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College football: The 25 biggest storylines entering the 2020 season

Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg
·21 min read
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With the calendar turning over to the month of July, it means we’re fewer than two months from the start of the 2020 college football season — at least as currently scheduled. This year’s Week 0 matchups are slated for Aug. 29 with four FBS matchups, but there understandably has been very little talk of on-the-field issues given the events of this offseason — both the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest in the country.

There is still much to sort through with respect to the season. But for now, we decided it was worth diving into the biggest on-field storylines to consider entering the 2020 campaign.

1. Impact of COVID-19

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. College football programs have trickled back to campus in recent weeks under extreme precaution, yet some prominent programs (like Clemson and Texas) have seen a significant number of positive tests among their players. We still don’t know if the season will even start on time. Could it get moved to spring? Could some conferences opt for league-only play? Will there be fans in the stands?

Whenever the season does start — we all know there’s too much money at stake for the season to be called off altogether — programs will be walking tightropes along the way to try to keep players safe. Nothing about this season is going to be normal.

2. New faces leading LSU after national title

LSU’s 2019 season was nothing short of magical. The Tigers upgraded their offensive system and soared to new heights behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. By the time the dust settled, the Tigers were 15-0, national champions and one of the best teams in college football history.

Ed Orgeron’s group will look much different in 2020, however. Burrow is gone to the NFL. So are many others as 13 of Burrow’s teammates were NFL draft picks, too. Orgeron’s secret weapon, passing game coordinator Joe Brady, is off to the NFL as well. Brady joined the staff of Matt Rhule with the Carolina Panthers. The man replacing Rhule at Baylor is Orgeron’s defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda.

But there’s still plenty of talent left behind in Baton Rouge. Ja’Marr Chase may be the best wide receiver in the country, providing an excellent security blanket for likely new starting QB Myles Brennan. The defense was hit hard by NFL departures, but returns a star cornerback in Derek Stingley Jr. and adds intriguing graduate transfer linebacker Jabril Cox via North Dakota State.

3. Replacing Tua at Alabama

The most high-profile quarterback competition is the race to replace Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama. Tagovailoa was one of the sport’s biggest stars until his unfortunate hip injury late last fall. When Tagovailoa went down, he was replaced by Mac Jones. Jones started the last three games of the year and performed quite well, but he will have to fend off Bryce Young, the top quarterback recruit in the country.

Jones may have a leg up in the competition due to his experience and the pandemic-affected offseason, but Young is the more talented player. Whoever plays quarterback will lead a stacked team eager to get over last year’s disappointment and reclaim its longstanding position above LSU atop the SEC West standings.

4. Trevor Lawrence’s final season at Clemson

Trevor Lawrence has lived up to the hype during his time at Clemson. He led the Tigers to a dominant national championship run as a true freshman, but finally met his match in LSU’s Joe Burrow in last year’s title game. LSU’s 42-25 victory over Clemson in New Orleans in January was the first loss of Lawrence’s college career. A surefire first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Lawrence is surely entering his final college season. He’ll want to go out on a high note with another national title, but the Tigers do have a bit of an inexperience factor at receiver thanks to Justyn Ross’ injury. The program recruits at such a high level, though, it’s hard to envision anything other than another cakewalk through the ACC and into the College Football Playoff.

5. The Spencer Rattler era at Oklahoma

It is time for Spencer Rattler to take the quarterback reins at Oklahoma. He has big shoes to fill. Rattler follows in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts in Lincoln Riley’s high-flying offense. The former five-star recruit saw brief action a year ago during blowouts, but will get to showcase his talents on a much bigger scale should he be named OU’s starter as expected.

Rivals national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney told Yahoo Sports that Rattler reminds him of “a taller Kyler Murray with the running skills of Baker Mayfield, just without the polish yet.”

“Rattler is most comfortable sitting in the pocket and throwing but he’s almost just as good at getting out and running for yards as well. For Rattler’s dual-threat abilities and playmaking style, he couldn’t have picked a better offense,” Gorney told Yahoo Sports.

6. National title or bust for Ohio State

For the level of dominance Ohio State has maintained in the Big Ten in the last decade, it only has one national championship to show for it. Is 2020 a year where the Buckeyes can get back to the mountaintop? OSU had first-year head coach Ryan Day and a first-year starter at quarterback in Justin Fields leading the charge last fall, and the Buckeyes dropped a heartbreaker to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals — a game that saw Fields get outdueled by Lawrence. OSU may not have J.K. Dobbins in the backfield or Chase Young crashing off the edge in 2020, but it still has a roster overflowing in talent. OSU also has a worthy divisional foe in Penn State nipping at its heels.

Justin Fields is entering his second season at Ohio State after finishing as a Heisman finalist in 2019. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Justin Fields is entering his second season at Ohio State after finishing as a Heisman finalist in 2019. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

7. A new-look offense at Georgia

What will Georgia’s offense look like in the first year after Jake Fromm? Fromm’s third and final year at the school under offensive coordinator James Coley was far from spectacular. And as Fromm went to the NFL — where he fell to the fifth round — Georgia parted ways with Coley.

Enter former Southern Miss coach and NFL offensive coordinator Todd Monken as Georgia’s new OC and former Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman as a graduate transfer.

Georgia’s offense should be much more dynamic in 2020 with Newman and Monken. It certainly can’t be less dynamic than it was in 2019. But how good will it actually be? Newman’s stats at Wake Forest might have been inflated by the team’s tempo, and a lack of spring practices at UGA could hinder his transition.

8. Can Florida challenge UGA in the SEC East?

If you’re looking to bet on a team that isn’t a favorite in the SEC, Florida is worth a look.

UF is 21-5 overall and has won a New Year’s Six bowl game in Dan Mullen’s first two seasons leading the program. Coming off an 11-2 record in 2019, you can argue that the Gators have the SEC’s best returning QB in Kyle Trask and TE Kyle Pitts, one of the more dynamic players in the country, highlights a deep group of weapons on offense.

Georgia has won each of the last three SEC East titles, but this could be Florida’s best chance to get back to the SEC title game for the first time since 2015. The Gators have not won the SEC title since 2008.

9. Texas, Oklahoma State challenging OU in Big 12

Will Oklahoma’s Big 12 dominance continue in 2020? The Sooners have won the conference title the last five seasons, but Texas and Oklahoma State are trying to close the gap. Texas entered 2019 with massive expectations, but finished the year with a disappointing 8-5 record. There’s a lot of returning talent entering 2020, including a senior quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, and a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich. The Longhorns are a legitimate threat.

So is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys return a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back with Chuba Hubbard, who led the nation in rushing last fall. Spencer Sanders is back at quarterback and should be more polished as a redshirt sophomore — especially with star wide receiver Tylan Wallace healthy.

Last year it was an off-the-radar team, Baylor, that most significantly challenged OU. If it’s not Texas or Oklahoma State, perhaps a team like Iowa State or TCU makes a Baylor-esque jump in 2020.

10. The lingering situation at Oklahoma State

Every time you watch an Oklahoma State game, you will hear about the stand Hubbard and others took against their coach, Mike Gundy. OSU players, led by Hubbard, called out Gundy last month when the coach was photographed wearing a shirt promoting a far-right network that brazenly trades in conspiracy theories and has been a vocal opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement.

That prompted an investigation into Gundy and how he oversees the football program. The school said Gundy needed to make strides in the way he builds relationships with players, but its review found “no signs or indications of racism.”

Oklahoma State is going to be pretty highly ranked when the season begins. Whether the turmoil carries over into the season and affects on-field performances remains to be seen.

11. Can the Pac-12 break its CFP drought?

With just two total appearances, the Pac-12 has been the least successful power conference of the College Football Playoff era. In fact, it has been three full seasons without a Pac-12 participant in the four-team playoff field. Will that change in 2020?

Most think Oregon is the conference’s best hope. The Ducks won the Pac-12 title a year ago and return a stacked defense, but have to replace Justin Herbert at quarterback. Oregon also has a new offensive coordinator with Joe Moorhead arriving in Eugene. USC should have a high-powered offense with Kedon Slovis returning at QB, but a new Todd Orlando-led defense hasn’t had much time to gel this offseason.

Perennial conference contender Washington is entering a new era with Jimmy Lake as head coach while Arizona State has a potential star at quarterback in Jayden Daniels. Utah, after blowing its CFP chance, has to replace many of its top players from 2019.

12. Entering Year 6 of the Harbaugh era at Michigan

The question re-emerges every offseason: Is this the year Jim Harbaugh coaches Michigan to a Big Ten title? Through Harbaugh’s five seasons back in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have yet to even win the Big Ten East. Harbaugh has certainly raised Michigan’s level of play from the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke tenures, but it’s fair to say that Michigan fans expected more — especially when stacked up against rival Ohio State (OSU has won eight straight in the series).

Harbaugh was on the heels of an excellent run at Stanford and a Super Bowl trip with the San Francisco 49ers and was praised for his quarterback development (Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick) at both stops. At Michigan, Harbaugh’s quarterback play has been consistently underwhelming, from recruiting to development to on-field performance. Shea Patterson, a high-profile transfer from Ole Miss, is the latest example. Patterson is out of the equation now, though, and Harbaugh will work in a new starter in 2020 (likely Joe Milton or Dylan McCaffrey). The 2020 season also marks the second season for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in Ann Arbor. The transition into his system was slow, but the offense seemed to turn a corner late last season.

Michigan is entering its sixth season with Jim Harbaugh as head coach. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Michigan is entering its sixth season with Jim Harbaugh as head coach. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

13. Notre Dame’s place in the CFP landscape

Notre Dame enters the 2020 season in a familiar place. If the Irish go undefeated they’re in the playoff. And they’re certainly in the conversation with an 11-1 campaign.

Notre Dame’s schedule includes Wisconsin, Clemson and USC as well as games against Stanford, Navy, Louisville and Pitt. It could end up being one of the toughest slates in the country if the ACC resembles the conference it was in 2018.

If the Irish contend for the playoff in 2020, it’ll likely be because Ian Book has another great year. Book needs 39 TD passes to pass Brady Quinn for the most of any Notre Dame QB. If Book takes a step forward with his play, Notre Dame will be a playoff contender.

14. Transfer quarterbacks to know

The 2019 College Football Playoff field saw three teams led by transfer quarterbacks. Will that trend continue in 2020? With Fields returning at Ohio State, there’s a very good chance at least one transfer QB will be part of the 2020 field. Who are the candidates to be the others? Perhaps it’s Newman at Georgia. Newman threw for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns at Wake a year ago and has the folks in Athens excited.

Other notable transfer quarterbacks include D’Eriq King (Houston) at Miami, ex-Boston College signal caller Anthony Brown at Oregon, Stanford transfer K.J. Costello with Mike Leach at Mississippi State, and Jake Bentley (from South Carolina) at Utah. Of that group, Brown is part of the team with the highest expectations. He could find himself behind Tyler Shough (Justin Herbert’s 2019 backup) on the depth chart, however.

15. Important season for Florida State, Miami

Will the gap between Clemson and the rest of the ACC ever shrink? If any programs are ever going to close the gap, you’d think it would be Florida State or Miami. The recruiting base alone gives those schools an edge over much of the ACC, but both have had to scratch and claw just to reach bowl games the past two seasons.

Perhaps things will begin to change in 2020. Miami is entering its second season under Manny Diaz. The first ended with three consecutive losses to FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech and a 6-7 record. Not great. Diaz is hopeful a group of transfers headlined by quarterback D’Eriq King will be able to give the team an immediate jolt of talent. Florida State, after quickly moving on from Willie Taggart, has ex-Memphis coach Mike Norvell in the fold for his first year in Tallahassee.

16. New coaches in Mississippi

Both SEC schools in Mississippi made splashy hires over the offseason when they didn’t necessarily need to make moves. But both were clearly unhappy with the status quo.

Ole Miss swapped out Matt Luke for Lane Kiffin while Mississippi State traded Joe Moorhead for Mike Leach. Both Kiffin and Leach are creative offensive minds and are being counted on to lift their programs into the top three of the best division in college football.

It may take a little time, however. Alabama isn’t going anywhere as long as Nick Saban is coach and LSU is the defending national champion. Leach will need to recruit players to fit his offense while Kiffin inherits an Ole Miss defense that gave up six yards a play.

Lane Kiffin, after three years at Florida Atlantic, is the new head coach at Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Lane Kiffin, after three years at Florida Atlantic, is the new head coach at Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

17. New coaches facing huge disadvantage

Every new coach entering the 2020 season will be effectively coaching his team for the first time on the field in preseason camp. With spring practices cancelled across the country because of the coronavirus, teams are yet to have their first official on-field preparations for the 2020 season.

Could that mean bigger curves for guys like Mike Norvell at Florida State, Mel Tucker at Michigan State, Eli Drinkwitz at Missouri and Jeff Scott at South Florida? All four of those coaches are inheriting brand new programs. While Washington’s Jimmy Lake is taking over the Huskies for the first time, he has familiarity as Chris Petersen’s longtime defensive coordinator. That decision to replace Petersen from within could pay dividends at the beginning of the 2020 season.

Of all the coaches taking over Power Five programs in 2020, Tucker may have the toughest road ahead. He was hired late in the offseason after Mark Dantonio abruptly retired and didn’t have much time to assemble a recruiting class. He’s also at a school that struggled in 2019 and doesn’t have a clear starting quarterback entering the season. Karl Dorrell, the man replacing Tucker at Colorado, is in a really tough spot, too.

18. Looming NIL legislation

Programs are already looking ahead to the 2021 season where players are likely to be eligible to receive endorsement and sponsorship income from third parties after the NCAA loosens its name, image and likeness rules.

Schools have started partnering with outside consulting groups to educate players on the impending rule changes. A big thing for athletes will be their potential monetization of social media platforms as they could be eligible to get paid for marketing posts. The schools that best educate their players about the new rules and best market the potential earning opportunities to recruits could have an advantage over the next recruiting cycle or two.

19. How does Minnesota build off its 2019 triumph?

Just like in 2019, the Big Ten West could be determined by the winner of Minnesota’s matchup vs. Wisconsin.

Minnesota and Wisconsin look to be the two best teams in the division in 2020 and it’s not going to be a shock if Minnesota wins on the road at Camp Randall.

The Gophers, coming off an 11-2 mark, return eight starters on an offense that was extremely efficient in 2019, including QB Tanner Morgan and WR Rashod Bateman. Bateman is one of the best wide receivers in college football and an offensive line that returns fully intact from 2019 should pave the way a deep group of running backs. Minnesota’s players may still be learning the intricacies of new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford’s offense (Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State) in the early weeks of the season, but the Gophers could be favored in every game outside of that trip to Wisconsin.

20. A loaded Group of Five battle

Will we see a surprise team contend for the Group of Five conference’s New Year’s Six bowl berth? Or will the contenders for that precious spot be the usual suspects?

The top of the AAC is loaded. Cincinnati went 11-3 in 2019 but lost consecutive games against Memphis at the end of the season to miss out on a New Year’s Six berth. Memphis, who lost to Penn State in last year’s Cotton Bowl, returns QB Brady White and a bevy of speed on offense.

UCF will challenge the Bearcats and Tigers for AAC supremacy. Dillon Gabriel is back for coach Josh Heupel’s squad and the Knights play North Carolina and Georgia Tech in the first three weeks of the season. Wins against Power Five opponents would give UCF a nice strength-of-schedule advantage.

In the Mountain West, Boise State hosts Florida State on Sept. 19 after playing at Air Force on Sept. 12 and hosting Georgia Southern in Week 1. That’s a sneaky good three-game start to the season. If the Broncos are undefeated after playing Marshall in Week 4, they’ll have a great shot at that NY6 spot too.

21. Tennessee is finally trending up

When Tennessee started 1-4 in 2019, it was hard to convince anybody the program was headed on the right track under Jeremy Pruitt. But the Vols rebounded impressively, winning seven of their final eight games. Couple that second half with a sizzling streak on the recruiting trail — UT’s 2021 class is currently ranked No. 2 nationally — and you’ve got overflowing optimism in Knoxville.

Whether the Vols have enough talent to realistically contend for an SEC East title in 2020 remains to be seen. Quarterback play has been an issue, but Jarrett Guarantano, now a senior, has shown flashes throughout his career that he can be a solid SEC-level starter. Pruitt’s defense played a lot of young faces last year, and has the chance to be quite good moving forward.

A Week 2 trip to Oklahoma could tell us a lot about the Vols.

22. The ascendance of North Carolina

Speaking of programs on the rise, how about North Carolina? Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill was questioned across the country, but it is looking like a mighty prudent move so far. Brown inherited a program that won a combined five games in 2017 and 2018 and immediately had a winning record (7-6) in 2019.

Sam Howell, a budding star at quarterback that Brown flipped from Florida State, is UNC’s foundational piece. And there are more in the pipeline. Like Tennessee, North Carolina is recruiting at an impressively high level. UNC’s 2021 class is currently ranked No. 8 in the country and was recently boosted by a commitment from five-star cornerback Tony Grimes.

UNC is a program to keep an eye on.

Mack Brown is leading a resurgence at North Carolina. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Mack Brown is leading a resurgence at North Carolina. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

23. Reason for hope at Nebraska?

The Scott Frost era at Nebraska has been a disappointment so far. Those who thought Frost, coming home to Lincoln after his “national title” run at UCF, could quickly turn around his alma mater have quickly realized there is much more work to be done.

The Huskers are 9-15 overall with just a 6-12 mark in Big Ten play in Frost’s two seasons. Expectations were high entering 2019, but the Huskers went 5-7, losing five of their final six games to miss a bowl game for the third straight season — something that hasn’t happened since 1959-61.

So where does Nebraska fit in the Big Ten West? Wisconsin has been a step above its divisional foes for years. Iowa has been at least in contention for the division title most years. Minnesota is coming off a triumphant 2019 season. The 2020 season should be pivotal for the development of Frost’s program.

24. Virginia Tech replacing legendary Bud Foster

For the first time since 1986, Virginia Tech won’t have Bud Foster on its coaching staff. The longtime Hokies assistant — defensive coordinator since 1995 — decided to retire after the 2019 campaign. Replacing him is Justin Hamilton, who was promoted from safeties coach. Those are obviously big shoes to fill for a program that had a whirlwind 2019 season.

Things looked really bad early on for the Hokies, and there were even questions about Justin Fuente’s job status after a disheartening 45-10 home loss to Duke. A switch to Hendon Hooker at quarterback helped the Hokies turn things around in the second half. They won six of their next seven games, including a near-upset of Notre Dame, and missed out on a division title by losing to rival Virginia in the season finale.

The 2020 Hokies will be visited by Penn State in Week 2 in what will be a strong litmus test for the program.

25. Houston’s redshirted players

After a 1-3 start to 2019, Houston tried something radical. Will it pay off?

The Cougars and new coach Dana Holgorsen took full advantage of a new NCAA rule that allowed players to redshirt after playing four or fewer games. QB D’Eriq King redshirted. So did wide receiver Keith Corbin. So did RB Mulbah Car. Houston effectively tanked on the way to a 4-8 season.

King’s not back with Houston, having transferred to Miami. That move didn’t work out too well. But Car and Corbin are back in 2020 to join up with QB Clayton Tune, a player who got valuable experience after King sat out the rest of the season.

If Houston dramatically improves in 2020 with great performances from Corbin and Car, it’ll be a decision lauded by Cougar fans. And potentially replicated by other programs going forward.

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