In what is sure to be the most unusual of seasons, let’s take a look at the lay of the land as the 2020 campaign formally begins this Labor Day Weekend.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has changed the world and how we live in a variety of ways over the past six months, with the sports world ravaged by the effects of the virus. Professional leagues were halted in midseason, with other postponed indefinitely until proper safety regulations could be instituted, while a myriad of college sports were canceled altogether. However, as the world has come to find their footing in this new normal, sports has gradually returned to our consciousness, with the National Basketball Association in the midst of completing their season and playoffs within the confines of a rigorously-monitored environmental bubble in Orlando, the National Hockey League doing the same in designated locations with similar safety precautions, and Major League Baseball attempting to play an abridged season that has relegated it’s teams to playing exclusively regional contests. And with that said, what do all of these leagues have in common you ask? There have been ZERO fans in attendance of these sporting events, which many would argue has robbed the games of their heart and soul. Simply put, no matter how managed to simulate the atmosphere, there is seriously something missing without the fans chanting from their seats.
You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned football just yet, either collegiately or professionally, though as the Fall approaches it appears that it will indeed be business as usual for the latter (minus the fans of course), even if the Preseason has been sacrificed along the way. On the other hand, College Football finds itself in an alien reality, a brave new world where the old rules simply do not apply. First and foremost, two of the biggest conferences in the sport, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have essentially chosen NOT to play football this fall, kicking the can down the road where they’ll attempt to reconvene in the Spring. Serious concerns over safety protocols coupled with intense pressure from lawmakers and the media, along with a growing chasm between the schools and the players themselves over their rights as scholarship athletes have led to this fate. With that said, their brethren among the Power Five Conferences, the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 have decided to proceed as normal, laying out amended schedules that would keep travel within the regions that their respective conferences reside, with open dates to be utilized in the event that a particular affair needs to be called off due to a player, coach, or official testing positive for Covid-19. Furthermore, fears over the virus and the measures being taken by these schools to prevent it have caused a number of players to effectively opt out of the 2020 campaign altogether (think of it like taking a medical Red Shirt), with their number including some of the biggest names in the sport.
In recent weeks there has been momentum for both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 play, with the former dealing with the President of the United States firsthand while the latter is changing their mind due to medical breakthrough. On Friday, Larry Scott, the Commissioner of the Pac-12, announced that the conference had secured enough Covid-19 tests to test their athletes on a daily basis, which is a HUGE development. Simply put, this benefit didn’t exist before, with it’s absence playing a major role in the league’s decision to ultimately punt on a Fall Season. After this revelation, Scott stated that any season could start as early as January 1st, and would be completed in the middle of April. In turn, the NCAA has greenlit the plan for these conferences (which also includes the Mountain West and MAC) to complete an abridged Spring Season consisting of Eight Games beginning in January. Is it too late to put this together? That’s a legitimate question, indeed, but in the meantime consider what that could mean for the 2020 Season as a whole. Essentially, with 60% of the Power Five playing in the Fall and the remaining 40% participating in the Spring, there will be TWO separate seasons, which will effect a wealth of things, such as the Rankings, the Awards (cough, the Heisman, cough), the Bowls, and most importantly, the College Football Playoff. There are generally Forty-One Bowls, which means Eighty-One Teams, and at the moment there will only be Seventy-Six schools even competing in the Fall, and in regards to the Playoff itself, are they seriously going to have two separate Playoffs. Think about that for a moment, folks… there could be TWO Rose Bowls (due to contractual rights with the Big Ten and the Pac-12)! Clemson Head Coach, Dabo Swinney, stated on Friday that postponing the start of the Playoff so that the other leagues can play catch up was not an option, so how in the hell are we supposed to get a legitimate National Champion? Or how about one of these Non-Power Five Schools filling the void left by the larger conferences, and finally earning a seat in the Playoff?
“I’d love for them to play, and testing is a great opportunity for everyone, for sure…We’re ready to roll… That would be something I wouldn’t be in favor for. It’d be hard to start in November and then push the season into February.”Dabo Swinney, Clemson Head Coach
There has been NOTHING normal about 2020, and why should College Football be any different? In the meantime, let’s just be thankful that we will in fact receive a season, no matter the circumstance that will govern it. With the Big 12, ACC, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and AAC kicking off their respective seasons this weekend (with the SEC to follow in two weeks time), let’s break out the crystal ball and attempt to parse through all that smoke to find what is in store…
Teams to Watch
We’re going to keep this restricted to teams competing this Fall, due to the uncertainty of the completion of any campaign by the schools that have opted to postpone their season. With that said, opportunity knocks for those willing to play, and you’ll be sure to find a mix of traditional powerhouses combined with some upstarts that typically would never get a fair chance at the Playoff.
- (1) Clemson, ACC – In a normal season the Tigers would be one of the prohibitive favorites to win both the ACC and the Playoff, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re once again in that category. A participant in four of the last five National Championship Games, Swinney’s troops should have an easier road to the Final than in years past. With Heisman frontrunner, Trevor Lawrence, back at Quarterback, along with electrifying Tailback, Travis Etienne, and what is sure to be another loaded recruiting class, look for Clemson to be the odds-on favorite until notified otherwise.
- (8) Florida, SEC – With upheaval across the SEC at a number of prominent programs, could be this year that the Gators finally regain control of the East Division? Georgia’s issues at Quarterback have made plenty of noise of late, and Dan Mullen has his charges in excellent position to capitalize on the reigning East Champions’ shortcomings. 21-5 in his first two season in Gainesville, he has Florida knocking on the door once again, and with Senior Quarterback, Kyle Trask, firmly entrenched as the starter, this program may be able to ascend to the heights that it enjoyed a decade ago.
- (20) Cincinnati/ (21) Central Florida, CUSA – Yes, this is cheating, but we simply couldn’t name one without the other. In a year where 40% of the Power Five leagues will not be competing in the Fall, there is NEVER going to be a better opportunity for these schools to push their way into the Playoff. Both have been close in recent years, with Central Florida publicly making their case in each of the past two campaigns that they deserved as shot. Well this is it, and with both teams returning a wealth of talent it should be very interesting to see if they can in fact make the most out these unique circumstances.
- (10) Notre Dame, ACC – Ladies and gentlemen, we’re witnessing some true history here, for the first time since the advent of their program back in 1899, the Fighting Irish will actually be affiliated with a conference, joining the ACC this season due to the pandemic. And with that said, one of the biggest arguments against the school’s credibility in any discussion about the Playoff has disappeared (albeit for one season), as Brian Kelly’s charges look to make the most of an opportunity that they could reap serious benefits from. Yes, they lost a good deal of talent at the skill positions, but the Offensive Line figures to be one of the best in the country, and Senior Quarterback, Ian Book, looks to build upon a solid first season in South Bend. If they can hold their own within the league, then don’t be surprised to seen Notre Dame in the conversation once again for the Playoff.
- (6) LSU, SEC – The reigning National Champions will look very different in 2020, and it’s probably for the best that there are so many other things going on in the world, for under normal circumstances any team having to fill the litany of holes on their roster would be subject to intense scrutiny. Ed Orgeron lost a staggering FOURTEEN players to the NFL Draft, including reigning Heisman Quarterback, Joe Burrow, while also losing some other key players, who have opted out due to concerns over the coronavirus (more on that shortly). Granted, few teams recruit better than LSU, and while they’ve no doubt have plenty of talent waiting in the wings, we believe that their lofty Preseason Ranking is a good bit off the mark.
Players We’ll Miss
As we touched upon earlier, players around the country were given the opportunity to opt out of the 2020 Season due to concerns over the coronavirus. Some of their number are rather prominent figures at major programs, and you’ll notice a theme here in regards to these kids not wanting to potentially jeopardize their futures (and NFL $$$), which we don’t blame them AT ALL.
- Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State – The Junior Linebacker played all over the field in 2019, lining up as at all three Linebackers positions, along with Defensive End, and even as a Nickel Cornerback. He racked up 109 Tackles, 14.0 For Loss, 5.0 Sacks, and Four Forced Fumbles as a Sophomore for the Nittany Lions, and while his presence is sure to be missed, this kid has Top-10 Pick in the 2021 NF Draft written all over him.
- Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU – Another would-be Junior coming off a prolific campaign, there is literally nothing that Chase could have done to raise his stock any higher than it is at the moment. In 2019, the Sophomore Receiver led the NCAA in both Receiving Yards (1,780) and Receiving Touchdowns (20) en route to winning the National Championship. With his Quarterback and Offensive Coordinator now plying their respective trades in the NFL, there is NO need for him to return to Baton Rouge.
- Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia – Here’s an interesting one, folks. After spending three years at Wake Forest, Newman transferred to Georgia where he was expected to become the Starting Quarterback, replacing Jake Fromm. Racking up 3,442 Total Yards and Thirty-Two Touchdowns as a Junior in Winston Salem, many around the country were frothing at the mouth to see what Newman could bring to the table for the Bulldogs, particularly with a vastly superior supporting cast. However, it appears that it simply wasn’t meant to be as he announced earlier this week that he will be opting out, effectively ending his collegiate career without ever taking a snap in Athens.
- Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (FL) – Coming out of nowhere in 2019, Rousseau led the nation with 15.5 Sacks as a member of Miami’s fearsome Front Seven. Only a Redshirt Freshman with just fourteen total games under his belt, the Defensive Lineman shocked many around the program with his decision to opt out, with an eye on the 2021 NFL Draft where he’s sure to be an intriguing prospect.
- Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota – One half of the most prolific pass-catching tandem in the Big Ten, Bateman (60 REC, 1,219 YDS, 11 TD) is calling it a career with a Minnesota program that rose to new heights under the watch of P.J. Fleck. The Golden Gophers lost fellow Receiver, Tyler Johnson (86 REC, 1,318 YDS, 13 TD), to the 2020 NFL Draft and will no be without Bateman if they do manage to put together some semblance of a season in the Spring. The would-be Junior was a big-play machine last season, averaging a robust 20.3 Yards per Reception.
Players to Watch
While those players that we just listed have ultimately decided not to play, their collective absence opens the door for others to claim the spotlight. Here are a few names to keep in mind on Saturdays for the next few months…
- Derek Stingley Jr, CB, LSU – Any time you can claim to be the top Defensive Back at a program like LSU, you know that you’re doing something right. In the case of Stingley Jr, he just so happened to do so as a True Freshman on a National Champion. One of the few remaining stars from the Tigers’ 2019 Championship, this kid spent the majority of his first season in Baton Rouge as arguably the best Cornerback in the country; opposing Quarterbacks managed a scant 22.6 Passer Rating against him, while leading the SEC in Passes Defended (21).
- Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State – Another star to come out of the ether is Hubbard, who exploded onto the scene in Stillwater, where he led the country with a whopping 2,292 Total Yards and Twenty-One Touchdowns. The Sophomore averaged 6.4 Yards per Carry in 2019, and was one of the most explosive Tailbacks in the country totaling Forty-Nine Runs of Ten or more Yards, leading the Big 12. Sure, his relationship with his Head Coach, Mike Gundy, may not be the most ideal (which is an understatement), but we’re happy to see that he chose to return to the Cowboys for one more season before heading off to greener pastures in the NFL.
- Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama – Last season, Alabama’s passing game was the most prolific in the school’s history, averaging 342.2 Yards through the air. As you can imagine, they had plenty of weapons in the Receiving Corps, with the likes of Henry Ruggs (40 REC, 746 YDS, 7 TD) and Jerry Jeudy (77 REC, 1,163 YDS, 10 TD) both being selected in the First Round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In their departure, look for Waddle to fil the void, and then some; the Sophomore hauled in Thirty-Three Receptions for 560 Yards and Six Touchdowns on a healthy 17.0 Yards per Catch, while also playing a huge role as a Punt Returner, amassing 720 Return Yards and another pair of scores. Furthermore, he averaged a ridiculous 12.3 Yards after the Catch, proof that he ‘s a home run waiting to happen. If you’re looking for the next great playmaker from Tuscaloosa, then this kid is your guy.
- D’Eriq King, QB, Miami – Here’s an interesting one, folks. After four successful seasons at Houston, in which he accumulated Fifty Passing Touchdowns and another Twenty-Eight Rushing Scores, King abruptly decided that he would be sitting out the 2019 campaign so that he could transfer to a different program in 2020. Granted, there was plenty of change within the program as a number of players decided to leave, but King’s decision to do so after just four games drew a lot of criticism. However, landing in Miami makes for one of the most intriguing fits in this crazy season; the Hurricanes have been starved for a playmaker at Quarterback for years now, and with new Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee looking to implement a new spread attack, this could end up being a match made in heaven.
- Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina – For the first time in years there is some real positive vibes coming out of North Carolina, and the prime reason for that is Howell, who really impressed as a True Freshman in Chapel Hill. He passed for 3,641 Yards, Thirty-Eight Touchdowns and just Seven Interceptions in his first season with the program, and with the Tar Heels making some changes on the offensive side of the football, there is plenty of optimism that he’ll avoid the Sophomore Jinx and create more fireworks in 2020.
Games You Had Better Not Miss
Every year there are particular matchups that we have circled on our calendars, and even without so many conferences, that hasn’t changed. Here are some affairs that will be sure to have major influence on the Playoff this Winter.
- (1) Clemson @ (10) Notre Dame – This is going to be the biggest matchup of the Regular Season for both teams. For Clemson, it will kick off the tail end of their schedule with three of their final four contests being played on the road, while Notre Dame will relish the opportunity to face a real powerhouse as they enjoy their brief stay in a conference for the first time in the program’s long, successful history. It will mark the first meeting between these two schools since the Tigers embarrassed the Irish 30-3 in the CFP Semifinals back on December 29th, 2018.
- (8) Florida v (4) Georgia – We discussed earlier the issues that Georgia are facing at Quarterback, with Jake Fromm moving onto the NFL, and his intended replacement, Jamie Newman, opting out of 2020 after transferring from Wake Forest. It appears that former USC Quarterback, J.T. Daniels, will get the nod, though he is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Season Opener. Florida on the other hand has that position figured out with Kyle Trask returning following a stellar 2019, with plenty of talent on both sides of the football. The Bulldogs have won three in a row in this rivalry, which is important for the victor is all but likely to advance to the SEC Championship Game, which is a place that the Gators haven’t been since 2016, which is coincidentally the last time that they bested Georgia.
- (20) Cincinnati @ (21) Central Florida – Of the Non-Power Five darlings in the country, these two are oftentimes the most impressive, and in this season devoid of the likes of Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, and USC, the prospects of one of these programs sneaking into the Playoff are higher than ever. Both teams return plenty of talent, as Cincinnati’s staunch Defense plays the perfect foil for Central Florida’s high-powered Offense. After losing back-to-back seasons 26-74, the Bearcats finally broke through and took down the Golden Knights 27-24 at Nippert Stadium in Southern Ohio.
- (5) Oklahoma v (14) Texas – Even with the Covid-19 Pandemic rocking the sports world, we’re still thankful that we’ll be able to enjoy such historic rivalries as the Red River Shootout. Oklahoma has ruled over the Big 12 for half a decade now, though one would have to imagine that they’ll never be more vulnerable than in 2020, breaking in a new Quarterback, Spencer Rattler. Texas on the other hand, is now in Year No. Four of the Tom Herman Era and really need to take that next leap; the Longhorns are 25-25 under Herman since he arrived in Austin in 2017, and are 1-2 against the Sooners. With the experienced Sam Ehlinger (4,326 Total YDS, 39 TD) returning for his Senior campaign, the ‘Horns could finally make that leap, and this particular affair will likely dictate just how far they will go.
- (3) Alabama @ (6) LSU – It’s unfair that two powerhouses reside in the same division, but this annual slugfest between the Crimson Tide and Bayou Bengals is typically one to enjoy. However, last year’s affair was a veritable track meet, with LSU edging Alabama 46-41 in Tuscaloosa on their way to winning the National Championship. We detailed earlier the mass exodus of talent in Baton Rouge, which should put Ed Orgeron’s side at a disadvantage, but Nick Saban has said goodbye to the prolific Tua Tagovailoa, who was fulcrum of the most explosive offense that he’s had since arriving in Alabama back in 2007. Both of these programs will be reloading in 2020, and if history has taught us anything it’s that this tie can often crown kings, which wouldn’t be a surprise at all in what is sure to be a wild season.