Observer Roundtable 2020 college football preview: Conference Championship picks
After a brief hiatus, the Observer Roundtable will be continuing our coverage of the presumptive 2020 college football season with Power 5 conference championship picks. Much as we did with our top-25 teams and top-10 quarterbacks, we are including the Big Ten and Pac-12 in our selections, regardless of whether Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’ petition is successful in letting them play in the fall, they play in the spring or they don’t play at all. We refuse to give them the satisfaction of depriving college football fans of the content they deserve. Without further ado, on to the picks.
In the ACC, it’s Clemson and Notre Dame, and then everyone else. Florida State and Miami are extremely talented but they’ve struggled to put things together in recent years. UNC is an intriguing darkhorse, as is Virginia Tech and Louisville, but ultimately, the Irish and Tigers are the clear top two teams in the conference. I like Notre Dame’s depth this season far more than the last time they took on Clemson, and I’m going with the shocker — ND over Clemson for the ACC Championship.
Recent reports have the Big Ten possibly trying for a late fall/early winter season, and it’ll be interesting to see whether any top prospects renege on their opt-out decisions. I initially had Penn State winning this, but their lack of home-field advantage in the Ohio State clash makes things tough, as does the loss of Micah Parsons on their defense. Ohio State edges out Penn State in the East while Wisconsin squeaks out of the West but gets clobbered by the Buckeyes, by 24 points in the title game.
Recent mayhem out of Norman, Oklahoma has shaken my confidence and the Sooners in the Big 12. While I will not walk by my original prediction too much — Oklahoma still makes the championship — but give me the Texas “We’re Back” Longhorns putting the nail in the coffin on Oklahoma’s five-year reign in the Big 12.
When it comes to the Pac-12, the conference is either boring (with a lack of true national contenders) or exciting (literally everybody is mediocre, so the title chase is never a runaway). Depends on how you look at it. Last year, Oregon and Utah both gave the CFP a halfhearted chase, with Oregon losing a week before the Pac-12 championship and Utah getting blown out of the water by the Ducks in the Pac-12 title clash. This year, I anticipate Utah to take a huge fall, and USC to make a big jump. Slovis would have been a Heisman contender if he had the chance to play, and I think he puts the Trojans back on top, defeating Oregon in the championship.
Finally, I think the downfall of LSU is being largely overplayed and I think the SEC West comes down to Alabama’s trip to Death Valley. While I’m picking Alabama, it’s not with a high degree of confidence, as I think LSU may get consideration as a playoff team with only 3 Power-5 conferences in play. In the east, give me Georgia. I like Kyle Trask more than Jamie Newman, but the Bulldogs’ defense may very well be the best in the country, and I’m not sure Trask has the running game behind him to defeat Georgia this year. In the title game, it’s Bama over Georgia in a nail-biter.
The ACC, far and away, stands as the Power Five conference with the greatest amount of disparity between its elite contenders and second-rate pretenders. The chasm of talent undoubtedly boils to Notre Dame and Clemson fending off the lurking UNC and Virginia. Notre Dame’s borderline bullying of ACC teams in the past few years surely should encourage us, and the home matchup against Clemson serves as a precursor to the ACC Championship game. A battle between two established quarterbacks, Ian Book and Trevor Lawrence, will leave the latter with greater composure and command in the big playoff situation. Sigh. Clemson takes the ACC title.
To even begin to write about the Big Ten makes me sad, but I’ll look to keep my composure as I root against Ohio State football for consolation. The developmental factory out of Columbus, Ohio makes for a formidable opponent every year, no matter the overpowering quarterback that emerges from their pipeline. Despite its off-season losses (enter Rashod Bateman), I expect Minnesota to compete with Wisconsin for the West as Ohio State squeezes by Penn State. The Gophers have no business winning at Camp Randall this year, but look for an upset as Minnesota faces the Buckeyes in the Big 10 Championship. Ohio State by 10.
The Big 12 carries the greatest amount of uncertainty for this year. TCU looks to rebuild behind Max Duggan and reclaim their former dominance. Baylor hopes to recover from the tremendous amount of lost talent from their strong squad last season. And Oklahoma just hopes for a mediocre defense, per usual. But above all, Texas’ seemingly agonizing stretch of Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State in the heart of their schedule should determine the fate of their opponents. Look for Oklahoma State to upset Oklahoma in regular-season play and twist the knife against Baylor in the Big 12 Championship.
Ah, yes, now on to the puppet of the Big 10. The Pac-12 always leaves much to be desired, so I hesitate to invest too much into this pick. Yet here we are. Oregon stands alone as a talented contender, and while great lengths still stand between them and a dynasty out West, I expect them to cruise past their competition in the North. Admittedly, the South presents a slightly tighter fight for a slot in the title, as USC and Utah present a strong arsenal of well-established returning weapons. Kedon Slovis should become the bane of Pac-12 defenses’ existence and make a strong Heisman case. Oregon over USC in the Pac-12 game … and expect a massive yawn from yours truly.
With LSU beyond its all too brief golden age, the SEC title is back up for grabs. Florida and Georgia will continue to dominate in the East, surprising no one. Kyle Trask returns to Gainesville for his senior year as a true underdog recruit; his admission into Florida as a two-star recruit, commitment to earning a Master’s degree despite his NFL potential and contention for the Heisman all make for an incredible story this season. LSU falls just short of the title game, losing to Alabama in Week 7. Florida inches past Georgia in the East, faces the ever-titanic Alabama in the title game, and the Gators emerge as a major CFP contender.
As Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said last week, the ACC Championship doesn’t run through Charlotte, North Carolina, but Clemson, South Carolina. I think you have to expect the Irish to make the conference championship as a one-year conference member, given their 14-1 record against ACC opponents the last three seasons. It would be a rematch of the contest between the teams in early November, and I feel like the championship will produce the opposite result of that contest. I lean more to the scenario where Notre Dame beats Clemson at home in the regular season and the Tigers get their revenge in Charlotte, so that’s my prediction.
Much as Clemson runs the ACC, Ohio State runs the Big Ten, so that’s one team down. I would like Penn State to challenge the Buckeyes, but with Micah Parsons sitting out for the Nittany Lions, and the fact that Justin Fields would presumably still start under center for OSU, I can’t give James Franklin’s squad the edge over Ryan Day’s. As for the West Division, it’s between Wisconsin and Minnesota, but I can’t give P.J. Fleck’s squad the edge after one breakout year. I’ll go with Ohio State taking on Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes maintain Midwest supremacy.
Of all the years of Lincoln Riley’s tenure in Norman, this would be the one year I could see him failing to make the Big 12 title game. But the conference is still so up in the air, I think you have to pick Oklahoma to return to Arlington, Texas, even without a proven starter at quarterback for once. Baylor loses a lot from last year, including their head coach, and Texas is perpetually underwhelming. I’d like to see Oklahoma State challenge the Sooners for the ’ship, but this summer shone a light on some dysfunction between Mike Gundy and Chuba Hubbard. I’ll lean the Longhorns getting a rematch of the Red River Rivalry, but Texas still isn’t “back” yet and they fall once more to the Sooners.
Oh, the Pac-12 … what to do with you? There’s no dominant team that’s virtually guaranteed a spot in the conference championship like the rest of the Power 5. The closest thing is Oregon, so I would go with them as one, and as for the Pac-12 South, I think I would have gone with USC. Stanford is down, Cal is still building and the Arizona schools are meandering in my mind. Utah was good last year, but they lose both their starting QB and RB. By default, I think the Trojans would make it by virtue of all their talent, as untapped and under coached as it is. And I’d have the Ducks taking the title given their consistency.
I’m not going to put LSU in the championship with everything they lost from last year, both in terms of player and coaching personnel. With them out, I think you have to go with Bama (because Auburn takes a step back on even-numbered years). So is it Georgia or Florida (or maybe even Kentucky…) rising up out of the East? I think I’m gonna go Georgia just because they’ve got a lot of quarterback talent to work with even minus Jake Fromm. I can’t trust Kirby Smart to break through in that big game, though, because he couldn’t with Jake Fromm, and J.T. Daniels and Jamie Newman are far less proven. Bama reclaims the southern crown.
It should be a competitive battle for the second spot in the ACC championship game. As much as I want to pencil Notre Dame in there, they’ll face stiff competition from UNC, Virginia and probably several surprises. UNC is poised to contend this year, and with Heisman contender Sam Howell and most of their production returning, they’ll have an advantage in a shortened offseason. They also play an easier schedule, avoiding Clemson, and have the late-season game against the Irish is at home. However, none of this will be enough to beat Clemson. Tigers roll to a sixth-straight ACC title.
I’m high on Penn State in the Big Ten this year, but I don’t think they have quite enough to topple Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are just too dynamic. It will come down to a late-season game in Happy Valley, and in a normal season, I might give the edge to Penn State and their terrific home-field advantage, but the Buckeyes should squeak by. In the West, no team sticks out as a favorite. Minnesota will likely take a step back, with star receiver Rashod Bateman opting out. Wisconsin doesn’t have a clear replacement for Jonathan Taylor’s production, and Iowa is facing a whole host of culture problems. In this strange season, anything can happen, so I’ll take Nebraska to come out of the West. If Adrian Martinez can finally stay healthy, the offense should be very good, and while the defense is young, it certainly has talent. However, the Buckeyes will be too tough on both sides on the ball for the championship game to be very competitive.
If Spencer Rattler is anywhere near as good as expected, Oklahoma should be far and away the best team in the Big 12, and even if he isn’t, the rest of the conference is rather weak. Oklahoma State has dysfunction in the locker room, and Texas is perennially overrated. Iowa State should continue to improve, and Les Miles’ Kansas team won’t be as bad as many think, but I’m picking a rematch with Baylor in the championship game. Even with Matt Rhule gone, the Bears still return seven starters on offense, and they should be able to put up a lot of points, which is crucial to winning in the Big 12.
The Pac-12 is by far the weakest Power 5 conference, but it should still provide some competitive action. In the North, Washington has talent, but doesn’t have a clear starter at quarterback, nor does Oregon to replace Justin Herbert. The Ducks will certainly be very good no matter who is under center, but I think it is Cal’s year in the North. They certainly have the defense, and Chase Garbers leads a dynamic offense. In the South, Utah will challenge again returning several starters, and Arizona State figures to continue to improve, but USC’s offense is by far the best in the conference and that should be enough to send them to the championship game. Cal should give them a run for their money, but USC’s depth should carry them to a victory.
The SEC will most likely be the most competitive conference. In the East, Georgia and Florida are the only true contenders, and since Georgia lost so many starters to the NFL, especially on offense, while Florida retains most of its production and should field another dominant defense, I’ll take the Gators. In the West, LSU will take a step back, but still should be competitive. As I’ve said in other issues of the roundtable, I think Kellen Mond and Texas A&M will be very good this year, and Alabama will be their usual selves, but I like Auburn and Bo Nix. After winning SEC freshman of the year, he only figures to get better and has a terrific supporting cast. This figures to be the most competitive of the championship games, but I’ll take Florida to win in a nail-biter thanks to their defense.
This should be an interesting year for the ACC title race with Notre Dame in the mix for the year. I fully expect Clemson to make it back to the title game. Their offense behind Trevor Lawrence is just too prolific, and I don’t think it can be matched by any other ACC teams. As far as who the Tigers will play, I think it will be between Notre Dame, UNC and Louisville. At this point, Notre Dame appears to be the most likely to make it to the ACC championship game, but UNC has Notre Dame at home in November in what could be a vital game for both teams. I like the Irish to make it to Charlotte but ultimately lose to the Tigers in the championship game.
Ohio State looks to be the clear favorite in the Big Ten East with Justin Fields controlling that offense and with solid players all around him. While Penn State might have a chance to push Ohio State, I don’t see them being able to beat out the Buckeyes. In the West, it has to be between Minnesota and Wisconsin. With Iowa playing a first-year quarterback and other Big Ten West teams not looking too legitimate at this point, look for the Paul Bunyan’s Axe trophy to be the difference once again this year. Both of these teams luck out by avoiding Penn State and Ohio State in crossover games, and I anticipate both teams to have a great chance to win all their conference games before playing each other. While I think this year’s Minnesota-Wisconsin game will be a classic, I’ll take the Badgers because the game is at Camp Randall. The Badgers will be no match for the Buckeyes in the championship, though, as the Buckeyes reclaim their Big Ten crown for the fourth consecutive season.
The Big 12 figures to be a wild race this year. There are a lot of teams that have the potential to make the title game, but I am going to go with the two conference blue bloods: Oklahoma and Texas. Yes, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the Sooners this year, but I expect Spencer Rattler to step up and prove himself as a top 10 college quarterback. For the Longhorns, they have Sam Ehlinger back at quarterback. If the Longhorns are going to make the title game, they will need Ehlinger to be more consistent than last year. I anticipate the championship Red Rivalry game to be back and forth all the way, but I’ll take the Sooners in this one.
The Pac-12 might be the weakest that it has been in recent years, and that is saying something considering how poor the conference has performed as of late. With that being said, Oregon seems to be on the brink of becoming a conference powerhouse and establishing themselves on the national stage, so I will take them to win the North. In the South, I like the Trojans this year. Will there still be some defensive struggles from them? Definitely. However, I think quarterback Kedon Slovis is just the guy the Trojans need to propel them back into the national spotlight. I am so high on the Trojans this year that I’m going to take them over the Ducks in the title game. I could get burned for this pick considering how poorly the Trojans have lived up to expectations lately, but I seriously believe that this could be their year.
As per usual, the SEC looks to have a lot of depth this year, and there should be some tight races in each sub-conference. In the East, it will likely be between Georgia and Florida. While Florida might have a slight edge at quarterback with Kyle Trask, I expect Jamie Newman to be solid for Georgia as well. I think Kirby Smart has proven he can consistently win the East, so I’ll take the Bulldogs here. In the West, I’ll take Alabama, but I could see Auburn seriously challenging them. Also, don’t sleep on the defending champions LSU. In the Bama-Georgia title game, I see the Tide rolling. I expect Nick Saban to revamp his team this year after a disappointing finish to last season. The Tide roll to a blowout victory in this one.
With Notre Dame now in the mix for the ACC title, the race for the second team into the championship game with Clemson just got a lot more difficult. While most people might have Notre Dame as an auto-lock into the second slot, I think UNC and Virginia will pose big threats to that reality. I think the Tar Heels have the most potential to dispatch the Irish with Sam Howell and coach Mack Brown leading the charge but I still feel that Notre Dame will find a way to win and earn a spot into the conference championship game. While the ACC championship game might be contested a little more, the Tigers are too dominant and will win their sixth championship in a row.
With Justin Fields leading the offense of Ohio State, it is hard to imagine that anyone else will pose a serious threat to the Buckeyes in the East division of the Big Ten. Penn State will most likely come the closest with their talented roster, but the loss of Micah Parson is a serious blow to the team. Out of the West, Wisconsin is my pick to make it to the championship game. Minnesota will be close behind and give the Badgers the most competition, but I feel Wisconsin is the team with the least amount of holes in its roster. While the West might be tightly contested, the championship game most likely will not be. Ohio State will keep up its dominant ways and win the Big Ten again.
The Big 12 is wide open this year as I think that Oklahoma will not be as dominant as it has been in years past. They will no doubt be tough to play against, but the fact that Spencer Rattler is largely unproven has me hesitant to make them auto locks into the championship game like they have been before. Texas and Tom Herman are in a must-win season with the threat of another coaching change looming at the door should Herman not win the Big 12 this year. Baylor, despite a coaching change, will still be a salty team as will Iowa State. Ultimately, I think we will see a repeat of the 2018 season, and the Longhorns will take on Oklahoma in Arlington. Sam Ehlinger is the more experienced quarterback and the Horns should have a much-improved offense to keep the Sooners relatively limited. This game will still likely be a shootout, but I think the Longhorns edge out Oklahoma and Tom Herman saves his job for another year.
With the lack of any true competition in the Pac 12, it is hard to get a great read on how things might go this season. Compared to the other Power 5 conferences, the Pac 12 are severely lacking. Despite all of this, Oregon seems to be headed in the right direction coming off of a great performance last season. I don’t see them struggling much in the North, especially with the fall of Washington. The Ducks are my pick to make it out. In the South, Kedon Slovis and the Trojans are my pick to make it to the championship game. Utah will remain a solid team but the offense of the Trojans will no doubt win them games, and I think that it will help them edge out the Utes. Despite their improvement, I don’t think this is quite the year for USC and will ultimately fall to Oregon in a close game.
With LSU losing so much this offseason, I see it hard for them to make it back to the SEC championship game. Out of the West, the usual suspects of Alabama and Auburn will most likely contend for that spot, but the Tide are the better team and will edge out the Tigers. From the East, Georgia and Florida will be most likely to dominate the season. While both are solid picks to make it through to the championship game, Kirby Smart has the better overall team despite the Gators having the edge at the quarterback position with Kyle Trask. Georgia advances to the championship but in 2018 fashion, will fall to the Tide again.
Due to the Irish’s eligibility, the race for the ACC title game is going to be a whole lot less competitive than usual. Notre Dame and Clemson are a class above all other ACC opponents in talent level, and both programs should easily qualify for this postseason matchup. Clemson has captured five straight conference championships, and I suspect this trend will continue in 2020. However, the Irish will have the opportunity to learn more about the Tigers in the regular season, which might lead to a more effective game plan for the ACC championship. I believe that Notre Dame will be able to keep the score close, but it is just too hard to bet against the dominance of Clemson.
Even though Penn State has one of the best overall rosters in college football, I cannot imagine a scenario in which Justin Fields and the Buckeyes miss out on the Big Ten championship. Ohio State has no shortage of offensive weapons with wide receiver Chris Olave, who would probably exceed 800 yards once again if playing this season. Fields will also have former five-star prospect Garett Wilson as his newest threat downfield. The young wide receiver is known for his speed and remarkable ball skills, which will allow him to become a breakout phenomenon whenever the Buckeyes take the field next. In the West, I will take Wisconsin because of its formidable defense. However, it will not be strong enough to overcome Ohio State in Indianapolis.
With the loss of Baylor’s coaching staff and the offseason troubles at Oklahoma State in mind, I expect Texas will have the best opportunity to dethrone Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship. The Longhorn’s defense could be much improved in 2020 as defensive-end Joseph Ossai enters his junior year. Ossai finished the 2019 campaign with 90 total tackles, five sacks and two interceptions making him one of the most impactful players in the conference, and I only expect his numbers to improve this season. He is joined by safety Caden Sterns, who recorded four interceptions as a true freshman in 2019 and looks like he might become one of the best pass-defenders west of the Mississippi. Despite the clear talent on Texas’s defense, the Longhorns success will be predicated on the performance of Sam Ehlinger. If he can show us more than a glimpse of the skills displayed in last year’s LSU game, I fully expect that Texas will be back and ready to defeat the Sooners.
Despite losing Justin Herbert and a few key offensive linemen, Oregon should be able to rise to the top in the PAC-12 North. Lineman Penei Sewell will be the anchor of the Ducks offense and may be a future top-five pick in the NFL draft. Sewell and a young but skillful offensive line should also allow running back CJ Verdell to play more consistently in 2020. Last year, Verdell accumulated over half of his 1,220 total yards in three impressive games, and, if he can sustain that level of play for a whole season, Oregon will be hard to beat. However, with a healthy Kedon Slovis, I think USC should be the clear favorite to win the PAC-12 championship. Slovis’ big-play ability is practically unmatched in the NCAA, and he can scorch even the best secondaries on any given night. Jay Tufele and Drake Jackson should also return for a big season on the defensive line. These high-end talents will offset Clay Helton’s coaching shortcomings, and the Trojans should defeat the Ducks thrillingly.
After losing many key starters on both offense and defense, LSU will not return to the SEC title game. Alabama is eager to avenge last year’s gutting 46-41 loss to the Tigers and look to be an even better team in 2020. Najee Harris will almost certainly break 1,000 rushing yards once again for the Tide, and he just might have the best chance to win the Heisman out of all the non-quarterback candidates. Star wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle should also make up for Alabama’s lack of top tier talent at the quarterback position. Looking at the SEC East, I think Florida will make it back to the championship for the first time since their horrific 54-16 loss to Alabama in 2016. Kyle Trask’s veteran leadership and familiarity with the Gators’ offensive system should give his program an advantage over Georgia, their only real competition for this spot. Unfortunately for Florida, Alabama is a much better team defensively and will win their ninth SEC championship.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.