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Previewing the 2020 college football season, from A to Z

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard blows a kiss to the fans after a win over Iowa State on Oct. 26 in Ames, Iowa. Hubbard tweeted his displeasure with a photo of coach Mike Gundy wearing a T-shirt with the logo of One America News, a far-right cable news network that recently labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Gundy later apologized
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard blows a kiss to the fans after a win over Iowa State on Oct. 26 in Ames, Iowa. Hubbard tweeted his displeasure with a photo of coach Mike Gundy wearing a T-shirt with the logo of One America News, a far-right cable news network that recently labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Gundy later apologized (Matthew Putney/AP)

With the NCAA Division I Council on Wednesday approving a six-week practice plan for college football that begins in July, the sport appears headed toward an uninterrupted start to its season despite the coronavirus pandemic.

While Wednesday’s announcement is the sport’s first official timeline for a return to play, there are several questions yet to be answered about how schools will navigate health and safety concerns, and whether fans will be allowed to attend games.

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But before players return to practice, here’s an alphabetical primer on the 2020 season:

Attendance. The coronavirus pandemic has halted both amateur and professional sports leagues since March, and the NBA, NHL and MLB have yet to resume or start their seasons. When they do, it will likely be without fans in secure “bubbles” or “hub cities” to limit the spread of the virus. The NCAA has allowed college football teams to start bringing players back to campus for workouts in phases, and announced a six-week practice plan, but there hasn’t been any official word about what the season might look like and whether fans will be allowed to attend games. Stadiums likely will be restricted to limited capacity, but tailgating and other large gatherings raise social distancing concerns. How the NCAA, conferences, teams and local governments handle the logistics of fall Saturdays will be fascinating to watch.

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Black Lives Matter. The death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police officers has led to national protests and a renewed discussion of racism and police brutality in America, and college sports is not immune. Several prominent players, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, have been outspoken in support of their black teammates, and many teams have vowed to be more proactive in their communities in fighting racial inequality and injustice and to be more involved in local and national elections. As part of its newly formed Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism coalition, the Big Ten also announced the creation of a voter registration initiative. As athletes find their voices and use their platforms to spark change, their actions on and off the field will be put under the spotlight.

Culture. What has come with the national conversation about racism has been a reckoning inside college football locker rooms. Iowa parted ways with strength coach Chris Doyle after a large group of former players, mostly Black, had spoken out about mistreatment in the program. Clemson assistant coach Danny Pearman apologized for using a racial slur during a practice three years ago. Florida State defensive lineman Marvin Wilson questioned new coach Mike Norvell publicly on Twitter after Norvell falsely claimed that he met with each player individually to discuss racial issues. Texas players vowed not to host recruits or attend donor functions until changes were made at the school, including the replacement of “The Eyes of Texas” as the school song. Oklahoma State star running back Chuba Hubbard tweeted his displeasure with a photo of coach Mike Gundy wearing a T-shirt with the logo of One America News, a far-right cable news network that recently labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Gundy later apologized after several former players called attention to issues within the program, and Hubbard committed to “creating change that will bring a better experience for my black brothers and sisters at Oklahoma State.” Those are just a few examples. There will be more.

Delays. Along with the question of attendance, teams and conferences must consider the health and safety concerns of their players and staff. Though no word has been given yet about delaying the start of the regular season, which is set to begin Aug. 29, ongoing developments with COVID-19 and its impact nationally will guide conversations about how and when schools will hold games.

Empowerment. Not only will players be more active using their voices in interviews and on social media to call for change in society, but they’re also taking a step toward receiving compensation for their names, images and likenesses (NIL), something the NCAA has resisted for years. While Hubbard’s tweet showed how players can hold coaches and other people of power accountable, players can make similar strides beating the drum to be paid for their popularity. California and other states have taken legal action to make it easier for athletes to profit from their pursuits, and the pressure is ramping up on the NCAA to make a change. The players will be the ones driving the conversation.

Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross is the biggest name to suffer a season-ending injury, having recently undergone surgery for a congenital fusion that threatens to derail his football career.
Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross is the biggest name to suffer a season-ending injury, having recently undergone surgery for a congenital fusion that threatens to derail his football career. (Norm Hall/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Freshmen. Gone are the days when players had to sit and learn for a few seasons before becoming a starter. Five of the top 10 quarterback recruits in the 2019 class, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, started the bulk of their team’s games last season, and five-star true freshmen in Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. played meaningful roles on top-10 teams. This season, top overall recruit Bryan Bresee could be an immediate contributor on the defensive line for national title contender Clemson, top quarterback recruit Bryce Young could push Mac Jones for the starting spot at Alabama and five-star receiver Julian Fleming could become Ohio State’s top wideout after the Buckeyes lost key pieces to the NFL. It’s no wonder the top recruiters annually compete for the national title.

Game checks. Every year, FCS schools take their lumps from FBS teams in “guarantee games” in return for a seven-figure check that helps fund the athletic department at those lower-level schools. With the coronavirus threatening to cancel or postpone some early-season games, the usual openers against cupcakes might be lost. That could dramatically affect budgets at FCS schools across the country that count on those game checks to support their athletes. With some schools already cutting men’s and women’s sports programs, more severe cost-saving measures might be on the way if football games aren’t played.

Health. How exactly schools and conferences plan to keep their players and staff safe is going to be an important conversation. Schools have already started bringing back players in phases and limiting attendance on workouts, but what happens if a player gets sick during practices or during the season? How many COVID-19 tests will be administered, and where will they come from? Will entire teams need to be quarantined for several weeks if a player gets sick? There are only a few months left to figure out these pressing questions.

Injuries. Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross is the biggest name to suffer a season-ending injury, having recently undergone surgery for a congenital fusion that threatens to derail his football career. On the flip side, some prominent players, such as Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses, will be returning from injury. Health is an obvious caveat to the success and failure of every team’s season, but it’s worth noting who will and won’t be playing this early.

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Jobs. The coaching carousel at the end of every season results in several high-priced hires, as well as costly buyouts for underachieving coaches. But will programs be less likely to pay those large sums if football revenue declines? For example, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is rumored to be on the hot seat after nearly every season. He has a buyout of $27 million, according to the USA Today salary database. Are the Tigers really going to want to pay that much money if the team doesn’t meet (perhaps unrealistic) expectations? The pandemic could lead to fewer coaching changes when the next hiring cycle begins.

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Kickoffs. When exactly we’ll see football remains a mystery, and that puts some early-season games in jeopardy. Notre Dame and Navy have already moved their game in Ireland, set for Aug. 29, to Annapolis on a date to be determined during Labor Day weekend. Some early headliners, such as Indiana at Wisconsin (Sept. 4), North Carolina at UCF (Sept. 4), Florida State at West Virginia (Sept. 5), North Dakota State at Oregon (Sept. 5), Michigan at Washington (Sept. 5) and Alabama vs. USC in Arlington, Texas (Sept. 5), could all be postponed or canceled.

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LSU. The defending national champions have to replace record-setting quarterback Joe Burrow, offensive wunderkind Joe Brady and some star playmakers in running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, linebacker Patrick Queen, edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, wide receiver Justin Jefferson and safety Grant Delpit. The Tigers had a record-tying 14 players taken in April’s NFL draft. Myles Brennan has Burrow’s big shoes to fill, but he’ll have perhaps the best wide receiver corps in the country at his disposal, led by star Ja’Marr Chase. Coach Ed Orgeron’s squad is still among the favorites to win the national title, but the pandemic makes defending the crown even more difficult.

Miami. No, not the university (although the Hurricanes could make some noise this year). We’re talking about the site of the College Football Playoff national championship game, set to be held at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The building holds about 64,000 fans, but how many will be allowed to attend amid the pandemic? And will festivities be limited at one of the biggest events of the year? Time will tell.

Nonconference games. They could be the first to go if officials decide to shrink the schedule to limit the potential exposure and spread of the virus. Power 5 teams play an eight- or nine-game conference schedule, leaving three to four nonconference games per team at risk of being eliminated. Some of the year’s best games, including neutral-site meetings — such as Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame at Lambeau Field (Oct. 3) — and on-campus blockbusters — such as Ohio State at Oregon (Sept. 12), Texas at LSU (Sept. 12) and Penn State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 12) — could be cut in favor of conference-only schedules.

Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Three teams with national title aspirations, and plenty of question marks. For Oregon, it starts with replacing quarterback Justin Herbert, who was drafted No. 6 overall by the Los Angeles Chargers. The Ducks will rely on their defense, which ranked among the nation’s best in 2019. Oklahoma lost its star quarterback, too, with Jalen Hurts drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. In steps former five-star prospect Spencer Rattler, who’s looking to be the next Heisman Trophy candidate, following in the footsteps of Hurts, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield under coach Lincoln Riley’s tutelage. Ohio State, meanwhile, returns its star signal-caller, with Justin Fields aiming to build on a breakout season in which he scored 51 touchdowns and led the Buckeyes to the playoff. Ohio State might not be as talented as it was last season, but there are few teams in the country that can reload a roster with star recruits as well as the Buckeyes can.

Playoff expansion. It seems inevitable that the playoff will expand when the current ESPN television contract expires after the 2026 playoff. Yet it’s always a much-debated talking point, especially when a deserving team is left out of the four-team field. Depending on the number of games played this season, it might be tougher than ever before for the playoff committee to decide on the four best teams. That should only lead to more calls for expansion.

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance (5) yells instructions to his team during warm-ups before the FCS championship game against James Madison, Saturday on Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas. Lance has only played only one full season as a starter, but he threw 28 touchdown passes with zero interceptions and rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 scores in 2019 to lead the Bison to the national title.
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance (5) yells instructions to his team during warm-ups before the FCS championship game against James Madison, Saturday on Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas. Lance has only played only one full season as a starter, but he threw 28 touchdown passes with zero interceptions and rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 scores in 2019 to lead the Bison to the national title. (Sam Hodde/AP)

Quarterbacks. Fields and Lawrence are the early Heisman Trophy favorites and are expected to be among the top picks in next year’s draft. But there’s one quarterback you might not have heard of who could end up being the first player off the board next April. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance has played only one full season as a starter, but he threw 28 touchdown passes with zero interceptions and rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 scores in 2019 to lead the Bison to the FCS national title. It’s still early in the evaluation period, but NFL Network analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah has Lance as his highest-graded quarterback in the 2021 class. Texas’ Sam Ehlinger and Notre Dame’s Ian Book are veterans who can lead their teams to a title. Auburn’s Bo Nix and Texas A&M’s Kellon Mond have the potential to take a Burrow-esque leap. North Carolina’s Sam Howell returns after a stellar freshman season. Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan is back after leading the Gophers to a record 11 wins. In the Group of 5, UCF’s Dillon Gabriel and Kent State’s Dustin Crum should also be among the nation’s best. Along with Oklahoma’s Rattler, there are several intriguing young players who have yet to show what they can do, too.

Replacements. LSU and Alabama are among the strongest teams in the country, but each has big shoes to fill at quarterback now that Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa are gone. For LSU, Myles Brennan has limited experience but is a former four-star recruit who had a year to study under Burrow and learn how to master the Tigers’ potent offense. For Alabama, Mac Jones showed flashes of brilliance after taking over for the injured Tagovailoa. In 4½ games, his QBR of 91.1 would have been fourth in the country if he had the requisite number of attempts. Other top title contenders such as Oregon, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan and Miami will be trotting out new quarterbacks, too, and how they perform will dramatically alter the playoff race.

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SEC. The nation’s toughest conference is always a factor in the title race. Maybe you’ve heard the motto, “It just means more”? While LSU and Alabama are sure to be in contention, Georgia, Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M all have a legitimate chance to win the conference title, and the winner is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the playoff field. With LSU and Alabama each needing to find a new starter at the most important position, the race seems to be more wide-open than in recent years.

Alabama quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa warms up before a game against host Auburn on Nov. 30. Tagovailoa has transferred to Maryland.
Alabama quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa warms up before a game against host Auburn on Nov. 30. Tagovailoa has transferred to Maryland. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

Transfers. Let’s focus on the quarterback market. Three of the four playoff participants last season had a starting quarterback that transferred to their school, and that’s likely to become the norm as the transfer portal and immediate eligibility waivers have made it easier for players to change programs. Georgia’s Jamie Newman (Wake Forest), Miami’s D’Eriq King (Houston), Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello (Stanford) and Oregon’s Anthony Brown (Boston College) are just a few of the offseason transfers that are expected to make an immediate impact. Even a move like Taulia Tagovailoa’s transfer from Alabama to Maryland can change a rebuilding program’s outlook.

Unranked. Who will be this year’s Minnesota? The Golden Gophers were unranked in the 2019 Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll and ended the season at No. 10. Baylor went from unranked to No. 13. Memphis (No. 17) and Appalachian State (No. 19) climbed into the rankings after receiving just a few votes before the season. Navy (No. 20), Cincinnati (No. 21) and Air Force (No. 22) surprised. On the flip side, there are always teams who don’t live up to expectations. Michigan (No. 7 in 2019 preseason), Texas (No. 10), Texas A&M (No. 12), Michigan State (No. 18), Iowa State (No. 21), Syracuse (No. 22), Washington State (No. 23), Nebraska (No. 24) and Stanford (No. 25) all wish they could have a do-over.

Veteran coaches. How many more titles will Nick Saban win before he retires at Alabama? Can Brian Kelly help Notre Dame finally win a championship? How will Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz respond to allegations from former players about “racial disparities” in his program? Is time running out for Jim Harbaugh to win a Big Ten title at Michigan? Will Dabo Swinney continue to support his players, who have rallied to defend him, as they push for change in college football and society at large? Those are just a few of the pressing questions for some of the game’s longest-tenured leaders.

Watch. What will it be like to watch games with no fans or limited attendance? College football is defined by its large stadiums and passionate fan bases. Fans will still flock to their TV sets to watch games, but the environment on a college campus leading up to and during a big game will no doubt be affected by coronavirus restrictions. There’s still a chance teams play at full stadiums — Clemson’s athletic director told ESPN he is preparing for it — but it will carry risks, even if school and local officials decide it’s safe.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix warms up before the Outback Bowl against Minnesota on Jan. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Can he make the kind of leap LSU's Joe Burrow made last season?
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix warms up before the Outback Bowl against Minnesota on Jan. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Can he make the kind of leap LSU's Joe Burrow made last season? (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

X-factor. Who will be the players who define the season? Last year, it was unquestionably Burrow, who rose from average starting quarterback to record-setting star and helped LSU win a national title. Texas A&M’s Kellon Mond and Auburn’s Bo Nix could make a similar leap, as could other quarterbacks such as Florida’s Kyle Trask, Notre Dame’s Ian Book, Penn State’s Sean Clifford, Alabama’s Mac Jones, LSU’s Myles Brennan, Georgia’s Jamie Newman, USC’s Kedon Slovis and many others. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields have the chance to solidify themselves among the all-time best. Then there’s North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who could be the rare FCS player to earn a spot at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Young coaches. Matt Rhule turned himself into an NFL coach at just 45 years old, and plenty of other young coaches could follow suit. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 35, might never decide to leave the Sooners, but he’ll be courted by NFL owners if he leads another team to the playoff. P.J. Fleck, 38, seems committed to Minnesota, but what happens if a blue-blood program comes calling after another successful season? Sean Lewis, 32, is the youngest FBS head coach in the country and just led the Golden Flashes to their first bowl victory in 58 seasons. What’s on the horizon for Charlotte’s Will Healy, 33, and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, 39, if they can keep up their winning ways?

Zoom. Just how effective were coaches at using the popular videoconference platform during the offseason to teach and engage their quarantined players in team activities? With limited practices and no spring games, communication becomes even more important during what’s usually a busy time of year. When teams take the field, we’ll see how well some coaches prepared — and who didn’t.

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