Outlooks for Top 25 college football teams in preseason Amway Coaches Poll

Analis BaileyChris Bumbaca Aria Gerson Scott Gleeson
USA Today
Amway Coaches Poll

Published on: Aug 6, 2020 at 13:01 p.m.

The preseason Amway Coaches Poll, with outlooks for the top 25:

1. Clemson (14-1)

Points: 1,589 (38 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 2.

Outlook: Clemson has made the College Football Playoff five years in a row, with four championship game appearances and two national titles. It’s hard to bet against them for another dominant season, especially with Heisman candidate Trevor Lawrence returning at quarterback and two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne at running back. At the other positions, the Tigers lost several main contributors to the NFL, but All-ACC DT Nyles Pinckney and DE Xavier Thomas return to lead the defensive line, and having the top recruiting class in the ACC three years running won’t hurt, either.

2. Ohio State (13-1)

Points: 1,555 (17 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 3.

Outlook: Second-year coach Ryan Day will have a Heisman-contending quarterback in reigning Big Ten player of the year Justin Fields (51 touchdowns in 2019). Yet a supporting cast will need to emerge in the backfield to help fill the void of J.K.  Dobbins. Expected starting running back Master Teague suffered a spring Achille’s injury so the addition of Oklahoma transfer RB Trey Sermon is a needed boost. Cornerback Shaun Wade will anchor the defense. Hunger won’t be an issue for the stayovers. There’s obvious motivation from last year’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in the semifinals.

No. 3 Alabama (11-2)

Points: 1,495. Previous ranking: 8.

Outlook: The Crimson Tide and Nick Saban start the season with a playoff cloud looming over them. The Tide did not make final four for the first time since the championship system started in 2014.  With several players lost to the NFL draft including QB Tua Tagovailoa, a lot of production will need to be replaced. But senior WR DeVonta Smith will be returning as well as OT Alex Leatherwood and LB Dylan Moses. The quarterback question looms with junior Mac Jones, who made four starts last year, and true freshman Bryce Young the top contenders for the starting spot.

4. Georgia (12-2)

Points: 1,345. Previous ranking: 4.

Outlook: Coming off three consecutive Southeastern Conference titles, the Bulldogs underwent an offseason of change. QB Jake Fromm, LT Andrew Thomas and RB D’Andre Swift were all NFL draft picks. Former offensive line coach Sam Pittman is now head coach at Arkansas and former Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke is his replacement. Longtime Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran links up with his old pal Kirby Smart as special teams coordinator. Quarterback transfers Jamie Newman (Wake Forest) and JT Daniels (Southern California) are both immediately eligible. Running backs Zamir White and James Cook are poised to begin the season as a tandem in the backfield, while George Pickens proved as a freshman last year he’s capable of being a No. 1 receiver. Azeez Ojulari, the team’s best pass-rusher last season, headlines an elite linebacking corps.

5. LSU (15-0)

Points: 1,330 (6 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 1.

Outlook: After a dream season that culminated in a national title thanks to No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Joe Burrow, LSU returns just eight 2019 starters, the fewest in the SEC. Luckily, one of those players is unanimous All-American and Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase. Myles Brennan will try to follow in Burrow's footprints. Meanwhile, CB Derek Stingley Jr., a consensus All-American as a freshman, returns as the star of the defense. But with most of the major players from their national championship run – as well as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady – gone, it remains to be seen if the Tigers can sustain their success.

6. Oklahoma (12-2)

Points: 1,315. Previous ranking: 6.

Outlook:  For the first time since 2014 -- one year before current head coach Lincoln Riley arrived as an assistant -- the Sooners will be led by a quarterback who didn't transfer into the program. Spencer Rattler may not reach the same numbers of predecessors Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, but the five-star recruit who saw limited action in 2019 looks poised to keep the Oklahoma offense among the nation's best. RB Kennedy Brooks and WR Charleston Rambo should help Rattler's transition along with a veteran offensive line. Defensive improvements last year were promising, but another step is needed in coordinator Alex Grinch's second season. Ronnie Perkins and Jalen Redmond provide two pieces on the defensive line. There's talent at linebacker and in the secondary but impact players need to emerge to earn a fourth consecutive playoff appearance.

7.  Penn State (11-2)

Points: 1,199. Previous ranking: 9.

Outlook: The Nittany Lions underwent big changes after last year's Cotton Bowl appearance. Kirk Ciarrocca came from Minnesota as the new offensive coordinator, and several other additions to James Franklin's staff arrived. QB Sean Clifton should thrive in his second year as the starter. But receiving options must develop. The defense should again be stingy; however, the potential loss of All-America LB Micah Parsons due to coronavirus concerns would be a big hit. With Ohio State coming to Happy Valley, the schedule for Penn State is favorable to make a run at the playoff.

8. Florida (11-2)

Points: 1,176. Previous ranking: 7.

Outlook: Dan Mullen will have starting quarterback Kyle Trask for another season after his unexpected emergence that saw the senior throw for 25 touchdowns. Could this be the year the Gators recover the division title from the Georgia Bulldogs? With key members on both sides of the ball gone, the capable underclassmen talent will have to step up. DBs Kaiir Elam and Marco Wilson lead the back of what should be a strong defense. A key to repeat last year's 11-2 success, Mullen's offensive line will need to create a better run game to take some pressure off Trask.

9. Oregon (12-2)

Points: 1,164. Previous ranking: 5.

Outlook: A late loss against Auburn in the first game of the season likely prevented the Ducks from reaching the College Football Playoff, but a Pac-12 conference championship and Rose Bowl victory were considerable consolation prizes. The man responsible for helping them reach those heights, QB Justin Herbert, is now in the NFL; Tyler Shough, a redshirt sophomore, appears to have the edge on Boston College transfer Anthony Brown in the competition to be behind center. In front of the winner will be OT Penei Sewell, arguably the best overall prospect in this year’s draft class. DL Kayvon Thibodeaux was a consensus freshman All-American last year following a nine-sack campaign. The sky is the limit for him. The Ducks continue to recruit at the highest levels under Mario Cristobal, positioning themselves for future success beyond 2020, too.

10. Notre Dame (11-2)

Points: 1,012. Previous ranking: 11.

Outlook: Notre Dame followed up on its 2018 College Football Playoff run last season, finishing 11-2 with a win in the Camping World Bowl. Playing a full ACC schedule with the possibility of a conference championship will be a new experience, and there's enough talent to contend.. QB Ian Book returns for his third year as the starter, and while most of his top pass-catching weapons are gone, all five offensive line starters return. Jafar Armstrong could break out from a muddled group of running backs if he can stay healthy. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the team leader in tackles last year, will be counted on to head the defense.

11. Auburn (9-4)

Points: 898. Previous ranking: 14.

Outlook: The Tigers offense should be more consistent behind sophomore quarterback Bo Nix, who was key in wins against Oregon and Alabama but struggled in other games. WR Seth Williams provides a big-play target. There is some rebuilding to be done. The Tigers return just seven starters overall and the heaviest losses are on defense. DL Big Kat Bryant and LB K.J. Britt are elite players at their position, but the overhaul on that side of the ball might take some time to find a rhythm in a grueling SEC division. That puts more pressure on Nix to carry the load early.

12. Wisconsin

Points: 887. Previous ranking: 13.

Outlook: Jonathan Taylor’s departure leaves a massive void in the Badgers’ rushing attack, which must also navigate three departures on the offensive line. Defensively, Wisconsin returns most of its production, notably linebacker Jack Sanborn. QB Jack Coan returns after accounting for every Wisconsin passing yard last season.  Only five Power Five teams (Georgia, Oklahoma, Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama) have won more games than the Badgers the last five years. Outside of two New Year’s Six Bowl victories (2016 Cotton, 2017 Orange), Wisconsin has little to show for that success (zero conference titles) beyond a reputation of consistency. Will the conference-only schedule of 2020 give the Badgers the shove they need to go over the top?

13. Texas A&M (8-5)

Points: 807. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: Senior quarterback Kellen Mond returns to for his third year as the starter to steer a steady offense in 2020. His experience will be invaluable for this veteran-laden team, but can he take the next step to make the Aggies a true contender in the SEC? RB Isaiah Spiller should build on a strong freshman season. The question is if the offensive line can create holes for him and protect Mond. DL Bobby Brown and DB Demani Richardson should be standouts. If others emerge, the defense should be good enough to keep pace with the elite in the West Division.

No. 14 Texas

Points: 703. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: It’s the question asked, mostly facetiously now, every August: Is Texas back? After a step back – the wrong way, in this sense -- in 2019 compared to a Sugar Bowl win the season before, Tom Herman shook things up this offseason by firing his offensive and defensive coordinator, meaning Longhorns players are learning new schemes on both sides of the ball. QB Sam Ehlinger has thrown more yards than any other Power Five quarterback in the last two years, and there’s no shortage of receiving talent for him to target. LB Joseph Ossai returns after leading the team with 90 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. A trip to the Big 12 title game will be expected or pressure will mount on Herman.

15. Michigan (9-4)

Points: 687. Previous ranking: 19.

Outlook: Coach Jim Harbaugh could use a breakthrough season, but this roster will need to come together more for that to happen. The most intrigue with this team will come with the quarterback battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. A new starter under center and other first-year starters could make the Big Ten schedule rocky early on, but the Wolverines might benefit from having less pressure than last season when they entered 2019 as league favorite.

16. Oklahoma State (8-5)

Points: 524. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: With most of their offensive and key defensive production returning, Mike Gundy and the Cowboys head into the season with much optimism. RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Tylan Wallace bypassed the 2020 NFL draft and will return for another season, giving the Cowboys two elite playmakers. QB Spencer Sanders showed great promise as a freshman before missing the final three games with a thumb injury. With 19 starters returning, Oklahoma State should be in the mix for the Big 12 title and could contend for bigger goals if the pieces fall right.

17. Southern California (8-5)

Points: 521. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

USC has been largely disappointing since its 2017 Cotton Bowl loss, but the good news for the Trojans is that they return 15 players who started at least 10 games last year, making them one of the most experienced squads in the Pac-12. QB Kedon Slovis, the 2019 Pac-12 freshman of the year, is a perfect fit in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system and could be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. USC also returns All-Pac 12 DL Jay Tufele and four-year starter WR Tyler Vaughns. With no true power in the Pac-12 right now, the Trojans have an opportunity to rise.

18. Minnesota (11-2)

Points: 494. Previous ranking: 10.

Minnesota took another step forward in coach PJ Fleck’s third season in Minneapolis. QB Tanner Morgan now has a full season of starting under his belt, and the Gophers return their entire offensive line. But wide receiver Rashod Bateman, expected to be one of the top receivers in the country, opted out of the season. New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. – replacing Kirk Ciarrocca, who is now at Penn State – will have to find ways to replace Bateman’s talent. The defensive line will need to replace production from the graduating and drafted members of last year’s front seven, which helped the Gophers rank third in the Big Ten last year in total defense.

19. North Carolina (7-6)

Points: 415. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: It's expect UNC will have a breakthrough 2020 under second-year coach Mack Brown. The Tar Heels’ six losses last season were by a total of 26 points. The core group is back, and the top name is QB Sam Howell, who as a freshman passed for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He’s complemented offensively by the running back corps of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, and capable receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newome. All-America LB Chazz Surratt spearheads the defense.

20. Utah (11-3)

Points: 241. Previous ranking: 15.

Outlook: Key players including All-Pac-12 quarterback Tyler Huntley, the program's career sack leader Bradlee Anae and running back Zack Moss are all gone. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham will also be missing all five starters in the secondary. But there is an upside. Utah's underclassmen include DB Clark Phillips who entered the program as the highest ever ranked recruit and is expected to make a quick impact. Utah also has QB Jake Bentley who is a graduate transfer from South Carolina started 33 games in his career there.

21. Central Florida (10-3)

Points: 232. Previous ranking: 24.

Outlook: Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons under two different head coaches propelled the Knight to elite Group of Five status. Another 10-win campaign under Josh Heupel keeps them there heading into 2020. Dillon Gabriel, who started as a true freshman last year, will look to build on his 9.2 yards per attempt (seventh in the country) and the team’s leading rusher, Otis Anderson, will return. The Knights’ defense must navigate the loss of its sack leader (Brandon Hayes) and tackle leader (Nate Evans) from a year ago, but have the benefit of eight starting defenders returning.

22. Cincinnati (11-3)

Points: 229. Previous ranking: 21.

Outlook: After a close loss to Memphis in the American Athletic championship game last season, Cincinnati is set to once again be a top contender for the Group of Five's berth in the New Years’ Six. Most of the Bearcats’ top returners are on defense, with all-AAC DB Ahmad Gardner, DB Darrick Forrest and DL Elijah Ponder leading the way. QB Desmond Ridder, who started 13 games last season, will also be back. But maybe the best news for Cincinnati is that head coach Luke Fickell returns after being courted by several teams in the offseason. Still, despite finishing the last two seasons ranked in the Amway Coaches Poll, the Bearcats didn’t win their conference, and until they can do that, the next step will remain out of reach.

23. Iowa (10-3)

Points: 204. Previous ranking: 15.

Outlook: Iowa was solid in 2019, with a 10-3 finish and a blowout of USC in the Holiday Bowl. What remains to be seen is if the Hawkeyes can build on that finish, especially with the offseason turmoil in the program sparked by player complaints. Iowa loses three-year starting QB Nate Stanley, top OT Tristan Wirfs and star DL A.J. Epenesa. Among returners who should contribute, third team All-Big Ten Alaric Jackson will anchor the offensive line and WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette – who led the Big Ten in kick return average in 2019 – was named a preseason All-American. Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan have more talent.

24. Virginia Tech (8-5)

Points: 143. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: The transfer portal took several Hokies from head coach Justin Fuente in 2019 but he has more 15 key starters returning. Virginia Tech is expected to produce a big season in Fuente's fifth year. Junior quarterback Hendon Hooker who won each of his first six starts in 2019, will be there to help. Although the Hokie secondary has several strong components to be successful, Tech did take a hit when cornerback Caleb Farley decided to opt-out due to coronavirus concerns and to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft.

25. Iowa State (7-6)

Points: 135. Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Outlook: The Cyclones have a backfield that can lead to a breakout campaign in the Big 12, behind QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall. But the key for coach Matt Campbell’s team to thrive could come on defense where a plethora of experience can shepherd ISU to new heights. Finishing out games will be the next step for this squad to reach the upper echelon after faltering on potential last-second wins against Oklahoma and Baylor last season.