Projecting College Football Preseason Top 25 at the Start of Fall Camp

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2020

Projecting College Football Preseason Top 25 at the Start of Fall Camp

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    Uncertainty is swirling around the status of college football in 2020, but we're fast approaching poll season. And if the drastic measure of a cancellation isn't made, you can expect the first edition of the Associated Press Top 25 in mid-August.

    The sport itself is bound to look different. Expectations for many teams, though, are relatively unchanged since the spring.

    Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are the leading championship threats. LSU and Georgia headline the second tier, which also includes Oklahoma and Oregon, among others.

    The following order is a projection of the AP's initial Top 25.

25-21. Arizona State, Miami, Iowa State, Cincinnati, UCF

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    Arizona State QB Jayden Daniels
    Arizona State QB Jayden DanielsDarryl Webb/Associated Press

    25. Arizona State Sun Devils

    Sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels accounted for 20 touchdowns with only two interceptions last season. Between his expected improvement and an experienced defense, the Sun Devils can contend for the Pac-12 crown in 2020.

                

    24. Miami Hurricanes

    New offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and transfer quarterback D'Eriq King are the foundation of the ever-present offseason Miami hype. The change to a spread-based attack is a long-awaited move, and King figures to be dangerous in Lashlee's system. Special-teams breakdowns and fourth-quarter meltdowns crushed Miami in 2019; will Manny Diaz and Co. avoid a repeat in the fall?

                 

    23. Iowa State Cyclones

    Two-year starter Brock Purdy, a potential NFL draft prospect, returns to lead Iowa State. The Cyclones are hoping a defense that must replace only a handful of contributors will be consistently stingy in the high-scoring Big 12. Otherwise, the trend of close losses will continue to bite Matt Campbell's squad.

              

    22. Cincinnati Bearcats

    Luke Fickell has Cincinnati in a great position for a third straight year of 10-plus wins. The defense is loaded with seniors, and two-year starter Desmond Ridder is back under center. Granted, that doesn't mean the offense is great. Scoring enough to limit the pressure on UC's defense is key, and it hasn't happened consistently against top opponents over the last two years.

              

    21. UCF Knights

    From the return of Dillon Gabriel to a junior- and senior-heavy defense, UCF has a whole lot to like. Gabriel tossed 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions as a freshman and will be throwing to a couple of 700-yard receivers in Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams. The linebackers and secondary give UCF a superb defense, but an improved defensive line should ensure the Knights have an elite unit again.

20-16. Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Michigan

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    Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck
    Minnesota coach P.J. FleckMatthew Putney/Associated Press

    20. Minnesota Golden Gophers

    Tanner Morgan propelled Minnesota to a mildly surprising 9-0 start last season, ending the campaign with 30 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Perfectly navigating a Big Ten-only schedule is highly unlikely with a revamped defense, but Morgan and star receiver Rashod Bateman give the Gophers a chance to pull off a big upset.

              

    19. Tennessee Volunteers

    The Vols opened a paltry 1-4 in 2019 but ripped off a 7-1 finish. While that suggests good things for 2020, Tennessee simply must be better on offense to reach "contender" status. Florida, Georgia and Alabama smashed the Vols by a combined score of 112-30. Needing to replace three of the top four pass-catchers will complicate that process.

                

    18. Oklahoma State Cowboys

    Oklahoma State returns standout runner Chuba Hubbard and wideout Tylan Wallace for sophomore quarterback Spencer Sanders. The Pokes should score plenty of points in 2020. Plus, they have 10 starters coming back on defense. On paper, this is a prime chance for Oklahoma State to dethrone rival Oklahoma and make a serious run at the program's second-ever Big 12 title.

             

    17. North Carolina Tar Heels

    This offense is loaded. Sam Howell tossed 38 touchdowns as a freshman, hitting both Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome for 1,000-plus yards. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams both scampered for at least 900 yards. They're all back. Now, will the Heels avoid one-score games? They dropped six of them last season.

              

    16. Michigan Wolverines

    Michigan settled in offensively as 2019 progressed, which is understandable when a new coordinator (Josh Gattis) arrives. Still, Ohio State walloped Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in Ann Arbor anyway. No matter the level of talent on the rosterand there's plenty, to be sureMichigan's success will be judged on the outcome of The Game. The Wolverines haven't won in Columbus since 2000.

15-11. Wisconsin, Oregon, USC, Notre Dame, Auburn

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    USC coach Clay Helton and QB Kedon Slovis
    USC coach Clay Helton and QB Kedon SlovisMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    15. Wisconsin Badgers

    Same story, different year. The defense should be somewhere between good and great, making Wisconsin a primary threat in the Big Ten's West Division. The offense tends to lack aerial firepower, limiting the perceived ceiling for the Badgers.

              

    14. Oregon Ducks

    Highlighted by perhaps the nation's top secondary, Oregon returns eight starters on a defense that allowed only 16.5 points per game last year. That strength alone places the Ducks in the Pac-12 chase, so it's a matter of the offense's production. The Ducks need a few unproven receivers to lock down a significant role and bolster the passing game. Tyler Shough is set to replace Justin Herbert at quarterback.

                

    13. USC Trojans

    The Pac-12's decision to target a conference-only schedule is a small victory for USC, which no longer opens 2020 against Alabama. All the pieces are seemingly in place for a Pac-12 championship run, but the constant rumbles of Clay Helton's uncertain future will likely appear following any poor performance and every loss.

              

    12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

    Ian Book is headed for his third season as the starting quarterback, and the defense should be excellent. However, there is so much uncertainty for the Irish, who have already removed games with Wisconsin, Stanford and USC from the calendar. Until the schedule is finalized, expectations can be no better than unclear.

              

    11. Auburn Tigers

    Auburn isn't quite rebuilding on either side of the ball, but the offensive line and secondary will have a substantially different look in 2020. Settle those positions and the Tigers will be a thorn in the SEC. To compete nationally, though, Auburn needs an explosive group of pass-catchers to produce at a much higher level with sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.

10-6. Texas A&M, Texas, Penn State, Florida, Oklahoma

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    Texas QB Sam Ehlinger
    Texas QB Sam EhlingerEric Gay/Associated Press

    10. Texas A&M Aggies

    One of the offseason darlings in 2020, Texas A&M is likely to hold a top-10 preseason ranking. The primary appeals are longtime starting quarterback Kellen Mond, three key returning pass-catchers, a seasoned offensive line and a defense stacked with experience. But the Aggies still need to navigate Alabama, Auburn and LSU, against whom they are a combined 2-13 since 2015.

               

    9. Texas Longhorns

    After dealing with constant issues last season, perhaps the Longhorns will have better injury luck in 2020. New coordinators on both sides of the ball are reason for hope, along with quarterback Sam Ehlinger and a defense that returns nine starters. An Oklahoma-sized obstacle stands between Texas and a Big 12 title, while trips to LSU and Oklahoma State loom as marquee games for the Longhorns.

                

    8. Penn State Nittany Lions

    Junior linebacker Micah Parsons headlines a defense expected to remain among the nation's best. That foundation has Penn State squarely in the Big Ten race, but the offense's performance will shape the seasonsimilar to Oregon's outlook in the Pac-12. Sean Clifford's final numbers looked good in 2019, yet he mustered just 6.6 yards per attempt over his final seven appearances. That's not nearly enough to contend for a national championship.

                 

    7. Florida Gators

    While changes are possible, this schedule is extremely friendly. The Gators only travel to Tennessee, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Florida State, as well as the neutral-site clash with Georgia. They avoid Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M, too. Florida's upside hinges on an average offensive line and a fresh group of pass-catchers behind tight end Kyle Pitts and wideout Trevon Grimes.

               

    6. Oklahoma Sooners

    Despite massive improvement in 2019, OU's defense has plenty of room to growparticularly in the secondary. Plus, replacing linebacker Kenneth Murray and defensive tackle Neville Gallimore will be challenging. Still, we know better than to suggest a Lincoln Riley-coached offense will do anything but thrive. Spencer Rattler is expected to replace Jalen Hurts and put the Sooners on track for another Big 12 title. Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are the primary threats.

5. LSU Tigers

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    LSU QB Myles Brennan
    LSU QB Myles BrennanGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    They could be fourth, and they might be fifth. Either way, the reigning national champions will probably start behind Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in the poll. It's easy motivation for LSU to use.

    Granted, that's a reasonable range on paper. LSU lost record-smashing quarterback Joe Burrow and 13 others who were selected in the 2020 NFL draft. To suggest theyand brilliant assistants Dave Aranda and Joe Bradywill be painlessly replaced is to undervalue what those players accomplished in Baton Rouge.

    But it certainly helps to have All-American wideout Ja'Marr Chase and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. to build around.

    LSU will turn to Myles Brennan at quarterback and aim to prove a No. 4 or No. 5 preseason ranking wasn't high enough.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia coach Kirby Smart
    Georgia coach Kirby SmartJohn Amis/Associated Press

    Whether it'll be Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman or USC transfer JT Daniels under center is uncertain. Georgia boasting one of the nation's best defenses is entirely expected, however.

    Other than the 37-10 loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Gameand that's a lopsided result, no doubtthe Dawgs surrendered no more than 20 points in any game. Georgia returns eight of its defensive starters, plus more than a handful of key backups.

    In short, this defense should be exceptional.

    Given that prowess, Newman or Danielsmaybe both, at some pointwill be responsible for taking Georgia from great to elite.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama QB Mac Jones
    Alabama QB Mac JonesJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Alabama had a quartet of first-round selections in the 2020 draft, yet it managed to keep several players who likely could have been early picks. Running back Najee Harris, wideout DeVonta Smith, left tackle Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses all stayed in school.

    Throw in cornerback Patrick Surtain II and receiver/returner Jaylen Waddle, and the Tide are unsurprisingly loaded as usual.

    But this team will be thoroughly tested.

    Alabama is slated to host Georgia in September and then Texas A&M and Auburn to close the regular season. The Tide also travel to Tennessee to close October and LSU to open November. Nick Saban's squad has a thin margin for error.

2. Clemson Tigers

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    Clemson RB Travis Etienne and QB Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson RB Travis Etienne and QB Trevor LawrenceMike McCarn/Associated Press

    Star wideout Justyn Ross will not play in 2020 because of a spinal condition, and his individual health is far more important than what he could have done on the field. Nevertheless, Clemson must replace Rossand that, without Tee Higgins, will be difficult.

    Yes, the Tigers have plenty of talent at receiver. Amari Rodgers will start in the slot, while Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and Cornell Powell, among others, will compete for snaps on the outside. Rodgers is the only player with 250-plus yards in a season, though.

    Plus, it sure is nice to have running backs Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon alongside quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Oh, and the Tigers have a defense fully expected to excel opposite ACC competition.

    Clemson might not completely dominate like it did in October and November of 2018 and 2019. Still, the program is easily the class of the conference and a national contender.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Ohio State QB Justin Fields
    Ohio State QB Justin FieldsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Ohio State will have several new faces at receiver, on the offensive line, on the defensive front and in the secondary. Yet that's really not much of a concern.

    Justin Fields accounted for 51 touchdowns with only three interceptions in his first season with the Buckeyes. They return an All-American guard in Wyatt Davis, six more All-Big Ten honorees and more than a dozen other starters or regular contributors.

    Without question, losing a trio of All-AmericansJ.K. Dobbins, Chase Young and Jeff Okudahstings badly. Adding games against Big Ten opponents may stiffen the schedule, too.

    As long as Fields is healthy, though, Ohio State is built to contend for a national championship.