Every college football team begins a given season with questions to answer. Some just have far more than others. This time last year, we were wondering if Justin Fields was ready to dominate at Ohio State or if Joe Burrow’s late-2018 surge at LSU meant something significant. He was, and it did.
This year the questions shift, but the teams most well-positioned for a title run are about the same.
The raw number of questions we have about a team says a lot. If you simply count the “ifs” — if this happens, if that happens — it takes to turn a team into a true national title contender, that drops some major hints about the teams most likely to make deep runs.
Below are the 18 teams with title odds better than +10000 per Caesars Sportsbook, sorted by the number of “ifs” it takes to make each a true title contender. Give me enough “ifs,” and I can make anybody a champ, but the likely title winner will come from this pool.
A quick note: We’re not going to waste time with things like “If their quarterback stays healthy” or “If the injury bug doesn’t devastate a certain unit before a key game.” Those things are obvious and apply to every team in the country. For the most part, we’re not going to focus on schedules, either. We’re focused only on the quality of the team at hand.
Clemson Tigers (+250 national title odds)
If … the offensive line is at least solid. Clemson has made five straight CFPs, winning two national titles and, with the ACC playing at a mediocre-average level for three straight years, continues to boast the easiest playoff road of any major contender. That, plus big-time star power (quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne), veteran role players and a glorious incoming recruiting class, make Dabo Swinney’s program a title favorite even without injured star receiver Justyn Ross, who’s out for the season, if not longer.
Losing four offensive linemen with 126 career starts hurts, however. The cupboard is far from bare: Swinney’s insistence on deep rotations (and Clemson’s propensity for blowing teams out) means the Tigers return four players who logged at least 325 snaps, and three of them (tackle Jackson Carman, guard Matt Bockhorst, center Cade Stewart) have starting experience. Still, a unit that has never seemed quite as strong as the rest of the offense could be a weak link until proven otherwise.
If … a young safety corps doesn’t suffer too many glitches. Coordinator Brent Venables’ defense was unique last season in that it was driven by a devastating perimeter attack, not a dominant line. The line was still good, but it was awfully young and slightly more mortal (14th in rushing success rate allowed*, 39th in stuff rate**), while the pass defense was devastating. That should flip back in 2020. The line brings back eight of the nine players who logged 100-plus snaps and welcomes a new batch of blue-chippers, but the secondary has to replace safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse, cornerback A.J. Terrell, plus Isaiah Simmons, the best outside linebacker and nickelback in the country.
Corner Derion Kendrick and safety Nolan Turner are both veterans, but Venables will have to skip heavily into a pool of freshmen and sophomores — nickel Mike Jones Jr., corner Andrew Booth Jr., etc. And an extra big-play glitch or two could make trips to places like Florida State and Notre Dame awfully tricky.
* Success rate is a go-to efficiency measure of mine: It tracks how frequently you’re gaining 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second or 100% on third and fourth.
** Stuff rate measures how frequently intentional rushes (so, not sacks) are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Ohio State Buckeyes (+300)
If … the pass rush holds up. Chase Young was unfair. Despite being increasingly double-teamed as 2019 went on, the now-former Buckeyes defensive end generated pressure on 19% of his pass rushes (easily the most among players with 200-plus attempts) and sacked QBs 16.5 times (also the most). It’s been a while since Ohio State didn’t have an incredible pass-rusher, but that bar’s probably too high for anyone to clear.
One way or another, the Buckeyes will have to continue generating high pressure. The OSU secondary has to replace first-round cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette and safeties Jordan Fuller and Brendon White, and while corner Shaun Wade is a proven entity and fellow juniors Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks have shined when given the chance, the best favor you can give a newish secondary is a stressed-out quarterback. Ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith are former blue-chippers, but neither enjoyed even a 10% pressure rate; senior Jonathon Cooper‘s return from an injury will help, too, but new coordinator Kerry Coombs might have to get a bit creative to get pressure.
If … young, high-upside wide receivers prove that upside. The Buckeyes’ offense was balanced and brilliant in 2019, and it returns quarterback Justin Fields and three linemen who earned all-conference honors, but J.K. Dobbins (2,003 rushing yards) and three of last season’s top five receivers all depart.
No one is a sure thing, but the replacements are close to it. Carries will go to some combination of sophomores Master Teague III and Marcus Crowley, redshirt freshman Steele Chambers and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon, while Chris Olave and blue-chip sophomore Garrett Wilson return after combining for 79 catches and 1,281 yards. Still, diversity was a huge plus in the Buckeyes’ receiving corps (six players caught 20-plus passes), and that means a few options from a pool of other recent blue-chippers — sophomores Jameson Williams, Jaelen Gill and injury-prone Kamryn Babb, plus four incoming freshmen led by all-world Julian Fleming — have to produce immediately, especially with a Week 2 trip to Oregon looming.
Alabama Crimson Tide (+500)
If … small-sample Mac Jones becomes large-sample Mac Jones. As incredible as incoming freshman quarterback Bryce Young could eventually become for Bama, the Tide’s returning incumbent is already awfully good. In basically 4½ games (a sample that includes starts against excellent Auburn and Michigan defenses), he completed 69% of his passes, and his QBR of 91.1 would have been fourth in the country with a qualifying number of attempts. His passer rating was better than Joe Burrow‘s against Auburn and better than Fields’ against Michigan.
Assuming he fends off Young, Jones will lose two first-round talents in wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III but return first-round talents in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, plus a new, young batch of blue-chippers led by Thaiu Jones-Bell. He’ll also have running back Najee Harris beside him and four returning starters, including left tackle Alex Leatherwood, in front of him. He’ll have what he needs; he just needs to prove that last year’s partial-season performance becomes this year’s full season.
If … a retooled secondary jells quickly. The Alabama defense has been in a weird state of transition of late. In 2018, the Tide fielded an inexperienced secondary that was torched by Clemson in the national title game; in 2019, the secondary was awesome, but thanks to injury and turnover, the front seven was one of the youngest Nick Saban has fielded. After ranking first in defensive SP+ every year from 2014 to 2017, Bama fell all the way to … seventh in 2018 and third in 2019. The horror.
The imbalance remains: The line returns four of last season’s top five, and the linebacking corps returns five of seven, plus returnees from injury in Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon. The secondary, however, takes another hit, losing safeties Xavier McKinney, Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter and cornerback Trevon Diggs. Corner Patrick Surtain II is elite, but he’ll be surrounded by freshmen, sophomores and veteran backups. Alabama faces one of the best passing attacks in the country (USC’s) in the opening game, too, so we won’t have to wait to find out what the Tide have.
Georgia Bulldogs (+700)
If … Jamie Newman lives up to the PFF hype. Among top-level contenders, Georgia enters 2020 with the most proven defense and least proven offense. The Dawgs ranked first in defensive SP+ last season, but as they learned, you still have to score points. Georgia scored a combined 29 in two losses, and it will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) and a transfer quarterback on the fly.
Newman dominated the ball at Wake Forest last season, averaging both 29.5 pass attempts and 12.2 non-sack rushes per game. He took more sacks than departed starter Jake Fromm and averaged fewer adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A*) as well: 7.5 for Fromm, 7.2 for Newman. But the graders at Pro Football Focus think his ceiling is awfully high — they rank him as the third-best returning QB in FBS. If they’re right, coach Kirby Smart has just about everything he needs.
* ANY/A = (passing yards + 20*TDs – 45*INTs – sack yardage) / (passes + sacks)
If … one more receiver emerges. The Georgia receiving corps was young, banged up and disappointing in 2019. But sophomore George Pickens returns after a late-season surge, fellow sophomore Dominick Blaylock has obvious potential, senior Demetris Robertson gets one last chance to live up to blue-chip hype, and tight end Tre’ McKitty, a Florida State grad transfer, joins the mix along with four-star freshmen.
Monken will need at least one newbie to make a steady contribution alongside Pickens and the others.
If … the havoc rate continues to climb. The only possible area for improvement for UGA’s defense comes in the disruption department — the Dawgs ranked just 41st in havoc rate* and 89th in sack rate last season. Creating a few more negative plays and turnover chances would mean a few extra favors for the offense. Edge rusher Azeez Ojulari led the team with 5.5 sacks as a freshman and could turn into something special, but he’s not quite there yet.
* Havoc rate = your total tackles for loss, passes defensed (interceptions and breakups) and forced fumbles divided by total plays.
Florida Gators (+1,200)
If … the third-down defense improves (and without Jonathan Greenard). Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham likes to keep the game simple when possible: If it’s third-and-long, he’s bringing pressure. When it works, it works — the Gators were eighth overall in sack rate, first on blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more). But it didn’t get the defense off the field as well as it should have.
The Gators ranked just 53rd in third-and-long success rate allowed, 54th on third-and-medium. And that was with Greenard racking up 9.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. Most of the lineup outside of Greenard returns — 12 of 17 players with 250-plus snaps — and while first-round corner CJ Henderson is gone, Marco Wilson is back, and sophomore Kaiir Elam is ready for a star turn. There is no specific weakness that needs addressing; it’s just been a whole-vs.-sum-of-parts issue on third downs, and it has to be rectified.
If … the offensive line carries its weight this time. With center Nick Buchanan as the only returning starter last season, it was clear Florida’s O-line might be an issue. Sure enough, Florida ranked 53rd in sack rate allowed, and the run game was disastrously inefficient aside from random La’Mical Perine explosions. While Perine replacement Dameon Pierce is explosive in his own right, the line really needs to pick up some slack. Buchanan is gone, but including Mississippi State transfer Stewart Reese, six players with starting experience return. Four are seniors. No excuses.
If … Dan Mullen’s skill-corps recruiting bears fruit. Kyle Trask not only filled in for an injured Feleipe Franks but also threw for 2,941 yards and ranked 12th in the nation in QBR despite the inefficient run game. But while high-efficiency tight end Kyle Pitts returns, four of last season’s top six wideouts do not. Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and some combination of senior Kadarius Toney, Texas transfer Jordan Pouncey, a trio of redshirt freshmen and a pair of four-star 6-foot-4 freshmen will need to contribute. There are lots of former star recruits in that mix. Someone needs to live up to the hype quickly.
LSU Tigers (+1,800)
If … a couple of new hires clear an extremely high bar. Theoretically, Dave Aranda and Joe Brady don’t leave behind the toughest jobs in the world. Aranda, the now-former LSU defensive coordinator who left to take the Baylor head-coaching gig, left successor Bo Pelini with the best cornerback in college football (Derek Stingley Jr.), a seasoned defensive front and a high-upside linebacking corps with pieces like Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark. (LSU has added North Dakota State star Jabril Cox to the mix, too.) But Pelini hasn’t been part of an elite FBS-level defense since 2010 at Nebraska.
Brady left his post as passing-game coordinator to become an NFL playcaller, but he leaves behind Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr., not to mention his plays, which don’t expire just because he left. Coordinator Steve Ensminger is still around, and Brady replacement Scott Linehan has an immense résumé that includes 16 years as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator. But of the past 12 NFL offenses he was associated with, only three ranked better than 10th in offensive DVOA, and four ranked either worst or second-worst in the NFL.
Both Pelini and Linehan have been parts of great units in their long careers. But the bar here is incredibly high.
If … Myles Brennan is ready. The bar’s even higher for the player who has to succeed Joe Burrow. I mean, hey, all you have to do is replicate the greatest passing season in the history of college football (5,671 yards, 60 TDs, six interceptions, 76% completion rate)! Brennan was a blue-chip recruit and looked fine in garbage-time opportunities, but he’s all but guaranteed to be less successful than his predecessor, and that’s always a tricky thing to navigate.
If … a better pass rush emerges. LSU’s defense came around late in the season after overcoming some injuries, but the pass rush was average with edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, and now he’s gone. If the offense regresses at all (and it probably will), the defense will have to pick up slack.
Penn State Nittany Lions (+3,000)
If … Kirk Ciarrocca’s got receivers. James Franklin’s Nittany Lions boast maybe the best defensive player in the country in linebacker Micah Parsons, and with three high-caliber running backs (led by Journey Brown) and a veteran offensive line, they could have their most efficient run game since Larry Johnson was donning the white helmet. And Ciarrocca, who arrives as offensive coordinator after helming a physical, top-10-caliber Minnesota offense, will know what to do with said run game.
In Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, however, he had a couple of unbelievable wide receivers at Minnesota. That doesn’t appear to be a luxury Penn State can offer. Pat Freiermuth leads an elite tight end unit, but Jahan Dotson is the only returning WR who caught more than nine balls. There are plenty of former four-star recruits in the receiver room — sophomore Daniel George, plus four true and redshirt freshmen — but will they provide enough danger for Ciarrocca’s “run, run and hit ’em on the RPO” offense to click?
If … Sean Clifford does a decent Tanner Morgan impersonation. Morgan boasted a 173.8 passer rating against ranked opponents last season for Minnesota; Clifford’s was just 118.3 in his first season as a starter. Can he develop the way Ciarrocca will need him to?
If … the passing-downs glitches cease. Brent Pry’s PSU defenses have been consistently excellent, ranking 10th, 11th and 10th in defensive SP+ the past three seasons. With a junior- and senior-heavy rotation returning, it’s unlikely that ranking will fall.
For the ranking to rise, however, the Nittany Lions have to plug a massive leak. On standard downs (first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third- or fourth-and-4 or fewer), Penn State ranked 10th in success rate allowed and fourth in marginal explosiveness*; on passing downs, however: 40th and 122nd, respectively. In its losses to Minnesota and Ohio State, Morgan and Justin Fields were a combined 18-for-20 passing for 310 yards. Passing downs are supposed to favor the defense!
* Marginal explosiveness is my look at the magnitude of successful plays, adjusted for down, distance and field position.
Oklahoma Sooners (+1,800)
If … the run defense finds some oomph. After crumbling to 84th in defensive SP+ in 2018, OU’s defense rebounded to 48th in Alex Grinch’s first season as coordinator. But the run defense was all-or-nothing: OU was sixth in stuff rate (returning end Ronnie Perkins, tackle Jalen Redmond and linebacker Nik Bonitto all made 10-plus stuffs) but 80th in rushing success rate allowed and 103rd in rushing marginal explosiveness. Of four returning contributing tackles, none is listed at even 280 pounds. Grinch loves speed, but there’s probably still a minimum girth level you have to clear.
If … “red zone stops” become a thing again. I define scoring opportunities as first downs inside the opponent’s 40 (or touchdowns from outside the 40). Oklahoma allowed 5.0 points per opportunity last season (106th in FBS). The Sooners were 127th in success rate allowed on first-and-goal, 124th inside the 10. Youth or not, that is inexcusably bad for a team that recruits at a top-15 level.
If … Lincoln Riley’s QB hot streak continues. Spencer Rattler is a redshirt freshman who’s thrown 11 career passes. He’s also the No. 3 Heisman favorite, per Caesars Sportsbook. Behold the power of Riley’s track record. The next time the Sooners have a quarterback finish outside of the top four in the Heisman voting will be the first time since 2014. Rattler and sophomore Tanner Mordecai are both former blue-chippers, and it’s fair to assume they’ll thrive in the most QB-friendly attack in football. But we don’t know for sure that they will until they do.
If … Charleston Rambo or Jadon Haselwood becomes a big-time, No. 1 WR. Last season’s receiving corps was thin by Oklahoma standards: Only two players were targeted more than 30 times, and the leader, CeeDee Lamb, is now a Dallas Cowboy. Rambo was an excellent No. 2, Haselwood was a top prospect in 2019, and OU added decent transfers in UCLA’s Theo Howard and Marshall’s Obi Obialo. Lamb left a high bar, though, and as with Rattler/Mordecai, we won’t know if the new No. 1 will clear it until he does.
Oregon Ducks (+2,500)
If … Joe Moorhead finds his QB. After averaging an offensive SP+ ranking of 5.9 from 2007 through 2016, Oregon’s average has fallen to 27.3 over the past three seasons. Coach Mario Cristobal not only needs new offensive coordinator Moorhead to find a rhythm, he needs it immediately: The Ducks’ first two games are against North Dakota State and Ohio State.
Last season’s top three RBs and five of six WRs return, but Moorhead needs a QB who can properly run his RPO attack. Is it Boston College transfer Anthony Brown? Sophomore Tyler Shough? Blue-chip freshman Jay Butterfield?
If … a rebuilt offensive line holds up early. Consensus All-American left tackle Penei Sewell is a good starting point for any line, but five other linemen who had combined for 202 career starts are gone. Can career backups and/or newcomers fill in the gaps and keep the new QB of choice upright against two dynamite defenses early on?
If … Kayvon Thibodeaux does what we think he can do. In Andy Avalos’ first season as defensive coordinator, the Ducks improved from 50th to eighth in defensive SP+. They were brilliant in big-play prevention and efficient against the pass, and that was without a certain level of disruption up front: They were 72nd in sack rate and 49th in stuff rate.
With nearly all of last season’s secondary back, including ace safety Jevon Holland and a trio of strong cornerbacks, the pass defense is set to thrive again. If Thibodeaux, an all-world DE recruit in 2019, can follow up on a lovely freshman campaign, the Ducks could have a high-end pass rush, too. Thibodeaux had 14 TFLs, nine sacks and 16 run stuffs; he could use some more help, but he might only improve from here on out.
If … Oregon can better force opponents off schedule. Pass defense makes a bigger difference when opponents have to pass. Oregon was fourth in passing-downs success rate but only 57th on standard downs. Linebackers Isaac Slade-Matautia and Mase Funa have massive run-disruption potential, but they have to live up to it.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+2,800)
If … a new receiving corps clicks. Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish have ranked between eighth and 19th in SP+ for five consecutive years. (Not a coincidence — their past seven recruiting classes have all ranked between ninth and 16th, per ESPN.) That’s pretty good living! But he wants more: He dumped offensive coordinator Chip Long in favor of 27-year-old Tom Rees, who has worked for three years with quarterback Ian Book.
Four of Book’s top five targets are gone, to be replaced by Northwestern transfer Ben Skowronek, big-play veteran Javon McKinley, and … well … we’ll see. There are lots of youngsters to choose from, including sophomore Braden Lenzy and blue-chip freshman Jordan Johnson. Someone needs to come through.
If … a star running back emerges from a crowded race. The Irish return three running backs (C’Bo Flemister, Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith) who didn’t do much with the first-string action they were given. The line returns six players who have combined for 115 career starts, but the backs have to do their part. And if they don’t, you figure it’s only a matter of time until blue-chip freshman Chris Tyree gets a long look.
If … young DBs play like veterans. Thanks to a diverse pass rush and a veteran secondary, the Irish defense ranked ninth in ANY/A allowed last season. But both starting safeties and lead corner Tony Pride Jr. are gone, and while veterans like corner TaRiq Bracy and NC State transfer Nick McCloud could be ready for larger roles, success will be determined by how many blue-chippers from the 2019 class — sophomore Kyle Hamilton and redshirt freshmen KJ Wallace, Litchfield Ajavon, Isaiah Rutherford, Cam Hart — look the part early in their careers.
If … the Irish overcome a lack of beef. Run defense was an issue — the Irish were 49th in rushing success rate allowed — and as with Oklahoma, that can be tied partially to pure size. Only two of 10 returning contributing linemen are listed above 286 pounds. A linebacking corps led by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could be incredible, but it helps when your linemen can occupy blockers better.
Texas Longhorns (+2,800)
If … 2019 pain means 2020 gain for the secondary. The stats were much more pessimistic about Texas than the eyeballs last season, and the stats were eventually proved correct. But those same numbers are quite a bit higher on the Longhorns this time around. Why? Experience. This defense had a ridiculously young spine (tackles, ILBs, safeties) last season, and the sophomore-heavy secondary suffered a run of injuries as well. The Horns now return 10 defensive backs who logged triple-digit snaps and add a new batch of blue-chippers. This unit should be both talented and experienced enough to thrive.
If … sophomores figure out run support. The run defense was only slightly better than the pass defense, and it might be up to high-upside youngsters — sophomore tackles Keondre Coburn, Moro Ojomo and T’Vondre Sweat and sophomore/junior linebackers Joseph Ossai, Ayodele Adeoye, Juwan Mitchell and DeMarvion Overshown — to solve.
If … hiring Mike Yurcich means verticality. Texas improved from 27th to 10th in offensive SP+ last season, but coach Tom Herman still attempted a coordinator upgrade by bringing in Ohio State’s Mike Yurcich. The biggest potential improvement Yurcich can bring to the table is better vertical passing. Ohio State averaged 10.7 air yards per pass attempt last season, 18th in the country. (The Buckeyes were also 13th in completion rate.) Texas: 46th at 9.5. The Longhorns weren’t great at completing these passes, either. If Sam Ehlinger and deep threat Brennan Eagles form a more consistent partnership this season, this offense has what it needs.
If … Jake Smith plays like the next Devin Duvernay. The Longhorns will still need efficiency, though, and last season they got that primarily from the quick pass. Slot man (and new Baltimore Raven) Duvernay enjoyed an unreal 64% success rate over his 130 pass targets; he could take a horizontal pass and burst upfield better than anyone. Blue-chip sophomore Smith backed him up and enjoyed a 56% success rate — if he can continue to help UT stay on schedule and pick up easy yards, the deep shots are that much more likely to succeed.
Auburn Tigers (+3,000)
If (x2) … Bo Nix has it. We’re counting this one twice because of both how important good quarterbacking is to winning a title and how many mixed impressions Nix gave us last season. He was thrown into the deep end as a true freshman, and he provided sure bright spots. He led a late comeback against Oregon, and in easy victories over Kent State, Mississippi State and Arkansas, he completed 74% of his passes with a 215.3 passer rating. Great!
His other 10 games: 55% completion rate, 109.9 rating.
He’s got his top three receivers back, and he’s more experienced, but the math is pretty simple. For Auburn to contend, the Tigers have to beat North Carolina early, take down Texas A&M and LSU at home and at least split games at Georgia and Alabama. You’re not going to do that without a dynamite quarterback. Nix and new offensive coordinator Chad Morris have quite a task in front of them.
If … the run game somehow improves despite turnover. As inefficient as the passing game was, the run game was only so much better (61st in rushing success rate). The Tigers could use a steadying influence on the ground, but they have to figure out how to improve without leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow and six of last season’s top seven linemen. Ouch. New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is taking on an overhaul. Good luck.
If … a new secondary holds up. There are far fewer concerns on defense, and that’s been the case since coach Gus Malzahn hired Kevin Steele as coordinator in 2016. Steele has to replace two top-50 draft picks on the line (tackle Derrick Brown, end Marlon Davidson), but the bigger concern comes in the secondary: Last season’s top four are all gone. Steele deploys a lot of DBs, but only one returning cornerback (Roger McCreary, who’s fantastic) logged over 75 snaps. He’s going to have to rely on either unused veterans, juco transfer Marco Domio or extreme youth — or perhaps all of the above — to hold the fort.
Texas A&M Aggies (+3,000)
If … the defensive line rebounds. Jimbo Fisher’s first two seasons as A&M coach have seen clear defensive improvement, but last season’s run defense was a bit volatile: A&M was 12th in stuff rate but 72nd in rushing success rate and a pushover in short yardage.
Outside of star tackle Justin Madubuike, the rotation was also quite young. Freshman end DeMarvin Leal and four sophomores played key roles, and while Madubuike is now a Baltimore Raven, the rest of the rotation returns mostly intact. It’s the same for a linebacking corps that includes disruptors Buddy Johnson and Anthony Hines III. If experience leads to consistency, this could be a top-15 D.
If … a shutdown corner emerges. LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida … all the SEC teams ahead of Texas A&M last season had at least one dynamite cornerback. Great cover guys tend to allow under 5 adjusted yards per attempt (like ANY/A, but without the sacks) in coverage, but Myles Jones was at 8.2, Elijah Blades 9.0. Can these veterans improve? Might coordinator Mike Elko need to turn to younger options?
If … 2019 was Kellen Mond‘s mulligan. Because of his potential and the number of contenders A&M played, I named Mond as college football’s most important player last August. (I ranked Joe Burrow second. Almost nailed it.) Granted, he was working with a young, banged-up skill corps, but he still had a disappointing season, going from 6.6 ANY/A in 2018 to 6.0.
He has a senior season to right wrongs. Running back Isaiah Spiller and leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon return, and the list of young, blue-chip skill guys is increasing. The line returns four starters too. Mond has one last shot to break through and a better cast for pulling it off.
If … the big plays return. Among A&M’s offensive problems was a definitive lack of easy points. The Aggies enjoyed just 21 gains of 30-plus yards all season, 101st in the FBS. If Mond improves, so will this, but it needs to improve quite a bit.
Michigan Wolverines (+3,500)
If … 2021 arrives early. Jim Harbaugh doesn’t share depth charts, but if he did, you’d notice something pretty quickly about 2020’s: almost no seniors. There might be only five or six senior starters and almost no final-year backups. The Wolverines’ returning production figures will therefore skyrocket next season, but this season will see a young cast of characters.
That’s not to say there’s not talent. From running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins to offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield to linebacker Cameron McGrone and safety Daxton Hill, the sophomore class alone is loaded with difference-makers. But they’ll need to mature at mach speed for the Wolverines to break through. Harbaugh’s next big swing is probably a year away.
If … a new offensive line jells. Charbonnet and Haskins were brilliant late in 2019 (as was the Michigan offense as a whole), but their degree of difficulty will increase considerably with both a new quarterback (likely either Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton) and a new line. Mayfield is the only returning starter, and only two others have seen much rotation time. That’s a less-than-optimal combination for sustaining improvement.
If … Big Game Don Brown returns. The Michigan defense has ranked 11th or better in defensive SP+ in every year of the Harbaugh era; Don Brown remains one of the best coordinators around. But the magic has vanished versus elite offenses. Against Alabama, Ohio State and Wisconsin in 2019 and Florida and Ohio State in 2018, the Wolverines allowed 46 points per game and 7.6 yards per play. Brown’s defense is boom-or-bust by nature, but that’s a lot of busts. Needless to say, that must change.
If … the red zone is friendlier. Scoring opportunities were a net loss for the Wolverines, something you almost never see from an otherwise good team. The Michigan offense averaged 4.9 points per scoring opportunity (34th in FBS), but the defense allowed 5.0 (115th). That edge must flip significantly. Last season’s CFP teams averaged a plus-1.1-point margin here (including Oklahoma’s awful red zone defense), not minus-0.1.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (+5000)
If … Spencer Sanders keeps maturing. Sanders was a lit firecracker at quarterback in 2019; you knew something was about to explode, good or bad. He averaged 13.3 yards per completion and 6.1 yards per non-sack carry, but his interception rate (4.5%) was double what it needed to be. Then again, he was a freshman. Maturation could be very kind to what is a dramatically high-upside talent.
So could one of the best skill corps in the country: running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace are All-American candidates, and most secondary options return. The skill corps is why OSU’s title odds are what they are. Now they just need a more stable ball distributor.
If … a more experienced D-line is a better D-line. OSU nearly made the BCS title game in 2011 with a defense that ranked 38th in defensive SP+; with this offense, you don’t necessarily need elite defense to contend. But OSU ranked only 58th last year due primarily to a shaky front that neither stood up to the run nor put pressure on the QB.
Of course, the line was almost completely freshmen and sophomores. With better development up front, a speedy, physical back seven could do a lot of damage. Linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez, Amen Ogbongbemiga and Calvin Bundage and safeties Kolby Harvell-Peel, Tre Sterling and Jarrick Bernard could be dynamite with more help.
If … the corners are as good as the safeties. With strong safeties, OSU was still only 53rd in passing success rate and 69th in ANY/A allowed. Corner Rodarius Williams allowed 8.0 AY/A, and Missouri transfer Christian Holmes was at 9.5. They are fun, physical, aggressive and beatable. This unit must improve.
If … Sanders gets shorter fields. When your defense isn’t particularly efficient, you lose the turnovers battle, you get nothing out of the return game and you saddle your offense with bad field position. OSU’s average starting field position was 28.1, 100th in FBS. Giving Sanders & Co. more short fields will quickly plump up the scoring average.
Wisconsin Badgers (+6000)
If … new offensive pieces meet a sky-high standard. Wisconsin almost always has great RBs and interior linemen. Still, departed All-Americans Jonathan Taylor (RB) and Tyler Biadasz (center) set an awfully high bar, and both starting guards are gone too. Wisconsin will be good here, but the Badgers need to be as good as ever to contend. It’s hard to predict that will happen.
If … explosive pass plays are occasionally a thing. When Wisconsin nearly made the CFP in 2017, the top four Badgers WRs combined to average 15.9 yards per catch. Last year, however, the top four averaged just 12.6. And now Quintez Cephus, the only big-play threat, is a Detroit Lion.
Jack Coan completed 70% of his passes, but big plays and easy points were hard to come by. In four losses, the Badgers scored just eight offensive touchdowns, two via short fields.
If … the linebacker assembly line continues apace. As with running backs and linemen, Wisconsin linebackers continue to dominate no matter the attrition levels. But as with Taylor and Biadasz, the standard is particularly high at the moment: Departed starters Zack Baun and Chris Orr combined for 33.5 TFLs, 24 sacks, eight passes defensed and 45 run stuffs last year. Those are decent career numbers. While sophomores Leo Chenal and Jaylan Franklin and some awfully impressive incoming freshmen have all the requisite potential, there’s almost no way to avoid regression. That puts pressure on the other units to improve.
Of course, the line and secondary both return almost literally everyone. They probably will improve.
If … the legs improve. Wisconsin’s field position margin was a decent +2.9 yards per drive, 31st in FBS. Just imagine what it might have been had Badgers punters averaged better than 36 net yards per punt. And imagine how the year might have played out had Badgers kickers not missed field goals in one-point losses to Illinois and Oregon or a turning-point FG attempt in the Big Ten title game. The legs let Wisconsin down. That can’t happen again.
USC Trojans (+7500)
If … a couple of tackles emerge. USC’s offense took flight in Graham Harrell’s first season as coordinator. Freshman Kedon Slovis threw for 3,500 yards, and the Trojans jumped from 46th to ninth in offensive SP+. Slovis, all the running backs and three of four key wideouts all return, and further improvement appears imminent … as long as the Trojans find a couple of tackles to step up. Both starters are gone, and some combination of 2019 backup Frank Martin II, starting guards Alijah Vera-Tucker and Jalen McKenzie, and youngsters will have to thrive protecting Slovis immediately, as a Week 1 battle with Alabama looms large.
If … growing pains mean growth in the secondary. Among 14 DBs who made at least one tackle from scrimmage last year, nine were freshmen and four were sophomores. Most of them were former blue-chip recruits and flashed potential — safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao combined for 13 TFLs, corner Olaijah Griffin allowed 5.0 AY/A — but none was experienced. New coordinator Todd Orlando inherits a unit that could rebound massively, provided it undergoes the typical post-growing pains development,.
If … growing pains mean even bigger growth up front. The defensive front 6-7 was nearly as inexperienced as the secondary and far less effective: The Trojans were an awful 120th in rushing success rate allowed. Of the 15 LBs and linemen to log at least 100 snaps, though, 13 return. Rush end Drake Jackson was one of the Pac-12’s best as a freshman, and Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele are big and agile. We’ll see how much improvement can take place in a single offseason.
If … the god of turnovers smiles on the Trojans. You can break turnovers out into two components: turnover opportunities and luck. You can’t control the latter — the pointy ball bounces how it bounces — but USC also forced only eight fumbles and defensed (intercepted or broke up) 58 passes. Opponents forced 16 fumbles and defensed 65. The Trojans have to do themselves some favors here, and a rebound likely starts with a more efficient defense that forces more passing downs.
Miami Hurricanes (+7500)
If … D’Eriq King + Rhett Lashlee = explosions. Miami’s title odds are like Nebraska being included in this list last year: It would be an incredible story, it engages bettors, etc. And it’s almost certainly not going to come to pass.
This admittedly fun vision requires King-Lashlee to become the new Burrow-Brady. King must surpass his 2018 Houston form (in which he threw for 2,982 yards and rushed for 14 TDs). Lashlee, an offensive coordinator with experience in both Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy spread and Sonny Dykes’ air raid, must mash worlds together into something glorious and unique. In this vision, King throws for 4,000 and rushes for 1,250, and Miami becomes must-watch again.
If … the negative plays slow down dramatically. The Canes were 105th in stuff rate allowed, 121st in sack rate allowed and a ghastly 129th in havoc rate allowed. King and the new identity will help, as will the fact that the line returns pretty much everyone. But we’re talking about a 180-degree turnaround in this department.
If … the wideouts can actually beat man coverage at some point. Miami’s top returning wideouts — Mike Harley, Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope — averaged 7.7, 14.1 and 10 yards per target against zone coverage last year. Against man coverage: 6.1, 3.1 and 6.0. Any modern, title-caliber offense needs guys who can punish defenses when they switch from zone to man to account for RPOs. It doesn’t immediately appear The U has that.
If … yet another great defensive end emerges. Gregory Rousseau emerged out of nowhere to become a dominant DE in head coach Manny Diaz’s system. (It’s not the first time that’s happened.) But Rousseau is the only returnee among last year’s top five tacklers up front. Can Temple transfer Quincy Roche immediately dominate? Can someone from a batch of freshman candidates emerge as an immediate star?
If … blitz downs are less disastrous. Miami was a bit too all-or-nothing defensively, ranking 10th in blitz down sack rates but 101st in blitz down success rate. This must obviously improve even despite all the turnover up front.