The best College Football Playoff contenders for every conference in 2020Sporting News — (Bill Bender)
How many of the 130 schools in the FBS can even entertain making the College Football Playoff in 2020?
That number continues to decrease with each passing year in the CFP era. Blame it on the powerhouses. Blame it on the lack of parity. Blame it on the Power 5.
That combination is why Sporting News believes the number of true national championship contenders can be counted on one hand in the current college football landscape. That is not perception. It is reality.
This year's College Football Playoff championship game is scheduled for Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. This year's semifinals are on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl Game and Sugar Bowl. The added backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown uncertainty on the 2020 college football season, but if it happens there are only a select few teams Sporting News believes can make a run.
We take a conference-by-conference look to find the national title-worthy teams, playoff contenders and wild cards that might just throw some chaos into the season:
National title: Clemson
Playoff contenders: None
Wild cards: North Carolina
Why? The Tigers have won the ACC the last five seasons with a 38-2 record in conference play. Clemson has won the last five ACC championship games by an average of 23.4 points per game. Can anybody seriously contend with that? North Carolina lost 21-20 to the Tigers in a thriller in Chapel Hill, N.C., last season, Mack Brown is back to recruiting at an elite level and the Tar Heels have one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Sam Howell. North Carolina would have to win the ACC Coastal and survive a brutal nonconference schedule to get that chance.
National title: Ohio State
Playoff contenders: Penn State
Wild cards: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Why? The Buckeyes have won three straight Big Ten championships in dominating fashion and return another loaded roster led by Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields. The best of the rest – Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin – are a combined 1-22 against Ohio State since Urban Meyer took over in 2012. Ryan Day has shown no signs of slowing down. The Wolverines, who are a wild card on this list instead of a playoff contender, have felt the brunt of that the most since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2015.
National title: None
Playoff contenders: Oklahoma
Wild cards: Texas, Oklahoma State
Why? Is Oklahoma a national championship contender? After three straight Playoff losses to SEC schools – games the Sooners lost by an average of 17.3 points per game – it is fair to question the program's national championship credentials. That said, Oklahoma has won five straight Big 12 championships and is a regular Playoff contender. Texas and Oklahoma State are the schools best positioned to stop that conference dominance in 2020, but those schools combined for 10 losses last season. They cannot be considered anything but wild cards because of that.
National title: None
Playoff contenders: Oregon
Wild cards: USC, Utah
Why? Oregon is the lone Pac-12 team ranked in the top 10. The Ducks were in position to break the conference’s three-year playoff drought last year, but the two-losses-and-you're-out-rule remains in effect until somebody breaks the trend. Utah had a chance last season, too, before losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. USC is the only team not ranked in SN’s Top 25 that made this list as a wild card because the Trojans are truly that under Clay Helton this season. They can prove themselves in the opener against Alabama, too.
National title: Alabama, Georgia, LSU
Playoff contenders: Florida
Wild cards: Auburn, Texas A&M
Why? This is why this is the best conference in college football. The SEC has the most legitimate playoff contenders, and that list always starts with Alabama. Georgia and LSU have to compensate for heavy losses to the NFL Draft (especially the Tigers), but both programs have played for national championships in the last three seasons. That keeps them on the contenders list. Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M have to prove they can survive this grind in top-10 showdowns. Those schools were a combined 1-8 against top-10 teams not counting games against each in 2019.
Independents/Group of 5
National title: None
Playoff contenders: Notre Dame
Wild card: None
Why? Notre Dame can still compete for a Playoff berth, and they have a schedule in 2020 that features Wisconsin, Clemson and USC. That and the lack of a conference championship game should keep the Irish in the mix. The Group of 5 simply does not have a team that can attract enough attention from the committee in the four-team format. Cincinnati, Boise State and UCF will be among those teams fighting for a New Year’s Day Six berth.
The final count
When you total up the numbers, it adds up to 20 teams.
The one hand of national title contenders consists of Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, LSU and Georgia. Oregon is the only school outside of the group that has played for a national championship in the CFP era.
The Ducks are among the five best contenders on the outside looking in. Oklahoma and Notre Dame have at least been to the playoff, too. Penn State and Florida are our top choices for schools that are the closest to making that first appearance.
The other 10 schools are wild cards where we will believe it when they see it. They face that one or two major hurdles within their conference that have kept them out of the Playoff, and if one or two of them break through it will give the season some much-needed flavor.
Otherwise, there might be even fewer teams on this list in 2021.
Have a problem with these picks? Tweet @BillBender92 and let him have it.