2020 CFB Rankings
(David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com)

So, of course, the 2019 college football season just ended and now every FBS team is going to start preparing for spring ball and getting a good look at their new guys. But let’s take a quick outlook on 25 teams who I think will be looking to make a big impact in September on their road to a potential College Football Playoff berth. I’ll factor in last season’s performance, impact players, recruiting rankings and next season’s schedules into my selection for this very early Top 25 prediction. This list is easily subject to change, later on, so don’t be too quick to hop on my neck if you disagree with one of the rankings it isn’t personal, the list goes from #1-25 top to bottom.

Ohio State Buckeyes: Ryan Day returns with Heisman Trophy favorite Justin Fields and an explosive offense that contains Master Teague, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, along with more than half of their talented offensive line coming back. It’ll be interesting to see how the Buckeyes replace Jeff Okudah and Chase Young, but with eight starters returning on defense, it’s hard to see who else challenges the Buckeyes en route to what should be their first national championship since 2014. A week two matchup against the Oregon Ducks will be the first real test for the Buckeyes playoff aspirations.

Clemson Tigers: Trevor Lawrence is expected to give it one last go before he declares for the NFL Draft, and the return of Travis Etienne and Justyn Ross certainly ease the task at hand. Prolific defensive coordinator Brent Venables must figure out how to replace the impact of stalwart Isaiah Simmons and A.J Terrell along with a few defensive backs, but a top flight recruiting class will be expected to keep the Tigers running for years to come on both sides of the ball. The Tigers should dominate the ACC again next year, but a Nov.7 matchup against Notre Dame should tell us how good next year’s unit can really be.

Alabama Crimson Tide: Almost nothing looks scarier in college football than a motivated Crimson Tide squad. After losses to LSU and Auburn derailed their national title hopes, the Crimson Tide return with Najee Harris, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle who will continue terrorizing defenses. Be sure to look out for a surefire quarterback competition between Mac Jones and the No.1 2020 freshman QB Bryce Young this spring, with 13 early enrollees expect some competition on both sides of the ball. On the defensive side of the ball, look for Dylan Moses to burst back onto the scene after seeing his 2019 campaign end prematurely due to an ACL tear. 

Oregon Ducks: The defending Pac-12 champs losing Justin Herbert will certainly be felt in Eugene, but with the return of arguably the best offensive linemen in college football in Penei Sewell and running back CJ Verdell, the offense will continue to get the job done. On the defensive side of the ball, look for true sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux to devour quarterbacks in his second season, while veterans Jevon Holland and Thomas Graham Jr. continue to lock down receivers. Expect the top two inside backers of the 2020 cycle in Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell to create some competition within the linebacking corps. 

Oklahoma Sooners: Normally I’m not high on the Sooners as a college football playoff contender, and losing CeeDee Lamb and Kenneth Murray will sting. However, it’s the Spencer Rattler era in Norman, and with Jaden Haselwood, Charleston Rambo and Trey Sermon back in town, the Sooners are still lethal on offense. On the defensive side, eight starters return which definitely makes the case for the Sooners to repeat as Big 12 champions for the sixth straight year in a row. 

Georgia Bulldogs: Kirby Smart once again has compiled an extremely talented recruiting class that will only elevate the Bulldogs as they seek to reach the SEC championship for the fourth straight season. It’ll be exciting to see if Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman can hang with the SEC’s best, and they’ll have some questions to answer on offense, but with a deep stable of skill players Georgia’s offense will have no trouble finding the endzone. On the defensive end, Richard LeCounte leads an experienced unit back into the fold next season that should be as stout as ever, if anything don’t be surprised if this Bulldogs squad finds themselves back in the College Football Playoff.

Penn State Nittany Lions: James Franklin has been able to elevate the Nittany Lions each and every year, despite losses to Minnesota and Ohio State, the Nittany Lions definitely got the nation’s attention with some hard fought victories last season. On the offensive end, Sean Clifford and Journey Brown will look to carry the offensive effort that will be losing speedster KJ Hamler. The defensive side loses likely first rounder Yetur Gross-Matos, but will rely on All-American linebacker Micah Parsons and Shaka Toney to commandeer the ferocious defense. The Nittany Lions face a brutal three game stretch against Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State, but if they can withstand it, they’ll seriously gain the national respect they’re looking for. 

Florida Gators: Well it looks like Dan Mullen and Kyle Trask can get the job done for the Gators which will certainly play a factor in their performance next season, and they’ll have Kyle Pitts to help bolster the offensive attack through the air, also keep an eye on Kadarius Toney who could have a breakout year if he remains healthy. The defense will be feeling a few losses in Jabari Zuniga, CJ Henderson and Johnathan Greenard, but expect true freshmen such as Gervon Dexter to create some competition on the defensive side of the ball.  

LSU Tigers: The defending national champions have a lot on their hands as Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Grant Delpit, Joe Brady and Dave Aranda among many others have moved on to greener pastures. On the bright side, the dangerous weapons of Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall and a deep running back unit will be available to whoever wins the starting quarterback role, along with an elite recruiting haul. The defensive side of the ball features unanimous All-American Derek Stingley Jr who’ll be tasked with upholding the tradition of  “DBU”. Next year’s schedule will have the Tigers see not only an early test against the Texas Longhorns, but three of their final four games against Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M, so we’ll see just how strong the Tigers can be a year removed from a national championship.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: Most experts didn’t predict the Golden Gophers to finish with an 11-2 record, along with a shocking victory over at the time the No.4 Penn State Nittany Lions and Outback Bowl victory, but here they are. Minnesota is my favorite to win the Big Ten West next season and with All-Big ten players Rashod Bateman and Tanner Morgan leading the charge, it’ll be exciting to watch. On the defensive side, they lose star Antoine Winfield Jr and Carter Coughlin among many others which they’ll have to answer for, but outside of two tough tests against Michigan and Wisconsin, it’s not unrealistic for the Golden Gophers to replicate if not improve upon last season.

Auburn Tigers: I know I may get some slack for letting them fall this low because believe me, any battle-tested team that beats Alabama is worthy of their respect. However, the Tigers ascension rests purely on the shoulders of Bo Nix. If he soars, LSU and Alabama may be in trouble next year, if he falters, Auburn will falter in a tough SEC conference. The real test comes with consecutive matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia in the middle of the season, and LSU and Alabama to close out the season.

Oklahoma State: I know most people give Texas the chance to dethrone Oklahoma as Big 12 champs, but with the return of Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace, it’s simply too tempting to pass up on the Cowboys as the favorites to challenge the Sooners. On top of that Texas has to travel to Stillwater for the regular season finale and so the Cowboys hold their own destiny next season. 

Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers are losing virtually most of their production on both sides of the ball via Johnathan Taylor, Tyler Biadasz and Quintez Cephus along with All Big-10 linebackers Zach Baun and Chris Orr. However, if next year’s defense resembles anything like last year’s, the Badgers will be in perfect shape. A three game stretch against Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota will tell us everything we need to know about this Badgers team. While they’ll still have at least a 10 win season, I don’t think they’ll be able to defend their divisional crown against Minnesota. 

Texas A&M Aggies: While it was a rocky road last season, the return of Kellen Mond will be beneficial for the offense. With another top ten recruiting class in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure, and plenty of experience returning on the defensive side of the ball, the Aggies face the same questions once again. Can they get over the hump of being an average SEC team? Answering that question correctly would involve a win over either Auburn, LSU or Alabama next season.

 Michigan Wolverines: The Wolverines have all of the talent they need on both sides of the ball, at this point it’s up to Jim Harbaugh, Josh Gattis and Don Brown on whether they can motivate their football team to rise above being an average group in the Big Ten. If the Wolverines want to be taken seriously again, they need an elite quarterback, it’s frankly that simple. The return of Chris Evans, Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell offer some promise along with at least some form of experience returning at every level on the defensive side of the ball such as Ambry Thomas and Aidan Hutchinson. However, a brutal schedule that opens with Washington, and pits the Wolverines against Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota in three of four consecutive weeks will either derail the Wolverines chances as a Big Ten contender, or prove just how resilient they can be. 

Arizona State Sun Devils: The Sun Devils shocked Oregon and Florida State late last season, Jayden Daniels is looking like the real deal, and even with the departure of Eno Benjamin, incoming true freshman Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum will get the opportunity to make an impact right away. The defense played well last season, however they will have a few questions to address this spring. Matchups against USC, Oregon and Utah should tell us how legitimate Herm Edwards’ team really is.

Texas Longhorns: After an underwhelming 8-5 campaign, Longhorn Nation isn’t back just quite yet. Fortunately, the return of Sam Ehlinger should inspire some confidence, however, he’ll have to get the job done without Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay. We’ll see what Chris Ash can do for a defense that returns eight players along with a healthy Caden Sterns after giving up 30.6 points per game in 2019. A trip to Baton Rouge to face the LSU Tigers in Week 2 will show us if Texas is ready to seriously compete for the Big 12 crown again.

North Carolina Tar Heels: Even at just 7-6, Mack Brown has inspired confidence back into Chapel Hill. Sam Howell could be something seriously special next season in an offense that averaged 33.1 points per game in 2019. On the defensive end of the field, All-ACC linebacker Chaz Surratt is wreaking havoc entering his second season as a linebacker. An early battle against Auburn, and later down the road against Miami (FL.) will be a great gauge on how far the Tar Heels, and their impressive recruiting class, can go heading into the 2020 campaign.

Miami Hurricanes: Don’t get me wrong, the fact that D’Eriq King will be under center for the Hurricanes excites the hell out of me, but there’s clearly a culture issue that’s keeping the Hurricanes from ever being a serious threat in the ACC Coastal, a squad this talented going 6-7 is flat out embarrassing. The Hurricanes return Brevin Jordan and Cam’Ron Harris on the offensive side of the ball, while Gregory Rousseau will continue to strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. However, if this squad wants to reclaim their respect as serious ACC title contenders, they’ll need to establish consistency with wins over Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia. 

Tennessee Volunteers: With the return of Trey Smith, and Cade Mays returning to his home state, whoever lines up for the Vols will have very solid pass protection in front of them, which will be important if they want to replace the losses of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. The defense played better in the back end of the season and sophomore Henry To’o To’o is inspiring a lot of confidence on that side of the ball. The Vols finished 2019 on a high note, but will face an early season test in Norman against the Sooners, before hosting Alabama and Florida later in the season. If Tennessee wants to take a step forward, they can’t sputter against non-conference opponents again because the SEC competition is already difficult enough.

Boise State: The Mountain West champions return plenty of experience in the trenches, but the offensive line will need to do a much better job of protecting sophomore Hank Bachmeier if they want to repeat as champions next season. George Holani’s presence will also definitely get the offense moving along. A senior heavy defense will be returning, but they’ll absolutely miss the production of Curtis Weaver. Expect a tough matchup against Florida State early on, and with the resurgence of Air Force, expect Boise State to get a couple real tests next season.

Air Force Falcons: When you go from 5-7 in 2018, to 11-2 in just one season it tends to inspire a lot of confidence for the future. With wins over Utah State, Army and Washington State to cap off the season, Troy Calhoun’s unit will be seriously looking to challenge Boise State for the Mountain West crown. They open the season with a tough four-game stretch that includes matchups against Purdue, Navy and Boise State in three of their first four weeks. However, if they’re able to weather the storm through those first few games, they find themselves in a favorable position when the Mountain West championship game rolls around. 

USC Trojans: The Pac-12 not only got more talented, but so did the Trojans non-conference schedule. With matchups against Alabama on Notre Dame on tap, they Trojans also have to deal with Oregon and Arizona State. On the bright side Kedon Slovis looks like the guy moving forward, and Amon-Ra St.Brown will lead a talented receiving corps, but the offensive line has got to perform better. The defensive side of the ball will be under new management, which will hopefully get them out of the rut they’ve been in, but don’t expect too many surprises from this Trojans team. 

Cincinnati Bearcats: Normally Group of Five teams don’t get too much love in the Top 25, but Luke Fickell has established a tradition of excellence within the Bearcats program winning 22 games in two seasons. You can thank quarterback Desmond Ridder, the now departed Michael Warren II and a stout defense for last year’s stellar season.  Early season tests against Nebraska and Memphis (who beat them in two consecutive weeks) will be critical for the Bearcats, but will benefit them greatly if they can walk away with victories against both teams. 

Purdue Boilermakers: Take away the mountain of injuries that the Boilermakers had to face, and you’d have been looking at a very scary Purdue football team. With aerial threat Rondale Moore returning from injury, paired with All-Big Ten true freshman David Bell, the offense will be looking to make some serious noise next season. True freshman All-Big Ten defensive linemen George Karlaftis paired with the return of Lorenzo Neal should inspire some confidence in new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The Boilermakers face an early season test in Lincoln against Nebraska and have to deal with Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa in the tail end of the season before their Old Oaken Bucket rivalry with Indiana. But if they can stay healthy throughout the entire season, it’s not a reach to see if Purdue can start making serious noise in the Big Ten again.