Thu, 13 Aug 2020

Take 5: Contenders for next season's CFP crown

Field Level Media
14 Jan 2020, 15:40 GMT+10

There have been 24 available slots in the College Football Playoff in the six seasons of its existence, with four programs accounting for 17 of those appearances.

Expect more of the same next season.

The elite tier of college football remains a tiny club in which one Power 5 conference (the Pac-12) can barely earn an invite and two others (Big Ten, Big 12) rarely win, posting a combined 1-7 record.

As the books close on the 2019 season and we peek ahead to next season -- even with the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft about a week away -- the landscape looks so familiar.

The Pac-12 figures to get shut out of the semifinals for the fourth consecutive season, Clemson and Alabama will be back for their sixth time each, Oklahoma is still pounding on the door ... but maybe there will be a couple of tweaks to the familiar formula.

Those four teams accounting for the 17 appearances? Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State have never battled it out in the same postseason. And a streak of five consecutive winners from the Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference, the latest coming with LSU's 42-25 win over Clemson on Monday, will be snapped.

The betting favorite, according to PointsBet, is Clemson at 175, followed by Ohio State (200), Alabama (550) and LSU (800). The next four are Georgia (1000), Florida (1700), Oklahoma (1900) and Auburn (2000).

We somewhat disagree.

Here is an early look at our top 5 teams for 2020:

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes made a seamless transition to coach Ryan Day in 2019 and will be back to try to finish what they couldn't in this year's Fiesta Bowl semifinal against Clemson, when they lost 29-23 after being up 16 points in the first half.

Quarterback Justin Fields (41 touchdowns, three interceptions) is back as no worse than the Heisman co-favorite, and a trio of draft-eligible offensive linemen -- left tackle Thayer Munford, center Josh Myers and guard Wyatt Davis -- all decided to return to ease concerns over losing 2,000-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins and wideouts K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor.

The Buckeyes won't be caught short on offensive skill, the assembly line of defensive end talent will churn out another star -- watch for Zach Harrison in his sophomore year -- and the return of defensive back Shaun Wade is the experience boost needed as a cornerstone for a reloading secondary.

A Week 2 trip to Oregon and a midseason venture to Penn State should be fascinating.

2. Clemson

No matter who leaves early for the NFL, the Tigers will have ample horsepower on offense behind the trio of quarterback Trevor Lawrence (the other preseason Heisman co-favorite, along with Ohio State's Fields), wide receiver Justyn Ross and running back Lyn-J Dixon.

Losing four starting offensive linemen is less than ideal, but Clemson still plays in the ACC, where resistance is slight amid any growing pains. In 2020, the Tigers at least get a chance to fight off boredom with a Nov. 7 trip to Notre Dame.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables proved this season he can adjust and scheme his way to having another top unit after massive personnel losses, including the departure of one of the great defensive lines in college football history. Whoever leaves Clemson after this season, don't sweat it.

Dabo Swinney also will roll into the next season with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, including No. 1 prospect Bryan Bresee, a plug-and-play defensive lineman. The beat goes on.

3. Alabama

Alabama wasn't as slammed as badly as it could have been with early departures to the NFL, as wide receiver DeVonta Smith, left tackle Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses will be back in Tuscaloosa to help lead a roster built on the strength of five consecutive top-five recruiting classes.

After some will-he-or-won't-he drama, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his surgically repaired hip declared for the NFL draft, leaving the Tide's offseason focus on a battle between 2019 replacement Mac Jones, Tua's younger brother Taulia Tagovailoa and incoming five-star freshman Bryce Young.

Alabama will have to navigate November payback games against LSU and Auburn, and a Sept. 19 home game against Georgia looms over the Tide's playoff viability. But this is a certainty: Coach Nick Saban won't rest until Bama is back in the playoffs after missing for the first time ever.

4. Oklahoma

The Sooners have a problem. Getting to the playoffs isn't one of them.

Winning a semifinal game is a step Oklahoma has yet to take, mostly because its defense grows mushy on the biggest stage. In the Sooners' four playoff losses, they have given up 37, 54 (in two overtimes), 45 and 63 points.

But coveted coordinator Alex Grinch is still in charge of the defense for a second year after a season in which Oklahoma slashed its yards allowed by nearly 100 yards per game.

Combine more expected defensive improvement with the fact that head coach Lincoln Riley isn't off coaching the Dallas Cowboys or another NFL team, and the knowledge that 2019 five-star quarterback Spencer Rattler seems to be a ready successor to Oklahoma's Heisman bloodlines -- and that all five starting offensive linemen return -- and there's more than enough here for a sixth consecutive Big 12 title.

5. LSU

The biggest college football question in 2020: How much of LSU's 2019 success was simply Joe Burrow-related?

The Tigers were much more than their Heisman-winning quarterback -- and All-America talent on both sides return, including Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Ja'Marr Chase and cornerback Derek Stingley -- but is Myles Brennan (or a quarterback TBD) championship-caliber?

A Week 2 home game against Texas could begin to point the way, and there's an Oct. 10 deadline to figure it out as the Tigers play at SEC East hopeful Florida, which is one of a small handful of teams (hello, Georgia, Penn State, Oregon) looking to crash the playoff party.

2020 national championship odds, via PointsBet:

Clemson (175)

Ohio State (200)

Alabama (550)

LSU (800)

Georgia (1000)

Florida (1700)

Oklahoma (1900)

Auburn (2000)

Texas (2300)

Notre Dame (2500)

Michigan (3200)

Oregon (3200)

Penn State (4000)

Wisconsin (5000)

Washington (6000

Oklahoma State (6000)

Baylor (7000)

USC (8000)

Nebraska (8000)

Utah (9000)

--By Anthony Gimino, Field Level Media

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