Each week, it feels a little more real. College football is here, and even though many of the teams in ESPN’s Power Rankings didn’t play this week, we did have some movement.
And not just from the usual suspects.
Hello Billy Napier and Louisiana, which earned its first road win over an AP nationally ranked team in program history. The Rajin’ Cajuns stunned No. 13 Iowa State 31-14 in Ames and vaulted to No. 16 in the rankings.
Let’s not forget about BYU, which on the strength of its 55-3 dismantling of Navy on Labor Day, jumped into the power rankings at No. 20.
Georgia Tech rambled its way into Doak Campbell Stadium and rallied for a 16-13 win over Florida State, earning Geoff Collins’ club the No. 22 spot this week.
So as we unveil this week’s rankings, particularly with those teams yet to play, we’ll take a look at a player on each team poised to have a breakout season, a player who could be an X-factor this season or a particular position group that needs to step up if that team is going to have a big season.
Remember, the SEC doesn’t begin play until Sept. 26, and six of the top 10 teams again this week hail from the SEC. Also, we’re ranking only those teams currently scheduled to play this fall. The key word is “currently,” so stay tuned.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has made it clear that running the ball more effectively, typically a given in Tide Town, will be a priority this season after the Crimson Tide finished 56th nationally (sixth in the SEC) in rushing offense a year ago. Getting Najee Harris back for his senior season was huge, but redshirt freshman Trey Sanders is ultra-talented and would have been a factor a year ago had he not suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Up next: at Missouri (Sept. 26, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Clemson traveling to Wake Forest without three projected starters on defense might have made a few ripples across the sport, but it didn’t make any difference on the field. The Clemson recruiting machine has continued to roll along under Dabo Swinney, and the continuity the Tigers have enjoyed on defense under coordinator Brent Venables has been invaluable. Clemson smothered Wake Forest for a season-opening 37-13 victory Saturday on the road and has now won 23 straight games against ACC opponents and held 17 of those 23 foes to 14 or fewer points.
Up next: vs. The Citadel (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
The quarterbacks come and go under Lincoln Riley, but the results stay the same. Spencer Rattler, following in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, hit on 14 of 17 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns … in the first half. Not a bad debut for the redshirt freshman, as Oklahoma never broke a sweat in cruising to a 48-0 season-opening victory over Missouri State.
Up next: vs. Kansas State (Sept. 26, Noon ET, Fox)
Dawg fans are banking on the offense being more explosive under new coordinator Todd Monken, and the guy to watch is sophomore receiver George Pickens. He has great size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to go along with immense athleticism. Pickens led Georgia in catches (49), yards (727) and touchdown catches (8) last season as a true freshman. He’ll be even better in 2020.
Up next: at Arkansas (Sept. 26, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Todd Grantham’s defensive units get after the opposing quarterback, as evidenced by the Gators’ SEC-best 86 sacks over the past two seasons. Jonathan Greenard is gone, but Grantham plans to turn Brenton Cox loose at the Gators’ hybrid BUCK position. The 6-foot-4, 247-pound Cox sat out last season after transferring from Georgia but will flourish in Grantham’s pressure-oriented system.
Up next: at Ole Miss (Sept. 26, noon ET, ESPN)
It’s hard to think back to a time when Sam Ehlinger wasn’t Texas’ starting quarterback. But it’s not just experience that sets Ehlinger apart from many of the other quarterbacks in the country. His blend of toughness and command of Texas’ offense gives the Longhorns a real chance to break through this season in the Big 12. In their season-opening 59-3 rout of UTEP on Saturday, Ehlinger threw five touchdown passes in the first half and completed passes to nine different players.
Up next: at Texas Tech (Sept. 26, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
Notre Dame knows exactly what it’s going to get this season from steady veteran quarterback Ian Book, and that’s always comforting for a head coach. But the Irish will be looking for additional impact players on offense, and sophomore running back Kyren Williams has all the tools to be one of those guys. He rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns and also had a 75-yard reception Saturday in the season-opening 27-13 win over Duke.
Up next: vs. South Florida (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network)
The defending national champion Tigers have been gutted along their front seven on defense, most recently with redshirt freshman defensive end Ray Parker being suspended indefinitely. Tackle Tyler Shelvin deciding to opt out for the season was also a significant blow. But LSU has recruited extremely well, and true freshman BJ Ojulari could be the next star pass-rusher in Baton Rouge.
Up next: vs. Mississippi State (Sept. 26, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Quarterback Kellen Mond needs to be more consistent throwing the ball this season, but even more important will be the Aggies doing a better job of protecting him in the offensive line and opening up more holes in the running game. They struggled in both areas a year ago. The good news is that four senior starters are back, and coach Jimbo Fisher is confident Texas A&M will be more physical across the board this season on the offensive line.
Up next: vs. Vanderbilt (Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Don’t feel too sorry for Auburn in losing defensive line stalwarts Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. Defensive line has never been a problem for the Tigers under coordinator Kevin Steele and veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner and won’t be again this season. Freshman tackle Jay Hardy has star potential. Senior tackle Daquan Newkirk is as healthy as he’s been, and junior college newcomer Dre Butler is another tackle the Tigers like along with returning seniors Big Kat Bryant at end and Tyrone Truesdell at tackle.
Up next: vs. Kentucky (Sept. 26, noon ET, SEC Network)
With the playmakers Oklahoma State returns on offense, as in Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace, the Cowboys are going to be entertaining to watch. But a familiar question: Can they be good enough on defense when they don’t have to score 40-plus points to win every game? The senior linebacker tandem of Amen Ogbongbemiga and Malcolm Rodriguez will be the heartbeat of that defense. They combined for 203 tackles last season, and the Cowboys will need their leadership and production to be infectious in 2020.
Up next: vs. Tulsa (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN)
Coming off consecutive 11-win seasons, Cincinnati hopes it doesn’t have to lean quite as heavily on its defense as it did a year ago. The Bearcats will again be talented on defense, especially up front. But to make it three straight 11-win seasons, quarterback Desmond Ridder needs to take another step in his third season as a starter and help the Bearcats become more potent on offense. They were held to 24 or fewer points in seven games last season.
Up next: vs. Austin Peay (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN+)
Few true sophomores carry the kind of expectations into this season that quarterback Sam Howell does after throwing an FBS true-freshman-record 38 touchdown passes a year ago. And even though he threw two interceptions (and North Carolina struggled early offensively) in its season-opening 31-6 win over Syracuse on Saturday, Howell showed in the fourth quarter why he’s one of best young players in the country. He was 6-for-6 in the Tar Heels’ last three touchdown drives. He had a key 12-yard run and 23-yard completion in the next-to-last scoring drive and a 38-yard completion in the final scoring drive.
Up next: vs. Charlotte (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, RSN)
One of the more popular choices for the SEC’s top breakout player in 2020 is sophomore running back Eric Gray, who closed a promising freshman season with 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the finale against Vanderbilt. His skill set fits perfectly in terms of how offensive coordinator Jim Chaney likes to use his running backs, and Gray also has Ty Chandler as a nice complement at running back. Both give the Vols dynamic big-play threats.
Up next: at South Carolina (Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
It was a downer for TCU that its opener against SMU on Friday was postponed after a group of TCU players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus. But the Horned Frogs did get some good news in the past week when LSU transfer linebacker Marcel Brooks was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play this season. The former five-star prospect is exactly the kind of athletic defender who has excelled in Gary Patterson’s system and should make an immediate impact.
Up next: vs. Iowa State (Sept. 26, TBA)
Obviously, Billy Napier knew what he was doing when he turned down several opportunities to interview at bigger schools in the offseason and stayed in Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns won 11 games a year ago and might be even better this year after taking down No. 13 Iowa State, 31-14, on the road on Saturday to open the season. There’s a lot to like about this Louisiana team, but the Ragin’ Cajuns sure are entertaining to watch play. They scored three touchdowns of 78 yards or longer Saturday, including an 83-yard punt return and 95-yard kickoff return.
Up next: at Georgia State (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2)
The Wildcats have been outstanding under Mark Stoops at developing difference-makers on the defensive side of the ball. The next guy up could be junior weakside linebacker DeAndre Square. He flashed All-SEC potential in each of the past two seasons but has the speed, instincts and versatility to be one of the league’s more productive defenders in 2020 after finishing second on Kentucky’s team a year ago with 69 total tackles
Up next: at Auburn (Sept. 26, noon ET, SEC Network)
Junior receiver Tutu Atwell garnered most of the preseason love and with good reason. He led the ACC last season in receiving yards (1,276) and touchdowns (12), but the Cardinals demonstrated Saturday night in their season-opening 35-21 win over Western Kentucky that they’ve got a lot more than just one guy who can give a defense fits down the field. Dez Fitzpatrick and Braden Smith both had more than 100 receiving yards, and each had a big-gainer — Fitzpatrick a 70-yarder and Smith a 63-yarder.
Up next: vs. Miami (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Cornerback Tay Gowan was one of 10 players, including two defensive starters, who opted out this season for UCF. One of the guys to watch at that vacant cornerback position is redshirt junior Zamari Maxwell, whose experience should come in handy in 2020. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Maxwell started in six games last season and was one of the Golden Knights’ more improved players in the preseason.
Up next: at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
20. BYU (1-0)
Being able to piece together a schedule at the last minute was impressive enough for BYU after the Pac-12, Big Ten and Mountain West all bailed on the fall. Even more impressive, though, was the way BYU absolutely decimated Navy 55-3 on the road in its Labor Day opener. The scheduling challenges could linger. BYU’s game with Army this Saturday was postponed because of a “small number of positive COVID-19 test results” and resulting contact tracing within the BYU football program.
Up next: vs. Troy (Sept. 26, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
In its first game without do-it-all running back Kenneth Gainwell, who opted out for the season, Memphis still rolled up 502 yards in total offense in a 37-24 win over Arkansas State a week ago. Redshirt senior quarterback Brady White looks plenty capable of taking on even more of the offensive load. He threw four touchdown passes in the opener. The next challenge will be getting back on the field. Memphis’ game against Houston this Friday has been postponed after a “significant number of individuals” inside the Memphis program were placed into quarantine due to coronavirus protocols.
Up next: vs. UTSA (Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)
Granted, it’s just one game and Florida State struggled through a brutal offseason, but Georgia Tech made a convincing statement Saturday night that it doesn’t plan on being anybody’s punching bag in the ACC this season. The Yellow Jackets, after going 3-9 in Geoff Collins’ first season in Atlanta, fought back from a 10-point deficit, overcame three blocked kicks and made one key defensive play after another in the second half to beat Florida State 16-13 on the road in the kind of character win that could take the Ramblin’ Wreck a long way this season.
Up next: vs. UCF (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
It’s always difficult to replace a player as talented as Darryton Evans and his 1,480 yards and 24 touchdowns from last season, but it looks like the Mountaineers have answers, maybe even a three-headed answer. Marcus Williams Jr., Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington combined for 279 rushing yards and four touchdowns on Saturday in a season-opening 35-20 win over Charlotte.
Up next: at Marshall (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)
Dave Aranda has coached his share of good defenses. But, in his first season as Baylor’s coach, the Bears are replacing nine of their top 11 tacklers from a year ago. Losing James Lynch and Bravvion Roy up front and their combined 32.5 tackles for loss will be especially difficult to overcome, which makes Arkansas State transfer William Bradley-King a key addition. The Bears will need the same kind of playmaking ability from the 6-foot-4, 248-pound defensive end that made him an All-Sun Belt Conference selection each of the past two seasons.
Up next: vs. Houston (Saturday, TBA)
It goes without saying that Miami has to be better on offense this season after scoring 21 or fewer points seven times a year ago. There was some hope along those lines Thursday in the season-opening 31-14 win over UAB. The Hurricanes rushed for 337 yards, and Houston graduate transfer quarterback D’Eriq King passed for a touchdown and rushed for one. But King was also quick to point out afterward that Miami still has to be able to throw the ball better going forward.
Up next: at Louisville (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)