12 things we're already excited about for the 2020 college football season

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The 2019 season still has a couple of powerhouse games left -- North Dakota State vs. James Madison in Saturday's FCS championship, then LSU vs. Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night. But most fan bases have already shifted their view to the 2020 season; let's briefly do the same.

The 2020 season will feature some exciting storylines. Here are a few of my favorites.

Lawrence-Fields II

Heisman winner Joe Burrow will likely be playing for the Cincinnati Bengals next fall. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa is off to the NFL, too. Oklahoma will have its fourth starting QB in four seasons. Oregon's Justin Herbert and Washington State's Anthony Gordon are gone. Among the best offenses in the country, we will see quite a bit of turnover at the most important position on the field.

Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will be back, however. The two just led the way in maybe the best game of the season -- Clemson's 29-23 Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State -- and are both true sophomores. We will get another year from each, and they'll have known weapons around them: Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (combined 79 catches, 1,281 yards, 17 touchdowns) will lead Ohio State's receiving corps, and while Clemson could lose junior receivers Tee Higgins and/or Amari Rodgers, Justyn Ross (61 catches, 789 yards) andJoe Ngata(17 for 240) will be back, at the very least. And that says nothing of the blue-chip freshman WRs both teams will be bringing in.

Considering the Tigers and Buckeyes will almost certainly be the top two teams in most offseason polls, the entire 2020 season will be framed as a road to a Fiesta Bowl rematch. Will both teams face plenty of hurdles? Of course. But they are the standard to which everyone else will be measured.

Sophomore quarterbacks

Lawrence and Fields are the standard-bearers, but the next generation isn't exactly light-years behind them.

I recently wrote about the particularly large batch of exciting true freshman quarterbacks we got a look at this year -- USC's Kedon Slovis, North Carolina's Sam Howell, UCF'sDillon Gabriel,Auburn's Bo Nixand plenty of others. They all showed promise while dealing with growing pains, and that says nothing of redshirt freshmen like Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders, Indiana's Michael Penix Jr., or smaller-school dynamos like North Dakota State's Trey Lance (2,714 passing yards, 934 rushing yards and 41 combined TDs with one game remaining) and Division II champ West Florida's Austin Reed (4,084 yards, 40 TDs).

This year saw a consolidation of offensive power, so to speak -- the correlation between good recruiting rankings and elite offensive play was higher than we'd seen throughout the development of the spread offense. Maybe that is the new normal, but there are a lot of fun, young signal-callers out there who could drive high-level offensive play.

The complete and total mystery known as the USC Trojans

In the freshman QBs piece linked above, I wrote, "Sure, Clay Helton's 2020 recruiting class has been, to put it diplomatically, a struggle. And sure, after saving his job by the skin of his teeth this year, he needs to figure out how to engineer defensive improvement if he wants to save his job again 12 months from now. But he's got offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and he's got [Kedon] Slovis, and that's a start."

He doesn't just have Slovis and Harrell. He also has 1,000-yard receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, 900-yard receiver Tyler Vaughnsand sophomore-to-be Drake London, plus a stable of efficient running backs and a new (and as-of-yet unnamed) coordinator for a defense that was absurdly young in 2019 -- 12 of 13 leading tacklers were freshmen or sophomores, and it showed.

If Helton makes a strong defensive coordinator hire, the Trojans will have quite a bit going for them. But this is still a program that went just 13-12 over the past two seasons, suffered three losses by at least two touchdowns this year and is trying to salvage its worst recruiting class in ages. There's clear reason to be optimistic in 2020. There's also clear reason for believing that Helton keeping his job for one more year just delayed the inevitable. (This is backed up by the fact that the mess Helton is trying to bail himself out of is of his own making.) I have no idea which is right.

New Bama and the new SEC West

The first and last years of the 2010s were Nick Saban's worst of the decade at Alabama. That is, of course, relatively speaking -- both 2010 and 2019 resulted in double-digit wins and (likely) top-10 finishes. But in the wake of Bama's 11-2 season, it's worth noting what happened the last time the Tide faced this level of oh-so-embarrassing failure.

The 2010 season was perhaps the last time Saban had a defense as inexperienced as his injury-riddled 2019 unit. That year, there wasn't a single senior among Bama's top 14 tacklers, and freshmen like C.J. Mosley and DeMarcus Milliner played key roles. Predictably, there were key breakdowns in each of their three losses (to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn).

Just as predictably, those errors dried up with experience.

The 2011 Tide had new starters at quarterback and running back, but there was enough raw talent to still play at a high level (13th in offensive SP+), while the experienced D surged from seventh to first in defensive SP+.

No matter who from Bama's 2019 offense ends up following Tagovailoa to the NFL, we know there will again be loads of raw talent. We also know that Bama ended up fourth in defensive SP+ this year despite the scads of freshmen and sophomores playing key roles in the front seven, and that the experience levels will be higher here, especially with the announced return of injured star linebacker Dylan Moses.

The field of elite programs is awfully deep at the moment. Clemson, after all, is about to play in its fourth national title game in five years, plus Bama's division rival LSU burst ahead of the Tide this year, and both Ohio State and Georgia have recruited at Saban-like levels in recent years. But Saban and the Bama program that defined the 2010s tend to respond quite well to failure. I'm really curious to see what they might be capable of in 2020.

The SEC West as a whole is equally fascinating. How does LSU respond to its recent run of success (and break in a new QB)? How does Gus Malzahn's Auburn fare with a more experienced quarterback and a new offensive coordinator (Chad Morris)? What might Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M be capable of with a far more experienced two-deep and a more navigable schedule? How much fun will it be to have Lane Damn Kiffin going up against Saban and Ed Orgeron and taking part in the sport's most insane rivalry (the Egg Bowl)? This is always college football's most narrative-heavy and high-quality division, and it will bring as much of both of those things to the table as ever.

Junior wide receivers

LSU's Ja'Marr Chase has caught 75 passes for 1,559 yards and 18 scores and won the Biletnikoff Award this season. Alabama's Jaylen Waddle is maybe the nation's best return man and caught 33 passes for 560 yards as the Tide's No. 4 option. Minnesota's Rashod Bateman caught 60 passes for 1,219 and 11 scores and will become the Gophers' No. 1 option next year. St. Brown could be USC's No. 1 target after catching 77 for 1,042 this fall. I mentioned Ross and Olave above.

And on and on: Florida State's Tamorrion Terry will become the key piece for Mike Norvell's "create one-on-ones everywhere" offense. Auburn's Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz aren't far from putting it all together. Louisville'sTutu Atwellis as versatile as he is terrifying. North Carolina's Dyami Brown averaged more than 20 yards per catch over 51 catches. Kent State's Isaiah McKoy was a driving force for the Golden Flashes' late-year surge. Purdue's Rondale Moore could return to 2018 form after an injury-plagued 2019.

Ole Miss' Elijah Moore ... Tulsa's Sam Crawford Jr. ... Nevada's Romeo Doubs ... Boise State's Khalil Shakir ... the number of impact sophomore receivers this year was limitless. And now they become juniors. There are so many of them that it'll be noticeable if your team doesn't have one.

The Big 12 race

From a macro view, the Big 12 race wasn't much to look at in 2019. Both Oklahoma and Baylor finished 8-1, and no one else was higher than 5-4. But the number of close games it took to produce those standings was wild.

At eighth and 19th, respectively, in my SP+ rankings, OU and BU were indeed the best teams in the conference, but they each went 4-1 in one-score games in conference play. Close finishes aren't completely random, but really good records are almost impossible to sustain, and other Big 12 teams weren't as far behind the winners as the standings suggested. Iowa State was 24th in SP+ and 1-3 in one-score finishes, Texas was 25th, Oklahoma State was 32nd, TCU was 41st (a 1-5 finish in one-score games kept it from bowl eligibility), Kansas State was 46th and Texas Tech was 51st.

While it's safe to say that OU will again be the front-runner in 2020 -- when you've won five titles in a row, you get the benefit of the doubt -- the battle for that second spot could be outstanding. Baylor has a lot of key defenders to replace, but Iowa State's two-deep returns mostly intact, Texas brings back quarterback Sam Ehlinger and most of its defense, Oklahoma State returns quarterback Spencer Sanders and receiver Tylan Wallace, etc. This conference is going to be loaded with teams that aren't separated by much. That could make for a crazy race, as long as two teams don't win all the close games again.

The Big Ten West race

This was one of the things I was most looking forward to heading into 2019, and it mostly lived up to expectations despite Nebraska failing to do so.

Wisconsin played at a championship level early in the year, Minnesota took over for a while, they both suffered stumbles in division play (Wisconsin lost to Illinois, Minnesota to Iowa), and the title was decided in the final game of the regular season. Iowa finished only a game back because of a two-point loss at Wisconsin.

Now imagine what might happen if Nebraska actually does its part. Wisconsin and Minnesota both have plenty to replace -- running back Jonathan Taylor and linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr for Wisconsin, receiver Tyler Johnson and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca for Minnesota -- but should each maintain a strong identity and a high level of quality. Plus, Iowa returns most of an elite defense (sixth in defensive SP+), Purdue should reap the dividends of a massive youth movement on offense, and, well, Northwestern's offense almost literally can't get worse.

Even if Illinois can't replicate this season's late gains, the division as a whole should improve on net. And if it gets anything from Scott Frost's Huskers this time, it'll improve even more.

Penn State's Manball-Plus offense

Penn State is about to log its third top-10 finish in four years under James Franklin, but the Nittany Lions haven't figured out a way past Ohio State since 2016.

With offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne taking the Old Dominion head-coaching job and line coach Matt Limegrover leaving, Franklin had an opportunity to attempt a bit of a tactical shift. Do you try to outspread Ohio State and install a more aggressively modern offense? Do you go the other direction and attempt to build a more packed, physical offensive system to differentiate yourself?

Franklin chose the latter, bringing in Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and Boston College offensive line coach Phil Trautwein.

Minnesota ranked seventh in offensive SP+ this season, nearly the highest ranking for a program that doesn't recruit at an elite level. The style was simple to describe -- lots of inside-zone rushing, combined with slants and go routes to punish wrong-footed defenders -- but extremely difficult to defend with the pieces Minnesota had. Run-heavy BC, meanwhile, had some of the best line stats in the country: seventh in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 18th in rushing success rate, etc.

I'm really curious about this pair of hires. Is this an effective way to move ahead of some blue bloods? Is this a regressive move that ends up as likely to pull PSU back to the second-tier pack? We might not know until Oct. 3 (at Michigan) or Oct. 24 (Ohio State).

The Mike Norvell era in Tallahassee

As Memphis' head coach, Mike Norvell created some of the most enjoyable offenses of the late 2010s. Few college football coaches proved as capable of combining pro-style ideals (lots of formations and personnel combinations, lots of different ways to search out matchup advantages) with modern college staples (a variety of tempos and forcing defenders to make solo tackles).

Few also proved as capable as Norvell in developing diverse skill sets in his skill-corps players. Running back Kenneth Gainwell rushed for nearly 1,500 yards but also caught 51 passes, receiver Antonio Gibson had 735 receiving yards and 369 rushing yards, etc. Norvell's running backs can run routes, and his receivers can read blocks in the backfield. Even Penn State's top-10 defense (per SP+) couldn't hold the Tigers under 6 yards per play in the Cotton Bowl.

There's nothing saying Norvell will be an immediate hit in taking over a Florida State program that has gone just 18-20 in the past three seasons. But it's going to be awfully fun watching him explore the capabilities of players such as receivers Tamorrion Terry and D.J. Matthews and running back Khalan Laborn. And if he could create matchup advantages at Memphis, it probably isn't going to take him long to do the same with top-15 recruiting classes.

Continuity in the AAC

Whether it has wanted to or not, the American Athletic Conference has become a Triple-A affiliate of sorts, producing well-groomed and well-tested head coaches for power conference programs through the years. UCF's Scott Frost went to Nebraska, Houston's Tom Herman to Texas, Temple's Matt Rhule to Baylor, Temple's Geoff Collins to Georgia Tech, USF's Willie Taggart to Oregon, etc.

Granted, the coaching carousel hasn't totally stopped spinning this season, but it's slowed down, and thus far, only one AAC team (Memphis) has involuntarily lost its head coach. Cincinnati retained Luke Fickell after winning 32 games in three seasons, UCF kept Josh Heupel after winning 22 in two, SMU kept Sonny Dykes after its first 10-win season in 35 years, Tulane kept Willie Fritz after winning back-to-back bowls for the first time ever, and once again, power programs found the idea of hiring Navy option whiz Ken Niumatalolo anathema despite another 11-win season.

The coaching continuity is as strong as it's ever been, and it comes after maybe the AAC's most high-quality output yet. The league's average SP+ rating was quite a bit closer to that of the weakest power conference (ACC) than any of the other Group of 5 conferences. And now, with this continuity on the sideline, the conference heads into 2020 with a lot of intriguing nonconference matchups on the horizon:

  • North Carolina at UCF (Sept. 4)
  • Temple at Miami (Sept. 5)
  • Houston at Washington State (Sept. 12)
  • UCF at Georgia Tech (Sept. 19)
  • Cincinnati at Nebraska (Sept. 26)
  • Tulane at Mississippi State (Sept. 26)
  • TCU at SMU (Sept. 26)

And speaking of the AAC...

The fruits of Houston's tanking

This was an interesting fall for the T-word. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins underwent a massive and blatant youth movement. Meanwhile, in a unique move, Houston elected to take advantage of the four-game redshirt rule and sit star quarterback D'Eriq King and leading receiver Keith Corbin after a slow start in head coach Dana Holgorsen's first season.

Back in September, ESPN's Domonique Foxworth made an impassioned and intriguing point about the ethical problem with tanking, and a Houston lineman went on a noteworthy Twitter rant about the effects of UH disregarding its seniors' interests. But as the season unfolded, we saw potentially positive effects.

The Dolphins won five of their final nine games (albeit with the opposite of a young QB behind center), and Houston showed signs of improvement, as well. The Cougars stood at 1-3 and 84th in SP+ when the King/Corbin announcement was made, and they went 3-5 down the stretch, nearly beating SMU and competing well against other AAC powers. Quarterback Clayton Tune was decent, receiver Marquez Stevenson emerged as an outright star, and while the defense stunk, it stunk with almost 100% underclassmen.

If Houston holds on to King and Corbin and surges in 2020, might we see other programs using the four-game redshirt rule in a similar way?

The next LSU

The revolution is over: The spread offense won. If the war wasn't over when Alabama shifted to a more spread-out attack and thrived, it was officially official with LSU's 2019 changes. Head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger committed to spreading things out and passing more, brought in assistant Joe Brady and his RPO/West Coast brain, and ... well ... their next loss with Brady will be their first.

There are more candidates for modernization in this coming year.

  • Georgia ran a pretty regressive attack this year and slid from eighth to 31st in offensive SP+, thanks at least in part to both offseason and in-season turnover at the receiver position. We'll see whether head coach Kirby Smart makes staff changes to address the issue or simply hopes that a few more recruiting wins will help him open things up.
  • Miami's Manny Diaz couldn't find any answers on offense this year (78th in offensive SP+) and just asked former Auburn and SMU spread whiz kid Rhett Lashlee to spruce things up.
  • New Washington head coach Jimmy Lake let offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan walk, giving Lake an opportunity to push the Huskies' solid but less-than-elite offense in a new direction.

Will one of these schools' changes result in a lurch forward? Will the teaming up of head coach Malzahn and Morris result in some fun tweaks at Auburn? Will PSU's run-friendly hires work out well and set a new kind of example for others to follow? (And of course, will some of these changes result in lurches in the wrong direction?) The answers could define the national title race, or some conference battles, in unexpected ways.

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