It’s that time again! NCAA Football is just around the corner……or not! With Covid-19 in tow, who the hell knows?
Gigi and I have spent months scratching ears, chewing on pencils, tearing up yellow pads, and growling and barking at each other over the coming NCAA season. The arguments have covered whether there will be a season or not, to who are the best players and teams in the country.
It has been ugly trying to figure things out. The transfer portal where players change teams and players leaving early for the NFL have played havoc with the rankings.
No spring season football has left up in the air who the starting quarterbacks will be for many teams. Other schools are finding that players are opting out for the shortened season. Above all else, we don’t even know if there will be a season.
With all of this, and with much ado, Gigi and I present our consensus #21 through #25 rankings for the 2020 season.
#21 – Texas
2019 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12
Returning starters: seven offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: WR Devin Duvernay, WR Collin Johnson, G Parker Braun, C Zach Shackelford, DE Malcolm Roach, S Brandon Jones, CB Kobe Rice.
Outlook: The Big 12 begins the season with changes to the schedule. Each team will play 10 regular season games, with 9 conference games and one non-conference game.
Last year, it was all the rage to proclaim that Texas was “back” and would be contenders for a Big 12 Championship, if not a National Championship Playoff berth. Those hopes were quickly diminished when Texas proved to be a paper tiger.
It is now Year 4 of the Tom Herman era. He begins the season having hired seven new assistants over the off season, including offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (from Ohio State) and defensive coordinator Chris Ash (former Rutgers head coach). Herman also hired Oklahoma’s Jay Boulware to be his associate head coach for special teams/tight ends. Ash, a former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State, will try to improve a defense that surrendered 431.5 yards per game last season.
Yurcich starts with quarterback Sam Ehlinger returning for a final season rather than jumping to the NFL. With a 19-13 record while leading less talented teams, Ehlinger will provide the senior leadership in the locker room and on the field that is so necessary if Texas is to contend against Baylor and Oklahoma.
Ehlinger will no longer have Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson to throw to, so the Longhorns will need new receivers to step up and take their place. Jake Smith was Duvernay’s backup last year and will be needed to step up and fill his big shoes. Deep threat Brennan Eagles will have to provide the additional receiving capability so much needed to keep the pressure off the running game.
The running game will be bolstered by the return of sophomore running back Jordan Whittington. Out for most of last season with a hernia injury, if healthy he will prove to be a huge asset as both a running back and receiver out of the backfield.
The offensive line should be fine with left tackle Sam Cosmi returning and leading the unit.
The defense in 2019 fell off after good years in 2017 and 2018. For the Longhorns to compete, it will have to return to previous year’s levels. The good news is that there is plenty of returning talent coming back.
Last year’s defense was loaded with freshmen and sophomores at tackle, linebacker and safety positions. Not only did they lack experience, but a rash of injuries further reduced the effectiveness of the secondary. Now they return 10 backs with triple snaps.
Sophomore tackles Keondre Coburn, Moro Oiomo and TVondre Sweat will be called upon to strengthen the run defense. Meanwhile sophomore and junior linebackers Joseph Ossai, Ayodele Adeoye, Juwan Mitchell and Demarion Overshown will have to take pass defense burdens upon their shoulders.
The key to the season will be winning the close games. They have six losses by fewer than 7 points in the last two seasons and must learn how to win those games to achieve success.
The Longhorns no longer play LSU this season. They do Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia and TCU at home. Expect an 8-2 regular season record and a December Bowl game.
#22 – Iowa
2019 record: 10-3, 6-3 Big Ten
Returning starters: six offense, five defense, one special teams
Key losses: QB Nate Stanley, OT Tristan Wirfs, DE A.J. Epenesa, LB Kristian Welch, SS Geno Stone, CB Michael Ojemudia, DT Cedrick Lattimore, DT Brady Reiff.
Outlook: Under Covid, the Big 10 will only play conference games. So they will be limited to 10 regular season games, plus the title game.
Iowa goes into the 2020 campaign having won 47 games over the last five seasons. 10 wins were recorded last year despite an offensive that sputtered at times throughout the season.
The Hawkeyes face having to replace critical players on both the offense and defense which will limit much of an improvement over last season. They should be happy to meet last year’s level of performance.
With three year starter Quarterback Nate Stanley gone, backup Spencer Petras will be the probable replacement. Petras has had limited exposure in the position, having only attempted 10 passes in three games last season.
Petras will have help in the passing game with leading receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette returning (44 receptions, 722 yards and 5 touchdowns). Joining Smith-Marsette will be tight end Sam LaPorta who in limited play had 15 receptions for 188 yards. He will be expected to step up and provide more offensive output.
Wide receiver transfers Oliver Martin and Charlie Jones should round out the receiving corps if Petras can get the ball to them.
Joining Petras in the backfield are running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sergent. They were the two top rushers last season, but their stats are nothing to brag about. One of them will have to step up this season for the Hawkeyes to have any chance of improving on last year’s play.
Three starting offensive linemen are coming back, including left tackle Alaric Jackson, who bypassed leaving early for the NFL draft. Joining them will be graduate transfer offensive tackle Coy Cronk, who started 40 games for Indiana.
On defense, the Hawkeyes will be similarly faced with rebuilding. Five starters return, but leading tackler Kirstin Welch is gone as well as defensive end A.J. Epenesa who was a top pass rusher. The entire unit will have to play at their peak levels to meet last year’s performance in their three losses losing by a total of 14 points against Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State.
Iowa’s schedule for 2020 is once again loaded against them. They play road games against Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State. As well, they get Wisconsin and Iowa State at home.
If Petras can play up to speed and not have let downs, Iowa should expect an 8-3 season.
A December Bowl game would be on the agenda.
#23 – Memphis
2019 record: 12-2, 7-1 AAC
Returning starters: six offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: WR Antonio Gibson, WR Kedarian Jones, TE Joey Magnifico, C Dustin Woodard, OT Scottie Dill, LB Austin Hall, DE Bryce Huff, CB Chris Claybrooks
Outlook: The AAC has a plan for their NCAA season. Each team will play 8 conference games and can book up to 4 other non-conference games. How this will work out is anyone’s guess.
Memphis comes into the 2020 season with a new Head Coach, Ryan Silverfield. He was deputy Head Coach last year under Coach Mike Norvell who left for a Power 5 job at Florida State. Inheriting a team that went 12-2 and 7-1 in the ACC, Silverfield and the Tigers retain plenty of talent for the 2020 campaign, including senior quarterback Brady White who threw for 4,014 yards, 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Joining White on offense will be returning tailback Kenneth Gainwell with 1,459 rushing yards and 610 passing yards on 51 receptions. Top receiver Damonte Coxie who had 1276 passing yard on 76 receptions and 9 touchdowns is also back.
Watch for wide receiver Kundarruis Taylor, junior college transfer to become an impact player. He originally signed with Oklahoma before going the JC route where he had 607 reception yards and 9 touchdowns.
The defense remains in pretty good shape having only lost four starters. Leading tackler linebacker Austin Hall will be difficult to replace, but there is bench depth and someone just needs to step up and fill the role.
The schedule for Memphis plays in their favor. They had only one Power 5 team to play, Purdue, which has since been cancelled due to Covid 19. The Tigers get UCF and Temple at home, while traveling to Cincinnati, Navy, SMU and Tulane in AAC play.
The real question for Memphis is UCF. Is UCF the team to beat still in the conference? Or has Memphis taken over the favorite role?
Have to go with a regular season record of 11-1 for the Tigers, losing only to Cincinnati in the Conference Title game and then a December bowl game. New Years Day, they will be staying home, nursing hangovers on what might have been.
#24 – North Carolina
2019 record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC
Returning starters: 10 offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Charlie Heck, NT Aaron Crawford, DT Jason Strowbridge, LB Dominique Ross, S Myles Dorn.
Outlook: North Carolina’s 2020 season will feature a 7 conference game schedule, as well as 2 games outside the conference. On the original schedule but since cancelled is James Madison, Top 10 ranked Georgia and one conference game, UConn.
Coach Mac Brown began his tenure with North Carolina with a 7-6 season. Each loss was by seven points or less. The Tar Heels even played Clemson tight, with the Tigers winning 21-20 in a hard fought game.
With 10 offensive starters and seven defensive starters returning, it bodes well for the Tar Heels in the coming season.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell returns for UNC. Last year, he was ACC Rookie of the Year, having thrown for 3,641 yards and 39 touchdowns. No true freshman has performed better in FBS history.
Howell will have a talented hoard of receivers to air the ball out. Star receivers Dyami Brown (51 receptions, 1034 yards and 12 touchdowns), Beau Corrales (40 receptions, 575 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Dazz Newsome (72 receptions, 1018 yards and 10 touchdowns) return for another season and form the base for a solid passing game for 2020.
Joining Howell in the backfield are returning running backs Javonte Williams with 166 carries for 993 yards and 5 touchdowns and Michael Carter with 177 carries for 1,003 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The offensive line remains in great shape, returning all but offensive tackle Charlie Heck.
Offensively, the Tar Heels should provide for a well balanced attack, making things difficult for most teams.
The defense does not fare as well. Seven defensive starters do return for the 2020 campaign but the concern is the interior of the defensive line. Starting tackles Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge have moved on after combining for 95 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries in 2019.
Linebacker Chazz Surratt with (66 solo tackles and 6.5 sacks) returns along with senior linebacker Tomon Fox (41 tackles and 3.5 sacks). They will have to step up their play to reinforce the defensive line until other players can step into Crawford’s and Strowbridge’s shoes.
The UNC season begins with a tough UCF team. This game, along with Virginia later in the month will provide insight of what to expect for the rest of the season.
If UNC does reasonably well against Virginia and UCF, then they are certainly the favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division. This would lead to another matchup against Clemson in the ACC Championship game which they lost to Clemson last year 21-20.
Expect a 9-2 record for UNC with losses to Clemson and UCF. 8-1 is not out of the question if the Tar Heels can defeat UCF. And if by some incredible bit of luck UNC goes undefeated, they could make the Playoffs. Or, they could be playing somewhere on New Year’s Day.
#25 – Tennessee
2019 record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC
Returning starters: nine offense, eight defense, two special teams
Key losses: WR Jauan Jennings, WR Marquez Callaway, LB Daniel Bituli, LB Darrell Taylor, S Nigel Warrior
Outlook: The SEC has gone to a 10 game conference only schedule. To date, the full schedule has not been set.
The Tennessee 2019 campaign showed solid improvement over previous years. Coach Jeremy Pruitt led the Volunteers to an 8-5 record with three of those losses coming from very tough SEC opponents. But the early season loss to Georgia State is just unexplainable.
The problem for Tennessee is that they play in the SEC East, where Florida and Georgia reside. Last year, the Volunteers lost to both teams by an average of 30 points each. It remains to be seen if they have managed to close the talent gap and challenge for the East title for the coming season.
Fifth year Senior Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is the early pick to lead the Volunteers. But he will be challenged for the position by sophomore Brian Maurer or newcomer Harrison Bailey. For the Volunteers to contend, Guarantano will have to really step up his game. Unfortunately the lack of spring football will make this much more difficult.
On offense, the major weakness will be the receiving corp. Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Dominich Wood-Anderson have all left, leaving the cupboard bare except for Josh Palmer, who had 34 receptions for 457 yards and 1 touchdown last year.
Graduate USC transfer wide receiver Velus Jones will be available to assist Palmer, however, it will take time to incorporate him into the offensive scheme before the season begins.
Running back Eric Gray can be an important addition in the backfield for Tennessee. From being a nobody during most of last season, he had a breakout game against Vanderbilt in the final regular season game where he ran the ball 25 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
Gray had another stellar performance in the Gator Bowl against Indiana where he recovered an onside kick, had 120 total yards and scored the game winning touchdown. He will be joined in the backfield by junior Ty Chandler who averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 3 touchdowns last season. Between the two, the running game should be well established.
The Volunteers largest weakness is in the trenches. Returning guard Trey Smith will anchor the offensive line and will be further helped by Georgia transfer tackle Cade Mays which should stabilize it and offer the quarterback decent protection.
Defensively, sophomore middle linebacker Henry To’o To’o will need to really improve to All American status to help out a struggling defensive unit.
Though things are looking up, Tennessee will hard pressed to finish with more than 6 wins. Alabama, LSU and Georgia are guaranteed losses. Florida will likely win as well, so the Volunteers must defeat both of the unknown teams for a winning season.
Call this another 6-4 season with Tennessee getting a very minor bowl game.
Well fans….there you have it. PU and Gigi’s first picks for the new 2020 season. Next up will be #16 through #20.
We both must say that this is so much more fun than all that political or economic garbage. It does get tiring, politics and doom all the time.
Let us all hope that the football season does get played. We need the diversion. Until then, have a good time and remember………….
LIFE IS GOOD! (Especially when politics does not interfere.)