1. Trevor Lawrence won’t win the Heisman
I go through this every year right before kickoff, but let me repeat it again for y’all. The perceived “best player in college football” almost NEVER wins the Heisman Trophy. In the last 15 years, the only players to win the award who were among the preseason favorites are Sam Bradford, Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, and Baker Mayfield. In order to win the Heisman Trophy, you not only have to be consistently great, but you have to outperform the country’s expectations of you. Case in point, when Trevor Lawrence threw two interceptions last year against Syracuse, the narrative after the game was “what’s wrong with Trevor?!”
Nevermind the fact that Lawrence still threw for nearly 400 yards, rushed for 42 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in a 41-6 butt-whipping. When you are in the front of the pack, you aren’t just expected to be great, you’re expected to be perfect.
Here’s the other reason why Lawrence won’t win — and I actually think this is the more important one: he’s not going to have to make any memorable plays. Clemson’s too good. Clemson’s likely to be favored by at least two touchdowns over every team they play in the regular season. Their two toughest games are at Notre Dame and at Virginia Tech. The best case scenario for Lawrence is either the Irish or the Hokies are ranked in the top-10 at the time they face off. Otherwise, even if the Tigers are locked in a close battle where Lawrence has to make big plays to win, the story won’t be how great Lawrence was, but rather why did Clemson let an inferior team hang around to begin with?
This is why I am a huge proponent of moving the Heisman Trophy ceremony until after the bowl season. We put so much emphasis all year long on the Playoff, and conference championships — yet the Playoff games don’t impact the most prestigious award in the sport? Some years it wouldn’t affect who wins — Joe Burrow would have been an even more convincing winner a year ago — but Lawrence very possibly could have won it two years ago if we could have seen him slice through Notre Dame and Alabama en route to the national title.
It’s not fair to Lawrence that his most challenging opponents won’t come until after the Heisman has been handed out. But as long as that’s the case, I expect Lawrence and Clemson to run the table in the ACC (again), but just like Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and Vince Young, Trevor Lawrence will leave Clemson as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play college football — without a Heisman Trophy on his mantle.
2. Georgia will win the SEC East, even without Jamie Newman
The demise of Georgia was greatly exaggerated last week when Jamie Newman announced he was opting out of the 2020 season. In Newman’s statement, he explained how the fears and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 drove the decision. That may be the case, and I have no reason to doubt that, but I was one of the few people who was skeptical months ago that Newman would even win the starting quarterback job in the first place. Once JT Daniels won his appeal for immediate eligibility, I expected him to win the job in fall camp.
Newman GREATLY benefited from having all-world talent Sage Surratt to throw to last season. When Surratt went down with an injury in November, Newman’s performance plummeted. Wake Forest averaged 8.2 yards per pass play when Surratt was on the field, and just 6.9 yards per pass play when Surratt was off the field. Newman’s completion percentage fell from 63.5 percent with 29 TD and 6 INT with Surratt on the field, to 53.7 percent with 6 TD and 8 INT when Surratt was off the field. His QBR dropped from 74.7 to 40.5 when Surratt left the game.
I wasn’t sure Newman was ever going to be the transcendent, Joe Burrow-esque transfer quarterback that it felt like he was being made out to be. Kirby Smart expects Daniels to be cleared for contact before the season opener (he’s recovering from a torn ACL suffered early last season while at USC), but redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis has been splitting first-team reps since Newman’s departure.
Regardless of who is under center, the arrival of Todd Monken as offensive coordinator is more important than whoever is calling plays. Georgia’s offense has been stuck in the mud the past few years. Monken’s impact will be felt immediately. More importantly, this defense is SCARY good again. Seven starters return from a group that led the nation in scoring defense a year ago and was third in total yards per game. They can’t exactly ease into the schedule with Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida as five of their first six games. But the defense is good enough to put them over the top against everyone but Florida and Alabama. The SEC East is going to come down to that game against the Gators on Nov. 7. Whoever’s under center for Georgia will have had plenty of time to put some tread on their tires by then. I like the ‘Dogs to win a classic in Jacksonville and cruise through November en route to the SEC East title
3. …but Alabama will reclaim the SEC title
If Alabama is going to win the SEC, it’s likely going to have to go through Georgia twice. The Crimson Tide lost a ton of talent, including four offensive players who went in the top-15 of last year’s draft. Even so, when you can hand it off to Najee Harris, throw it to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, AND have Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson helping protect everything up front, you’re going to be in the mix.
I don’t think people realized how good Alabama was last year despite some major hurdles. They took LSU to the wire despite Tua Tagovailoa playing on essentially one leg. They led Auburn midway through the fourth quarter despite Mac Jones making the first FBS start of his career. All of this came after losing two starting linebackers before the season began.
The defense is healthy. Mac Jones is more seasoned (and Bryce Young is waiting in the wings if Jones stumbles). Last season was just the second time since 2007 that Alabama lost multiple regular season games in the same year. With a condensed schedule like this, I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.
Alabama is better than Georgia along the offensive line, and the skill positions. Both defenses are elite. Quarterbacks are close to a push. I’ll take Alabama’s weapons over Georgia and pick the Tide to win the SEC.
4. The winner of Cincinnati/UCF will make the CFB Playoff
This is it. This is the year it happens. The American Athletic Conference is LOADED at the top with three teams I believe deserve to be ranked in the Top-20 (post-Big 10/Pac-12 shutdown).
Cincinnati is my favorite to get it done. Luke Fickell turned down the Michigan State job this past winter because he has a better team, and arguably a better program at the moment, in Cincinnati. Desmond Ridder is as experienced as they come at quarterback, and the defense returns seven players with starting experience from a group that ranked 24th in scoring last season. The Bearcats meet UCF the week before Thanksgiving in a game that will likely decide the AAC East. I expect both to be unbeaten going in, and I’m going to lean ever so slightly towards the Bearcats thanks to its defense. I’m placing Memphis third in the ACC hierarchy because a) star running back Kenneth Gainwell opted out of the season and b) they play Cincinnati on the road.
As far as the Playoff goes, you can pencil in Clemson and the SEC Champions into the Playoff right now. That leaves two spots for an unbeaten ACC Champ to claim. Here’s how it can happen.
- The 2nd-place team in the SEC loses twice. I’m calling for that to be 9-2 Georgia, with two losses to Alabama
- The Big 12 cannibalizes itself. More on that in a moment.
The AAC NEEDS Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati to all dominate the rest of their respective schedules, giving whomever comes out on top three potential Top-20 wins. There’s a pretty wide gap between those three and the rest of the league, so their only hope is that that trio is good enough to provide a handful of quality wins that provide a strong Playoff case for the league champion.
5. Oklahoma will miss the Playoff for the first time in four years
You could basically write the script for Oklahoma the last three years before ever watching them play a game. A mercenary former transfer quarterback will step into Lincoln Riley’s offense, put up CandyLand numbers en route to a Heisman-worthy season…and the Sooners will lose in the CFB Playoff semis.
It seems as if that’s what people expect again this year out of the Sooners, but I’m not buying it.
Spencer Rattler will be the first quarterback actually recruited out of high school by Riley to start for the Sooners this year, and the former five-star prospect will surely thrive, just as Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts did before him. And while there’s plenty of talent to go around in Norman, the Sooners lost a lot of weapons. CeeDee Lamb is gone, and while I love DeDe Westbrook, Hollywood Brown and some of the other receivers the Sooners have boasted lately, Lamb is the best of the bunch. His loss cannot be understated.
Productive running back Trey Sermon transferred to Ohio State after it became clear Kennedy Brooks had cemented himself as the featured back. Then Brooks opted out of the season. Then Ohio State’s season was cancelled. An absolutely devastating blow for Sermon, but also a tough blow for Oklahoma, who is also without Rhamondre Stevenson due to an indefinite suspension. Sophomore wideout Trejan Bridges is also suspended. Jadon Haselwood was expected to be the next big name at wideout after Lamb, but he tore his ACL in April. Two of their key transfers, Obi Obialo and Theo Howard, are both coming off medical redshirts.
The defense is as experienced and talented as its been in years, thanks to Alex Grinch’s influence as defensive coordinator, but they still must replace Kenneth Murray at middle linebacker, whose presence was invaluable the last few years.
Make no mistake about it, Lincoln Riley’s offense will never struggle to score points, and with an improved defense, the Sooners deserve to be in the conversation as a Playoff threat. But with a handful of improved contenders at the top of the league (Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are all Top-20 teams), I’m gonna call for one of them to knock the Sooners off their perch as Big 12 champions and end the Playoff streak after three years.
6. Miami won’t win more than 7 games
Say it with me: The U is STILL not back.
How many times do I have to hear that THIS is Miami’s year?
“They’ve finally figured out the quarterback!”
“Look at all that talent on defense!”
“TURNOVER CHAIN TURNOVER CHAIN TURNOVER CHAIN”
Manny Diaz’s maiden voyage as the ‘Canes’ head coach couldn’t have gone much worse. Inconsistency at quarterback and some serious disciplinary issues led to a 6-7 season, featuring losses to Georgia Tech, Florida International and Louisiana Tech. He fired Dan Enos, a well-traveled and successful offensive coordinator, to bring in Rhett Lashlee to try and inject new life into the offense. They added Houston transfer QB D’Eriq King. They also snagged ACC Defensive Player of the Year Quincy Roche from Temple.
Here’s the thing about Miami – talent has NEVER been the issue. Have some years been leaner than others? Sure, but the Hurricanes have consistently boasted the kind of athleticism and raw talent that should produce 9 or 10 wins virtually every year. This season is no different.
Color me skeptical of how impactful King’s addition will be behind center, too. His 50-touchdown season two years ago at Houston was impressive, but in watching King’s film from that year, he mostly felt like an elite athlete playing quarterback, moreso than an elite quarterback, if that makes sense. That speed and agility in the open field was enough to dominate at the lower level. Most of the defenses he faced that season were absolutely horrendous. Even the Power Five opponents Houston faced in 2018 — Arizona and Texas Tech — were 98th and 86th respectively in scoring defense that season. The ACC might not be the SEC in terms of week-in, week-out defensive prowess, but it’s certainly going to be more equipped to slow down King than the parade of catastrophes he saw two years ago at Houston.
I have Miami losing at least four games this season. Clemson is a given. North Carolina should beat them as well. In order to finish better than 7-4, the ‘Canes can only lose once more with Louisville, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech on the schedule. I’ll bet on Miami doing Miami things and losing at least two of those five games. I’ve got the Hurricanes going 7-4 this season, at best.
7. Derek Stingley Jr and Patrick Surtain II will go 1-2 in the Jim Thorpe voting
The two best cornerbacks in the country both play in the SEC. Derek Stingley is an absolute monster who has a chance to go down as the best cornerback LSU has ever had — which is about the highest compliment you can ever give a DB. Meanwhile, Surtain II has elite coverage skills that will likely land him in the top-10 of next year’s draft. Opposing quarterbacks will spend their Saturdays throwing everywhere they can BUT near these two, who will battle for the Thorpe award all season along.
8. Virginia will finish below .500
The Cavaliers are really, really going to miss Bryce Perkins. The do-everything QB saved their butts against Florida State, Old Dominion, UNC, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech last season. Bronco Mendenhall absolutely has the Cavaliers trending in the right direction, but without the superhuman efforts of Perkins on about a half-dozen occasions, this team would have been scratching and clawing just to make a bowl game. I think that’s closer to the story this year with Brennan Armstrong under center. Mendenhall has likened Armstrong to Taysom Hill, whom Mendenhall coached at BYU, but I’m not counting on Armstrong to be able to make the kind of miraculous plays that Perkins could when things went wrong last season. Virginia just doesn’t have the kind of talent around Armstrong to outscore many teams.
The Cavs were picked 9th in the conference’s preseason poll last week. That feels about right. The only games on the schedule I’m confident they will win are NC State, at Wake Forest and at home against Boston College. The only other game I would even favor them in is at home vs Duke. Every other game on the schedule is a challenge. I’ll say Virginia takes a sizable step back from playing for an ACC Championship in 2019 and fails to win half its games in 2020.
9. Zero Power Five coaches will get fired
With budgets getting slashed all over the place in college athletics, it’s going to take a scandal, or a downright catastrophic season of epic proportions for an athletic director to pony up the buyout money this winter to replace their head coach. That’s great news for Will Muschamp, Derek Mason, and maybe even Tom Herman, all of whom have varying degrees of pressure on them to produce wins in 2020. Justin Fuente’s a name to keep an eye on as well, though I think the pressure from outside the building is a lot higher than the pressure inside the building in Blacksburg. Either way, the coaching carousel will come to a halt this winter as programs try to balance their budgets and keep as many people employed as possible.
10. UNC will finish worse than 3rd in the ACC
I feel like the only person in America who doesn’t think North Carolina is a top-15 team going into the season. Yes, there is a LOT to like about the job Mack Brown and his staff have done to change the culture around Chapel Hill, and most importantly to recruit at an insanely high level. I get it! But my goodness, did we forget how close North Carolina was to a four-win team last season? For all of the hype surrounding the job Brown’s staff has done at changing the energy around the program, I still have very serious questions about how it will translate to the field itself. Here are just a few of the ways Tar Heel games ended last season:
- Inexplicably kneeling on fourth down with time left on the clock against South Carolina
- Needing a miracle completion on 4th-and-17 to keep the game-winning drive alive against a mediocre Miami team
- Running a zone-read option with a wide receiver on the potential game-winning two-point conversion vs Clemson
- Icing THEIR OWN KICKER in an overtime loss to Virginia Tech — a game in which the Hokies essentially ran the single-wing offense for the entire second half without its starting quarterback
- A goal-line stand against Duke in which the Blue Devils made the preposterous decision to call a running back jump pass that was intercepted in the final moments.
North Carolina clearly improved as the season went along, and Sam Howell is one of the best quarterbacks in America. I just think people are getting way too far ahead of themselves when placing North Carolina in a tier above a school like Virginia Tech, which brings back comparable talent offensively and much more talent defensively. The Tar Heels are on the rise, but I think they are the fourth-best team in the ACC behind Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. I’ll say they finish 8-3, with a loss to Virginia Tech being the tiebreaker that puts them fourth in the standings at season’s end.
11. Alabama will win the national championship
I already explained why Alabama should be just as feared this year as ever. Before Clemson announced receiver Justyn Ross was out for the year, as well as Xavier Thomas on the defensive line, I had the Tigers as a slight favorite over Alabama. But I trust Alabama to have full confidence in whoever is at quarterback come Playoff time, and I think the Tide boast more talent across the board than Clemson at most other positions. Can Trevor Lawrence be enough to overcome that? I’ll take a big gulp and bet against it.
Alabama breaks its painfully long two-year national title drought in 2020, and Nick Saban passes Bear Bryant with his seventh national championship.
You know what though? No matter who wins it all in 2020, if we are lucky enough to watch a College Football Playoff at the end of this, the craziest of all seasons, we will all have plenty of reasons to celebrate.
So buckle up, enjoy every second of it, and Roll Damn Tide.