The long, strange, extremely odd and often controversial offseason finally ended over the weekend with a shortened Week 1 kicking off the 2020 college football season where nothing is normal. There are only 76 of 130 FBS teams competing. Four of the 10 conferences have opted out of playing this fall, as have a couple individual programs. There is the possibility that we wind up with a fall and spring national champion, though the College Football Playoff has committed to holding its schedule firm. Of course, all of that can only happen if we actually get a complete season as college football battles not just itself but the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no better way to conclude the offseason, however, than with the typical slate of prognostications. And while ours may have been delayed, CBS Sports is here to do our part with our predictions, expert picks and opinionated takes on the 2020 college football season ahead.
In addition to projecting the national champion and College Football Playoff, we decided to take a look at which teams may just miss the four-team field, which programs are the most overrated and underrated nationally, and which coaches and players stand the best chance at winning year-end honors.
With the ACC and Big 12 kicking off this Saturday — and the SEC still lying in wait for a couple more weeks — let’s take a look at our 2020 expert picks ahead of the college football season.
College Football Playoff predictions
First two out
2020 national champion
Clemson: Notre Dame is in the ACC this season, but does anyone believe that’s going to be enough to keep Clemson from reaching the College Football Playoff? I certainly do not. So, with nearly a free pass to the playoff as well as the best quarterback in the country, how could you not back Clemson to win it all in 2020? Even if worst came to worst and Trevor Lawrence opts out to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, the Tigers still have another five-star behind him in D.J. Uiagalelei. — Tom Fornelli (also Jerry Palm, Barrett Sallee, Ben Kercheval, David Cobb)
Alabama: The decisions of DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Alex Leatherwood to return for their senior seasons were significant. These were players who took part in the youth movement that turned the national championship game against Georgia. Leatherwood came in after an injury early in the third quarter, Harris ended up leading the Crimson Tide in rushing, and Smith — with his one 41-yard game-winning overtime catch from Tua Tagovailoa — was the team’s leading receiver. All true freshman, all playing a key role in one of the most memorable title games ever. They know, better than anyone else in the locker room, what it takes to survive the ups and downs of a playoff campaign and finish as national champions. After missing the CFP for the first time ever and after two years of falling short of the biggest goal of the season, I think the national championship standard set by the senior class is the kind of motivational edge that can make a difference during a title push. — Chip Patterson (also Dennis Dodd)
Most overrated team
LSU: It’s a reach to argue that a team returning only five starters can compete for a division title, let alone a national title. And the Tigers aren’t just replacing players. They are also replacing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who was widely credited with writing the script for Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy-winning campaign. Sure, LSU probably deserves a favorable preseason ranking since it is the defending national champion. But ultimately there is nowhere to go but down for this team. The Tigers are likely start 3-0 with wins over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Missouri. But they are destined to be exposed soon after in a stretch of four games that includes Florida, Auburn and Alabama. — Cobb (also Kercheval)
Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher has his best team at TAMU. It is full of impact seniors. The schedule is easier. Jimbo has settled in in Year 3. The problem remains what it was in Year 1. In any given year the Aggies are fighting LSU, Auburn and Alabama in the SEC West. For starters. This year, Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin join the hyper-competitive division. Sure, no one is expecting the Aggies to win the West. But that’s part of the problem in Year 3 in College Station: No is one is still expecting the Aggies to win the West. Always, um, active TAMU supporters expect more for their $75 million. Through two seasons, Fisher is 9-7 in the SEC. That must change. In Year 3, HE must seriously challenge for the division title. This a prediction that he won’t. — Dodd
Oklahoma: As a program, the Sooners are a no-brainer pick as the class of the Big 12 and annual playoff contender. As a coach, Lincoln Riley is without a doubt one of the best in the sport already with a long and bright future of success ahead. But I’m not ready to follow the masses so ready to copy and paste another Big 12 title and CFP appearance into the record books for Oklahoma in 2020. There’s a lot of belief in Spencer Rattler upholding the Heisman-contending ways of Riley’s quarterbacks, and not a lot of discussion on the team’s depth at running back (Trey Sermon transferred, Kennedy Brooks opted out) or the receiving production deficit after CeeDee Lamb’s departure. Chances are good that Rattler will lead the Sooners to the playoff; I just don’t think it’s going to happen this season. — Patterson
Auburn: There’s a negative connotation that comes with the word overrated, but to be clear, I don’t think Auburn’s going to be bad. I’m just not part of the group who believes it to be a top-10 team. I have serious concerns about the team’s offensive line and how it will hold up in a 10-game SEC schedule that won’t allow it many chances to breathe. That line will also be tasked with protecting Bo Nix, a quarterback who already comes with plenty of accuracy issues. I’m not sure he’ll be able to improve upon them if he’s under a lot of pressure. These offensive concerns limit Auburn’s overall ceiling. — Fornelli
Texas: Really? We’re doing this again? The notion that “Texas is back” has been a running joke since the Longhorns topped Notre Dame in double overtime in 2016. Suddenly, this is going to be the season? Nah. Not buying it. Sure, Sam Ehlinger is a fantastic quarterback and has experience on his side. But losing wide receivers Devin Duvernay and Colin Johnson is a big deal — especially considering the disjointed offseason that has limited 7-on-7 work. Is the defense going to improve upon the 6.1 yards per play that it allowed last season? Probably. Experience is on Texas’ side there. But I don’t have the confidence that it will take enough of a step forward to slow down the high-octane offenses that it will be playing in the Big 12. I’ll have to see it before I believe it. After all, shouldn’t that be everybody’s opinion toward Texas? — Sallee
UCF: Don’t get me wrong … UCF is still a good football team. The Knights just aren’t at the level they were a couple of years ago when they rode a 25-game overall winning streak and a 27-game regular season streak. That is still what people think of when they think of the Knights program. Now, UCF is likely the third best team in the AAC behind Cincinnati and Memphis. Having 10 players opt out this season certainly will not help the Knights’ quest to do better. — Palm
Most underrated team
Notre Dame: If preseason league favorites Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma each make the CFP, who will be the fourth team in the field? A Georgia team replacing nearly everyone on offense? An LSU team with just five starters back? A Florida team that must navigate a 10-game SEC schedule? No. How about a team coming off an 11-2 season that returns its star quarterback and entire starting offensive line from a top-15 scoring offense. That team is Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are clearly the second-best team in the ACC, and if they can beat Clemson once — either in the regular season or conference title game — it’s hard to imagine them getting left out of the CFP. — Cobb (also Patterson)
Cincinnati: You wanted a CFP intruder, you got one. With Memphis losing Kenneth Gainwell and UCF losing 10 opt outs, the Bearcats are something close to a lock to win the American. This is the year wacky things could happen to allow a Group of Five team to get playoff consideration. Look, it’s probably going to take the SEC to have a collective off year. Still, coach Luke Fickell should be saluted for what he’s done. Cincinnati lives in the shadow of Ohio State. Fickell has applied Jim Tressel’s roster-building ability to make the Bearcats the nation’s best Group of Five program going into 2020. Cincinnati will be part of the playoff conversation if it goes 11-0. — Dodd
UCF: I don’t know if we’re going to see an AAC team crack the CFP this year. All I know is that, if it does happen, the odds are far greater that it’s going to be UCF than anybody else in the conference. The Knights lost three games last year, but this is still the most talented team in that conference, and in a season where there are too many variables to count, I’m leaning on talent to win in the long run. — Fornelli
Miami (FL): I love, love, love Houston transfer QB D’Eriq King. Perhaps more importantly, I think the marriage between King and first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will have the fire of a couple who meet on an exotic beach in the Caribbean. Offense has been a massive problem at UM for a long time, and that duo will change it in a hurry. Losing defensive lineman Gregory Rousseau to an opt out will hurt, but Temple transfer Quincy Roche is the most important transfer of the offseason. Yes, more important than King. In an ACC where Clemson and Notre Dame are the known commodities … I’ll take the Hurricanes to come close to reaching that level. — Sallee
Louisville: Since Clemson has become a national powerhouse, we tend to think of the ACC as one heavyweight and 13 other teams. I actually think that changes a bit in 2020. Yes, Clemson is the favorite again — and deservedly so — but Notre Dame is in the picture as a one-year member and other programs like North Carolina and Florida State are getting some buzz. It’s more crowded at the top than you might expect, which doesn’t leave a lot of love for Louisville. In his first season, though, coach Scott Satterfield led the Cardinals to eight wins — one year after Bobby Petrino drove the program off the road and into a ditch, so to speak. QB Micale Cunningham was quietly one of the ACC’s more efficient passers, even if he wasn’t throwing it 30+ times per game. Louisville has a tough stretch in the middle of the year, including a trip to Notre Dame, but the Cardinals might make some noise with eight, maybe nine wins. — Kercheval
Iowa State: When people talk Big 12 football, the conversation starts and sometimes ends with Oklahoma, winner of the last five regular season titles. If they talk about anyone else, it’s Texas, but usually it’s about whether or not the Longhorns are “back.” When people talk about ISU, it’s typically about which team will steal its coach. Matt Campbell has done a great job bringing the Cyclones up to the top tier of teams chasing the Sooners. Did you know that Iowa State has the third most conference wins in the last three seasons? I expect that to be true after this season as well. — Palm
Coach of the Year
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Coaching will be tougher this season than any before in our lifetimes. On top of everything else you have to deal with, you are trying to protect your players from catching the coronavirus. Roster management will likely be an issue along with last minute schedule changes. The coach best equipped to roll with whatever comes his way is Swinney. He also happens to have the preseason No. 1 team and the prohibitive favorite in the ACC, despite the presence of Notre Dame and an improved North Carolina. If the Tigers can roll to 12-0, Swinney should be an easy choice. — Palm (also Fornelli)
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: Kelly rose from No. 27 in the annual CBS Sports coach rankings before the 2018 season to No. 7 in 2019 and No. 5 this year. Now, he’s poised to lead the Irish to their second CFP in the last three years and potentially claim the third spot in college football’s coaching hierarchy behind Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. That will require the Irish to win a game in the CFP, which they failed to do in 2018. But this is a Notre Dame team that could do it. With his starting quarterback and entire offensive line back from last year’s 11-2 squad and a manageable ACC schedule ahead, this could be the year that Kelly’s career reaches its zenith. — Cobb (also Patterson)
Mack Brown, North Carolina: The CEO coach has reinvented himself in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won a total of five games in the previous two seasons. When Brown won seven in his first year, it seemed like 10. Recruits have taken to the 69-year-old boss. The existing Tar Heels have responded remarkably. QB Sam Howell is a Heisman contender. Two 1,000-yard receivers return. UNC remains the last regular-season team to challenge Clemson (a 21-20 loss last season). Brown has proven that, if you put all the pieces in place, sometimes the program takes care of itself. With all this energy surrounding the program it looks like Brown has 10 years left in him. — Dodd
Dan Mullen, Florida: Mullen is an offensive genius. He has proved that for a decade-and-a-half in the SEC as a coach and coordinator. His quarterback, Kyle Trask, had the best season from a Florida signal caller since 2009 (the last time a guy named Tim Tebow was on the field) … and did it on the fly after Feleipe Franks went down against Kentucky in September 2019. That despite never having been a first-team quarterback in any offseason in college or high school football. Simply put, Trask + three star wide receivers + an All-America tight end = headaches for the SEC. Mullen has already turned Florida around. Back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games prove that. The offensive fireworks that he will produce in 2020, combined with the stability that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham provides, will vault Florida into the CFP. If that happens, Mullen will win this honor in a runaway. — Sallee
Scott Satterfield, Louisville: I’ve already sung Louisville’s praises as college football’s underrated team for 2020. Satterfield is a big reason why. Yes, Cunningham is a fun quarterback whose best days are still ahead of him. Yes, there are some good weapons coming back around him, including running back Javian Hawkins. But it was Satterfield who has put them in positions to be successful. Louisville’s offense went from being the ACC’s worst in 2018 to second in points per game in 2019 by scoring about two touchdowns more per game. And while the defense didn’t improve in the ACC’s pecking order, it did allow 11 points fewer per game. There’s still a lot of work to do on defense, and some of the challenge might be just getting better players in the two-deep, but this’ll be a well-coached team with tons of offensive potential. I can see the Cardinals taking down a team or two they’re not supposed to beat to the tune of 42-38. — Kercheval
Heisman Trophy winner
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: The biggest star in college football and potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft has yet to even make it to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. In 2018 ,he came on a little too late, making his case as the best player in the country with back-to-back 300-yard, three-touchdown performances against Notre Dame and Alabama in the CFP. In 2019, his Heisman chances were derailed early with eight interceptions in the first seven games, and though he finished with 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his final six games before the ballots were due voters had moved on to picking runners-up to join Burrow at the ceremony. So while Lawrence has been a mainstay in the college football conversation, we have yet to hit the Heisman fatigue that can hinder a star’s ability to win the top award. The extra portion to this is that Clemson needs Lawrence to be the kind of star that can lift everyone around him now that Tee Higgins is off to the NFL and Justyn Ross is out with an injury. If Lawrence can lead on the field with a group of talented but mostly unproven receivers, it only adds to his Heisman shine. — Patterson (also Palm, Fornelli, Sallee, Cobb)
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State: History says a running back winning the Heisman isn’t likely. The average Heisman voter’s attention span doesn’t go beyond quarterback. Receiver is the fastest-rising impact position in the sport. Still, Hubbard is one of the most intriguing figures of 2020. All the signs pointed to him going to the NFL. He returned only to become an unexpected team leader after Mike Gundy’s off-field missteps. The nation’s leading rusher in 2020 (2,094 yards) returns to a loaded offense. Gundy will keep himself and the Cowboys in the national conversation if they can improve on an 8-5 season and contend for the Big 12. It will be a hard climb over Lawrence to get to the Heisman, but after the Clemson quarterback, Hubbard might be the most talented offensive player in the country. — Dodd
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas: The Heisman is a formula of checked boxes. It’s not always about actually being the best player. Put another way: Are you a quarterback or running back that’s part of a successful Power Five team? Are you putting up big stats and oftentimes crucial to your team’s success? Yes? Then there may be a spot for you at the Heisman ceremony in New York. Ehlinger fits this description. He’s a do-it-all weapon for Texas’ offense with name recognition. If he continues to be a catalyst for success then I think he has decent odds for someone not named Lawrence. Of course, part of this prediction is based on what I think Texas will do in 2020. I have the Longhorns penciled into the Big 12 Championship Game, and earlier in the offseason, I picked them to beat Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown. If Texas is in the playoff conversation at the end of the year, Ehlinger has a real shot at the hardware, too. — Kercheval