Clemson coach Dabo Swinney yells to Clemson defensive end K.J. Henry during the College Football Playoff championship game against LSU, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Photo: David J. Phillip/AP
Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Clemson is team to beat in 2020. Georgia is among top challengers.

It’s been 15 years since the final Associated Press poll was used to determine college football’s national champion. It’s even less relevant in the College Football Playoff era. We knew LSU was No. 1 after the Tigers thrashed Clemson late Monday night. The next rankings that matter will be CFP’s first one in November. 

That doesn’t mean the final AP poll has no value. It’s a very good predictor of which teams will make the next season’s CFP. If there are interlopers, they aren’t likely to come from far down the rankings. 

Only three of 16 teams to make the past four playoffs weren’t ranked among the top six of the final AP poll for the previous season (Georgia in 2017 is one of the outliers). Just five of 16 teams who ended the season in the AP’s top four didn’t make the next CFP field (Georgia in 2018 is among that group). 

The top six in the last AP poll this season are, in order, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon and Florida. Oklahoma is No. 7. Alabama is No. 8, its lowest finish since 2010. 

From that group of eight, Clemson is the team to beat for 2020. Ohio State is the top challenger. The picture gets muddier after those two. That’s how it shakes out in the national championship “futures” odds posted Tuesday at

Clemson is the 9-to-4 favorite and Ohio State is 3-to-1. Then there’s a gap to Alabama at 6-to-1. Georgia and LSU are 8-to-1. Florida is 14-to-1. Oklahoma and Oregon are among six teams at 30-to-1. 

It’s not hard to see what separates Clemson and Ohio State from the other contenders. They have the best quarterbacks. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields are neck-and-neck for shortest odds to win the 2020 Heisman Trophy. 

The rest of the CFP hopefuls will have to replace exceptional starters. The best one, Joe Burrow, is off to the NFL after setting records and winning the Heisman at LSU. The others are Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Jake Fromm (Georgia), Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) and Justin Herbert (Oregon). 

Florida is an exception. Kyle Trask was good in his first season as a starter. Coach Dan Mullen has a strong record of developing good QBs. Those are good reasons to think the Gators can close the gap on Georgia in the SEC East. But there is a gap. 

Georgia coach Kirby Smart quickly closed the deal on what I considered a tough sell when he lured graduate transfer Jamie Newman to Athens. Newman was good for Wake Forest. His challenge is to perform consistently against better competition. The task for Smart and offensive coordinator James Coley is building a better offense around Newman’s dual-threat talent. 

Newman started 16 games for Wake Forest. That still makes him more experienced than Alabama’s Mac Jones and whichever quarterbacks ends up as the starter at Oklahoma, Oregon and LSU. Credit Smart for filling a big hole at QB with perhaps the best available transfer on the market. 

There is a wild card out there on the QB transfer market. D’Eriq King announced he’s leaving Houston as a graduate transfer. SportsLine gives LSU the best odds of landing King. I don’t know what that probability is based on, but if King ends up in Baton Rouge then LSU’s chances to repeat will get a lot better. 

Clemson and Ohio State don’t have to worry about their quarterback situation. Fields was outstanding in his first season as a starter and finished third in the Heisman voting behind Burrow and Hurts. Lawrence had a bad game against LSU, but he’s a special talent. 

And Clemson has its best talent base of the CFP era. Its run of five consecutive playoff appearances came with relatively modest recruiting classes. The four groups before Clemson’s CFP berth in 2015 were ranked Nos. 10, 20, 15 and 16 per the 247Sports Composite. 

Clemson’s 2020 class is its first top-ranked group. The previous three classes were ranked Nos. 10, 7 and 16. Clemson was elite before it recruited that way. Now the Tigers have SEC-level recruiting in the ACC, so good luck to the rest of the league. 

Several of Clemson’s young players were major contributors this season, especially on defense. The Tigers are stacked, and they still have their quarterback. Clemson won’t fall off much in 2020, even if all its key draft-eligible players bolt: running back Travis Etienne, wide receiver Tee Higgins, cornerback A.J. Terell and linebacker Isaiah Simmons. 

History shows that the challengers to Clemson next season almost surely will come from near the top of the final AP poll this season. Ohio State will be there. Georgia will be among the teams chasing those two. The Bulldogs have a good, experienced quarterback in the fold. That’s the next best thing to Fromm returning and gives them an edge over almost every other contender.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.