An early look at the top 25 college football teams for 2021
It’s never too early to think about next season, so with college football’s 2020 season complete after Alabama's win in the national championship, Athlon Sports is here with its way-too-early top 25 preseason rankings for 2021. The Crimson Tide rank as the No. 1 team in the very early top 25, followed by Clemson at No. 2. Oklahoma is poised for a run at the national championship next fall, and coach Lincoln Riley's team checks in at No. 3, followed by Georgia and Ohio State in the top five. Iowa State ranks No. 6, with Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and North Carolina rounding out the top 10 for college football preseason rankings.
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline and 2021 National Signing Day are in the books, but coaching moves, transfers, injuries and some late recruiting moves are still taking place. With that in mind, this top 25 ranking could look a lot different by May once all of the personnel moves and changes are completed. However, the strengths and weaknesses for all 130 CFB teams are largely recognizable at this point. The early rankings take into account early schedule projection, overall team strength and where teams stand after the 2020 season and prior to spring practice.
Here is Athlon’s way-too-early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2021, followed by other teams to watch this offseason:
Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2021
Nick Saban has to retool the depth chart and coaching staff once again, but it’s safe to assume the Crimson Tide will be back in the mix to win it all. With Mac Jones departing to the NFL, Bryce Young – the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2020 signing class – will take over under center. Former Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien will replace Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator and is tasked with breaking in new (but very talented) weapons at the skill positions. Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams, Brian Robinson and Trey Sanders will get first crack at the carries left behind by Najee Harris, with John Metchie III, Jahleel Billingsley and a cast of talented youngsters vying for opportunities at receiver. The trenches need to be restocked with Alex Leatherwood, Deonte Brown and Landon Dickerson off to the NFL. The defense will return largely intact, but defensive lineman Christian Barmore, linebacker Dylan Moses and cornerback Patrick Surtain have left for the next level. After a strong freshman season, linebacker Will Anderson should emerge as one of the top pass rushers in the SEC, and as usual in Tuscaloosa, standout recruiting classes (especially 2020 and ’21) will replenish some of the question marks. The Crimson Tide open with Miami in Atlanta, but the road schedule is tough, headlined by games at Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M.
The Tigers will be hungry to rebound from the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State and a big-time opportunity awaits in Week 1 against Georgia in Charlotte to get 2021 started off on the right track. Trevor Lawrence is off to the NFL, but the quarterback position is in good hands with D.J. Uiagalelei ready to step in. The backfield is also changing hands due to Travis Etienne's departure to the next level. Lyn-J Dixon will get the first crack at the starting gig, but five-star freshman Will Shipley is also going to factor into the mix. Uiagalelei’s receiving corps could feature Justyn Ross if he returns after missing 2020 due to a neck injury and promising options in Frank Ladson, Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams. The line of scrimmage has to improve for Clemson to win the national title, and there’s work to do after Jackson Carman departed to the NFL. Five-star freshman Tristan Leigh and 2020 recruit Walker Parks should get an extended look up front. The trenches on defense are set with Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis, Myles Murphy and K.J. Henry back in ’21. James Skalski’s return is huge for the linebacker unit, and while some improvement in big games is needed, the secondary will return largely intact. Clemson will be a huge favorite in 11 of its 12 regular-season games in ’21.
The Sooners just missed the College Football Playoff in 2020 for the first time under coach Lincoln Riley. Don’t expect that trend to continue in ’21. Riley’s offense will be explosive once again, but Oklahoma’s defense took a big step forward in ’20 under coordinator Alex Grinch. After giving up 27.3 points a game and 5.6 yards per play, the Sooners cut those totals to 21.7 a contest and 5.2 a snap. Look for this group to continue improving in 2021, especially with tackle Isaiah Thomas and linebacker Nik Bonitto passing on the NFL after end Ronnie Perkins declared early. Nose guard Perrion Winfrey, lineman Jalen Redmond, linebacker Brian Asamoah and cornerbacks Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham are rising stars that will only help the defense continue to grow in ’21. Oklahoma has averaged more than 40 points a game for six straight years and that streak should continue with quarterback Spencer Rattler at the helm. There’s plenty of skill talent, but Riley and line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will have some retooling to do with center Creed Humphrey and right tackle Adrian Ealy off to the NFL. The schedule breaks favorably for Oklahoma in 2021. Riley’s team opens with a date at Tulane and a home matchup against Nebraska in non-conference play. Iowa State, TCU and West Virginia visit Norman, with Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State coming on the road. And of course, there’s the annual showdown against Texas in Dallas.
Kirby Smart has led Georgia to a 44-9 mark over the last four years, but the next step for the program is to get back to the national championship game and hoist the trophy. The emergence of USC transfer JT Daniels sparked the offense to an average of 37.3 points a game over the Bulldogs’ final four games after posting 29 points a contest in the first six contests. Daniels should benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, and play-caller Todd Monken should have a complete set of practices in the spring and fall to implement his scheme after an unusual lead up to the 2020 season. Daniels won’t lack for playmakers on the outside. The top three targets – including George Pickens – are back, while tight end Darnell Washington and Arian Smith, Dominick Blaylock, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (if healthy), and Justin Robinson are promising players to develop and add more depth. As usual in Athens, the backfield is well-stocked with talent. Two linemen – guard Ben Cleveland and center Trey Hill – are off to the NFL, but line coach Matt Luke has options. Georgia’s defense led the SEC by holding teams to 4.86 yards per play in 2020. Elite recruiting will help Smart and coordinator Dan Lanning keep this group near the top of the SEC, but there are some holes to fill after end Malik Herring, linebackers Azeez Ojulari and Monty Rice, safety Richard LeCounte and cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell opted for the draft.
5. Ohio State
Ryan Day will have several key players to replace from the team that crushed Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and played for the national championship. However, as expected in Columbus, the Buckeyes will quickly reload and return as the team to beat in the Big Ten. Justin Fields is headed to the NFL, leaving 2020 four-star recruits C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III and ’21 five-star prospect Kyle McCord to battle to pilot Day’s high-powered offense. Chris Olave passed on the NFL to join Garrett Wilson and freshmen Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Julian Fleming in the nation's top receiving corps next season. Master Teague headlines the backfield with Trey Sermon departing, but incoming freshman TreVeyon Henderson is also expected to push for snaps. The line suffered some losses – guard Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers – but there’s plenty of talent to build around in ’21. The defense will have its share of losses, as only three of the top 10 tacklers in 2020 are back. Coordinator Kerry Coombs will have to lean on end Zach Harrison, tackle Haskell Garrett and cornerback Sevyn Banks to quickly reload this group in spring workouts. The Buckeyes host Oregon for a huge non-conference showdown in September and face road trips to Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska and Indiana next fall.
6. Iowa State
The Cyclones continued to reach new heights under Matt Campbell in 2020. The program earned its first trip to the Big 12 title game, finished with nine wins (the program’s highest victory total since 2000 and has recorded a winning mark in Big 12 play for four consecutive years. Campbell’s program is positioned for another run at the conference title game in 2021, as quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and receiver Xavier Hutchinson are back to headline the offense. Tight end Charlie Kolar (44 catches) is poised to push for All-America honors. Additionally, a line that allowed only 14 sacks is slated to return intact next fall. Iowa State’s defense has finished in the top three in the Big 12 in scoring defense in each of the last four years and will be strong once again with linebacker Mike Rose, safety Isheem Young and edge rusher Will McDonald (10.5 sacks) back to anchor this unit under coordinator Jon Heacock. The schedule features a home showdown against Iowa and conference games in Ames against Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas. Iowa State plays at Oklahoma and West Virginia next fall.
The Bearcats should be the top Group of 5 team once again in 2021. Coach Luke Fickell has guided this program to a 31-6 record over the last three years, and the ’21 schedule features big-time opportunities to make a statement against Indiana and Notre Dame in non-conference play. There’s little doubt Cincinnati has one of the nation’s top defenses, but the offense showed marked improvement in ’20. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was the catalyst for that jump in production, helping this unit jump from 5.7 yards per play to 6.7 in ’20. The skill talent is in good shape with Alabama transfer Jerome Ford (483 yards) slated to replace Gerrid Doaks as the No. 1 running back, and Ridder’s receiving corps is slated to return seven of the top eight targets from last season. The top concern on offense rests in the trenches after James Hudson departed early to the NFL. Cincinnati has led the AAC in scoring defense for three consecutive years, and even with coordinator Marcus Freeman taking over at Notre Dame, this unit shouldn’t slip too far on the stat sheet. Safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest, linebacker Jarell White and lineman Elijah Ponder are off to the NFL, but a strong foundation remains, including end Myjai Sanders (seven sacks) and cornerback Ahmad Gardner who should be All-American candidates in ’21.
8. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies are trending up entering 2021. Texas A&M has won 26 games over the last three years, nearly made the CFB Playoff in 2020, and finished with an Orange Bowl victory over North Carolina. Fisher's hopes of an SEC West title in ’21 will depend on a re-tooled offense following the departure of quarterback Kellen Mond and four starters in the trenches. Freshman Eli Stowers, Haynes King and Zach Calzada are set to battle to replace Mond, and Kenyon Green will lead the rebuilding effort up front. The skill talent is in good shape for ’21. The backfield is deep with Isaiah Spiller, Ainais Smith and Devon Achane in place. More big plays are needed outside, but the receiving corps will get Caleb Chapman back from injury, Demond Demas should contribute more with a full year under his belt, and Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Cupp form a standout duo at tight end. The Aggies emerged as one of the top defenses in the SEC by ranking third in the SEC at 21.7 points a game allowed, finishing second in rush defense and fifth in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Some retooling is needed up front with linebacker Buddy Johnson and tackle Bobby Brown III off to the NFL. However, DeMarvin Leal, Tyree Johnson, McKinnley Jackson and Jayden Peevy headline a strong line, with Jaylon Jones and safeties Leon O’Neal and Demani Richardson anchoring an improving secondary. Texas A&M should go 4-0 in non-conference play and catches Alabama and Auburn at home. Road trips to LSU, Missouri and Ole Miss are on tap for 2021.
9. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish return to the Independent ranks after spending a successful 2020 season in the ACC. Coach Brian Kelly’s team has won at least 10 games in five out of the last six years, and despite both sides entering ’21 with question marks, another double-digit win total is within reach. With Ian Book moving on to the NFL, Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, Drew Pyne, Brendon Clark and freshman Tyler Buchner are set to battle for the starting job under center. With a new quarterback stepping in, the Fighting Irish need to lean on the one-two punch of running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, but this duo will be running behind a revamped offensive line. Tight end Michael Mayer (42 catches) is a rising star, but Kelly and play-caller Tommy Rees need to identify more playmakers at receiver. The hire of Marcus Freeman to replace Clark Lea as defensive coordinator is a home run for Notre Dame. However, the former Cincinnati coordinator lost cornerback Nick McCloud, defensive back Shaun Crawford, ends Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes and All-America linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to the NFL. On the positive side for Freeman, All-American safety Kyle Hamilton is back, and there’s enough talent and depth to mitigate the losses at every level. The schedule features matchups against Wisconsin (in Chicago), Cincinnati, USC, North Carolina, and at Stanford.
10. North Carolina
With Sam Howell back at quarterback, the Tar Heels should be the early favorite to win the ACC Coastal in 2021. The junior-to-be will have a revamped supporting cast though. Running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter (2,385 combined yards) depart, and receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome (99 combined completions) must be replaced. The cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mack Brown and coordinator Phil Longo. Khafre Brown and Josh Downs had promising performances in the Orange Bowl and should play a bigger role at receiver, along with Emery Simmons and tight end Garrett Walston. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler should push for immediate playing time at running back. On the positive side for Howell, the offensive line is expected to return intact. The Tar Heels saw an uptick in yards per play and points allowed in 2020. Coordinator Jay Bateman’s defense brings back the bulk of its ’20 depth chart, but linebacker Chazz Surratt is off to the NFL. True freshman Tony Grimes is a rising star to watch at cornerback, and this unit will look to get more contributions out of fellow ’20 signees Myles Murphy and Desmond Evans in the trenches. North Carolina’s toughest non-conference game takes place at Notre Dame, but with Miami coming to Chapel Hill, Brown’s program should have the inside track to a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Due to COVID-19 and player absences and injuries, it’s hard to read too much into Wisconsin’s 4-3 record in 2020. The Badgers have been a model of consistency by winning at least eight games in five full years under coach Paul Chryst and claimed three out of the last five Big Ten West Division titles. Defense was the strong suit for Chryst’s team in 2020 and should rank as one of the best in the Big Ten once again. No team scored more than 28 points against this unit and it limited offenses to just 5.01 yards per play. Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig are back to anchor the linebacker unit, which is crucial with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand moving on from the trenches. The secondary loses safety Eric Burrell, but coordinator Jim Leonhard has the makings of a solid group on the back end once again. The question marks are bigger on offense. The Badgers averaged only 25.1 points a game – the lowest mark over the last 12 years – and recorded just 4.89 yards per play. Injuries took a toll on the receiving corps in 2020, as Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis combined for just 11 catches in five games. With tight end Jake Ferguson and Davis and Pryor returning at receiver, the pass-catching options for quarterback Graham Mertz will be deeper, especially as Chimere Dike continues to develop. Jalen Berger (301 rushing yards) headlines the backfield after a promising freshman season. And as usual, Wisconsin should be strong in the trenches. The 2021 schedule breaks favorably for the Badgers. Penn State, Michigan, Army, Northwestern and Iowa all visit Camp Randall Stadium. An intriguing non-conference battle against Notre Dame is set for Soldier Field in late September.
Can the Ducks win their third Pac-12 title in a row in 2021? We think so, as coach Mario Cristobal’s team is Athlon’s early pick to win the conference next fall. Oregon won’t play USC in the regular season but tough trips to Ohio State, Utah and Washington are on tap. Joe Moorhead was one of the top coordinator hires last season, and the former Mississippi State head coach guided the Ducks to an average of 6.8 yards per play. For the offense to take the next step, taking better care of the ball (16 lost turnovers) is a priority and more consistency is needed under center. Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown saw time at quarterback but the chances of incoming freshman Ty Thompson or redshirt freshman Jay Butterfield pushing for the starting nod increased with Shough transferring to Texas Tech. The line returns largely intact, and Oregon doesn’t lack for skill talent with receivers Devon Williams and Mycah Pittman, along with running backs Travis Dye, CJ Verdell and Sean Dollars. The defense allowed 28.3 points a game in 2020 – an increase of nearly 12 points after holding teams to 16.5 in ’19. New coordinator Tim DeRuyter is going to have a busy spring replacing cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, tackle Austin Faoliu, safety Nick Pickett and lineman Jordon Scott. However, Cristobal can build around end Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebacker Noah Sewell and defensive backs Verone McKinley III and Mykael Wright. Also, look for a couple of big-time recruits from the last two classes Troy Franklin (WR), Don’t’e Thornton (WR), Dontae Manning (CB), and Justin Flowe (LB) to factor into the mix.
The Gators are coming off their first SEC East title 2016, but coach Dan Mullen’s team has a lot of work to do in order to get back to Atlanta in December. An offense that averaged 7.3 yards per play and 39.8 points a game has to replace quarterback Kyle Trask (4,283 yards and 43 TDs) and receivers Kadarius Toney (70 catches), Trevon Grimes (38), and tight end Kyle Pitts (43). Emory Jones is the front-runner to replace Trask, with Anthony Richardson also in the mix. Jones brings a different skill set to the offense, but Mullen’s track record shows there won’t be a drastic drop in production. Clemson transfer (and former five-star recruit) Demarkcus Bowman will push for snaps in a talented backfield. Another transfer - Arik Gilbert from LSU - is going to be a big-time playmaker for Mullen in 2021. The line will need to be retooled with two starters off to the NFL. The Gators hope to get back on track defensively after surrendering 6.1 yards per play and 30.8 but question marks remain. Tackle Kyree Campbell and cornerback Marco Wilson are off to the NFL and more help is needed at linebacker. Cornerback Kaiir Elam and linemen Brenton Cox Jr. and Zachary Carter will lead the effort for improvement next fall, while Penn State transfer Antonio Shelton is a big boost to the interior. Florida gets Alabama and is on the road against LSU in crossover play with the SEC West but also faces trips to Missouri and Kentucky. The annual showdown versus Georgia takes place on Oct. 30 in Jacksonville.
The Hawkeyes lost their first two games but finished the 2020 season by winning six in a row. The Big Ten West Division title should be within reach for coach Kirk Ferentz’s team in ’21. Quarterback Spencer Petras needs to improve after an uneven debut (1,569 yards and nine touchdowns), and there’s some retooling needed up front after tackle Alaric Jackson and guard Cole Banwart departed to the NFL. However, a good foundation remains up front with center Tyler Linderbaum at the pivot, allowing the offense to continue to lean on running back Tyler Goodson. Tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy are back, but the passing game will miss Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. Iowa’s defense held teams to 16 points and 4.3 yards per play in 2020, but coordinator Phil Parker has to replace a couple of key linemen – Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin – and linebacker Nick Niemann. The losses are significant on this side of the ball, but Parker should keep this unit near the top of the Big Ten. Standout kicker Keith Duncan will be missed. Ferentz’s team won’t get any breaks early in 2021. Iowa plays Indiana and at Iowa State to start the year, followed by games against Northwestern (road) and Penn State before mid-October. The Hawkeyes also travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin.
The Pac-12 South should be a tight battle between USC, Utah and Arizona State in 2021. The Trojans are coming off their first South Division title since 2015 and the return of quarterback Kedon Slovis is more than enough for coach Clay Helton to guide the program to another conference title game. Keeping Slovis upright and away from pressure has been a challenge for the Trojans. The offensive line surrendered 15 sacks in six games this fall and question marks remain in ’21, especially after left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker left for the NFL. Skill talent isn’t an issue, even at receiver with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns departing for the next level. Drake London, Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant Jr. form one of the top receiving trios in the Pac-12. The arrival of Todd Orlando helped USC’s defense show some slight improvement (5.5 yards per play allowed to 5.7 in 2019) and another step forward is possible, but the staff lost cornerback Olaijah Griffin, safety Talanoga Hufanga and tackle Marlon Tuipulotu early to the NFL. Edge rusher Drake Jackson and top recruit Korey Foreman lead the way up front, with cornerback Chris Steele back to anchor the secondary. USC travels to Arizona State, California and Notre Dame, with BYU, Utah, UCLA and Stanford coming to the Coliseum.
The Hurricanes enter the 2021 season with some uncertainty with quarterback D’Eriq King recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State. King is expected to return in time for the season opener, which just happens to be against Alabama. If King is limited early, the ‘Canes could turn to true freshman Jake Garcia, Tyler Van Dyke or Peyton Matocha. The offensive line was a concern coming into 2020 and showed some progress but still allowed 30 sacks. Improving the trenches remains a priority this offseason, and coordinator Rhett Lashlee also needs to replace tight end Brevin Jordan (38 rec.) and develop more overall consistency from the receivers (23 drops). Leading rusher Cam’Ron Harris (643 yards) returns, with Donald Chaney (322) and Jaylan Knighton (209) giving Lashlee a trio of talented backs to lean on again. Miami’s defense slipped on the stat sheet (27 ppg and 5.6 yards per play) in 2020, and a result of the regression in play, head coach Manny Diaz will take over the play-calling duties. Ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche (combined 30 TFL) are off to the NFL, more depth and talent is needed at linebacker, and there’s room to improve in the secondary. Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson could help the pass rush, and a solid collection of tackles to help ease the transition at end. In addition to Alabama, Appalachian State and Michigan State dot the non-conference slate. In conference play, key games against Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina take place on the road.
17. Arizona State
Arizona State only played in four games due to COVID-19, but the small viewing window for this team in 2020 showed a program on the verge of pushing for the Pac-12 title. Quarterback Jayden Daniels and a deep backfield with Rachaad White, Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata led the way for an offense that paced the Pac-12 in scoring (40.3 ppg). The limited 2020 slate was a good opportunity for young receivers like Geordon Porter, LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson to get experience, with Elijhah Badger and Chad Johnson Jr. set to join the mix after sitting out in the fall. Coach Herm Edwards has improved the talent and depth along the offensive line, and this unit is poised to be a strength in ’20, especially with left tackle Kellen Diesch set to return. Key seniors Evan Fields, Jack Jones, Chase Lucas, and DeAndre Pierce passed on the NFL for one more year in Tempe, which also means Arizona State will bring back its top 16 tacklers from 2020. This unit has room to improve against the run (ninth in the Pac-12) but allowed only 23.3 points a game last season. A non-conference game at BYU won’t be easy, and the Pac-12 road slate features trips to UCLA, Utah and Washington. But if the Sun Devils ace those tests, the home game versus USC could decide the Pac-12 South.
18. Coastal Carolina
With Grayson McCall back to direct Coastal Carolina’s offense, coach Jamey Chadwell’s team will make another run at being the top-ranked Group of 5 team in 2021. The Chanticleers are coming off their best season at the FBS level and just missed out on a perfect 12-0 record after an overtime defeat to Liberty in the Cure Bowl. McCall averaged 277.9 total yards a game and accounted for 33 overall scores while directing an offense that averaged 6.7 yards per snap. The sophomore will have his two favorite receiving options – wide receivers Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely – back for 2021, but leading rusher CJ Marable (887 yards) is off to the NFL. Reese White and Shermari Jones combined for 172 carries in ’20 and should take on a bigger role next fall. A veteran offensive line will provide plenty of protection for McCall and clear the way for whichever running back ends up getting the bulk of the work. Chadwell’s offense gets most of the attention, but the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. The Chanticleers allowed just 20.3 points a game after allowing 30.7 in 2019. Although end Tarron Jackson (8.5 sacks) is off to the next level, there are enough pieces coming back in the way of seniors with an extra year of eligibility and underclassmen ready to step up into more playing time to help this unit continue to progress. Coastal Carolina misses Louisiana in conference play and faces a manageable non-conference slate with Kansas coming to Brooks Stadium.
The year 1969 was the last time Indiana started a season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. It’s safe to assume that streak ends under coach Tom Allen in 2021. The Hoosiers finished 6-2 in the abbreviated ’20 season, with the only loss in Big Ten play coming by seven at Ohio State. How high Indiana climbs in the rankings will hinge on how healthy quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is. The Florida native has suffered a season-ending injury in three consecutive years, but when healthy, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. If Penix is limited early, the Hoosiers have a good backup in Jack Tuttle. Receiver Whop Philyor is headed to the NFL, but Ty Fryfogle (19.5 ypc), Miles Marshall and tight end Peyton Hendershot are back. Stevie Scott leaves a void at running back after recording 10 rushing scores in ’20. Also, a line that allowed only 10 sacks will return largely intact. While there’s some serious firepower on this side of the ball, Indiana does need more consistency after averaging only 5.1 yards per snap. The Hoosiers limited opposing teams to just 20.3 points a game and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the defense perform even better in 2021. This unit returns largely intact and features All-Big Ten performers in linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerbacks Jaylin Williams and Tiawan Mullen. Indiana will have a new play-caller (Charlton Warren) after defensive coordinator Kane Wommack left to be the head coach at South Alabama. The opener at Iowa will be a tough test and Cincinnati comes to Bloomington on Sept. 18. The Hoosiers catch Michigan and Penn State at home, with a road trip to Penn State on tap in late October.
The Horned Frogs haven’t finished in the top 25 since 2017 but expect that streak to end in ’21. After a 1-3 start, coach Gary Patterson’s team rallied to win five out of their last six, including a 29-22 victory over Oklahoma State. The offense brings back quarterback Max Duggan, running backs Darwin Barlow, Zach Evans and Kendre Miller, and receivers Quentin Johnson, Taye Barber, JD Spielman and Derius Davis. With Duggan and an experienced collection of skill talent in place, the offense is ready to take off – provided the line improves in 2021. Memphis transfer Obinna Eze should help right away and most of the two-deep up front is back. Patterson’s defense lost linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington early to the NFL, but there’s a lot returning in 2021. End Ochaun Mathis is a rising star (nine sacks), and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson returns to anchor the secondary after a standout 2020 campaign. Both California and SMU come to Fort Worth in non-conference play, but TCU faces a tough road slate at Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
21. Oklahoma State
Quarterback Spencer Sanders is back to lead an Oklahoma State offense that averaged 30.2 points a game in 2020. Chuba Hubbard is off to the NFL, but Dezmon Jackson (547 yards) played well in relief, with Braydon Johnson and Brennan Presley becoming the new go-to targets following the departures of Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner. The offensive line struggled with injuries and personnel turnover to surrender 26 sacks. Teven Jenkins and Ry Schneider will be missed, but Josh Sills opted to return and most of the depth chart from the bowl is back. The Cowboys have made significant improvement on defense the last two years and held teams to only 5.3 yards per play in 2020. Some retooling is needed with linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga and cornerback Rodarius Williams off to the NFL. However, defensive back Tre Sterling, linemen Tyler Lacy and Trace Ford and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez headline a solid core for 2021. Oklahoma State plays at Boise State and hosts Tulsa in non-conference play. The Big 12 slate features road dates at Iowa State, Texas and West Virginia, but Oklahoma and TCU come to Stillwater.
Jimmy Lake’s debut in Seattle was an unusual one, but the Huskies won the North Division at 3-1. While there are still several unknowns about this staff and team, Washington returns the bulk of its two-deep for 2021. Quarterback Dylan Morris showed promise in his first chance at extended action and guided the offense to an average of just over six yards per snap. An experienced offensive line is back for 2021, but coordinator John Donovan still needs more out of his receiving corps. Leading rusher Sean McGrew (227 yards) decided to return for an extra year of eligibility. Defense has been the strength of Washington in recent years and this group is strong once again. Lineman Josiah Bronson and defensive backs Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor are the only departures from a unit that tied for first in the Pac-12 by holding teams to 5.4 yards per play. Linebackers Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Ryan Bowman form an exciting pair of edge rushers, with Trent McDuffie anchoring the secondary. An early test at Michigan awaits Lake’s team in 2021, but Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State and California all come to Seattle.
The Tigers lost a ton from their 2019 national championship squad, but the fall to 5-5 was still steeper than what most anticipated. Coach Ed Orgeron is hitting the reset button on his staff after the disappointing 2020 campaign, which should help this program get back on track. New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz has an interesting quarterback battle on his hands with TJ Finley, Max Johnson and Myles Brennan competing for the No. 1 spot. Improving the offensive line and ground game remain a priority, but regardless of who starts under center, Kayshon Boutte (45 receptions) is primed for a monster year as the go-to target. LSU has too much talent to allow 7.3 yards per play and 34.9 points a game on defense. Between the coordinator change and depth chart returning intact, marked improvement should be attainable. The Tigers have one of the top cornerback tandems in Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks, while BJ Ojulari (four sacks) is a rising star off the edge. Restocking the linebacker unit will be a priority for new play-caller Daronte Jones. Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida come to Baton Rouge, but Orgeron’s team takes on Alabama, Ole Miss and UCLA on the road.
New coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t stepping into a complete rebuild. The Longhorns went 7-3 in 2020 with all three losses coming by eight points or less. A top-25 finish isn’t out of the question, especially if Sarkisian helps quarterback Casey Thompson build off a strong Alamo Bowl performance, and the new staff finds more ways to get the ball to running back Bijan Robinson. There’s a good mix of experience and promising young talent up front and in the receiving corps. That trend continues on defense after this unit made progress by cutting its per-play average allowed from 6.1 to 5.2. Replacing edge rusher Joseph Ossai (16 TFL) is the biggest priority for the new staff. Non-conference dates against Louisiana and Arkansas (road) are on tap, along with road dates in Big 12 play versus Baylor, Iowa State, TCU and West Virginia.
Billy Napier passed on other jobs to remain in Lafayette and that gives the Ragin’ Cajuns a shot at double-digit wins for the third year in a row. The dynamic backfield of Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell is off to the NFL, but big-play threat Chris Smith (5.7 ypc) is a good place to start rebuilding, and quarterback Levi Lewis is back for an extra year of eligibility. Additionally, most of the offensive line and receiving corps are set to return in 2021. Louisiana’s defense led the Sun Belt by holding teams to 4.92 yards per play in 2020. Coordinator Patrick Toney has a few holes to fill, but enough of a foundation remains to prevent a major drop-off. The Ragin’ Cajuns open the 2021 slate at Texas and also play at Liberty to headline non-conference action. Napier’s team doesn’t have to play Coastal Carolina in the regular season but a couple of tough road dates (Georgia Southern and Arkansas State) are scheduled next fall.
The Next Tier
(Listed in alphabetical order)
Andy Avalos is a strong hire, and the former Boise State linebacker inherits one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks (Hank Bachmeier) to build around in 2021. The defense must improve (27.1 ppg allowed), and the schedule features a tough non-conference slate (Oklahoma State, at BYU and at UCF).
The Cougars won double-digit games in 2020 for the first time since ’11. Coach Kalani Sitake has his work cut out this spring, however. Quarterback Zach Wilson, receiver Dax Milne and key offensive linemen Tristen Hoge and Brady Christensen are off to the NFL. Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall will battle to replace Wilson, but the winner will face a slate that features three Pac-12 games (Arizona, Utah and Arizona State) to start ’21. Look for running back Tyson Allgeier (1,130 yards) to assume a bigger role on offense, with Gunner Romney (39 grabs) and Neil Pau’u to become the top targets in the passing game. Sitake is also losing a handful of key contributors on defense, including standout lineman Khyiris Tonga. In addition to the trio of Pac-12 games to start 2021, BYU also plays Boise State, Washington State and Virginia at home, while facing road treks to Washington State, USC and Baylor.
The Flames bring back quarterback Malik Willis and enough skill talent to rank in the top 25 at the end of the 2021 season. Liberty’s defense held opponents to 20.5 points a game and brings back the bulk of the two-deep. A couple of transfers should help ease some of the losses on that side of the ball. The schedule is also manageable, but coach Hugh Freeze’s squad has some tough tests on tap, including dates at Syracuse, UAB and Ole Miss, while hosting Louisiana and Army.
The Wolfpack quietly rebounded from a 4-8 mark in 2019 to a solid 8-4 record in ’20. Quarterback Devin Leary returns after suffering a season-ending injury in mid-October, and the offense received good news with Emeka Emezie passing on the NFL for one more year in Raleigh. Zonovan "Bam" Knight and Ricky Person Jr. are back to handle the backfield, and there’s a solid foundation up front. Alim McNeill is a big loss in the trenches, but the defense won’t suffer much else in the way of losses. However, NC State has room to improve after giving up 29.2 points a game in ’20. Coach Dave Doeren’s team has a tricky road slate (at Boston College, Florida State, Miami and Mississippi State) but hosts Clemson and North Carolina.
The Mountain West champion should finish in the top 25, but it’s hard to pick a clear favorite in the pre-spring ranks. The Wolf Pack should have a dynamic offense once again with quarterback Carson Strong throwing to receivers Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks and tight end Cole Turner. Running back Toa Taua also returns after running for 675 yards in 2020. The defense is also trending in the right direction after holding teams to 23.3 points a game last season. Nevada will have opportunities for upsets in games against California and Kansas State, and road trips to Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State await in conference play.
Pat Fitzgerald has guided the Wildcats to two Big Ten West Division titles over the last three years. Getting back to Indianapolis will require some heavy lifting for Fitzgerald and his staff, as quarterback Peyton Ramsey opted to pass on an extra year for the NFL, and long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired. The offense can lean on running back Cam Porter and an experienced offensive line until the quarterback position is settled, and the staff has time to find playmakers at receiver. Northwestern’s defense ranked second in the Big Ten by holding teams to 4.9 yards per play and a similar effort is needed to win the West again. The linebacker unit will miss Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, and end Earnest Brown and safety JR Pace opted to go to the NFL. The cupboard isn’t bare though for Fitzgerald, as safety Brandon Joseph shined as a freshman with six interceptions, and end Adetomiwa Adebawore is back to lead the rebuilding effort up front.
The Rebels have the makings of a top-25 team if the defense improves in coach Lane Kiffin’s second year. Over 10 games, Ole Miss allowed 38.3 points a game and 6.7 yards per play in 2020. While the defense has work to do, scoring points won’t be a problem once again. The Rebels averaged 39.2 points a contest in ’20 and are set for ’21 with the return of quarterback Matt Corral, running backs Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and receivers Braylon Sanders, Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond. Road trips to Alabama and Auburn are on tap for 2021, but Ole Miss doesn’t play Georgia or Florida in crossover play with the East and gets both LSU and Texas A&M at home.
Penn State started the 2020 season 0-5 but finished with a four-game winning streak. The four-win campaign marked the first time since 2015 the Nittany Lions did not win at least nine contests. Despite the 4-5 mark, coach James Franklin’s squad rated as a top-20 team by the ESPN SP+ rankings, so a quick rebound is likely in order. Franklin replaced Kirk Ciarrocca after just one season with Mike Yurcich, and he’s tasked with jumpstarting an offense that regressed in ‘2020. More consistency from the quarterback position would solve a lot of woes. The skill talent is in good shape, but question marks remain in the trenches after allowing 28 sacks in nine games. Regression on defense is also a concern. Penn State gave up 27.7 points a contest after holding teams to 16.0 a game in ’19. A couple of transfers will bolster an immediate concern in the trenches for coordinator Brent Pry. A minus-eight turnover margin is also to blame for the 2020 regression, but the Nittany Lions have to be better on both sides of the ball to return to the top 25.
San Jose State
Brent Brennan deserved National Coach of the Year consideration after guiding San Jose State to the Mountain West title and a 7-1 record in 2020. With quarterback Nick Starkel coming back, another conference championship is within reach. The Spartans play at USC early in 2021 and face a tricky road date at Western Michigan. Also, SJSU plays at Nevada in a key Mountain West showdown. Question marks remain about Starkel’s supporting cast with Tre Walker transferring, and seniors uncertain to return up front and at receiver (Bailey Gaither). The Spartans showed marked improvement on defense by holding teams to 19.9 points a game after giving up 31.9 in ’19. This unit could be even better in ’21, especially with Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko (16 combined sacks) coming off the edge.
Scoring points shouldn't be a problem for UCF under new coach Gus Malzahn. The Knights paced the AAC with an average of 42.2 points a game behind quarterback Dillon Gabriel in ’20. Gabriel’s supporting cast needs to be restocked losses to the NFL, and there's some question as to how Malzahn's play-calling will mesh with the roster. The defense also needs to take a step forward after allowing 33.2 points a game and 6.2 yards per play. The non-conference schedule features a trip to Louisville and a home game against Boise State. But in conference play, UCF faces treks to Cincinnati, Navy and SMU.
The final record showed UCLA went 3-4, but it was clear this team showed progress by losing all four games by six points or less. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back, and while running back Demetric Felton is a significant loss, the rest of the offense returns intact off a unit that averaged 35.4 points a game in 2020. After giving up 6.7 yards per play in 2019, UCLA’s defense held teams to 5.4 in ’20. Similar to the offense, the bulk of this group will return. Chip Kelly’s team doesn’t catch a break in scheduling, as LSU and Oregon visit the Rose Bowl, and road dates are slated for USC, Utah and Washington.
The Utes finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a three-game winning streak, and coach Kyle Whittingham’s team could push for the South Division title if a couple of pieces fall into place. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer will compete with Ja’Quinden Jackson (Texas transfer) and Cameron Rising to start under center. The winner of the quarterback battle will have an experienced offensive line and receiving corps to lean on. Tight end Brant Kuithe is among the nation’s best at his position, and a healthy Britain Covey will be a boost to the receiving corps. Whittingham has a few holes to plug on defense, but end Mika Tafua is back to lead the way up front, linebacker Devin Lloyd is one of the Pac-12’s top returning defenders, and an inexperienced secondary in 2020 should turn into a strength. The Utes usually have a strong defense under Whittingham and 2021 should be no exception. A road trip to BYU is on tap for Week 2, and Utah hits the road for games against Stanford and USC. However, Arizona State and Oregon both come to Salt Lake City.
Other Teams to Watch
The Black Knights have a favorable schedule and have won at least eight games in four out of the last five years.
Can new coach Bryan Harsin help Bo Nix get on track in 2021?
Jeff Hafley guided the Eagles to a 6-5 record in his first year on the job. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec is one of the best in the ACC.
The Golden Bears are a bit of a mystery since they only played four games in 2020. However, coach Justin Wilcox’s squad won eight the previous season and return quarterback Chase Garbers and standout linebacker Kuony Deng.
An extension ensures Jim Harbaugh will return to Ann Arbor for 2021, but that doesn’t solve all of Michigan’s question marks.
The Golden Gophers finished 3-4 after an 11-2 record in 2019. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim are back, but receiver Rashod Bateman is off to the NFL. The biggest question mark for coach P.J. Fleck is on defense after that unit allowed 6.9 yards per play in 2020.
The Cardinal started 0-2 but rallied with four straight wins to close 2020 at 4-2. Coach David Shaw returns a healthy amount of experience on both sides of the ball, but quarterback Davis Mills departed early for the NFL.
The Golden Hurricane were the AAC's biggest surprise in 2020. Can Tulsa make another trip to the conference title game? Finding a replacement for standout linebacker Zaven Collins is a must.
The Blazers have won two out of the last three Conference USA titles and should start 2021 as the favorite to win it again.
The 2021 season will be an important one for coach Justin Fuente.
Neal Brown has the Mountaineers trending in the right direction going into the 2021 season.