High-powered passing games, big-play receivers and prolific quarterbacks are essential to winning a national title right now in college football. And there's no lack of proven options on the outside this season, as Ohio State possesses two All-America-caliber receivers, Justyn Ross is back at Clemson, and there's no doubt Oklahoma and Alabama will produce in the passing game once again. Those four teams, along with USC, take the top spots in Athlon's top receiving corps in college football for the 2021 season.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2021 all factored into the rankings for the receiving corps. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2021, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2020. Note: This ranking also takes into account tight ends.
College Football's Top 15 WR Groups for 2021
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are an easy pick at the No. 1 spot thanks to the return of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson – both first-team All-America selections by Athlon Sports for 2021. The duo combined for 93 catches and 1,452 yards last season and will ease the transition period for new quarterback C.J. Stroud. Jameson Williams’ decision to transfer to Alabama leaves the No. 3 spot open for Jaxon Smith-Njigba, while fellow touted 2020 recruit Julian Fleming will also see a bigger role. The Buckeyes added extra depth in the ’21 class with the arrival of Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert (13 catches for 151 yards) should be more involved this year.
Quarterback Spencer Rattler isn’t going to lack for weapons to direct coach Lincoln Riley’s high-powered offense. Marvin Mims is back after a terrific freshman season (37 receptions for 610 yards and nine scores), with Theo Wease (37 grabs), Drake Stoops (15), Jadon Haselwood (four) and tight ends/h-backs Jeremiah Hall (18) and Austin Stogner (26) also back in the mix. Arkansas transfer Mike Woods joined the team after spring practice after averaging 19.3 yards per catch over 32 grabs in the SEC last season. Help is also on the way from the incoming recruiting class. Mario Williams, Cody Jackson and Jalil Farooq are names to know for the future but could also push for time in 2021.
The return of Justyn Ross gives Clemson’s offense a big-time playmaker on the outside and certainly makes life a little easier for new quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Ross missed all of 2020 due to a neck injury but was clearly one of the nation’s top receivers in ’19 after catching 66 passes for 865 yards and eight scores. The Tigers have a host of talented youngsters vying for snaps around Ross. E.J. Williams, Ajou Ajou, Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson are the top contenders for starting jobs, but true freshmen Beaux Collins, Troy Stellato and Dacari Collins will factor into the mix. Braden Galloway (27 catches for 369 yards last season) is a steady option at tight end.
Yes, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are big losses for Alabama’s offense. But no team in college football has done a better job of landing talent on the recruiting trail, so the next wave of stars is primed to emerge in 2021. John Metchie III should slide into the No. 1 role after catching 55 passes for 916 yards and six scores last fall. Tight end Jahleel Billingsley should also see an increased role after catching 18 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns in ’20. Slade Bolden caught 24 passes last season and will be a key cog on the outside once again, while Javon Baker (two catches) is also back fighting for snaps. However, newcomers are expected to play a key role here for new coordinator Bill O’Brien. Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams is a big-time speed threat on the outside, while incoming freshmen Agiye Hall, Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle and Christian Leary will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown are gone, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Drake London flashed All-America potential by catching 33 passes for 502 yards and three scores in last year’s limited season. He’s poised to be the No. 1 target for quarterback Kedon Slovis this fall. Transfers K.D. Nixon (Colorado) and Tahj Washington (Memphis) will help right away, especially with Bru McCoy suspended indefinitely due to an off-field incident and subsequent arrest. Former top-50 recruits Gary Bryant Jr. and Kyle Ford are poised to see a bump in playing time, while incoming freshmen Joseph Manjack IV and Michael Jackson III have already made some noise in fall camp. The development of freshman tight end Michael Trigg is worth monitoring, especially after this unbelievable catch and run this preseason.
Injuries have taken a toll on this unit this offseason, and the status of LSU transfer Arik Gilbert is uncertain going into the opener versus Clemson. However, the Bulldogs still have a talented group of playmakers here. Jermaine Burton is a candidate for a breakout year. If Gilbert and receiver George Pickens (ACL tear) return at any point this season, the Bulldogs should be higher on this list.
7. Iowa State
A healthy Tarique Milton adds another big-time playmaker to Iowa State’s deep receiving corps. Xavier Hutchinson returns after pacing the team with 64 receptions in 2020, and there’s plenty of depth in the form of Sean Shaw (21 rec.), Darren Wilson, Joe Scates and incoming freshman Jaylin Noel. Tight end Charlie Kolar (44 catches in 2020) is one of the best in college football at his position. Kolar and Chase Allen might be the best tight end pairing of any team in the nation.
Romeo Doubs (58 catches in 2020) should push for All-America honors, and Elijah Cooks (76 receptions in ’19) is back after missing most of last season due to injury. The Wolf Pack also have depth on the outside with Tory Horton, Justin Lockhart and Melquan Stovall back. Tight end Cole Turner (49 grabs last year) is among the best in college football.
9. Ole Miss
The Rebels lost Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah, but don’t expect quarterback Matt Corral to lack for options on the outside. Dontario Drummond, Jonathan Mingo and Braylon Sanders are proven and ready for more targets in 2021. Transfers Jalen Knox (Missouri) and Jahcour Pearson (WKU) will also push for time. Keep an eye on former quarterback John Rhys Plumlee too.
All of last year’s key weapons in the passing game are back for coach Mario Cristobal, and a full offseason to learn under play-caller Joe Moorhead should certainly help the Ducks progress on offense this fall. Johnny Johnson III, Jaylon Redd, Mycah Pittman and Devon Williams are back to form the main corps of contributors. Intriguing freshmen Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton will provide depth.
11. Texas A&M
14. Penn State
Podcast: Preseason Practice Updates, QB Battles and Biggest Prediction Regrets