Wow, some real, actual college football, and more games are on the way.
But as we unveil our first ESPN Power Rankings of the 2020 regular season, it’s important to remember that we have a very small body of work so far. In fact, Memphis is the only team ranked that played this weekend, as the Tigers beat Arkansas State at home.
We’re only including those teams that are playing this fall, which means no Ohio State, no Penn State, no Oregon, no USC and no other teams from any conference not playing.
Go ahead and cue the SEC bias claims. Six of the top 10 teams in this week’s rankings are from the SEC, which begins play Sept. 26 with a 10-game, league-only season.
For what it’s worth, an SEC team has either won the national championship or played in the national championship game 13 of the last 14 seasons, and that includes five different SEC teams.
By Alabama’s standards, it has been an eternity since the Crimson Tide last won a national championship — all the way back in 2017. And, yes, we’re being facetious. We learned last season, though, that it is possible to have a College Football Playoff without the Crimson Tide. Don’t look for that to become a trend. Several key players on the NFL’s radar returned to school, including receiver DeVonta Smith and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, and there haven’t been any opt-outs. With a healthy Dylan Moses back at middle linebacker, this defense should also be much closer to what we’re used to seeing from one of Nick Saban’s defenses.
Up next: at Missouri (Sept. 26, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The combination of Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and Travis Etienne at running back, not to mention an always talented receiving corps, means beating the Tigers this season is going to take a team that can put up points in bunches. Of course, rarely does that happen to a Brent Venables-coached defense. Clemson has either won the national championship or played in the national championship game four of the past five years. The Tigers have everything it takes to be right back there this season.
Up next: at Wake Forest (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The biggest win of the offseason for Georgia might have been USC transfer quarterback JT Daniels getting a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible to play right away this season, especially with Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman announcing this week that he was opting out for the season. Daniels, recovering from a torn ACL a year ago, still has to be cleared medically for contact. But he has plenty of game, and with a deep, fast and talented Georgia squad, the Dawgs should be in the middle of the national championship conversation.
Up next: at Arkansas (Sept. 26, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Georgia isn’t the only SEC Eastern Division team with big aspirations this season. Florida has a chance to be just as good, maybe even better, especially if redshirt junior quarterback Kyle Trask makes the kind of jump those in and around the Gators’ program expect him to. This will be his third season under Dan Mullen, who knows a thing or two about developing quarterbacks. Todd Grantham is one of college football’s best defensive coordinators, and the Gators have been masterful at playing pressure defense on his watch.
Up next: at Ole Miss (Sept. 26, Noon ET, ESPN)
Finally, Notre Dame has joined a conference, at least for this season. The Irish will play 10 ACC games and be eligible to play in the conference championship game in December. They have the pieces in place to get there, too, from veteran quarterback Ian Book to one of the top offensive lines in the country to budding superstars on defense in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton. This is a team primed to win 10 or more games for a fourth straight season.
Up next: vs. Duke (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Granted, there’s a new quarterback in charge in Norman. But when has quarterback been an issue under Lincoln Riley? Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler has been named the starter, and even though he won’t have a CeeDee Lamb to throw to this season, the Sooners will again be an offensive juggernaut. With Alex Grinch back for his second season as defensive coordinator, the Sooners will be even better on that side of the ball, with eight starters returning.
Up next: vs. Missouri State (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Pay-per-view)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron is confident that the Tigers have recruited well over the past few years. We’re going to find out how well this season. The defending national champions lost a ton of great players to the NFL draft, and more recently have had several others opt out for this season over COVID-19 concerns, including wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin. The Tigers will shift to a 4-3 on defense under new coordinator Bo Pelini, and he can’t wait to turn transfer linebacker Jabril Cox loose in the new system.
Up next: vs. Mississippi State (Sept. 26, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
When Texas A&M doled out $75 million to pry Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State, the Aggies were hoping for immediate returns. The third season might not qualify as immediate, but Texas A&M is positioned to make a major move in 2020 with just about all of its key players from a year ago back. Paramount will be senior quarterback Kellen Mond throwing the ball with more consistency, but he has talented players around him. It didn’t help the Aggies on defense that senior cornerback Elijah Blades decided to opt out, though.
Up next: vs. Vanderbilt (Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Nobody in Austin needs to be reminded how long it has been since Texas last won a Big 12 championship. It was 2009, the same year the Longhorns lost to Alabama in the national championship game. Tom Herman is now in his fourth season as coach, and after a 10-win season and Sugar Bowl victory to cap the 2018 season, Texas dipped to eight wins a year ago. There’s nothing like having experience at quarterback, and Sam Ehlinger returning for his senior season was huge. He’s as tough as they come, but will need more consistent play around him if Texas is going to unseat Oklahoma in the Big 12.
Up next: vs. UTEP (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network)
Auburn has managed to beat Alabama two of the past three years, but the frustrating part for the folks on the Plains is that the Tigers don’t have any SEC championships or College Football Playoff appearances to show for it. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix should prosper with Chad Morris coming over as offensive coordinator, and even with some key losses on the defensive line, Kevin Steele will again have Auburn’s defense ready to go.
Up next: vs. Kentucky (Sept. 26, Noon ET, SEC Network)
It wasn’t the smoothest of offseasons for Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, but this fall has a chance to be a lot of fun in Stillwater. Running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace combine to give the Cowboys one of the best one-two punches in the country. Look for quarterback Spencer Sanders to improve after a solid freshman season. The offensive line will have some new faces, and the defense returns most of its key performers. Linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga is one of the more underrated players in the country after racking up 15.5 tackles for loss last season.
Up next: vs. Tulsa (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
The top Group of Five team in the Power Rankings, Cincinnati has won 11 games each of the past two seasons. Luke Fickell, entering his fourth season as coach, has done a terrific job of elevating the program in every way. The Bearcats return 16 of 22 starters, which includes 13 of the team’s top 15 tacklers from a year ago. The best news for Cincinnati is that Memphis has to come to Nippert Stadium this season. Memphis was the only AAC team to beat Cincinnati a year ago and did it twice, both times in Memphis.
Up next: vs. Austin Peay (Sept. 19, Noon ET, ESPN)
Matt Campbell, who has been on more than a few short lists in coaching searches, is back for his fifth season as Iowa State’s coach, and he has a quarterback in Brock Purdy who gives opposing defensive coordinators fits. Purdy had 4,231 yards of total offense as a sophomore and accounted for 35 touchdowns. Campbell also has one of the best tight ends in the country in Charlie Kolar. Defensively, the Cyclones’ strength will be at linebacker and in the secondary. Defensive end JaQuan Bailey will also be a key. He missed most of last season with an ankle injury but had eight sacks in 2018.
Up next: vs. Louisiana (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN)
After a disastrous start a year ago, the Vols rallied to win seven of their last eight games in Jeremy Pruitt’s second season as coach. The strength of this team should be on the offensive line, especially with Trey Smith back at guard, and that’s always a good place to start in the SEC. Redshirt senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has had his ups and downs but battled his way to being one of the team’s best leaders. If he’s more consistent this fall and the defense takes another step, the Vols could make some noise in the SEC Eastern Division race.
Up next: at South Carolina (Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Retirement obviously wasn’t for Mack Brown, who returned to his old digs a year ago in Chapel Hill and led North Carolina to a seven-win season. The Tar Heels also lost to Clemson by a point and were close to picking up a few more wins. They return 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Sam Howell. As a freshman a year ago, Howell threw 38 touchdowns, the most ever for an FBS true freshman. On defense, a former quarterback, Chazz Surratt, leads the way at linebacker. It also helps that UNC doesn’t play Clemson in the regular season.
Up next: vs. Syracuse (Saturday, Noon ET, ACC Network)
Not only has Gary Patterson been one of the best coaches in college football, he has been especially adept when it comes to bouncing back. TCU went 5-7 a year ago. The last time the Horned Frogs had a losing season prior to that (2016), they won 11 games the next year. TCU was victimized by close losses last season. Six of their seven losses were by a single score. With quarterback Max Duggan‘s status for the season unclear because of a heart abnormality, the Frogs will again have to lean heavily on their defense. Linebacker Garret Wallow and safety Trevon Moehrig are both future pros.
Up next: vs. Iowa State (Sept. 26, TBD)
The Wildcats have finished. 500 or better three of the past four years in SEC play, a testament to the job Mark Stoops has done in Lexington. Their 2020 defense has a chance to be one of his best, led by linebackers DeAndre Square and Jamar “Boogie” Watson and massive nose guard Quinton Bohanna (6-foot-4, 357 pounds). This may be Stoops’ deepest team, with 20 starters returning. Much of Kentucky’s success will hinge on generating a more productive passing game. Quarterback Terry Wilson is back from a season-ending knee injury that he suffered in the second game a year ago.
Up next: at Auburn (Sept. 26, Noon ET, SEC Network)
The Knights would be ranked even higher had it not been for a rash of players opting out this season over COVID-19 concerns. Projected starters Tay Gowan at cornerback and Kalia Davis at defensive tackle were among 10 players announcing they wouldn’t play this season, along with backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. Even so, quarterback Dillon Gabriel is back after passing for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns last year, and UCF will make a strong push for a fourth straight season of 10 or more wins.
Up next: at Georgia Tech (Sept. 19, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Memphis was dealt a blow last week when star running back Kenneth Gainwell decided to opt out for the season after seeing his family hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But the Tigers still looked strong Saturday night in their opener with a 37-24 victory over Arkansas State at home. Quarterback Brady White tossed four touchdown passes, including two to Sean Dykes, and Memphis has won 13 of its past 15 games dating back to last season.
Up next: vs. Houston (Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Mountaineers have their sights set on a third consecutive outright Sun Belt Conference title — with a third different head coach. Shawn Clark takes over for Eli Drinkwitz, who left for the Arkansas head job, and it helps that Clark has been a part of the program as offensive line coach. The Mountaineers get quarterback Zac Thomas back for his third season as a starter, which eases the loss of star running back Darrynton Evans to the NFL. Appalachian State lost several of its top tacklers from a year ago, but junior Shaun Jolly is one the most underrated cornerbacks in the country.
Up next: vs. Charlotte (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN2)
Matt Rhule worked wonders at Baylor, and the Bears were one win away from making the College Football Playoff last season. But Rhule is now in the NFL, and former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is the new coach at Baylor. Aranda hired Larry Fedora as his offensive coordinator, and Fedora inherits senior Charlie Brewer as his quarterback. This will be Brewer’s fourth year as a starter after throwing for more than 3,000 yards each of his past two seasons. Nine starters are gone from the best defense in the Big 12 last season, but when has Aranda not figured out a way to put a good defense on the field?
Up next: vs. Louisiana Tech (Saturday, Noon ET, Fox)
The Cardinals averaged 33.1 points per game a year ago in Scott Satterfield’s first season as coach and should be even better on offense in 2020. Quarterback Micale Cunningham was one of college football’s top breakout players last season, accounting for 28 touchdowns. He has one of the most electrifying players in the country returning in junior receiver Tutu Atwell. The Cardinals’ running game is equally potent with Javian Hawkins, who rushed for a school-record 1,525 yards last season as a redshirt freshman. For all of the Cards’ firepower on offense, the run defense will need to improve dramatically if they want to surpass their eight wins from a year ago.
Up next: vs. Western Kentucky (Sept. 12, 8 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
Imagine telling somebody five years ago that Florida State would go three straight seasons without winning more than seven games. Hard as it is to believe, the Seminoles last won more than seven in 2016, and Mike Norvell will be their third different coach since 2017. FSU needs a big year from redshirt junior quarterback James Blackman, who will look often for Tamorrion Terry, who averaged 19.8 yards per catch and pulled in nine touchdown catches a year ago. The defense, led by All-American tackle Marvin Wilson, also adds several key transfers.
Up next: vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The big splash a year ago for Chris Klieman in his first season as Kansas State’s coach was leading the Wildcats to an upset of Oklahoma. In Year 2, he’s hoping K-State can finish a little better after losing three of its last five last season. Nobody is suggesting that the Wildcats are ready to contend for the Big 12 title, but they did win eight games a year ago. It’s also nice to have a veteran quarterback in Skylar Thompson returning, and kickoff return wiz Joshua Youngblood should be more of a threat on offense this season.
Up next: vs. Arkansas State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
The Hurricanes took a hit on defense this summer when star defensive end and future first-round NFL draft pick Gregory Rousseau opted out for the season, so landing Temple graduate transfer Quincy Roche should help soften the blow. Roche had 13 sacks last season. Ultimately, much of the burden will fall on Houston transfer quarterback D’Eriq King to pump some life into a Miami offense that scored 21 or fewer points seven times a year ago.
Up next: vs. UAB (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, ACC Network)