Unsurprisingly, all eight of those programs land in the way-too-early top 10 for 2020. It isn’t a lack of creativity or vision; it’s the increasingly obvious trend of the elite programs becoming even more invested in the sport in the playoff era.
LSU’s triumph at least provided a relatively new champion. The Tigers last finished No. 1 in 2007, one of the wackiest seasons in recent memory. This year was largely the opposite: three power conference teams toting undefeated records through their league title games, and a clear-cut top four when the playoff committee was asked to render its final verdict (and only meaningful one) last month.
It wasn’t a year for chaos at the tippy-top of the sport. The forecast is for some more stability in 2020. Here’s hoping that prediction, like many of the picks in the 11-to-30 range often do in this annual exercise, fizzles out in spectacular fashion.
1. Clemson (14-1 in 2019-20). The Tigers have a five-year playoff streak, elite recruiting classes stacked upon elite recruiting classes, one of the presumed early Heisman favorites in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a more manageable path to an undefeated record than most top-tier teams (though there will be a November trip to Notre Dame). What’s not to like about the next in a line of Clemson juggernauts?
2. Ohio State (13-1). The Buckeyes could be the hungriest team in the land after squandering an early Fiesta Bowl lead and seeing their perfect season fizzle with a semifinal loss to Clemson. There were times Ohio State looked like the best team in the country in 2019, and the Justin Fields-led bunch could be again next fall. One caveat: The Buckeyes’ two toughest games on paper, Oregon and Penn State, are away from the Horseshoe.
3. Alabama (11-2). Is there anyone who doesn’t think college football’s Death Star won’t be just about fully operational next fall — even in a Tua-less state — after missing the playoff for the first time?
4. LSU (15-0). Heisman winner Joe Burrow graduates, and the Tigers will no doubt have some early NFL defections. But unlike this past season, when LSU needed to prove its offense had entered the 21st century, Ed Orgeron’s staff should have a pretty good idea how to keep things rolling on the Bayou.
5. Oklahoma (12-2). The Sooners’ pre-playoff ranking in each of the last five years: 4th, 7th, 2nd, 4th, 4th. Their average number of regular season losses in that span: 1.2. Even with the Jalen Hurts one-year cameo done, expect the Sooners to reload like they always do and contend for a playoff berth. The talent, as usual, will be there.
6. Georgia (12-2). Jake Fromm turned pro, and Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman will take his place as the Bulldogs’ quarterback. But unless Kirby Smart plans to reinvent his offense a la LSU over the past year, chances are Georgia will continue to be what it was the last three years: Stingy, tough, the best team in the SEC East, a bit of a throwback in its overall philosophy and a team in the playoff conversation.
7. Oregon (12-2). The Ducks will have back the bulk of a defense that gave up just 16.5 points per game. They’ll have to replace much of their offensive line, as well as quarterback Justin Herbert, and they’ll need those answers quickly with FCS champion North Dakota State and then Ohio State visiting Eugene the first two weeks of the season.
8. Florida (11-2). Tough to quibble with how the schedule sets up for the Gators, who will cross state lines just three times in 12 games (visits to Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt). Success will come down to handling the two teams that dealt Florida losses this past season: Georgia and LSU.
9. Penn State (11-2). The Nittany Lions have a bit of rebuilding to do on defense, which loses more than half of the starters from a unit that allowed 16.5 points per game. That prevents something closer to a top-five nod at this point, though there’s no question there are enough pieces to make a run at a Big Ten title.
10. Notre Dame (11-2). The Irish weren’t good enough to beat the top-20ish teams on their schedule (Georgia and Michigan) but dispatched everyone else. Ian Book is back for his third year as starting quarterback. The 2018 version of Book vaults the Irish closer to the top five; the ’19 version probably lands them another good — but not title-contending — season.
11. Wisconsin (10-4). Everyone knows what to expect from the Badgers, who stick to their identity about as well as any power conference team. The defense wasn’t senior-laden, and Wisconsin always has running backs in reserve to replace its most recent workhorse. There are some holes in the middle of the offensive line, and effectively filling them will determine whether the Badgers repeat in the Big Ten West.
12. Auburn (9-4). By contrast to Wisconsin, Auburn is the sport’s ultimate wild card, and the only certainty with the Tigers is their results won’t match the consensus. If they are expected to land around 12th in the nation — that is to say, a tough out but a second-tier team — they’ll either win the SEC or go 7-5. At least Gus Malzahn doesn’t have to hear about how Alabama made the playoff again this offseason.
13. Texas A&M (8-5). This past season the Aggies played at Clemson in their high-end nonconference game and visited Georgia for their rotating cross-division conference game in 2019. In 2020, they will trade those games for home dates with Colorado and Vanderbilt. Even if QB Kellen Mond doesn’t take another step, the Aggies should wind up with a better record. If he does improve, A&M’s breakout under Jimbo Fisher will come a year later than expected, but it will still come.
14. Oklahoma State (8-5). The pick here for the second-best team in the Big 12. The Cowboys will have 2,000-yard rusher Chuba Hubbard, a high-end receiving target in Tylan Wallace (53 catches, 903 yards and eight touchdowns in eight games) and the returning Big 12 offensive rookie of the year in quarterback Spencer Sanders. If healthy, the Pokes are perhaps the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the conference.
15. Michigan (9-4). The Wolverines will be good, but not great, and they’ll lose to Ohio State in the regular season finale to add a familiar layer of disappointment to an otherwise solid season. Basically, count on status quo in Ann Arbor.
16. Memphis (12-2). The AAC champions lost Mike Norvell to Florida State, but the Tigers opted for continuity when they promoted Ryan Silverfield to head coach. Some of the central pieces of a potent offense — quarterback Brady White, wideout Damonte Coxie, running back Kenneth Gainwell — are expected to remain in the fold as well.
17. Minnesota (11-2). Stylistically, the Golden Gophers are built to win in the Big Ten West, as they eventually demonstrated after some early close calls in 2019. This year, though, the schedule is more front-loaded. Minnesota will face Iowa, BYU, Wisconsin and Michigan by Oct. 17. The Gophers will need to be sharper in the season’s early stages to replicate their ’19 success.
18. Baylor (11-3). First, the Bears’ administration needs to find a replacement for Matt Rhule now that the head coach has departed for the NFL. Whoever that is needs to figure out how to avoid a regression from last season’s 5-2 record in one-possession games. But the heavy lifting in reviving the program from its self-inflicted mess is done; expect a top-half-of-the-Big 12 team.
19. Boise State (12-2). The season-ending loss to Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl was a disappointment, but the Broncos have rattled off four consecutive 10-win seasons and 17 in the last 21 years. With yet another bellcow back in rising sophomore George Holani and a defense that got better over the course of the season, Boise State should again be the class of the Mountain West.
20. Iowa (10-3). Not flashy but usually effective, the Hawkeyes could play a low-scoring game that clocks in at less than three hours during the noon television window in their sleep. Iowa won’t be sending a thank-you note to the Big Ten office after getting dealt back-to-back visits to Ohio State and Penn State in mid-October.
21. Louisville (8-5). Not that there was much doubt after his time in charge at Appalachian State, but this past fall made it clear Coach Scott Satterfield knows what he is doing. There’s still a long way to go on defense, but the Cardinals have key cogs returning throughout an offense (tailback Javian Hawkins, wideout Tutu Atwell, quarterback Micale Cunningham) that could be even better in 2020.
22. North Carolina (7-6). Well, somebody has to win the ACC’s Coastal Division. Why not the Tar Heels, who will have back probably the ACC’s best quarterback not named Trevor Lawrence in rising sophomore Sam Howell and didn’t lose by more than six points in Coach Mack Brown’s first season back on the sideline?
23. Utah (11-3). Iowa’s Pac-12 doppelganger, the Utes have won at least nine games in five of the last six seasons, and they invariably field a rugged defense even when graduation hits (as it does this season). Four starting offensive linemen are set to return, and South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley should be a solid plug-and-play at quarterback after Tyler Huntley’s graduation.
24. Southern Cal (8-5). For all of the scrutiny that accompanied a roller coaster 2019, the Trojans were a borderline top-25 team. By retaining Clay Helton, USC’s administration is setting up for every game to be a referendum on the coach. With his even disposition, Helton seems better equipped to handle that than most, but it’s probably not the best way for the Trojans to secure some stability.
25. Cincinnati (11-3). The Bearcats have reached the talent level of losing a high-end player as an early entrant to the draft (in this case, tailback Michael Warren Jr.). Even with some noteworthy defensive losses, the return of quarterback Desmond Ridder means good things for Luke Fickell’s team.
… And five more just outside
26. Texas (8-5). Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me eight times, shame on me. It’s up to the Longhorns to prove they’re better than a borderline top-25 team, something they’ve managed to do just once in the last decade.
27. Washington (8-5). The Huskies would probably get more of a benefit of the doubt if Chris Petersen was still the head coach, but they’re also due a little more good fortune after going 0-5 in games decided by 10 points or less. There are other candidates (like California) to be the second-best team in the Pac-12 North, but Jimmy Lake-led Washington is the better choice.
28. Virginia Tech (8-5). It took the Hokies half the season to figure things in 2019. Improve that, and Virginia Tech could find itself atop the ACC Coastal. One thing’s for sure: The retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster is going to take some getting used to.
29. Iowa State (7-6). The Cyclones finished with a winning conference record, and it was actually a mildly disappointing season. What a time to be alive. Matt Campbell’s team was not far off in 2019, with losses to Baylor, Iowa and Oklahoma by a combined four points. A strong Brock Purdy-led offense should help Iowa State see an uptick in the win column.
30. Central Florida (10-3). Everyone sort of forgot about the Knights after early losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but they still managed to win 10 games in what constitutes a down year given the program’s recent history. Dillon Gabriel established himself at quarterback as a freshman, and UCF will lean on a capable defense to make a push back toward the top of the AAC.