish have an experienced group of linebackers back from a group that was better than the average college football fan probably realized. The bad news? In addition to finding a new offensive coordinator, the Irish got hit somewhat hard by early NFL Draft departures. Gone are the likes of Cole Kmet, Tony Jones Jr. and Alohi Gilman. But defensively, Notre Dame should still boast one of the nation’s top units with a good amount of production returning from the No. 12 scoring defense.
Those writing off Oregon after Justin Herbert’s departure are in for a rude awakening. Mario Cristobal has that thing rolling in Eugene. Tailback C.J. Verdell is back, as is Penei Sewell, who was the best offensive lineman in college football in 2019. On defense, a group that’s expected to return 8 starters could be even better after finishing No. 9 in scoring. That’s a scary thought. Filling the Herbert void with redshirt freshman Tyler Shough remains the biggest issue facing the Ducks.
Who’s the next transfer quarterback who’s going to lead Lincoln Riley’s offense to a Playoff berth? Jokes aside, Spencer Rattler is the guy who Sooners fans are excited about, and understandably so. Unfortunately, he won’t have Ceedee Lamb to throw to, but tailback Kennedy Brooks is back, as is All-American center Creed Humphrey. And while Kenneth Murray is gone from a defense that struggled mightily in the Peach Bowl, there should still be an experienced group back after it improved significantly under Alex Grinch (as long as he doesn’t take the Washington State job).
7. Penn State
K.J. Hamler and Yetur Gross-Matos leaving certainly hurt, but I love the potential of this offense returning. Penn State went out and poached Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota, which was one of the biggest assistant hires of the coaching carousel cycle. That’s for an offense that returns the likes of Sean Clifford, Pat Freiermuth, Journey Brown and future breakout star Noah Cain. Oh, and that’s not to mention a defense that returns All-American linebacker Micah Parsons. There are questions in the front 7 and at receiver, but the Lions have recruited exceptionally well under James Franklin to fill those gaps.
I know, I know, I know. Florida fans are mad at me because I ranked Georgia ahead of the Gators. I didn’t pull the Danny Kanell move and crown the Gators 2020 SEC East champs following the Jake Fromm news.
Florida Gators are going to win the SEC East next season. Book it.
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) January 8, 2020
That’s not my way of saying I believe Florida is destined to lose to Georgia for the 4th consecutive year. But to start the season, I’m interested in how the Gators’ defense functions after losing their lockdown cover corner in C.J. Henderson, as well as the invaluable Jon Greenard.
I actually have fewer questions about an offense that loses Lamical Perine and Van Jefferson. Why? Well, besides my belief in Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts has All-America potential, the running back room is still deep and this offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters. I think the Florida O-line takes a big next step, much like LSU’s group did in 2019. Florida is a legitimate preseason contender to win an SEC crown and make the Playoff.
Georgia had a horrible, no good, very bad day last week with the news that not only was Jake Fromm off to the NFL, but Cade Mays was transferring to Tennessee. It’s been rough on that end in terms of key departures. The Dawgs are expected to replace 9 starters on offense alone, not to mention Rodrigo Blankenship has finally run out of eligibility. So why is UGA a top 5 team? Part of it was the addition of grad transfer QB Jamie Newman, who is Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated returning quarterback not named Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence.
But the other part is that this could easily be the best defense in America. Monty Rice, Richard LeCounte and Malik Herring all announced their returns for a unit that is still oozing with promising underclassmen defenders like Travon Walker and Nolan Smith. The Dawgs are going to be even tougher to score on in 2020 than they were with the nation’s No. 2 defense in 2019.
Tua Tagovailoa, Xavier McKinney, Jedrick Wills and Jerry Jeudy are gone, but quietly, Alabama kept the coaching staff in place while returning some key pieces. The biggest returning piece was Dylan Moses, who missed the 2019 season but will be a first-team All-American heading into 2020. The DeVonta Smith news was also huge for a group that already had Jaylen Waddle back. What we’re still waiting official word on is Najee Harris, though just getting Trey Sanders back and healthy will be a welcome sight.
And hey, why can’t Mac Jones lead this offense to a prolific season? You know, as long as he can fend off Bryce Young and Taulia Tagovailoa.
Lost in the shuffle of replacing Joe Burrow is the fact that LSU is actually going to return a bunch of preseason All-Americans. Ja’Marr Chase and Derek Stingley are 1st-team locks, and Terrace Marshall Jr. could certainly get some love there. Even with a new quarterback, LSU is still going to be plenty talented at the skill positions. What we don’t know yet is the NFL decisions of guys like Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Thad Moss, Lloyd Cushenberry, K’Lavon Chaisson and technically, Grant Delpit still has an announcement to make, though it’d be stunning if he returned after winning the Jim Thorpe Award.
But even with some major pieces to replace in the trenches as well, LSU is still stockpiled with talent and an elite coaching staff. The subject of repeating as SEC champs will be at the forefront of any LSU conversation this offseason.
2. Ohio State
Justin Fields is going to be in the same breath as Trevor Lawrence for all the preseason awards, and understandably so. What the sophomore did in his first full season as a starter was everything Georgia fans feared he’d become after leaving Athens. But it’s not just Fields. This offensive line is going to be absolutely loaded, as well. A unit that returns the likes of Wyatt Davis, Thayer Munford and Josh Myers is going to be a problem, regardless of the graduation of Jonah Jackson. Even though the Buckeyes could easily have 2 top-10 picks with Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah, Ryan Day in Year 2 is not something to bet against.
Yeah, Lawrence is playing another season of college football despite the fact that “experts” say he should sit out. With him and Justyn Ross back, obviously the Tigers are in good shape. Obviously we don’t know the status officially of guys like Isaiah Simmons, Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins, but even if they leave, Clemson is still loaded with talent. The Tigers are in position to sign their first-top ranked recruiting class, which is uncharted territory for Dabo Swinney. It’d be surprising if Clemson wasn’t the overwhelming preseason No. 1.