- USC (2019: 8-5)
Impact Returning Players: Kedon Slovis (QB) & Tyler Vaughns (WR)
USC had a lot of ups and downs last season, but that is to be expected with a true freshman QB. Clay Helton will have a lot of talent returning from a very young 2019 team that was 1 win away from the PAC-12 championship. Due to some recruiting struggles for this team, optimism should be contained until further notice. A ridiculous schedule with games against 3 teams in the Top 10 (Alabama, Oregon, & Notre Dame) of this poll might limit the ceiling for this team.
Kedon Slovis throws pass in 2019 Holiday Bowl. (Source: LA Times)
- Baylor (2019: 11-3)
Impact Returning Players: Charlie Brewer (QB) & Xavier Newman-Johnson (G)
Dave Arranda steps into big shoes left by Matt Rhule; who departed to the NFL this offseason. Arranda has a lot of talent to work with in his first season in Waco, but a lot of talent will depart to the NFL. A tough opening game against Ole Miss will dictate the trajectory of this team next season, especially with road tests against Texas and Oklahoma looming in October. Arranda will have his hands full come next year, but a bowl game should be in reach for the Bears.
- Iowa State (2019: 7-6)
Impact Returning Players: Brock Purdy (QB) & Mike Rose (LB)
Another BIG-12 team makes the rankings and this team returns a lot of talent from the 2019 season. Multiple close losses made the record look much worse than it should have been. Most of the defense returns and multiple offensive weapons will return, which makes the Cyclones are dark horse in a stacked BIG-12 next season. Matt Campbell turned down multiple high-profile offers to return to Ames, IA and expect it to pay off soon. A trip to Kinnick Stadium (Iowa) will be a tricky Week 2 game, but the schedule down the stretch will lend some easier wins.
- UCF (2019: 10-3)
Impact Returning Players: Dillion Gabriel (QB) & Antwan Collier (S)
UCF had a down year compared to previous years, but when your down year yields 10 wins then you must be doing something right. The AAC was extremely strong last year and I do not expect that to change. UCF returns almost all of its explosive offense from 2019 and a lot of defensive production will be back as well. A huge matchup with North Carolina will kick off the season in a big way, while a tough road matchup against Memphis awaits in the final week of the season. Playing games against Cincinnati, Tulane, and Temple at home should help UCF compete for another AAC title.
- Michigan (2019: 9-4)
Impact Returning Players: Nico Collins (WR) & Aidan Hutchinson (DE)
The Shea Patterson (QB) era in Ann Arbor is finally over and Jim Harbaugh will have to hope the replacement can help him finally get over the Ohio State hump. There is talent returning on both sides of the ball, but there are some holes Harbaugh must fill for this team to be competitive. The schedule will be daunting with road games against Washington, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Harbaugh’s seat is red hot after another year of losing its biggest games in 2019. Will this be the final year of John Harbaugh? I believe it is.
Nico Collins breaks away from Ohio State defenders. (Source: Detroit Free Press)
- Memphis (2019: 12-2)
Impact Returning Players: Damonte Coxie (WR) & Kenny Gainwell (RB)
Memphis will be without Mike Norvell, who left for Florida State, but will have plenty of firepower to help out new coach Ryan Silverfield. Brady White (QB) returns for another year and the offense stays loaded. Defensive improvements need to be made (See Cotton Bowl), but I think this team has an argument for the best Group of 5 team in the country. Road games against Purdue and Cincinnati will prove to be tough tests, but if the Tigers find a way to win watch out.
- Iowa (2019: 10-3)
Impact Returning Players: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (WR) & Tyler Goodson (RB)
The Hawkeyes will be losing a ton of production and experience on both sides of the ball. Spencer Petras (QB) is expected to step into the role vacated by Nate Stanley and I believe it will be an upgrade in the long run. The Hawkeyes will return a lot of talent in the backend of the defense, but I think the loss of a majority of the defensive line will prove costly early in the season. Games on the road against Penn State, Ohio State, and Minnesota will be a huge test for a 1st year starting QB and a young front seven. I am expecting growing pains for the Hawkeyes this year.
- Boise State (2019: 12-2)
Impact Returning Players: Hank Bachmeier (QB) & Avery Williams (CB)
Boise State returns a lot of offensive production from last season and will have a strong secondary to lean on. This team will be one of the more experienced next season with most starters being seniors. A weak schedule will always be an issue with fans and this next season will not do anything to quiet the doubters. A home game against Florida State was deemed to be a big game, but the Seminoles have a new head coach and a lot of issues. Look for the Broncos to repeat as Mountain West champions in 2020.
- Wisconsin (2019: 10-4)
Impact Returning Players: Jack Coan (QB) & Reggie Pearson (S)
The loss of Jonathan Taylor will hurt this team, but we cannot doubt the running back pipeline that has run out of Madison for years now. Wisconsin has an extremely tough schedule with games on the road against Michigan & Iowa, plus a neutral site game against Notre Dame. The Badgers should be able to pick up a few wins along the way to stay competitive, but I do not see another Rose Bowl berth this season.
- Cincinnati (2019: 11-3)
Impact Returning Players: Desmond Ridder (QB) & Darrick Forrest (S)
The highest Group of 5 team in these rankings falls at #16 and it is the Cincinnati Bearcats. Desmond Ridder enters his 3rd year as the starting QB and the Bearcats bring in Alabama Crimson Tide transfer Jerome Ford (RB). This team is projected to return almost the entire defensive unit from 2019 and most of its production on offense. This is my pick right now to take the Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s Six bowl in 2020. The schedule seems to favor the Bearcats, but road trips to Nebraska, UCF, and SMU should offer tests and wins here should impress the committee.
Desmond Ridder celebrates a touchdown against UCLA. (Source: SB Nation)
- Minnesota (2019: 11-2)
Impact Returning Players: Jordan Howden (S) & Rashod Bateman (WR)
The Gophers had one of the more impressive seasons in 2019 considering the history of this program. PJ Fleck decided to stay in Minneapolis, which can only raise expectations in 2020. Minnesota should make a run to the BIG-10 championship this year, since their schedule is very favorable. Road games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska should offer difficult trips but Minnesota will be the better team in those matchups. The offense will be loaded, but replacing the loss of Antoine Winfield (DB) will be the key to a strong defensive season in Minneapolis.
- LSU (2019: 15-0)
Impact Returning Players: Derek Stingley (CB) & Ja’Marr Chase (WR)
I know there will be a lot of overreaction to having the defending national champions at #14, but this is a poll for 2020. Losses of Joe Burrow (QB), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB), Justin Jefferson (WR), Rashard Lawrence (DE), and Grant Delpit (DB) will be too much to overcome in my opinion. That is not even mentioning the losses of defensive coordinator Dave Arranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Trips to Florida, Auburn, and Texas A&M loom and those teams will be looking to avenge losses to the Tigers last year. Adding in home games against Alabama & Texas will make this schedule a daunting task, one in which LSU drops a few games in 2020.
Derek Stingley (#24) intercepts a pass in the SEC Championship. (Source: USA Today)
- Texas A&M (2019: 8-5)
Impact Returning Players: Kellen Mond (QB) & Anthony Hines III (LB)
I know it seems that #13 is extremely high for an 8-5 team, but this is the rankings for the 2020 season. The schedule takes a huge jump down in terms of competitiveness, mostly due to Clemson being replaced with a home game against Colorado. Texas A&M returns Kellen Mond (QB) and I expect Mond to take a huge leap in his senior year. Road matchups against Auburn and Alabama will be tough tests, but facing South Carolina and Vanderbilt from the East will greatly improve the Aggies record from last year. Look for Jimbo Fisher to shock a lot of people with this team next season and be a dark horse to represent the SEC West in Atlanta.
- Auburn (2019: 9-4)
Impact Returning Players: Bo Nix (QB) & KJ Britt (LB)
Gus Malzahn is back on the hot seat after losing the Outback Bowl in embarrassing fashion. Luckily Bo Nix (QB) returns and all but 2 WRs and RBs return to lead a stacked offense into 2020. Chad Morris will step into the offensive coordinator role, but how much impact he has will remain to be seen. Kevin Steele must try to replace Derrick Brown (DT) & Marlon Davidson (DE), but all starting LBs from 2019 return to ease this burden. The schedule is more favorable, but road games against Georgia & Alabama will be tough since the Tigers have not won in Athens since 2005 and Tuscaloosa since 2010. Expect the Tigers to compete for the SEC West, but Nix will have to show major improvements in his game throughout his sophomore campaign.
- North Carolina (2019: 7-6)
Impact Returning Players: Sam Howell (QB) & Chazz Surratt (LB)
The Tar Heels deserve some respect and if you disagree, then you must have missed them in 2019. The record does not reflect the talent on this North Carolina team and if you are doubting Mack Brown, then go look at Texas from 1998-2013. A top 20 recruiting class will head to campus soon; highlighted by a Top 30 recruit Desmond Evans (DE). Sam Howell was the best freshman QB last season and all his weapons will return to help him improve in Year 2. The schedule is not as weak as most think, with games on the road against UCF & Auburn to begin the season. If the Tar Heels start 2-0, I expect an undefeated matchup in Charlotte against Clemson for the ACC championship.
Sam Howell (#7) breaks a run against South Carolina. (Source: USA Today)
- Oklahoma State (2019: 8-5)
Impact Returning Players: Chuba Hubbard (RB) & Tylan Wallace (WR)
Before you leave this article, because you think it is absurd that Oklahoma State is in my Top 10 after an 8-5 year; let me explain. Chuba Hubbard (RB) returns for his RS(JR) season after leading the FBS in rushing yards and is my guarantee to be in New York for the heisman next season. Add that to returning wide receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders; Mike Gundy will have the most explosive offense of his 15-year tenure at Oklahoma State. The key to success will be defensive improvement, but with the leadership of Malcolm Rodriguez (DB) this unit will be fine. The trip to Norman, OK to face Oklahoma will determine the trajectory of the Cowboys’ season.
Chuba Hubbard scores a touchdown against TCU. (Source: SB Nation)
- Penn State (2019: 11-2)
Impact Returning Players: Journey Brown (RB) & Micah Parsons (LB)
Penn State will have the best opportunity to knock off the king in Columbus (Ohio State). The Nittany Lions return almost every starter from an offense that found its rhythm late in the season. The defense has been elite for years now and that should not change with Micah Parsons returning to lead the defense. There will be some holes on the defensive line that need to be filled, but Penn State could be scary throughout the 2020 season. James Franklin is building something special here and I think it will pay off with a BIG-10 championship soon.
Micah Parsons celebrates big play in the Cotton Bowl. (Source: SB Nation)
- Georgia (2019: 12-2)
Impact Returning Players: George Pickens (WR) & Richard LeCounte (S)
Kirby Smart is going to have one heck of a rebuild on his hands for the 2020 season. 10 of the 11 offensive starters from 2019 are gone and the defense was ravaged with early draft decisions. Luckily Georgia boasts one of the best recruiting hauls in the country this year and their class last year was ranked 2nd by 247Sports. The schedule for the Bulldogs will not be easy with a road trip to Tuscaloosa looming in Week 3 to face the Crimson Tide. An opening game against Virginia, who went to the Orange Bowl in 2019, will be a tough test in Week 1. Transfer Jamie Newman (QB) from Wake Forest will have big shoes to fill, but has plenty of talent and experience to keep the Bulldogs afloat in a tough SEC.
- Notre Dame (2019: 11-2)
Impact Returning Players: Ian Book (QB) & Liam Eichenberg (OT)
The Fighting Irish are coming off a big 11-win season and Brian Kelly looks to take the next step. Ian Book (QB) returning for his senior year was a huge boost for this team and he will be helped by all 5 offensive linemen coming back for 2020. The defense will have some question marks early, but look for younger players like Kyle Hamilton (S) to pick up the slack. A daunting schedule lies ahead for the Fighting Irish; with games against Clemson, Navy, Stanford, & Wisconsin on the slate. The Fighting Irish have heard criticism about their schedule and that should be laid to rest in 2020. If this team picks up multiple wins over any of those four teams, then look out for this team when the final playoff rankings come out in December.
Ian Book throws a pass against Boston College. (Source: SI.com)
- Oklahoma (2019: 12-2)
Impact Returning Players: Kennedy Brooks (RB) & Brendan Radley-Hiles (DB)
I am cautiously optimistic about this team going into the 2020 season. Losses of Jalen Hurts (QB), CeeDee Lamb (WR), & Kenneth Murray (LB) will be tough to overcome for Lincoln Riley. This team has a solid recruiting class coming into Norman and multiple backups that were highly touted out of high school, such as 5-star QB Spencer Rattler. The schedule will have some tests for the Sooners young nucleus, such as Tennessee early in season. A sneaky matchup will come in Week 4 when the Sooners head to West Point to take on Army, which will surely be motivated to avenge their 7-point loss in Norman two years ago. The BIG-12 will be harder than ever to win, but it would be foolish to count out Lincoln Riley and the Sooners.
- Oregon (2019: 12-2)
Impact Returning Players: Kayvon Thibodeaux (DE) & CJ Verdell (RB)
The best team in the PAC-12, by a significant amount in my opinion, appears here in these rankings. This Oregon team was 1-play away from the playoffs last season and I expect this team to be on a mission in 2020. The defense returns 9 starters, including freshman sensation Kayvon Thibodeaux, which should be among the elite defensive units in 2020. The loss of Justin Herbert (QB) will sting, but all 3 candidates fighting for the job are immensely talented. The schedule works perfectly into the Ducks favor with all the toughest games being in Autzen Stadium. Ohio State will travel to Eugene for a primetime showdown in Week 2, which could be a playoff changing win for either program. Oregon looks like a lock for 10-12 wins next season and I would bet on the Ducks being the playoffs right now.
Kayvon Thibodeaux (#5) moves in for the sack against Utah. (Source: 247Sports)
- Florida (2019: 11-2)
Impact Returning Players: Kyle Trask (QB) & Marco Wilson (DB)
With the mass exodus of talent at rival Georgia, I expect the Gators down in Gainesville to take full advantage of that during the 2020 season. Kyle Trask (QB) will command the potent Dan Mullen offense for one more year and I expect Trask to be one of the best QBs in the SEC this season. The front seven will have some young faces, but this defense will have elite talent next season. The schedule is not the toughest, but matchups against LSU, Georgia, & Florida State will test the Gators. I expect the Gators to take the SEC East next season and make a strong run at the playoffs for the first time in school history.
- Alabama (2019: 11-2)
Impact Returning Players: Alex Leatherwood (OT) & Najee Harris (RB)
The Crimson Tide may have lost Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Jerry Jeudy (WR), but this team is overflowing with talent and should not miss a beat. The fact a 2-loss season classifies as a bad season shows how dominant Nick Saban has been in his tenure in Tuscaloosa. The QB battle will be one to watch this spring, but I think Mac Jones does enough to keep his job this season. The schedule is favorable since Auburn, Texas A&M, & Georgia all travel to Tuscaloosa for the 2020 season. A matchup against LSU in Death Valley will be the biggest road test, but Joe Burrow will not be there to save the Tigers in 2020. I completely expect the Crimson Tide to be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship and make a strong playoff run.
Alex Leatherwood setting up to block against Duke. (Source: Montgomery Advertiser)
- Ohio State (2019: 13-1)
Impact Returning Players: Justin Fields (QB) & Shaun Wade (DB)
Ryan Day enters his 2nd year in Columbus with one of the most talented teams in the country. Offensive weapons, such as K.J. Hill (WR), J.K. Dobbins (RB), and Austin Mack (WR) all head to the NFL. Young players will have to step up, but Justin Fields (QB) should have plenty of talent to work with. The defense will have a lot of new faces in the secondary, but Ohio State has highly touted players to step in and contribute immediately. The road back to the playoffs will not be easy, since road trips against Oregon & Penn State will be tough matchups for the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have the talent to win a National Championship, but youth at multiple positions will be huge question marks early.
Justin Fields fights to stay in-bounds against Nebraska. (Source: Bleacher Report)
- Clemson (2019: 14-1)
Impact Returning Players: Trevor Lawrence (QB) & Xavier Thomas (DE)
Being one game short of back-to-back National Championships will have the Tigers motivated for the 2020 season. No team will have a better returning offensive nucleus than Clemson with Trevor Lawrence (QB), Travis Etienne (RB), & Justyn Ross (WR) all returning for the next season. This team is almost a lock to make the playoffs next season, but anything can happen in college football. The offensive line must replace 4 starters and the secondary will need some young talent to step up and contribute immediately. Look out for rising sophomores Andrew Booth Jr. (DB) & K.J. Henry (DE) to be the next stars of this Clemson defense. The schedule looks to be much improved since last season, but many people will still complain. Road games against Notre Dame & Florida State will both test the Tigers, but Clemson should win both of those games. Games against South Carolina & Virginia should further improve the resume if Clemson can escape both games with a win. I fully expect Clemson to be one of the four teams in the playoffs and compete for another National Championship.
Xavier Thomas (#3) celebrates a big play against Ohio State. (Source: The Spun)