Top Returning ACC Guards: #4 – Kihei Clark, Virginia

If you’re a real college basketball fan, you will know Kihei Clark from his insane game-saving, high-IQ play in the 2019 Elite Eight. Clark collected a long rebound and fired a half court dime to assist on a game-tying buzzer beater. Virginia went on to take down Purdue in overtime and win their first ever national championship two games later. But Clark was not a one-hit wonder, and he followed up a solid freshman campaign with a far better sophomore season, and he slots in at #4 in our top returning ACC guard countdown. 

The buzzer beater was great…but do you remember the pass

Clark ranked third in the ACC with 5.9 assists per game last season, and on a low-scoring Virginia squad, he was second on the team with 10.8 points per game. Another sneakily impressive statistic is his 4.2 rebounds per game. Not only is that mark quite solid for a guard, but Clark is 5’9, yet he still collects his lion’s share of boards. With UVA’s top scorer and top two rebounders graduating, Clark will be the key to the Cavaliers’ offense in 2020-21. 

Clark’s gritty style of play was on display from Game 1 this season, as in an ugly season-opening 48-34 win over Syracuse, Clark dropped ten points and grabbed 11 rebounds while playing the whole game. The California product was a consistent playmaker for Virginia all year, and he elevated his game in certain big situations, posting a 13 point, 8 rebound, 7 assist slash line in a road overtime win at Wake Forest, a team that slaughtered Duke. In a visit to #5 Louisville, Clark poured in 23 points on the Cardinals, to go with five rebounds and seven assists. When Virginia ended the abbreviated season on a 8-game winning streak, it coincided with Clark’s most consistent stretches of the season, as he averaged 12 points a game with efforts of 17, 17, and 18 points while continuing to be a defensive stalwart for the stingy Cavaliers. It’s hard to quantify the impact that Clark has on each basketball game, but his clutch factor is undeniable, and his numbers are quickly improving. If he makes similar strides in his junior season, Clark will be even better than this #4 ranking in this countdown. Watch out for Kihei Clark in 2020.

Top Candidates To Succeed Alabama as College Football’s Great Dynasty

When LSU went 8-0 last season in SEC play en route to a national championship, they broke a string of seven straight seasons in which Alabama claimed a share of the division title. For the Tide, the last 12 years have represented an unprecedented run of dominance in the modern era. We’ve seen teams be really good for long stretches of times, but to cap off success with national title after national title is simply unheard of. For evidence, simply look at Ohio State, one of the nation’s most historic teams. The Buckeyes have been ranked at some point in every season since 1967 – a span in which they’ve won just three championships. Alabama has won five (!) since Saban secured his first title with the Tide in 2009. Is it all due to the genius of Nick Saban? There is no doubt that the former LSU coach will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time at any level.

There are too many stats that laud Alabama’s greatness under Saban, so rather than look at that, we’re going to take a look at which SEC teams are most suited to establish them as the SEC – and national – powerhouse once Saban retires. While Alabama’s dynasty and extended stretch of pure dominance may never be matched, is there a team lying in wait that may have the set-up to do it? Here are three possibilities, ranked in order of likelihood. 

3. Florida

Why They Will – Dan Mullen will become the best coach in the SEC

Again, we’re talking long term here, and at age 48, Dan Mullen is one of the youngest coaches in the conference. I know it’s an unpopular take, but I like Mullen as a coach over the 44-year old Kirby Smart, who has been too shaky in big games for my taste. Ed Orgeron is 59, so if Mullen sticks around, I like him to be the best coach in the conference when Saban retires. Since Alabama’s dynasty started in 2008, the Gators have the best conference record in the SEC East (73-23) and in the clear weaker division of the SEC, they have a chance to establish a run of dominance. 

Why they won’t – Lack of true consistency

Maybe the Gators have the best record in the SEC East over the past 12 years, but they have finished the season outside of the Top 25 in five different years and they’ve had two four-win seasons in the past decade. Coaching turnover is also a major concern – since Urban Meyer left in 2019, the Gators have gone through five coaches. Mullen is 21-5 in two years, and while I’m very high on his potential, the tumultuous reign of a bevy of coaches in Gainesville is a concerning trend that Mullen will need to buck. 

2. LSU

Why They Will – Consistency
.The Tigers are 120-37 since 2008 – the best mark in the conference next to Alabama and they haven’t had a losing season since 1999, appearing in the top ten in all but two seasons in that stretch. Their last three head coaches won national titles, making it feel like LSU will always hire the right man for the job. The Tigers will always have NFL-talent streaming through the bayou, and if they maintain their trademark consistency, they’ll have every chance to establish themselves as the SEC power if Alabama’s dynasty falters. 

Why They Won’t – LSU plateaus too often

LSU’s consistency can also be a mark of their weakness. In their last twelve seasons, the Tigers have only finished in the top-2 in the SEC West on four occasions. Alabama’s dynasty may die down, but LSU has hardly been the consensus second-best team in the division, as even Auburn has more SEC Championship appearances in that stretch. Prior to Joe Burrow’s two seasons with LSU, the Tigers hadn’t finished in the top 10 since 2011. LSU needs to prove they can be the clear-cut second best team in the division if they want to be declared Alabama’s heir apparent.

1. Georgia

Why They Will – Recruiting and the SEC East

Since 2008, there’s been one SEC team that has not finished lower than third in their division, and it’s not Alabama. The Bulldogs have been incredibly consistent, and at 71-23, they have the third-best SEC record in the past twelve years. Under the reign of Kirby Smart, Georgia has made the jump from good to great, and they appear ready for long-term success. At 44 and with experience coaching in the NFL and under Saban, Smart has been successful, even if his decision to keep Jake Fromm over Justin Fields may have cost UGA a title. At age 44, he has a long career ahead of him and coaching stability will be a key for establishing the next Alabama. As for bringing in talent, Georgia has the top-ranked recruiting in the SEC over the three most recently ranked classes (2019-2021). Recruiting is the best indicator of future success, and with one of Saban’s students at the helm and some of the best talent in the country, Georgia strikes me as the most well-suited team to take over for Alabama. 

Why They Won’t – An inability to win the big one

I don’t want to overuse the same reason over and over again, but it’s the most obvious concern for the Bulldogs. They haven’t won the national championship since 1980, and they have struggled in the biggest moments of Kirby Smart. Dan Mullen may be unproven in big moments, but Smart is quickly establishing the wrong kind of track records in those same moments. Now to be fair, Alabama has been a big factor in blocking Georgia from their goals, but I’m also nervous about the departure of Fromm. He may not have been a transcendent talent, but the Dawgs haven’t done anything without him. So to prove me right on this #1 ranking, Kirby Smart will need to be more clutch, and some elite recruiting talent will need to capitalize on their potential for Georgia.

We Simulated A Group of Five College Football Playoff

In our recent simulation, we took a look at the results at an expanded College Football Playoff, which included a Group-of-5 bid, but who is the best small-name program out there? We simulated a CFP – Group-of-5 edition – and pitted the winner against the real CFP field, starting with the semifinal losers and progressing to the champion until they were defeated or triumphed over the field. Teams were selected by the final CFP rankings of that year, and if there were not four teams in those rankings, we went to the AP Poll, utilizing the “Also Receiving Votes” section if necessary. Here were our results:

2014

  1. Boise State
  2. Marshall
  3. Memphis
  4. Colorado State

4. Colorado State def. 1. Boise State 33-31
2. Marshall def. 3. Memphis 28-23

Championship

4. Colorado State def. 2. Marshall 31-23

Against the CFP…
Def. Florida State 34-31 (OT)
LOST to Alabama 44-28\

Summary

Led by the exploits of quarterback Garrett Grayson, Colorado State embarked on a stunning run in our initial year of the Group of 5 simulation. The Rams were 10-2 in 2014 with a bad loss in the Las Vegas Bowl, but in this simulation, they rallied over Boise State with a game-winning field goal at the buzzer, before staving off Marshall in the championship. Grayson tossed seven touchdowns and no picks between the two highly efficient performances. In a stunning effort, the Rams edged out Jameis Winston and the Seminoles, but they fell well short against Alabama, although Grayson threw for another four scores, but the Tide racked up 232 rushing yards between Derrick Henry and TJ Yeldon. Surprising stuff in Year 1, let’s see what 2015 has to offer. 

2015 

  1. Houston
  2. Navy
  3. Temple
  4. Western Kentucky


4. Western Kentucky def. 1. Houston 37-24
3. Temple def. 2. Navy 24-17

Championship

4. Western Kentucky def. 3. Temple 34-20

Against the CFP…

Def. Oklahoma 37-35
LOST to Michigan State 41-33

Summary

Two straight four-seeds? There appears to be very little difference among the top Group of 5 teams, so we’ll see if that trend continues. Western Kentucky bodyslammed both Houston and Temple by two touchdowns to claim the title. The Hilltoppers could score on virtually anyone in 2015, putting up at least 35 points on every defense except Vanderbilt and LSU. Oklahoma’s sieve-like defense posed little challenge, but the Spartans held WKU to enough field goals to edge out the upstart fourth-seed. 

2016

  1. Western Michigan
  2. Temple
  3. Navy
  4. South Florida


4. USF def. 1. Western Michigan 34-31
2. Temple def. 3. Navy 40-20

Championship

2. Temple def. 4. USF 34-30

Against the CFP…

LOST to Washington 42-23

Summary

Finally, someone took down a four-seed in this simulation, as Temple took down Navy in what is quickly developing into a virtual rivalry, and edged out South Florida in the final. However, they had zero luck against Power-5 competition, getting manhandled by fourth-seeded Washington, trailing by 29 points in the fourth quarter. Maybe the quality of play is a little worse, but you can’t deny this Playoff would be highly interesting – six of the nine games played in the Group of 5 portion of the simulation have been decided by one possession. 

2017

  1. UCF
  2. Memphis
  3. Boise State
  4. South Florida
  1. UCF def. 4. USF 45-13
  2. Memphis def. 3. Boise State 37-27

Championship

1. UCF def. 2. Memphis 41-31

Against the CFP…
LOST to Oklahoma 42-37
Summary

This simulation has produced some wild results, so to see chalk in Year 4 was actually pretty shocking. 2017 UCF can definitely stake a claim to being the best Group of 5 team in recent history, and they dominated the Playoff simulation here, taking the title in convincing fashion. However, a very strong Playoff field made it tough to advance further, as Baker Mayfield and the Sooners edged the Knights. McKenzie Milton was a joy to watch on the gridiron, so here’s to hoping he makes it back soon – college football is better when guys like him are playing. 

2018

  1. UCF
  2. Fresno State
  3. Boise State
  4. Utah State

    4. Utah State def. 1. UCF 35-23
    2. Fresno State def. 3. Boise State 35-21

Championship

4. Utah State def. 2. Fresno State 37-34 (OT)

Against the CFP…

LOST to Oklahoma 52-33

Summary

Top-seeded UCF had to play without McKenzie Milton and fell victim to Jordan Love’s rocket arm. Meanwhile, Boise State falls to 0-3 in three separate appearances, and the Aggies triumph in an overtime classic over Fresno State, tying the game on a late field goal and winning on Love’s 26-yard TD toss. Utah State clashed with Heisman winner Kyler Murray and simply did not have the firepower to stay with the Sooners. Love had a pair of TDs, but Oklahoma grabbed a 10-point halftime lead and cruised to victory. 

2019

  1. Memphis
  2. Boise State
  3. Appalachian State
  4. Cincinnati 

    1. Memphis def. 4. Cincinnati 41-28

2. Boise State def. 3. Appalachian State 37-14

Championship

2. Boise State def. 1. Memphis 35-30

Against the CFP…

LOST to Oklahoma 34-28
Summary

Boise State breaks through! I’m really glad, because I would have had to deal with a throng of rabid Broncos’ fans if they didn’t even get a win in the Group of 5 CFP. The Broncos manhandled Appalachian State in one of the biggest blowouts of our 6-year simulation before edging out a very good Memphis squad. However, their magic ran out against the Sooners – no ‘Statue of Liberty’ stunner in this one, as the Broncos dropped a 6-point contest to Jalen Hurts, CeeDee Lamb and Co. 

Final Thoughts

A Group-of-5 playoff will never happen, because it will require the NCAA to admit that their current system excludes half the teams in the nation from even competing for a Playoff spot. However, I am still enthralled by the idea; exciting small-name programs can be exciting to watch, and this system pits some of the best teams in the nation against each other, largely producing thrilling results. Four-seeds combined for an insane 7-3 record, as upsets raged throughout the years, while teams like UCF proved their utter dominance with convincing victories. 

Ultimately, Boise State led with four Playoff appearances, although it took them until that fourth try to snatch a win. Memphis went 2-3 in three appearances, and nobody else had more than two Playoff berths. Against CFP teams, our Group-of-5 champions went 2-6, but no victories were seen in the final four years. 

Ultimately, I think four appearances in six years is a decent statement as to Boise State’s consistency, regardless of their schedule, but the three tournament victories by fourth-seeds also showed that there is plenty of parity between the best Group-of-5 teams. Again, this won’t happen, but imagine if this event was a precursor to the CFP, making it four straight weekends of premier college football. One can dream.

Top Returning ACC Guards: #5 – Prentiss Hubb, Notre Dame

There are few things scarier to an ACC basketball team than playing Notre Dame and seeing Prentiss Hubb make a couple of shots. Because when he’s hot, Hubb rarely misses, and he can change the complexion of a game in a hurry. Called “My Patrick Mahomes” by head coach Mike Brey, Hubb may not have been the highest scorer on the court, but he is a difference-maker for the Irish, and his presence in the backcourt will be relied on heavily with star forward John Mooney graduated. Kicking off our latest countdown, Hubb comes in at #5 of our top returning guards to watch in the ACC. 

Hubb has been a starter since stepping foot on campus, averaging over thirty minutes per game in each of his first two seasons, and his efficiency on offense took a step up last season, as he increased his scoring average by four points to 12.1 points per game, while distributing the ball well –  his 5.1 assists per contest ranked fifth in the conference. And whether it was at the charity stripe (71%), beyond the arc (34.4%) or from two-point range (45%), Hubb’s numbers increased across the board, and he showed flashes of his elite talent during red-hot in-game surges. 

Hubb made his presence known from the get-go of his sophomore season, dropping 22 points in a road season opener at UNC, shooting 5-9 from deep. Hubb was relatively quiet for most of the Irish’s non-conference slate, chipping in where necessary, but against a bevy of weak opponents, he didn’t need to do much for Notre Dame to emerge victorious. In a massive January contest against Syracuse, one of the many teams that clogged the middle of the ACC standings all season, Hubb poured in 22 more points and facilitated the offense, notching nine assists. He also posted huge performances against a top-ten Florida State team – twice scoring 24 points against the Seminoles. 

With John Mooney and fellow senior TJ Gibbs gone, Hubb is the top returning scorer for the Irish, so he will get plenty of chances to put up big numbers. One concern is whether Hubb can be a little less streaky  – he had a one month stretch where he shot just 25% from three-point range, but if he can play to his full potential for a majority of the season, Hubb will be a scary player to face in the ACC this coming season. 

Mid-Major Top Returning Guards: #1 – Terry Taylor, Austin Peay

If you were to gaze at the Austin Peay men’s basketball statistical leaders in major categories, you may think you were simply looking at the statistics for Terry Taylor. The rising senior led his squad in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks as well as field goal percentage among regulars. Taylor has dominated the Ohio Valley Conference for two years now, and when he announced his decision to return to Austin Peay for his senior season, the Governors must have breathed a sigh of relief. With the announcement of his return, Taylor became our #1 returning mid-major guard in the country, finishing off our countdown. Although Taylor played minutes at forward, he is listed by ESPN as a guard, and he’s one of the most versatile players in the country. 

Taylor has been a difference-maker since his debut collegiate campaign, and his production has only increased in the subsequent seasons, improving from 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds as a freshman to 21.8 points and 11 rebounds last year, fuelling the Governors as they battled in a heated three-team race of the Ohio Valley Conference. And it wasn’t just the OVC falling victim to Taylor’s talent, as the mid-major star proved himself against a bevy of Power-5 squads. He dropped 18 points and 9 rebounds on Georgia and combined for 39 points and 12 boards against West Virginia and Arkansas before entering conference play. Once there, Taylor was nearly automatic, as he racked up double-doubles, earning 18 on the year, a mark which ranked 7th in the nation.

 Against conference-leading Belmont, Taylor posted an absurd 26-point, 23-rebound effort in a tough road loss, and when it came time for the postseason, Taylor didn’t slow down; in two conference tournament games, the Bowling Green, Kentucky product poured in 27 points in both contests, to go with a combined 22 rebounds. A 55% shooter, Taylor did a lot of his damage inside the arc, but if he unlocks his shot from beyond the arc, he boasts All-American talent and versatility. On the defensive side of things, Taylor led the Governors in both steals and blocks per game, making him an impact player on both ends of the court. 

Taylor’s tremendous versatility and production on both offense and defense for one of the best teams in the Ohio Valley Conference earned him the #1 ranking in our top returning mid-major guard countdown.

College Football Relevancy Rankings: Top 15

What makes a college football team relevant? Is it wins? That would be unfairly biased towards Group of 5 programs with the ability to rack up wins against horrific teams while unfairly punishing teams out of the SEC, Big 10, and other Power-5 conferences that load their schedules with premier competition each year. No offense to Boise State (or maybe a little bit), but the Broncos are not the best team in the country by really any other measure. And beating up on San Jose State, New Mexico, and UNLV does not qualify one for college football supremacy. However, to strictly take playoff berths and national championships seems flawed as well, as that essentially completely discounts UCF, Boise State, and other great but smaller-name programs. What about elite recruiting? Or draft picks and successful NFL careers?

We did our best to combine the variety of factors, weighing the success of college alums in the NFL, draft position, bowl appearances – with an emphasis on New Year’s 6 bowls – and CFP appearances. Of course, extra points were awarded for national championships – Group of 5 teams can cry all they want about how biased the CFP committee is, but the reality is they don’t have the ability to consistently defeat high-level programs. In a recent simulation we ran, we expanded the CFP to include the top Group of 5 team from each season, the non Power-5 squads went 1-6 with only 2017 UCF picking up a win. Relevancy or dominance can also not be claimed from one amazing season (LSU fans would have you believe they’re the greatest program in history because Joe Burrow dropped about a million points on everyone), nor can it be claimed by a 1988 national championship (looking at myself and fellow Irish fans on that one). 

So, taking all these factors into consideration, here are the rankings of the top 15 most relevant football programs heading into the 2020 season. For the keyboard warriors, rage type all your angry thoughts to collegetalking@gmail.com, where you can contact any of our writers.

15. Wisconsin 

Wisconsin just exudes hard and tough vibes, and that’s exactly the type of product the Badgers put out on the gridiron year in and year out. Their biggest strengths lie in their backfield and in the trenches. Recent alum of the program and 2017 first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk has already posted 47 starts and garnered All-Pro honors, while 2019 picks Michael Deiter and David Edwards have already combined for 25 starts. Behind their grind-it-out, ground-and-pound style, Wisconsin has won four of six West Division titles since the Big 10 split into East/West divisions. They’ve posted three top-15 finishes in that time period, rising into the top-6 at various points in each of the past four years, along with a 5-1 record in Bowl Games, including an Orange Bowl victory in 2017. However, an 0-4 record in Big 10 championships and struggles on the recruiting class (not in the Top 25 over the past five seasons), keep the Badgers from rising too far up this list. 

14. Washington

The Huskies edged out Wisconsin on the strength of three NY6 bowl appearances, and a spectacular stretch from 2016-2018 that was highlighted by a College Football Playoff berth in 2017. Playoff berths were certainly valued highly in the compilation of these rankings, as were conference championships, both areas where Washington beat out the Badgers, as the Huskies have won a pair of Pac-12 titles. They’ve had success in developing professional prospects in the secondary and at tight end, and they had no losing records in the past decade. However, they were really only elite for a 3-year stretch and went 2-3 in their last five bowl appearances, so Washington stays at #14 here. 

13. Boise State

As much as I like to give grief to the Broncos, they do at least belong on this list. Spoiler Alert: They’re the only Group-of-5 team that cracked the top 15. Boise State has not been the best Group-of-5 squad in recent years, having not been to a New Year’s 6 bowl since 2014, but their remarkable consistency earns them a place here – the Broncos have won at least 8 games in every season since 1998, posting 17 ten-win campaigns in that 21-year stretch. Their easy strength of schedule (not a single above-average SOS in program history) will always present an asterisk to their name that anyone will throw in their face, but Boise State gets Ws, and they have for 25 years, and they’ve been superb since joining the FBS in 2011, cracking the top 25 in every season. Their winning percentage over the last decade ranks fifth in the country at .805, and the Broncos sit fourth with 107 wins during that time. Now, I will throw in this statistic, so whether you’re a Boise State fan ready to brag about breaking the top 15 or insulted that you are put that low ( I truly don’t know what to expect out of that rabid and slightly delusional fanbase) – Since 2012, Boise State is just 1-4 against ranked Power-5 teams, and they don’t have a top-10 win since 2010. So they’re not a top-10 program, but they do deserve recognition for their consistency and sheer quantity of wins. 

12. Florida 

Florida would be a lot higher on this list if we were putting greater emphasis on history. Long gone are the days of Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow,  and the 2008 national championship, and even further gone is the era of Steve Spurrier, accompanied by four consecutive SEC championships and a couple more national titles. However, the Gators haven’t won the SEC title since that ‘08 run, and they haven’t appeared in the championship game since 2016. They’ve continued to recruit well, with their recruiting classes ranked #14 over the past five seasons, and they still pump out solid NFL talent, particularly on the offensive line and at defensive back – the boys in Gainesville are one of many teams to claim DBU. Florida has a pair of losing seasons in the past decades, but they’ve rebounded nicely in the past couple seasons, ending their previous two campaigns with major bowl victories (Peach and Orange Bowls), keeping them in the top 15. 

11. Notre Dame

Yes they’ve struggled in big games recently, and the Irish are still sitting on zero championships in the BCS/CFP era, but Notre Dame’s ability to bring in top level talent and turn that talent into NFL prospects keeps the Irish highly relevant, but I couldn’t justify bringing them into the top 10 without major recent accomplishments. However, the Irish produce some elite professional players, particularly on their offensive line in recent years (Quentin Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Zack Martin). They have a .713 winning percentage in the past decade, and they’re 4-2 in their past six bowl game appearances, highlighted by a pair of thrilling victories over LSU. They’ve been ranked in the top 12 in four of the past five seasons, and combined with a Playoff appearance, it was enough to put Notre Dame at #11 on the list. 

10. Florida State

One of the most dominant teams in college football in the first half of the decade, Florida State has faded from relevancy, posting just an 18-20 record in their prior three seasons. However, the Seminoles’ 59-9 record in the five years prior was more than enough to earn FSU some consideration for making this list. Ultimately, their BCS national championship and CFP appearance was enough to just barely crack the top 10. The Seminoles have continued to recruit at a high level, despite their recent struggles, as they’ve boasted the 6th-best recruiting classes over the past five years. They’ve had a pair of quarterbacks drafted in the first round, and clearly on-field talent isn’t the issue – if Florida State can sort out some off-field issues, the Seminoles should return to their elite ways. If not? They’ll slip very quickly off this list. 

9. Oregon
Recent first-round pick Justin Herbert has completed the Ducks’ turnaround, after Oregon spent nearly a decade as one of the best teams in the country. From 2008-2014, the Ducks went 80-15, with that stretch of dominance sandwiched by a pair of 9-4 seasons. They also were a consistent presence in major bowl games, winning the Rose Bowl twice, the Fiesta Bowl once, and appearing in two national championship games and the Playoff. Oregon bottomed out in 2016 with a 4-8 record, but they’ve surged once more, with a 21-6 record over the past two years, punctuated by another thrilling Rose Bowl victory in 2020. The Ducks continue one of the premier teams on the West Coast, but they need to break through to get a national title to stay in the top 10. 

8. Auburn

The Tigers started the decade off with the brilliance of Cam Newton and a national championship, so it was certainly tough to match that, but Auburn certainly continues to a premier team in college football. Playing in the SEC, the Tigers constantly face one of the most brutal schedules in the country, and I think they could be trending upwards, with another two seasons of Bo Nix coming and some victories on the recruiting trail. Their record (62-31) over the past seven seasons may not be as flashy as others on this list, but don’t forget that winning two of three in the SEC is far more impressive than winning three of four in most other conferences, and seven straight winning seasons while playing in the toughest division in the toughest conference in college football is worthy of a top-10 appearance. A CFP appearance is needed soon, but that BCS national championship and consistent SEC relevancy slots Auburn at #8. 

7. USC

Look, I get it. This seems way to high for a team that hasn’t won a championship since 2003-2004, and I’m not particularly happy about slotting the Trojans here – I’m a diehard Irish fan and Notre Dame student, and one of my favorite memories of my freshman year was watching the boys in blue and gold dust USC at Notre Dame Stadium. But before a recent slump, USC had posted winning records in every season from 2002 to 2017, including seven straight years of at least 11 wins. Despise some recent struggles, the Trojans have been ranked in the AP Poll at some point for each of the past 19 seasons, including a #3 finish in 2016. In recruiting talent and NFL talent they bring in and pump out, USC deserves to be in the top 10. Notre Dame may lead the series in this rivalry, but USC has been better in big games. This will likely be the most controversial ranking on the list, but I’ll stick with it. USC is such a national brand that with the premier talent they bring in year in and year out, they will always be a story, and if they can get a relatively hapless Clay Helton off the sideline, the Trojans can return to national glory. 

6. Georgia

Another great team that has just been completely unable to break through on the national level, as Georgia has returned to national relevance, but they can’t quite get that big win. After finishing every season from 1997-2008 ranked inside the Top 25, the Bulldogs faded slightly, but they stayed near the top of the rankings, appearing in the top 10 in every season since 2012. Under Kirby Smart, Georgia has surged once more, finishing no lower than seventh in the past three seasons, with an SEC Championship, three SEC title game appearances, a CFP and national championship appearance, as well as wins in the Rose and Sugar Bowls. Talent wise, Georgia has absolutely dominated their in-state rivalry, allowing them to dominate the in-state recruiting battles. As such, Georgia has dominated on the recruiting front, and they produce some elite NFL prospects, particularly in the backfield, pushing the Bulldogs to 6th in our 2020 relevancy rankings. 

5. Oklahoma

Since 2000, Oklahoma has consistently been one of the top teams in college football – cracking the top ten in every season in that stretch with appearances in the top 5 in 17 of those 20 seasons. They’ve qualified for four consecutive Playoffs, and while they’ve struggled on that stage, Oklahoma has dominated their conference, been a mainstay in the rankings, featured top-10 talent, had two Heisman winners, and produced highly sought after draft prospects for the NFL. By every standard except Playoff success, Oklahoma is one of the best programs in the country, so don’t let their struggles in the spotlight cloud your judgement of the Sooners. 

4. LSU

Yes LSU is great. No they are not the best team in the nation. The Tigers returned to true national relevance in Joe Burrow’s first season, finishing sixth in the AP Poll – their first top ten finish since 2011. Then, of course, there was last year: one of the greatest seasons and quarterbacking efforts of all-time en route to a 15-0 season. That CFP appearance and national championship bumps the Tigers into the top 5. LSU recruits at a top-five level in most seasons, and they probably have the most legitimate claim to DBU with four All-Pro alums and 2017 first-round pick Jamal Adams on his way to becoming the best safety in the NFL. LSU is always relevant, and they’ve turned the corner after spending much of the decade as an afterthought in the national championship race – now they need to succeed in the post-Burrow era to validate this ranking. 

3. Ohio State

Seemingly always a powerhouse, but rarely on top. The Alabama-Clemson dual-dynasties may have dominated the second half of the decade, but Ohio State was always right in the mix, but, sans the first ever College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes have not been able to break through. Ohio State has been ranked second in the AP Poll in each of the past four years, but they haven’t sat atop the rankings since 2015. However, outside a blip in 2011 when the Buckeyes went 6-7, Ohio State has been one of the most consistent teams in the country, with extended stretches of dominance – you have to go back to 1967 to find the last season that OSU didn’t make an appearance in the AP Poll. However, Ohio State has not been able to punctuate their dynasty with more than the occasional title, meaning their spot at #3 is anything but secure, with LSU’s recent surge and Oklahoma a CFP win or two from being considered a premier program. 

2. Clemson

These rankings were always going to come down to Bama-Clemson at 1 and 2, it was just a matter of who ranked where. Ultimately, while it’s brutally difficult to decide in just the last few years, Alabama’s dynasty has simply been longer (more on that later), so Clemson ranks second. They’ve been incredibly dominant for five seasons now, and their dynasty doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. I believe the Tigers have the biggest claim to WRU, where they’ve produced DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams, and their 6-3 record in the CFP  and two national titles are wildly impressive. Had I wrote this article in 2015, I’m not sure Clemson would even be on this list, so it’s safe to say it’s a truly special period of dominance that saw the Tigers skyrocket to the top so fast.

1. Alabama

2007. That was the last time that a season went by and Alabama wasn’t ranked #1 at some point during the season. Toss in five national championships in that era, and the top ranking on this list simply couldn’t go to anyone but the Tide. Last year, they finished eighth in the AP Poll, their first time outside the top 5 since 2013 and their lowest ranking since 2010. As for the other qualifications for this list? Alabama dominates the recruiting landscape virtually every season, and they pump out NFL talent at almost every position. Although I stick with my pick of Clemson, Alabama stake a claim for WRU, and defensively, nobody can top the Tide who boast defensive line and linebacker talent like no other program. Their running backs tear up the NFL (see Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram), and the Tide have been the standard in the best conference in America for over a decade. It’s really not a question who is #1 here. 

Mid-Major Top Returning Guards: #2 – Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron

We are into the stretch run of our top mid-major guard countdown, as we continue our rankings with our #2 guard in Akron’s Loren Cristian Jackson. Jackson was the key cog behind Akron’s MAC-winning season last year, leading the team in points per game, assists, and three-point percentage. Entering his senior year, the Chicago product looks primed to be one of the best guards both in the MAC and in the country. 

Jackson’s averages of 19.8 points and 4.5 assists, along with his 43% shooting from three-point range, all ranked in the top-four in the MAC in the 2019-2020 season. His averages have improved in each of his three collegiate seasons, and he was one of the most efficient players in the country by Player Efficiency Rating, and he did it all while being an absolute workhorse for the Zips, averaging almost 35 minutes per game. 

Not only did Jackson post some superb averages, but he flashed his ability to have some big-time games, both against MAC-competition and Power-5 squads. In a road game at West Virginia, Jackson dropped 16 points and 6 assists on the Mountaineers, followed by a premier performance at #2 Louisville, where the rising senior notched a 20 point, 6 assist, 6 rebound effort, as Akron nearly stunned the Cardinals. Jackson got stronger as the season wore on, averaging nearly 24 points per game in the Zips’ final eight contests, highlighted by three efforts of 30+ points. In three games against the next two best teams in the MAC – Buffalo and Bowling Green – Jackson poured in 35, 35, and 28 points, helping lead Akron to a regular season conference title. And Jackson isn’t a one-trick pony, shooting 50% from inside the arc and an astounding 88% from the free-throw line, closing out numerous wins for the Zips at the charity stripe. 

Jackson has been an absolute beast for Akron, and if college basketball returns in full force, look for him to be one of the best guards in the country and leading the Zips to their first NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Mid-Major Top Returning Guards: #3 – De’Torrion Ware

We’re heading into the weekend, and with that, we’re getting into the final stages of our top returning mid-major guards heading into the 2020-21 season, as today we feature our #3 guard in De’Torrion Ware of Jacksonville State. Ware largely functioned as the sixth man for the Gamecocks last season, averaging 20.8 minutes per game; however, despite the limited minutes, Ware was second on the team in both scoring (11.9 points per game) and rebounds (5.3). With leading scorer Jacara Cross graduated, Ware looks likely to see a significant uptick in his minutes and scoring opportunities, making him a dangerous player to watch, both in the Ohio Valley Conference, and in the nation as a whole. 

As mentioned before, Ware had limited opportunities to shine in his sophomore season, but when the Kentucky product had his chance, he thrived. In his lone game that he played over 30 minutes, Ware tortured conference-leading Belmont for 25 points and 14 rebounds, punctuating a three-game stretch in which Ware scored 73 points on 63% shooting. It was his best stretch of the season, but Ware proved to be a force when offered extended time on the court – he averaged 16 points per contest in which he played 25+ minutes. 

Ware has also proven to be more than competent against tougher competition outside the A-10 – in the early-season Emerald Coast Classic, Ware dropped 43 points and 23 rebounds against the tradition-laden VCU program, Purdue, and Chicago. His efficient performances came despite just 35% shooting from three on the season, but Ware flashed a much more potent deep shot throughout the year, delivering performances of 7-11, 5-8, and 5-9 during the year. As Ware evolves into a more consistent threat from beyond the arc and continues to crash the boards and get to the basket effectively, he will continue to grow into a truly dynamic threat for Jacksonville State, as the Gamecocks look to improve on their 7th-place finish in the OVC this past season.

MID-MAJOR TOP RETURNING GUARDS: #4 – Jhivvan Jackson, UTSA

We’re continuing our top mid-major guard countdown today, and slotting in at #4 is Jhivvan Jackson, of the University of Texas at San Antonio. A rising senior, Jackson has been one of the most prolific scorers in the country regardless of conference, and he has only improved his numbers in each of his three seasons thus far. After 18.4 points per game his freshman year, Jackson improved that mark to 22.4 in his sophomore season, before shooting up to 26.8 points per game, ranking second in the country in the 2019-2020 season. 

Jackson played for a UTSA team that mustered just a 7-11 record in Conference-USA play, leading the team in scoring while ranking second in rebounds (5.6 rpg) and assists (2.4 apg). He recorded five double-doubles last season, scoring 30+ points on 12 occasions with a season-high of 45. Jackson notched some impressive performances against Power-5 competitions, including UTSA’s season opener at a very solid Oklahoma squad, when he dropped 24 points and 13 rebounds on the Sooners. Against Oregon State, Jackson posted a 28 point, 5 rebound, and 5 assist stat line, entering C-USA play on a hot streak that he kept alive for the majority of UTSA’s conference slate. One of his most impressive performances of the season came in a big home game against Louisiana Tech, who finished the year 13-5 in C-USA play and was one of three 20-win teams in the conference. Jackson put up a monster performance, scoring 37 points led by his 8-15 shooting from 3-point range. He also brought down five rebounds and dished out six assists to lead the Roadrunners to an upset victory. In his three chances against the top three teams in the conference  – North Texas, Louisiana Tech, and Western Kentucky – Jackson averaged just under 34 points. 

The scariest thing about Jackson’s prolific output in his junior season is that he was somewhat inconsistent from beyond the arc. As shown in some of his biggest games, when he was hitting long-range shots at a high rate, the UTSA standout was an absolute game-changer and one of the most lethal shooters in the country. In twelve games that Jackson shot the 3 at a 40% clip or better, he averaged over 32 points per game, so if he irons out some of his accuracy issues, he could be one of the best scorers in recent NCAA history. Last season, Markus Howard led the country with 27.8 points per game, and nobody has eclipsed 30.1 for a season since 1997. If Jackson returns for his senior season locked in from distance, he might light up Conference USA and single-handedly push UTSA back towards the top of the conference. 

Ultimately, Jackson’s steady improvement of three collegiate seasons and his prolific scoring ability, even when shooting at less efficient clips, landed him at #4 on our countdown of the best mid-major guards in the country.

Mid-Major Top Returning Guards: #5 – Grayson Murphy, Belmont

Today, we’re starting our countdown of the top 5 mid-major guards returning to college basketball for the 2020-2021 season. Starting off the countdown at #5 is Grayson Murphy, entering his junior season for the Belmont Bruins. Murphy has been a consistent contributor for the Bruins over his first two collegiate campaigns, averaging a touch under 30 minutes per contest and shooting over 50% for his career. 

The biggest strengths that landed Murphy on our list is his efficiency – he was a top-100 player last year in efficiency rating and one of the top-ranking guards – and his versatility. Although he is just Belmont’s third-best returning scorer at 9.8 points per game, Murphy led the Bruins with 6.2 assists and 7.4 rebounds, the latter being a mark that ranked him around the best rebounding guards in the country. 

With three plus skills in his scoring, rebounding, and distribution, Murphy’s career has been marked by his consistency and ability to constantly impact games one way or the other. He posted five double-doubles last season, coming very close to a triple-double on several occasions. In an early January road contest at UT Martin, Murphy dropped 19 points on 80% shooting, dished out 12 assists, and collected eight rebounds, leading the Bruins to a key conference victory. 

Another one of the reasons I’m high on Murphy heading into the 2020-2021 season is he ended his sophomore campaign playing some of his best basketball of the season. Over the final month, including Belmont’s Ohio Valley Conference Championship run, he kept his rebounding and assist averages around the same, while improving his scoring total to nearly 12 points per contest. With Belmont returning most of their conference champion team, Murray figures to be a key contributor for the Bruins once again, and he may get a chance to display his versatile skill set in front of a national audience if Belmont can return to March Madness. 

Murray’s consistency, efficiency, and versatility on a highly successful Belmont squad are noteworthy, and it earned him a top-5 spot in our countdown of the best mid-major guards in the country.