This college football season is sure to be like none we’ve ever seen. Some of the best teams in the country won’t be playing any games at all for the foreseeable future, while the programs that are suiting up will play a schedule that’s been shortened to the length of what they were used to in high school.
When we ranked the best college football teams heading into the 2020 season in June, we had several teams ranked highly who may not play a single game this fall. Amid concerns over the health of their student athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pac-12, Mid-American Conference and Mountain West conferences have all postponed their fall sports programs until further notice. The Big Ten initially also did that but recently voted to kick off a truncated season on Oct. 24.
But the season will play on for many other programs, albeit with a different schedule than they’d originally prepared for. Here are our rankings of the best college football teams that are actually taking the field this fall.
Memphis looked like a solid pick to repeat as AAC champions in 2020 before the pandemic reared its ugly head, but now things will be a lot tougher. The team’s best player — and one of the best rushers in college football — Kenneth Gainwell opted out of the season after four members of his family died of COVID-19. Senior quarterback Brady White will have to do a lot more heavy lifting than he expected in this 10-game slate that includes a Halloween road test against Cincinnati, who will be gunning for them after the Tigers beat them twice in 2019.
The Big Ten will start its regular season on Oct. 24, well after many other programs have already been doing battle, with an eight-game sprint to the conference championship for each team. Minnesota is one of many great-looking programs in the conference, with expectations sky-high after an 11-2 season in 2019 that included wins over two top-10 teams. Quarterback Tanner Morgan won’t get a ton of time to prove himself as one of the top passers in the Big Ten, but he appears capable of it.
They lost a pair of great rushers and some defensive stars from that squad but head coach P.J. Fleck has the Golden Gophers playing on a new level than what many have been used to.
Michigan has been underperforming, at least by their own legendary standards, for the past few years. The team hasn’t won a bowl game since the 2015 season and last year ended with back-to-back double-digit drubbings against Ohio State and Alabama. We don’t know what their schedule will look like for 2020 yet but it will likely have Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, three teams they couldn’t top a year ago. Still, sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet is capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting from what looks like a stellar backfield.
A great college football season is often made in the final weeks, and Louisville has a chance to put a dominant cap on its year. The Cardinals don’t have to face Clemson during the regular season and will take its last great test on Oct. 17 on the road against Notre Dame. That means the last six games of the year are very winnable, giving them a decent chance to win eight of 11 games this year. This is an offense that put up 33 points per game in 2019 and returns leaders in quarterback Micale Cunningham, rusher Javian Hawkins and wide receiver Tutu Atwell.
The UCF Knights were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with a staggering 10 players deciding to skip the 2020 season over health concerns. Of those losses, the biggest ones were two defensive starters, including cornerback Tay Gowan, and backup quarterback Darriel Mack. The team’s high-powered offense was left relatively untouched, with quarterback Dillon Gabriel returning after leading the team as a freshman in 2019.
20. Virginia Tech
Head coach Justin Fuente has taken the Hokies to four straight bowl games since being hired, but they’ve lost three in a row. It’s likely he’ll take them back to another one this season, as Virginia Tech has one of the more favorable schedules in the ACC, skipping Notre Dame and not playing Clemson until a home game in the last game of the year. Returning quarterback Hendon Hooker could be one of the best passers in the conference, proven by his impeccable accuracy in 2019, when he threw only two picks and completed more than 61% of his throws.
Like everyone in the SEC this season, Kentucky’s 10-game schedule of end-to-end conference foes won’t do them any favors. Still, this Wildcats team has enough talent to make things interesting, even with road games against Auburn, Alabama and Florida. The extended offseason should have helped quarterback Terry Wilson, who missed much of 2019 with an injury. The UK defense looks very strong again after allowing an average of 14.6 points per game over their final six games, in which they were 5-1.
While senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has been called possibly “the most polarizing player in Tennessee history,” he’ll be back under center in 2020, leading the Vols through a short slate full of tests. Regardless of how you feel about Guarantano’s performance — he’s averaged about 2,000 passing yards per season over the past two years — you have to like the protection he’ll have up front. The team’s offensive line has been dubbed one of the five best in the nation by SEC Network, thanks in part to the return of two-time All-SEC guard Trey Smith.
Miami’s star defensive end, Gregory Rousseau, is one of the most talented players to opt out of the 2020 season, leaving the Hurricanes with a massive hole on defense. The team’s pass rush was called the best in the nation by some this preseason, but with Rousseau gone, it will be noticeably softer. Still, the addition of quarterback D’Eriq King, who transferred in from Houston, makes their offense look much better after a lackluster 2019 finish. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2018, which was his last full season.
Three straight matchups against Louisville, Florida State and Clemson starting Sept. 19 will likely tell the entire story of Miami’s year.
Head coach Luke Fickell has helped make Cincinnati a perennial top-25 presence and the favorite to win the AAC this year. The Bearcats have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons under his guidance, and there’s a real chance they could do it again given they’ll have 10 regular season games plus potentially the AAC championship game and a bowl appearance. Fourteen starters will be back from last season’s squad, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, who has averaged nearly 3,000 yards of total offense in each of the past two seasons.
15. North Carolina
After a 7-6 season that surprised many college football experts, the Tar Heels are a sexy pick heading into 2020. Quarterback Sam Howell is back after a freshman season that saw him throw for more than 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns, immediately putting ACC defenses on notice. The team’s six losses were by a combined margin of 26 points, including a one-point defeat to Clemson, whom they will avoid playing in the regular season this time. UNC’s schedule is one of the most favorable in the ACC this year, which is a reason why ESPN has predicted they’ll be playing in the Peach Bowl when it’s all over.
After the decision to postpone fall sports was made by the Big Ten and Pac-12, rising programs like Texas suddenly looked a lot better heading into the year. ESPN picked the Longhorns as a long-shot playoff team right before the start of the season, which is a far cry from their 8-5 showing in 2019. The team lost a trio of players to opt-outs, including starting defensive lineman Marqez Bimage, but they should have one of the most potent offenses in the game. Sam Ehlinger returns at quarterback and is already among the betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
The month of October will be where the Longhorns prove their grit, as they’ll face TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State in consecutive contests.
Before all the chaos happened this offseason, ESPN had Wisconsin pegged as the likely fourth seed in the 2020-21 College Football Playoff. That’s a little lofty for us, considering they have a lot of questions to answer on offense. However, the Badgers will undoubtedly have one of the most crushing defenses in the nation when they finally take the field in October. Their biggest hurdle, as always, will be Ohio State, a team that they fell to twice during a 10-4 season in 2019.
Despite having only a 10-game schedule, Auburn faces arguably the most daunting path to the College Football Playoff of any legitimate contender. In addition to having battles with the nightmarish trifecta of Alabama, Georgia and LSU, the Tigers will also meet four other teams from this list. The program lost three players to opt-outs, including linebacker Chandler Wooten, but they’ve still got one of the best defenses in college football, according to ESPN. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix is back after a fantastic freshman season, putting Auburn once again in the role of the SEC’s top disruptors.
11. Texas A&M
The great work Jimbo Fisher has done recruiting at Texas A&M since he took over as head coach should come to fruition in 2020. The Aggies had the eighth-best odds to win the national championship among teams that are playing this fall, according to Bovada. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond is a major reason for that, after he racked up nearly 4,000 yards of total offense in 2019. The team was also slated to have one of the best defenses in the country once again, but the decision of senior cornerback Elijah Blades to skip the season will hurt when they face great offenses like Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.
After an utterly dominant, championship-winning season in 2019, the Tigers face the challenge of reloading their roster for an abbreviated season. In addition to replacing their departed stars, LSU has had four NFL-caliber players opt out for the 2020 campaign. Those cautious players include wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and defensive monsters Neil Farrell, Tyler Shelvin and Kary Vincent. Still, this team has plenty of talent around the field, including quarterback Myles Brennan.
A four-game stretch that includes games against Florida, Auburn and Alabama starting on Oct. 17 will make or break their slim hopes of repeating as champs.
9. Oklahoma State
Chuba Hubbard might be the best running back in college football. The Oklahoma State star returns as a top-10 betting favorite for the Heisman and instantly solidifies his program as one of the teams to beat in 2020. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace is also coming back, giving the Cowboys two guys who are NFL caliber today. Sophomore quarterback Spencer Sanders will be the key to this squad breaking through and unseating its in-state rivals as the kings of the Big 12. The final stretch of the season will be a gauntlet for the Cowboys, as they’ll face six teams from this list in their last seven games.
Like everyone in the Big 12 this season, Oklahoma is staring down a daunting schedule, but they remain the top dogs in the conference. The loss of running back Kennedy Brooks — who gave them back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and decided to opt out for 2020 — will sting, but this is a program that hasn’t had a problem replacing anyone on offense in years. ESPN predicted the Sooners would have the nation’s best offense before Brooks made his decision, and quarterback Spencer Rattler is already a top-five betting favorite to win the Heisman. We’ve learned not to doubt Lincoln Riley.
7. Notre Dame
Notre Dame fans should be thrilled that the team didn’t lose any players to opt-outs, making them one of the most complete squads in the nation. The Irish will be part of the ACC for the entire season, playing 10 conference games and making themselves eligible for the conference championship game. Their schedule is very favorable, but their Nov. 7 home matchup with Clemson should be one of the highlights of this entire college football season. Quarterback Ian Book has posted back-to-back brilliant seasons and will have one of the best offensive lines in the game protecting him this time.
6. Penn State
The Big Ten’s decision to restart football in October was great news for Penn State fans. The Nittany Lions are loaded with talent, including junior quarterback Sean Clifford, who threw for more than 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore. Overall, the offense will return eight starters from a team that went 11-2 a year ago. The biggest question for the team is on defense, where stud linebacker Micah Parsons may or may not be playing, following his decision to declare for the NFL draft when it looked like a season wasn’t happening.
Hopes were high for new Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman to be one of the top passers in the SEC this season, but those were deflated when he opted out until 2021. This leaves JT Daniels as the likely starter to fill the big hole left by Jake Fromm. Regardless of how the team’s offense performs, they may have the best defense in the SEC, according to ESPN. All five of their toughest games will come in a row starting on Oct. 3, as they face Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida.
Bovada has Florida ranked inside the top five for betting favorites to win the national championship this season, among teams playing this fall, and it’s easy to see why. They’ve had no players opt out and are loaded with talent across the board. The analysts at Athlon Sports made the bold claim that the Gators are the team to beat at the quarterback position in the mighty SEC, with Kyle Trask returning after a season where he threw for nearly 3,000 yards against some of the best defenses in the nation. He’ll have senior wide receiver Trevon Grimes as his most valuable weapon in an offense that could be among the absolute best.
They will host both LSU and Georgia in mid-season contests, giving them home-field advantage in the two biggest tests of their year.
After the college football universe was stunned to see Alabama not make the playoffs last season, they look like locks to return in 2020. They’ve had no players opt out, and all 14 of ESPN’s recently polled experts have them picked to make the College Football Playoff. The network’s pundits have especially been enamored with the team’s offense, which is predicted to be one of the best in the nation. Quarterback Mac Jones has some big shoes to fill, but he looked great in limited action a year ago and has one of the sport’s top offensive lines in front of him.
2. Ohio State
When the Big Ten announced it was postponing fall sports, one of the only no-doubt contenders for the College Football Playoff was immediately knocked out. The Buckeyes were incredible last season and they honestly look just as good heading into the 2020 campaign. Quarterback Justin Fields was the preseason betting favorite to win the Heisman and why not? He threw for 3,200 yards and an insane 41 touchdowns to three interceptions in 2019 and he’ll again have a very talented group of wide receivers at his disposal.
We’ll have to see if future NFL picks Wyatt Davis and Shaun Wade opt back in after declaring they were focusing on their 2021 draft status but Ohio State’s offense will surely be among the best in the nation.
The Tigers look like the class of the sport yet again, thanks to a pair of Heisman Trophy favorites in their backfield with quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. They are the only program in the nation that ESPN predicted to have both a top-five offense and defense, the latter of which could be the best in the entire country. On top of all that, no Clemson players have opted out for 2020, giving them yet another advantage over other contenders. Their schedule is full of games they should have no problem winning, with that November trip to Notre Dame being the only potential blemish on their record.