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Clemson leads USA TODAY Sports early Top 25 for the 2020 college football season



The 2019 season is in the books. It’s time to start thinking about how the Bowl Subdivision will look in 2020. (Kickoff is only eight or so months away, after all.)




Here’s USA TODAY Sports’ first crack at next season with the very early Top 25, which is topped by the four familiar faces to the College Football Playoff: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and LSU.

Clemson will bring back quarterback Trevor Lawrence and its entire defensive line while adding into the mix the best recruiting class in the country. Alabama and LSU will battle for SEC supremacy, followed by Florida and Georgia. Ohio State will reload on both sides of the ball and make another run at an unbeaten regular season.

Oregon is the favorite to win the Pac-12, though Southern California, California and Washington will play a factor in determining the conference championship. The Golden Bears return most of this year’s starting lineup and are an under-the-radar team to watch in the Rose Bowl chase.

The best of the best includes the usual suspects: Oklahoma, Penn State and Notre Dame, among others. (2019 record is in parentheses.)

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Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence gestures at the at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter of his team's 2019 game against Louisville at Cardinal Stadium.

1. Clemson (14-1)

The team of the second half of the last decade is poised to dominate the start of the 2020s. While it’ll be difficult to replace running back Travis Etienne, linebacker Isaiah Simmons and receiver Tee Higgins, Clemson has proven itself to be more than just the sum of its parts in making the case to rank among the great dynasties in the history of the sport. Remember: Lawrence is back for his junior year.

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2. Alabama (11-2)

The Crimson Tide are loaded and ready for life after Tua Tagovailoa, though that battle to replace the NFL-bound star will dominate headlines this offseason. (Keep an eye on incoming freshman Bryce Young.) As we’ve seen throughout Nick Saban’s tenure, Alabama always bounces back from disappointment — and in Tuscaloosa, going 11-2 and winning the Citrus Bowl qualifies as a letdown.

3. Ohio State (13-1)

There are going to be several key holes to fill, notably with the departures of stars Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins and Jeff Okudah. But the Buckeyes are in steady hands in second-year coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields, and very likely motivated to leave no doubt after feeling robbed by officiating during the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson.

4. LSU (15-0)

Keeping assistant Joe Brady in Baton Rouge is the Tigers’ top priority, followed closely by identifying a replacement for Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. LSU could also be slammed by early departures for the NFL, though some draft-eligible starters could opt to come return in 2020. Overall, the Tigers will be firmly in the mix to take home the SEC and return to the playoff.

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5. Oklahoma (12-2)

There are questions to answer on defense, as always seems to be the case, though there is some young talent on board. But the offense looks to be in strong hands with young quarterback Spencer Rattler, whose arm strength and ability as a passer should lead the offense to more closely resemble the teams lead by Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Keeping defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is almost mandatory for the Sooners’ postseason hopes.

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler carriers the ball during the second half of his team's 2019 game against South Dakota at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

6. Oregon (12-2)

The Ducks are a program ready to take the next step after barely missing out on the playoff and winning the Rose Bowl earlier this month. While quarterback Justin Herbert leaves big shoes to fill, rising sophomore Tyler Shough seems up for the challenge. The offensive line rebuilds around perhaps the nation’s best overall player in tackle Penei Sewell while the defense is the most talented in the Pac-12.

7. Penn State (11-2)

It would’ve been great to keep wide receiver KJ Hamler, who brought some danger to the Penn State offense. Even still, the Nittany Lions stand as the greatest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten and a solid pick to land in a New Year’s Six bowl or take home the conference championship outright and book a trip to the national semifinals.

8. Florida (11-2)

Given Georgia’s offseason losses — though it’s not all bad for the Bulldogs, as we’ll discuss in a moment — Florida represents the surest bet in the SEC East after back-to-back successful seasons under coach Dan Mullen. The biggest key will be manufacturing a running game to take pressure off quarterback Kyle Trask.

9. Notre Dame (11-2)

The Irish will have one of the best senior quarterbacks in the country in Ian Book. Former QB Tommy Rees, 27, will lead the offense. This is an interesting team: Notre Dame looks to have good depth and solid experience but doesn’t have any returning starters who are no-doubt contenders for preseason All-America honors, which means this could be a team that gets to double-digit wins without being a huge factor in the Playoff chase. Games against Wisconsin and Clemson will tell the story. 

10. Iowa (10-3)

Here’s your sleeper pick coming out of the Big Ten West. Yeah, there’s going to be a new face at quarterback in place of longtime starter Nathan Stanley, but impressive skill talent returns and the foundation of a good offensive front. Two big contributors might be gone on defense in end A.J. Epenesa and safety Geno Stone, but there’s a significant collection of talent along the back seven. Iowa doesn’t always match expectations, but hopes should be high heading into September.

11. Georgia (12-2)

Georgia has found its new quarterback in Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, though it remains to be seen whether Newman can thrive in an offense that scuffled in the second half of the season. There are also losses on the offensive line and the typical rash of exits for the NFL. As of today, there are enough unknowns to put the Bulldogs a peg behind Florida in the race for the SEC.

Georgia wide receiver George Pickens leaps over Baylor cornerback Raleigh Texada during the second quarter of the 2020 Sugar Bowl.

12. Michigan (9-4)

It’s not quite make-or-break time for Jim Harbaugh, but we’re getting close. Let’s ignore the matchup against Ohio State, which again seems destined to go in the Buckeyes’ favor. Overall, Michigan matches up well with the second tier of elite teams in the FBS and should be considered a strong contender for the Rose Bowl. Here’s the question: When, if ever, will the offense find the balance it needs to take the next step?

13. Auburn (9-4)

Good news, bad news. On the good side, look for Auburn’s offense to improve under sophomore Bo Nix after his up-and-down rookie season. On the other hand, the defense should undergo a decline in production as the Tigers overhaul up front; it’s impossible to see how Auburn replicates the impact Derrick Brown from the middle of the defensive line.

14. Texas (8-5)

Yeah, Texas. Why not? Well, because the Longhorns have become impossible to predict under Tom Herman, with this year’s team pegged for greatness in August before an underwhelming season after the 2018 squad seemingly broke through by beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. But Texas does bring back a strong senior starter in quarterback Sam Ehlinger, continues to add depth and experience, and could carry over a strong bowl win against Utah to start the offseason on a high note.

15. Memphis (12-2)

This is the best team in the Group of Five. That Memphis brings back quarterback Brady White for another year bodes well for the offense, which has another star in running back Kenneth Gainwell. There’s also the benefit of continuity gained by promoting former offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield as Mike Norvell’s successor. (Let’s worry about the long-term future in the future.) Even with all that and most of the defense back in the fold, it’ll be hard to match this year’s success.

16. Cincinnati (11-3)

And if the best Group of Five team isn’t Memphis, it’s almost certainly Cincinnati. A huge amount of talent returns, as does head coach Luke Fickell, for a program with 11 wins across the past two seasons. The Bearcats have an opportunity to make a statement against Nebraska in late September and draw Memphis at home in conference play, though Temple and Central Florida come on the road.

17. Southern California (8-5)

Clay Helton gets another shot at cementing his job security and will have depth at quarterback along with greater familiarity with the Trojans’ pass-happy offensive scheme. As always, there’s plenty of talent but a lack of proven depth and questions about the team’s general experience. But there’s reason to think USC can make a run at nine or more wins during the regular season.

18. Wisconsin (10-4)

Wisconsin will be Wisconsin, meaning a team that will land somewhere in the Top 25 and potentially be in the thick of the playoff race in October and November. There are some big losses, however, including several seniors from the front seven on defense and, of course, All-America running back Jonathan Taylor and star center Tyler Biadasz. The Big Ten West will have few easy outs, which could keep Wisconsin in the eight-win range during the regular season.

19. Texas A&M (8-5)

The schedule is a breeze until the last two, against Alabama and LSU, so barring a complete collapse — still possible, to be honest — A&M will enter that final pair sitting between 8-2 and a perfect 10-0. But this doesn’t look like a team capable of riding to the top of the SEC West and knocking off that two national powers. It would help to have more confidence in an offense that has a senior quarterback in Kellen Mond but seems tired and stale compared to the high-flying acts in the SEC.

Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond carries the ball against Oklahoma State in the second quarter of the Texas Bowl at NRG Stadium.

20. Boise State (12-2)

The Broncos might’ve exceeded even the strongest preseason expectations heading into this past season in winning 12 games and the Mountain West, though the year ended poorly with a bowl loss to Washington. Getting back there is possible given the youth of this year’s offense, including freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier, though the Broncos do need to develop a new top target at receiver. The defense will be heavy on seniors but will miss the production of star pass rusher Curtis Weaver.

21. Iowa State (7-6)

Losing six games in 2019 was a disappointment, even if most were of the single-possession variety, which speaks to the program’s growth and high expectations under coach Matt Campbell. The Cyclones will have a great backfield pairing in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall and is set to bring back key contributors at each level of the defense.

22. Baylor (11-3)

Baylor must find a replacement for Matt Rhule, which should be complete with enough time to add more pieces to the roster during the second national signing day. But there’s no sugarcoating how much losing Rhule impacts the Bears’ bottom line heading into 2020, even if the foundation and structure he leaves in place will ensure the team stays in the mix for the Big 12 title.

23. California (8-5)

There’s a tremendous amount of experience coming back for coach Justin Wilcox, who did an admirable job slowly building the Golden Bears into a Top 25 contender. With few questions at all surrounding the defense, the biggest key may be keeping quarterback Chase Garbers healthy; he went unbeaten as a sophomore in games he started and finished.

24. Washington (8-5)

We’ll have to wait and see what new coach Jimmy Lake does to the Huskies’ offense, let alone where he goes in choosing the successor to Jacob Eason at quarterback. But after a slight dip in 2019, Washington should be sparked by Lake’s promotion from defensive coordinator and rediscover the form that had the program in annual playoff contention for the middle portion of Chris Petersen’s tenure.

25. North Carolina (7-6)

UNC is a breakout candidate coming out of the ACC in Mack Brown’s second season. A deeper and stronger roster is headlined by rising sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, who had one of the best rookie seasons by a quarterback in FBS history. While there’s no catching Clemson at the top of the conference, UNC should be seen as the preseason favorite in what is always a hard-to-predict Coastal Division.

Just missed the cut: Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Utah, Arizona State, Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas State, Louisville, Central Florida.

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