The entire sports calendar is up in the air this year, but won’t you join us in pretending that football season is going to kick off like usual this fall? It’s a nice dream and one that could still come true, so we’re going to go ahead, look across the national landscape and see which college football teams are looking the best.
We’re basing our preseason rankings on many factors, including returning players, new additions, strength of schedule, betting odds and statistical projections. Once again, the SEC and Big Ten seem to be the conferences to beat but there are plenty of conferences represented in our picks for the 30 best teams in college football for the 2020-21 season.
A disrupted season might end up hurting Nebraska more than other storied programs this year. That’s because the Cornhuskers roster is younger than many around the country. According to Athlon Sports, underclassmen make up a whopping 70% of their squad, so leaving those guys with less time than usual to get acclimated could be a rough recipe. However, a longer break could be beneficial for quarterback Adrian Martinez, who battled injuries last season and had surgery this offseason. Still, it doesn’t help that their 2020 schedule is one of the toughest in the game.
The Huskies are one of those programs that’s always hanging around at the end of the season but never seems to be worthy of a spot with the big boys. The team lost nearly all of its offensive starters from 2019 but seems to be fine with reloading on a yearly basis and competing for the Pac-12 North crown. That conference is only getting tougher, however, as we’ve got five Pac-12 teams on our list. A quarterback competition will play out and rusher Richard Newton’s endurance will be a major factor in their success this year after the surprise resignation of Chris Petersen.
28. Boise State
Nobody has an easier path to a great season than Boise State, at least based on their slate of games. According to Bleacher Report, the Broncos have the easiest schedule of any contending team in the nation, with Florida State and BYU being their stiffest opponents — both of whom will be visitors on their blue turf. Returning quarterback Hank Bachmeier will be working with a new offensive coordinator but he’ll find his favorite target, Khalil Shakir, back in position. A fifth consecutive 10-win season for the program seems a lock.
Kenneth Gainwell may have the most apt name in college football. He gained more than 2,000 all-purpose yards for Memphis as a freshman in 2019, including a ridiculous 1,500 rushing yards, racking up a ton of honors in the process. Defenses will likely be gunning for him in 2020 but we think he can still carry Memphis to a great season, especially given that they have one of the most favorable schedules in the sport. CBS Sports likes them enough to rank the Tigers 16th in the nation but if they get past AAC foes like Cincinnati and UCF, they’ll be even better than that come winter.
Utah was fantastic a year ago but they lost nine defensive starters, an amazing rusher and a top-tier quarterback this off-season, leaving us with many questions. The good news is that the Utes have one of the easiest schedules of any team on this list, with Pac-12 foes USC, Washington and Arizona State being their biggest tests. And only the latter one will be away from home. The squad brings back a strong receiving corps but this will be the toughest challenge in years for head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has been called possibly “the most polarizing player in Tennessee history” and he’ll be back to lead the Vols in 2020. A veteran leader is a big plus for any squad to have, but it’s made even better when he’s got world-class protection. The offensive line for Tennessee 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.
The Golden Gophers were one of college football’s true surprises in 2019, posting an 11-2 record with wins over two top 10-ranked opponents. It’s tough to imagine them having the same kind of success this time, especially with the loss of two great rushers and a slew of defensive standouts. However, P.J. Fleck has clearly taken the program to a new level and quarterback Tanner Morgan is ready to keep making his case as one of the Big Ten’s best passers. Winnable clashes against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan are the toughest parts of their 2020 schedule.
23. Arizona State
The Pac-12 South division is packed with talent this year and Arizona State is right in the hunt for the title. Head coach Herm Edwards has made them a contender in the past two seasons and 2020 should be the best of his tenure, especially given how favorable their schedule is. Sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels was fantastic in his debut season and coming off a late-season stretch of wins over top programs like Oregon and Florida State should have him salivating to get back on the field this year.
Many preseason rankings have the Wolverines comfortably inside the top 20, but we’re feeling a little softer on their chances this year. With five teams from this list on their schedule, they unquestionably have one of the toughest roads to the playoffs of any program. Throw in the fact that Michigan lost their quarterback and a slew of outstanding players in the off-season and you’ve got plenty of unanswered questions facing a team that was 9-4 a year ago. However, sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet is capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting from a stellar backfield.
Head coach Luke Fickell has helped make Cincinnati a perennial top-25 presence and a favorite in the AAC. The Bearcats have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons under his guidance and 2020 looks to be yet another one. Fourteen starters will return from a team that is hungry for revenge against Memphis, who gave them two of their three losses in 2019. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is among those coming back to a team that has the potential to go undefeated.
20. North Carolina
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell became one of college football’s most surprising stars in 2019, throwing for more than 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns. He comes in this season with a target on his jersey but sees some of his best receivers return alongside him. Despite his brilliant play, the Tar Heels finished the campaign with a lackluster 7-6 record. But all their losses were by a combined margin of 26 points, including a crushing one-point loss to Clemson. A season like that should have North Carolina primed to explode in 2020.
Like the USC Trojans, Miami is a program that has been close to recapturing its legendary lore but hasn’t quite gotten there yet. After several strong years, the Hurricanes took a major stumble in 2019. But the addition of quarterback D’Eriq King in the offseason makes them instantly look like the class of the ACC Coastal division. The transfer from Houston threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2018, his last full season, and fills Miami’s greatest need. At least one analysis has called the team’s pass rush the best in the nation.
18. Iowa State
Matt Campbell’s tenure at Iowa State has been brilliant thus far, but Cyclones fans are hoping that 2020 will be the year they reach the top echelon of the Big 12. Junior quarterback Brock Purdy returns to continue shredding the record books at his school. This year’s squad returns many of its starters — including nine on defense — who were part of brutally close road losses at Oklahoma and Baylor. Bovada’s sportsbook has them tied at 22nd for odds to win the national championship and we think that’s an underestimation.
Pundits across the country keep wanting to predict the return of USC to the top tier of college football, but we don’t see them as playoff material yet. Quarterback Kedon Slovis is poised to have a great season but the Trojans are faced with one of the most brutal schedules in the game. They’ll face six teams from this list during the 2020 season, including three of their last four opponents. Perhaps that’s why ESPN’s preseason FPI gives them less than a 1% chance to win their first title since 2004.
ESPN’s preseason FPI model gives the Knights a 1% chance to win the national championship, which is paltry but still better than most programs across the country. Central Florida’s 10-3 mark in 2019 was seen as a down year following the ridiculous 25-1 stretch they had in the previous two seasons. It’s still tough to imagine them matching up well against the Clemsons or Ohio States of the world but the bottom line is this team always has a chance to run the table and make a case for the playoffs.
Quarterback Dillon Gabriel led the nation’s second best offense in 2019 as a freshman and he’s back in 2020 with some seasoning, plus 15 other returning starters, including eight from a smothering defense.
As usual, Auburn’s schedule isn’t going to do it any favors in reaching the playoffs this season but they’ve got the talent to make it interesting. They’ll stare down a whopping five teams from this list, including three on the road, which would make a 10-win season a minor miracle. Quarterback Bo Nix is back after a freshman season that showed a ton of promise against some formidable defenses. Speaking of that side of the ball, the Tigers have a stellar one that’s predicted to be among the five best in the country by ESPN.
14. Texas A&M
Head coach Jimbo Fisher has done solid work at Texas A&M, especially in terms of recruiting, and that should all culminate in a great 2020 season. The Aggies rank 11th in terms of betting odds to win the national championship, according to Bovada. Those high expectations come partly from senior QB Kellen Mond, who accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of offense a year ago. A&M also has a strong defense coming back after a year where they finished in the top 30 for total defense.
They are slated to face Auburn and Alabama on the road but this squad gets plenty of time to tune up before facing anyone that should really challenge them.
The Longhorns are another Texas program coming into 2020 with sky-high expectations. Returning quarterback Sam Ehlinger is ranked in the top five for betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and it’s easy to see why. Texas had one of the best scoring offenses in the nation last year and they return with many of the key players. That 8-5 record was mediocre at best but the Longhorns were virtually unbeatable when they scored at least 27 points, according to College Football News.
One-score losses to LSU, Oklahoma and Iowa State a year ago make Texas look ready to beat anyone this time around.
12. 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 numbers crunched by ESPN place Wisconsin as the likely fourth seed in the College Football Playoff but we’re not sure we agree. The Badgers’ chances are far below the top three teams, according to ESPN’s model. There are questions about their offense but absolutely none about their defense. Wisconsin is heavily predicted to have one of the best defenses in the nation but a three-week stretch where they face Michigan, Notre Dame and Minnesota beginning in September might have them limping into the back half of the slate.
Oregon hasn’t been to the College Football Playoff since its debut year during the 2014-15 season but they could return this time around if their offense gels quickly. The Ducks boast the best looking defense on the West Coast and one of the three best in the country, according to ESPN. The loss of Justin Herbert and four starting offensive linemen from last year’s 12-2 squad could be their undoing as their tough schedule gets started early. The team will face Ohio State and Washington in the first five weeks of the slate.
9. Notre Dame
Quarterback Ian Book is back to lead the Irish after great back-to-back seasons under center. In 2019, he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns to just six interceptions, which was an improvement in every way on his strong 2018 effort. With his help, the team had an 11-2 season that finished with six straight victories including a bowl-game blowout of Iowa State. Notre Dame has a tough slate this season but they could easily be a playoff team, especially with help from one of the nation’s best offensive lines.
Bettors are feeling bullish on Florida this season, with Bovada giving them the sixth best odds to win the national championship. 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.
If they can get through October with one loss or less, you can fully expect the Gators to make a strong case for the playoffs.
The problem with having a remarkable, championship-winning season in college football is that many of the best players don’t return for a sequel. The Tigers had one of the best seasons in the sport’s history in 2019, going 15-0 and looking like the best team in the nation nearly every time they hit the field. They lost many of the stars that made it happen but LSU is still loaded with talent for 2020, including quarterback Myles Brennan. Bovada gives them the fourth best odds to win the title but there’s a reason no team has repeated as national champs since the College Football Playoff era began.
Plus, this team has one of the absolute toughest schedules for 2020, so a repeat performance would be a miracle.
Unlike many of the other top-tier programs on this list, Oklahoma has the benefit of a schedule that looks pretty forgiving on paper. Their toughest matchups will all come at home or on a neutral site, with the exception of visiting Iowa State in October. As in other recent seasons, the Sooners will be daring opposing defenses to hang with them, as ESPN predicts they will have the best offense in the country this year. Jalen Hurts is gone but new quarterback Spencer Rattler is already a top-five betting favorite to win the Heisman and it makes sense when you see what his predecessors have all been able to do under Lincoln Riley’s explosive system.
5. Penn State
As you’ve already seen, the Big Ten boasts a lot of talent this season and Penn State alone has plenty of it. The Nittany Lions will welcome the return of Sean Clifford, who threw for more than 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s one of eight starters returning from last year’s offense that led the team to an 11-2 mark. ESPN predicts that they will help Penn State have one of the five best offenses in college football this year. The month of October is where their season will be decide as they face Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State in consecutive games.
Georgia’s recruiting in the past few years has been exemplary but they’ve made themselves a great target for transfers as well. That’s where new quarterbacks Jamie Newman and JT Daniels come in as they fill the hole left by Jake Fromm. Newman in particular was very good for a middling Wake Forest team in 2019. But even if he flops, the team should be fine since they have what ESPN predicts will be the second best defense in college football.
The Bulldogs have a vicious schedule that sees them meet Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee by mid-November but just one loss in that stretch should still land them in the playoffs.
Most college football analysts agree that the top three teams on this list are virtual locks to make the playoffs this season but Alabama’s path is the shakiest of them thanks to a tough schedule. Many believe the mystique has worn off the Crimson Tide after they got destroyed in the national championship two years ago and missed the College Football Playoff entirely last year. But this 2020 squad is loaded, as usual. ESPN has predicted Alabama to have one of the three best offenses in the country, capable of carving up even the toughest SEC defenses.
Quarterback Mac Jones looked very good in his limited action a year ago and he’ll be protected by arguably the best offensive line in the sport.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes looked like world beaters a year ago and there’s no reason to think they won’t be just as good in 2020. Quarterback Justin Fields is 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. Ohio State’s offense will surely be among the best in the nation and that’s why ESPN’s FPI gives them a 64% chance to make the College Football Playoff.
Their toughest matches are evenly spaced out through the schedule but a week-two visit to Oregon will show us their true capabilities.
After getting trounced in the national championship last season, Clemson looks more than ready to march to another postseason berth. ESPN’s FPI model gives them an 81% chance to make the playoffs, which is by far the best and also pegs them as the most likely team to win it all. The magnificent Trevor Lawrence will be back under center again and he’ll also have star rusher Travis Etienne in the backfield, making the Tigers the only team in the nation with two top-10 Heisman Trophy betting favorites on their roster. They are also the only program that ESPN has predicted to have both a top-five offense and defense, the latter of which could be the best in the country.
Combine all that with certainly the easiest schedule of any team in our top 10 and betting against Clemson would be a bad move this season.