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College football rankings: SN's Preseason Top 25 for 2020

Sporting News — (Bill Bender)

The 2020 college football season remains uncertain with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

That said, a few conferences have released full schedules and the intent is to try to start the season in September as of now.

Conference-only schedules will be the norm, and some star players have opted out to focus on the NFL Draft. Still, the College Football Playoff plans on having its selection show Dec. 20. As of now, it's game on.

With that in mind, Sporting News has a Preseason Top 25. It features the usual suspects on top, but there are a few surprises.

Here is a closer look:

MORE: Notable players opting out in 2020

College football rankings: Top 25 for 2020 season

25. Boise State

The Mountain West Conference will play eight conference games and two nonconference games, and the Broncos remain the class of the league. Hank Bachmeier will need to take the next step at quarterback, and the addition of new offensive coordinator Eric Keisau should add to that development. George Holani and Robert Mahone will run behind an offensive line that must replace three starters on the interior. The defense must replace All-American edge rusher Curtis Weaver. If there is a New Year’s Day Six, the Broncos will have a chance to be a Group of 5 buster.

24. USC

The conference-only schedule took Alabama and Notre Dame off the Trojans’ schedule, and this should ease some pressure in a pivotal year for coach Clay Helton. USC has the right quarterback in Kedon Slovis, who passed for 3,502 yards and 30 TDs last season. Amon-Ra St. Brown is an All-American caliber receiver, too. The Trojans have stabilized recruiting in the offseason, but the expectation will be to win the Pac-12 South. The rivalry opener against UCLA will be a barometer to see where both schools are headed.

23. Kentucky

The Wildcats are 18-8 the last two seasons and have achieved stability under Mark Stoops, who continues to build depth through recruiting. Kentucky has most of its starters on both sides coming back, but the loss of All-American talent Lynn Bowden needs addressed. Quarterback Terry Wilson is coming off a season-ending knee injury, and the key will be establishing a consistent running game behind him. That’s led to more success in the SEC East. Can the Wildcats hold their spot in the pecking order?

22. Louisville

Scott Satterfield led the Cardinals to eight wins in an impressive turnaround in 2019, and that program growth should continue this season. Satterfield has a dynamic trio at the key skill positions. Malik Cunningham settled in at quarterback with 22 TDs and five interceptions. Running back Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell made SN's Top 40 players for 2020. Hassan Hall also has breakout potential. The Cardinals need more depth up front on both sides. The good news? Clemson isn't on the reformatted schedule.

21. Arizona State

Herm Edwards has the Sun Devils in position to make a run at the Pac-12 South championship. Quarterback Jayden Daniels should make the jump as a sophomore after finishing with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions, but they will need to find a replacement for Eno Benjamin at running back. Jermayne Lole has breakout potential at defensive lineman. Four of Arizona State's five losses came by 10 points or fewer in 2019. The Sun Devils face their toughest tests on the road at Oregon (Oct. 9) and USC (Nov. 21).

20. Cincinnati

The Bearcats are the highest-ranked Group of 5 team on the board, and that is a nod to the job Luke Fickell has done. Cincinnati won 11 games each of the last two seasons, and three-year starter Desmond Ridder returns at quarterback. The offensive line will revolve around Michigan transfer James Hudson, and Elijah Ponder and Michael Pitts lead the best defense in the AAC. Cincinnati lost the nonconference game against Nebraska. They will have little margin for error in conference play to make the New Year's Day Six.

19. Utah

The Utes have heavy losses on both sides, including Pac-12 leading rusher Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley on offense and defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. Kyle Whittingham still manages to thrive on stability, and South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley has a chance to prove it one more time on the big stage. The Nov. 7 showdown at Arizona State is huge, but it comes down to the last two weeks against USC and Oregon. Those are the teams that kept the Utes out of the Playoff last season.

18. North Carolina

The Tar Heels are emerging as an offseason darling based on the recruiting momentum built by Mack Brown, which helped land five-star cornerback Tony Grimes. North Carolina has big-time playmakers on both sides in quarterback Sam Howell, who set the FBS record for TD passes by a true freshman. Chazz Surratt is one of the best linebackers in the FBS, and the defense should improve around defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. The Tar Heels must show they are for real with road tests at Miami and Florida State, but the marquee matchup is a visit from Notre Dame on Nov. 27. This team can reach the ACC championship game.

MORE: Tracking 2020 coaching changes

17. Oklahoma State

The offseason controversy involving Mike Gundy needs to be put to rest for this team to realize its potential. Running back Chuba Hubbard leads a dynamic offense capable of leading the Big 12 in scoring. Spencer Sanders proved to be a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, and the return of receiver Tylan Wallace is a bonus. The Cowboys are 8-10 in Big 12 play the last two seasons, so that urgency will be felt in Stillwater. Can the Cowboys break a five-game losing streak to rival Oklahoma?

16. Texas A&M

The Aggies have consecutive top-10 recruiting classes to build their team in 2020, meaning more difference-makers to help Kellen Mond enjoy his senior season. Isaiah Spiller is back too, and this offense should be much better after a year of experience. Look for improved play from the receivers with the new additions, too. The defense is mostly together. For third-year coach Jimbo Fisher, it comes down to making that jump against top-10 teams. The Aggies are 1-7 in that situation the last two seasons, and they will not go anywhere in the SEC West grinder until that record improves.

15. Minnesota

The Gophers look poised to build off a 11-win season under P.J. Fleck, but the offseason has created some obstacles. Star receiver Rashod Bateman opted out, which means Tanner Morgan will need to find a new go-to target. The defense must replace All-American safety Antoine Winfield. The new schedule did not do Minnesota any favors either; not with a September slate that includes Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa in three consecutive weeks. Minnesota must prove it against those teams if it wants to take the next step in the Big Ten West.

14. Wisconsin

The Badgers have won double-digit games under Paul Chryst in four of the last five seasons, and they are still the no-frills picks to win the Big Ten West. Jack Coan and Graham Mertz will battle for the starting quarterback spot, but key playmakers on both sides must be replaced in Jonathan Taylor, Zack Baun and Chris Orr. Wisconsin will not play the nonconference game against Notre Dame, but road tests at Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa leave enough meat on the schedule.

13. Michigan

It's the same old story in Ann Arbor for sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines return a talented roster, and the quarterback battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton comes into focus in the fall. Nico Collins' return was huge, but the offensive line is a question mark. Now, it's on second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to make it all fit. Daxton Hill is a breakout player in the secondary, but the question remains: When will this team break through against Ohio State and win a Big Ten championship? The Wolverines have won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, and The Game has been moved up to Oct. 24. Until Michigan proves otherwise, the spot in playoff purgatory is reserved.

MORE: Best bets to make their first CFP

12. Texas

SN picked Texas to make the College Football Playoff last year; a too-soon-pick that did not work out after early-season losses to LSU and Oklahoma. The good news? It could happen this year. Sam Ehlinger is back for his senior season, and the Longhorns have young talent that should evolve with increased roles. Receivers Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith have breakout potential. Linebacker Joseph Ossai, who had 13.5 tackles for loss in 2019, is back. The Longhorns have six losses of seven points or fewer the last two seasons. Can Tom Herman get some wins in the close ones?

11. Auburn

We're going to talk about Gus Malzhan's job security all offseason again, but the Tigers bought some time by winning the Iron Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix returns and should improve his consistency as a sophomore. JaTarvious Whitlow transferred, so Tank Bigsby is among the young running backs with a chance to shine. The offensive line lost six key contributors. The defensive line loses Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe, but at least returns Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell. Auburn needs to revisit the SEC West grinder, but that's just part of the job description. Can Malzahn handle it again?

10. Penn State

James Franklin signed a long-term extension, and he continues to build the program toward a Playoff breakthrough with big recruiting classes. Sean Clifford, Journey Brown, Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson lead what should be a high-scoring offense. All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out, however, and that is a hole the defense will have to address. The Nittany Lions’ Big Ten championship hopes will be defined by the road trip to Michigan (Sept. 19) and home game against Ohio State (Nov. 7).

9. Florida

Florida is the first of four top-10 teams in the SEC. Dan Mullen led the Gators to back-to-back New Year's Day Six Bowl wins, and he has upgraded the talent with each recruiting cycle. Kyle Trask is established as the starter and has the potential to be a first-team SEC quarterback. The return of cornerback Marco Wilson is a lift for a talented defense that loses CJ Henderson. Florida is close to getting back to the SEC championship game, but Georgia remains the biggest hurdle in the SEC East.

8. Notre Dame

Notre Dame is a member of the ACC for the upcoming season, and that alone should create some excitement for Brian Kelly's 11th season in South Bend. Veteran quarterback Ian Book returns for another season, and the tandem of Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith need to step up at running back. Javon McKinley, Braden Lenzy and Tommy Tremble give Book solid options in the receiving game. Liam Eichenberg's return is a plus for the offensive line. The secondary will be a question mark on defense. The ACC schedule creates some fun matchups, but none are bigger than the home game against Clemson on Nov. 7.

7. Oklahoma

The Sooners are facing the backlash of a fourth Playoff loss in six seasons, but Lincoln Riley didn't go to the NFL. Oklahoma is still the favorite to win the Big 12. Spencer Rattler had a year to learn behind Jalen Hurts, and that will pay off. Jadon Haselwood is the next breakout star at receiver, and the defense will face the same old questions with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. The Sooners still have a lot of questions, but that might not be answered unless they get back to the Playoff. In the meantime, the focus should be on making a run at yet another Big 12 championship.

6. Oregon

The Ducks are trending upward under Mario Cristobal, and the next step is the College Football Playoff. The loss of quarterback Justin Herbert is the first order of business. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown should be in the mix. Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell is back, and Johnny Johnson III and CJ Verdell return to an explosive offense. Sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux leads the defense, and five-star linebacker Justin Flowe will be an instant-impact player (don't forget about fellow five-star linebacker Noah Sewell, younger brother of Penei). The Ducks lost the nonconference game against Ohio State, but that might help their playoff chances. This is the best bet out of the Pac-12.

5. LSU

What will LSU and Ed Orgeron do for an encore without Joe Burrow and Joe Brady? Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, left, too. Myles Brennan will finally get his shot at quarterback, and Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. are back for another season. Chase has confirmed he will not opt out. The Tigers lose a ton to the NFL Draft (nine draft-eligible juniors, including running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire), but LSU's defense returns enough pieces to build around sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and another loaded recruiting class. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger can work with what's left. This team can still compete for a SEC championship.

4. Georgia

Jake Fromm is gone, as well as the vast majority of Georgia's offensive line. The Bulldogs have two transfer quarterbacks eligible in Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman and USC's J.T. Daniels, and they will work with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Georgia also hired Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran. Kirby Smart has built a string of top-five recruiting classes. Zamir White and James Cook will keep the ground game going, and George Pickens could emerge as the best receiver in the FBS. Rising redshirt-sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari could make the jump to All-American. This team has enough to break a national championship drought that extends back to 1980.

3. Alabama

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., safety Xavier McKinney and linebacker Terrell Lewis are gone, and Nick Saban faces the challenge of getting back into the College Football Playoff for the first time. The quarterback battle between Mac Jones and freshman Bryce Young will be the focus this fall, and there likely won't be an answer until the opener against USC. Receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are back, and the return of running back Najee Harris is huge for an offense that could rely more on its run game in 2020. Dylan Moses' decision to return should help shore up a defense that wasn't up to Alabama's championship standard. The standard remains national title or bust, even at this stage of Saban's tenure.

2. Ohio State

The Buckeyes lost star players J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young and Jeff Okudah to the NFL, but Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields returns to a still-loaded roster. Master Teague was injured, but that hole was filled with Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon. The receiving corps will be the deepest in the country. Expect Garrett Wilson to be a breakout star while five-star receiver Julian Fleming joins the fun. Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers return to a nasty offensive line. Shaun Wade's decision to return to school helps a defense that will rebuild the line around Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison. Road trips to Oregon and Penn State are the biggest potholes to another Playoff run. Second-year coach Ryan Day can work with that.

1. Clemson

The beat goes on under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers figure to suffer some attrition to the NFL, but the offense runs around the junior trio of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Justyn Ross is lost for the season, but Clemson has other young receivers to work with. Etienne's decision to return was perhaps the biggest win of the draft deadline. Clemson also has the No. 1 recruiting class coming in, and defensive lineman Bryan Bresee will play right away. Coordinators Tony Elliott and Brent Venables stayed on, and that continuity should lead to a sixth straight ACC championship run. Including conference title games, the Tigers have won 22 straight in the ACC. That is why they are still the No. 1 team in the country.