The first phase of college football’s offseason begins before the current one ends. That’s when the top-tier teams that aren’t playing in the national championship game find out which players are off to the NFL or elsewhere. Key coaches may opt for better jobs.
The next phase comes when that process plays out for the final two teams. This year that was champion LSU (which was gutted by player and coach departures) and runner-up Clemson (which survived relatively intact).
Phase 2 is over. The NFL draft deadline has passed, and the shuffling of coaches is mostly complete. There will be more player attrition via transfers, suspensions and dismissals, but there aren’t likely to be major changes among college football’s elite.
If recent history holds, the four teams in next season’s College Football Playoff will come from among the top six in the final Associated Press poll. With that in mind, here’s how I rank the top six for 2020 after Phase 2 of the offseason:
No. 1 Clemson
Key personnel leaving: linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback A.J. Terrell, wide receiver Tee Higgins, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott
Key personnel returning/arriving: quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney.
Lawrence could be the top selection in the 2021 NFL draft. Simmons and Higgins are top NFL prospects, but Etienne, the two-time ACC player of the year, decided to return. That’s a huge boost for Lawrence and the Tigers. So is the usual coaching continuity and what figures to be another ACC season with no true challenger.
No. 2 Alabama
Key personnel leaving: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, wide receiver Henry Ruggs, safety Xavier McKinney, linebacker Terrell Lewis, offensive tackle Jedrick Wills.
Key personnel returning/arriving: linebacker Dylan Moses, wide receiver DeVonta Smith, running back Najee Harris, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood.
Mac Jones is unlikely to be as good as Tagovailoa. He doesn’t need to be for Alabama to return to the CFP. Moses, an All-SEC performer as a sophomore, will boost a defense that missed him and several other key players who were injured in 2019. Leatherwood’s return means four of five offensive line starters are back along with leading rusher Harris and top touchdown-maker Smith.
No. 3 Ohio State
Key personnel leaving: defensive end Chase Young, cornerback Jeff Okudah, running back J.K. Dobbins, co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.
Key personnel returning/arriving: quarterback Justin Fields, guard Wyatt Davis, cornerback Shaun Wade, linebacker Baron Browning.
The Buckeyes will have to rebuild their elite defense. Gone are Young (Big Ten defensive player of the year), their best cornerback and three good defensive tackles. Hafley left to be head coach at Boston College. But Wade’s surprise return will help, and Ohio State has the most important piece with Fields.
No. 4 Georgia
Key personnel leaving: quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D’Andre Swift, offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, offensive lineman Cade Mays, guard Solomon Kindley.
Key personnel returning/arriving: quarterback Jamie Newman, safety Richard LeCounte, linebacker Monty Rice, defensive end Malik Herring, cornerback Eric Stokes, offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Kirby Smart’s recruiting has been good enough to sustain major player personnel losses in consecutive seasons. Smart made a shaky quarterback situation solid when he lured Wake Forest transfer Newman. Hiring Monken signaled that Smart is ready to run a more dynamic offense with Newman. Rebuilding the offensive line will be key.
No. 5 Florida
Key personnel leaving: cornerback CJ Henderson, quarterback Feleipe Franks.
Key personnel returning/arriving: quarterback Kyle Trask, safety Shawn Davis, wide receiver Trevon Grimes, wide receiver Kadarius Toney.
My rosy outlook on the Gators is largely based on the belief that Trask will improve in his second season as a starter under coach/QB guru Dan Mullen. Trask was good after replacing Franks, who transferred to Arkansas. If Trask falters then redshirt freshman Emory Jones, a top recruit from Franklin, will get the nod. There’s time to figure it out: Florida’s schedule doesn’t get serious until Week 4 at Tennessee.
No. 6 LSU
Key personnel leaving: quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, safety Grant Delpit, left tackle Saahdiq Charles, linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, wide receiver Justin Jefferson, tight end Thaddeus Moss, passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Key personnel returning/arriving: wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
Chase’s decision to return prevented a total loss of key underclassmen for LSU. Only Alabama has managed to lose so many key pieces at once and stay on top. The Tigers got there with Burrow flourishing in Brady’s passing attack. Both are gone to the NFL along with Edwards-Helaire, whose versatility was key. Grad-transfer quarterback D’Eriq King considered LSU before landing at Miami.
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