For those fans who are a tired of the same teams gobbling up the College Football Playoff spots and finishing near the top of the AP Top 25, here is reason to hope next season could be different.
The first five teams in the final AP Top 25 released Tuesday are very likely to be breaking in new starting quarterbacks next season, saying goodbye to a group that includes three Heisman Trophy finalists and two other multiyear starters and school record-breakers.
Of course, before you start celebrating a changing of the guard, remember that in the case of the top three teams — Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson — waiting in the wings are blue-chip recruits who have a chance to be the next big things in college football.
The last six seasons have begun with either Alabama (three), Clemson (two) or Ohio State No. 1. Even with the turnover at quarterback that is likely to be the case in 2021.
To help turn the page, Reality Check takes a look at the final rankings of the strange 2020 season with an eye toward how these teams will head into 2021.
(Note: Players have until Jan. 18 to declare for the draft, and that means underclassmen and upperclassmen after all players received a free year of eligibility for playing through a pandemic. Reality Check is making educated guesses on some players who have yet to declared will do.)
No. 1 Alabama (13-0)
Open: vs. Miami at Atlanta, Sept. 4.
Key losses: WR DeVonta Smith; QB Mac Jones; RB Najee Harris; CB Patrick Surtain.
Key returnees: QB Bryce Young; OT Evan Neal; OLB Will Anderson; TE Jahleel Billingsley.
Reality check: Young draws comparisons to Kyler Murray, and Nick Saban always seems to have blue-chippers ready to step up. No reason to think Alabama won't start next season No. 1. Maybe two?
No. 2 Ohio State (7-1)
Open: at Minnesota, Sept. 2.
Key losses: QB Justin Fields; RB Trey Sermon; DT Haskell Garrett; QB Wyatt Davis.
Key returnees: WR Garrett Wilson; DE Zach Harrison; OL Paris Johnson; QB Jack Miller; QB C.J. Stroud.
Reality check: The Buckeyes were upperclassmen heavy this season, but mostly sitting on a freshman class with huge potential. They will be top five to start next season.
No. 3 Clemson (10-2)
Open: vs. Georgia at Charlotte, Sept. 4.
Key losses: QB Trevor Lawrence; RB Travis Etienne; LB James Skalski; WR Amari Rodgers.
Key returnees: QB DJ Uiagalelei; DT Bryan Bresee; DE Myles Murphy; WR E.J. Williams.
Reality check: The Tigers should be fine at quarterback, but what could make them preseason No. 1 for a third straight years is a defensive line with enormous upside.
No. 4 Texas A&M (9-1)
Open: vs. Kent State, Sept. 4.
Key losses: QB Kellen Mond; LB Buddy Johnson; OT Dan Moore.
Key returnees: RB Isaiah Spiller; RB-WR Ainias Smith; CB Jaylon Jones; DE DeMarvin Leal.
Reality check: The Aggies looked primed to build on their breakout season if a good replacement for Mond emerges. Figure they will start rankings Nos. 4-6.
No. 5 Notre Dame (10-2)
Open: at Florida State, Sept. 5.
Key losses: QB Ian Book; LB Jeremiah Owusu-Kormoah; OT Liam Eichenberg; OG Aaron Banks.
Key returnees: RB Kyren Williams; S Kyle Hamilton; CB Clarence Lewis.
Reality check: Wisconsin transfer QB Jack Coan could be Book's replacement, but significant losses along the offensive line and defensive front seven could nudge the Irish out of the preseason top 10.
No. 6 Oklahoma (9-2)
Open: at Tulane, Sept. 4.
Key losses: C Creed Humphrey; RB Rhamondre Stevenson; DE Ronnie Perkins.
Key returnees: QB Spencer Rattler; DT Perrion Winfrey; OLB Nik Bonitto; WR Marvin Mims.
Reality check: The Sooners will bring back most of their best defense in years and a quarterback with first-round talent. Easy top five to start 2020.
No. 7 Georgia (8-2)
Open: vs. Clemson, Sept. 4
Key losses: LB Azeez Ojulari; CB Eric Stokes; OG Ben Cleveland.
Key returnees: QB J.T. Daniels; WR George Pickens; DT Jordan Davis; LB Nolan Smith.
Reality check: There will be a case to be made for the Bulldogs as preseason No. 1 in 2021, though they will probably have to settle for three or four.
No. 8 Cincinnati (9-1)
Open: vs. Miami (Ohio), Sept. 4.
Key losses: S James Wiggins; DT Elijah Ponder; OT James Hudson.
Key returnees: QB Desmond Ridder; CB Ahmad Gardner; RB Jerome Ford.
Reality check: Ridder's return makes the Bearcats a strong contender for top-10 preseason.
No. 9 Iowa State (9-3)
Open: vs. Northern Iowa, Sept. 4.
Key losses: DE JaQuan Bailey; S Lawrence White IV.
Key returnees: QB Brock Purdy; TE Charlie Kosar; RB Breece Hall; LB Mike Rose.
Reality check: Cyclones are coming off the best season in school history and will bring most of the team back. Iowa State will get strong top-10 consideration heading into 2021.
No. 10 Northwestern (7-2)
Open: vs. Michigan State, Sept. 4.
Key losses: CB Greg Newsome; LB Paddy Fisher; QB Peyton Ramsey.
Key returnees: DB Brandon Joseph; RB Cam Porter; OT Peter Skronski; DE Adetomiwa Adebawore.
Reality check: The Wildcats could lose a ton from a very good defense, but have some quality pieces to build around. That could get them preseason ranked for the first time since 2013.
No. 11 BYU (11-1)
Open: vs. Arizona in Las Vegas, Sept. 2.
Key losses: QB Zach Wilson; OT Brady Christensen; S Troy Warner; WR Dax Milne.
Key returnees: RB Tyler Allgeier; LB Keenan PIli; WR Gunner Romney;
Reality check: This was a special season led by a special quarterback for the Cougars. Without Wilson heading into next season, BYU is at best in the back end of the preseason Top 25.
No. 12 Indiana (6-2)
Open: at Iowa, Sept. 4.
Key losses: WR Whop Philyor.
Key returnees: WR Ty Fryfogle; LB Micah McFadden; DB Tiawan Mullen.
Reality check: If Michael Penix Jr. returns, both from a knee injury and to Indiana for another season, an experienced Hoosiers team could be preseason top 15.
No. 13 Florida (8-4)
Open: vs. Florida Atlantic, Sept. 4.
Key losses: QB Kyle Trask; TE Kyle Pitts; WR Kadarius Toney; WR Trevon Grimes.
Key returnees: DL Zachary Carter; CB Kaiir Elam; LB Brenton Cox.
Reality check: A rebuild on offense, but potential for improvement on defense. Florida will probably start 2021 ranked in the teens.
No. 14 Coastal Carolina (11-1)
Open: vs. The Citadel, Sept. 4.
Key losses: DE Tarron Jackson; DT C.J. Brewer; RB CJ Marable; LB Silas Kelly.
Key returnees: QB Grayson McCall; TE Isaiah Likely; WR Jaivon Heiligh; LB Jeffrey Gunter.
Reality check: One of the best stories of the 2020 season, but the Chanticleers will need to prove it wasn't a fluke.
No. 15 Louisiana-Lafayette (10-1)
Open: at Texas, Sept. 4.
Key losses: RB Elijah Mitchell; RB Trey Ragas; QB Levi Lewis.
Key returnees: WR Kyren Lacy; CB Mekhi Garner; DL Zi'Yon Hill.
Reality check: The Ragin' Cajuns have strung together consecutive double-digit win seasons, but turning over their skill talent will likely leave voters looking elsewhere in the preseason.
No. 16 Iowa (6-2)
Open: vs. Indiana, Sept. 4.
Key losses: DT Daviyon Nixon; WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette; OT Alaric Jackson.
Key returnees: QB Spencer Petras; RB Tyler Goodson; C Tyler Linderbaum.
Reality check: The Hawkeyes ended the season with six straight victories and could break into the preseason top 15 on the strength of a seasoned offense.
No. 17 Liberty (10-1)
Open: vs, Campbell, Sept. 4.
Key losses: OT Tristan Schultz; LB Anthony Butler; RB Joshua Mack.
Key returnees: QB Malik Willis; DE Durrell Johnson; DE TreShaun Clark.
Reality check: If coach Hugh Freeze does indeed return - keep an eye on Tennessee - the surprising Flames should have a roster and schedule lined up to win a lot of games. And maybe squeeze into the bottom of the preseason rankings.
No. 18 North Carolina (8-4)
Open: ACC opponent TBD.
Key losses: RB Javonte Williams; RB Michael Carter; WR Dyami Brown; LB Chazz Surratt.
Key returnees: QB Sam Howell; CB Tony Grimes; DL Tomari Fox.
Reality check: The Tar Heels say goodbye the best running back duo in the country, but return one of the best quarterbacks, which should be good for a spot in the top 20.
No. 19 Texas (7-3)
Open: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Sept. 4.
Key losses: QB Sam Ehlinger; LB Joseph Ossai; OT Samuel Cosmi.
Key returnees: RB Bijan Robinson; WR Joshua Moore; DT Alfred Collins, QB Casey Thompson.
Reality check: New coach (Steve Sarkisian) and new quarterback, but - as always - alluring overall talent. The Longhorns will be ranked in the preseason again and folks will complain about it.
No. 20 Oklahoma State (8-3)
Open: vs. Missouri State, Sept. 4
Key losses: WR Tylan Wallace; RB Chuba Hubbard; OLB Amen Ogbongbemiga.
Key returnees: QB Spencer Sanders; WR Brennan Presley; DE Tyler Lacy.
Reality check: A rebuild on the defensive side for the Cowboys after falling short of lofty 2020 expectations. Still, good enough to start 2021 ranked.
No. 21 Southern California (5-1)
Open: vs. San Jose State, Sept. 4.
Key losses: S Talanoa Hufanga; WR Tyler Vaughns; OT Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Key returnees: QB Kedon Slovis; LB Drake Jackson; WR Drake London.
Reality check: The Trojans have a chance to bring back a stacked class of upperclassmen and a potential first round draft pick quarterback. If they hadn't been such a let down so often in recent years, they could be a preseason top 10 team. Because they have, probably around 15.
No. 22 Miami (8-3)
Open: vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Sept. 4.
Key losses: DE Jaelen Phillips; DE Quincy Roche; TE Brevin Jordan.
Key returnees: QB D'Eriq King; DB Te'Cory Couch; DL Jared Harrison-Hunte.
Reality check: After a late season fade and King's bowl game injury, the 'Canes will probably be ranked in the back half of the Top 25 when they face Alabama.
No. 23 Ball State (7-1)
Open: vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 2.
Key losses: RB Caleb Huntley; QB Drew Plitt; OLB Anthony Ekpe.
Key returnees: WR Yo'Heinz Tyler; RB Tye Evans; DB Amechi Uzodinma II.
Reality check: There was a lot of Group of Five love this season, but the Cardinals snuck up at the end by winning the MAC and then a bowl against San Jose State. They'll have to prove it again in 2021.
No. 24 San Jose State (7-1)
Open: vs. Southern California, Sept. 4.
Key losses: WR Bailey Gaither; RB Tyler Nevens.
Key returnees: QB Nick Starkel; DE Cade Hall.
Reality check: If the Spartans get some key seniors to return to join Starkel, they could edge perennial contender Boise State as the Mountain West favorite. That's probably not enough to get preseason ranked.
No. 25 Buffalo (6-1)
Open: vs. Wagner, Sept. 4.
Key losses: RB Jaret Patterson; WR Antonio Nunn; DL Malcom Koonce; RB Kevin Marks.
Key returnees: QB Kyle Vantrease; WR Trevor Wilson; LB James Patterson.
Reality check: The Bulls will have to replace both of their star runners with Patterson heading to the NFL and Marks to the transfer portal, which means no preseason ranking.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/
Year in review: Superlatives for the 2020 Wisconsin Badgers football team
Offensive MVP: Jake Ferguson, tight end
Ferguson was one of the few skill-position players who started all seven games this season. He continued to be a reliable receiving target, especially in the red zone, and was a solid blocker in the run game.
Ferguson led the Badgers in catches (30), receiving yards (305) and touchdowns (four). Defenses keyed on Ferguson after he torched Illinois and Michigan in the first two weeks of the year, but he continued his streak of catching at least one pass in all 34 games he’s played at UW.
He’s returning to the team for his senior season, which provides quarterback Graham Mertz his most trusted weapon back in the fold in 2021.
“The bar for him, he would agree to this, we set it high. I love the way that he continues to work at it. He’s not satisfied in any way,” UW coach Paul Chryst said.
Defensive MVP: Jack Sanborn, inside linebacker
Sanborn was the connective tissue in the middle of the Badgers’ defense that was again one of the best in the FBS. He led UW with 52 tackles, including 31 solo and four for loss.
His best performance was against Northwestern, a game in which he had 10 tackles and a sack. He and fellow inside linebacker Leo Chenal combined to form a fierce duo and that tandem will be together again next season after Sanborn announced his return to the program.
“It's very fun, I think is a great answer,” safety Scott Nelson said of playing with Sanborn. “He erases a lot of plays that may be big plays, he saves a lot of mistakes or mental errors by other people and stuff like missed tackles by other people.”
Specialist MVP: Adam Bay, long snapper
Punter Andy Vujnovich and kickoff specialist Jack Van Dyke could have won this award as well, but Bay was essentially perfect on his snaps this season.
Bay was a semifinalist for the Patrick Mannelly Award, which is given to the best long snapper in the country. Bay snapped on punt and placekicks and never had a snap go awry.
“Were you the guy in the dugout who told the pitcher he had a no-hitter going?” Chryst said when asked about Bay’s near-perfect season.
Most improved offensive player: Graham Mertz, quarterback
Before you get angry and throw things, consider the situation Mertz was in.
He went through the pandemic-altered offseason without being able to work with receivers until midway through the summer, came into training camp believing he was QB2, is made the starter due to an injury, has an amazing debut against Illinois, contracts COVID-19 as did his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and goes through the year without being allowed to spend extra time with his receivers to make up for lost time.
The fact that Mertz had low points should be expected, but his talent was on display early in the season. A healthy offseason with time to work with his teammates should help that talent show up more consistently.
“Out of any year being your first year to start and the inconsistency that came with it, he never dropped his head once,” senior tailback Garrett Groshek said of Mertz. “He kept fighting, he kept swinging. And just was willing to do whatever it took to win games.”
Most improved defensive player: Leo Chenal, inside linebacker
Chenal’s physical tools were apparent when he got chances to play in 2019, but he needed more time to learn the finer points of Leonhard’s scheme and how to disguise his assignment. He showed his growth in understanding the defense and his responsibilities this season in becoming a tackling machine for UW.
He developed into the team’s best pass rusher, leading the group in sacks (three) and quarterback hurries (seven) while finishing second to Sanborn with 46 total tackles. His 10-tackle, 5-for-loss performance against Minnesota showed how much he’d grown from his freshman season.
“That man is crazy,” senior safety Eric Burrell said of Chenal. “That’s one word I think would describe him pretty good. He’s one of the strongest guys we have on this team. He gives 110 percent every play, every play. You can look at him like, ‘Golly, this dude’s still going.’”
Offensive newcomer of the year: Jalen Berger, running back
It’s rare that a freshman finds success immediately, but Berger showed he was the most explosive and biggest threat at tailback for the Badgers this season almost from his first snap.
From his breakout performance against Michigan to being a steady force in each game he played before contracting COVID-19 late in the year, Berger was everything the Badgers expected from the four-star recruit.
If there were stock to buy in players for next season, Berger’s would be a blue-chipper.
“He’s getting comfortable each week,” former UW star Jonathan Taylor said of Berger. “I like his patience. That’s something that’s hard to develop if you don’t already have it when you come in, it’s hard to develop.”
Defensive newcomer of the year: Nick Herbig, outside linebacker
For a freshman to start in UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s scheme, he’s got to be impressive from Day One. Herbig fits that bill.
He was one of the players that caused training-camp buzz and translated it onto the field. He started all seven games for UW this season and finished with 26 tackles, six for loss, and a sack. He had seven tackles in the win over Minnesota.
Once he refines his technique as a pass-rusher, his speed and motor will make him a game-wrecker.
“He expects a lot out of himself, yet I think he's realistic and knows there's a lot to learn and really just wants to be a contributor,” Chryst said of Herbig. “I've loved his approach, his work ethic. Each day, you know not just each game, but each day is a good day for him and it's a chance to continue to improve and so we're certainly glad that he's with us.”
Offensive unsung hero: Cole Van Lanen, left tackle
A steadying force on the left side of the UW line, Van Lanen showed better power and savvy in protecting Mertz. He battled through an injury against Iowa and that injury held him out of games against Minnesota and Wake Forest.
UW’s offensive line had to shuffle a good amount to deal with injuries and COVID-19, but when he was in the lineup, Van Lanen was everything the Badgers expected from one of their most experienced players. It’s no secret why the Badgers’ best runs this season came behind the left side of the line.
“Cole Van Lanen is really good and going against him every day helped me elevate my game a lot quicker, obviously, with the competition level,” Herbig said. “Going against Cole every day it’s not easy to make a play.
Defensive unsung hero: Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end
We might be stretching the limits of “unsung” here because his teammates were quick to praise his work this year, but Loudermilk was a bear to block this season.
His size and strength are obvious, but his ability to move in small spaces along the line to close gaps and to maintain his balance through double-team blocks was impressive this season. He had 13 tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hurries.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch him continue to grow, adding tools to his game, subtle things that don’t always show up in the stat sheet,” Leonhard said.
Biggest play of the year: Chase Wolf’s TD pass to Jack Dunn vs. Minnesota
Imagine the perception of the Badgers this season had they lost to the Gophers and likely not had a bowl game invite?
That was a very real possibility if Wolf, UW’s backup QB, didn’t make this play after coming off the bench when Mertz suffered a concussion. Wolf rolled to his left, got his shoulders square enough to his target to get the throw off and gave Dunn a well-placed ball all while dealing with a free rusher.
Keeping the Axe, and going on to win a bowl game are two of the highlights of a season many hope was a bump in the road of UW’s ascension to the top tier of college football. Wolf’s play made those possible.