The Most Dominant College Football Position Units Heading into 2020 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 22, 2020

The Most Dominant College Football Position Units Heading into 2020 Season

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    Clemson RB Travis Etienne
    Clemson RB Travis EtienneKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Individual college football players can be remarkable, but it's often the positional units that separate good teams from great ones.

    Ohio State's defensive line, Clemson's rushing attack, Oklahoma's passing game and LSU's overall offensive onslaught were the biggest reasons those teams reached the College Football Playoff last year.

    Most of the teams expected to contend for a spot in this year's CFP boast a particular unit that should rank among the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

    Potential, while important, was only a small factor in this list because of its subjective nature. This ranking is predominantly rooted in returning production and the preseason All-American types of honors and awards that come with it.

    To spread out the representation, we've imposed a maximum of one position unit per team.

10. North Carolina's Wide Receivers

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    Dyami Brown
    Dyami BrownJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Dazz Newsome (72 receptions, 1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns), Dyami Brown (51 receptions, 1,034 yards, 12 touchdowns), Beau Corrales (40 receptions, 575 yards, 6 touchdowns)

            

    Key Reserves

    Rontavius Groves (27 receptions, 250 yards, 1 touchdown), Antoine Green (8 receptions, 217 yards, 2 touchdowns)

           

    The Star

    At 20.3 yards per reception, Brown had one of the more explosive seasons in recent history. It was one of just 13 times in the past decade that a player averaged at least 20 yards per catch while hauling in 50 receptions. But he's also one of two returning players with at least 1,000 receiving yards last year. Newsome was also a reliable asset for the Tar Heels.

            

    What to Know

    Including running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, seven North Carolina players had at least 100 receiving yards in 2019. Each of those seven players returns in 2020, so quarterback Sam Howellwho threw for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns as a true freshmanshould be even more potent this year. North Carolina will be overshadowed by Clemson in the ACC, but this offense could give the Tigers a run for their money in the ACC Championship Game.

9. Penn State's Linebackers

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    Micah Parsons
    Micah ParsonsBarry Reeger/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Micah Parsons (109 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, 5 passes defended), Ellis Brooks (40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss), Brandon Smith (14 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss)

            

    Key Reserves

    Jesse Luketa (24 tackles, 4 passes defended), Lance Dixon (3 tackles), Charlie Katshir (5 tackles), Curtis Jacobs (true freshman)

           

    The Star

    Parsons is a phenom on the short list of candidates to be the first defensive player selected in the 2021 NFL draftprovided he declares for it. He led the Nittany Lions in tackles as a true freshman in 2018, and he was just getting warmed up. Parsons had at least 10 tackles in six of Penn State's final seven games last year, including 14 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis.

            

    What to Know

    Cam Brown and Jan Johnson started nearly every game at linebacker over the past two seasons, so replacing both could be a challenge. But Penn State always has good options at linebacker. Smith didn't play a ton last year as a true freshman, but the 2019 5-star recruit is an obvious candidate for a breakout year. The Nittany Lions also may immediately give a fair amount of playing time to Jacobsthe fifth-highest-rated linebacker in the 2020 class. If either underclassman taps into his potential this year, this should be one of the best linebacker units in the country.

8. USC's Wide Receivers

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    Amon-Ra St. Brown
    Amon-Ra St. BrownDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Tyler Vaughns (74 receptions, 912 yards, 6 touchdowns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (77 receptions, 1,042 yards, 6 touchdowns), Drake London (39 receptions, 567 yards, 5 touchdowns)

            

    Key Reserves

    Kyle Ford (1 reception, 20 yards, 1 touchdown), Bru McCoy (did not play in 2019), John Jackson III (no stats in 2019), Gary Bryant Jr. (true freshman)

           

    The Star

    It's a tough call between Vaughns and St. Brown, but we've got to lean in the direction of St. Brown given the way Kedon Slovis targeted him down the stretch. Vaughns put up more impressive numbers early in the season, but St. Brown made at least eight receptions for at least 128 yards in three of USC's final four games. Definitely a 1A and 1B situation, though, where both wideouts would have been expected to eclipse 1,000 yards in a regular 12-game season.

            

    What to Know

    London will likely be a starter out of the gate after the success he had as a true freshman, but Ford and McCoy were the biggest gets in last year's class. They might push London down the pecking order. The former missed almost the entire 2019 season with a torn ACL, and the latter was ineligible to play after transferring from USC to Texas and back again, but either top-40 recruit could blossom into a star in 2020. Bryant might also factor into the mix as one of the top receivers in the 2020 class. Long story short, USC is well positioned to replace Michael Pittman Jr.'s 101 receptions from last year.

7. Oregon's Secondary

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    Thomas Graham Jr.
    Thomas Graham Jr.Timothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Thomas Graham Jr. (64 tackles, 10 passes defended, 2 interceptions), Deommodore Lenoir (46 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 interception), Brady Breeze (62 tackles, 4 fumbles recovered, 2 interceptions), Verone McKinley III (46 tackles, 4 interceptions), Jevon Holland (66 tackles, 4 interceptions)

           

    Key Reserves

    Nick Pickett (45 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 interception), Mykael Wright (21 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 interception), Jamal Hill (6 tackles), DJ James (10 tackles), Dontae Manning (true freshman)

           

    The Star

    Graham is tasked with covering a lot of ground as Oregon's starting field cornerback, but few do it better. He has broken up 28 passes over the past two seasons while intercepting five others. He's also a solid open-field tackler, practically serving as a linebacker in the secondary.

            

    What to Know

    Aside from Haki Woods Jr. (23 tackles, 0 passes defended), Oregon brings back the entirety of what was already a rock-solid secondary. Only Florida Atlantic (22 interceptions) picked off more passes last year than Oregon (20). However, the Ducks weren't nearly as good over the final eight games of the year as they were in the first six. If they can defend the pass like they did against Auburn, Stanford and Colorado and avoid disastrous performances like in the loss to Arizona State, this secondary should lead the Ducks to the College Football Playoff.

6. Ohio State's Offensive Line

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    Wyatt Davis
    Wyatt DavisRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Wyatt Davis, Thayer Munford, Josh Myers, Nicholas Petit-Frere, Harry Miller

             

    Key Reserves

    Matthew Jones, Paris Johnson Jr., Enokk Vimahi, Ryan Jacoby, Dawand Jones, Max Wray

           

    The Star

    In his first year as a starter, Davis anchored an extremely efficient Ohio State offense. He is almost certainly going to be a consensus preseason first-team All-American. Per Pro Football Focus, Davis was not responsible for a sack or even a single hit on the quarterback during any of his pass-blocking attempts last year.

            

    What to Know

    In Davis, Munford and Myers, Ohio State brings back three starters who are entering their fourth year in Columbus. That trio was instrumental in paving the way for J.K. Dobbins to rush for more than 2,000 yards last year, as well as keeping Justin Fields' pocket clean. And the Buckeyes have plenty of excellent candidates for replacing departed starters Jonah Jackson and Branden Bowen. Just at right tackle, they'll have 2018 No. 7 overall recruit Petit-Frere and 2020 No. 9 overall recruit Johnson jostling for reps. Quite the enviable dilemma to have.

5. Alabama's Wide Receivers

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    DeVonta Smith
    DeVonta SmithVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    DeVonta Smith (68 receptions, 1,256 yards, 14 touchdowns), Jaylen Waddle (33 receptions, 560 yards, 6 touchdowns), John Metchie III (4 receptions, 23 yards)

            

    Key Reserves

    Slade Bolden (2 receptions, 34 yards), Xavier Williams (no 2019 stats), Thaiu Jones-Bell (true freshman), Javon Baker (true freshman), Traeshon Holden (true freshman)

            

    The Star

    Smith is the clear star. Two years after making the national championship-winning touchdown catch in overtime against Georgia, he led all Alabama receivers in both yards and touchdowns in 2019. Given the way he torched Ole Miss (274 yards, 5 touchdowns) and LSU (213 yards, 2 touchdowns), he likely would've been a first-round pick if he had declared for the draft. But he's back alongside the speedy Waddle to help Alabama remain one of the most lethal passing attacks in the nation.

            

    What to Know

    Former Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III was selected 12th overall in the 2020 NFL draft. Teammate Jerry Jeudy went three picks later. Tyrell Shaverswho seemed to be in the conversation for a starting gigtransferred to Mississippi State in June. Yet the Crimson Tide are in impeccable shape with Smith and Waddle to lead the way. Metchie and every one of the above reserves are strong candidates for a breakout year as the Crimson Tide try to figure out which of their quality options is best suited to fill their Ruggs- and Jeudy-sized holes in production.

4. Miami's Defensive Line

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    Gregory Rousseau
    Gregory RousseauChris Seward/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Gregory Rousseau (54 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), Quincy Roche (49 tackles, 19.0 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks, 5 passes defended), Nesta Jade Silvera (19 tackles, 1.0 sacks), Jon Ford (18 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble)

            

    Key Reserves

    Jaelan Phillips (DNP, transfer), Jordan Miller (12 tackles), Jahfair Harvey (1 tackle), Jalar Holley (no stats), Jared Harrison-Hunte (no stats), Chantz Williams (true freshman)

            

    The Star

    After a redshirt freshman campaign in which he almost led the nation in sacks, Rousseau has already been tabbed as a top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Those types of way-too-early evaluations can change drasticallyjust ask Grant Delpit, A.J. Epenesa and Jake Fromm. But it's a testament to how much promise and dominance he displayed as a pass-rusher.

            

    What to Know

    Miami lost four key linemen in Trevon Hill, Jon Garvin, Scott Patchan and Pat Bethel. That quartet combined for 121 tackles and 13.5 sacks last season, and their departures leave the Hurricanes with some serious unknowns coming off the bench. But getting Roche as a grad transfer from Temple was huge. He and Rousseau will make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. And if UCLA transfer Jaelan Phillips can tap into even a bit of his potential as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2017 class, look out, ACC.

3. Georgia's Secondary

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    Richard LeCounte III
    Richard LeCounte IIIJohn Amis/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Richard LeCounte III (61 tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries), Eric Stokes (38 tackles, 9 passes defended), Tyson Campbell (15 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery), Lewis Cine (19 tackles, 1 interception)

            

    Key Reserves

    DJ Daniel (42 tackles, 8 passes defended), Mark Webb (38 tackles, 3 passes defended), Tyrique Stevenson (13 tackles, 5 passes defended), Kelee Ringo (true freshman), Chris Smith (7 tackles)

            

    The Star

    Between LeCounte and Campbell, Georgia has quite the no-fly zone. Getting the former to return for a senior year was a colossal win for Kirby Smart and his coaching staff. And getting the latter back to full strength after he missed much of last season with turf toe will provide a huge boost to what was already an excellent unit. The former 5-star recruits are now upperclassmen who anchor a great secondary.

          

    What to Know

    Georgia is so loaded at cornerback that Ringothe No. 4 overall recruit in the 2020 classcould take a redshirt and the Bulldogs would still have more talented mouths than they can possibly feed. Daniel and Webb might not start, but they're basically fifth and sixth "starters" in the secondary. Safety is a bit more of a question mark after first-team AP All-American J.R. Reed graduated, but Georgia should be in good shape to possibly improve upon a season in which it ranked second in the nation in yards allowed per passing attempt and eighth in opposing QB rating.

2. LSU's Wide Receivers

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    Ja'Marr Chase
    Ja'Marr ChaseJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Projected Starters

    Ja'Marr Chase (84 receptions, 1,780 yards, 20 touchdowns), Terrace Marshall (46 receptions, 671 yards, 13 touchdowns), Racey McMath (17 receptions, 285 yards, 3 touchdowns)

             

    Key Reserves

    Trey Palmer (1 reception, 6 yards), Jaray Jenkins (5 receptions, 67 yards), Jontre Kirklin (2 receptions, 75 yards), Devonta Lee (2 receptions, 27 yards), Kayshon Boutte (true freshman), Arik Gilbert (true freshman)

            

    The Star

    Chase led the nation in both receiving yards and touchdowns last season and is going to be a unanimous preseason first-team All-American. His numbers will likely take a hit with Heisman QB Joe Burrow now in the NFL, but Chase is going to be the heart and soul of this offense all the same. He's the first Power Five WR to average at least 120 receiving yards per game and come back for another season since Marqise Lee in 2012-13. Here's hoping Chase can avoid the injuries and the changes in the coaching staff that derailed Lee's junior year.

             

    What to Know

    Between Justin Jefferson, tight end Thaddeus Moss and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU needs to either replace or adjust to life without 14.2 catches and 170.9 yards per game. But the Tigers have a lot of strong candidates to play second fiddle to Chase and Marshall. Some like Palmer or Boutte for the third starting spot, but the veteran, big-bodied McMath (6'3", 224 lbs) might be the best target for projected starting QB Myles Brennan. While Gilbert is actually a tight end, don't be surprised if LSU uses the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2020 class the same way it used Moss last year.

1. Clemson's Backfield

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    Travis Etienne
    Travis EtienneSean Rayford/Associated Press

    Projected Starter

    Travis Etienne (207 carries, 1,614 yards, 19 touchdowns; 37 receptions, 432 yards, 4 touchdowns)

             

    Key Reserves

    Lyn-J Dixon (104 carries, 635 yards, 6 touchdowns), Chez Mellusi (44 carries, 276 yards, 3 touchdowns), Darien Rencher (26 carries, 135 yards, 2 touchdowns), Michel Dukes (32 carries, 150 yards, 2 touchdowns), Demarkcus Bowman (true freshman)

           

    The Star

    Etienne finished top-10 in the Heisman vote in each of the past two seasons and may have been the first running back drafted this past April if he had chosen to forgo his senior campaign. Instead, he's back for Clemson and aiming for a third consecutive season averaging better than 7.7 yards per carry and more than 115 yards from scrimmage per game.

            

    What to Know

    Other backfields (Alabama and Oklahoma State, in particular) have a starter who has proved he can produce at a level comparable to Etienne, and some of those backfields even have a strong backup to boot. But Clemson added one of the top freshmen in the nation (Bowman) to a backfield where each of the top three returning running backs averaged better than six yards per carry last year. Also, quarterback Trevor Lawrence averaged nearly 40 rushing yards per game in 2019. Dabo Swinney's rushing cup runneth over.