Under ordinary circumstances, we at Yahoo Sports would be into the third week of our annual Top 25 countdown, breaking down a new team in our rankings each day until we reached No. 1. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the upcoming college football season.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed football until the spring, cutting Ohio State (2), Oregon (7), Penn State (9), USC (14), Wisconsin (15), Michigan (16) and Minnesota (21) from our original preseason Top 25.
The Mountain West and MAC are out, too, leaving three of the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12 and SEC), along with the AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt, available to make up our new preseason rankings. In all, including independents, there are 76 out of 130 FBS schools proceeding with college football.
Here’s what we came up with.
While Clemson returns QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne for one more run at a national championship, the Tigers are needing to replace a lot of production on both sides of the ball. The offseason injury to Justyn Ross means that Amari Rodgers is the only returning receiver who had 30 or more catches in 2019. Defensively, Clemson has to replace four of its five top tacklers, including Isaiah Simmons and K’Von Wallace. But the Tigers are well-positioned with a bevy of four- and five-star recruits to make a run at an undefeated season and another potential matchup with Alabama in the College Football Playoff. If there is a playoff, of course.
Alabama missed the College Football Playoff for the first time in the format’s history in 2019. In fact, the Tide didn’t even make it to the SEC title game. After an offseason to stew over a rare two-loss season in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban should have his group plenty motivated entering 2020. Sure, Tua Tagovailoa won’t be back at quarterback, but Mac Jones — or freshman Bryce Young — should be able to do the job. It helps when you have dynamic talents like DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris by your side. The return of linebacker Dylan Moses is a big deal, too.
Jamie Newman or JT Daniels? Newman, a Wake Forest transfer, seemed to have a clear path at the starting QB job until Daniels, a USC transfer who is still working back to full strength after a 2019 ACL tear, was granted immediate eligibility for the 2020 season. No matter who wins the QB job, Georgia fans hope the offense looks a lot better with new coordinator Todd Monken in the fold. Defensively, eight starters are back for the Bulldogs, including Monty Rice and Richard LeCounte. A Georgia defense that only gave up more than 21 points to one team — LSU — could be even better.
All eyes will be on Spencer Rattler as Oklahoma enters the 2020 season. Rattler is Lincoln Riley’s prized five-star quarterback recruit who is poised to take the reins at a position that has been the sparkling showcase of success in recent years. Riley helped the likes of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts — all transfers — ascend to new heights. Now Riley gets the chance to develop one of his own as he looks to coach the Sooners to a sixth consecutive Big 12 title.
We know who’s gone from LSU’s record-setting offense. Let’s talk about who’s here. Ja’Marr Chase may not put up the numbers he did in 2019 but he’s still one of the best receivers in college football. JaCoby Stevens is a top-tier safety and Derek Stingley Jr. is just a sophomore but could be the best cornerback in the country. Myles Brennan won’t come close to doing what Joe Burrow did last year, but he should be more than a serviceable starting quarterback after three seasons on campus, including two as Burrow’s top backup.
Florida is 21-5 in its first two seasons with Dan Mullen as head coach and is looking to leap to the top of the SEC East standings — ahead of Georgia — in 2020. Kyle Trask has been as steady as they come since becoming UF’s starting quarterback, but should be ready to see his game ascend as a senior — especially with a versatile tight end like Kyle Pitts at his side. The defense has a chance to be one of the SEC’s best with eight of its top 10 tacklers from 2019 back in the fold.
7. Notre Dame
The new and temporary members of the ACC may have an easier schedule thanks to no games against Wisconsin, Navy, Stanford and USC. The Irish still play Clemson, however, in what could be one of the best games of the season. Ian Book is back at quarterback for his final season, but his top three receivers aren’t. Can Jordan Johnson and Javon McKinley emerge as top options at receiver? Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, after posting 13.5 tackles for loss in 2019, will be counted on to lead a defense that replaces six starters.
A big opportunity to declare Texas as “back” — a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU — was wiped off the books because of the SEC’s conference-only format, but we’re still high on the Longhorns entering Year 4 of the Tom Herman era. Sam Ehlinger is back at quarterback for his final go-around, and he will have the guidance of new coordinator Mike Yurcich (via Ohio State and Oklahoma State) to help him get his array of weapons involved. The defense has a new coordinator as well in ousted Rutgers head coach Chris Ash. Before you roll your eyes, Ash had a strong run in that role at Ohio State and nine returning Longhorn starters to play with.
9. Texas A&M
The recipe is there for A&M to make a run in the SEC West in Jimbo Fisher’s third season. The Aggies get a reloading LSU at home. Auburn is replacing a lot of starters on both sides of the ball. A&M has a senior quarterback who could break through in Kellen Mond. And this is a year where eight wins can be considered a great season because of A&M’s 10-game conference slate. A&M returns 17 starters and RB Isaiah Spiller could easily emerge as one of the SEC’s best behind a line that brings back four players with plenty of experience.
10. Oklahoma State
Now that Mike Gundy has emerged from the other side of an especially turbulent offseason, he returns one the most talented teams he has ever had during his 15-year run at Oklahoma State. He has a legitimate Heisman candidate in running back Chuba Hubbard to go with an established star at receiver, Tylan Wallace, and an emerging star at quarterback, Spencer Sanders. And with 10 starters returning on defense, perhaps this is the year OSU finally beats Oklahoma.
Someone in the SEC West is going to be one of the better teams in the country with a season-ending record of 7-3 or 6-4 given the SEC’s conference-only schedule. That team could be Auburn. The Tigers have questions — especially on a defense that has to replace Daniel Thomas, Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Jeremiah Dinson — and on offense where four new starters on the offensive line are needed. But Bo Nix should get better and there’s still a ton of talent for Gus Malzahn on both sides of the ball.
After a ridiculous stretch of 25 wins in 26 games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, UCF fell back down to Earth a bit in 2019, going 10-3. A 10-win season is nothing to sneeze at. The Knights, while breaking in a new quarterback, were still one of the AAC’s top teams, but an uncharacteristic road loss at Tulsa ultimately stopped them having the chance to win another conference crown. The top of the AAC should be tight once again, and UCF — with Dillon Gabriel back for his second year at QB — are our slight favorites to win the conference.
Will Ryan Silverfield’s first season in charge look a lot like the Mike Norvell era? Silverfield takes over for the new Florida State coach after serving as the team’s offensive line coach for the last four seasons. The offense led by QB Brady White has averaged over 40 points per game in each of the last three seasons but last year’s 10-2 campaign — one that yielded the program’s first AAC title — was boosted by significant defensive improvement. That defense brings back eight starters and five of its six top tacklers.
14. North Carolina
Even the folks who thought UNC bringing back Mack Brown was a good idea could not have imagined he would turn the program around this quickly. The Tar Heels were coming off a stretch where they won a combined five games in 2017 and 2018. In Brown’s first year back in Chapel Hill, he coached UNC to seven wins, including the program’s first bowl win since 2013, and is rolling on the recruiting trail. The name to know for UNC is sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, who is already the best QB in the ACC not named Trevor Lawrence.
Miami’s defense has been very good for the past three seasons. The offense has not. Houston transfer QB D’Eriq King is now the man to push Miami’s offense over 30 points per game for the first time since 2016. King is immediately eligible at Miami after playing just four games and redshirting in 2019. He completed over 60 percent of his passes for nearly 5,000 yards and rushed for over 1,400 yards in his Houston career. And Florida fans are well aware that he started ahead of Kyle Trask in high school.
16. Virginia Tech
A roller coaster 2019 season gives Virginia Tech the opportunity to rebound in 2020. The Hokies overcame a tough start (that included a 45-10 home loss to Duke) and ended up winning eight games. Inserting Hendon Hooker at quarterback was part of that turnaround for coach Justin Fuente. Hooker is back in 2020, and he will play behind a stellar offensive line. The defense loses legendary coordinator Bud Foster (retirement) and cornerback Caleb Farley (opt out), but returns nine starters and should be one of the better units in the ACC.
Cincinnati’s defenses under coach Luke Fickell have been very good over the past two seasons. And with nine starters back in 2020, there’s no reason to think there will be a drop-off on a unit that allowed just 3.6 yards per carry. Offensively, Gerrid Doaks will be asked to replace Michael Warren at running back. While Warren ran for 1,265 yards in 2019, Doaks had 526 and averaged over five per carry. He should help the Bearcats contend for an AAC title yet again.
Mark Stoops has built Kentucky into a consistent winner. The next step is climbing the ladder in the SEC East. While Lynn Bowden — receiver-turned-Wildcat quarterback extraordinaire — is off to the NFL, Kentucky will return 2018 starter Terry Wilson back to the lineup at quarterback after an injury ended his 2019 campaign. Wilson will line up behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines, a unit that returns four starters. The defense, meanwhile, could emerge as one of the SEC’s best. The conference-only schedule makes things tougher, but the Wildcats can compete with anybody.
The Volunteers won seven of their final eight games in 2019, flipping a potentially disastrous season into a legitimate building block for Jeremy Pruitt. The offense brings back RB Ty Jordan and QB Jarrett Guarantano and should be better with another offseason under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. But Tennessee does have to replace its top two receivers. Defensively, the Vols need to replace Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor’s production but eight starters return.
The middle of the Big 12 should be very competitive and TCU has the looks of a team that nobody will want to play. Max Duggan took his lumps as a freshman quarterback in 2019, but showed flashes of a bright future. He showed he can be a bruising and elusive downhill runner, but has the tools to develop into one of the conference’s top talents at the position. The defense is the stronger side of the ball, especially in the secondary with safety duo Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington returning.
21. Iowa State
Matt Campbell’s Cyclones return junior QB Brock Purdy who has established himself as an upper-tier quarterback in the Big 12 in his first two seasons and could emerge as a high-round NFL prospect in 2020. Running back Breece Hall, who had nearly 900 yards and nine touchdowns, and stud tight end Charlie Kolar (51 catches, 697 yards, 7 TDs) are also back in the mix. Iowa State also returns eight defensive starters including the entire secondary. That could be huge in a Big 12 that is still pretty pass happy.
Mack Brown isn’t the only ACC coach executing a quick turnaround. Scott Satterfield inherited Bobby Petrino’s mess and somehow led Louisville to eight wins in 2019. The UL offense is stacked with young talent, highlighted by QB Micale Cunningham (2,065 passing yards, 482 rushing yards), RB Javian Hawkins (1,525 yards, 9 TDs) and speedy wideout Tutu Atwell (70 catches, 1,276 yards, 12 TDs). The line, though, could struggle some with Mekhi Becton now in the NFL. The defense has some question marks, but Satterfield has a track record of development that will put UL on the right track.
The Pitt defense should still be very good despite the absence of Jaylen Twyman. He had 10.5 sacks in 2019 and has decided to sit out the 2020 season and prepare for the NFL draft. Pitt gave up just 22.5 points per game in 2019, returns over 30 sacks from a defense that recorded 51 a year ago and has two of the ACC’s best defensive backs in Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford. The offense, though, had an up-and-down transition to Mark Whipple’s pass-happy system. Kenny Pickett, now a third-year starter at QB, has plenty of skill talent around him to make the Panthers a scary team in the ACC.
24. Appalachian State
Let’s round out our rankings with some love for the Sun Belt. App State is coming off a 13-1 season and another conference title, but is replacing its head coach yet again. Satterfield left Boone for Louisville after 2018 and Eliah Drinkwitz, now at Missouri, was one-and-done. In 2020 (and hopefully beyond), it’s Shawn Clark. Clark was promoted from offensive line coach, and should provide some stability while keeping the program chugging along atop the Sun Belt standings. The Mountaineers lost NFL talent on both sides of the ball, but Zac Thomas is back for his senior season at quarterback.
The Blazers should easily get a fourth straight winning season after the program was shut down in 2015 and 2016. UAB returns nine starters on each side of the ball including QB Tyler Johnston and its top three running backs. The defense brings back its top five tacklers including senior linebacker Kristopher Moll who had 104 tackles and nine sacks in 2019. Having Bill Clark, one of the nation’s best coaches, leading your program certainly helps too.
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