The USA TODAY Sports post-spring Top 25 for the Bowl Subdivision typically doesn’t land until after teams across the FBS put a bow on spring practices in late April. This hasn’t been your typical spring.
These offseason drills can often help illuminate how the nation’s top contenders will fill spots left vacant by graduation and losses to the NFL. Many teams projected to contend for New Year’s Six bowl games have unsettled competitions at quarterback, for example.
With spring workouts canceled amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the post-spring Top 25 instead takes into account noteworthy transfers, such as Georgia’s new quarterback, and the underclassmen who declared for the NFL draft. Or those who decided to stay in college, such Oklahoma State star Chuba Hubbard.
After going more than two calendar years between losses, Clemson looks to kick off another extended winning streak in the wake of January’s loss to LSU. Very few things are a given — including whether there is actually a college football season in 2020 — but Clemson’s dominance of the ACC can be safely assumed.
2. Ohio State
An exodus of contributors to the NFL is offset by a wealth of returning talent, with a healthy portion of the All-America variety. That’ll keep Ryan Day’s second team at the top of the Big Ten and the forefront of the FBS. One key will be finding some way to approximate the impact Chase Young and Jeff Okudah had on last year’s defense.
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Georgia takes a big step forward in the post-spring rankings after cementing its quarterback position with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman. If replacing Jake Fromm’s experience and reliability may be difficult, Newman’s arm and athleticism should provide a different look to an offense run by a new coordinator in Todd Monken.
The roster is as loaded for a title run as any in the country, with the exception of quarterback. It’s there that the Ducks have options, led by sophomore Tyler Shough, but lack experience. (Not that first-year starters, including true freshmen, haven’t led teams to the playoff and championships in the recent past.) One name to watch is that of offensive tackle Penei Sewell, perhaps the pound-for-pound best player in the country.
Two similarly powerful programs — LSU and Georgia — have simultaneously taken aim at Nick Saban and Alabama. The dynasty has never been tested quite like this. In a larger sense, returning to the top of college football could demand the sort of staff continuity that in recent years has been missing in Tuscaloosa. In the immediate sense, Alabama could’ve used this spring to evaluate the quarterback competition between Mac Jones and true freshman Bryce Young.
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Recent history says that Oklahoma will be there when it counts in December. It’ll be with a new quarterback with a different background: Spencer Rattler isn’t a transfer, like his three predecessors under center, and will take over as a redshirt freshman with little in the way of meaningful snaps under pressure.
Florida’s trajectory under Dan Mullen suggests that serious playoff contention lies in the near future. Of course, Georgia is a hurdle in the Gators’ path. On offense, the potential for a quarterback competition between Kyle Trask and Emory Jones shouldn’t overshadow the need to develop the receiver corps.
8. Penn State
Linebacker Micah Parsons alone makes Penn State worthy of your undivided attention. Getting more accuracy out of quarterback Sean Clifford could lift this offense to the point where the Nittany Lions are a serious threat to Ohio State. Perhaps equally important is finding another receiver capable of matching the threat of danger K.J. Hamler lent to last year’s offense.
The defending national champions have lost more star power than any team in the country, including star quarterback Joe Burrow and the national assistant coach of the year in Joe Brady. Ed Orgeron is back, along with enough talent to keep LSU on track for a New Year’s Six bowl. Repeating seems like a stretch.
10. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly continues to speak of how winning a national championship is his final goal at Notre Dame. (Well, obviously.) Is handing the offense to 27-year-old assistant coach Tommy Rees the way to take that step? Kelly clearly believes that Rees, a former Notre Dame quarterback, can draw the most from this offense and senior Ian Book.
Former backup quarterbacks Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton are the contenders to replace Shea Patterson, who had a steady run as the Wolverines’ starter but never matched the huge expectations that accompanied his run as a five-star recruit. McCaffrey may have the edge in overall experience but both have spent the same amount of time in the team’s current offensive scheme.
Speaking of a team angling for a breakthrough at quarterback: Auburn hopes that sophomore Bo Nix settles into an all-conference contender after a predictably uneven but altogether solid debut season. That sort of leap will help the Tigers contend in the SEC West while replacing disruptive defensive tackle Derrick Brown, among others.
13. Texas A&M
This team will be a national factor based on the schedule alone: A&M’s first nine games against FBS competition includes just one opponent, Auburn, coming off a winning record in 2019. It’s the sort of schedule that a legitimate contender would dominate. Whether it’ll reveal anything about the Aggies’ ability to actually beat Alabama and LSU remains unknown. But it means Jimbo Fisher’s team will be highly ranked when it takes on the Tide and Tigers to end the regular season.
The beat goes on for Kirk Ferentz and Iowa, which will lose some major assets, including star defensive end A.J. Epenesa, but will bring back a terrific collection of skill talent, the foundation of a strong offensive line and plenty of options along the defensive back seven.
Pegging where Tom Herman’s program will land feels like guesswork as much as anything, given how last year’s team flopped amid high expectations. This seems like a safe preseason starting point given the leadership of senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the possibility that massive coaching changes lights a fire under a program in need of a spark.
16. Iowa State
The Cyclones will have one of the nation’s most underrated backfield pairings in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall along with solid pieces on each level of the defense. A healthy portion of optimism stems from the sense that coach Matt Campbell continues to bring Iowa State closer to annual Top 25 contention.
This looks like the best team in the American and the best team in the Group of Five, especially given the uncertainty over whether new Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield will be able to maintain the Tigers’ success under new Florida State coach Mike Norvell. In comparison, the Bearcats were able to hold onto coach Luke Fickell despite interest from Michigan State.
There will be no Jonathan Taylor at running back, which stings, but two factors help offset that loss: one, the Badgers’ ability to unearth high-quality runners when needed, and two, the potential for even stronger quarterback play. (Whether that job goes to returning starter Jack Coan or redshirt freshman Graham Mertz.) Of equal or greater concern is the loss of center Tyler Biadasz and the new faces near the line of scrimmage on defense.
19. Oklahoma State
In a surprise, running back Chuba Hubbard opted to return in 2020, a decision that vaults him near the top of the list among preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. He’s also one-third of a potentially spectacular offensive cast, joining wide receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders.
20. North Carolina
If catching up to Clemson is an impossibility in the short term, UNC could put a strong hold on the Coastal Division and be a factor in reaching a New Year’s Six bowl should the Tigers once again advance to the playoff. In sophomore Sam Howell, the Tar Heels have a contender for the nation’s best quarterback once Trevor Lawrence heads off to the NFL.
21. Boise State
The biggest loss comes up front on defense, where All-America rusher Curtis Weaver leaves a void that can’t be replaced by any one returning defender. Most other spots seem in secure-or-better shape, and Boise State has retained an enviable degree of consistency under coach Bryan Harsin. That won’t change in 2020.
22. Southern California
USC is capable of being the best team in the South Division and a threat for a major bowl, though there’s a significant on-paper gap between the Trojans and Oregon in the Pac-12. A few offseason coaching changes could ramp up the Trojans’ defensive intensity. While Clay Helton’s somewhat unexpected return dominated offseason headlines, don’t sleep on the importance of retaining another coach: offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
There’s a ton of high-level experience on defense, coach Justin Wilcox’s specialty, and the possibility of a pretty successful offense should quarterback Chase Garbers remain healthy. The Golden Bears went unbeaten last season in games Garbers started and finished.
The run of Pac-12 teams ends with Washington and new coach Jimmy Lake. The defense is talented, seemingly as always, and Lake’s comments on revamping parts of the Huskies’ offense are promising. But there’s an unknown aspect to how Lake will orchestrate the program that makes Washington tough to predict.
A program clearly on the rise led by a second-year coach, Scott Satterfield, whose national popularity will continue to expand in the near future. (Satterfield could be college football’s next Matt Rhule, meaning a coach shortlisted by the media for most major openings regardless of interest from either party.) After taking a big step forward in 2019, the Cardinals could be in line for another breakthrough in September.