Ranking Top 10 Contenders for the CFB Playoff in 2020

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2020

Ranking Top 10 Contenders for the CFB Playoff in 2020

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    The entire college football season comes down to two teams. Only one will be standing after Monday's showdown between LSU and Clemson in the national championship.

    Who will be in this position next year?

    LSU loses Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, while receiver Justin Jefferson and several other high-profile contributors are likely to depart, so it's going to be difficult to make it back to the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Clemson has many marquee pieces set to return despite probably losing running back Travis Etienne and receiver Tee Higgins to the NFL draft.

    Top players from elite programs are leaving left and right, like Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia's D'Andre Swift. Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts is out of eligibility too.

    On one hand, this leaves spots open for other teams to roar into the College Football Playoff. On the other, the annual staples who contend likely aren't going anywhere after being in reload mode.

    Which teams have the opportunity to be this year's LSU, a fringe Top 10 team that elevated its game? Who are the favorites? Are there any surprises?

    Let's take a look at the top 10 contenders for next year's College Football Playoff.

10. Florida Gators

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    The way Dan Mullen is rebuilding the Florida Gators should make their fans extremely happy.

    After the dismal eras of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, Mullen pieced together a strong team his first year in 2018 and then followed it up with an 11-2 campaign. With quarterback Kyle Trask set to return next year, the Gators should be strong again.

    Trask came out of nowhere this year in relief of Feleipe Franks and helped transform Florida's offense. The Gators weren't up to the task of beating LSU or Georgia, but when you consider the only games they lost were against the SEC Championship Game participants, that's pretty strong.

    Florida will lose Lamical Perine, which is a huge blow, but the running back room is still in decent hands with guys like Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay'Quan Wright. A potential game-changer looms as former 5-star prospect Lorenzo Lingard has announced he plans on transferring from Miami to Florida.

    If Lingard is ruled eligible immediately, he gives the Gators a potential star running the ball.

    Defensively, Florida has plenty of playmakers, and it did a terrific job restocking that side of the ball with an elite recruiting class.

    There are plenty of reasons to think they continue to take steps forward under Mullen, who's an underrated coach. Though the Gators aren't one of the favorites for the playoff, they will benefit as LSU takes a step back without Joe Burrow, and they need to beat UGA to regain SEC East supremacy.

9. Oregon Ducks

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    Oregon is the class of the Pac-12, overtaking Washington. The Huskies are full of question marks—quarterback Jacob Eason is going pro, and coach Chris Petersen is effectively retiring—so Oregon coach Mario Cristobal could continue to elevate his program.

    But the Ducks have a huge void to fill too.

    Senior quarterback Justin Herbert isn't the type of talent who grows on trees, even in the fertile Northwest forests. The gap must be filled by an unproven commodity unless the Ducks wind up plucking somebody like Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman.

    With nothing but youngsters in the quarterback room, the Ducks have a massive question mark there. But that is about the only spot where they do.

    They're going to have one of the top offensive lines in the nation again, led by returning junior Penei Sewell. Both trenches are going to be outfitted by a stellar 2020 recruiting class, and Cristobal already engineered the top '19 haul in the West too.

    When you throw in running back CJ Verdell and plenty of playmakers on the perimeter, there are enough weapons for whoever throws them the ball.

    On defense, it's all about Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is one of college football's brightest stars at edge-rusher. But he's not the only star playmaker. Rose Bowl hero Brady Breeze should be back for his senior season, and there are excellent players all over the board.

    The Ducks grabbed 5-star linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell (Penei's brother) in this year's class, so Oregon is going to stay young but talented. This team will still be the Pac-12's best and has the chance to do even bigger things.

8. Oklahoma Sooners

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    The crimson-and-cream elephant in the room is Lincoln Riley's future.

    One of the most dynamic offensive minds in the college game is certain to hear his name mentioned in conjunction with NFL job openings, along with conference counterpart Matt Rhule (who signed with the Carolina Panthers).

    If Riley returns to Norman, there's no question the Sooners should remain the cream of the Big 12. With much of the NFL coaching carousel complete, he looks like a safe bet to stay unless he joins Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.

    With Tom Herman's Texas coaching staff in flux, who knows what the Longhorns are going to look like next year? OU has several question marks too.

    Life won't be as easy without Jalen Hurts, who is out of eligibility. The past few years, though, the Sooners have landed elite transfers in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, so it's not out of the question they go that route again.

    Getting a graduate transfer like Wake Forest's Jamie Newman, Stanford's K.J. Costello or especially Houston's D'Eriq King (if he goes anywhere) would keep Oklahoma at the top of the league and make the Sooners one of the top offensive teams in the country.

    That's normally been a concoction to get them to the playoff.

    Of course, the defense still needs a ton of work, and all of Alex Grinch's improved work spiraled down the drain in that dreadful College Football Playoff showing against LSU. Any time the Sooners play against a top-shelf offense, they can't hang. That must change if they're going to keep getting the invitation.

    But the Sooners have made it to the final four in three straight years, and they should be a threat to get there again, especially with all the talented playmakers at offensive skill positions.

7. LSU Tigers

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    Much like Oregon and Oklahoma, the LSU Tigers have a massive question mark at the most important position.

    There's no way to replace Joe Burrow, who had one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in the history of college football.

    When you factor in losing cornerback Kristian Fulton and potentially receiver Justin Jefferson, edge-rusher K'Lavon Chaisson, safety Grant Delpit and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the Bayou Bengals will be missing a lot of production next year.

    But there's still a stable of elite talent, led by Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Ja'Marr Chase, elite freshman cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and linebacker Jacob Phillips. It's also possible Edwards-Helaire comes back to be the centerpiece in a potential SEC repeat.

    Other SEC West teams like Alabama and Auburn will have question marks too, after all.

    Myles Brennan or freshman Max Johnson will likely replace Burrow unless coach Ed Orgeron can land a transfer. They'll likely be looking in that direction for a difference-maker, and if they can keep passing game coordinator Joe Brady in the fold, anything is possible with this offense.

    Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's name has surfaced for head coaching vacancies, but if he returns, that side of the ball could carry LSU once more. There is a lot of talent, and Orgeron is recruiting the type of players to sustain a superb program.

    The Tigers are still going to be fun to watch in the post-Burrow era. It's possible they could get right back to the playoff.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Penn State might seem too high on this list, but everybody will see the fruits of James Franklin's recruiting efforts next year.

    The Nittany Lions were much improved defensively this season, and next year could be special en route to an 11- or 12-win season.

    With quarterback Sean Clifford back and a diverse, everything-you-want stable of running backs led by Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade, the offense should be potent.

    They suffered a blow when receiver KJ Hamler left early for the NFL, but there's plenty of talent up and down the receiving corps too.

    On defense, Yetur Gross-Matos is also heading to the league early, leaving a massive void. But there are young possibilities to come off the edge, even though Franklin missed on top target Bryan Bresee.

    Micah Parsons is one of the top young defenders in college football, and a lot of playmakers return on that side of the ball. Yes, there are contributors leaving, but few have consistently recruited as impressively as Franklin.

    Michigan has to replace a lot of talent, and Wisconsin loses top running back Jonathan Taylor, so the Nittany Lions should battle Minnesota for the second spot in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. It's possible PSU could slide into the playoff with one loss.

    This may be the program's first foray into the final four.

5. Georgia Bulldogs

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    It's hard to discount all the question marks the Georgia Bulldogs face next year. Running back D'Andre Swift has declared for the NFL draft, and offensive lineman Cade Mays decided to transfer to Tennessee, becoming the latest O-lineman to leave from this year's elite group.

    But the biggest concern is that Jake Fromm heads to the NFL a year early, leaving Kirby Smart with no proven signal-caller.

    Now, if the Bulldogs can convince a difference-maker like D'Eriq King, Jamie Newman or even K.J. Costello to land in Athens, they'll surge back into the Top Four.

    Until then, UGA has some things it needs to fix.

    Thanks to Smart's recruiting acumen, this is easily one of the three or four most talented teams in the country. The defense is elite, stocked with playmakers and excited to be getting star safety Richard LeCounte back.

    It's going to be difficult for anybody to score on the Dawgs, and with the receiving corps and running backs a year older and better next season, UGA will have plenty of weapons at the skill positions on offense.

    But the quarterback concern is legit. Without somebody who can distribute the ball, it's hard to bump the Bulldogs into the playoff.

    Backup Stetson Bennett isn't an exciting option, though he may wind up with the gig. D'Wan Mathis is still trying to make his way back from emergency brain surgery in May, and his status next year is unknown. Carson Beck was a quality commitment in this year's class, but will UGA turn over the reins to another true freshman?

    Maybe the quarterback issue will take care of itself and the Dawgs will be back in the Top Four. But right now, they're a signal-caller away.

4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    With Ian Book back, Notre Dame will be in contention for the College Football Playoff after a one-year hiatus.

    The senior announced recently he's coming back for his final season in South Bend, and if he continues to progress the way he did in 2019, he's going to be difficult for anybody to handle. The Fighting Irish have all the pieces to be a one- or two-loss team with an outside shot at a spotless regular season.

    If you are worried about the surrounding pieces, don't be. This team obliterated Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl, confusing quarterback Brock Purdy and making him look average. Clark Lea looks like a rising star as a defensive coordinator, and his young group took shape this season.

    After coach Brian Kelly parted ways with offensive coordinator Chip Long, the new OC needs to develop a strong rapport with Book. But if this hire pans out the way Lea did after the Irish lost Mike Elko to Texas A&M, it'll go fine.

    Running back Tony Jones Jr. is leaving for the draft, and it's going to be difficult for the Irish to replace departing pass-catchers like receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Cole Kmet. With the way the Irish have recruited, though, plenty of capable playmakers will be coming in.

    Elite prospects like tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree are ready to make an immediate impact. Watch for the Irish to make a deep run and be one of the final four teams standing.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama didn't make the College Football Playoff this year, thanks to an injury-riddled defense that seemed to get worse as the year progressed, as well as losing Tua Tagovailoa for the year with a broken hip.

    But do you really expect Nick Saban's team to miss the big party two years in a row? That never happens.

    Some may buy into the end of the crimson dynasty, but there is too much talent for that to happen. Though Tagovailoa is irreplaceable and the Tide are also saying goodbye to Xavier McKinney, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, plenty of elite playmakers will come back.

    Receiver DeVonta Smith, offensive linemen Landon Dickerson and Alex Leatherwood, and linebacker Dylan Moses all are expected to forgo the NFL draft and return to school. Running back Najee Harris hasn't made a decision yet, but even if he leaves, Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders are capable of carrying the load.

    At quarterback, Mac Jones, Taulia Tagovailoa and star freshman Bryce Young are intriguing options who could help UA keep its torrid offensive pace. The defense should also improve as Moses returns from injury and Joshua McMillon comes back for a sixth year.

    When you factor in all the top-three recruiting classes Saban continues to bring into Tuscaloosa, it's hard not to like the Tide's chances, even without Tua Tagovailoa. Too many weapons return on both sides of the ball.

    Saban must shuffle some coaches around, as always, but Alabama isn't going to stop being a powerhouse any time soon.

    Look for the Tide to be right back in the mix next year.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    It'll be tough for the Buckeyes to say goodbye to stalwart stars like edge-rusher Chase Young and dynamic tailback J.K. Dobbins.

    But when you're recruiting the way Ohio State has been, there are ready reinforcements.

    Tyreke Smith will be the next star off the edge for Ohio State, and Master Teague III will step right into the primary back role. He's not nearly as electric as Dobbins, but Marcus Crowley will also slide into the mix. The Buckeyes are going to be just fine on the ground.

    The biggest plus for OSU is returning Heisman Trophy third-place finisher Justin Fields, who was phenomenal during his sophomore season for the 13-1 Buckeyes. They nearly made the national championship game with him to run the show, and he should only get better.

    There's no reason to think they won't be back in the playoff.

    Ohio State's receiving corps will be as strong as any in the nation. It's not out of the question that Garrett Wilson is one of the nation's top receivers as a sophomore, leading the way along with Chris Olave.

    The offensive line is stacked once again, and 5-star freshman Paris Johnson Jr. has instant-impact ability at left tackle.

    When you throw in cornerback Shaun Wade's decision to return for his senior season to anchor the secondary for the Buckeyes, there are potential stars at all levels on both sides of the ball.

    Ryan Day's team may have to change schemes a bit without Young and Dobbins, but this program is on as firm a footing as any team not named Clemson or Alabama. It'll make it all the way to next year's national title game.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    The Clemson Tigers appear to be on the cusp of the greatest dynasty in college football. Though they have a ways to go to be better than the Alabama teams of the past decade, they're the premier program in the sport.

    They'll get a chance to repeat as national champions Monday against LSU.

    Looking beyond that game, coach Dabo Swinney's team should be the odds-on favorite to win it all again in 2020, no matter what happens against Joe Burrow's potent Bayou Bengals attack. With the return of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, everything is possible next year.

    The Tigers will find it tough to replace do-it-all running back Travis Etienne if he declares for the draft. If junior receiver Tee Higgins turns pro (as expected), his production will be tough to replicate too. Brent Venables' defensive unit will miss anchors Isaiah Simmons and A.J. Terrell should they leave.

    But the Tigers are bringing in six 5-star players in the 2020 recruiting class, and they have elite athletes all over the field on both sides of the ball. Unless something major happens, like an injury to Lawrence, nobody in the ACC can keep up.

    Swinney may like to complain about getting no respect, but the Tigers have built enough goodwill that they could even get into the playoff with a loss, and that's doubtful to happen in the ACC. With so much talent set to return, they have to be the favorites.

    Lyn-J Dixon can help match Etienne's production, and there are going to be a lot of other backs who can help fill the gap. Along both lines of scrimmage, the Tigers will remain elite, and the receiving corps will still have Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers too.

    Don't worry about the Tigers. They'll be right back in the title game a year from now.