The 2020 college football offseason – like every other sport – was impacted by the spread of COVID-19 in the United States.
That wiped out spring football for most of the FBS programs – and there are no spring games to get a sneak peek at the changes across the college football landscape. The regular season also might be impacted, but in the moment it makes for a longer and more uncertain version of “talkin’ season.”
The NFL Draft deadline, Signing Day and the transfer portal impacted the rosters, and we will just have to wait to see the product in the fall. Sporting News post-spring Top 25 features most of the usual suspects at the top, but there are a few surprises.
Here is a closer look:
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25. Boise State
The Broncos remain the class of the Mountain West Conference, and quarterback Hank Bachmeier needs to take the next step to keep it that way. New offensive coordinator Eric Keisau should help, and coach Bryan Harsin has enough talent to make a New Year’s Day Six run. George Holani and Robert Mahone will run behind an offensive line that must replace three starters on the interior. The defense must find a replacement for edge rusher Curtis Weaver. Florida State comes to Albertsons Stadium on Sept. 19. That’s the big spotlight game.
UCF fell off the top perch in the American Athletic Conference in 2019, but the Knights return a talented quarterback room with Dillon Gabriel, Darriel Mack Jr. and perhaps McKenzie Milton, who threw passes this spring. The Knights will be right back in the mix the American Athletic Conference, and third-year coach Josh Heupel has maintained the program’s high standards. They will have chances to prove it against up-and-coming ACC contenders in North Carolina and Georgia Tech.
The Wildcats are 18-8 the last two seasons and have achieved stability under Mark Stoops, who continues to recruit well. Kentucky has most of its starters on both sides coming back, but the loss of All-American talent Lynn Bowden needs addressed. Terry Wilson is coming off a season-ending knee injury, and the key will be establishing a consistent running game. That’s led to more success in the SEC East. A trip to Florida on Sept. 12 is the tone-setter for the season.
Scott Satterfield led the Cardinals to eight wins in an impressive turnaround in Year 1, and there’s no reason to believe that growth won’t continue in Year 2. Malik Cunningham emerged as the right quarterback with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions, and the offensive line play should continue to improve. Javian Hawkins could emerge as a legit Doak Walker Award candidate in this offense, and Hassan Hall is another potential breakout playmaker. Louisville must continue to build depth on both interior lines.
21. Arizona State
Herm Edwards has the Sun Devils in position to make a run at the Pac-12 South championship. Quarterback Jayden Daniels should make the jump as a sophomore after finishing with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions, but they will need to find a replacement for Eno Benjamin at running back. Jermayne Lole has breakout potential at defensive lineman. Four of Arizona State’s five losses came by 10 points or fewer in 2019, and they get Utah on Nov. 21. Road trips to Oregon and USC will determine whether that game against the Utes is for the division.
Luke Fickell turned down the Michigan State job to stay with the Bearcats. Cincinnati won 11 games each of the last two seasons. Michael Warren II is off to the NFL. Three-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder returns, and the offensive line will continue to get better with Michigan transfer James Hudson. Elijah Ponder and Michael Pitts lead the best defense in the AAC. This is a Group of 5 buster in the making, and the big nonconference game is at Nebraska on Sept. 26.
19. North Carolina
The momentum under Mack Brown is real. The Tar Heels enjoyed a winning season in his first year, and recruiting is ticking in the right direction again. Sam Howell set the FBS record for touchdown passes by a true freshman, and he should continue to evolve as a sophomore. Chazz Surratt’s decision to return to school improves a defense under second-year coordinator Jay Bateman. North Carolina challenged Clemson in the ACC in 2019, and we’ll see if the Tar Heels are ready for something more in the first two weeks against UCF and Auburn. Expect North Carolina to be favored to win the ACC Coastal Division, and that will lead to another swing at Clemson.
The Utes lose several key playmakers — including Pac-12 leading rusher Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley on offense and defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. Kyle Whittingham still has a roster capable of winning the Pac-12 South for the third straight season. Incoming South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley will get one more chance at it, and it’s our bet he wins the starting job and keeps the Utes on the outskirts of the Playoff conversation again. The opener against BYU will be telling. Watch the rebuilt secondary closely.
17. Texas A&M
The Aggies have consecutive top-10 recruiting classes to build their team in 2020, meaning more difference-makers to help Kellen Mond enjoy his senior season. Isaiah Spiller is back too, and this offense should be much better after a year of experience. The defense is mostly together. For third-year coach Jimbo Fisher, it comes down to making that jump against top-10 teams. The Aggies are 1-7 in that situation the last two seasons. The cross-over schedule is more friendly against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but Texas A&M still visits Auburn and closes the season at Alabama before taking on LSU at home.
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The Badgers proved they were the best team in the Big Ten West in 2019, and there might be a heated quarterback battle between Jack Coan and Graham Mertz this spring. Jonathan Taylor is gone, and the defense must replace Zack Baun and Chris Orr. Paul Chryst has been able to replace these moving parts, but it will be a challenge this year in an improving division. A four-game stretch from Sept. 19-Oct. 10 against Appalachian State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota will tell us everything about Wisconsin’s playoff possibilities.
It’s the same old story in Ann Arbor for sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines return a talented roster, and the quarterback battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton will be the focus of the spring. Nico Collins’ return was huge, and the offensive line has improved. Now, it’s on second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to make it all fit. Daxton Hill is a breakout player in the secondary, but the question remains: When will this team break through against Ohio State and win a Big Ten championship? The Wolverines have won at Ohio Stadium since 2000. September tests at Washington and at home against Wisconsin won’t be easy either.
14. Oklahoma State
This is the “it” team of the offseason that could make the unexpected run to the College Football Playoff. Spencer Sanders proved to be a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, and the return of running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace make this one of the best offensive trios in college football. The Cowboys are 8-10 in Big 12 play the last two seasons, so it’s a big year for Mike Gundy to prove this team can still compete. We put the Cowboys here over Iowa State and TCU. If Oklahoma State beats those two, then it should be 6-0 heading into a road game at Oklahoma on Oct. 24.
We’re not going to say that three-word catch-phrase out loud, but perhaps we were a little early. Sam Ehlinger returns for his senior season, and the Longhorns’ young talent showed how good they can be in the Alamo Bowl victory against Utah. Receivers Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith should thrive in increased roles, and the offensive line will be better. The defense will be improved around linebacker Joseph Ossai, who had 13.5 tackles for loss in 2019. It comes down to winning those close games: The Longhorns have six losses of seven points or fewer the last two seasons. The Sept. 12 trip to LSU will come with the same hype as it did in 2019. Will Texas live up to it?
“Row the Boat” some more. P.J. Fleck can build off an 11-win season with the talent the Gophers return, including Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman in the passing game. Minnesota’s entire offensive line is back, but the defense will miss All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The Gophers are going to generate a lot of buzz this offseason, but the schedule is tougher this time around. A two-week stretch in October against Wisconsin and Michigan will be the turning point. For now, we have Minnesota ranked ahead of those teams.
We’re going to talk about Gus Malzhan’s job security all offseason again, but the Tigers bought some time by winning the Iron Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix returns and should improve his consistency as a sophomore. JaTarvious Whitlow transferred, so Tank Bigsby is among the young running backs with a chance to shine. The offensive line lost six key contributors. The defensive line loses Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe, but at least returns Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell. The schedule is brutal, and it closes with LSU and Alabama in the final two weeks. Who made that again?
Dan Mullen led the Gators to back-to-back New Year’s Day Six Bowl wins, and he has upgraded the talent with each recruiting cycle. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones will fight for the quarterback job, but it would be hard to take that away from Trask given how he filled in this season. The return of cornerback Marco Wilson is a lift for a talented defense that loses CJ Henderson. Florida is close to getting back to the SEC championship game, but Georgia remains the biggest hurdle. The Halloween matchup is circled on the schedule.
9. Penn State
James Franklin signed a long-term extension, and he continues to build the program toward a Playoff breakthrough with big recruiting classes. Sean Clifford, Journey Brown, Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson lead what should be a high-scoring offense, while Micah Parsons can step into Yetur Gross-Matos’ role as one of the best defensive players in college football. Road trips to Virginia Tech and Michigan in the first five weeks won’t be easy, but it still comes down to Ohio State. The Buckeyes which visit Happy Valley on Oct. 24.
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8. Notre Dame
The return of veteran quarterback Ian Book is the biggest plus for Brian Kelly heading into his 11th season, and Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith need to step up at running back. Javon McKinley, Braden Lenzy and Tommy Tremble give Book solid options in the receiving game. Liam Eichenberg’s return is a plus for the offensive line. The secondary will be a question mark on defense. The schedule is fun with a trip to Ireland against Navy in the opener, an Oct. 3 visit to Lambeau Field for Wisconsin and the Nov. 7 blockbuster against Clemson in South Bend. The Irish are 33-6 the last three seasons. They will be in the Playoff conversation again.
The Sooners are facing the backlash of a fourth Playoff loss in six seasons, but Lincoln Riley didn’t go to the NFL. Oklahoma is still the favorite to win the Big 12. Spencer Rattler had a year to learn behind Jalen Hurts, and that will pay off. Jadon Haselwood is the next breakout star at receiver, and the defense will face the same old questions with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. September features a visit from Tennessee and a trip to Army. The Sooners still have a lot of questions, but that might not be answered unless they get back to the Playoff.
The Ducks are trending upward under Mario Cristobal, and the next step is the College Football Playoff. The loss of quarterback Justin Herbert is the first order of business, but the new starter will run a talented offense that could still include Johnny Johnson III and CJ Verdell around an offensive line that features Penei Sewell. Sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux leads the defense, and five-star linebacker Justin Flowe will be an instant-impact player (don’t forget about fellow five-star linebacker Noah Sewell, younger brother of Penei). Ohio State visits Autzen Stadium on Sept. 12 for an early test.
What will LSU and Ed Orgeron do for an encore without Joe Burrow and Joe Brady? Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, left, too. Myles Brennan will finally get his shot at quarterback, and Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. are back for another season. The Tigers lose a ton to the NFL Draft (nine draft-eligible juniors, including running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire), but LSU’s defense returns enough pieces to build around sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and another loaded recruiting class. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger can work with what’s left. Texas and Alabama visit Tiger Stadium, but there are road trips to Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M.
Jake Fromm is gone, as well as the vast majority of Georgia’s offensive line. The Bulldogs did pick up graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman from Wake Forest, and he will work with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Georgia also hired Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran. Kirby Smart has built with a string of top-five recruiting classes. Zamir White and James Cook will keep the ground game going, and George Pickens could emerge as the best receiver in the FBS. Rising redshirt-sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari could make the jump to All-American. The road trip to Alabama on Sept. 19 is the next chance to win the big game.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., safety Xavier McKinney and linebacker Terrell Lewis are gone, and Nick Saban faces the challenge of getting back into the College Football Playoff for the first time. The quarterback battle between Mac Jones and freshman Bryce Young will be the focus this fall, and there likely won’t be an answer until the opener against USC. Receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are back, and the return of running back Najee Harris is huge for an offense that could rely more on its run game in 2020. Dylan Moses’ decision to return should help shore up a defense that wasn’t up to Alabama’s championship standard. Georgia visits Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 19. We’ll know then if this team can handle LSU and Auburn in November.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost star players J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young and Jeff Okudah to the NFL, but Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields returns to a still-loaded roster. Master Teague was injured, but that hole was filled with Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon. The receiving corps will be the deepest in the country. Expect Garrett Wilson to be a breakout star while five-star receiver Julian Fleming joins the fun. Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers return to a nasty offensive line. Shaun Wade’s decision to return to school helps a defense that will rebuild the line around Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison. Road trips to Oregon and Penn State are the biggest potholes to another Playoff run. Second-year coach Ryan Day can work with that.
The beat goes on under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers figure to suffer some attrition to the NFL, but the offense runs around the junior trio of Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Justyn Ross. Etienne’s decision to return was perhaps the biggest win of the draft deadline. Clemson also has the No. 1 recruiting class coming in, and defensive lineman Bryan Bresee will play right away. Coordinators Tony Elliott and Brent Venables stayed on, and that continuity should lead to a sixth straight ACC championship run. Including conference title games, the Tigers have won 22 straight in the ACC. The toughest game on the schedule is the Nov. 7 trip to Notre Dame.
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