It’s never too early to start thinking about next season.
So in that spirit, what does each top 25 team need to do to follow LSU’s path and win next season’s College Football Playoff title? For some teams, like Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers, it’s pretty straightforward. For others toward the bottom of the list, like Texas and Tennessee, it’s going to take a lot more to go right. But this is the time of year for optimism.
So let’s a look at each team’s best-case scenario.
Two words: Trevor Lawrence. No pressure, Trev. In all seriousness, Clemson’s loss to LSU in the national championship game is not a sign that the Tigers are in any way done as a program. If you listen to coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers are just getting started. With Lawrence returning as a junior starting quarterback, plus record-setting back Travis Etienne, there is a reason Clemson is the betting favorite in January to win the 2020 national title. Also, the team that played LSU was fairly young by Clemson’s standards, with 80 freshmen or sophomores on the roster. That means Clemson returns a veteran group with Lawrence and playmakers such as Justyn Ross, Tyler Davis and Xavier Thomas ready to make another championship run. The schedule should help that endeavor. —Andrea Adelson
The Buckeyes need their defense to stay at its 2019 level and not take a step back. That unit is losing defensive end Chase Young, defensive tackles Robert Landers and DaVon Hamilton, corner Jeffrey Okudah, and safety Jordan Fuller among a few others. That is a lot to replace in addition to losing co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley to Boston College. The defense improved a ton under Hafley, and while the offense looks to be rolling — especially with quarterback Justin Fields entering his second season in the system — the defense is going to have to play at an elite level if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at the national championship. —Tom VanHaaren
The dynasty isn’t on life support yet. A total rebuild isn’t needed. Thanks to the return of wide receiver DeVonta Smith, left tackle Alex Leatherwood and middle linebacker Dylan Moses, Alabama actually came out of the draft-announcement season a winner. If quarterback Mac Jones can continue to develop, playing with the poise he showed in replacing Tua Tagovailoa, and the defense can coalesce around the return of Moses — a 2018 Butkus Award finalist who missed all of last season — then the Tide will find itself right back in the thick of the championship hunt. —Alex Scarborough
For a reigning champ, the Tigers sure have a lot of work to do. First, Ed Orgeron must replace his departed coaches (offensive assistant Joe Brady, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda). A host of key players who are headed to the NFL must be replaced. Fortunately for Orgeron, the latter part is customary in Baton Rouge; LSU is no stranger to early draft departures and recruits well enough to stem the personnel losses. But the biggest question is at quarterback, where someone must replace Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. Myles Brennan, a soon-to-be-fourth-year junior, is the likely option. He doesn’t have to be Burrow to lift the Tigers back to a title, but he does have to operate the offense at a high level and show poise in big moments the way his predecessor did. —Sam Khan Jr.
As they did to open the 2019 season against Auburn, the Ducks have a stiff nonconference test that could change the trajectory of their season when they host Ohio State on Sept. 12. A win against the Buckeyes would both give the Ducks the type of high-profile win needed for selection and keep a margin of error during Pac-12 play. Had the Ducks scheduled three easy nonconference wins last year — instead of Auburn — they likely would have received the No. 4 seed. Instead, a baffling loss at Arizona State effectively eliminated the Ducks from contention. Oregon has recruited well under Mario Cristobal; the major question headed into next season is how well they can move on after four years with quarterback Justin Herbert. —Kyle Bonagura
Quarterback Jamie Newman needs to be a wake-up call for a far-too-conservative Bulldogs offense. Jake Fromm did all he could in his three seasons as the team’s starting quarterback, but he couldn’t change the plays that were called. Maybe Newman, a transfer from Wake Forest with true dual-threat ability, will force that change and finally bring this offense into the 21st century. If he does and George Pickens gets some help around him at receiver, then we know the defense is good enough to take it from there and carry this team back to playoff contention. —Scarborough
Have you looked at the 2020 schedule that awaits the Gators? It sets up for a national championship run, with only one Power 5 nonconference game (Florida State), Ole Miss replacing Auburn as its rotating West Division opponent and LSU coming to the Swamp. Georgia appears to be facing more of a rebuild than Florida, and though the Tennessee game is on the road, the Gators have owned that series. Quarterback Kyle Trask returns, and several key players are coming back on defense, including Marco Wilson and Shawn Davis. Everything seems to be setting up for a major opportunity to play for a championship for the first time since 2008. Expect there to be questions about the nonconference schedule if Florida makes it through the Georgia game undefeated, but there has never been an unbeaten SEC team left out of the playoff. Mark it down now: Florida will have a shot to win every game on that schedule. —Adelson
The Sooners have the “get to the playoff” part down, now they have to figure out how to win games once they get there. Not going up against the No. 1 team in the semifinals — which they’ve had to do in the past two trips — might help. To avoid that, they’ll need to run the table in their schedule. That’s doable with their 2020 slate: They host rivalry Oklahoma State, as well as Baylor and their lone Power 5 nonconference foe (Tennessee). As a team, they’ll have to get even better on defense in Year 2 under Alex Grinch, and whoever takes over at quarterback for Lincoln Riley (Spencer Rattler or Tanner Mordecai) needs to do what Oklahoma quarterbacks usually do: dominate. —Khan
Against a schedule that could feature five to eight ranked teams (Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and, in this scenario, the Big Ten West champ for sure, plus perhaps Virginia Tech, Indiana, Nebraska and/or Michigan State), the Nittany Lions have to go 13-1. The receiving corps unearths a go-routes master to punish safeties wrong-footed by the run game, and the defense finds a new pass rusher and sturdies up a safety corps that gave up a few too many big plays late in the year. —Bill Connelly
Looking at Notre Dame’s schedule in 2020, the game against Clemson on Nov. 7 is going to be the deciding factor one way or another. Notre Dame starts the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, which will make for a tricky game, then has to get through Wisconsin and Stanford. But ultimately, if Notre Dame wants a shot at the playoff, it will have to beat Clemson. This past season, the Irish lost to Georgia by six points and Michigan by 31. Without a conference championship game, Notre Dame can’t afford any mistakes in 2020. Without a win against Clemson that late in the season, the chances at a national championship are slim. — VanHaaren
Quarterback Kellen Mond must take a big step forward. The running back depth needs to be bolstered significantly. And the Aggies must take advantage of a schedule that’s much more favorable to them this year than their brutal 2019 slate. They leave the state of Texas only once before a mid-October roadie at Auburn; they’ll need to be 6-0 going into that one. Their closing kick is again a tough one, with their final two coming at Alabama and home vs. LSU. They’ll need to win at least two of those three games to get into the playoff conversation. —Khan
Coach Gus Malzahn has said a number of times that quarterback Bo Nix will win a championship at Auburn. Well, he has to start playing better if he’s going to do it. Nix flashed absurd potential last season, coming up big in big moments as a true freshman, but he was far too inconsistent a passer to lead his team to the promised land. It’s a lot of ifs, but if Nix can start completing a high percentage of his passes and if the offensive and defensive line are rebuilt properly, the Tigers will have a chance. —Scarborough
A two-year retooling bears all the right fruit. OSU won 10 games each year from 2015 to ’17 but has gone just 15-11 since, torn down by all the wrong injuries and simply not enough defense (38 points per game allowed in those 11 losses). But in 2020, the Cowboys return likely All-Americans in RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Tylan Wallace, plus QB and human roller-coaster ride Spencer Sanders. Plus, the defense had only one senior among its top 13 tacklers. The Cowboys have all the experience and upside they need. Time to see how far they can run with it. —Connelly
By finding and maintaining that September feeling. Wisconsin won its first six games (four against eventual bowl teams) and by an average score of 43-5. The Badgers’ defense attacked even better than normal, and Jonathan Taylor was on an even higher level than the typical UW running back. The Badgers lost their focus in an upset loss to Illinois, however, and couldn’t reraise their game enough to match an awesome Ohio State. Without Taylor and a couple of key linebackers, it could be pretty difficult to find that level again in 2020, but we didn’t expect it this year, either. —Connelly
If the Wolverines are going to have any shot at the title, the team needs to start winning big games on the road. Last season, Michigan lost at Wisconsin by 21 and at Penn State by seven. In 2018, Michigan opened the season by losing to Notre Dame on the road, then lost to host Ohio State to close out the season. It has been a problem under Jim Harbaugh, and it won’t get easier in 2020, as the team opens at Washington, plays at Michigan State and at Minnesota in back-to-back weeks and again closes out the season by traveling to Columbus to play Ohio State. Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes as Michigan’s head coach, and if this team is going to have any shot at the playoff, Harbaugh will need his first win against the rival to come this season. —VanHaaren
Win the close ones this time. ISU’s five regular-season losses came by an average of just 3.6 points; the Cyclones were 2-5 in one-score finishes. Baylor surged to within an OT period of the CFP because the Bears won those games. If a more experienced backfield (QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall) and a continuously innovative defense can just make one or two more plays in these tight games, the Cyclones could easily get to 12-1 or so. They’d have to pull a couple of upsets in the CFP, but their defense might give them a shot. —Connelly
Let’s be honest: the Bearcats will need lots of help. As good as they could be, it will require a knockout schedule for an American conference team to ever even reach the CFP, much less win it. But while the Bearcats played a big fish in 2019 (Ohio State), the only P5 team they play in 2020 is Nebraska. So they’ll have to run the table — against a slate that includes trips to Temple, UCF and SMU, plus Memphis and Houston at home — and hope for mass chaos. They’ll potentially have the talent for such a run. —Connelly
As UCF learned, it will take an unusual set of circumstances for a Group of 5 team to crash the party. To even be part of the discussion, the Broncos will need to be undefeated, which would include nonconference wins against Georgia Southern, Florida State, Marshall and BYU. Florida State is key. If Boise State were to beat FSU and the Seminoles went on to win the ACC, it would be easier for the committee to look at Boise State as a legitimate option. That feels unlikely as FSU rebuilds, of course, but it’s the type of scenario needed for the Broncos just to be considered. Then there’s the thinning of the herd. If Boise State is sitting there at 13-0 and all the Power 5 champions have at least two losses, then they’ll have a shot. Again, unlikely. But possible! Then, once they’re there, it would take some of the postseason magic Boise State is known for. —Bonagura
Coming off an 11-2 season, including a decisive win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, the Golden Gophers are most certainly a program on the rise. It’s possible for the Big Ten champion to get left out of the playoff, but let’s go ahead and assume a conference title will result in a playoff berth. From a scheduling standpoint, the Gophers are positioned well. They don’t play Penn State or Ohio State in the regular season (although neither does Wisconsin) and play Michigan at home. If quarterback Tanner Morgan builds off his impressive sophomore season under new coordinator Mike Sanford, the Gophers should be in the mix. —Bonagura
New coach Dave Aranda is still filling out his staff, but once he does that, he’ll need to figure out how to keep this defense playing the way it did and perhaps even better than in 2019; a tough task given the departure of the Bears’ stellar defensive line. The biggest key to Baylor taking the next step, though? Improving an offense that sputtered at times and keeping quarterback Charlie Brewer healthy. If those things happen, they’ll have a chance at navigating a tough Big 12 schedule that has road games at Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State on it. —Khan
It doesn’t seem fair to ask this question for a program outside the Power 5, because the only way a team like Memphis can win a national championship is if mass chaos erupts and it is sitting undefeated among Power 5 conference champions with three or more losses. Even then, who knows. But for hypothetical sake, let’s start with the obvious: Memphis has to win all its games. To win all its games, it has to win at Purdue, Cincinnati, Navy and SMU, not to mention home to UCF and Temple. That is all possible with its offensive triumvirate of Brady White, Kenneth Gainwell and Damonte Coxie back, along with eight starters on defense. But even with all that, the Memphis nonconference schedule is in all likelihood a disqualifier, with only one Power 5 game on the slate. —Adelson
With Sam Howell, anything is possible. After all, he almost beat Clemson as a true freshman. Howell threw for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season and earned freshman All-America honors. But Howell isn’t the only one returning; so are the Tar Heels’ best skill position players in Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome and Beau Corrales. In fact, 10 starters are expected back on offense. The Tar Heels have two big games right out of the gate, at UCF in Orlando and then against Auburn in Atlanta. If they win both, we will know much more about this team. And if they win the Coastal Division as an undefeated team and beat Clemson in the ACC championship game, they could very well have a top-four spot. —Adelson
Iowa’s three losses in 2019 came by a combined 14 points against Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, but the offense scored only 37 combined points and three TDs in those games. All three came from quarterback Nate Stanley, who has graduated and moved on. Iowa is going to need to get instant production from its new quarterback, Spencer Petras, who has thrown 11 passes for 25 yards in his two seasons at Iowa. The defense kept Iowa in a lot of its games last season, and if Iowa is going to have any shot at making the playoff, it can’t afford any drop-off or any miscues from its new quarterback and the offense. —VanHaaren
This program is a long way from such heights. But for it to happen, Tom Herman’s remade coaching staff must jell quickly. The defense has to return to the reliable unit it was in Herman’s first two years there. The offense needs guys such as Malcolm Epps, Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith to step up now that Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson are gone. The return of Jordan Whittington would be a boost. Sam Ehlinger should — and likely will — continue taking steps forward. Oh, and the Longhorns probably need wins over LSU and Oklahoma if they’re going to be taken seriously as a title contender, much less a team that can win it. Talk is cheap in Austin these days; the Longhorns most prove they’re worthy of any hype. —Khan
The Vols still appear to be at least a year away from being in the playoff conversation, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment. In college football, anything is possible. All Tennessee needs is chaos and out-of-this world coaching. In terms of coaching, it needs Henry To’o To’o to go from a freshman phenom to an All-American middle linebacker, and it needs quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to make a Joe Burrow-type leap as a redshirt senior. Then comes the chaos and the need for Alabama’s dynasty to come to an end, for LSU to stumble through a post-title-game hangover, for Georgia to struggle replacing Jake Fromm and for Florida to take a step backward despite the return of Kyle Trask. —Scarborough