USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down how the College Football Playoff will be different this year.
Predicting anything in the past six months has been a fruitless effort. But here we are on the verge of starting the 2020 college football season, and there are questions to be answered.
Even with all the uncertainty and the loss of more than 40% of the Bowl Subdivision, there are conference races to analyze, a College Football Playoff race to forecast and a host of other story lines to follow.
Our college football experts tackle those subjects with their season predictions.
Jace Evans: The Alabama machine keeps rolling, and Clemson and Oklahoma remain the class of the ACC and Big 12, respectively. UCF is set up to be one of the top teams in the Group of Five again, so they’re the pick in the American. Appalachian State has owned the Sun Belt in recent years. The Lane Train has rolled out of Conference USA, so this conference is pretty wide-open, but let’s go with Western Kentucky.
Paul Myerberg: No major surprises. I’ve got UCF in the American, Clemson in the ACC, Oklahoma in the Big 12, UAB in Conference USA, Alabama in the SEC and Appalachian State in the Sun Belt.
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Erick Smith: Georgia wins the SEC after losing the regular-season matchup with Alabama. Oklahoma and Clemson keep hold of their respective Big 12 and ACC titles. Conference USA is unpredictable. Louisiana Tech emerges if its health situation allows. Appalachian State barely holds off Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt. The American could be the best race of them all. Cincinnati rebounds from last year’s heartbreak to win the league.
Eddie Timanus: ACC: Clemson – Yeah, out on a limb with that one. Notre Dame’s temporary membership might at least add a little intrigue, but the Tigers still rule the roost.
Big 12: Oklahoma – About the only question mark is if Spencer Rattler can keep the Sooners’ offense humming.
SEC: Florida – Ah, now this one’s a bit of a flyer. But the Gators look poised to overtake Georgia in the East, and that air of inevitability from Alabama has taken a hit.
American: UCF – The Knights came up a little short last year. Don’t expect it to happen again.
Conference USA:Marshall – This is the most wide-open race and ergo the toughest to predict. The Thundering Herd, however, appear to have the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to make a run.
Sun Belt:Appalachian State – Don’t look now – OK, go ahead and look – but the Sun Belt, at least at the top, is starting to challenge the AAC for overall depth and strength.
Dan Wolken: SEC – Alabama. Quarterback Mac Jones isn’t Tua Tagovailoa, but he is better than you think he is.
ACC – Clemson. Until proven otherwise, the team to beat
Big 12 – Texas. Very little conviction about this pick, but Oklahoma might be a little bit vulnerable and someone has to win it.
American – Cincinnati. There’s a reason why Luke Fickell turned down Power Five opportunities to stay at Cincinnati another year.
Conference USA – Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers have been building toward this kind of year.
Sun Belt – Louisiana-Lafayette. Billy Napier’s team fell just short of the conference title last year, and if you think Appalachian State might take a small step back after yet another coaching change, the Ragin’ Cajuns are the logical successors.
College Football Playoff field
Jace Evans: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida.
The three Power Five conferences that are playing this fall will get their champs in the Playoff. But what about the fourth position? Since we’ve already seen the committee pick two SEC teams in a normal year, I feel like they will have no hesitation doing so again.
Paul Myerberg: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia.
Erick Smith: Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama. The same matchups in the same playoff locations from three years ago.
Eddie Timanus: Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama – There’s been some speculation that this might be the year the American champ – or maybe even another contender from the Group of Five – cracks the playoff field with the Big Ten and Pac-12 out of the picture and the SEC beating itself up with its conference-only approach. The bet here, though, is there will still be a pair from the mighty SEC. Sorry.
Dan Wolken: Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Notre Dame.
Jace Evans: Clemson. This season figures to favor teams with continuity. Even with the departure of co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, there aren’t many staffs in the nation more stable than Dabo Swinney’s group. The returns of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne on offense also should give the Tigers a leg up on almost all their competition.
Paul Myerberg: Clemson. By just about a hair ahead of Alabama. Both teams are going to be great.
Erick Smith: There’s a lot to like about Clemson, but they fall short again in the title game. Alabama rebounds from its loss in the SEC championship and wins it all.
Eddie Timanus: Clemson. But having said that, the Tigers’ smoother path to the playoff will have them in better shape come January. The Tigers will claim their third title in five years.
Dan Wolken: Alabama. In a year when it’s a bit of a wildcard how players will react to such an unusual offseason, the infrastructure at Alabama and the depth of the talent is going to make enough difference on the margins to win the title.
Heisman Trophy winner
Jace Evans: With the Big Ten’s decision sending the other front-runner — Justin Fields — to the sidelines this fall, Trevor Lawrence is the favorite. The Clemson QB has basically already been penciled in to the No. 1 slot in the 2021 NFL draft, and in a season with less competition, it seems like it will take an extraordinary effort to knock a hyped player like Lawrence out of the top spot.
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Paul Myerberg: Without Fields in the mix, picking Lawrence seems almost a no-brainer. He’s got the name recognition, credibility and story (“the next Peyton Manning in his final college season”) to be a wire-to-wire winner.
Erick Smith: Joe Burrow proved the Heisman winner can come from way behind. It’s hard to imagine Lawrence not winning, but this should be closer than expected as someone in the SEC will emerge to push him to the finish line.
Eddie Timanus: Lawrence – There will be no slow start this time to take him out of the running, and no sudden breakout star from the SEC to steal his momentum. Lawrence will claim the trophy DeShaun Watson should have won, and add the national title for good measure.
Dan Wolken: Lawrence. Despite what some could consider an uneven sophomore season, Lawrence starts in strong position for all the obvious reasons. But the fact that he emerged as such a leader on national issues and social justice means he will get significant benefit of the doubt with voters.
Game of year
Jace Evans: Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 28. The Iron Bowl is always one of my favorite games of the year, but this year, in which “The Game” between Michigan and Ohio State won’t be played along with a number of other great cross-conference rivalries, it’s going to be nice to get a tried-and-true rivalry game late in the year that has stakes. Alabama has title aspirations but also a schedule that appears tougher than it’s faced in recent years. It’s quite possible the Crimson Tide need this game to secure the SEC West title. The Tide is a better team than the Tigers, but that’s true most years – it’s those Auburn wins that really stand out to us. Can the Tigers get their first win in Tuscaloosa since 2010?
Paul Myerberg: Alabama vs. Georgia, Oct. 17. No other game will carry as much weight in terms of giving the winner a solid case for being ranked No. 1. And no one would be surprised if this ends up being a preview of the SEC championship game, though both teams will have other hurdles before reaching that point. Georgia has to get past Florida, while the Tide would still have Tennessee, LSU and Auburn to go through.
Erick Smith: When Clemson travels to Notre Dame on the first weekend of November, it could be facing its first ACC road opponent ranked in the top 10 since 2014. The game will be a litmus test for both teams with College Football Playoff and conference implications on the line at one of the most fabled environments in the sport.
Eddie Timanus: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 10 – The Red River showdown won’t have nearly the same atmosphere with no State Fair of Texas and, in all likelihood, few fans in attendance at the Cotton Bowl. But hopefully, it will be the sort of back-and-forth, Big 12-style shootout we’ve all been missing.
Dan Wolken: Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 7. This feels like an obvious answer, but this game was always going to have major playoff implications. The fact it’s now a conference game and will impact the ACC title — for one year, anyway — adds to the intrigue.
Biggest surprise and disappointment
Jace Evans: Is it a cop-out to say that the biggest surprise to me is the season happening at all? But, in a pleasant surprise, we have games this fall – the disappointment being we won’t have all 130 FBS teams involved. Ohio State was going to be one of the top title contenders this season, but with the Big Ten sitting the fall season out, we’ll never know if they could have brought another College Football Playoff national championship to Columbus.
I think Florida has a chance to surprise and even make the playoff. The Gators are entering Year 3 under Dan Mullen, and have steadily improved each season. Can they beat LSU and Georgia? I think the answer is yes..
Paul Myerberg: The biggest disappointment is and will remain the Big Ten, for not participating in a season set to be dominated by teams from the ACC and SEC. As for an individual team, picking Texas to fall short of expectations is usually a safe bet. The pleasant surprise will be Notre Dame, which has been strangely overlooked as a national contender but has the pieces to challenge Clemson for the ACC title and a playoff berth.
Erick Smith: All the focus in the SEC East is on Georgia and Florida. Bulldogs or Gators are assumed to be in the title game. But what about Tennessee? The Volunteers return an improved team after finishing strongly last season. They’ll test the favorites during the regular season and could pull off an upset that will have them in the race until the final week.
Expect LSU to take a big step back. Everything went right for the Tigers last year. Gone are Heisman winner Joe Burrow, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and most of the key playmakers that put up huge numbers for one of the great offenses of all time. With some key defensive losses, it’s hard to see LSU making a run in the SEC.
Eddie Timanus: The biggest surprise will be Texas A&M. I’m sure a number of prognosticators will have the Aggies pegged as doomed to disappoint given their lofty preseason ranking and killer schedule. They won’t run the table, but they will trip up some would-be league contenders and turn in a credible season.
The biggest disappointment will be Auburn, which will not live up to the hype. The Gus Malzahn era has been characterized by some great seasons interspersed among mediocre ones. Unless Bo Nix somehow turns into Cam Newton overnight, this year will fall into the latter category.
Dan Wolken: Biggest surprise – Miami (Fla.). There’s a very good chance that the addition of Houston transfer D’Eriq King transforms an offense at Miami that last year just couldn’t find its way at the quarterback position. New coordinator Rhett Lashlee has been around some very good offensive minds in Gus Malzahn and Sonny Dykes, and his system should fit very well with what King can do. The overall talent level at Miami is good enough to be a factor in the ACC if those two additions fix the offense.
Biggest disappointment – North Carolina. There’s a lot of hype around Mack Brown’s team going into his second year, largely based around quarterback Sam Howell and the fact that the Tar Heels exceeded expectations last season. But North Carolina could be a regression candidate as Brown’s first-year enthusiasm bump fades and the roster gets a little bit younger overall. The long-term outlook is very good, but this year could be a bump in the road.
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