Brett McMurphy’s Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2020

NEW ORLEANS – Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was asked Saturday about how long the Tigers could enjoy last year’s national title. The answer: not for long.

“Everyone was thinking about next year a couple of days after the championship,” Lawrence said.

So even before the final game of the 2019 season is played Monday night in New Orleans between Clemson and LSU, why not go ahead and beat the rush and start looking to next season?

As we await kickoff for Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game, here are my way-way-too-early preseason Top 25 rankings for Stadium. These rankings will definitely change multiple times before the official AP preseason poll is released in August. My rankings are based on projected returning talent (although that could change) and a breakdown of Collin Wilson‘s helpful power ratings for 2020.

No. 1 Clemson
Last year: 14-1 (lost to LSU in College Football Playoff title game)
Schedule highlights: Nov. 7 at Notre Dame, Nov. 28 vs. South Carolina, TBA vs. Louisville, TBA at Florida State

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence will return for his junior — and final — season with the Tigers, looking to lead Clemson to a third consecutive undefeated regular season and College Football Playoff title game appearance. Clemson could lose RB Travis Etienne, WR Tee Higgins and LB Isaiah Simmons to the NFL Draft, but it will return WR Justyn Ross. Clemson will face a tougher schedule in 2020 than in 2019, highlighted by a November visit to Notre Dame. Still, the Tigers should have no issues making the College Football Playoff for a record sixth consecutive season.

No. 2 Ohio State
Last year: 13-1 (lost to Clemson 29-23 in CFB Playoff semifinal)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 at Oregon, Oct. 10 vs. Iowa, Oct. 17 at Michigan State, Oct. 24 at Penn State, Nov. 28 vs. Michigan

The Buckeyes came oh-so-close to playing for a national title in Ryan Day’s first season. If not for some controversial calls and the inability to keep Clemson from driving 94 yards in the final three minutes, Ohio State may have ended its season in New Orleans. Even though the Buckeyes lose their top two players in defensive end Chase Young and running back J.K. Dobbins, quarterback Justin Fields returns, looking to improve on last year’s remarkable 41 touchdown, 3 interception season. The Buckeyes will again be the heavy favorites to win the Big Ten and return to the College Football Playoff.

No. 3 LSU
Last year: 15-0 (won College Football Playoff title game vs. Clemson)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 vs. Texas, Oct. 10 at Florida, Nov. 7 vs. Alabama, Nov. 21 at Auburn, Nov. 28 at Texas A&M

One Joe won’t return for LSU in 2020, but as long as the “other Joe” returns, the Tigers will again be among College Football’s elite. Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow is off to the NFL, but it appears LSU pass game coordinator Joe Brady will be back in Baton Rouge. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. will be the Tigers’ top returning receiver for new quarterback Myles Brennan. LSU made it to the 2019 national title game despite having to face a handful of ranked opponents and will face just as tough a schedule in 2020 with a home non-conference game vs. Texas and SEC matchups vs. Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M.

No. 4 Alabama
Last year: 11-2 (defeated Michigan 35-16 in Citrus Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. USC in Arlington, Sept. 19 vs. Georgia, Nov. 7 at LSU, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 28 vs. Auburn

Alabama’s five-year streak of consecutive College Football Playoff appearances came to a crashing halt after losing to Auburn in the Tide’s regular season finale. However, the Crimson Tide showed Alabama is not going away anytime soon in its rout of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Even with Tua Tagovailoa declaring for the NFL Draft, Mac Jones will be more than a capable replacement at quarterback. The Tide started four freshmen — left guard Evan Neal, defensive end Byron Young and linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris — against Michigan, and Nick Saban will be plenty motivated to start a new College Football Playoff streak in 2020.

No. 5 Auburn
Last year: 9-4 (lost to Minnesota 31-24 in Outback Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 vs. North Carolina, Oct. 10 at Georgia, Oct. 17 vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 21 vs. LSU, Nov. 28 at Alabama

Only at Auburn can the Tigers defeat the Pac-12 champions (Oregon), play the SEC champions closer than anyone else (lost to LSU 23-20) and win the Iron Bowl (against Alabama) and yet, somehow, still finish with four losses, including a season-ending defeat to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl. This season, the Tigers could make a run at the SEC title if they can establish their offensive line for quarterback Bo Nix, who’s coming off a solid freshman campaign and working with new OC Chad Morris. The defense will be solid with seven returning starters, including DE Big Kat Bryant.

No. 6 Texas A&M
Last year: 8-5 (defeated Oklahoma State 24-21 in Texas Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 19 vs. Colorado, Oct. 17 at Auburn, Nov. 21 at Alabama, Nov. 28 vs. LSU

Last year, Texas A&M pretty much won when supposed to (winning eight of nine games as a favorite) and lost when expected (losing all four games as an underdog). The result was an 8-5 record in Jimbo Fisher’s second season in College Station. The schedule is much less daunting in 2020 with Clemson and Georgia replaced by Colorado and Vanderbilt. The biggest reason for optimism for the Aggies is they lose only one senior starter (center Colton Prater), although junior WR Quartney Davis and DT Justin Madubuike declared early for the NFL. With only a few losses, Texas A&M is expected to return nearly its entire starting lineup, most notably QB Kellen Mond, RB Isaiah Spiller and WR Jhamon Ausbon.

No. 7 Oklahoma
Last year: 12-2 (lost to LSU 63-28 in CFB Playoff semifinal)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 vs. Tennessee, Sept. 26 at Army, Oct. 10 vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 24 vs. Oklahoma State, Oct. 31 at TCU

The Sooners have made four trips to the College Football Playoff, which is third most in the playoff’s six-year history behind only Clemson and Alabama. Despite those four appearances, the Sooners are still looking for that elusive first College Football Playoff victory. Is 2020 finally the year? Oklahoma will have to replace major talent in QB Jalen Hurts, WR CeeDee Lamb, LB Kenneth Murray and TE Grant Calcaterra, but the entire offensive line returns, including center Creed Humphrey, as well as nine defensive starters.

No. 8 Florida
Last year: 11-2 (defeated Virginia 36-28 in Orange Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 26 at Tennessee, Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 28 at Florida State

Florida has plenty of talent returning on both sides of the ball, but it will be fascinating to see how Coach Dan Mullen determines what to do at quarterback with Kyle Trask and Emory Jones. Trask finished second last year in the SEC, averaging 245 passing yards per game, but Jones is a much better dual-threat option. Whatever Mullen does at quarterback, they’ll work behind an offensive line that should be vastly improved from a year ago and returns virtually intact. The Gators lost some key production at wide receiver, but will be strong defensively — and add Georgia transfer Brenton Cox.

No. 9 Oregon
Last year: 12-2 (defeated Wisconsin 28-27 in Rose Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. North Dakota State, Sept. 12 vs. Ohio State, TBA at Arizona State, TBA vs. USC, TBA vs. Washington

Oregon loses QB Justin Herbert, but when I was covering the Rose Bowl, I already started hearing the buzz about Herbert’s replacement, QB Tyler Shough. The Ducks are high on Shough as they bid for back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Five starters return on offense, including LT Penei Sewell. Defensively, the Ducks must replace LB Troy Dye, but welcome back eight starters, including freshman DL Kayvon Thibodeaux and DB Verone McKinley III. Oregon will have one of the toughest two-game stretches, opening with FCS champion North Dakota State and then Big Ten favorite Ohio State in consecutive weeks in Eugene.

No. 10 Iowa State
Last year: 7-6 (lost to Notre Dame 33-9 in Camping World Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 at Iowa, Oct. 10 at Oklahoma State, Oct. 17 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 7 at TCU, Nov. 14 vs. Baylor, Nov. 21 at Texas

There was nothing extraordinary about Iowa State’s 7-6 season in 2019. But it could have been so much better. Of the Cyclones’ six losses, three were by two points or less and another by seven points. Iowa State should be one of the Big 12’s — and the nation’s — surprise teams in 2020. The Cyclones return 14 starters this fall led by QB Brock Purdy, who led the Big 12 averaging 306 yards passing per game, and RB Breece Hall and WR Tarique Milton. Matt Campbell is considered one of the nation’s top coaches, and he’ll show why in 2020.

No. 11 Penn State
Last year: 11-2 (defeated Memphis 53-39 in Cotton Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 at Virginia Tech, Oct. 3 at Michigan, Oct. 17 vs. Iowa, Oct. 24. vs. Ohio State, Nov. 14 vs. Michigan State

Former OCs Joe Moorhead and Ricky Rahne have gone on to head coaching positions, but despite turnover at the offensive coordinator position, James Franklin continues to have success with the Nittany Lions. With Franklin Penn State has won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons for the first time in more than 50 years. New OC Kirk Ciarrocca, of Minnesota, will have depth at running back (Journey Brown and Noah Cain) in State College, although KJ Hamler left early for the NFL Draft. Sean Clifford (23 TD passes, seven interceptions) returns at quarterback.

No. 12 Wisconsin
Last year: 10-4 (lost to Oregon 28-27 in Rose Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 19 vs. Appalachian State, Sept. 26 at Michigan, Oct. 3 vs. Notre Dame at Green Bay, Nov. 28 at Iowa

Despite Wisconsin’s top two offensive players — RB Jonathan Taylor and WR Quintez Cephus — declaring early for the NFL Draft, the Badgers still have seven starters back on offense, including QB Jack Coan. Last year, Coan threw for 18 TDs and five interceptions, but his 196 yards passing per game ranked as only the ninth-most in the Big Ten. The Badgers will be solid on defense, returning as many as nine starters from the Big Ten’s second-best defense of a year ago.

No. 13 Georgia
Last year: 12-2 (defeated Baylor 26-14 in Sugar Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 7 vs. Virginia in Atlanta, Sept. 19 at Alabama, Oct. 10 vs. Auburn, Oct. 31 vs. Florida in Jacksonville, Nov. 14 vs. Tennessee

Georgia lost five offensive starters who declared early for the NFL Draft — QB Jake Fromm, RB D’Andre Swift, OTs Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson and G Solomon Kindley. Still, the Bulldogs may not regress in 2020 — and might even be better off — with the addition of Wake Forest QB transfer Jamie Newman. As a starter at Wake last year, Newman threw for 2,868 yards and 26 TDs and rushed for 574 yards. His versatility will give Kirby Smart an added element on offense that it’s lacked with Fromm.

No. 14 USC
Last year: 8-5 (lost to Iowa 49-24 in Holiday Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. Alabama in Arlington, Nov. 28 vs. Notre Dame, TBA at Oregon

Despite a new president and athletic director, Clay Helton is back for a sixth season as the Trojans’ coach. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell also is back, which should be a boost for quarterback Kedon Slovis, who threw for 30 TDs and nine interceptions as a freshman. Depending on if there are any late defections to the NFL Draft, USC could return 10 of 11 starters on offense — losing only right tackle Drew Richmond — and nine of 11 starters on defense. All of that returning experience will be needed with a season opener against powerhouse Alabama in Arlington.

No. 15 Notre Dame
Last year: 11-2 (defeated Iowa State 33-9 in Camping World Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Aug. 29 vs. Navy in Ireland, Oct. 3 vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Nov. 7 vs. Clemson, Nov. 28 at USC

Last year, Notre Dame might have been one of the most under-appreciated two-loss teams in recent memory. Only a close loss at Georgia and a blowout loss at Michigan kept the Irish out of the playoff and New Year’s Six bowl contention. Still, Brian Kelly became the first coach in Notre Dame history with three consecutive double-digit win seasons since Lou Holtz (1991-93). Quarterback Ian Book, 20-3 as a starter, announced he would remain at Notre Dame for his senior season, which will be a huge boost for the Irish, who lost RB Tony Jones Jr. and TE Cole Kmet early to the NFL Draft.

No. 16 Texas
Last year: 8-5 (defeated Utah 38-10 in Alamo Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 at LSU, Oct. 3 at Kansas State, Oct. 10 vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, Oct. 31 vs. Baylor, Nov. 21 vs. Iowa State, Nov. 28 at Oklahoma State

For a second consecutive year, Texas managed to pull off a bowl game upset against a Power Five conference title game loser. This past season, Texas dominated Pac-12 runner-up Utah in the Alamo Bowl a year after blasting SEC runner-up Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The Longhorns return seven starters each on offense and defense, most notably QB Sam Ehlinger, RB Keaontay Ingram and WR Brennan Eagles. UT did lose WRs Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay. Defensively, the Horns should be solid in the secondary, returning three of four starters, including safety Caden Sterns.

No. 17 TCU
Last year: 5-7
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 at Cal, Oct. 3 vs. Oklahoma State, Oct. 24 at Baylor, Oct. 31 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 7 vs. Iowa State, Nov. 14 at Texas

Last year marked only the fourth time in 19 seasons under Coach Gary Patterson that TCU finished with a losing record. The Horned Frogs easily could have had a winning season and a bowl trip with six of their seven losses by a touchdown or less. QB Max Duggan returns after throwing for 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. A handful of other offensive starters are back along with six starters on defense, including standout freshman DB Ar’Darius Washington and three linemen, as the Horned Frogs look to return to their winning ways under Patterson.

No. 18 Michigan
Last year: 9-4 (lost to Alabama 35-16 in Citrus Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 at Washington, Sept. 26 vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 3 vs. Penn State, Oct. 10 at Michigan State, Nov. 28 at Ohio State

After Shea Patterson started the past two seasons at quarterback, Michigan will have a new look with Joe Milton or Dylan McCaffrey. Neither has the experience of Patterson, but the Wolverines could end up with an upgrade at the position. There also should be plenty of talent returning defensively and waiting in the wings. The offensive line must replace three starters, and how the newcomers come together could determine if Michigan finishes with fewer than three losses for the first time under Jim Harbaugh.

No. 19 UCF
Last year: 10-3 (defeated Marshall 48-25 in Gasparilla Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina, Sept. 19 at Georgia Tech, TBA vs. Cincinnati, TBA at Memphis

Once again, the Knights look to be the favorites to earn the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid in 2020. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 3,653 yards and 29 TDs as a freshman, headlines the American’s top offense. Star wide receiver Gabriel Davis opted to leave early for the NFL Draft, but Gabriel will still have capable targets in Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams. After losing three games by a total of seven points last season, UCF can make a big impression at home in a matchup of Top 25 teams when UNC visits Orlando in the season opener.

No. 20 Washington
Last year: 8-5 (defeated Boise State 38-7 in Las Vegas Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. Michigan, TBA at Oregon, TBA at USC, TBA at Utah

After six seasons, the Chris Petersen era came to an end at Washington, when he announced he was stepping down after the Las Vegas Bowl. Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake takes over as the head Husky. Lake’s priorities will be replacing eight senior starters and junior quarterback Jacob Eason, who opted to leave early for the NFL Draft. The Huskies’ defense should be their strength, featuring three players — LB Edefuan Ulofoshio and DBs Asa Turner and Trent McDuffie — who started as freshmen last season.

No. 21 Utah
Last year: 11-3 (lost to Texas 38-10 in Alamo Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. BYU, TBA vs. USC, TBA vs. Washington

To reach a third consecutive Pac-12 title game in 2020, the Utes are going to have to do so without a lot of key performers from last season. Utah loses six senior starters on defense as well as star quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss on offense. Kyle Whittingham has built a solid program and will still be a force to contend with in the Pac-12. At quarterback, Jason Shelley, who has five career starts, will be counted on along with wide receiver Bryan Thompson.

No. 22 North Carolina
Last year: 7-6 (defeated Temple 55-13 in Military Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 3 at UCF, Sept. 12 vs. Auburn in Atlanta, TBA vs. Virginia Tech

North Carolina — or better known as the team that nearly beat Clemson last year — finished 7-6 in Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill and very easily could have won at least 10 games. Of their six losses in 2019, all were by seven points or less, including three by three points or less. The Tar Heels, who averaged 50.7 points in their final three games, only lose five senior starters from last year’s team but return virtually everyone else, most notably — and most importantly — quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman.

No. 23 Virginia Tech
Last year: 8-5 (lost to Kentucky 37-30 in Belk Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 vs. Penn State, TBA at North Carolina, TBA at Louisville

For the first time since 1995, Bud Foster will not be Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator. Foster may be gone, but the Hokies will return virtually everyone else. The Hokies only had one senior starter in their Belk Bowl loss to Kentucky. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, who threw 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions, will work behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. If the experience pays off, this could be a double-digit season for Justin Fuente.

No. 24 Oklahoma State
Last year: 8-5 (lost to Texas A&M 24-21 in Texas Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Oct. 24 at Oklahoma, Nov. 21 at Kansas State, Nov. 28 vs. Texas

The Cowboys are still awaiting word if running back Chuba Hubbard will declare for the NFL Draft, but Oklahoma State knows it will return one of the nation’s top quarterback-wide receiver duos in Spencer Sanders and Tylan Wallace. Sanders started as a true freshman, but his season was plagued by a thumb injury that required surgery. Wallace, who led the nation in receiving yards in 2018, had last year cut short after eight games due to a torn ACL. Mike Gundy will have a new offensive coordinator in Stillwater after former OC Sean Gleeson left for Rutgers.

No. 25 Ole Miss
Last year: 4-8
Schedule highlights: Sept. 5 vs. Baylor in Houston, Sept. 19 vs. Auburn, Sept. 26 at LSU, Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Oct. 17 vs. Florida, Nov. 7 at Texas A&M

The Lane Train takes over in Oxford. New coach Lane Kiffin inherits a talented group that features six Rebels who started last year as freshmen or sophomores, including freshman QB John Rhys Plumlee and WRs Jonathan Mingo and Elijah Moore. Last season, Plumlee led the SEC in rushing yards per game (113.7 yards). Kiffin’s debut season with Ole Miss certainly won’t lack storylines as the Rebels home schedule includes contests with Auburn, Alabama, Florida and the first meeting with Kiffin and new Mississippi State Head Coach Mike Leach in the Egg Bowl.

Next Five:
No. 26 Minnesota
No. 27 Tennessee
No. 28 Baylor
No. 29 Michigan State
No. 30 Missouri