Clemson and Ohio State delivered an instant classic in the Fiesta Bowl and now vie for the top spot in our 2020 way-too-early college football rankings.
Sure, the 2019 college football season hasn’t reached its official conclusion yet. We don’t yet know whether the Clemson Tigers or LSU Tigers will raise the trophy while confetti falls on the Superdome turf. But that shouldn’t stop us from looking ahead.
Fans of the other 128 FBS football programs have largely turned toward recruiting, coaching changes, player graduations, transfers and are looking forward to potential position battles in spring practice. Enterprising sportsbooks have already released early odds on who will win the next national championship, Heisman Trophy, and even conference titles.
And it’s worth noting there’s value to be found this time of the year. After all, LSU was listed at 25-to-1 odds to win the national title early in the 2019 preseason. But more so, it’s a fun exercise.
Personally, I’ve been updating the CFB Winning Edge FBS Team Profiles to include final depth charts, as well as games played, games started, and production points that should be added to our individual player ratings. I’ve been tracking transfers, early NFL Draft departures and which players have run out of eligibility to get an early look at the number of starters and returning statistical production are projected to return on both sides of the football for all 130 teams.
It’s a long and laborious project and won’t be complete until February. Nevertheless, I can get a sense as to what the 2020 Roster Strength ratings (which include talent potential, adjusted for experience and production, as well as injuries) will look like. When combining Roster Strength with our updated Head Coach ratings and 2019 Team Performance ratings, it gives me a good look as to which teams should improve (at least on paper – or more specifically, on spreadsheets) and which are likely to take a step back.
Here, we’ll explore the earliest 2020 CFB Winning Edge Team Strength power rankings. But please note, our Way-Too-Early college football rankings are not a predicted order of finish. Instead, they reflect the order in which teams would be favored against one another on a neutral field.
A team’s 2019 win-loss record is not a factor. Neither is its 2020 strength of schedule.
These rankings will undoubtedly change before the teams kick off in August. Truthfully, they will change before National Signing Day, and again during spring practice, and even in the summer as rosters are finalized.
Yet we’ve got to start somewhere. And there’s no better time than now.
130. Massachusetts Minutemen, 1-11
Despite their win over Akron, UMass was basically the consensus No. 130-ranked team from every major college football analytics firm because of a historically bad defense. And unfortunately, the Minutemen don’t appear to be much better in 2020. Head coach Walt Bell must replace seven starters on defense, more than half the passing yardage from last year’s squad, and over 70 percent of the team’s 2019 rushing production.
129. Akron Zips, 0-12 (0-8)
There’s nowhere to go but up for Akron, which was the only FBS program to finish winless in 2019. Second-year head coach Tom Arth has a tough rebuild on his hands with the nation’s worst rushing offense (47.6 yards per game) and the loss of leading tackler John Lako and All-MAC defensive back Alvin Davis, Jr. won’t make it any easier.
128. Connecticut Huskies, 2-10 (0-8)
UConn has left the American Athletic Conference and 2020 will be the first for the Huskies in the FBS Independent wilderness. More than two dozen players are currently in the transfer portal, including several starters (three alone from the offensive line!). At least quarterback Jack Zergiotis, running back Kevin Mensah and receiver Cameron Ross return.
127. UTEP Miners, 1-11 (0-8)
UTEP is 2-22 under head coach Dana Dimel and 2-34 over the last three seasons. The Miners also lose starting quarterback Kai Locksley, running back Treyvon Hughes (a duo that combined for 85.4 percent of last season’s passing yardage and 73.4 percent of its rushing production), plus the top three tacklers from a defense that allowed 6.76 yards per play (No. 126 nationally). But running backs Joshua Fields and redshirt freshman Deion Hankins (an El Paso native and one of the top-rated recruits in program history) offer something to build around.
126. New Mexico State Aggies, 2-10
Head coach Doug Martin held on to his job despite posting a 2-10 record in 2019 and just 22 wins in seven seasons (plus some ugly allegations) and he’ll enter 2020 without top playmaker Jason Huntley, who ran for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 7.08 yards per carry, chipped in with 40 receptions and served as the team’s top kick returner.
125. New Mexico Lobos, 2-10 (0-8)
The Bob Davie era has come to an end at New Mexico, though former Lobo Danny Gonzales arrives from Arizona State (where he was defensive coordinator) to inject new life into the program. Quarterback Tevaka Tuioti, reserve running back Bruson Carroll and the majority of last year’s receiving production return, but five senior starters (including the top four tacklers in 2019) depart.
124. South Alabama Jaguars, 2-10 (1-7)
South Alabama played Nebraska close in the season opener, and beat Arkansas State 34-30 in the finale, offering a glimpse of the potential the Jags have under Steve Campbell despite his 5-19 record.
Campbell must replace 1,000-yard rusher Tra Minter, but freshman quarterback Desmond Trotter emerged as the starter and he’ll work with an experienced group of receivers in 2020. The defense returns seven of its top eight tacklers but must rebuild along the defensive line.
123. Texas State Bobcats, 3-9 (2-6)
Texas State wasn’t nearly as strong offensively as expected under first-year head coach Jake Spavital and coordinator Bob Stitt, as the Bobcats managed just 18.4 points per game and 4.97 yards per play, which ranked No. 121 and No. 116 nationally, respectively. Spavital let Stitt go after the season and will call plays in 2020 for a unit that returns an experienced of skill position players. However, Texas State suffered heavy losses on the stronger defensive side of the ball.
122. Bowling Green Falcons, 3-9 (2-6)
There were a few positives to take from Bowling Green’s 2019 season, especially the win over Toledo. A 2020 recruiting class that ranked ahead of USC (though most importantly, third in the MAC) at the end of the early signing period is an excellent sign for the future of the program. Quarterback Matt McDonald (a Boston College transfer), running back Andrew Clair and receiver Quintin Morris also provides a solid nucleus to build around.
121. Old Dominion Monarchs, 1-11 (0-8)
Former Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne was hired to replace program builder Bobby Wilder at Old Dominion. Rahne inherits some intriguing pieces, including three All-Conference USA defenders: Keione White, Lawrence Garner and Kaleb Ford-Dement. He’ll also work with three quarterbacks with starting experience and a veteran group of receivers and offensive linemen. The problem? ODU ranked No. 129 in yards per play (4.06) in 2019.
120. UTSA Roadrunners, 4-8 (3-5)
Frank Wilson is a highly respected coach and recruiter, but he didn’t win enough at UTSA to keep his job as head coach. New head man Jeff Traylor was an assistant at Arkansas and inherits promising running back Sincere McCormick (who ran for 983 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman), and dual-threat quarterback Lowell Narcisse (a former LSU signee), as well 99.7 percent of last year’s receiving production.
119. Rice Owls, 3-9 (3-5)
Rice finished the season unexpectedly strong, winning three in a row after a 0-9 start. The Owls were solid defensively most of the season, especially against the run, and expect to return a whopping 94.8 percent of their tackling production from last year’s unit. Lots of questions remain on offense, but receivers Brad Rozner and Austin Trammell – both of whom ranked in the top 10 in Conference USA in receiving yards per game – are nice building blocks.
118. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers 5-7 (2-6)
Coastal Carolina should have one of the most experienced teams in all of college football in 2020. The Chanticleers expect to return 100 percent of their 2019 passing production, 97.7 percent of their rushing yardage total (including 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Marable), as well as 81.8 percent of last year’s receiving yardage. Only four seniors made a significant impact on defense.
If Coastal Carolina can avoid major losses through transfer (and at least 10 part-timers have already tested the transfer portal since the end of the season), the Chants could play in their first bowl game in 2020.
117. Liberty Flames, 8-5
New head coach Hugh Freeze led Liberty to its first-ever bowl game (and bowl victory) in 2019. However, the Flames will look much different in 2020. Longtime starting quarterback Stephen Buckshot Calvert, running back Frankie Hickson, and likely NFL Draft pick Antonio Golden-Golden, who caught 79 passes for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns, all graduated. Each of the team’s top three tacklers is also gone.
116. Georgia State Panthers, 7-6 (4-4)
Quarterback Dan Ellington and running back Tra Barnett (who won the Sun Belt rushing title with 1,453 rushing yards in 2019) led the Panthers to one of the best seasons in school history as seniors. However, Georgia State expects to lose only three defensive players that recorded five or more tackles last year.
115. ULM Warhawks, 5-7 (4-4)
ULM running back Josh Johnson ran for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 6.46 yards per carry in 2019. Johnson could take on an even bigger role for the Warhawks next year given the departure of longtime quarterback Caleb Evans, his top two receivers (including outgoing grad transfer tight end Josh Pederson) and three starters from one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. Defensive back Corey Straughter, who had five interceptions and earned some All-American buzz, returns to lead the defense.
114. UNLV Rebels, 4-8 (2-6)
The Tony Sanchez era of UNLV football came to an end with the Rebels knocking off rival Nevada in overtime, and new head coach Marcus Arroyo arrives from Oregon after serving as the Ducks offensive coordinator. UNLV, long perceived to be a sleeping giant at the Group of Five level, will play in the new Raiders stadium in 2020 and should field one of the most experienced offenses in the Mountain West. However, eight seniors ranked in the top 14 in tackles for the Rebels last season and must be replaced.
113. Army Black Knights, 5-8
Quarterbacks Jabari Laws and Christian Anderson both earned a significant amount of playing time for Army because of injuries at the position in 2019. Both ran for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns, and along with leading returning rusher Sandon McCoy (who led the team with 10 touchdowns) should provide a solid offensive foundation for 2020.
112. Northern Illinois Huskies, 5-7 (4-4)
Northern Illinois took a step back under first-year head coach Thomas Hammock in 2019 and will be forced to find several new starters on offense in 2020. Marcus Childers has starting experience at quarterback and should provide a smooth transition following the graduation of Ross Bowers, but losing Tre Harbison as a graduate transfer hurts. The Huskies also must replace four of their top six tacklers.
111. San Jose State Spartans, 5-7 (2-6)
San Jose State took a major step forward in the Mountain West in 2019 thanks in large part to an explosive passing offense. Unfortunately for the 2020 Spartans, quarterback Josh Love and his nearly 4,000 passing yards, and three of his top five favorite targets (including leading rusher DeJon Packer, who scored 11 times on the ground), were seniors.
Leading receiver Tre Walker and standout freshman Isaiah Hamilton return, however, and give dual-threat quarterback Nick Nash (or whoever emerges as the team’s starter) some weapons to work with.
110. North Texas Mean Green, 4-8 (3-5)
Seth Littrell was a hot name in coaching rumors after the 2017 and 2018 season, but the Mean Green took a step back in 2019 despite returning senior quarterback Mason Fine. Injuries played a role, and though Fine is out of eligibility, running backs Tre Siggers and DeAndre Torrey should be one of the top duos in Conference USA. Wideouts Jaelon Darden and Jyaire Shorter, who combined for 21 touchdown catches, also return.
109. Eastern Michigan Eagles, 6-7 (3-5)
Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass III was one of the best players in the MAC throughout his only season as the primary starter for the Eagles. However, backup Preston Hutchinson was brilliant in limited action, including a 357-yard passing performance against Western Michigan when he was forced to start because of an injury to Glass the previous week. But the succession plan is less clear at running back, where senior Shaq Vann departs.
108. Troy Trojans, 5-7 (3-5)
Troy often played explosive offense in its first season under head coach Chip Lindsey, but the Trojans must replace senior quarterback Kaleb Barker, who threw for 3,628 yards and 30 touchdowns – both of which led the Sun Belt. Rising sophomore Gunnar Watson and junior college All-American Parker McNeil are likely to compete to replace Barker, though incoming freshman Kyle Toole is the highest-rated quarterback in Troy’s conference-leading recruiting class.
107. Ball State Cardinals, 5-7 (4-4)
Ball State was highly competitive in 2019 and is positioned to take another step toward MAC West contention in 2020. Quarterback Drew Plitt, running back Caleb Huntley and receivers Justin Hall and Antwan Davis (who was awarded a sixth season of eligibility) are all expected to return. However, the Cardinals lost their leading passer and rusher from 2018 as grad transfers, so there’s reason to be nervous. Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch, a Ball State alum, has also left for the same job at Colorado State.
106. Utah State Aggies, 7-6 (6-2)
Despite the return of standout quarterback Jordan Love and All-American linebacker David Woodward, Utah State was one of the most inexperienced teams in the Mountain West entering 2019. And though both Love and Woodward were eligible to return as seniors in 2020, they opted to enter the NFL Draft instead. The team’s leading rusher (Gerold Bright) and receiver (Siaosi Mariner) are also gone.
105. Kent State Golden Flashes, 7-6 (5-3)
Dustin Crum didn’t begin the 2019 college football season as the starting quarterback at Kent State, but after he wrestled the job away from Auburn transfer Woody Barrett in Week 2, Crum emerged as one of the best dual-threat signal-callers in the MAC. Three of Crum’s four favorite receivers are gone, but top pass catcher Isaiah McKoy returns, as do four of the top five tacklers for the Golden Flashes.
104. East Carolina Pirates, 4-8 (1-7)
East Carolina got off to a promising 3-2 start in head coach Mike Houston’s debut season, but lost six of its final seven games. Quarterback Holton Ahlers, who struggled early in his first full season as the starter for the Pirates, responded with a huge November in which he threw for an average of 428.75 yards per game, with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. All three ECU wide receivers who caught 50 or more passes are set to return as well, along with 97.2 percent of the team’s rushing production.
103. Central Michigan Chippewas, 8-6 (6-2)
Central Michigan lost 11 games in 2018, but head coach Jim McElwain led a turnaround that resulted in a MAC West title and appearance in the New Mexico Bowl. The Chippewas lost both postseason games, and afterward lost key offensive players Quinten Dormady and Jonathan Ward, plus All-MAC defenders Sean Adesanya and Michael Oliver to graduation, but the foundation is set for a strong run.
102. Toledo Rockets, 6-6 (3-5)
Injuries and inconsistency at quarterback helped derail what at first appeared to be a promising Toledo football season. Mitchell Guadagni was limited to just six starts as a senior, which left junior Eli Peters and freshman Carter Bradley to compete for snaps behind center, as they will likely do in 2020. Running backs Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour combined for 1.928 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and are expected to return for head coach Jason Candle, who will call plays offensively for the Rockets next season.
101. Colorado State Rams, 4-8 (3-5)
Mike Bobo helped raise the talent level of the Colorado State roster during his tenure by recruiting nationally and dipping into the transfer portal. Unfortunately, that talent didn’t translate to enough wins, and Bobo was replaced by former Boston College head coach Steve Addazio. The Rams may lose top wideout (and 6-foot-6 target) Warren Jackson to the NFL, but a solid nucleus returns on both sides of the football, including quarterback Patrick O’Brien, receiver Dante Wright and running back Marcus McElroy.
100. FIU Panthers, 6-7 (3-5)
FIU entered the 2019 season as one of the most experienced teams in the country, and among the favorites in Conference USA. Expectations will likely be very different in 2020. Among the senior departures is quarterback James Morgan, running backs Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell, three of Morgan’s top four receivers, and four of the Panthers’ top seven tacklers, led by All-Conference linebacker Sage Lewis and safety Stanley Thomas-Oliver.
99. Arkansas State Red Wolves, 8-5 (5-3)
Arkansas State overcame great adversity in 2019, including the tragic loss of head coach Blake Anderson’s wife, and several injuries, including a season-ender for starting quarterback Logan Bonner and multiple defenders. Bonner is set to return in 2020, though he’ll compete with Layne Hatcher, who threw for 2,949 yards and 27 touchdowns. But two of the most important Red Wolves of 2019, receivers Omar Bayless and Kirk Merritt – are out of eligibility.
98. Miami Ohio RedHawks, 8-6 (6-2)
Miami won the MAC Championship Game despite fielding a team that ranked No. 120 nationally in CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength. The RedHawks appear poised for improvement offensively in 2020 with the return of quarterback Brett Gabbert, who started every game as a true freshman, running back Jaylon Bester and receivers Jack Sorenson and James Maye. Three of the team’s top four tacklers return as well, though the defense as a whole must replace several key seniors.
97. Nevada Wolf Pack, 7-6 (4-4)
Nevada was a curious case in 2019, having qualified for a bowl game despite being outscored by its opponents by an average of 11.2 points per game and being outgained by an average of 1.12 yards per play during the regular season. The Wolf Pack could return up to nine starters on offense, including quarterback Carson Strong, but must replace seven seniors who played major roles on defense.
96. Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 2-10 (0-9)
Rutgers hired Greg Schiano in hopes the former Scarlet Knights would return to the form they displayed as a perennial bowl team and occasional Big East title contender during his first tenure as the program’s head coach. It will be a very difficult task as Schiano inherits one of the weakest Power Five rosters in arguably the toughest division in college football.
The good news? Though several players have already tested the transfer portal, the Scarlet Knights lost very few seniors and Schiano’s Ohio State ties have already paid off with the addition of grad transfers Malik Barrow and Brendon Wright.
95. Charlotte 49ers, 7-6 (5-3)
Charlotte head coach Will Healy led the 49ers to the best season in school history in his very first season, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future – especially on offense. Quarterback Chris Reynolds is set to return for his junior season, as are receivers Victor Tucker and Cameron Dollar. And though running back Benny LeMay is out of eligibility, the 49ers landed a commitment from Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison, who joins a deep backfield that also includes Aaron McAllister and Ishod Finger.
94. Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 4-8 (2-6)
Tulsa won two of its last three games of the 2019 regular season, including a 34-31 win over two-time defending AAC champion UCF, and as a result, enters 2020 with some momentum. The Golden Hurricane also expects to return the vast majority of its offensive production in 2020, including quarterback Zach Smith, 1,000-yard rusher Shamari Brooks and 1,000-yard receiver Keylon Stokes.
Though eight of the top 13 tacklers from last year’s defense were seniors, the unit allowed 31.3 points per game (92nd overall), so major improvements must be made on that side of the ball for Tulsa to compete in the AAC West.
93. USF Bulls, 4-8 (2-6)
Former Clemson offensive co-coordinator Jeff Scott was selective when pursuing head coaching opportunities, which helps to show the potential he feels the Bulls possess despite their struggles under Charlie Strong. Scott inherits one of the most talented, yet most underachieving, rosters at the G5 level, including promising young offensive players like quarterback Jordan McCloud and running back Kelley Joiner, Jr.
92. Kansas Jayhawks 3-9 (1-8)
Kansas showed signs of life in Les Miles’ first season, and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Pooka Williams is expected to return as the centerpiece of the 2020 Jayhawks offense, along with receivers Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson, Jr., who combined for 1.558 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns as juniors. But the defense – a unit that ranked 120th in scoring (36.1) must replace more than a dozen seniors who saw significant playing time.
91. Arkansas Razorbacks, 2-10 (0-8)
The decision to hire former Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman as the new head Hog surprised many, but Pittman was one of the most respected position coaches in the country and his recruiting ability is elite. Pittman has hired former FAU, Houston and Florida State offensive coordinator to the same job, which could inject new life into a Razorbacks offense that finished No. 110 in scoring offense (21.4 points per game) and started five different quarterbacks in 2019.
90. Vanderbilt Commodores, 3-9 (1-7)
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason will turn to new coordinators on both sides of the football in 2020, perhaps in hopes of saving his own job. Whoever the new defensive coordinator is will have a far more established unit to work with as the Commodores expect to return 93.33 percent of their tackling production from last year, and 11 players who started at least half the team’s games.
Former Louisiana Tech OC Todd Fitch was hired to take over on offense, where the ‘Dores return three starters on the offensive line but must break in a new starting quarterback, running back, tight end and top receiver.
89. Boston College Eagles, 6-7 (4-4)
We got a glimpse of the 2020 Boston College Eagles in the Birmingham Bowl against Cincinnati. It did not go well. BC entered the game without head coach Steve Addazio, who has since been replaced by Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, and record-setting running back A.J. Dillon, who sat out in preparation for the NFL Draft.
Quarterback Anthony Brown, who started 28 games across his first three seasons, had been out since suffering a knee injury in Week 6 and entered the transfer portal in December. Receiver Kobay White joined Brown after the bowl game.
But Dennis Grosel was there to make his seventh start at quarterback, and David Bailey, who at 6-foot and 240 pounds is built like a Dillon clone was as well – as were receiver Zay Flowers, tight end Hunter Long, two juniors with All-ACC honors on the offensive line, and all but four seniors who made a significant impact for the Eagles defensively. In other words, Hafley has some building blocks at his disposal.
88. Ohio Bobcats, 7-6 (5-3)
Ohio head coach Frank Solich, who recently agreed to a contract extension, ranks No. 20 in CFB Winning Edge Head Coach rating. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a shock if the Bobcats continue to overachieve despite the loss of record-setting quarterback Nathan Rourke and All-MAC safety Javon Hagan. And despite the big-name departures, Ohio returns a lot of experience, especially at running back.
87. Georgia Southern Eagles, 7-6 (5-3)
Georgia Southern enters 2020 with one of the most experienced offenses in the Sun Belt. Quarterback Shai Werts is set to return for his senior season, as are top running backs Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King. The Eagles will lose four senior contributors in the secondary, including All-Conference cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson, but the front seven returns largely intact.
86. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, 4-8 (3-5)
Middle Tennessee quarterback Asher O’Hara stepped into the shoes of four-year starter Brent Stockstill and proved to be one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country. O’Hara completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,616 yards and 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions and ran for 1,058 yards and nine scores. Seven of his top eight receivers return as well. Though the Blue Raiders suffer heavy departures from seniors on defense, O’Hara’s presence should make Middle Tennessee a factor in the C-USA East.
85. Tulane Green Wave, 7-6 (3-5)
Tulane secured a second straight winning season with a 30-13 victory over rival Southern Miss in the Armed Forces Bowl, and the Green Wave’s large senior class was on display. Quarterback Justin McMillan, receivers Darnell Mooney and Jalen McCleskey, and running backs Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine all took the field for the final time in college. But we also got a look at offensive weapon Amare Jones, who can run, catch and return kicks, and will likely be the focal point of the Green Wave offense in 2020.
84. Fresno State Bulldogs, 4-8 (2-6)
When Jeff Tedford unexpectedly retired due to health concerns, the obvious choice to replace him as Fresno State head coach was Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who had recently held that role for the Bulldogs. DeBoer inherits a roster in transition and must replace many key pieces including starting quarterback Jorge Reyna, linebacker Mykal Walker and tight end Jared Rice.
83. Western Michigan Broncos, 7-6 (5-3)
Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy tied for the national lead with 23 rushing touchdowns, and the senior gained 1,472 yards on the ground, which leaves a huge hole in the Broncos 2020 offense. Quarterback Jon Wassink, a 3,000-yard passer, also departs. But electric receiver Skyy Moore and MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward return.
82. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, 10-3 (6-2)
We got a glimpse of the future at Louisiana Tech when redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Allen started twice in place of a suspended J’Mar Smith. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs lost both games, which cost Skip Holtz’s squad a shot at the C-USA title game. We also saw Louisiana Tech without All-American cornerback Amik Robertson, who sat out the Independence Bowl against Miami in preparation for the NFL Draft. That went much better as Tech shut out the Hurricanes 14-0.
81. San Diego State Aztecs 10-3 (5-3)
San Diego State suffered key personnel losses in important areas, most notably the graduation of quarterback Ryan Agnew and running back Juwan Washington, and the early NFL Draft departure of center Keith Ismael. Fortunately, the Aztecs were able to audition signal-caller Carson Baker in the regular-season finale and electric playmaker Jordan Byrd in the New Mexico Bowl. Unfortunately, All-Mountain West defenders Luq Barcoo, Kyahva Tezino and Myles Cheatum are also on the way out.
But of course the biggest news was the unexpected retirement of Rocky Long. New head coach Brady Hoke is expected to make a lot of staff changes, and hopefully some improvements on offense, but Long was a defensive mastermind and a major reason for San Diego State’s annual contention in the Mountain West.
80. WKU Hilltoppers, 9-4 (6-2)
Western Kentucky came out of nowhere to win nine games in 2019, and though a handful of high-profile seniors depart, including quarterback Ty Storey, receiver Lucky Jackson and offensive lineman Miles Pate, there’s a lot returning as well. Running back Gaej Walker and defensive lineman Deangelo Malone, who both earned All-Conference recognition, were juniors. And remember, junior Steven Duncan started the season ahead of Storey on the depth chart before suffering a foot injury.
79. Wyoming Cowboys, 8-5 (4-4)
All-Americans are difficult to replace anywhere, but a player like Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson is among the biggest personnel losses any college football team must face in 2020. The Cowboys also lost All-Mountain West safety, Alijah Halliburton, to graduation, as well as a handful of other key defenders and each of the team’s top three leaders in receptions.
And though starting quarterback Sean Chambers returns, he suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 and has a long recovery ahead. At least running back Xazavian Valladay, who ran for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, and was the MVP of the Arizona Bowl, is set to return.
78. Buffalo Bulls, 8-5 (5-3)
Buffalo entered 2019 among the least experienced teams in the nation, but head coach Lance Leipold guided the Bulls to another bowl game anyway. And entering 2020, Buffalo is in a much better position. Running back is the most exciting position group, where a pair of 1,000-yard rushers returns. Jaret Patterson is one of the best backs in all of college football, and Kevin Marks could start a lot of places.
77. Marshall Thundering Herd, 8-5 (6-2)
Marshall must replace eight seniors who recorded 10 or more tackles in 2019, six of which were full-time starters. But the Thundering Herd welcomes back starting quarterback Isaiah Green, C-USA offensive MVP Brenden Knox, and a total of seven players who recorded 10 or more catches. That includes senior Obi Obialo, who played in just four games to preserve a redshirt season in 2020.
76. Southern Miss Eagles, 7-6 (5-3)
Losing to Tulane in the Armed Forces Bowl dampened the 2019 season, but the Southern Miss offense is set to welcome back the vast majority of its total yardage in 2020 and should again be among the most experienced teams in Conference USA. Quarterback Jack Abraham should be back for his senior season, but he’ll miss Quez Watkins who declared for the NFL Draft. Fellow receivers, Tim Jones and Jaylond Adams are expected to return. The Eagles should compete for the C-USA title.
75. Temple Owls, 8-5 (5-3)
Temple suffered a couple of unexpected transfers early in the 2020 offseason: tight end Kenny Yeboah, who announced his commitment to Baylor in December, and defensive end Quincy Roche, who has yet to announce his destination.
Roche had been considered a candidate to declare for the NFL Draft (as cornerback Harrison Hand and center Matt Hennessydid), so his departure wasn’t a shock. But it’s a big loss to a defense that must also replace three starters at linebacker and two seniors in the secondary. But the good news: The offense returns largely intact, including quarterback Anthony Russon, running back Re’Mahn Davis, and All-AAC receiver Jordan Blue.
74. Duke Blue Devils, 5-7 (3-5)
Duke isn’t quite at Stanford levels yet, but the Blue Devils have seen more than a half-dozen players enter the transfer portal since the end of the 2019 season. The biggest losses to date are receivers Aaron Young and Scott Bracey, who caught a combined 60 passes and scored five touchdowns last year.
Given the graduation of quarterback Quentin Harris, we should expect head coach David Cutcliffe to rely heavily on an experienced offensive line and running backs Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant.
Defense should be a strength, even with the loss of leading tacklers Koby Quansah and Dylan Singleton to graduation. Defensive linemen Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II form one of the best duos in the ACC.
73. Maryland Terrapins, 3-9 (1-8)
Maryland showed promise at the beginning of 2019, but Mike Locksley’s first season as head coach was largely forgettable. The Terrapins have also lost their two best offensive players – running backs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake – early to the NFL Draft. More than half a dozen Terps are also in the transfer portal. However, Locksley can recruit, and Maryland’s class – led by five-star receiver Rakim Jarrett – ranks among the top 30 nationally.
72. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, 3-9 (2-6)
Geoff Collins oversaw a complete philosophical overhaul in his first season as Georgia Tech head football coach, and though the Yellow Jackets lost nine games (including one to an FCS opponent), wins over Miami and NC State showed glimpses of the future potential in the program.
Collins is also well on his way to increase the talent level on the Flats. His first full recruiting class currently ranks No. 25 in the 247Sports team rankings and includes quarterback Jeff Sims, who should challenge returning starter, James Graham. Sadly, one of the 21 players who signed with Tech in December – Bryce Gowdy – died tragically shortly before he enrolled.
71. FAU Owls, 11-3 (7-1)
New FAU head coach Willie Taggart inherits an excellent situation from Lane Kiffin, who left for Ole Miss after leading the Owls to two Conference USA titles in three seasons. FAU must replace most of its receiving corps (including Mackey Award-winning tight end Harrison Bryant), but Taggart will work with All-C-USA quarterback Chris Robison and a deep stable of running backs. The defense will be young and lost cornerback James Pierre to the NFL Draft and All-Conference safety Meiko Dotson to graduation.
70. Northwestern Wildcats, 3-9 (1-8)
2019 was a disaster for Northwestern, especially on offense. Injuries played a major role, especially at running back where promising sophomore Isaiah Bowser was limited to just five games, 204 yards, and zero touchdowns. Quarterback was a problem as well, where Hunter Johnson played only six games and couldn’t keep a handle on the starting job. Both players return in 2020, along with a veteran defense led by highly productive linebacker Paddy Fisher, but expectations aren’t nearly as high for 2020 as they were for the defending Big Ten West champs in 2019.
69. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, 10-5 (5-3)
The return to the Run and Shoot has paid off for Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich, who led the Rainbow Warriors to a division title and 10 wins, including a victory over rival BYU in the Hawaii Bowl.
Quarterback Cole McDonald threw for 4,135 yards and 33 touchdowns, and left for the NFL Draft. Chevan Cordeiro, who appeared in 12 games and briefly unseated McDonald atop the depth chart, threw for 907 and eight scores and should fill the spot nicely. Regardless, Hawaii must replace three senior receivers, all of whom recorded over 900 yards, though 1,000-yard wideout Jared Smart is expected to return.
68. Navy Midshipmen, 11-2 (7-1)
Navy’s 2019 turnaround – from 10 losses the previous season to 11 wins this year – was incredible, as was the play of quarterback Malcolm Perry, who ran for 2,017 yards and 21 touchdowns. Sadly, Perry is out of eligibility. However, most of his fellow runners return, including fullback Jamale Carouthers, who scored 14 touchdowns. The much-improved defense also returns a lot of experience, including seven of the top eight tacklers from last year’s squad.
67. UAB Blazers, 9-5 (6-2)
Despite fielding one of the youngest teams in the country, and suffering impactful injuries at key positions, UAB repeated as Conference USA West champions and won nine games. Quarterback Tyler Johnston III missed several games but has an NFL arm and is set to return for his junior season. Running back Spencer Brown, who was sidelined in three games, will be a senior. And speaking of seniors, only three were full-time starters for the Blazers on defense in 2019.
66. Syracuse Orange, 5-7 (2-6)
Syracuse was one of college football’s most disappointing teams in 2019, and the Orange are likely to field one of the youngest defenses in the ACC in 2020 as 12 seniors who contributed to the unit last year (including six of the team’s top eight tacklers) depart. Receiver Trishton Jackson opted to leave early for the NFL, and leading rusher Moe Neal is also gone, leaving quarterback Tommy DeVito few proven playmakers.
65. Colorado Buffaloes, 5-7 (3-6)
Mel Tucker is a defensive-minded head coach, and his second Colorado team is likely to reflect that background more than his 2019 squad. Tucker welcomes back seven starters, plus several key players return from injury. On offense, quarterback Steven Montez graduated and receiver Laviska Shenault, Jr. is off to the NFL, so the Buffs are likely to rely more on running backs, Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham.
64. Illinois Fighting Illini, 6-7 (4-5)
Illinois utilized the transfer portal like few others in college football in 2019, and found instant impact players like quarterback Brandon Peters, leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and pass rusher Oluwole Betiku. Betiku is off to the NFL, but the others are expected to return. Illini head coach Lovie Smith has also made significant inroads in recruiting high schoolers, landing a trio of four-star players in 2019, such as Marquez Beason, who missed the season due to injury but should step in at cornerback in 2020.
63. NC State Wolfpack, 4-8 (1-7)
Quarterback troubles were a major reason NC State underachieved in 2019, and the Wolfpack started three separate players under center. Devin Leary, who started the final eight games of the season, enters spring atop the depth chart.
However, injuries played the biggest role in NC State’s 4-8 record (and 1-7 mark in ACC play). The Wolfpack lost more than half a dozen players to season-ending injuries, including several starters. The secondary was hit hardest, though running back and the offensive line was heavily impacted as well.
62. Purdue Boilermakers, 4-8 (3-6)
Few teams were hit as hard by injuries as the Purdue Boilermakers in 2019. Head coach Jeff Brohm was forced to start three quarterbacks, deal with a depleted running back corps, and play without All-American receiver Rondale Moore for all but four games of his sophomore season. The defense also suffered losses, including Markus Bailey and Lorenzo Neal playing in just four games combined (all by Bailey).
Looking ahead, despite being granted a sixth season of eligibility, quarterback Elijah Sindelar isn’t expected to return, meaning Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell should compete for snaps. Fortunately, Moore, freshman standouts David Bell and a deep group of receivers give Brohm a dangerous set of weapons to build upon in 2020.
61. Houston Cougars, 4-8 (2-6)
Major Applewhite was fired from Houston for underperformance following an eight-win season in 2018, but his replacement, Dana Holgorsen, led the Cougars to a 4-8 record in 2019. But, perhaps, Holgorsen had a plan all along that would set Houston up for greater success in the future.
After losing to Tulane to fall to 1-3, Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King – who was responsible for 50 touchdowns as a junior in 2018 – announced his plan to redshirt the remainder of the year. King maintained he would return to Houston in 2020, as did receiver Keith Corbin. If he does, he’ll join a young core of players from the 2019 squad, as well as a few transfers from Power Five programs, to make the Cougars a contender in the AAC West.
60. Texas Tech Red Raiders, 4-8 (2-7)
Quarterback Jett Duffey filled in admirably for injured starter Alan Bowman in both 2018 and 2019. However, Duffey won’t be available for emergency duty for Texas Tech in 2020 after he announced plans to transfer. If Bowman stays healthy (a concern given the Red Raiders lose three seniors on the offensive line), he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with, such as running back SaRodorick Thompson and receivers T.J. Vasher, Erik Ezukanma, Dalton Rigdon and McLane Mannix.
59. Arizona Wildcats, 4-8 (2-7)
Arizona made a change at defensive coordinator as head coach Kevin Sumlin turned to former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads (most recently the defensive backs coach at UCLA) to turn around a unit that ranked 112th in yards allowed per play (6.36). Rhoads will have some important pieces to build upon, especially in linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II, who could be the most experienced and productive duo in the country entering 2020.
Offensively, the Wildcats will have a different look following the graduation of Khalil Tate and the early NFL departure of J.J. Taylor. Grant Gunnell made three starts behind center as a true freshman and is more of a drop-back passer than Tate. He should benefit from the return of 87.1 percent of last year’s receiving yardage production.
58. West Virginia Mountaineers, 5-7 (3-6)
West Virginia seemingly found its quarterback late in the 2019 season as Jarret Doege, the transfer from Bowling Green took the reins from Austin Kendall and threw for 818 yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions over the final four games of the season.
Doege and Kendall are likely to compete for the job during the spring and fall, but the Mountaineers winning two of the final three games helps Doege’s case. Of course, other positions have issues, including the need to rebuild the secondary, offensive line, and find depth on the defensive line.
57. Stanford Cardinal, 4-8 (3-6)
Stanford suffered a significant number of injuries in 2019, most notably at quarterback and on the offensive line, which played a big part in the Cardinal’s highly disappointing 4-8 finish. David Shaw’s squad has since seen more than a dozen players, including quarterback K.J. Costello and projected starters on the offensive and defensive lines, enter the transfer portal. Most of the juniors or seniors seeking a graduate transfer, which could wreck the depth of the 2020 team.
On the bright side, Shaw and his coaching staff have built a recruiting class that ranks No. 22 in the country and includes seven four-star prospects.
56. Wake Forest Demon Deacons, 8-5 (4-4)
There was reason to believe quarterback Jamie Newman, one of the best dual-threat signal-callers in the ACC, wouldn’t return to Wake Forest for his senior season. But few expected Newman would opt to pursue a graduate transfer instead of the NFL. Nevertheless, the presence of Sam Hartman, who has three years of eligibility remaining despite having already made 11 career starts for the Demon Deacons, softens the blow. The return of Sage Surratt, whose 111.2 receiving yards per game ranked fifth nationally, is even bigger.
55. Oregon State Beavers, 5-7 (4-5)
At first glance, Oregon State losing its starting quarterback and leading rusher to graduation and its top receiver to the NFL Draft might look like an offense likely to take a step backward next season. And it’s certainly possible the Beavers won’t match the 31.2 points per game or 5.95 yards per play (both significant improvements over 2018) they averaged in the second season under head coach Jonathan Smith.
But Tristian Gebbia was able to get his feet wet with a start in place of the injured Jake Luton in the season finale. Jermar Jefferson ran for 1,380 yards as a true freshman, but was surpassed by Artavis Pierce in 2019 because Jefferson was slowed down by a nagging injury. Isaiah Hodgins was one of the best receivers in the Pac-12, but senior Trevon Bradford was held to just four games and will return an otherwise veteran group of wideouts in 2020.
Defensively, the Beavers got a huge boost when Hamilcar Rashed, Jr. – who led the Pac-12 and ranked third in the country with 14.0 sacks – opted to return for his senior season. Rashed is one of nine returning starters for the Beavs on defense.
54. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, 11-3 (7-1)
Billy Napier led Louisiana to the Sun Belt West Division title in each of his first two seasons as head coach, and when Mississippi State announced it would fire Joe Moorhead after a loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl, Napier’s name was among the first to emerge as a potential candidate. Though Napier reportedly told the Bulldogs he wasn’t interested, time will tell.
But you couldn’t blame Napier for wanting to stay and make another run at a conference championship. Though All-American guard Kevin Dotson is one of three senior starters leaving on the offensive line, and top receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley is also out of eligibility, the trio of quarterback Levi Lewis and running backs Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell is the best in the league.
53. Missouri Tigers, 6-6 (3-5)
Missouri unexpectedly fired native son Barry Odom and hired a new head coach, Eliah Drinkwitz, after one season at Appalachian State. Mizzou lost its starting quarterback, Kelly Bryant, and his top backup, Connor Bazelak suffered a torn ACL in the season finale. Then three players – tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, center Trystan Colon-Castillo and nose tackle Jordan Elliott – opted to leave early for the NFL.
Seven starters return on defense and running backs Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie are solid building blocks, but things could get worse before they get better for the Tigers.
52. Air Force Falcons, 11-2 (7-1)
Air Force entered the 2019 season with optimism, but few saw an 11-win season on the horizon. And though the Falcons enter the 2020 offseason with little experience returning on defense (as is often the case at service academies), the core of the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack (298.54 yards per game) returns.
Quarterback Donald Hammond III, fullback Timothy Jackson and running back Kadin Remsberg give Air Force a solid foundation on which to build what could be the program’s first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy winner since 2016.
51. Kansas State Wildcats, 8-5 (5-4)
Chris Klieman looked like a worthy successor for Bill Snyder in his first season as the head coach at Kansas State. The Wildcats surpassed expectations, including a victory over Oklahoma, and three of the team’s five losses came by four points or fewer. Quarterback Skylar Thompson is set to return for his senior season, and receiver Malik Knowles is a rising star. The defense must replace eight seniors, but Elijah Sullivan, Wyatt Hubert and A.J. Parker – the team leaders in tackles, sacks and interceptions, respectively, all return.
50. Ole Miss Rebels, 4-8 (2-6)
Lane Kiffin is back in the SEC, and he inherits an Ole Miss team with promise. Quarterbacks John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral both appear likely to return as sophomores (as will former five-star running back Jerrion Ealy), and the pair will battle it out to work with a veteran set of receivers. And though the defense must replace seven starters, the linebacker trio of Lakia Henry, Sam Williams and Jacquez Jones should be among the best in the conference.
49. Michigan State Spartans, 7-6 (4-5)
Quarterback Brian Lewerke’s Michigan State career came to a close as he threw for 320 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 46 yards and another score while leading the Spartans to a 27-21 victory over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl. Lewerke’s experience (he started 38 career games) will be missed, as will the 350-yard performances he was capable of putting together.
But there is also some excitement within the fanbase to see if backups Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day or Payton Thorne can help Michigan State take its offense to the next level. Running back Elijah Collins, who ran for 988 yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, will be at the center of that effort in 2020 and he’ll run behind an experienced offensive line.
The defense must replace a lot of experience and production. Among the most notable player that must be replaced, Kenny Willekes, Tyriq Thompson, David Dowell and Raequan Williams have graduated. Joe Bachie’s career ended earlier than expected due to suspension, and Josiah Scott opted to leave early for the NFL Draft (as did receiver Cody White).
48. BYU Cougars, 7-6
BYU suffered a huge number of injuries in 2019, most of them on offense. A healthy season for quarterback Zach Wilson, the running back group as a whole, and along the offensive line would go a long way for the Cougars in 2020.
But the Cougars have already started the new year on the right foot. Tight end Matt Bushman (the team’s leading receiver) and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (the 340-pound anchor in the Cougars’ defensive front) announced their plans to pass on the NFL Draft to return to school.
47. TCU Horned Frogs, 5-7 (3-6)
TCU finished the 2019 college football season ranked No. 34 in CFB Winning Edge Team Strength – meaning the college football analytics outfit believed the Horned Frogs were the best team that failed to qualify for a bowl game last season. Usually, that would be a great sign moving forward, especially when that team returns a quarterback who made 11 starts as a true freshman.
However, the Frogs enter 2020 with questions at several key positions. The offense vastly underachieved in 2019 and must replace the senior running back duo of Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua, as well as its top playmaker, receiver Jalen Reagor, who opted to turn pro after being criminally underused, plus four seniors on the offensive line. The defense was hit hard, too, and must replace five seniors in the secondary and talented defensive lineman Ross Blacklock, who decided to forego his final two seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.
46. SMU Mustangs, 10-3 (6-2)
SMU utilized the transfer portal better than any team in the country in 2019, and it paid off with a 10-win season. Quarterback Shane Buechele, the most high-profile transfer to join the Mustangs, will be back in 2020. However, running back Xavier Jones, who tied for the FBS lead with 23 rushing touchdowns, and top receiver James Proche, are out of eligibility. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee also left for Miami.
Defensively, SMU must replace arguably its three best defenders: defensive lineman Delontae Scott, and defensive backs Patrick Nelson and Rodney Clemons. However, if 2019 is any indication, head coach Sonny Dykes will take a proactive approach to fill any holes with talented Dallas-area natives who signed elsewhere out of high school.
45. South Carolina Gamecocks, 4-8 (3-5)
Quarterback Ryan Hilinski made 11 starts as a true freshman, which should pay off for South Carolina as it looks to rebound from a disappointing eight-loss season. The Gamecocks won’t have top receiver Bryan Edwards or any of the team’s top three leading rushers from last year’s squad, but four starters will be back on the offensive line.
Defensively, head coach Will Muschamp must rebuild up front, but the entire linebacker corps, plus three starters in the secondary return. Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu could be one of the best cornerback duos in the SEC.
44. UCLA Bruins, 4-8 (4-5)
CFB Winning Edge has overrated UCLA in each of the last two seasons, and it’s very possible 2020 could be the third. Though Chip Kelly’s Head Coach rating has fallen from its high of No. 3 heading into 2018 season to its current No. 54 over two full seasons, Kelly’s success at Oregon has still somewhat inflated his team’s power rating. The same can be said of UCLA’s .8543 average rating in the 247Sports Composite in 2019, which ranked No. 29.
That said, UCLA appears poised for improvement in 2020. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson saw extended action as the team’s starter and only one Bruin receiver (tight end Devin Asiasi, who declared for the NFL Draft) who caught five or more passes last season is expected to depart. It will also be exciting to see what running back/offensive weapon Demetric Felton does as a full-time starter, and with four returning starters on the offensive line.
43. Virginia Cavaliers, 9-5 (6-2)
Most of Virginia’s top players from the 2019 season won’t be back in 2020. That includes dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins, receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall (who missed the second half of the season with an ankle injury), all of whom played pivotal roles in the Cavaliers ACC Coastal Division championship.
But head coach Bronco Mendenhall is set to welcome back some key pieces, including linebackers Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden, and defensive backs Joey Blount and De’Vante Cross, all of whom ranked among the top five on the team in tackles. In fact, 12 of the top 14 tacklers from the 2019 unit are expected back in 2020. So is running back Wayne Taulapapa, who scored 12 rushing touchdowns, and wideout Terrell Jana, who caught 74 passes and scored three times.
42. Cal Golden Bears, 8-5 (4-5)
Cal enters 2020 as one of the most intriguing teams in the Pac-12, and one capable of making some noise in what could be a wide-open conference race. Though the Golden Bears must replace 10 seniors who contributed on defense, most notably All-American linebacker Evan Weaver and speedy corner and return man Ashtyn Davis, head coach Justin Wilcox has a strong track record building and rebuilding defenses.
Wilcox returns far more experience on offense, including quarterback Chase Garbers, who missed four games but posted a 14:3 touchdown: interception ratio and averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt when healthy. Christopher Brown, Jr., who ran for 914 yards and eight touchdowns also, returns, as does leading receiver Nikko Remigio. And the most interesting piece of the puzzle is new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, a longtime NFL assistant who last coached in college in 2002.
41. Mississippi State Bulldogs, 6-7 (3-5)
Just when we thought the coaching carousel was over, the decision-makers dragged Joe Moorhead’s “Yankee ass” out of Starkville after a loss in the Music City Bowl, and an ugly incident involving a post-practice fight that left freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader with a black eye, and unable to start.
New head coach Mike Leach inherits a recruiting class ranked in the top 30 (if he can keep it) but won’t have running back Kylin Hill to build around on offense because the junior declared for the NFL Draft, or four of the team’s top five receivers, who are all out of eligibility. Five seniors also ranked among the top nine in tackles for the Bulldogs, and leading tackler Erroll Thompson is reportedly weighing his professional future.
40. Appalachian State Mountaineers, 13-1 (7-1)
New coach, same Appalachian State – at least in 2019. The departure of Scott Satterfield didn’t stop the Mountaineers from winning the Sun Belt for the second straight season, but first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz left Boone for Missouri, meaning App State will have its third head man in three seasons. At least the promotion of Shawn Clark – a longtime assistant at the school – provides stability.
The return of All-Conference quarterback Zac Thomas is also a stabilizing factor, and though the early departure of running back Darrynton Evans to the NFL Draft hurts, each of Thomas’ top four receivers was a junior last season, and four starters should return on the offensive line. The defense must rebuild at linebacker and safety, but the Mountaineers have built depth and should be one of the best units in the Sun Belt again.
39. Washington State Cougars, 6-7 (3-6)
Recently departed Washington State head coach Mike Leach ranks No. 13 in CFB Winning Edge Head Coach rating, which was the highest in the Pac-12 and also a big reason why his Cougars would have been ranked in the Top 30 our power ratings despite a featuring one of the least talented rosters in the Power Five.
Cammon Cooper, Gunner Cruz or a grad transfer-to-be-named will likely take over at quarterback for the new coaching staff, and until we know more it’s unclear whether or not Washington State will continue to put up huge passing numbers. The receiver corps had great depth in 2020, and Tay Martin, Travell Harris, Renard Bell and Calvin Jackson, Jr. (who redshirted as a senior in 2019) have experience. Plus, running back Max Borghi is one of the most exciting players in the Pac-12 and can hurt teams as a runner or receiver. The defense returns 13 of its top 14 tacklers from last year.
38. Arizona State Sun Devils, 8-5 (4-5)
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels grabbed the starting role in the fall of his true freshman season, and threw for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only two interceptions, while averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt. Daniels was also the second-leading rusher for the Sun Devils. However, he’ll enter 2020 without No. 1 rusher Eno Benjamin, top receiver Brandon Aiyuk, or his two best offensive linemen. That means in addition to leading returning receiver Frank Darby, the Sun Devils will rely heavily on an incoming recruiting class that currently ranks No. 24 nationally.
There are far more familiar faces returning on defense, however. Only two seniors were full-time starters for the Sun Devils last season, and though head coach Herm Edwards must replace coordinator Danny Gonzales (who was named the new head coach at New Mexico), he welcomes back each of his top four tacklers.
37. Kentucky Wildcats, 8-5 (3-5)
According to PFF, Kentucky was one of the five best offensive lines in the country in 2019. The analytics outfit graded Landon Young, who announced his plan to return to the Wildcats instead of testing NFL waters, as the best pass-blocker among all SEC tackles last season. That’s great news for a team that lost two quarterbacks to injury and were forced to move receiver, kick returner and eventual All-American all-purpose performer Lynn Bowden to quarterback.
Bowden is off to the NFL, but Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith are set to return. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood is set to join the group, but it seems unlikely he would be eligible for 2020. Top running backs Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. – all of whom ran for more than 500 yards and six touchdowns – should be back as well. The defense must replace a few key pieces, including defensive lineman Calvin Taylor, Jr. after an 8.5-sack season, but eight of the Wildcats’ top 11 tacklers (and 17 of the top 21) are eligible to return.
36. Miami Hurricanes, 6-7 (4-4)
Despite inheriting a roster that ranked in the top 25 in Roster Strength and among the top 20 in average 247Sports rating, Manny Diaz’s first season as Miami’s head coach was a major disappointment. The Hurricanes finished the regular season ranked No. 52 in Team Performance, shuffled quarterbacks like it was 2018 all over again, and failed to score enough to keep its excellent defense off the field.
Year 2 is important for a first-time head coach, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the Hurricanes. First of all, there’s room to grow in the ACC. Secondly, Gregory Rousseau emerged as one of the most productive pass rushers in the country. Also, the secondary is strong and must replace just one starter (Trajan Bandy, who declared early for the draft).
On offense, Diaz hired Rhett Lashlee from SMU to be his new offensive coordinator. The offensive line gained valuable experience and returns intact, which is good news for running back Cam’ron Davis and whatever quarterback takes the reins and Brevin Jordan is one of the best and most athletic tight ends in the country.
35. Indiana Hoosiers, 8-5 (5-4)
Head coach Tom Allen has built Indiana into a dangerous program, and after years of close calls, the Hoosiers finally made it to a bowl game. Allen’s success on the recruiting trail makes us think 2019’s success is sustainable as well.
Peyton Ramsey helped the Hoosiers overcame a season-ending injury to quarterback Michael Penix, and though Ramsey would be an ideal grad transfer candidate, he might also return to battle Penix for the job for a third straight season. Regardless of which quarterback emerged in 2020 will have a lot of talent and experience to work with, highlighted by running backs Stevie Scott and Sampson James, receivers Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle and tight end Petton Hendershot. Defensively, where Allen made his name, the Hoosiers lose just three senior starters.
34. Louisville Cardinals, 8-5 (5-3)
Scott Satterfield led arguably the most remarkable turnaround in college football in 2019. Louisville improved its win total from two in 2018 to eight last year, the last of which was a 38-28 win over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. And there’s reason to believe the Cardinals can take another step forward in 2020.
Assuming no one transfers, Louisville should return 100 percent of both its passing and rushing yardage next season. Quarterback Micale Cunningham progressed throughout his sophomore campaign and should enter the fall as the favorite to retain the full-time job behind center. Running back Javian Hawkins exploded for 1,525 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, and Tutu Atwell, who accounted for 1,276 receiving yards and 12 scores as a sophomore, is one of the top playmakers in the ACC. The Cards also expect seven of their top eight tacklers (and 10 of the top 12) to return.
33. Boise State Broncos, 12-2 (8-0)
Boise State is set at the offensive skill positions. Hank Bachmeier started each of the first seven games for the Broncos as a true freshman before going down with an injury, and he returned to the top of the depth chart for the Las Vegas Bowl. The running back room is full and led by fellow rising sophomore George Holani, who ran for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Khalil Shakir and C.T. Thomas, who ranked second and third, respectively in every major receiving category for the Broncos last season, should be one of the best receiver duos in the Mountain West.
But the line of scrimmage could be an area of concern. Four starters depart on the offensive line, and the defensive line must be completely rebuilt following the departure of six seniors and junior pass rusher Curtis Weaver, who (like left tackle Ezra Cleveland) declared for the NFL Draft.
32. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 5-7 (3-6)
Despite posting a losing record in 2018, the Nebraska Cornhuskers entered last season ranked in the AP Top 25 and considered a favorite in the Big Ten West. Though the media will likely be afraid to make the same mistake twice, it would be understandable to be tempted by the 2020 Cornhuskers based on the amount of experience returning, and new talent that signed with Scott Frost and his staff in December.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez needs to be better (and stay healthy), and could be challenged by the dynamic Luke McCaffrey this spring. Running back Maurice Washington was dismissed from the program, but Dedrick Mills led the team with 745 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and Paul Hornung Award finalist Wan’Dale Robinson returns (hopefully full healthy) as one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten. Top receiver J.D. Spielman and the entire offensive line return as well.
31. Pitt Panthers, 8-5 (4-4)
Pitt didn’t let injuries on the defensive line stop it from recording 51 sacks in 2019, which ranked second nationally behind only Ohio State. The Panthers are expected to get Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp back and fully healthy in 2020 as well, and combined with All-ACC performers Jaylen Twyman and Patrick Jones II, Pat Narduzzi might have one of the best defensive lines in college football.
The Panthers are also set to return starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, every running back who took a handoff in 2019, four of their top five leaders in receiving yardage. It won’t be easy to replace the 96 catches Maurice Ffrench was responsible for as a senior, but Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis are an exciting duo.
30. Florida State Seminoles, 6-7 (4-4)
Should we expect new Florida State head coach Mike Norvell to make better use of a roster that ranked No. 6 in both average 247Sports recruiting rating and the 247Sports Team Talent Composite in 2019 than Willie Taggart did? Probably. The return of receiver Tamorrion Terry and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson certainly helps, and also softened the blow of early NFL Draft entrants running back Cam Akers and defensive back Stanford Samuels III.
The addition of Texas A&M running back Joshua Corbin is a big step toward replacing Akers’ production, and FIU offensive lineman Devontay Taylor is one step toward turning things around on the offensive line. Quarterback is a huge question mark, though James Blackman is experienced and Jordan Travis is a weapon as a runner.
29. Cincinnati Bearcats, 11-3 (7-1)
Cincinnati proved its doubters (present company included) wrong in 2019 by winning 11 games for a second consecutive season despite playing a much more difficult schedule. Head coach Luke Fickell deservedly moved into the top 20 in the country in Head Coach rating. And he’ll have a lot of production returning in 2020.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder shook off injury and late-season ineffectiveness to score four total touchdowns in a 38-6 bowl victory over Power Five opponent Boston College. Ridder already has 25 starts under his belt and will be just a junior next year. He’ll take on more responsibility in 2020 because running back Michael Warren II, an All-AAC performer, jumped to the NFL.
On defense, it will be difficult to replace linebackers Bryan Wright and Perry Young, but both the defensive line and secondary should be among the best in the AAC. And freshman All-American corner Ahmad Gardner is one of the best in the country at his position.
28. Utah Utes, 11-3 (8-1)
In many ways, 2019 was one of the greatest in Utah football history, but the 11-win Utes stumbled to the finish line and were blown out in the last two games of the season. This ranking isn’t a reaction to the 37-15 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game or the 38-10 loss to an underachieving Texas squad in the Alamo Bowl.
Instead, it has more to do with the nine defensive starters leaving (two having declared early for the NFL Draft), and the four on offense – headlined by quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zach Moss.
Grad transfer Jake Bentley, a three-year starter at South Carolina, will try to keep Utah atop the Pac-12 South, and the Utes have three experienced running back options to choose from. The return of redshirted senior Dylan Covey at receiver will also help, but the losses on defense will make it very difficult.
27. Baylor Bears, 11-3 (8-1)
Baylor had an amazing 2019 season, and the job head coach Matt Rhule did in his tenure with the Bears was been incredible. Rhule, who ranked No. 24 in CFB Winning Edge head coach rating despite an 11-loss season in 2017, opted to take the head coaching job with the Carolina Panthers, leaving Baylor’s coaching situation in flux.
All-American defensive lineman James Lynch also has an NFL decision to make, and junior quarterback Charlie Brewer, who suffered multiple concussions in 2019 and exited the Sugar Bowl with a neck injury, are also question marks. Throw in more than a dozen seniors, and 2020 could be a rebuilding year in Waco.
26. Washington Huskies, 8-5 (4-5)
The Washington offense will look very different in 2020 following the early NFL Draft entry of quarterback Jacob Eason, running back Salvon Ahmed and tight end Hunter Bryant, as well as the graduation of four seniors on the offensive line, and four more in the receiving corps.
Of course, the Huskies have recruited very well. Richard Newton scored 10 rushing touchdowns while splitting carries with Ahmed, and Jacob Sirmon and Dylan Morris, who are the top two options to replace Eason, were high four-star recruits.
The defense was hit by graduations at all three levels as well. However, the silver lining for recently promoted Jimmy Lake in his first season, is the expected return of All-Pac-12 performers Levi Onwuzurike, Joe Tryon, Ryan Bowman and Elijah Bolden.
25. Iowa Hawkeyes, 10-3 (6-3)
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff have a long history of elevating the Hawkeyes above their talent projections. For example, Iowa ranked No. 54 in Roster Strength and No. 43 in average 247Sports player ratings in 2019, yet finished the season 10-3 with losses of seven, five and two points. A consistent track record of finding hidden gems in recruiting, and developing them so the Hawkeyes regularly beat “more talented” teams is a major reason why Ferentz ranks No. 7 in head coach rating.
Ferentz will have a difficult task in 2020. Veteran starting quarterback Nate Stanley (who made 39 starts for the Hawkeyes) is finally out of eligibility, as are six seniors on defense and multiple contributors on the offensive line. And those numbers don’t include pass rusher A.J. Epenesa or tackle Tristan Wirfs, who despite no public declaration to date, is likely to leave early for the NFL.
But we shouldn’t count Ferentz out. Spencer Petras (or whoever takes over for Stanley) will have weapons to work with on offense, including electric receiver and return man Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who scored as a receiver, rusher and returner in the Holiday Bowl win over “more talented” USC.
24. Memphis Tigers, 12-2 (7-1)
It’s rare for a Group of Five team to start the season in the top 25 of our power ratings, yet 2020 could have two G5 teams. Memphis, the defending AAC champions, finished the 2019 season ranked No. 30 in Roster Strength – also rarified air for non-Power Five teams – and returns a lot of the talent that contributed to that lofty status.
Quarterback Brady White accepted the sixth season of eligibility he’s been awarded, and the 29-game starter brings great stability to the Tigers. White flirted with the idea of turning pro, but playing another season with 1,459-yard rusher Kenneth Gainwell and 1,276-yard receiver Damonte Coxie apparently proved too difficult to turn down. A defense that expects to return eight starters should help as well.
23. North Carolina Tar Heels, 7-6 (4-4)
So, maybe hiring Mack Brown wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Brown was able to flip quarterback Sam Howell from Florida State and helped him become the ACC Freshman of the Year after throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns with just seven interceptions in 422 attempts. Howell helped Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome each surpass 1,000 receiving yards and score double-digit touchdowns. Running back Michael Carter surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground with Javonte Williams coming up just short (933). All five players are expected to return in 2020.
If Brown can rebuild his defensive line, and the unit improves its No. 50 finish in yards allowed per play (5.43), North Carolina could emerge as the second-best team in the ACC.
22. Tennessee Vols, 8-5 (5-3)
Tennessee weathered a disastrous start to the 2019 season, finished on a five-game winning streak with a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, and has a great chance to enter 2020 ranked in the Top 25 of the national polls. With a Roster Strength rating ranked No. 12 in the country, and an incoming recruiting class ranked No. 16 by 247Sports, the Vols appear poised to challenge in the SEC East.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt expects to return a lot of production on defense, but he and offensive coordinator Jim Cheney have work to do to improve the Tennessee passing game. Three quarterbacks started, and though Jarrett Guarantano regained the job late in the season, he was also benched for part of the bowl game. Guarantano has repeatedly said he plans to return for his senior season in Knoxville, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him pursue transfer opportunities instead.
Just as important, three of the top four pass catchers for the Vols are out of eligibility. Josh Palmer, who caught 34 passes for 457 yards and one touchdown is the returning leader in each category. But the running game should be a strength with the return of Ty Chandler, Eric Gray and Tim Jordan, all of whom carried the ball more than 100 times and gained over 400 yards on the ground last season. The offensive line expects to return all five starters with center Brandon Kennedy winning a sixth season of eligibility, and All-SEC guard Trey Smith choosing to return. The Vols even added to arguably its best unit by picking up Knoxville native and former five-star Cade Mays as a transfer from Georgia.
21. Virginia Tech Hokies, 8-5 (5-3)
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster retired following the 2019 season, but new play-caller Justin Hamilton inherits a unit expected to return 10 starters. Defensive back Caleb Farley and linebacker Rayshard Ashby both earned All-ACC honors and are expected to be back in 2020.
Believe it or not, Hokies might return even more promise on offense. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, who helped orchestrate a midseason turnaround following a 2-2 start, should be the full-time starter next season after starting as the backup to senior Ryan Willis. And though leading rusher Deshawn McClease and tight end Dalton Keene both jumped to the NFL , Virginia Tech added transfer running backs Khalil Herbert from Kansas and Raheem Blackshear from Rutgers, as well as every other player who caught a pass in 2019. The entire starting offensive line is set to return as well.
20. UCF Knights, 10-3 (6-2)
UCF’s reign of dominance in the Group of Five may have come to an end in 2019, but the Knights are reloaded for 2020. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel made a surprisingly quick ascension to the top of the depth chart, and he threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns while averaging 9.2 yards per attempt in 13 games (including 12 starts).
Gabriel will miss leading receiver Gabriel Davis (who declared for the NFL Draft), but his next two favorite targets (Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams) return. Also, Otis Anderson led the team in rushing, and he should be a full-time starter in 2020. There’s depth at running back as well.
On defense, where the Knights were far better than most realized in 2019, only one senior ranked among the top 12 in tackles.
19. Iowa State Cyclones, 7-6 (5-4)
The Big 12 should be wide open – not to mention incredibly fun – in 2020, and Iowa State should be a factor. The offensive line will be young, and leading receiver Deshaunte Jones graduated, but the Cyclones expect to welcome back quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and the dynamic tight end dup of Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen, all of whom received All-Conference recognition in 2019, on offense.
Iowa State must replace a lot of production on defense, including seven seniors who recorded double-digit tackles in 2019. But defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey, who is one of the best players in the league when healthy, will return after missing the majority of the 2019 season.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys, 8-5 (5-4)
Quite a few Oklahoma State players, as well as head coach Mike Gundy, tweeted Canadian flags last week. The assumption would be those tweets reference All-American running back (and Canada native) Chuba Hubbard, who is eligible to leave for the NFL Draft as a third-year sophomore.
If Hubbard, who led the nation with 2,094 rushing yards and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground, joins 2018 All-American Tylan Wallace (who officially announced his intention to return to school for his senior season) with the Cowboys in 2019, they could challenge for the Big 12 title.
If he doesn’t, the Pokes will still be good. Spencer Sanders returns as a veteran sophomore starter at quarterback, and the defense should rank among the most experienced in the conference. Based on the experience and production returning on both sides of the football, Oklahoma State projects similarly to the 2019 Utah squad that overachieved its raw recruiting ratings and emerged as a late-season playoff candidate.
17. Wisconsin Badgers, 10-4 (7-2)
Wisconsin won the Big Ten West in 2019 and led Ohio State at halftime of the Big Ten Conference Championship Game. Though the Badgers lost record-setting running back Jonathan Taylor to the NFL Draft, Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek (one of the best receiving running backs in the country) should fill in just fine. If not, the Badgers signed a four-star freshman in their most recent class.
Losing Quintez Cephus to the NFL Darft and Aron Cruickshank to transfer hurts, but receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, and tight end Jake Ferguson, should give quarterback Jack Coan plenty to work with offensively. Wisconsin is always strong along the line of scrimmage and 2020 should be no different. Though the senior linebacker duo if Zack Baun and Chris Orr must be replaced, the secondary should return fully intact.
16. Michigan Wolverines, 9-4 (6-3)
Entering the 2019 season, it appeared Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would have his best opportunity to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten. It didn’t go so well, and now the Wolverines must replace a two-year starter at quarterback, rebuild the offensive line, and replace the majority of its starters on defense. Three players have declared early for the NFL Draft so far (linebacker Josh Uche, offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones), and there are other candidates as well.
The good news is Michigan has a few building blocks. Running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins both flashed great potential as freshmen, Ronnie Bell proved to be more productive than his more highly rated teammates in the receiving corps, and both Dylan McCaffery and Joe Milton –who will compete at quarterback – have elite raw talent.
15. Minnesota Golden Gophers, 11-2 (7-2)
Minnesota benefitted from a very manageable schedule, and dodged a few early season obstacles, to win 11 games for the first time since 1904. But don’t sleep on the Golden Gophers in 2020.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan finished No. 4 nationally with an average of 10.2 yards per pass attempt in 2019. Though his favorite target (Tyler Johnson) graduated, many talent evaluators think Rashod Bateman (who caught 60 passes for 1.219 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore) is a better player all-around. The Gophers also lost 1,000-yard rusher Rodney Smith, but backup Mohamed Ibrahim, who gained 604 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2018.
Far more questions must be answered on defense, where seven seniors and All-America defensive back Antoine Winfield, Jr. depart. But Minnesota should challenge Wisconsin again in the Big Ten West.
14. Texas Longhorns, 8-5 (5-4)
Believe it or not, Texas was projected to be a Top 15 team in our power ratings before the Longhorns blew out Utah 38-10 in the Alamo Bowl. Tom Herman’s program ranked No. 7 in the 247Sports College Football Team Talent Composite in 2019, and it ranked No. 11 in CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength (which takes injuries and career production into account) at the end of the season.
That points to major underachievement, but it also shows how much talent resides in Austin. And most of that talent returns in 2020, especially on defense. Only three seniors recorded five or more tackles in 2019. On offense, quarterback Sam Ehlinger is one of the most experienced and productive players in the country, and receivers Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith are well-equipped to step into the roles Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay held so well.
13. Auburn Tigers, 9-4 (5-3)
Auburn suffered heavy losses on the defensive line and the secondary to graduation and the decision for cornerback and return man Noah Igbinoghene to leave early for the NFL Draft, and all five starters on the offensive line were seniors in 2019. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about the Tigers in 2020.
Quarterback Bo Nix won SEC Freshman of the Year honors and should improve as a passer in 2020, especially with each of his three favorite receivers expected to return. The running back room is set to welcome back a healthy JaTarvious Whitlow and rising star D.J. Williams as well. On defense, linebacker should be a strength, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has plenty of talent to work with elsewhere.
12. Texas A&M Aggies, 8-5 (4-4)
Texas A&M has already lost four players, including defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and receiver Quartney Davis, as early NFL Draft entrants, but Jimbo Fisher will still have one of the most experienced teams in the country to work with in 2020. After all, the Aggies featured exactly one senior starter on offense, and one on defense, in 2019.
Quarterback Kellen Mond, running back Isaiah Spiller, tight end Jalen Wydermyer and four returning starters on the offensive line give the Aggies an excellent foundation to build upon in 2020. Buddy Johnson, Tyree Johnson and Demarvin Leal provide the same on the other side.
Also – though it is not reflected in these power ratings – Texas A&M has a much, much more manageable schedule next season.
11. Oregon Ducks, 12-2 (8-1)
It was a very close call in the Pac-12, and the defending champions and Rose Bowl-winning Oregon Ducks have a great case to be the highest-rated team in the conference. But given the departure of quarterback Justin Herbert, four starters from one of the best offensive lines in the country and leading tackler Troy Dye, as well as fellow linebacker Bryson Young, there are a few big questions that must be answered.
Still, the foundation is solid. The one returning offensive lineman, Penei Sewell, is arguably the best player in America. The Ducks should be deep and experienced at both running back and receiver, as well as the defensive line and in the secondary. Kayvon Thibodeaux will be a superstar, and Oregon has the highest-rated class in the Pac-12 for the second straight season.
10. USC Trojans, 8-5 (7-2)
Oh no, here we go again. The USC Trojans are set to enter 2020 ridiculously over-hyped, especially given the program’s history of underachieving over the past decade. Plus, head coach Clay Helton’s permanent hot seat status has doomed USC’s recruiting efforts over the last two cycles. And Helton’s decision making, and the staff he hired to support him, been part of the problem on the field, too.
Those are all fair points, and on a personal note, I’m slightly terrified to have USC as the preseason favorite in the Pac-12. I won’t be reading the comments.
Nevertheless, consider: USC finished the 2019 season ranked No. 4 in the Team Talent Composite and No. 10 in CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength. The Trojans’ average player rating according to the 247Sports Composite (.8922), ranks eighth. Plus, the Trojans expect to return 100 percent of their 2019 passing production, 99.0 percent of its rushing yardage, and though elite receiver Michael Pittman, Jr. is out of eligibility, 70.0 percent of the team’s receiving yardage total should be back.
That’s 88.96 percent of last year’s total offensive yardage (plus four starters on the offensive line) which will operate under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell for a second season. Last year, FBS teams returned an average of 61.77 percent of their offensive yardage. Only Minnesota (94.70 percent), Utah (91.03 percent) and Indiana (89.96 percent) returned a higher percentage among Power Five programs a year ago.
The Trojans must replace leading tackler John Houston, Jr. on defense, but the next 12 leading tacklers return, and overall 85.75 percent of the team’s tackling production from 2019 should return. That group includes elite players like Talanoa Hufanga, Palaie Gaoteote, Jay Tufele and Drake Jackson, all of whom are among the best at their positions in the Pac-12.
You might laugh, and understandably so. I’m a little embarrassed myself. This might look incredibly stupid in September if the Trojans are blown out by Alabama in the season opener, or later if they lose in Eugene, Salt Lake City, or at home to Washington. But I’ve got to trust my numbers, and at this point, based on the strength of its roster and its returning production, USC should be the highest-rated team in the Pac-12. Despite a difficult schedule, the Trojans could be a dark horse College Football Playoff contender.
9. Oklahoma Sooners, 12-2 (8-1)
Is losing a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback even a preseason concern at Oklahoma anymore? As long as Lincoln Riley returns as head coach and offensive architect of the Sooners (which is less than a 100-percent certainty given open the head coaching positions in the NFL), Oklahoma will be among the most dangerous offenses in college football in 2020 despite losing Jalen Hurts. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who turned pro early, leaves a hole as well, but the Sooners have recruited well.
Defensively, the Sooners made strides in 2020, but a lack of depth in the secondary doomed the squad in the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma must also replace its best defensive player, linebacker Kenneth Murray, who declared for the draft. Nevertheless, expect the Sooners to be the early favorites to win the Big 12 – again.
8. Georgia Bulldogs, 12-2 (7-1)
Jake Fromm opted not to return to Georgia for his senior season. Despite the shortcomings of the Bulldogs offense in 2019, and Fromm’s less than spectacular stats last year, his return (and the stability it would provide) would had been huge to Georgia’s SEC and national championship hopes.
But, like running back D’Andre Swift and offensive linemen Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley and Isaiah Wilson, Fromm turned pro early, which left the Dawgs with backup Stetson Bennett IV, injured D’Wan Mathis and incoming true freshman Carson Beck as the only options. Until, of course, Georgia landed Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman, who was one of the most exciting players in the ACC in 2019 and should bring a few new wrinkles to the Bulldogs’ offense.
The offensive line lost four starters, but wideout George Pickens, the former five-star signee who exploded for 12 receptions, 175 yards and a touchdown (and who scored eight touchdowns as a true freshman, including at least one in five of his last six games) in the Sugar Bowl, provides a major weapon for Newman, and Georgia still has lots of options at running back.
Ant though the Dawgs must replace several key seniors on defense, such as All-American safety J.R. Reed, productive linebacker Tae Crowder and several key contributors on the defensive line, the talent base is excellent, and the unit should be among the SEC’s best again in 2020.
7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 11-2
There was a point in which it looked like Notre Dame might sneak into the Way-Too-Early top four. As in, the Fighting Irish would be projected to make it to the College Football Playoff in 2020. There’s still a chance, but a trio of somewhat unexpected early NFL Draft entries (running back Tony Jones, Jr., safety Alohi Gilman and tight end Cole Kmet, who might be the top player drafted at his position but had previously declared he would return for his senior season) knocked Notre Dame down a few spots.
The return of quarterback Ian Book is big, and though he struggled against top competition in 2019, Book showed improvement down the stretch. He won’t have Kmet or Chase Claypool to throw to in 2020, and the Irish must rebuild the secondary around rising star Kyle Hamilton, but the Irish should be among the nation’s best along the line of scrimmage.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions, 11-2 (7-2)
Had wide receiver K.J. Hamler opted to return to Penn State, the Nittany Lions might have entered the 2020 season with 10 starters on the offensive side of the football. Even without Hamler, who led the team with 56 receptions, 904 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, and was also a weapon as a returner, James Franklin’s squad is in great shape offensively. Quarterback Sean Clifford showed growth, the running back room may be the deepest in the country, and four starters return up front for new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein.
There’s a great chance we spend the bulk of 2020 talking about linebacker Micah Parsons with the admiration we reserved for Chase Young in 2019 – though Jayson Oweh, who will fill the pass-rushing shoes of Yetur Gross-Matos, could have more of a Young-like impact. Depending on any late NFL Draft entries, five or six defensive starters are expected to return for the Nittany Lions.
5. LSU Tigers, 14-0*, (8-0)
Heisman winner Joe Burrow is off to the NFL, which leaves Myles Brennan as the favorite to become the starting quarterback for LSU in 2020. However, there’s a chance Ed Orgeron and his staff could dip into the transfer portal again given the success it produced in 2018-19.
Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase will be back, as will fellow receiver Terrance Marshall, but there’s a good chance other offensive weapons like running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, wideout Justin Jefferson and tight end Thaddeus Moss test the professional waters. At least three offensive line starters from the Joe Moore Award-winning unit will be gone as well.
Only three of the Tigers’ full-time defensive starters are seniors, and though junior safety and Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit will almost certainly turn pro, there’s a chance the rest of the unit returns intact. All-American cornerback Derek Stingley, Jr. is the perfect piece to build a defense around. Also, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who received some interest in the head coaching carousel, is also expected to return.
4. Florida Gators, 11-2 (6-2)
College football analytics guru Bill Connelly found that returning experience (and specifically, returning production) matters most in the passing game and that receiving yardage has the strongest correlation from one season to the next. That’s the bad news for Florida, which returns starting quarterback Kyle Trask (good!), but must replace at least 54.56 percent of its receiving yardage from the 2019 squad (the national average was 41.29 percent in 2019).
But that’s really the only concern for the Gators at this point in 2020 (and elite tight end Kyle Pitts, 6-foot-5 wideout Trevon Grimes and versatile offensive weapon Kadarius Toney should all be back, so it’s not even that much of a concern).
On defense, the Gators have openings from the departures of a few high-profile players like pass rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, leading tackler David Reese II and corner C.J. Henderson, but 71.27 percent of last season’s tackling production returns (60.54 percent was the average in 2019), so the unit is plenty experienced. And former Georgia five-star Brenton Cox, who transferred and sat out last year, should slide into Greenard’s spot nicely.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide, 11-2 (6-2)
Alabama isn’t going anywhere. Nick Saban is still one of the greatest coaches of all time, and the talent level in Tuscaloosa is still elite. Plus, the Crimson Tide got a big boost to its 2020 national championship hopes when preseason All-American linebacker Dylan Moses, who missed the entire 2019 season after he suffered a torn ACL in fall camp, declared he would return to school. Left tackle Alex Leatherwood did the same.
Of course, Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Xavier McKinney and Jedrick Willis have announced their intentions to leave for the NFL, so there will be questions that need to be answered. At quarterback in particular, Mac Jones earned invaluable playing time, Tua’s younger brother Taulia Tagovailoa will be a redshirt freshman, and Alabama signed five-star prospect Bryce Young out of California to compete for the job.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes, 13-1 (9-0)
Head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields – the two biggest question marks for the Ohio State Buckeyes heading into the 2019 college football season – return as two of the biggest assets for any team in 2020. However, much of the high-profile talent around them is off to the NFL.
Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins and Jeff Okudah have already announced their intentions to leave school early, and others could join before the Jan. 21 deadline. Plus, a combined nine starters on both sides of the ball were seniors in 2019. The secondary was hit particularly hard – though the return of Shaun Wade (the potential first-rounder who announced his 2020 plans last week) is huge.
Also, the Buckeyes have long been heavyweights in recruiting, so the cupboard is well stocked. And there’s still plenty of veteran leadership, including a couple of seniors expected to return in 2020 after injury-plagued seasons: Jonathon Cooper and Justin Hilliard.
1. Clemson Tigers, 14-0* (8-0)
There’s no clear-cut No. 1 in the way-too-early offseason. Ohio State could make a case, and it would be unwise to count Alabama out but Clemson is our pick.
Trevor Lawrence should enter the 2020 season as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy (with Justin Fields close behind) and he’ll have two of his three favorite receivers (Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers) to work with. Though the offensive line will be very young, there’s plenty of talent available.
The Clemson defense is in a similar position to the Buckeyes and expects to lose four of its top five tacklers when All-American linebacker Isaiah Simmons declares for the draft. But head coach Dabo Swinney is recruiting like a national championship head coach and has closed the talent gap with Alabama and Ohio State in recent years – including the top-rated 2020 class.