The best thing about a new college football season beginning is the sense that anything is possible. Maybe last season was a disappointment, but it has no bearing on the campaign now starting. Nothing is stopping your favorite team from putting together a Cinderella run like the one we saw from LSU last year -- unless it is not playing this fall. And for 54 teams, that is a harsh reality.
For the rest, we might believe that anything is possible at the start of a new season, but it's a lie we tell ourselves. You and I have as good a chance of winning a national title this season as UTEP. Even if we look at LSU's 2019 season, while few predicted how dominant LSU would be and not many were sticking their heads out to proclaim the Tigers would win it all, it didn't come out of nowhere.
Last year, as the 2019 season was set to begin, I wrote a column about the 16 teams that had a legitimate chance of winning a national title. LSU was on that list. I don't say this to pat myself on the back. Any moron with an editor who asked him to put together a list of teams capable of winning the national title last season would have had LSU on it.
And guess what? I'm the same idiot that will be doing it again here. Now, the 2020 season is going to look a lot different. Two Power Five conferences are sitting out the fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking away not only some of our legitimate title contenders but leaving space in the College Football Playoff for others to get in.
Will that open the door to new title contenders?
I've seen a lot of conjecture that not having the Big Ten and Pac-12 playing this year will open up a spot in the CFP for the Group of Five schools playing. I don't believe that to be the case. If anything, it just makes it more likely that we'll see two SEC schools. The CFP has never been friendly to Group of Five conferences, and I wouldn't expect it to start doing so now.
Like the overall field of FBS teams, our list of actual title contenders is smaller for 2020. This is excellent news for the following teams, as it means there's less competition.
Alabama, Clemson: Last season was the first time a team not named Alabama or Clemson won a national title since Ohio State did in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. It was also the first time in CFP history that Alabama wasn't selected as one of the four participants. Still, even without Bama, Clemson reached the title game, making it five straight seasons in which at least one of them got that far. The only year in which neither has made the CFP National Championship was the first season when Ohio State beat Oregon, and neither of those two are playing this fall!
The odds were already well in favor of both of these teams reaching the playoff in a typical campaign, and even if they've dipped slightly for Alabama (playing 10 SEC games won't be easy for anyone), there still aren't many teams you're picking ahead of it, are there?
Florida, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma: Some will be rattled by LSU appearing here considering how much it lost from last year's title-winning team, but I have trouble viewing the defending champions anything other than a "prominent contender." I wouldn't say I like LSU's chances of winning the SEC or the national title in 2020, but you can't put them any lower than this category.
As for Georgia, it's a team that's been on the precipice for a few years now. It almost broke through with a national title in 2017 but fell short in overtime against Alabama. Now, the Bulldogs still have one of the most talented rosters in the country, and they're planning to revamp their offense much the same way Alabama and LSU have done before them. The late loss of Jamie Newman hurts, but it might not hurt as much as you think if USC transfer J.T. Daniels is cleared to play soon. It's not like he was a five-star recruit out of high school by mistake.
Notre Dame's 2020 season will be very interesting. One could argue that, by becoming a member of the ACC for a season, its schedule actually got a bit easier than it had been initially. At the very least, the Fighting Irish will offer a credible threat to Clemson in the ACC as the rest of the conference is still busy trying to catch up to the Tigers. Then there's Oklahoma, which is yet to win a CFP game but has played more CFP games than every other program in the country not named Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State. The Sooners are still the favorite in the Big 12, making them a favorite to reach the playoff.
Of these four, Florida is the only one that hasn't reached the playoff yet. That could end this season. It has a legit shot at winning the SEC East. The team improved a lot in Dan Mullen's second season, and we shouldn't overlook how much more important it might be to have a returning starter at quarterback the team has confidence in this year as opposed to years past. Unfortunately for the Gators, the one thing that separates them from being a team that's a real title threat in my eyes is the talent gap between them and the others mentioned in this space. According to 247Sports' Team Talent rankings, no team I included on this list is less talented than Florida at No. 16 overall. That's not a knock on the Gators' talent as much as it's a statement about how freaking hard it is to be good enough to win a national title.
Florida State, Texas: Scoff all you want, but these two belong on this list. That doesn't mean I'm naive enough to think either will win the national title in 2020, but they have the pedigree. That's a lot more than any other school not on this list can say. Both have talented rosters, and should things click, they are capable of making plenty of noise. Of the two, I think Texas has a better chance in 2020 due to having a senior quarterback, a coach entering his fourth season rather than a third coach in three years, and an easier path to the Big 12 Championship Game.
Other SEC contenders
Auburn, Texas A&M: I can't help but believe we will see two SEC teams in the playoff this year. The field will likely be the ACC champion, the Big 12 champion and two SEC teams. That means if you're a good team in the SEC, you've got a shot. While both of these teams have extremely talented rosters, the one thing holding them back is that they must play in the SEC West. Of course, Auburn has been able to climb that mountain plenty of times in the recent past. Texas A&M has yet to do it. Still, while I wouldn't pick either of these two to finish the 2020 season holding up the trophy, they're capable of doing it.
Big Ten and Pac-12 teams that would have made the list: Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Oregon, USC