Miami and Florida will kick off the college football season Saturday in Orlando. It’s time to take a look at the teams that have a real shot at winning the national championship this year. Sorry, Miami and Florida: You’re not on the list.
It’s Clemson and Alabama. There are no other correct answers. The way these two teams looked last year and the talent they have returning makes me think we’re destined to see a rematch in the national title game.
Let’s start with the defending national champions. Trevor Lawrence, the true freshman wunderkind who made the country’s collective jaw drop with his powerful arm, poise, accuracy and flowing locks, has had a full year in school and an additional summer to improve. That’s a scary thought for opponents after he totaled nearly 3,300 yards and threw 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a true freshman.
Running back Travis Etienne is back as well. ESPN listed some of his eye-popping numbers from last year. He led the nation with 24 rushing touchdowns with nine of them being 17 yards or longer. Five of those were from at least 40 yards. Of his 204 carries last year, 44 went for at least 10 yards. An astonishing 768 of his 1,658 rushing yards came after contact. He led the ACC with 39 touches that were either carries for at least 12 yards or receptions that were at least 20 yards. He led the nation with 24 rushing touchdowns. Nine of them were 17 yards or longer and five of them were from at least 40 yards.
Etienne is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
The name that fans will get to know a little better this season is wide receiver Justyn Ross. He is something special when he has the ball in his hands. He averaged 21.7 yards per catch last season and scored nine touchdowns. Even though Ross only had 46 catches, he finished the season with 1,000 receiving yards.
The Clemson defense will be stout and its offense, as I’ve described, will be one of the best in the country.
The Crimson Tide will have something to say about the Tiger’s title defense.
Tua Tagovailoa, who finished as runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year, is back and healthy. He had minor injuries that led him to miss time. Had he been healthy for the full season, he likely would have been the Heisman winner. He didn’t throw an interception until Alabama’s ninth game of the year and finished the season with 3,966 passing yards, 43 passing touchdowns against just six interceptions, and five rushing touchdowns while completing 69 percent of his passes.
Alabama’s powerful offensive line will pave the way for a new stable of running backs. While the Crimson Tide don’t have a back like Etienne, they do have what I believe to be the best wide receiver corps in the nation, led by reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy. He had more than 1,300 receiving yards to go with his 14 touchdowns while averaging 19.3 yards per catch.
Both Clemson and Alabama had top-five defenses and offenses last season. Expect more of the same in 2019-2020. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have their programs on an entirely different plane than the rest of the country. It’s their world and the other teams are just living in it.
There are a number of great teams that will have a chance to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff and a shot at the national title. Here are the teams, in no particular order, that I think will stay on the periphery of the season long chase for the national title.
I have to start with the Georgia Bulldogs. They’ve coughed up late leads to Alabama in each of the last two seasons and it cost them the national championship in 2017 as well as the 2018 SEC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Jake Fromm is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. While he doesn’t air it out like Tua or Lawrence, he takes care of the ball and wins games. Last year, he completed over 67% of his passes and threw for 30 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Unlike last year, there won’t be a quarterback controversy because Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State. Fromm is the guy.
D’Andre Swift returns after running for over 1,000 yards with 10 touchdowns and averaging over six yards per carry. Late in the season, Georgia rediscovered its roots in the run game and started to assert its dominance on the offensive line. If the Bulldogs can do that from the get-go, they’ll be in good shape.
Kirby Smart’s defenses have been aggressive since he took over at Georgia. They’ll need to replace the top corner in the nation, but the defense should be in the top ten in the country. In addition to their difficult SEC East schedule that includes the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, the Dawgs have a tough early season home game against Notre Dame, they have to play Auburn on the road in their annual rivalry game and they close out their SEC slate with a home game against Texas A&M.
Why is no one talking about the Fighting Irish? They had an outstanding defense and the offense blossomed under returning quarterback Ian Book. Book combined for five touchdowns in his first game as a starter in a blowout win against Wake Forest. He then threw at least two touchdowns in every game he started after that until they were routed by Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Notre Dame has a brutally difficult schedule which includes road games at Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford as well as home games against USC and Virginia Tech.
The defense will be one of the best in the country and the offense should be explosive with Book as the undisputed starter. The big question will be whether the Fighting Irish can navigate their tough schedule. A one loss Notre Dame squad could definitely still make the College Football Playoff.
This has to be the year that Michigan beats Ohio State in The Game. Right?
Fans of the maize and blue have been pondering that question for some time now. With Urban Meyer gone, maybe this will be the year that the Wolverines break through. It seemed like last year would be the year. Ohio State barely survived a game against Maryland while Michigan had a fantastic defense and a very good offense, but the No. 10 Buckeyes upset No. 4 Michigan, 62-39, in a historic beatdown in Columbus.
There are many reasons for Michigan fans to be optimistic. The offensive line will still be one of the best in the country. Shea Patterson, while he didn’t amaze under center last season, should be improved from a year ago. Don Brown, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, is an absolute wizard. While he has to replace some key pieces, the Wolverines will still have one of the Big Ten’s best defenses.
Perhaps most importantly, the Wolverines’ schedule sets up really well for them. After a home game against an Army team that took Oklahoma to overtime last season, Michigan gets a bye week before heading to Camp Randall to take on Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin. While the Wolverines will have to play Penn State on the road, they’ll get to play Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State at home.
The Buckeyes won’t be able to replace Dwayne Haskins’ prolific passing. He set school and Big Ten records and led the Buckeyes to a Rose Bowl win against Washington. Urban Meyer is gone, but there is still a lot of continuity in Columbus.
The defense should be better than it was a year ago when it was repeatedly gashed for big gains and the Buckeyes’ spread attack will still be potent with transfer Justin Fields at the controls. Fields was the top-ranked quarterback recruit in the country. He showed some flashes of potential at Georgia, but we’ll see if head coach Ryan Day can really unlock it. Fields has yet to start and win a game at the college level. Will he be able to match the hype and expectations surrounding him?
Ohio State has the good fortune of not having to play a great Notre Dame team and the Buckeyes, like Michigan, have a schedule that sets up really well for them. Their first really tough test isn’t until October and they’ll have home games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Their biggest test will be the regular season finale when they head to Ann Arbor for The Game.
Head coach Lincoln Riley has coached the last two Heisman Trophy winners. Now he has Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts. Think he can make it a three-peat? Hurts is an outstanding runner in addition to being a really good passer. He’ll fit in wonderfully with the Oklahoma offense.
Oklahoma’s defense got better as the year went along. If that unit can stay consistent, it’ll take a lot of pressure off of the offense so that the Sooners won’t constantly be in shootouts. They showed a lot of heart with a furious second-half comeback in their loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
The Sooners get Texas Tech, Iowa State, TCU, and West Virginia at home this year, but they’ll have to face Oklahoma State on the road in their regular season finale in addition to their annual Red River Shootout game against a dangerous Texas squad that ended last season by defeating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Texas faced Maryland in its last two season openers and went 0-2. Texas fans, I checked the schedule this year and Maryland isn’t on it. You can breathe easy now.
The Longhorns finished last season as the Sugar Bowl champs. The hype is real. Texas is officially back.
Sam Ehlinger was a breakout star last year at quarterback and he’s ready to take the next step. Last season, he threw for just under 3,300 yards, 25 touchdowns with just five picks, completed nearly 65% of his passes, and ran for 16 touchdowns. The Longhorns will need to replace their big-play receiver, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, after he declared early for the NFL draft, but head coach Tom Herman has done a great job of recruiting on both sides of the ball.
The defense came together at the end of the last season. Like Oklahoma, if the defense can be stout and consistent, this will be a very dangerous team.
Texas’ schedule is tough, especially early on. The Longhorns have a home game in week 2 against LSU and a home game against Oklahoma State two weeks later. They then have a bye week before a road game at West Virginia and the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Road games at TCU and Iowa State late in the year won’t be easy either.
Quarterback Justin Herbert returns for his senior year. At 6-foot-6 and nearly 240 pounds, he is a prospect that NFL scouts were drooling over last year when he threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter. Had he declared for the NFL draft after last season, he would have been one of the first quarterbacks taken.
Oregon will likely go as far as Herbert can take them. He was arguably only the third-best quarterbacks in the conference last year. He’ll have to take a big leap in order for the Ducks to get into the hunt for a national title. If the defense takes a step forward and Herbert keeps the offense humming, the Ducks could be dangerous.
Oregon’s schedule is incredibly difficult. The Ducks open the season against Auburn in a neutral-site game in Arlington, Texas, and have road games against Stanford, Washington, and USC.
Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin were the two most prolific players at their positions, quarterback and running back respectively, in school history. Their names and stats are all over the all-time Pac-12 conference history lists as well. Browning was the winningest quarterback in conference history and Gaskin had the third-most rushing yards and third-most rushing touchdowns in conference history.
So, how do you replace two of the best offensive players in conference history? The simple answer is that you can’t.
Washington will have to do what it did last year without the benefit of an experienced quarterback under center and an all-time great running back who made history as the first back in conference history, and the 10th in FBS history, to have four straight seasons of over 1,000 rushing yards.
The Huskies have had the top scoring defense in the Pac-12 for four straight seasons, but they’ll have to replace a lot of key pieces. Nine regular starters are gone from last year’s unit. The Huskies were able to suffocate opponents and win the Pac-12 with some brutal-to-watch games like their 10-3 victory over Utah in the Pac-12 title game.
Without Browning and Gaskin, Washington will rely on its defense more than ever in order to win games. Eastern Washington could test them in their home opener as it breaks in its new starters on defense, but Washington’s schedule looks pretty good. The Huskies have road games against Stanford, Arizona, and Colorado, but they get USC, Oregon, Utah, and Washington State, their Apple Cup rivals, at home.
Noah Niederhoffer (@NNiederhoffer) is a producer at SiriusXM and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Originally from Atlanta, he now lives in Washington, D.C.