Ranking the Top CFB Teams If Players Stayed in School for 4 Years

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2020

Ranking the Top CFB Teams If Players Stayed in School for 4 Years

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    College football fans get to be excited and hopeful every Saturday. But what if a scholarship was binding for all four years and players knew what they were signing up for with the college experience?

    The greatest sport could be even greater.

    How would things change this year if players had to stay four seasons and everybody was back in their amateur uniforms? Can you imagine once again getting excited about guys like Ja'Marr Chase, Tua Tagovailoa, Chase Young, Jonathan Taylor and so many more?

    Yes, we get to see some of them on Sundays. We'll have to wait until next year for others.

    But if they were still part of football in its purest form, it would make an already great 2020 season even more awesome.

    So, factoring in how well teams are playing so far, their potential (for those that haven't put together a huge body of work on the gridiron) and how last year's departures could improve this year's team, let's take a look at which squads would be at the top of college football's pecking order.

    Spoiler alert: The usual suspects are still right there, as always.

10. Miami Hurricanes

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    Chris Seward/Associated Press

    After getting shocked in their season opener Saturday, the Penn State Nittany Lions proved they don't deserve a spot in the "what-might've-been" top 10.

    Instead, this spot goes to the Miami Hurricanes, who are moving in the right direction during head coach Manny Diaz's second season.

    Despite a disappointing lopsided loss to Clemson, the 'Canes have a lot to be excited about this year, sitting on the periphery of the top 10 and proving they belong each week. This defense is filled with playmakers at every level, but imagine if it still had defensive end Gregory Rousseau.

    The would-be redshirt sophomore opted out this season to focus on the NFL draft, and he would have been the nation's returning leader in sacks. He finished just behind Ohio State's Chase Young a season ago. If you add Rousseau to a group of pass-rushers that includes Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips, that would be a stout unit.

    For that matter, Jonathan Garvin was selected in the 2020 NFL draft after leaving a season early, and he would have nestled into that incredible defensive end rotation, too.

    But defenders are not the only ones who would have made a difference.

    Running back DeeJay Dallas left Coral Gables early, and last year's leading rusher would make a good offensive backfield even better this year along with Cam'Ron Harris, Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton.

    With D'Eriq King at quarterback and Diaz bringing top recruits to The U, the program is blossoming and getting closer to the feared status it enjoyed during the 1980s and '90s. It isn't there yet, but adding a few other players this year would have made it particularly strong. 

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    One team not affected that much by a bevy of early entries is Brian Kelly's Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But the one guy who could have returned likely would have made a massive impact.

    Notre Dame actually was bolstered by those who did return. Nobody means more to the success of a team poised to make the College Football Playoff than quarterback Ian Book. Though he hasn't put together the best season so far, he is instrumental to the team's ceiling.

    Still, it would have helped the Irish offense immensely if he had tight end Cole Kmet to fling it around to for just one more year. The do-it-all target chose to leave early and was selected by the Chicago Bears in the second round. He's really the only possible returning option who would have made a difference, but it could have been a big one in South Bend.

    Though Chase Claypool would have been a game-changer for an Irish team that is lacking offensive playmakers this season, he was out of eligibility after last year and doesn't factor into this exercise. 

    On the other hand, a star talent like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a 6'1", 215-pound senior linebacker who could have gone to the NFL a season ago but chose to return, is helping the Fighting Irish make some early-season noise in the national rankings.

    Kelly's Irish aren't consistently among the nation's top teams, but the sport is better when one of college football's most storied programs is good, and the head coach has done a lot to return Notre Dame to glory. Are they good enough to win it all this year? Probably not. But they're still very good.

    And they had little early attrition, which is a major boost for a veteran team full of talent.

8. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma State Cowboys are one of the two most prominent teams on this list relatively unaffected by early NFL departures and COVID-19 opt-outs. For the first time since 2008, head coach Mike Gundy's team did not have a single player taken in the NFL draft.

    Instead, everybody elected to come back to Stillwater, and that's why the Cowboys are the class of the Big 12.

    Running back Chuba Hubbard, receiver Tylan Wallace, linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga and safety Kolby Harvell-Peel could be impact NFL players taken this upcoming April. Right now, they're big parts of the Big 12's only real College Football Playoff hope.

    When Spencer Sanders went down with an injury early in the season, freshman quarterback Shane Illingworth took over and did an admirable job, proving Gundy's team has depth at the most important position. During a year in which Oklahoma and Texas are both down, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about OSU's potential.

    In case you didn't believe in them, the Cowboys proved they're at least the cream of the conference Saturday with a 24-21 win over Iowa State, which had been playing like a top-15 program since a season-opening loss.

    Perhaps most exciting for Oklahoma State? It out-slugged the Cyclones, beating them at their own game. Hubbard had 139 rushing yards, and the Cowboys solidified their status as a quality team that belongs in the top 10.

    Of course, games against Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma remain. But this team is legit, and it may even prove it belongs higher than eighth on this list.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    It's a good thing the Oregon Ducks have one of college football's top recruiting head coaches in Mario Cristobal.

    After last year's magical Rose Bowl run that probably should have finished in the College Football Playoff, Cristobal must reload the cannons in Eugene. 

    Everybody knew it would be difficult to replace starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who is now starting for the Los Angeles Chargers after an extremely productive collegiate career. But a team that was expected to have a lot of veteran talent has been depleted by pandemic-era pro decisions.

    Though starting cornerback Deommodore Lenoir has opted back into this season after originally electing to sit, the Ducks have four star players who are bypassing this year to focus on the NFL draft.

    The biggest is Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who is almost certainly a lock to be the first offensive lineman taken in the 2021 NFL draft and a guy who could be a stalwart on a pro line for many years to come.

    Cristobal told the Oregonian's James Crepea there is "no discussion" about Sewell changing his mind.

    The other early departures are from the secondary. Rose Bowl MVP and star safety Brady Breeze is the latest, joining safety Jevon Holland and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. If you have all those guys in the secondary, it would be so much better, though the Ducks are still loaded with talent back there.

    This is a Ducks team that will be breaking in a new quarterback and now returns zero starting offensive linemen off last year's dominant unit. There will be growing pains, and those could have been glossed over, at least to some extent, with Sewell in the fold.

    Instead, it's a fresh start for several guys. 

6. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    When you look at the Wisconsin Badgers this year, it's vital to factor in just how exceptional the offensive line is. After a season opener in which redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz looked like the second coming of Baker Mayfield, there is a ton of excitement at Camp Randall.

    Mertz went 20-of-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in a dismantling of Illinois, and while the Illini aren't going to be mistaken for a contender, they did beat the Badgers a season ago.

    But for a program that normally doesn't have a ton of early departures, three guys who went to the NFL early a season ago could have transformed this Wisconsin team into a national title contender.

    First and foremost is two-time Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor. If one of the best running backs to ever play the position was on the team, the Badgers would have to feel pretty good about that.

    Instead, Taylor is dodging tackles for the Indianapolis Colts.

    Rimington Trophy winner and Outland Trophy finalist Tyler Biadasz would make a terrific Badgers offensive line much better considering he was a force up front for three years in Madison. He made the Dallas Cowboys happy in the fourth round, but it would be great for head coach Paul Chryst to have him for another year. 

    Throw in receiver Quintez Cephus, who would be another quality target for Mertz, and that's three offensive difference-makers. This is a team that could have made a lot more noise than it will, but there's still plenty of reason for hope anyway.

5. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    One of the most difficult decisions for this project was trying to figure out which of five deserving teams belonged in the mythical College Football Playoff of the "what-might've-been" top 10. It's anybody's guess which belongs at No. 5.

    The Georgia Bulldogs fell just out of the running because of the question marks at quarterback.

    Had Jake Fromm returned for his senior season, it's almost a given he would have started, but would he have been more effective under offensive coordinator Todd Monken than he was a year ago? Would Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman have won the job had he not opted out?

    Still, you have to believe that out of the two, UGA would have found a quarterback.

    So much more talent could have been on the 2020 Dawgs roster, too—enough that they would have had the opportunity to win that elusive first national title since 1980.

    D'Andre Swift would have shored up a running game that has been OK but not elite this year. The Detroit Lions rookie is averaging 6.1 yards per carry this year, and he is a game-breaking back.

    Then there's the trio of fantastic offensive linemen who would have made UGA an even more formidable force in the SEC. Andrew Thomas went fourth overall to the New York Giants, and the Tennessee Titans selected UGA's other starting tackle (Isaiah Wilson) near the end of the first round.

    Throw in guard Solomon Kindley, who left early and was picked in the draft, and that's three difference-making linemen who would have helped the Bulldogs contend with Ohio State for the nation's top offensive front.

    All those guys in Athens again would have been fun to see.

4. Clemson Tigers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's so tough to figure out where to put the Clemson Tigers.

    Obviously, head coach Dabo Swinney's team belongs near the top, and it would be a stunner if it wasn't in this year's College Football Playoff. But would it be back in the national championship game like it was a year ago if everybody was back for all the elite programs?

    With all the talent on the three teams ahead of these Tigers, that's debatable, especially considering how close the Ohio State Buckeyes were to playing the LSU Tigers in the title game a season ago.

    There's no question it would be huge for quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have Tee Higgins back to catch passes for another season, especially considering Justyn Ross is missing the campaign with a medical issue.

    The loss of Ross would still be gargantuan, but adding Higgins to an offense with stars like Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers would be similarly big.

    Defensively, do-it-all top-10 selection Isaiah Simmons may have been college football's top defender not named Chase Young a season ago, and the versatility he brought to coordinator Brent Venables' defense cannot be replicated. Having him back for his senior season would transform that side of the ball.

    Toss in A.J. Terrell, a first-round pick for the Atlanta Falcons who was an All-ACC cornerback, and that's two big puzzle pieces who would ensure the Tigers are right back in the mix for the playoffs.

    Would they have enough to win it all? It's debatable, but they certainly stand to benefit this season from all the guys who aren't there on the three teams ahead of them here.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    College football got to witness one of the best pure passing quarterbacks in the nation the past few years when Tua Tagovailoa set up behind center for the Alabama Crimson Tide, but injuries robbed him of part of what could have been a record-breaking career.

    Now that Mac Jones has taken over, the Tide offense under coordinator Steve Sarkisian hasn't skipped a beat.

    Now, put Tagovailoa back on the team and in a battle with Jones. Not only would he be back in Tuscaloosa, but the Tide would have former Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Jerry Jeudy back for his senior season, as well as Henry Ruggs III.

    Imagine all those weapons. Despite the unfortunate news that Jaylen Waddle was lost for the season Saturday against Tennessee, the Tide would still have plenty of firepower to unleash on opponents, and they would be set for a collision course with LSU in the SEC West.

    Alex Leatherwood returned for his final year at Alabama, and the Tide would be even better up front pairing him with Jedrick Wills Jr., who was selected 10th overall by the Cleveland Browns. That would be a terrific duo of anchors on the offensive front.

    The biggest question for the Tide, however, would be on defense, where they have struggled, at least by their lofty standards, each of the past two seasons. Terrell Lewis would at least have helped solidify the linebacking corps.

    Pete Golding is not making anybody excited as Alabama's defensive coordinator, though it would help to have Xavier McKinney on the back end of that unit for another year.

    But are the Tide good enough on that side of the ball to win a national title, even with another year of Tua? They're in the top four, but that's why they're in the bottom half of it.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Ohio State Buckeyes got off to a slow start in the first few minutes of their season opener against Nebraska, and then they routed the Cornhuskers 52-17, looking every bit the part of a national contender.

    The Buckeyes have playmakers everywhere with Justin Fields playing near-perfect football, and the offensive line is elite.

    Now, think of head coach Ryan Day's team with all the talent that bolted for the NFL.

    Chase Young was a generational edge-rushing talent who could have won the Heisman Trophy a season ago as a junior and may have been the best overall player in the 2020 NFL draft, going second overall to the Washington Football Team. Right behind him, going third overall to the Detroit Lions, was cornerback Jeff Okudah, who could have played another season for the Buckeyes.

    Returning would have made no sense for either player since both are making a ton of money as marquee picks, but they would have made OSU even more special.

    With talent prevalent at every single position thanks to Day's recruiting prowess and the full cupboard left by former head coach Urban Meyer, those two superstars would have made a very good defense superb this year.

    Then there's game-breaking running back J.K. Dobbins, who was selected in the second round by the Baltimore Ravens and is already making plays in the NFL. Put him at the top of the pecking order alongside Master Teague III and Trey Sermon, and the Buckeyes may have the best stable of running backs in the country.

    They are loaded regardless and will have an opportunity to make a run at the title this year, but that trio would have made them even better.

1. LSU Tigers

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The LSU Tigers have experienced major defensive issues this season as they've moved on from their national championship season with what's basically a fresh start and a turned-over roster.

    But oh, what could have been taking the field in Death Valley this year. It would have had fans around Baton Rouge talking about a repeat.

    The 2-2 Tigers have struggled and aren't even ranked. But on this list, they're No. 1. Is that a stretch? Well, look at all they're missing.

    It would have been a tall task to replace Heisman Trophy winner and top overall draft pick Joe Burrow, but Myles Brennan has been perfectly fine this year, helping Terrace Marshall Jr. emerge as college football's top receiver. Freshman tight end Arik Gilbert looks the part, too.

    Add to those guys Justin Jefferson, who finished his junior year with 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. Throw in last year's Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver, Ja'Marr Chase, who opted out due to COVID-19 to focus on the NFL draft.

    Tight end Thaddeus Moss could have returned for his senior season to share time with Gilbert. Along the offensive front, Saahdiq Charles would anchor the line along with center Lloyd Cushenberry III. Clyde Edwards-Helaire would be among the top three running backs in the nation, too.

    And who can blame the Bayou Bengals for all the defensive issues they're battling this season given the all-world talent they subtracted from the roster?

    Linebacker Patrick Queen, already making plays every Sunday for the Baltimore Ravens, may be the NFL's early-season favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Edge-rusher K'Lavon Chaisson is playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kristian Fulton is the Tennessee Titans' starting nickelback.

    Grant Delpit would be roaming centerfield for the Tigers after winning last year's Thorpe Award, and the team's leading tackler from a season ago, Jacob Phillips, left early for the NFL, too.

    Sprinkle in defensive line anchor Tyler Shelvin, who opted out this season, and that is enough talent for the Tigers to repeat. Instead, they're going to scuffle all season.