Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma … yeah, we know. They’re going to be good again. None of them are anywhere near the top of college football in 2020 in returning production (Oklahoma is the highest at No. 82 – Alabama is No. 88, Ohio State is No. 93 and Clemson is No. 104), but we know based on recruiting that they reload.
In 2019, of the top 25 teams in Division I that returned the most on-field production, only four finished in the top 25. LSU was the highest at No. 15 (the Tigers are No. 127 in 2020), Clemson was 53rd in returning production, Ohio State 62nd. So, the kind of production a team has returning matters a whole lot more than how much production returns, obviously, but teams with quality talent plus returning production is usually a good thing. Based on returning production, here are a few teams that are well-positioned to surprise. Side note: Don’t bet on Michigan, Michigan State, Utah or Kansas. They are the only four Power 5 conference teams that return less than 50% of offensive and defensive production. Actually, that may be good news for a few of them considering the kind of production they got on the field last year.
Mack is back, and the Tar Heels will be media darlings if they pull the upset of Auburn in Atlanta early in the season. With three-quarters of their offensive and defensive production returning, including 87% on offense (ninth-most returning offensive production), second-year QB Sam Howell has a ton of weapons at his disposal. The UNC defense, which ranked No. 54 with a Pro Football Focus grade of 81.8 in 2019, is the only weak link. UNC’s main stumbling block will be Clemson, which returns only 55% offense/defense production, but what’s coming back is elite.
The Trojans and Todd Helton are fun to rag on because of the fickleness of California fans, but there is hope in the Coliseum as long as the loons out West allow colleges to play football. USC returns 82% of its offense and defensive production, the fifth-highest percentage in the nation. Kedon Slovis is a star-in-waiting at QB, and he has one of the best wide receivers in the nation with Amon-Ra. St. Brown. The Trojans bring back 87% of their defense, which ranked near the bottom of the country in 2019. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should improve that and have USC vying for a conference title.
It’s time for Jimbo and that $7.5 million salary to pop or get off the pot. Fischer lost eight games in his first two seasons at Florida State before becoming a power. He’s lost nine at Texas A&M in two seasons, but the Aggies return 77% of their offense/defense production from 2019, including erratic QB Kellen Mond and 80% of the offense. No other team in the SEC West brings back more than 60% of its offensive/defensive production, so 2020 is the year to strike if A&M is going to do it.
Mike Gundy ain’t 40 anymore, and the mullet hasn’t done much for winning the Big 12. It might be time to get the clippers out if the Pokes can’t make some noise with 80% of their production returning, including Heisman candidate running back Chubba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace. Nearly the entire defense is back, but if the tackling and pass rush don’t improve (PFF graded both below 70), it won’t matter. Gundy also will have to break in his third offensive coordinator in as many years.
The Big 10 has several teams returning a slew of production from last season. Six of the top 20 teams with highest returning production belong in the Big 10. Northwestern is worth mentioning because it leads the country in returning production (84%). Pair that with Pat Fitzgerald’s ability to coach ‘em up, and an upset or two could be in the cards. Indiana and Illinois both ranked in the top 15 in returning production with 78% , but Indiana has the better quality coming back and could make some noise. Wisconsin lost big playmakers on offense but returns more than 80% of production from a solid defense in 2019. Nebraska, on the flip side, brings back nearly its entire offense with 92% of production back. Big year for Scott Frost to validate that hire. Purdue and Rutgers are the other top production returners. Jeff Brohm has to figure out the quarterback situation (just get the ball to Rondale Moore) for the Boilermakers to take the next step.
Honorable mention: Iowa State (62% offense/73% defense returning), Virginia Tech (74% offense, 89% defense returning), Penn State (74% offense, 63% defense returning), Texas (66% offense, 82% defense returning)