10 Teams That Actually Have a Chance to Win the 2020 College Football Playoff

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2020

10 Teams That Actually Have a Chance to Win the 2020 College Football Playoff

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    This is the time of the year for reflection and anticipation—for thinking of the college football season that just finished and how your team did and the excitement of what's to come.

    If you just won a championship or finished strong, it's a terrific time to look back on a memorable season. If it was a miserable year, it's time to look forward to a new hope. Few teams right now don't have at least some positivity about the 2020 season.

    But it's up to the realists to look through all the fanboy talk, dissect the rosters and determine which teams have a legitimate chance to win it all next year.

    It may have felt like LSU came from nowhere, thanks to the meteoric rise of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, and shocked college football in 2019. But that wasn't the case. The Bayou Bengals were ranked sixth in the Associated Press' preseason Top 25 poll.

    So, even teams that stun us can have had the horses to do so all along, right? When is the last time a squad came from nowhere to win the title? It was probably 2010 Auburn, which started the season at No. 22 but had Cam Newton at quarterback.

    You probably know the likely culprits for next year's College Football Playoff. So do we. So, let's take a look at the 10 teams that can actually go all the way.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    The definition of "Alabama football" has changed over the Nick Saban era, mostly because the greatest active college coach has adapted his team to the talent outfitting the roster and the changing style of the game.

    Early Crimson Tide title winners from the Saban era played elite defense, ground it out with elite running backs and did enough at quarterback to manage games and win. They were still dominant, just in a different way.

    Then Tua Tagovailoa came, and Alabama started flinging the ball all over the field and outscoring teams.

    With Tagovailoa gone, the 2020 Tide may look a little more like a team in the middle of those two extremes. But it'll still probably be one of the last four standing when the smoke clears. Between Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders, Alabama will have a strong running game.

    No matter whether Mac Jones or true freshman Bryce Young is the starting quarterback, there are elite pass-catchers aplenty, led by DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. The offensive and defensive lines should be excellent once again, while the biggest change will come at the second level of the defense.

    That's where injured star Dylan Moses returns, flanked by sixth-year veteran Joshua McMillon to help improve a unit that was sorely lacking a year ago.

    Throw in a dynamic, versatile recruiting class full of playmakers and loaded with athletic linebackers and pass-rushers, and Alabama looks like a force once again. Not enough people are talking about the Tide as title contenders next season, but they will be.

Clemson Tigers

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    Without question, the national title favorites for the 2020 season are the Clemson Tigers.

    This year's national runners-up tried to go back-to-back but ran into Joes Burrow's buzzsaw and the LSU Tigers. Still, they expect to be right back in the College Football Playoff National Championship, and it would be ridiculous to bet against them.

    Coach Dabo Swinney's team will run up against stiffer competition in the ACC than it has in years past, but those squads are still not ready to compete player-for-player with the Tigers.

    Trevor Lawrence returns for his junior season, and he should be the Heisman Trophy favorite. He also has the players around him to live up to the massive hype before he goes to the NFL as the top overall pick.

    If that's not enough, two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne shocked everybody by deciding to return for his senior season. Receivers Justyn Ross, Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and Amari Rodgers give Swinney's team a ton of talent on the perimeter.

    After a year in which they pieced together yet another strong defensive line, Clemson won't have to worry about that. Elite prospects Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Demonte Capehart will add quality and quantity to a group led by Nyles Pinckney, Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas.

    There are questions about the second and third levels of the defense, but coordinator Brent Venables has a ton of talent and will have his guys ready to play. They'll have plenty of time to practice in conference play, too, to be ready for the big ones late in the season.

Florida Gators

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    If you're a Florida Gators fan, you have got to be excited about the trajectory of your team.

    The first two years of the Dan Mullen era have gone swimmingly (pardon the reptile pun), and there's no reason to believe Florida is incapable of surpassing hated rival Georgia to win the SEC East in 2020. If that happens, the Gators will be capable of winning more.

    A lot depends on the development of second-year starter Kyle Trask at quarterback and just how much he progresses. He's going to have a lot of exciting playmakers around him, such as tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receivers Jacob Copeland and Trevon Grimes.

    Sure, losing Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland was tough, but Mullen did a good job of adding to the wide receiver arsenal with Xzavier Henderson and Jaquavion Fraziars. Getting Penn State transfer Justin Shorter could be massive if he lives up to his abilities as a pass-catching prospect.

    Texas transfer Jordan Pouncey also could fit in the rotation at receiver, and former Miami running back Lorenzo Lingard could make an instant impact if he's eligible to play for the Gators after transferring closer to home. Like Shorter, he was once a top-rated prospect.

    Mullen has recruited fine, but he's filled shortfalls by excelling in the transfer portal, and getting pass-rusher Brenton Cox Jr. to transfer from Georgia could wind up being the biggest win yet. Cox will be eligible to play in 2020 and should make a difference right away.

    When you factor in the good work the Gators did on the trail to help out a thin defensive line, led by 5-star Gervon Dexter, there are a lot of reasons to like the upside of Florida. But are the Gators good enough to beat the Dawgs?

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Coach Kirby Smart has Georgia on the cusp of greatness, but for whatever reason, the Bulldogs can't seem to win the big one. You know they are sick of hearing the refrains of "1980" from their rivals, referencing the last time UGA won a national title.

    Rather than wait around for a quarterback to develop, though, Smart went out and replaced Jake Fromm with Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman after Fromm elected to leave Athens a year early for the NFL. 

    That may wind up being a move to get Georgia back to the top. Throw in the hire of Todd Monken as offensive coordinator to replace James Coley, and Smart did plenty to improve his team in the offseason.

    Yes, losing running back D'Andre Swift will hurt. Having to replace some playmakers in the front seven, such as nose tackle Tyler Clark, won't be easy, either. But Georgia has recruited as well as anybody in the nation recently and has playmakers all over the field. They just need reps.

    It's going to be exciting to watch budding stars in outside linebacker Nolan Smith, running back Zamir White, receiver George Pickens, offensive lineman Broderick Jones, tight end Darnell Washington and cornerback Kelee Ringo develop into the cornerstones of tomorrow.

    The Junkyard Dawgs defense isn't going anywhere as long as Dan Lanning is calling the shots, and the team has waves of talented players. Replacing Fromm and Coley with Newman and Monken was a major upgrade.

    If that duo can grow and jell together, Georgia could be barking back at opponents after its first championship in 40 years.

LSU Tigers

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    If you thought LSU's national championship was surprising, just wait to see whether the Tigers repeat. It would certainly be a shocker when you consider just what coach Ed Orgeron lost.

    The national title capped a storybook season for the Bayou Bengals, but were they ever gutted. Everybody knew Joe Burrow was out of eligibility and off to the NFL, as he'll likely be the top pick in the draft. But the mass exodus that followed was something else.

    Passing game coordinator Joe Brady joined Matt Rhule's first Carolina Panthers staff. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda got the Baylor head coaching gig, replacing Rhule.

    Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, receiver Justin Jefferson, leading tackler Jacob Phillips, elite safety and Jim Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit, center Lloyd Cushenberry III, left tackle Saahdiq Charles and linebacker Patrick Queen left, too. Cornerback Kristian Fulton was a senior, too.

    Though safety JaCoby Stevens and nose tackle Tyler Shelvin are coming back, they are in the minority. This spring is going to be an open tryout to outfit a roster coming off a national title, and the team that stole college football fans' hearts a season ago will be nowhere to be found.

    Funny thing is, Orgeron is going to still have a load of talent, led by All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase. Elite prospects in cornerback Elias Ricks and tight end Arik Gilbert can help bridge the gap, and the Tigers could be strong again.

    Can quarterback Myles Brennan or somebody else somehow replicate the magic? Can LSU keep that edge and transfer it to a new generation? Don't count it out. The Tigers may be long shots, but they're the champions until they're not.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    From one long shot to another. You may be looking at Notre Dame on this list and thinking the Fighting Irish are far from an elite team capable of competing for the national title.

    That would just be untrue, though. Coach Brian Kelly's team is two seasons removed from being in the College Football Playoff, and though the Irish didn't show well against Clemson, the Tigers proved against Alabama in the title game that they were the truth.

    Last season, Notre Dame had to fill some holes and wasn't quite the same squad, but the Irish should take a step forward this year. When quarterback Ian Book announced he was returning for his final season in South Bend, the Irish became a contender.

    Yes, Book must improve against the best defenses on the schedule, but he vastly improved his downfield passing last year, and he has plenty of familiarity with new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who was the quarterbacks coach a season ago.

    It's going to be tough replacing pass-catchers Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Chris Finke, but the Irish have a lot of talent, including juniors Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin Jr. and Lawrence Keys III and incoming freshman Jordan Johnson. The Irish also may have added the nation's top high school tight end in Michael Mayer.

    Factor in a do-it-all freshman jitterbug in Chris Tyree, and Notre Dame could have some sneakily good playmakers.

    Defensively, the Irish have one of the best young defenses in the nation, led by safeties Kyle Hamilton and Alohi Gilman, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and linebacker Drew White. Notre Dame certainly could improve on last year's 11-2 mark and get back to the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    If Clemson is the 2020 favorite, the Ohio State Buckeyes are a close second. There's no reason to think they won't be right back in the College Football Playoff next year after the Tigers barely put them out last season.

    With another Heisman Trophy favorite leading the way in rising junior Justin Fields, the sky is the limit in coach Ryan Day's second full season as the Buckeyes coach. They've got to replace some key pieces, but the talent is there to do so.

    Ohio State lost its best defensive end in decades in Chase Young as well as elite running back J.K. Dobbins and star cornerback Jeff Okudah.

    Zach Harrison is going to fill Young's role as a pass-rushing specialist, and there are dynamic players across all three levels of the defense. Losing co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, who is Boston College's new head coach, will be tough.

    The running backs will be led by Master Teague III, but he's an every-down grinder who will give way to some home-run hitters behind him, too. The Buckeyes lost Austin Mack, K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor at receiver, but they return Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who could form the nation's best duo.

    Adding elite receivers Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Gee Scott Jr. will be huge, too. On the offensive front, Thayer Munford and Co. will allow elite freshman Paris Johnson Jr. to come along slowly so he can develop into a force by late in the year.

    Shaun Wade and Josh Proctor should help a secondary that will be young but talented, and that's likely the biggest question mark heading into the season.

    There's still plenty of time and talent for Day and the Buckeyes to figure out the issues so they can be in the mix when the season is coming to a close.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    There's a reason why teams such as Oklahoma are on this list despite major personnel turnover. It's because with Lincoln Riley as coach, the Sooners always seem to be in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.

    It's what happens when they get there that's cringe-worthy.

    Last season, it was LSU's 63-28 dismantling of the Sooners, which could have been worse had the brakes not been pumped. Now, OU has to face life after quarterback Jalen Hurts, receiver CeeDee Lamb and others. It's not going to be easy.

    Unlike in the past few years, there's no transfer savior quarterback lurking behind Door 3, either. Riley will have to try to mold redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordecai or redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler to be Hurts' heir.

    The good news for the Sooners is that whoever wins the job will have tons of talent to throw to, including Charleston Rambo, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges.

    Running back may be the deepest position on the team with Kennedy Brooks, Rhamondre Stevenson and Trey Sermon back. Those guys are going to have fun running behind Creed Humphrey and Co., and the OU offense could look a whole lot different but still be potent next year.

    If Oklahoma is going to make any noise beyond some scoreboard malfunctions, the Sooners need to grow immensely in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's second season. Until they make major changes and strides on that side of the ball, they are always going to be a nice regular-season story that fizzles at the end.

Oregon Ducks

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    You cannot win a national title without strong quarterback play, and that's really all the Oregon Ducks are missing entering the 2020 season as they look to replace future first-round NFL draft pick Justin Herbert.

    Perhaps the two main competitors to replace him will be backup Tyler Shough and incoming elite freshman Jay Butterfield, who will duke it out this spring for the opportunity to lead a team that has all the other elements to win next season.

    Running back CJ Verdell is probably the Pac-12's best, and Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio form a more than serviceable backup duo. Sean Dollars is a wild card to factor in to the running back mix as a redshirt freshman, too.

    They'll all get to run behind one of the nation's top O-lines, led by the best lineman in the nation in Penei Sewell, even after the departures of Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hanson and Shane Lemieux.

    Defensively, the Ducks are loaded and will be among the nation's top units, as coach Mario Cristobal is on the cusp of creating a powerhouse on that side of the ball. Losing Troy Dye is going to be tough, but the Ducks have elite freshmen linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe coming in to flank Mase Funa.

    Stars such as safety Brady Breeze and edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux could play for any team in the nation, and with the Pac-12 still trying to edge its way into national prominence, the Ducks should be the league's best again, battling Utah, USC and Washington.

    If Oregon runs the table in league play, it could have a huge year, but a massive game against Ohio State on Sept. 12 at Autzen Stadium will be the litmus test for just how good 2020 could be.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Everybody is talking about Ryan Day's Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten, and there's no doubt they should be the league's top team if not the nation's best. But the Penn State Nittany Lions should be on your radar.

    Last season was a major bounce-back for coach James Franklin's team after a disappointing final season for former quarterback Trace McSorley.

    With Sean Clifford at the helm last year, the Lions finished 11-2 with a 53-39 win over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl to close the season. Penn State was quietly one of the nation's most complete teams, and though close losses to Minnesota and Ohio State soiled the year, they didn't spoil it.

    If anything, Penn State should know it can play with anybody, and the Nittany Lions have the players to do it.

    Running backs Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are coming back to wreak havoc, and though there are holes in the receiving corps and secondary, Penn State has the players to fill those voids.

    The defense will led by linebacker Micah Parsons, who has the potential to be one of the nation's top players, and newcomers such as linebacker Curtis Jacobs will help fill some of the gaps.

    It's probably a long shot for Penn State to go all the way in 2020, but it's not a stretch to say this could be Franklin's deepest, most talented and best team. If the Lions get going early and find a way to win road games at Virginia Tech and Michigan, they could start to roll.

    If this is an undefeated team heading into Oct. 17, when Penn State hosts back-to-back big games against Iowa and Ohio State, look out.

                

    Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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