Buying or Selling Top Teams as College Football Playoff Contenders
The College Football Playoff always drive a good deal of debate over which four teams deserve a chance to play for the national championship.
In a bizarre 2020 season with unbalanced schedules and staggered start dates, those debates could be amplified to new levels.
Does an undefeated team that played two or three fewer games deserve a spot over a team with one loss that played a full slate of games? Does championship potential play a bigger role alongside on-field results than it would in a normal season?
There's no telling how it will all play out. But here in the early stages of a slowly unfolding season, we've provided our current impression of each AP Top 25 team's outlook and whether it has a legitimate chance to reach the College Football Playoff.
Who are you buying and selling?
25. Memphis (1-0)
A COVID-19 outbreak has kept Memphis out of action since a 37-24 victory over Arkansas State on Sept. 5, but the Tigers' 2020 outlook took a hit long before that when star running back Kenny Gainwell opted out of the season. Their only chance would be to run the table with decisive wins over UCF and Cincinnati, and even then they may be on the outside looking in.
24. Pittsburgh (3-0)
The Pitt defense is legit, allowing just 177 yards of total offense per game during the team's 3-0 start with standout safety Paris Ford leading the way. The Panthers knocked off a good Louisville team last week, and the offense under quarterback Kenny Pickett has looked better than expected. Still, they have three Top 10 teams left on their schedule in Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson, and two of those games are on the road. They haven't faced a test like the one those teams will provide.
23. Michigan (First Game: Oct. 24)
Can 2018 4-star recruit Joe Milton effectively replace Shea Patterson under center behind a new-look offensive line? That's the big question surrounding a Wolverines team that also lost top receiving threat Donovan Peoples-Jones to the NFL. There's a lot of potential in the current core of players, but they might be a year away.
22. BYU (2-0)
There's a real chance that this BYU team will go undefeated, but will it matter? Playing an eight-game season against three Conference USA teams, two Sun Belt teams, two unranked AAC opponents and one Big South team doesn't move the needle much. That said, it's impossible to completely ignore the fact that they've outscored two FBS opponents 103-10 in their first two games.
21. Tennessee (1-0)
The Volunteers opened their season with a less-than-convincing 31-27 victory over an unranked South Carolina team, and they slid five spots in the AP poll as a result. Colorado State transfer Colin Hill threw for 290 yards against the Tennessee secondary, and that doesn't bode well for those remaining matchups against the high-powered offenses of Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
20. LSU (0-1)
Starting the season with a loss means LSU will need to win out in convincing fashion to secure a spot in the playoff. The Tigers' remaining schedule includes road games against Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M, as well as a home clash with Alabama. The offense was expected to take a step backward after losing Heisman winner Joe Burrow and several top weapons, but the defense looked lost in allowing 623 passing yards to K.J. Costello and Mississippi State.
19. Wisconsin (First Game: Oct. 24)
With no Ohio State or Penn State on the schedule, the Badgers' toughest test on paper is a road game against Michigan on Nov. 14. However, they have a ton of talent to replace on both sides of the ball, starting with running back Jonathan Taylor and linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr. The future looks bright with quarterback Graham Mertz and running back Jalen Berger set to lead the offense, but 2020 could be a developmental year.
18. Oklahoma (1-1)
The Sooners lost to Kansas State last year and still found their way into the College Football Playoff, so there is some precedent. Without the benefit of a nonconference slate, quarterback Spencer Rattler essentially had one half of football against an FCS opponent before diving into his first season of conference play. Despite the jarring loss, a victory over Texas on Oct. 10 would likely put them back in the Top 10, and winning out would put them in the CFP conversation. It's not time to slam the book on the Sooners just yet.
17. Oklahoma State (2-0)
Despite starting quarterback Spencer Sanders playing less than a quarter of football this season, Oklahoma State remains undefeated. The Cowboys piled up 203 rushing yards on West Virginia last week with Shane Illingworth filling in under center after surviving a scare against Tulane in their opener. With more than a month before they welcome the Texas Longhorns to Stillwater, they have time to work out the kinks and push for a Big 12 title.
16. Mississippi State (1-0)
The LSU team that took the field Saturday was a shell of the one that went 15-0 and won a national title last year, but it was still a huge win for Mississippi State. K.J. Costello is not going to throw for 623 yards and five touchdowns every time out, but the passing game made quite a statement and standout running back Kylin Hill gives their offense balance. Is Mississippi State really this good, or is LSU just that bad? That's a question that needs to be answered before the Bulldogs are declared title contenders, but they have entered the chat.
15. Cincinnati (2-0)
The Bearcats survived one tough test with a 24-10 victory over Army, but a home game against Memphis on Oct. 31 and a road matchup with UCF on Nov. 21 still loom large on their schedule. For now, they're a really good Group of Five team. If they make it to the UCF game undefeated and pick up some convincing wins along the way, then they'll take their place on the fringe of the College Football Playoff conversation.
14. Oregon (First Game: Nov. 6)
Until we see a Pac-12 schedule, it's hard to know what's in store for an Oregon team that most consider to be the cream of the crop in the conference by a wide margin. All-American left tackle Penei Sewell opting out of the 2020 season won't make things any easier on sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough as he takes over for Justin Herbert. The bigger issue could be the mass exodus from the secondary where cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir and Jevon Holland also opted out.
13. Texas A&M (1-0)
The Aggies went 8-5 last season in a year when they faced the No. 1 team in the nation three different times, and hopes were high entering the year with a wealth of returning talent and a stacked incoming recruiting class that ranked sixth in the nation. A lackluster opener in which they squeaked out a 17-12 victory over Vanderbilt cost them three spots in the AP poll, and they may still be a year away from joining the upper echelon in the SEC.
12. North Carolina (1-0)
With sophomore Sam Howell back under center and top targets Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown returning at receiver, the Tar Heels entered 2020 with legitimate expectations on a national level for the first time in years. COVID-19 issues have kept them out of action since a 31-6 victory over Syracuse on Sept. 12, but their toughest tests—Notre Dame (Nov. 27) and Miami (Dec. 5)—come toward the end of their schedule. Even if Clemson beats them in the ACC Championship Game, they could still be in the conversation if that's their first and only loss.
11. UCF (2-0)
Could this be the year we finally see a Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff? The Knights are off to an awfully good start, with a convincing 49-21 win over Georgia Tech and a 51-28 blowout of East Carolina. Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel has thrown for 825 yards and eight touchdowns, the running game has produced 467 yards, and linebacker Eriq Gilyard has been a force on the defensive end. Never say never if they run the table and there's an open debate for the No. 4 CFP spot.
10. Penn State (First Game: Oct. 24)
Road losses to Minnesota and Ohio State were the only blemishes last season for a Penn State team that went 11-2 and finished No. 9 in the final AP Poll. With Sean Clifford (2,654 passing yards, 23 TD) and Journey Brown (890 rushing yards, 12 TD) back to lead the offense and a defense that's deep enough to overcome the Micah Parsons opt-out decision, the Nittany Lions should push Ohio State for the top spot in the Big Ten.
9. Texas (2-0)
The Longhorns offense is going to put some big numbers on the board this year. Sam Ehlinger leads the nation with 10 passing touchdowns, and they have scored 122 points through two games. However, the defense allowed an alarming 56 points and 441 total yards to a Texas Tech team picked to finish ninth in the conference. That's a recipe for disaster in the Big 12, and with Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State on the docket following this week's matchup with TCU, we'll know soon enough if they're for real. For now, they've earned a seat at the table, especially following the Oklahoma loss.
8. Miami (3-0)
The Hurricanes get a week off before they head to Death Valley to take on Clemson. A loss in that game would be a major hit to their CFP hopes but wouldn't necessarily be a death blow if they can win out and pick up quality wins over Pitt and North Carolina along the way. D'Eriq King is thriving under center, Cam'ron Harris is averaging a staggering 8.2 yards per carry, and the defense has forced six turnovers the last two weeks.
7. Auburn (1-0)
The Tigers had a tough time moving the ball on the ground against Kentucky in their opener, finishing with 91 yards on 30 carries, but Bo Nix stepped up with 233 yards and three touchdowns through the air. The defense is going to be there all year, and Nix is capable of a major step forward in his sophomore season, but the offense can't be one-dimensional if they're going to make a run in the SEC. If they can upset Georgia this weekend, then they'll enter the conversation. But for now they're a clear No. 4 in their conference, and the SEC isn't going to get all four CFP bids.
6. Ohio State (First Game: Oct. 24)
Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields is back under center after he threw for 3,723 yards with 41 touchdowns and three interceptions last year, adding another 484 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Replacing the 10 players who were selected in the NFL draft—including Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and J.K. Dobbins—won't be easy, but there's still enough talent on the roster for them to be the team to beat in the Big Ten and a clear CFP contender.
5. Notre Dame (2-0)
After a 52-0 shutout of South Florida last week, Notre Dame will be forced to the sidelines after a COVID-19 outbreak. This year's toughest test will be Nov. 7 when the Fighting Irish host Clemson. Not having to play Miami is a bonus, but they will face off against Pitt (Oct. 24) and North Carolina (No. 27) both on the road, so the path ahead is a rocky one. The passing game has been lackluster, but their running game and defense are enough to make them contenders.
4. Georgia (1-0)
The Bulldogs are still sorting out their quarterback situation after Jamie Newman opted out of the 2020 season. USC transfer JT Daniels has officially been cleared to return from a knee injury that cost him most of last season, and he will be the X-factor to their 2020 season. A 37-10 victory over Arkansas in which they trailed 7-5 at halftime was far from convincing, but this team still has the pieces to be a title contender.
3. Florida (1-0)
I took some heat for not including Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts on my top 50 players of the 2020 list, and if the Gators' opener was any indication, it was warranted. Trask threw for 416 yards and six touchdowns, Pitts hauled in eight passes for 170 yards and four scores, and Florida won 51-35 over Ole Miss. Not having to face Alabama or Auburn in the regular season doesn't hurt the Gators' chances.
2. Alabama (1-0)
With Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle headlining a dynamic offensive attack and a healthy Dylan Moses joining Patrick Surtain ll as stars of the defense, Alabama is once again loaded with future NFL talent. Mac Jones was solid under center in a 38-19 victory over Missouri, and he could eventually be pushed by 5-star freshman Bryce Young, who also saw some action in the opener. Texas A&M will be a tough early test this weekend and Georgia awaits two weeks later.
1. Clemson (2-0)
With Trevor Lawrence back under center, Travis Etienne returning in the backfield and a wealth of top-tier talent around them on both sides of the ball, the Tigers began 2020 as the favorite to win the national title in 2020. A dominant 2-0 start in which they've posted a 966-492 advantage in total yards and an 86-13 advantage on the scoreboard has done nothing to change that perception.