College Football Not-Too-Early Power Rankings
All photos in article courtesy of Getty Images
College football has been one of the biggest question marks in the sports world during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we get closer to the season, the situation only seems to get less clear. Regardless of whether we see a traditional season, or even a season starting in February or something as absurd as that, let’s act for a second like college football is approaching on schedule.
These power rankings provide an escape. Imagine one of the best regular seasons in all of sports occurring normally without phases, masks or that bad haircut you gave yourself. This list is crafted in the pursuit of that sense of normalcy and is treated as if nothing changed following LSU’s historic rise to the top. In that vein, take it with a grain of salt, but understand at the same time that it all would be 100 percent accurate. Enjoy.
If you haven’t heard of Clemson, let me catch you up. The Tigers are fresh off their fifth straight College Football Playoff and second straight National Championship Game. Entering 2020, Dabo Sweeney returns two bonafide Heisman contenders in QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne, along with a slew of young talent on the outside to keep the ACC on its heels.
However, with four starters on the offensive line and three in the secondary gone, the team will be young in both areas and possibly not as physical as in years past. Sweeney will need to be careful with a November trip to Notre Dame on the schedule, but with no other games against a ranked team on this list, a win in South Bend would book another trip to the annual Clemson fest (the Playoff).
Tua Tagovailoa got injured, Alabama lost to Auburn, and suddenly the world forgot about the Tide. That will all change when they take the field in September to take on the Trojans in Jerry World. If you’ve ever heard the old adage: “Never bet against Nick Saban," I would tattoo that across your forehead this season as the Hall of Fame coach returns a boat load of talent and does so with a chip on his shoulder, arguably the first time that has happened in the modern era.
Mac Jones returns at QB after going 3-1 down the stretch, throwing for 1,503 yards, 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions in those four games. Jones will get the privilege of competing with the No. 1 rated dual-threat QB in the 2020 Class, Bryce Young. With starting RB Najee Harris and dominant WR DeVonta Smith also returning, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat in Tua’s absence. The Tide play Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn all at home, giving them a good chance to end the brutally long one-year playoff drought in Tuscaloosa.
3. Ohio State
Ryan Day’s first year as head coach of Ohio State resulted in the first playoff appearance for the Buckeyes since 2015, but they still fell short of their potential with a narrow loss to Clemson in the semifinal. While most believe that there will be little to no drop-off in success with QB Justin Fields back at the helm in Columbus, there are some big holes to fill. The Buckeyes had both DE Chase Young and CB Jeff Okudah go in the top three picks of the NFL draft, with RB J.K. Dobbins also exiting town a day later in the second round.
With yet another strong recruiting class, replacing the production of those three is not impossible, but it will be incredibly difficult and I would expect the top-end potential of the Buckeyes to be slightly lower than it was this past season. Ohio State faces two tough road tests with Oregon in Week 2 and Penn State in Week 8, but losing only one of those matchups will not prevent a second consecutive playoff appearance and a shot at the title.
4. Penn State
The top three teams in the country for 2020 are not difficult to choose, but after that it gets a little tricky and the drop off in quality after No. 3 is immense. Penn State emerges from the chaos at No. 4 with an explosive offense and a defense led by a certified stud in LB Micah Parsons. James Franklin’s squad escaped 2019 with only two losses, both to ranked teams on the road, but enters 2020 with more assistant coach turnover, having to replace the Offensive Coordinator and the OL, WR and DL coaches.
Despite sharing a backfield with three other running backs, Journey Brown returns as one of the most under-the-radar running backs in college football. The sophomore ran for fewer than 900 yards in 2019, but his 6.9 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns rank as one of the most efficient combinations in the Big Ten. QB Sean Clifford will need to improve on his 59 percent completion percentage without star WR K.J. Hamler, but the signal caller will return for his second year at the helm after throwing for over 2,600 yards in 2019.
The Nittany Lions are one of the most talented teams in the country, but with games at Virginia Tech in Week 2 and possibly the most brutal three week stretch in the country with Michigan on the road, followed by Iowa and Ohio State at home, they will need all the help they can get to reach the playoff.
Florida has seemingly been right on the cusp of contending for years, but this could finally be the year the pieces start to fit together. QB Kyle Trask returns after throwing for a quiet 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2019. The now junior signal caller got a lot of help this offseason with two graduate transfer receivers and a former five-star RB in Lorenzo Lingard, laying the groundwork for what could be an explosive offense.
The defensive line will be a little light, but with five returning starters and former five-star LB Brenton Cox finally eligible, the UF defense should be able to hold their own in a manageable schedule. The Gators avoid Alabama and Auburn in the regular season, while also getting both Georgia and LSU in the Swamp, setting up for a favorable run to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2016.
The Jake Fromm era in Athens is finally over. The Jamie Newman era begins now, even if only for a year.
Newman is a dual-threat, grad transfer QB from Wake Forest and brings with him the electricity and arm to finally shift the style of offense at Georgia. The Dawgs return only three starters on offense and one on the offensive line, but are bringing in more talent with recruiting classes than they know what to do with and will be able to retool quickly.
The defense returns six starters and should remain one of the best in the SEC, but the focus will be on the offense to get more creative and come through in the clutch. With a trip to Tuscaloosa in the books for Week 3, Georgia will need to get up to speed quickly if they want to maintain the narrative that they are in the nation’s top tier.
Rinse and repeat remains the narrative in Norman as the Sooners will start the 2020 season with a different star QB for the fourth straight year. The continuity in Lincoln Riley’s offense is astounding, but he will have another tough offseason test as he will have to rush Spencer Rattler, the Class of 2019’s No. 1 dual-threat QB, into form to play Tennessee in Week 2.
OU brings back eight starters on both offense and defense, but are dealing with a massive exodus of 15 bench players entering the transfer portal since January of 2019. Expect the thin Sooners to squeak out another contested Big 12 title, but fall short of the playoff with a limited amount of depth down the stretch.
8. Notre Dame
Despite only losing two games in 2019 to two ranked teams on the road and finishing the year on a six game win streak, Notre Dame did not have the season it wanted to. Even after losing several top targets to the NFL draft, the Irish return in 2020 with a similar schedule, QB Ian Book and all five offensive linemen.
The secondary and receiving core will be young and light, but the leadership on both sides of the ball will remain strong and Brian Kelly always seems to make do with the next-man-up style of developing talent. ND is on the precipice of a playoff run yet again, but must get past Wisconsin at Lambeau Field and Clemson in South Bend before closing out their regular season against USC on the road. Expect the Irish to make a statement to the Playoff Committee in their regular season finale against the Trojans, but fall short of the small dance without a conference title game and a loss or two on the resume.
After a tough stretch late in the year that eliminated Oregon from the playoff, the Ducks finished Justin Herbert’s career in a special way, dominating Utah in the PAC-12 Championship Game and squeaking out a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. 2020 will be a completely new year for Mario Crisobal’s squad, however, as he needs to replace four starters on a historic offensive line and Herbert, the No. 6 pick in the NFL draft to the Chargers.
The bright side in Eugene is simple: nine guys return on the No. 9 ranked scoring defense in the country. DE Kayvon Thibodeaux is a wrecking ball on the interior and should give PAC-12 offenses fits as the Ducks push through to their second straight conference title. Expect Oregon to get steadily better behind a dominant defense and one of their two four star QB signees, but fall short of the playoff in another weak year for the PAC-12.
Wisconsin started out 2019 on a historic tear, but lost steam and momentum after disappointing losses to Illinois, Ohio State (X2) and Oregon. The loss of a historically great running back in Jonathan Taylor, three offensive linemen, two linebackers and three receivers did not help.
However, the Badgers are gearing up for another run at the Big Ten title with a stingy defense that returns nine starters and an offense with one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country in Jack Coan. Coan threw for almost 2,800 yards with a completion percentage of 69.9 percent in 2019, the eighth best mark in FBS. With several promising recruits at receiver, running back, and, of course, offensive line, UW may not fall off much from their production a year ago and should stay relevant in the national conversation.
Paul Chryst’s squad avoids Ohio State and Penn State in the regular season, but has to face Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota in a three game stretch. If Wisconsin wants to not just win the Big Ten West, but get a shot at the playoff, it will need to win two of those three games and remain unscathed the rest of the way.
11. Oklahoma State
Despite finishing 8-5 and 5-4 in BIG-12 play in 2019, Oklahoma State will be a contender for the conference title and a sleeper candidate for the playoff. Why? Experience. The Cowboys bring back a whopping ten starters on defense and eight on offense, including QB Spencer Sanders and 2019 FBS rushing leader Chuba Hubbard.
Mike Gundy and the fighting mullets are poised for a breakout year and arguably the biggest jump in success from 2019 to 2020, but will need more consistency in big moments to contend. OSU starts out the year with three manageable non-conference games, but will eventually play at TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State before closing out the year at Texas.
Oklahoma State has the talent, experience, and coaching to make a run at the playoff, but will need to prove it on the field before they earn more respect in the rankings.
12. Texas A&M
Another team expected to make big strides in 2020 is Texas A&M. They have yet to live up to expectations in the Jimbo Fischer era, but that could change this year as they return the 16th most production in the country with eight starters back on offense and defense. Dual-threat QB Kellen Mond has shown flashes of greatness, but will need to mature into a more consistent threat if they want to contend.
Despite an 8-5 record and going 4-4 in conference play a year ago, the Aggies did not lose to a team outside of the top eight in the polls and closed the year with a gutsy win over No 25 Oklahoma State. Optimism in College Station is high, but the win over the Cowboys was their only ranked victory and they will need to topple bigger foes to be around at the end.
From a schedule standpoint, the Aggies couldn’t have asked for a much easier path as Colorado is their toughest non-conference matchup and they avoid both Georgia and Florida. However, with games on the road at Alabama, Auburn, and LSU, expect them to snag only one of those wins and fall short of real playoff contention.
Auburn always finds a way to draw the toughest schedule in the country, and they do it again in 2020. Despite going 9-4 a season ago, they did not lose to a team outside of the top 18 in the polls and lost all four games within nine points, picking up big wins over Oregon and at Texas A&M along the way. Entering the new season, the Tigers can look forward to another brutal slate with a Week 2 matchup against a surprisingly good UNC team and road matchups with Georgia and Alabama.
Gus Malzahn is only returning three starters on offense and five on defense, but brings back heralded QB Bo Nix, brings in former Arkansas coach Chad Morris as OC, and was able to keep highly touted Kevin Steele as DC. RB Tank Bigsby, an early nominee for the All-American Name Team, should provide a spark to a backfield that loses leading rusher Boobie Whitlow to the transfer portal.
The Tigers will need to rely on Nix making a sizable leap in his sophomore year without much help, but in the absence of a remarkable development, expect the squad to come up short in a few big games and just shy of a spot in the SEC Championship.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. LSU falls from No. 1 to No. 14, but even that drop doesn’t truly reflect how much they will lose going into next season. The Tigers are fourth-to-last in returning production for 2020, retaining five starters on defense and only three on offense.
The individual talent lost is too long to list. Suffice it to say that the defending National Champions had every draft eligible player on their offense lost to the NFL, and that doesn’t include losing both of their starting line backers and one of the best safeties in the country. On top of all of the lost production, LSU also loses passing game coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
The bright side for the Tigers, if you want to see it, is in who they got to replace all of this historic talent. Bo Pelini returns to primetime college football as LSU’s DC, former Cowboys OC Scott Linehan will fill in that same role in Death Valley, and the 2019 Biletnikoff winner for best receiver in the country, Ja’Marr Chase, returns.
With excellent recruiting classes and a new swagger around the program, expect LSU to topple Texas in Death Valley Week 2, but struggle during a brutal finish to the season with Alabama and South Carolina at home, followed by Auburn and Texas A&M to close it out.
If you really break down USC’s 2019 campaign, it was not a terrible year. Outside of an overtime road loss to BYU, they did not lose to a team outside of the top 17 in the polls and picked up two ranked wins against No. 23 Stanford and No. 10 Utah. The Trojans were plagued by injuries a year ago, but return the fifth highest production in the country for 2020 and are poised to provide much more depth and consistency on both sides of the ball.
Clay Helton can lean on a talented offense as Kedon Slovis returns after throwing for the third highest completion percentage in the country at 71.9 percent, filling in for JT Daniels after he tore an ACL early last season. Stud WR Michael Pittman Jr. is gone and the recruiting classes have not been up to USC standards, but the returning production should be enough to keep the squad competitive in the PAC-12.
The Trojans should be much improved, but with brutal games against Alabama, at Utah, Oregon and Notre Dame, the best they can hope for is advancing to the conference title game and getting a shot to win the PAC-12.
UNC undoubtedly will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in college football next season, as they have the potential to compete for the ACC title, but can also just as easily fall back to mediocrity and battle for another ACC Coastal title. QB Sam Howell had a break out year as freshman and will return with a ton of talent around him as the team brings back 10 starters on offense and a phenomenal recruiting class of athletes.
The defense also brings back seven starters in 2020, but will need to beef up the front seven and provide the same pass rash they relied on so heavily a year ago. The Tar Heels’ biggest concern, however, comes in closing games. UNC lost seven games in 2019, and all seven of those losses were within a single score.
Mack Brown’s squad avoids Clemson in the regular season, but opens up the season against UCF, Auburn and JMU. If the Tar Heels want to take the next step forward towards legitimacy, they will need to close games more efficiently and find a way to beat everyone except possibly Auburn in the opening stretch.
For the first time in a while, Michigan will enter a new season without the supremely high expectations of the world on top of them. That may seem refreshing, but with half of their offensive and defensive leaders gone and Jim Harbaugh’s contract expiring at the end of the 2021 season, the clock is finally starting to tick.
QB Shea Patterson did not live up to the hype in his two years at Michigan and the team can finally turn to highly touted prospect Dylan McCaffrey to lead an offense with loads of talent. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones is gone to the draft and fellow WR Tarik Black transferred to Texas, but the offense still has what it takes to compete at the top with weapons all over the place.
UM should quickly rebuild their offensive line and defense, but with another grueling schedule featuring road matchups at Washington, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State, the panic button should remain nearby. Those road tests don’t even include back-to-back home matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State. If Michigan wants a shot at beating Ohio State and competing for a Big Ten title, McCaffrey and the offense will need turn it around quickly and be the dominant force the fans in Ann Arbor have been waiting to see for years.
Texas is not back in contention for a national championship, but they should be back to competing for BIG-12 titles. A year after topping Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Longhorns came back down to earth and stumbled to 8-5 in 2019, paving the way for Tom Herman to clean house and hire seven new assistants.
Hiring seven new assistant coaches is rarely a good sign of things to come, but Texas may prove to be the exception, with former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash as the new DC and former Ohio State assistant Mike Yurcich as the new OC. Ash inherits nine defensive starters from a unit that was already much improved and Yurcich gets seven offensive starters back, including veteran bowling ball Sam Ehlinger at QB.
Outside of a Week 2 matchup at LSU, UT has a very manageable schedule and should avoid the mental mistakes that cost them in small games a year ago. Expect the Longhorns to be a solid team once again and play a proverbial conference title play-in-game at Oklahoma State in the final week of the regular season.
If it weren’t for two late, back-to-back losses at Memphis, we could be looking at Cincinnati right now as the defending Cotton Bowl champions. The Bearcats would have had to get past Penn State, but they had the talent to do so and bring most of that talent back for 2020.
UC returns nine starters on defense and six on offense, including electric QB Desmond Ridder. The offense and linebacker core need to be beefed up, but shouldn’t have a problem doing that with one of the best recruiting classes the school has ever seen.
Cincinnati is the favorite to win the AAC, and with a trip to play depleted Nebraska as the only Power 5 game on the schedule, the Bearcats could go undefeated and punch their ticket to a New Years Six Bowl.
Minnesota fell just shy of their first Big Ten West title in 2019, but finished the season with a shocking upset over No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl and may have turned the tide on the program. The Gophers lose star WR Tyler Johnson, RB Rodney Smith and seven starters on defense, but Tanner Morgan returns as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten and will have WR Rashod Bateman and RB Mohamed Ibrahim back to help him out.
Even with some momentum and offensive firepower, the defense will need to fill holes fast and take on a bend-don’t-break mentality entering the year. P.J. Fleck’s squad opens the 2020 season with four manageable games at home, but will have a tough and crucial two game stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan not long after that. If the Gophers are able to develop their young defense quickly, they should be able to compete with anybody and get another shot at the Big Ten West title.
Iowa is the definition of consistency in college football and that should not change in 2020. The Hawkeyes return six starters on offense and five on defense, including three offensive linemen and all starting wide receivers. The problem in Iowa City, however, is replacing their leaders on both offense and defense. Mainstay QB Nate Stanley finally departs the program and stud DE AJ Epenesa was snagged by the Bills in the second round of the virtual draft.
The defensive line will need major help, but Kirk Ferentz continues to recruit strongly across the defensive front and should be able to plug-and-place a few promising guys into the front seven. Iowa will be another solid team, but their schedule does not help them a bit as they have to play at Minnesota in Week 3 and at both Ohio State and Penn State in consecutive Weeks 6 and 7. Expect the Hawkeyes to struggle in the middle of the year, but ultimately bounce back to win 7-9 games.
Baylor still may be one of the most incredible stories in college football. The Bears quickly rebuilt after a major scandal only a few years ago to finish as the clear second best team in the BIG-12 and just miss the playoff in 2019. The team may have a new HC, DC, and OC, but Dave Aranda, Ron Roberts, and Larry Fedora make up one solid coaching staff and the three are inheriting a team not far from the top.
The main concern for BU will be the defense as they return only two starters, but Aranda is one of the best defensive minds in college football and could have the unit rebuilt in a little over a year. Fedora will inherit seven returning players on an offense that flew under-the-radar in 2019 and should be poised for a breakout year.
A lack of depth could hurt the Bears in big games at Oklahoma and Texas, but the returning players and solid coaching staff should help them win the BIG-12 games they’re supposed to and finish around the 10-3 mark.
23. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is another team that should take a monster step forward in 2020 as the team showed major improvement down the stretch of last season and returns the sixth highest production in FBS from that squad. With rumors that head coach Justin Fuente could be leaving for greener pastures axed, the Hokies can start to build some continuity going forward.
The defense in Blacksburg should be one of the best in the Fuente era as no one departs on the defensive line and only a few contributors leave in the secondary. VT went with quarterback and running back by committee in 2019, but will need to ride one guy at each position to make real improvements. Oregon transfer QB Braxton Burmeister and returning QB Hendon Hooker will be the favorites to compete under center and Kansas graduate transfer RB Khalil Herbert will be the favorite to take over a very split backfield.
Virginia Tech should compete for the ACC Coastal yet again, but if they want to win it and return to the national stage, they will need to post a strong showing in Week 2 against Penn State and in tough road tests at UNC and Louisville.
24. Boise State
Boise State was a very solid team in 2019, even for Boise State standards, but they need further development to find a way to a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2020. Freshman QB Hank Bachmeier balled out in his first year on campus and will have standout RB George Holani back next to him, but he also battled several injuries and loses four starters on the offensive line heading into the new season.
Overall, the Broncos return five electric starters on offense and six young starters on defense, placing the onus on the defense to develop quickly and replace the big boys they lost in the front seven. Boise State has everything it takes to emerge as the best non-power 5 conference school, but will need to remain unblemished in the regular season to get there. The Broncos’ biggest focus will be on sweeping Florida State in back-to-back years as they host the Seminoles in Week 3 and face a manageable schedule the rest of the way.
Rounding out the top 25 is a team that hasn’t seem much time in a list like this in its program's history: Indiana. The Hoosiers extended their head coach Tom Allen at the tail end of their first eight-win season since 1993, but closed out the 2019 season with a heartbreaking one-point loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
Heading into 2020, IU loses veteran QB Peyton Ramsey to the transfer portal, but returns the 11th highest production in the country overall. QB Micahel Penix Jr. started as a freshman a year ago, throwing for almost 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns at a clip of 68.8 percent before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Penix is a breath of fresh air for the program as he led Indiana to a 5-1 record in the six games he played in 2019 and should return as strong as ever.
The defense returns almost all of its production and should round out a very balanced attack in Bloomington. The bad news for IU comes in the form of the 2020 schedule as they have to play on the road against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. Expect the Hoosiers to pull off an upset or two along the way and post around 8-10 wins.
Just missing the cut
If you made it this far, you are still probably looking for your team and are doubting that I am actually a college football insider, which I am. Here are the teams that just missed the cut to hopefully satisfy the remaining fans that will have no other college football content for months.
28. Appalachian State
29. Arizona State
30. South Carolina
32. Iowa State
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