Ranking the top 25 college football teams for 2021
The 2021 college football season is scheduled to officially begin on Saturday, Aug. 28, but it's never too early to start thinking about top 25 rankings and projecting what might transpire this fall. Each FBS season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture. However, that’s not the case at the top, as the list of favorites for this year starts with familiar contenders: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Georgia.
Alabama is Athlon Sports' projected national champion, with Clemson at No. 2, followed by Oklahoma at No. 3. Ohio State is the last projected playoff team at No. 4. Georgia headlines the section of teams, with Texas A&M, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Oregon and North Carolina rounding out the projected top 10. The 2021 season concludes with the national championship on Jan. 7 in Indianapolis, Ind. in Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Athlon Sports 2021 preview magazines are on newsstands nationwide on May 25 and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. The SEC and National preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
An important note on Athlon's top 25 for 2021: This is not a preseason ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Here are Athlon's projected top 25 teams in college football for 2021.
College Football's Projected Top 25 Teams for 2021
Just Missed: Utah, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Auburn, UCF and Boise State
The Horned Frogs haven’t finished in the top 25 since 2017, but coach Gary Patterson’s team should break this streak in ’21 with 14 starters returning from a squad that won five out of its last six games last fall. Quarterback Max Duggan is poised for a step forward in his third year as the starter and there’s no lack of skill talent around the junior signal-caller. Quentin Johnston headlines the receiving corps after averaging 22.1 yards per catch last fall, while a cast of emerging options at running back is in place, including Zach Evans (415 rushing yards), Kendre Miller (388) and Darwin Barlow (428). Improved play up front would help TCU’s offense reach its potential, and Memphis transfer Obinna Eze should provide a boost in the trenches. As usual, the Horned Frogs will rank among the Big 12’s best on defense. However, Patterson has a few holes to fill with the departures of linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington. The pass rush should be strong with Khari Coleman (15 TFL) and Ochuan Mathis (14) in place, and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson should challenge for All-America honors. The non-conference slate is manageable, and Texas comes to Fort Worth for an early October conference showdown. The road slate is not kind to Patterson’s team with dates at Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
24. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers were one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 college football season and the return of 19 starters will keep coach Jamey Chadwell’s team at the top of the Sun Belt standings. Quarterback Grayson McCall was one of the catalysts behind Coastal Carolina’s breakout. As a redshirt freshman last fall, McCall paced the Sun Belt by averaging 277.9 total yards a game and accounted for 33 total touchdowns. He’s only going to get better in ’21, especially with one of the top Group of 5 offensive lines providing protection, along with the return of receiver Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely. Leading rusher CJ Marable (887 yards) must be replaced, but Shermari Jones and Reese White will be an effective one-two punch. The Chanticleers also made big progress on defense last season to help spur the 11-1 record. After giving up 30.5 points a game in ’19, this unit allowed just 20.3 a contest and held conference opponents to 5.3 yards per play. End Tarron Jackson (8.5 sacks) is a big loss, but with linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher and linemen C.J. Brewer and Jeffrey Gunter headlining a group that returns largely intact, this group should rank near the top of the Sun Belt once again. Trips to Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Arkansas State dot the ’21 slate, but the Chanticleers won’t play Louisiana in the regular season.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the Sun Belt, but Athlon gives a small edge to the Ragin’ Cajuns as the conference’s projected No. 1 team for 2021. Louisiana is 28-11 and has won the West Division in each of the last three years under coach Billy Napier. The next step is clear: Win the outright Sun Belt title. With a loaded and experienced roster in place, the Ragin’ Cajuns are poised to do so. Steady quarterback Levi Lewis is back for another senior year and is supported by a standout offensive line, along with a deep group of receivers. Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas leave big shoes to fill at running back, but Chris Smith, Emani Bailey, TJ Wisham and Jacob Kibodi should provide plenty of production on the ground. Similar to the offense, the defense is filled with experience and talent at every level. This unit led the Sun Belt by holding teams to 4.9 yards per play last season and nearly every key contributor is back. Non-conference games at Liberty and Texas are tough, but the Ragin’ Cajuns get Appalachian State at home and won’t play Coastal Carolina in crossover play.
There’s a good bit of mystery surrounding Washington in 2021. The Huskies went 3-1 in coach Jimmy Lake’s debut last season, and the limited sample size didn’t answer many questions this team had going into the ’20 campaign. Despite the overall uncertainty, there are plenty of things to like about this team. Washington has finished third or higher in the Pac-12 in scoring defense every year since 2015. Losing linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui (seven sacks last year) to a torn Achilles was a big blow this offseason, but Lake’s defense should once again rank near the top of the Pac-12. Cornerback Trent McDuffie is among the nation’s best, and the return to full playing time from linebacker Ryan Bowman is a boost to the pass rush off the edge. Continued development by the offense is the key to Washington’s ’21 season. Quarterback Dylan Morris (897 passing yards) showed promise in the four-game slate last fall, but the sophomore and the receiving corps need to take a big step forward. The strength of the offense is up front with a standout line, while Sean McGrew and Richard Newton are back to handle the bulk of the workload on the ground. An early road trip to Michigan is a good barometer test, and the Huskies catch a huge scheduling break with both Oregon and Arizona State coming to Seattle.
The Hoosiers were one of college football’s breakout teams from last season and finished in the top 25 for the first time since 1988. Indiana has a chance at more history in ’21, as another top-25 finish this fall would be the first time since 1945-46 the program had back-to-back rankings in the Associated Press poll. Meeting that goal or pushing for a New Year’s Six bowl will hinge on the health of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. After throwing for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns in six games last year, Penix suffered his third season-ending injury with the Hoosiers. The offense also needs more pop out of a running game that averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and the mid-May addition of USC transfer Stephen Carr should help in that department. Receiver Ty Fryfogle (19.5 yards per catch) and tight end Peyton Hendershot (23 grabs) are among the best in the Big Ten at their position. Indiana’s defense held teams to 20.3 points a game last season and is once again among the best in the conference. New coordinator Charlton Warren inherits a group featuring standout linebacker Micah McFadden and an All-America contender at cornerback in Tiawan Mullen. Coach Tom Allen’s team will be tested right away with a date at Iowa on Sept. 4, followed by a home matchup against Cincinnati on Sept. 18. The Hoosiers host Ohio State but hit the road for games versus Penn State, Purdue and Michigan.
The Longhorns finished 2020 at No. 19 in the final Associated Press poll, so a projection of No. 20 ranking at the end of ’21 seems about right for a program in transition once again. New coach Steve Sarkisian is one of the top hires of the offseason carousel, and it’s no secret the former Alabama play-caller has to do a better job of developing and deploying talent than the previous staff did in Austin. Expect Sarkisian to make running back Bijan Robinson (703 yards) the focal point of the offense, and there’s an experienced line in front to clear rushing lanes for the potential Heisman candidate. The quarterback battle between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card is likely to continue well into the fall, and whichever player wins the job could use a couple of playmakers to emerge (and stay healthy) at receiver. After giving up 6.1 yards per play in ’19, Texas took a step forward by holding teams to 5.2 in ’20. However, this unit still allowed 28.5 points a contest. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was a home-run hire for Sarkisian, and similar to the offense, this side of the ball isn’t lacking for talent but question marks remain. The Longhorns need to identify a couple of pass rushers and tighten the coverage on the back end. Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, cornerback D’Shawn Jamison and linemen Alfred Collins and Keondre Coburn provide Kwiatkowski with building blocks at every level. Non-conference games against Louisiana and at Arkansas are a tough way to start the year, and the Longhorns play at TCU and then Oklahoma in Dallas at the halfway point of ’21.
19. Penn State
Last year’s 4-5 record was a big disappointment, but Penn State should rebound in 2021. Prior to last season, the Nittany Lions won at least 11 games in three of the last four years. While getting back to double-digit wins won’t be easy, there should be noticeable improvement, especially if the offense gets on track under new coordinator Mike Yurcich. The former Texas and Oklahoma State play-caller will be Penn State’s third different coordinator in three years, but a normal offseason should ease the transition. Quarterback play is under the spotlight after Sean Clifford had an uneven ’20 season and tossed nine picks in nine games. Clifford has an edge to be the No. 1 signal-caller once again, and he won’t lack for help with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington back at receiver, along with a deep stable of running backs and three starters back in the trenches. Penn State’s defense held teams to 5.1 yards per play but gave up 27.7 points a contest. Improving on both totals is a reasonable expectation with seven starters back. However, there are big holes to fill up front with Jayson Oweh, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and Antonio Shelton all departing the trenches. Transfers Derrick Tangelo (Duke) and Arnold Ebiketie (Temple) need to make an impact right away up front. The road slate features treks to Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State, while Michigan, Indiana and Auburn visit Happy Valley this fall.
Another pressure-filled season is on tap for the defending Pac-12 South Division champions. USC coach Clay Helton has revamped his on and off-field staff over the last two years in hopes of getting this program back among the nation’s elite or at least win a conference title for the first time since 2017. The path to another division title starts on offense with the return of quarterback Kedon Slovis. The junior was inconsistent at times last year but returns one of the nation’s top receiving corps – anchored by Drake London and Bru McCoy – and a capable backfield featuring Vavae Malepeai, Kenan Christon and Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram. However, the backfield needs to produce more after averaging a Pac-12-low 3.2 yards per carry. Some of that lackluster production is due to the play up front, which is a concern after once again after left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker departed to the NFL. Statistically, the defense showed small improvement in coordinator Todd Orlando’s debut. After giving up 5.7 yards per play in ’19, USC lowered that total to 5.5. But USC finished seventh in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, last in the conference in red zone defense and tied for last in the most pass plays allowed of 50-plus yards (three). A full offseason to work with Orlando provides optimism for improvement, especially if this unit plugs concerns up front on the interior and reloads in the secondary. Missing Oregon and Washington in crossover play is a huge win for USC in ’21. However, the road date at Arizona State could decide the winner of the South.
The Tigers simply have too much talent to finish 5-5 again, so a revamped staff and an experienced roster should result in a significant bump in wins for 2021. But how far can this team climb? Coach Ed Orgeron is turning to first-time play-caller Jake Peetz – a protege of former assistant Joe Brady – to boost an offense that averaged 5.5 yards per play – down from 7.89 the previous year. Peetz’s first priority is to sort out the quarterback battle between two capable options in Myles Brennan and Max Johnson. Regardless of who wins the job, expect to see plenty of passes in the direction of Kayshon Boutte after a strong freshman season (45 receptions for 735 yards). The offensive line struggled in 2020 but returns intact for ’21, providing optimism for marked improvement. LSU needs to identify a few options outside of Boutte in the passing game, while also sparking a ground attack that ranked 12th in the SEC – the lowest mark over the last 12 years. The Tigers were a disaster on defense last season, surrendering 7.3 yards per play and 34.9 points a game. As a result, Bo Pelini was jettisoned in favor of NFL assistant Daronte Jones as the team’s coordinator. Jones inherits arguably the nation’s top cornerback duo in Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks and a deep defensive line to build around in ’21. Even though Jones is a first-time play-caller, this group should show marked improvement. The schedule features road treks to Ole Miss, UCLA and Alabama but Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida visit Death Valley.
After an 0-2 start last year, the Hawkeyes finished the season with six consecutive victories, including a 41-21 defeat of Penn State and a 28-7 victory over Wisconsin. Building off that strong finish is going to require a quick reload along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Spencer Petras to take a step forward in his second year as the starter. Running back Tyler Goodson is poised to challenge for All-America honors after rushing for 762 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games last fall, while tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy headline a solid group of pass catchers. Center Tyler Linderbaum is set to anchor the rebuilt front. Replacing the production of Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin up front won’t be easy. However, Noah Shannon, Yahya Black, Joe Evans and Zach VanValkenburg are just a few of the players poised to emerge with more snaps. The linebackers and secondary rank among the best in the conference after helping Iowa’s defense lead the Big Ten in fewest yards per play (4.34) allowed last fall. The Hawkeyes won’t be able to ease into the season with matchups versus Indiana and at Iowa State to start ’21. A late October road trip to Wisconsin might decide the division, while Penn State and Minnesota come to Iowa City.
15. Arizona State
The Pac-12 South should be a tight battle between USC, Utah, UCLA and Arizona State, but Athlon gives an edge to coach Herm Edwards’ team to win this division in 2021. Road trips to Utah and Washington make for a tough path to the No. 1 spot. However, the Sun Devils bring back nearly every major contributor on both sides of the ball from last year’s squad. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is primed for a huge season under the direction of play-caller Zak Hill after the offense averaged 40.3 points a game in last season’s limited schedule. In addition to Daniels, Arizona State returns Rachaad White, Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata to form one of the nation’s deepest backfields. Also, while the receiving corps is young and doesn’t have a clear No. 1 target, talent certainly isn’t an issue. The offensive line is poised to take a big step forward with four starters back, including left tackle Kellen Diesch and guard/center Dohnovan West. The Sun Devils paced the Pac-12 by holding teams to 23.3 points a game in ’20, and with the entire two-deep returning, the defense should be even better this fall. Lineman Jermayne Lole should be a disruptive force up front, the linebacker unit is loaded with talent and experience thanks to the return of Merlin Robertson, Darien Butler and Kyle Soelle, and the secondary could be the best in the Pac-12. All of the pieces are in place for Edwards to guide this program to win its first division title since ’13.
Manny Diaz’s team showed marked improvement last year, as the arrival of transfer quarterback D’Eriq King helped to spark the ‘Canes to an 8-3 finish after a 6-7 record the previous season. King suffered a torn ACL in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State but is on track to return in time for the opener against Alabama. When healthy, King is among the nation’s top quarterbacks and his all-around dynamic ability is critical for Miami to notch its first top-10 final ranking since 2003. King wasn’t the only big-time addition for the ‘Canes last fall, as coordinator Rhett Lashlee helped the offense average 34 points a game – up from 25.7. Miami’s offensive line showed improvement last fall and is poised for another step forward in ’21. The addition of Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo adds another weapon for King on the outside. After watching the defense allow 5.6 yards per play (up from 4.7) and rank seventh in the ACC against the run, Diaz will take over the play-calling responsibilities. But in order for Miami’s defense to return to the top of the conference, edge rushers Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips (combined 12.5 sacks) must be replaced, and the linebacker unit needs to be solidified. Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson is a key pickup to bolster the secondary. The schedule is manageable outside of the opener against the Crimson Tide. However, the most important game in ACC play comes on the road at North Carolina.
For the Badgers to return to the top of the Big Ten West (as predicted here), the offense has to get back on track after averaging only 25.1 points a game – the lowest mark over the last 12 years. The COVID-19 pandemic and injuries wreaked havoc on this offense, but there’s a lot to like about this group for 2021. Talented quarterback Graham Mertz will benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller, while a return to full health by receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis add more pop to a passing game that connected on just two throws of 40-plus yards last year. Additionally, tight end Jake Ferguson (30 catches), and breakout candidate Chimere Dike (15.8 per catch) are back to provide Mertz with plenty of weapons. The ground game should be productive as always with Jalen Berger at running back, and the offensive line ranks among the best in the conference. Wisconsin’s defense allowed just 17.4 points a game last fall and should pick up where it left off with eight starters back. The Badgers open at home against Penn State, face Notre Dame in Chicago, and host Michigan all before Oct. 2. Chryst should have a good idea of how far his offense has progressed over that stretch, and with Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa all coming to Madison, it’s easy to see why Wisconsin should be the favorite in the West.
12. Notre Dame
Since going 4-8 in 2016, Notre Dame is 43-8 overall and has earned two trips to the CFB Playoff in that span. Coach Brian Kelly has established a strong foundation in South Bend and another season of at least 10 victories should be within reach. However, the big prize – the CFB Playoff – won’t be easy to attain again unless the offense quickly reloads behind Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan at quarterback (at least until Tyler Buchner is ready) and four new starters are identified up front. The Fighting Irish return All-America candidate Michael Mayer at tight end but need more playmakers to step up on the outside at receiver. Provided the line stabilizes, the one-two punch of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree at running back should be the strength of the offense. The hire of Marcus Freeman to replace Clark Lea as defensive coordinator should ensure this unit doesn’t miss a beat. Safety Kyle Hamilton headlines the key returnees for Freeman, and there’s good depth, experience and talent in place to overcome some of the personnel departures up front and at linebacker. A manageable ‘21 schedule features a neutral-site matchup against Wisconsin in Chicago, home games against Cincinnati, USC and North Carolina and road treks to Florida State, Virginia and Stanford.
The Gators used a high-powered offense (7.3 yards per play and 39.8 points a game) en route to their first SEC East title under coach Dan Mullen last season. Quarterback Kyle Trask, receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes as well as tight end Kyle Pitts are gone, but this side of the ball should remain among the best in the conference. New quarterback Emory Jones has played well in limited snaps and is a candidate for a breakout year. The backfield is one of the deepest in the SEC, and the next wave of playmakers – Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson – should ensure the passing game performs at a high level. The offense might not be as potent as it was in ’20, but there should be more than enough firepower to win the division. However, returning to Atlanta is likely to hinge on how far the defense improves after surrendering 30.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play last fall. This unit also ranked 10th in the SEC against the run, ninth in pass efficiency defense, 13th in plays of 40-plus yards allowed (16), and struggled in the red zone/third-down situations. Generating marked improvement is attainable though, especially with end Zachary Carter and linebackers Brenton Cox and Ventrell Miller anchoring the front. Cornerback Kaiir Elam is poised to challenge for All-America honors. The Gators have the toughest crossover draw (Alabama and at LSU) in SEC play, but the East will be decided on the annual tussle with Georgia in Jacksonville.
10. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have quickly emerged as a top-10 team under coach Mack Brown. A high-powered offense led by quarterback Sam Howell is once again the strength of this team going into 2021. Howell has passed for 7,227 yards over the last two years and helped North Carolina finish second in the ACC (41.7 ppg) in scoring and first in yards per play (7.6) last fall. The junior headlines another lethal attack this year, but the supporting cast will require some retooling after 1,000-yard backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome are off to the NFL. While the new faces may require a transition period, there isn’t a lack of options or talent. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler is a big addition for the ground game, and Khafre Brown, Josh Downs, Beau Corrales are expected to headline the revamped receiving corps. All five starters are back up front, which should help a unit that allowed 34 sacks last fall. The defense took a small step back on the stat sheet in ’20, and while linebacker Chazz Surratt is a big loss, eight returning starters should generate improvement. The secondary should be solid with rising stars Storm Duck and Tony Grimes anchoring the cornerback spots. The Tar Heels have a challenging road slate with games at Notre Dame, NC State, Pitt and Virginia Tech. However, the game versus Miami – the matchup that could decide the winner of the Coastal Division – takes place in Chapel Hill.
A wide-open battle is set to unfold atop the Pac-12, but after winning back-to-back conference titles, it’s tough to pick against Oregon in 2021. Coach Mario Cristobal’s team is Athlon’s prediction to claim the league crown once again, and an early-season trek to Ohio State should provide a good look at just how high this team could climb in ’21. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown played well in limited action last year, and with Tyler Shough transferring to Texas Tech, the senior is expected to hold the No. 1 spot under center. Brown has a solid collection of proven skill talent at his disposal, including running backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell, along with receivers Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and Devon Williams. Veteran assistant Tim DeRuyter takes over the play-calling duties after Andy Avalos departed to be the head coach at Boise State. DeRuyter inherits seven returning starters, including edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebacker Noah Sewell and cornerback Mykael Wright. The Ducks have a good mix of experience, talent and potential at all three levels, which figures to help a defense that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 versus the run and allowed 28.3 points a game. Pac-12 matchups on the road against Utah and Washington could decide whether or not Oregon makes a run at the CFB Playoff.
The Bearcats are once again the pick to rank as the top Group of 5 team at the end of 2021. And with 12 starters returning and huge non-conference matchups against Indiana and Notre Dame, Cincinnati has the pieces in place to make a run at the CFB Playoff. Quarterback Desmond Ridder’s development and dual-threat production helped jump-start the offense last fall. After averaging 30.7 points a game in ’19, Ridder turned in his best all-around season to guide the unit to 37.5 a contest last year. The senior will have a new running mate in the backfield after Gerrid Doaks departed, but the ground game should be in great shape with Jerome Ford leading the way. The Bearcats also return one of the AAC’s top receiving corps, which features rising star tight end Josh Whyle. Cincinnati doesn’t have many concerns going into ’21, but the offensive line is one group under the spotlight with new tackles taking over. Even though a couple of key starters – linebacker Jarell White, safeties Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins and lineman Elijah Ponder – and coordinator Marcus Freeman are gone, expect the Bearcats to dominate on defense once again. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner and end Myjai Sanders should be preseason All-Americans on a unit that allowed only 16.8 points a game last year.
7. Iowa State
A projected No. 7 finish is easily the highest ranking Athlon Sports has predicted for Iowa State. The Cyclones continue to trend up under coach Matt Campbell and should be the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12 once again. Iowa State’s 20 returning starters are the most of any team in the conference, and there are few overall question marks on the roster. Quarterback Brock Purdy enters his fourth year as the starter, while running back Breece Hall is poised to challenge for first-team All-America honors after gaining 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The Cyclones return one of the nation’s top offensive lines, while the targets on the outside feature Xavier Hutchinson (64 catches), a healthy Tarique Milton (15) and tight end Charlie Kolar (44). The defense has been an annual strength over the last four years, and there’s no reason to expect a dip in production after finishing second in the conference in points allowed (21.4) per game last fall. End JaQuan Bailey must be replaced, but Will McDonald IV is a rising star off the edge. Anchored by Mike Rose, the linebacker unit is among the best in college football, while an experienced secondary is a huge asset in the offensive-minded Big 12. There are a couple of tricky road dates on tap, including a trek to Oklahoma. However, the Cyclones get TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa at home. With a favorable schedule and an experienced and proven two-deep in place, Campbell’s team is squarely in the mix to earn a playoff trip in ’21.
6. Texas A&M
The Aggies were just one spot away from a trip to the CFB Playoff last season. While coach Jimbo Fisher’s program has a few key areas to address this offseason, Texas A&M should be back in the mix once again and is the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West. The Wrecking Crew defense returns nine starters from a unit that held teams to 21.7 points a game and just 5.4 yards per play. DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy and Tyree Johnson anchor a strong defensive line, with the secondary poised to emerge as one of the best in the SEC thanks to the return of safeties Leon O’Neal, Demani Richardson and cornerbacks Myles Jones and Jaylon Jones. Texas A&M’s defense will have to carry this team early on, as the quarterback battle between Haynes King and Zach Calzada will continue into the fall, and four new starters must be replaced from a dominant offensive line. The backfield should be among the best in college football with Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and hybrid receiver/running back Ainias Smith toting the rock. The Aggies have talent at receiver but more consistency and big plays are needed out of this group. A favorable schedule allows Fisher time to sort out the offensive concerns before Alabama visits on Oct. 9 and road trips to Ole Miss and LSU in November.
Everything is in place for coach Kirby Smart’s team to push for a national championship in 2021. Georgia’s offense averaged 32.3 points a game last fall but will improve on that total with a full offseason to work under coordinator Todd Monken, along with the development of quarterback JT Daniels in this scheme. With Daniels as the starter for the last four contests, the Bulldogs averaged 8.3 more points a game than in its previous six contests. The receiving corps suffered a setback when George Pickens tore his ACL in spring practice. But even with Pickens sidelined, Daniels won’t lack for targets. Tight end Darnell Washington and receiver Jermaine Burton are rising stars, and a return to full health by Arian Smith, Dominick Blaylock and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint should ensure there is plenty of depth on the outside. As always in Athens, the ground game should be strong. And while there is some uncertainty about the exact starting five, the line should eventually find the right mix and rank among the best in the SEC. Georgia’s defense led the SEC by holding teams to 4.86 yards per play last season. The front is loaded with talent, including lineman Jordan Davis and linebackers Nakobe Dean and Adam Anderson. However, the secondary is in transition after six defensive backs departed from the ’20 unit. This group doesn’t lack for talent with names like Kelee Ringo, Nyland Green and Jalen Kimber competing for snaps at cornerback, with West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith and safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith rounding out the safety and nickel spots. However, this group won’t have much time to jell with the opener against Clemson in Charlotte. Outside of that matchup, and a likely showdown against Alabama in Atlanta for the SEC title, Georgia should be favored in all of its remaining games.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are 23-2 and have yet to lose a regular-season game in coach Ryan Day’s first two years at the helm in Columbus. And despite the loss of quarterback Justin Fields (and some others) to the NFL, Ohio State is once again a clear favorite to win the Big Ten. A three-man battle between C.J. Stroud, Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III to replace Fields will continue into the fall, with Stroud expected to earn the starting nod. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are back to lead the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps, and the pieces are in place for Ohio State to also possess the top offensive line in college football. Trey Sermon departed at running back, but Master Teague, Miyan Williams and touted freshman TreVeyon Henderson provide Day with plenty of choices. Improving the defense was priority No. 1 this offseason. The Buckeyes finished an uncharacteristic 11th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense, ranked near the bottom in big plays allowed and surrendered 5.9 yards per play – the highest mark in school history. The line is in good shape with the return of Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Tommy Togiai, but question marks remain at linebacker and in the secondary. A road trip to Minnesota and a home date against Oregon to start ’21 provide Day with a good barometer of where this team is in early September. Road trips to Indiana and Michigan are on tap, but it’s hard to find a game where Ohio State will stumble in the regular season.
The Sooners missed the CFB Playoff in 2020 for the first time under coach Lincoln Riley, but a loaded roster should put this program in position to win it all in ’21. As always, Oklahoma will have one of the nation’s top offenses. Quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to leading the offense to an average of 43 points a game last fall and is arguably the top returning signal-caller in the nation. The construction of the line will continue into the fall, but there’s little doubt assistant Bill Bedenbaugh will find the right mix. The ground game is strong with Tennessee transfer Eric Gray and Kennedy Brooks leading the way, with Marvin Mims, Theo Wease, Austin Stogner and freshman Mario Williams anchoring a deep set of pass catchers. While Oklahoma’s offensive firepower has never been in question, the defense has lagged in Riley’s tenure. However, the 2021 version is the deepest group in his tenure, and the bulk of the two-deep returns after holding teams to 5.2 yards per play – the lowest mark since ’15. Isaiah Thomas, LaRon Stokes, Perrion Winfrey and Jalen Redmond form a standout front, with dynamic edge rusher Nik Bonitto back after recording eight sacks in ’20. The secondary is also in great shape after pacing the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense. With Iowa State coming to Norman, Oklahoma should be favored in all 12 regular-season contests.
Dabo Swinney’s program won’t lack for motivation following last year’s loss to Ohio State in the CFB Playoff. And when you combine motivation with a loaded roster, it’s easy to see why the Tigers will return to the playoff – and potentially hoist the trophy at the end of the year. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei thrived in two starts replacing Trevor Lawrence last season and is primed to contend for All-America honors as a sophomore. Travis Etienne won’t be easy to replace, but Kobe Pace, Will Shipley and Lyn-J Dixon form a capable trio to keep the ground game on track. The Tigers lose their top two targets – Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell – from last year but aren’t hurting for weapons on the outside. Justyn Ross is on track to return after missing 2020 due to a neck injury. Also, tight end Braden Galloway is back, along with E.J. Williams, Frank Ladson, Joseph Ngata and a couple of freshmen who could work their way into the mix. Improving up front was a focal point this offseason after Clemson was dominated in the trenches in the loss to Ohio State. The line of scrimmage won’t be an issue on the other side of the ball thanks to a deep and talented defensive front, along with the return of linebackers James Skalski, Trenton Simpson and Baylon Spector. The secondary has room to improve, but there’s plenty of talent and experience, including safety Nolan Turner and cornerback Andrew Booth. The Tigers will be a heavy favorite in 11 of their 12 regular-season contests. However, the toughest matchup of the ’21 slate takes place in the opener against Georgia in Charlotte.
Alabama’s revenge tour in 2020 culminated in the program’s sixth national title since ’09. Now the Crimson Tide have an opportunity to become the first team to go back-to-back since this program accomplished that goal in 2011-12. There will be new faces in key positions for the ’21 team, but it’s hard to pick against Nick Saban’s team to win it all. The offensive battery will look different without Mac Jones at quarterback, Najee Harris at running back, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at receiver and Steve Sarkisian calling the plays. However, the next wave of stars is ready to emerge. Former NFL coach Bill O’Brien takes over the coordinator duties, with Bryce Young poised to be the next star signal-caller for Saban. Brian Robinson leads a deep stable of backs, and John Metchie is back to anchor a young – but very talented – group of receivers. Some retooling is needed up front, but Evan Neal, Chris Owens and Emil Ekiyor is a good starting point. With a high-powered offense on the other side, Alabama’s defense doesn’t need to be dominant. However, this unit led the SEC by holding teams to just 19.4 points a game and finished second in yards per play allowed (5.04). Although cornerback Patrick Surtain and linebacker Dylan Moses will be missed, this unit could be even better in ’21. Road trips to Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida aren’t easy, but it will be a major surprise if Alabama stumbles in the regular season. And a scary thought for the rest of college football: This team will only get better throughout the year.
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