Concerns continue regarding whether there should or shouldn’t be a college football season in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA continues to push forward, however, with the idea that game days will commence at some point this fall. While the Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten have eliminated non-conference games from the schedule, college football will be back in school this fall.
With football set to begin on — or near — its planned start date, summer workouts are once again picking up for schools across the country. As the players prepare for the grind, media publications have released their prognostications of how the 2020 season will shake out. An ambitious task any season, the crystal ball is as murky as it has ever been given the unpredictability of this entire year.
Those guesstimates take on the task of predicting breakout teams for the upcoming season. Five teams were chosen from each of the Power Five conferences, as well as one honorable mention. The criteria for what constitutes a breakout team comes down to a few factors: Past success — or lack thereof — in 2019; how much of the roster returns from the previous season; and strength of schedule, recruiting and the conference landscape.
So with no further ado, here are the breakout teams of 2020!
One of the biggest surprises in 2018 was how the Sun Devils immediately bought into new head coach Herm Edwards. After a comical opening press conference, Arizona State was expected to be a punchline of the Pac-12. Instead, their gradual trend towards respectability has put skeptics on notice. ASU finished with a 7-6 record in 2018 and an 8-5 in 2019 during Edwards’ first two seasons of tenure. Entering year three, the Sun Devils aim to take another step towards contending for a Pac-12 title in the south division.
One of the catalysts for optimism is sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels. A scrawny pivot from San Bernandino, California, he carried Arizona State’s offense in 2019. Completing 205 of 338 pass attempts for a respectable 60.7 passing percentage kept the team surging, especially during conference play. With 17 touchdown passes to just two interceptions, Daniels’ ability to avoid mistakes has analysts applauding his efficiency in the pocket. Losing top passing target Brandon Aiyuk will be difficult, but the team does retain some experience and gains young, developmental talent from their 2020 recruiting class. With a promising running game that boasts Daniel Ngata and freshman DeaMonte Trayanum, the offense should be in good shape to make this team a contender.
The big concern will be how well the new defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis — former Cincinnati Bengals head coach — can implement his 4-down lineman defense in Tempe. ASU was a middle-of-the-road team against Pac-12 opponents, giving up 28.4 points per game in 2019. Their 393.3 yards allowed per game placed them fifth in total defense. To take that next step to contending for a conference title, it’s necessary to make marked improvements in defensive production.
Following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, a cloud of despair hung over the University of Maryland football program. With players and their families genuinely concerned about staying safe and healthy, no one would have blamed the Terrapins for mailing it in last year. Perhaps that’s why I’m overlooking the team’s 3-9 record in 2019 to project a significant upturn in fortune for 2020. Head coach Mike Lockley became the third head coach in three years for Maryland. Returning for a consecutive season will help stabilize a roster made up of young underclassmen.
Maryland’s defense remains a work in progress. Junior linebacker Ayinde Eley and senior defensive lineman Oluwaseun Oluwatimi will be tasked with picking up the bulk of pass-rushing pressure after the departures of three key defenders from last year’s squad. Eley will team with Shaq Smith to provide a formidable tandem in the heart of the defense. Maryland allowed on average 449.2 yards per game, placing them dead last in total defense in the Big Ten. There’s plenty of work that needs to be done, but the Terps stand united to do a complete 180 on their woes of a year ago.
The Terps will try to continue to stay on course offensively. Their 25.3 points-per-game average in ‘19 won’t make fans swoon, but it’s a step in the right direction. Maryland will have to establish a new running back after the departures of Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake to the NFL. Prognosticators predict that freshman Penny Boone will take the reins at running back. Fortunately, the offense returns upperclassmen stars in DJ Turner, Dontay Demus and tight end Chigoziem Oknonkwo. Look out for freshman Rakim Jarrett to pop into the mix.
The big question in the offseason is what will Maryland do at quarterback? Former Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson joined the team last season and earned nine starts and passed for 1,274 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. There’s a strong possibility that redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre could push Jackson for the starting job. Joining the competition this past spring was Tualia Tagovailoa — younger brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa — from Alabama. The younger Tagovailoa is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on his request for immediate eligibility. Should it be granted, the Terps will find themselves hosting a fall derby that would rival the Preakness Stakes.
Mack Brown’s second stint as head coach at the University of North Carolina is going much better than predicted. A 7-6 record is respectable given a new regime change, and is a monumental leap from their 2-9 nightmare record in ‘18. Continuing with his CEO approach, Brown has let his generals — defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and offensive coordinator Phil Longo — oversee their sides of the ball as they see fit. It resulted in the Heels producing their first winning season in two years. They went on to defeat Temple in the Military Bowl in a 55-13 thrashing. After breaking out, it’s time to put the Atlantic Coast Conference on notice.
Led by sensational sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels offense will give opposing defenses fits. Lining up behind the QB is the thunder and lightning duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter who racked up 1,936 rushing yards a season ago. UNC also returns a trio of receivers in Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales that accounted for 2,627 receiving yards. The offensive line does lose two of their standout tackles, Charlie Heck and center Nick Polino. That said, there’s more experience across the line in general.
Chazz Surratt wasn’t much of a quarterback for North Carolina before making the switch to linebacker in 2019. Yet, from his first game in the middle of the defense, Surratt has been a natural fit. Now, Surratt joins fellow linebacker Tomon Fox and defensive back Myles Dorn to propel the defense to match the firepower of the offense.
With the exception of tricky road games against Virginia and Miami on tap this season, the Tar Heels are a strong pick to win the ACC Coastal crown and challenge for the conference championship.
If you told Aggie fans that they would finish 8-5 last season after losing on the road against Clemson, Georgia and LSU, they would have been skeptical. Expectations are high in College Station, Texas, as Jimbo Fisher enters his second season at the helm of the program. After producing a 9-4 record in his first season, last year’s challenging schedule illustrated that morphing into a true contender will not be instantaneous. With a manageable schedule — or as much as you can get in the SEC — Texas A&M is a dark-horse candidate for the conference title.
Starting quarterback Kellen Mond returns for his final season and Fisher will get the most out of his prized pupil. Texas A&M’s defense returns plenty of veterans in the front-seven and back half of the defense, led by defensive linemen Bobby Brown and DeMarvin Leal. Having gained vital experience through their tribulations a year ago, the Aggies will be prepared for the SEC gauntlet in ‘20. His 946 rushing yards placed him sixth among runners in the conference. Budding star running back Isaiah Spiller is poised for a 2020 breakout as the Aggies face another difficult schedule.
Texas A&M has a tough game at Bama and a crucial back-to-back fight with Auburn and South Carolina in late October. Texas A&M will elevate into SEC title contenders should they improve on their 1-3 road game record from 2019.
This offseason couldn’t have been any worse for Oklahoma State than it was. Heisman Trophy candidate Chubba Hubbard critiqued head coach Mike Gundy’s choice of garb amidst heightened tensions surrounding social justice and racial inequality. The head coach issued an apology after the backlash spread quickly among news outlets. To make matters worse, 14 players would later test positive for COVID-19 from their group workouts. The belief is that most of those cases will be resolved and camp will commence on time in the Big 12.
OK State finished with an 8-5 record that left room for improvement. The Pokes went 0-3 against teams ranked in the Top 25, coming up short against the likes of Texas, Texas A&M and rival Oklahoma Sooners in their Bedlam series.
Working in their favor, however, is the fact that the Cowboys return a significant number of holdovers from a year ago. Among the returnees is their aforementioned running back Hubbard, wide receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders (who missed the final three games of 2019 due to an injured thumb). The defense returns 10 players from a unit that ranked seventh in the Big 12 in total defense (412.3 ypg).
Look for Oklahoma State to use a tumultuous offseason as a galvanizing force to attack their Big 12 crown ambitions.
Honorable Mention: UCLA
It’s now or never for Chip Kelly and the UCLA Bruin. Crosstown rival USC is waking from its slumber, Oregon and Utah are emerging as serious Pac 12 title threats, and Stanford and Cal have proven they can bring the fight on a game-by-game basis. After last year’s 4-8 finish, the Bruins must climb to bowl eligibility. While Kelly was a much sought-after commodity when UCLA signed him, another poor showing will be hard to stomach.