Early Predictions for CFB's Most Intriguing 2020 Starting Position Battles
It's part of the college football landscape for players to graduate or declare for the NFL draft, but the number of key departures this year has set us up for some exciting position battles in 2020.
A big-time position battle requires more than having a player leave, however. That departing player needs to have been an established star on his team with no clear successor in place.
We can talk all we want about Joe Burrow's replacement after winning a national title, but unless a big name transfers to LSU in the near future, Myles Brennan is the clear favorite to start under center for the Tigers in 2020.
Quarterback position battles are typically the most notable storylines to watch during the preseason, but this year will also feature interesting competitions at running back and wide receiver for some of the top programs in college football.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the biggest position battles heading into 2020, along with predictions for who will take the starting job once the season begins.
Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert could have gone pro after a strong 2018 season, but he decided to return for his senior year in hopes of winning a national championship.
Although Herbert wasn't able to bring a national title to Eugene, he got a prestigious Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin while allowing the Oregon coaching staff to prepare and find his successor.
The good news for Ducks fans is there will be plenty of options to take over the starting job, including two incoming freshmen. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough is the only candidate with in-game experience but showed solid efficiency with 12 of 15 passes completed for 144 yards and three touchdowns in limited snaps.
Cale Millen is the other returning quarterback, but after missing all of last season with a medical redshirt, he'll likely focus on getting back into the flow of practice before competing for a starting job.
The two incoming freshmen present different skill sets, but both are very talented. Robby Ashford, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, could be in strong consideration if new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead wants a quarterback who can make more plays with his legs.
Perhaps the most intriguing option is Jay Butterfield, a 6'6" pro-style quarterback. Not only was he the No. 3-ranked pro-style QB in this year's class, but outgoing Oregon OC Marcus Arroyo also spoke very highly of him, saying he had "high character, high output, low ego," per James Crepea of the Oregonian.
Oregon is going to have a lot of options to choose from, but given his similar stature to Herbert and how highly recruited he was, Butterfield has a good chance to secure the starting job under center before the season begins.
Prediction: Jay Butterfield
Wisconsin Running Back
Taking over as the starting running back for Wisconsin comes with a lot of pressure given the big names who have played for the Badgers in the past. However, replacing one of the best players in school history in Jonathan Taylor adds even more pressure to that role.
Taylor finished his college career with the second-most rushing yards in school history, running all over defenses for 6,174 yards, including back-to-back seasons with over 2,000. While it's unlikely whoever replaces him will have that kind of success, finding a back who can carry a heavy running game will be important to Wisconsin's success in 2020.
The incumbent candidates saw only a handful of touches behind Taylor in 2019, but both Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek will have their sights on that starting role. Watson is the more likely candidate to be named the starter, carrying the ball 32 more times than Groshek in 2019 at 4.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns.
Perhaps the more exciting option for Badgers fans would be incoming freshman Jalen Berger. A 4-star recruit and the No. 11 running back in the country, Berger comes in with an already imposing frame at six feet tall and 205 pounds. The soon-to-be Badgers running back showcased impressive burst and elusiveness in high school and could fit well in Wisconsin's offensive scheme.
Since Watson and Groshek aren't the flashiest options, Berger has a real chance to work his way into a starting role if he can show off that explosiveness in practice.
Prediction: Jalen Berger
Oklahoma Wide Receiver
The Oklahoma Sooners lose of a lot of offensive weapons every year to the NFL, but Lincoln Riley's offense continues to churn out top-tier wide receiver prospects. CeeDee Lamb replaced Marquise Brown as the primary receiver in 2019, and now it's time for someone else to step in.
Given the nature of Oklahoma's offense, plenty of receivers get starting-caliber snaps, but there will always be a lead dog who stands above the rest of the pass-catchers.
A couple of teammates will battle for that role over the spring and summer, but none had the production last season that Charleston Rambo had. Despite only hauling in 43 catches, Rambo put up 743 yards and five touchdowns thanks to his vertical-threat ability and breakaway speed.
At the very least, Rambo should see a big uptick in his production now that Lamb is no longer with the program.
The other favorite to land the No. 1 receiver job would be Jadon Haselwood, a soon-to-be sophomore. Haselwood played sparingly as a true freshman with 19 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown. However, he was a top recruit out of high school, graded as the best receiver in the country.
Fellow true freshman receiver Theo Wease, the No. 3 receiver in the 2019 class, could also make a run for that role. Wease had a pair of scores last season and comes in with an imposing 6'3", 201-pound frame.
Rambo has production on his side, but with a full offseason to continue settling into the offense, this could be a breakout year for Haselwood.
Prediction: Jadon Haselwood
Georgia Running Back
The Georgia Bulldogs continue to crank out exciting NFL draft prospects, especially at running back. This year, D'Andre Swift will join the likes of Todd Gurley II, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the next level, and he has the potential to be the first player taken at the position.
At this point, the only question is who the next star running back out of Athens is going to be.
Three returning running backs carried the ball at least 25 times last year, but Zamir White is the front-runner of that group to become the next starter. He only had 78 carries in 2019 but ran for over 400 yards and three scores.
James Cook and Kenny McIntosh are the other two returning backs, and both were even more efficient in limited reps. Each scored two touchdowns and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry. Still, both of their play styles seem more suited to complementary roles judging from last season.
The newcomer who will attempt to make a statement in this position battle is Kendall Milton, the No. 6 running back recruit in the country. Milton was also being recruited by the likes of Alabama and LSU in the SEC despite playing high school in California, but he decided to commit to the Bulldogs.
There will be a lot of carries to go around next season with the departure of Swift, but given his athletic profile and hard-nosed running style, White should be set to take on a much bigger role.
Prediction: Zamir White
After years of decent play at quarterback, the Alabama Crimson Tide had arguably their best stretch at the position under Nick Saban the past few seasons thanks to Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.
With Tagovailoa headed to the NFL, Saban must find a quarterback talented enough to lead his team to the College Football Playoff after missing the tournament for the first time in its young history.
Mac Jones will be in the driver's seat to earn the starting job considering he replaced Tagovailoa after the latter suffered a gruesome hip injury in November. As a redshirt sophomore, Jones put up more than respectable numbers for the Crimson Tide, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,503 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Tua's younger brother, Taulia Tagovailoa, may be the odd man out in this battle. Not only will he have to compete with the quarterback who replaced his brother this past season, but he'll also have to prove himself over talented incoming freshman Bryce Young.
Young is the No. 1 dual-threat QB for this year's recruiting class and flipped his commitment from USC to Alabama in September. The older Tagovailoa was the last top-rated dual-threat QB to commit to Alabama, and Young will try to follow in those footsteps to lead the Crimson Tide to a national title.
However, considering how much Young will have to learn in a short amount of time, it's safe to assume Jones will secure the starting job for at least the opening game. Don't be surprised if Young finds his way onto the field if Jones starts to struggle, though.
Prediction: Mac Jones
All recruiting information provided by 247Sports.