College football is, first and foremost, a talkin' sport. The limited number of actual games played allows for an exponentially robust collection of opinions, and if enough people start agreeing on a talking point, it becomes a part of the national conversation. Never is the explosive nature of hivemind more on display than in the long, cold offseason spent debating and predicting what's to come in the season ahead.
Growing hype around college football programs directly impacts the expectations for their on-field performances. Whether that hype is based on unproven factors -- like an offseason coaching hire or transfer -- or building on the return of a star player does not seem to matter. If enough people start to rally behind the idea that "this is going to be the year" for a certain team, then it becomes part of the national conversation.
Sometimes hype works out. Look no further than LSU, which entered the 2019 season at No. 6 in the Preseason AP Top 25 with plenty of momentum coming off a 10-3 campaign the prior year that included four top-10 wins. Few were suggesting that LSU would field one of the best teams in college football history, but hype around a new modernized offense had the Tigers positioned as the top threat to Alabama in the SEC West.
The list of teams that have failed to live up to offseason hype is longer, especially in a sport that has so few seats at the top of the game and little turnover from year-to-year, but there's rarely a big miss at the very top of the preseason rankings. Last year's Big Ten West debates included a Nebraska team that went 4-8 the year before, but far more egregious of a preseason media miss was Wisconsin's No. 4 ranking (with a first-place vote) heading into 2018. The Badgers' hype had them ranked ahead of Ohio State in the polls and picked by some to win the Big Ten; they finished 8-5 overall with a 5-4 record in league play.
As we look ahead to the 2020 season, we've selected one team for each Power Five conference to examine through the lens of their offseason hype. The ceiling varies from team-to-team, but each one carries raised expectations due in part to all the talkin' that's been going on around the program.
Dan Mullen has 21 wins and back-to-back New Year's Six bowl victories since taking over as the coach in Gainesville, Florida, and the feeling that the program is inching back to the national championship contention status last seen when he was the Gators offensive coordinator is alive and well. But just like LSU had to get past Alabama to fulfill its preseason hype, Florida has to turn to the tables on Georgia for the 2020 season to be a success. The Bulldogs have won three straight in the series en route to three SEC East division titles, and the last two have been de facto SEC championship and College Football Playoff elimination games with both teams carrying a top 10 ranking heading into Jacksonville.
In 2020, Florida will again have SEC title and College Football Playoff aspirations. Tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Trevon Grimes are set to have big years as Florida's offense returns Kyle Trask and Emory Jones at quarterback and looks to replace the production of Freddie Swain, Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond. There's an unusual amount of confidence afforded to a Mullen-coached team right now where -- based on his experience at Mississippi State and instant impact at Florida -- perceived personnel and production shortcomings are less concerning for the team's outlook. Now, with a few recruiting cycles to build out the depth and talent level of the roster, Mullen and the Gators are poised for a potential playoff run.
Big Ten: Penn State
Some programs receive hype and attention for games and championships yet to be won, while for others, the focus is on recapturing recent glory. James Franklin and Penn State exploded onto the scene as one of the nation's premier programs with a white-out home win against Ohio State in 2016 that sparked the Nittany Lions' Big Ten title run. That game, and that season, set the standard for expectations moving forward. Ohio State may be a juggernaut in college football, but it's not unbeatable, and in 2020 we're looking to see if Penn State can do it again and maybe ride that win to a program-first playoff appearance.
On paper, this might be the most talented roster that Franklin's had at Penn State. Players like linebacker Micah Parsons and tight end Pat Friermuth are now juniors and NFL Draft prospects, while senior running back Journey Brown exploded onto the scene in the second half of 2019 as one of the Big Ten's best skill position players. But whether Penn State playoff hype is worth it will ultimately come down to the quarterback position, as Sean Clifford looks to improve on last year's performance (59.2 completion percentage ranked No. 74 nationally, though his passer rating checked in at No. 27) in a senior season that will be judged by outcome of another Happy Valley showcase game against the Buckeyes.
Big 12: Oklahoma State
When Mike Gundy sounded off about the return of college football -- comments that were followed by clarification from Oklahoma State's athletic director and an apology of sorts from the coach himself -- there was one factor looming in the background that received less attention in the media's reaction. Concerns regarding player health and safety are deservedly the starting point for any conversations about a 2020 season, but with the case of Oklahoma State in particular, there might be an extra sense of urgency for on-field reasons. Whether consciously or not, anyone invested in the success of Oklahoma State football is going to be biased towards wanting the season to happen because the Cowboys are loaded up to make a run at the Big 12 championship.
Chuba Hubbard deciding to pass on the NFL Draft and return to Stillwater, Oklahoma, is just the starting point. Hubbard led the nation in rushing yards (2,094) and attempts (328), ranking first among Power Five backs in rushing touchdowns (21). But Hubbard might not even need such a heavy workload with wide receiver Tylan Wallace also expected back after full recovery from a season-ending injury and quarterback Spencer Sanders looking to improve after being named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2019. The Cowboys defense also brings back 10 starters from a group that improved throughout the year.
When you're Oklahoma State, you just don't get all the pieces are in place to make a run at Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 every year. Gundy is 2-13 against the Sooners, and the fact that Lincoln Riley (3-0) passed him in the total number of Bedlam wins in 2019 only rubs salt in that wound. I do not believe that on-field reasons are the primary motivation for Gundy's stance on the return to action for Oklahoma State's football program, but the comments themselves turned my attention to the urgency that underlies the hype for the Pokes' run at a Big 12 title in 2020.
Groundhog Day in the Pac-12, right? USC getting hyped up as a potential playoff team heading into a year that features a grueling schedule and lingering questions about the long-term job security of coach Clay Helton. But the hype is worth it here, even if it might not be affirmed on the field when the Trojans start the season against Alabama.
But what if it is? Kedon Slovis is one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and USC runs (at least) five deep at wide receiver with future pros. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell back at the controls in Year 2 of the Air Raid, and with that continuity in place there's a deserved expectation that the Trojans will have one of the best offenses in the country. So why can't USC stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon?
Recently, the answer has been to point to the defense. While talented, the Trojans have lacked the physicality, edge and consistency needed in order to compete against the best teams in the country. The hire of Todd Orlando as the team's new defensive coordinator brings optimism for a new day on that side of the ball, as does the All-American outlook for defensive tackle Jay Tufele and breakout potential for sophomore defensive end Drake Jackson. The offense seems locked in, stocked up and ready to light up scoreboards all year, if the defense answers the call -- admittedly something that's tougher without a spring practice to install Orlando's scheme -- we could see USC live up to the preseason hype.
ACC: North Carolina
The Tar Heels are interesting case for hype because of how on-field results and recruiting success have impacted perception for Mack Brown's second season. It's been very chicken-and-the-egg so far: Brown was able to flip Sam Howell from Florida State to North Carolina in his first recruiting class. Howell went on to be the most explosive freshman in the ACC, totaling 3,641 yards passing and 38 touchdowns to just seven interceptions as the Tar Heels exceeded their preseason expectations with seven wins and a bowl game appearance. That on-field success was a big selling point on the recruiting trail, and not only did Brown secure the No. 19 class in 2020, but the staff has been on a tear locking down commitments from in-state targets in one of the most talent-rich cycles that North Carolina has seen in recent memory.
But while the 2021 class -- currently ranked No. 3 in the 247Sports Composite -- has generated a ton of offseason hype for the general trajectory of North Carolina's program, it has no impact on the Tar Heels' performance in 2020. And while there are freshmen who and can and may need to play key roles in the chase for an ACC Coastal title, expecting more Howell-like performances is unreasonable. The headlines have been nothing but positive since the end of the 2019 season, but this is still a team that lost six games and faces a schedule that includes a road trip to UCF and a meeting with Auburn in Atlanta. Can this team make the jump from seven wins to nine or 10? The hype is raising the bar rapidly for Brown and the Tar Heels, and simply making the postseason isn't going to be enough to meet those expectations.