Talkin’ season is here.
The 2021 college football season is coming, and Sporting News loves to embrace the period between Memorial Day through July 4 where all we want to do is talk about football.
SN released our Way Too Early Top 25 in January, and we’ve made some adjustments to account for the NFL Draft and transfer portal. Our top four did not change. Most preseason publications will have some combination of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma at the top.
SN will update our list one more time when talkin’ season is over, and we’ll have more preseason content on the way, including top players, preseason All-Americans and bowl projections.
In the meantime, let’s talk about our top 25 for the 2021 college football season:
College football rankings 2021
Alabama had six first-round selections in the 2021 NFL Draft, but “The Process” continues with Nick Saban. Bryce Young takes over at quarterback, and it’s up to new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to make the pieces fit around him with running backs Trey Sanders and Jase McClellan, receivers John Metchie and Slade Bolden and tight end Jahleel Billingsley. Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams can contribute at receiver, too. The defense should improve, as well, especially at linebacker: Tennessee transfer Henry To’oto’o joins what could be the best linebacker corps in the nation alongside Will Anderson Jr., Christopher Allen and Christian Harris, who combined for 31.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks in 2020. The season opener against Miami in Atlanta should be fun, and there are road tests at Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn. Like we say every year, the season does not start until Alabama loses.
The Tigers are 39-3 the last three seasons, but consecutive blowout losses in the Playoff against LSU and Ohio State offered a dose of humility to Dabo Swinney’s program. Trevor Lawrence is gone, but D.J. Uiagalelei offered an encouraging glimpse of the future in 2020. Lyn-J Dixon steps into a starting role at tailback. Justyn Ross’ return boosts a receiving corps that features E.J. Williams and Joseph Ngata. A young defense should be better, too, and that revolves around sophomores Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Trenton Simpson. Linebacker James Skalski also returned. The Tigers won’t have to wait long for a test — not with the season-opening matchup against Georgia in Charlotte. The Tigers remain a strong bet to win a seventh straight ACC championship.
3. Ohio State
Ryan Day enters his third season as coach of the Buckeyes, who are again the favorite to win a fifth straight Big Ten championship. Justin Fields is gone, and C.J. Stroud is the favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback in a battle with Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord. Ohio State has what LSU and Alabama had the last two seasons, with the most depth at receiver in the FBS. That starts with future first-round picks Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Defensive end Zach Harrison and cornerback Sevyn Banks are All-American candidates on the defense, and freshman Jack Sawyer — who had four sacks in the spring game — should be an immediate contributor. The Buckeyes get Oregon and Penn State at home, too.
Is this the year the Sooners break through for their first national championship since 2000? Oklahoma closed 2020 as one of the hottest teams in the FBS, and Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler will improve with another year with Lincoln Riley. The running back rotation is loaded with Kennedy Brooks, Marcus Major and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray. Marvin Mims and Theo Wease and Jadon Haselwood form an elite receiving trio. The defense is always a question, but defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto return. The Sooners will be ranked No. 1 by some publications, and a fifth CFP appearance is within reach. Oklahoma still needs to prove it in the CFP.
Kirby Smart is 52-14 the last five seasons, and the Bulldogs have finished no lower than second in the SEC East in that stretch. The expectations, however, are to bring the program its first national championship since 1980. After all, Mark Richt was 52-13 after his first five seasons, too. Smart has recruited at an elite level, and quarterback JT Daniels steadied the offense when he took over last season. Zamir White returns at running back, but the offense took a hit when receiver George Pickens suffered a torn ACL in spring practice. The defense is loaded with top two tacklers Nakobe Dean and Lewis Cine. The season opener against Clemson in Charlotte is the latest chance to prove it on the big stage.
6. Notre Dame
The Irish — who return to independent status in 2021 — face heavy losses on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Ian Book. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has experience, but Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner could push for the job. With Brian Kelly, you never know. Running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree return with tight end Michael Mayer. The offensive line and front seven will need to be rebuilt, but Kelly successfully retooled both sides of the ball each of the last three seasons. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is gone, but Kelly managed to pull Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati. The matchup against Wisconsin at Soldier Field is an interesting test to see how the interior will hold up on both sides. Cincinnati, USC and North Carolina also are on the schedule.
7. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher put the program in the Playoff conversation for the first time in 2020. Now, the challenge is to keep it there. The Aggies lose a loaded senior class, and either Zach Calzada or Haynes King taking over for veteran quarterback Kellen Mond. The good news is leading rusher Isaiah Spiller, top receiver Ainias Smith and All-American guard Kenyon Green return. The defense allowed just 21.7 points per game in 2019. The crossover schedule is friendly with Missouri and South Carolina, and Auburn and Alabama have to visit College Station. Can the Aggies take that next step?
The Gators flopped in a Sugar Bowl beatdown vs. Oklahoma, and key components of that potent passing attack — quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarious Toney — are headed to the NFL. That said, Dan Mullen has led three consecutive runs to New Year’s Day 6 bowls, and the offense will change with Emory Jones under center. The other challenge is rebuilding the offensive line. The good news is the defense is loaded with Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox, Ventrell Miller and Kaiir Elam. This season will test whether Florida can reload and consistently compete for an SEC championship.
9. Iowa State
The Cyclones likely will open the season with their highest preseason ranking in program history (the previous high was 20th in 1978, a year in which they finished unranked after an 8-4 season). Coach Matt Campbell has established a special culture in Ames, and quarterback Brock Purdy is among the senior leaders who opted to return, along with tight end Chase Allen, offensive lineman Sean Foster, tight end Charlie Kolar and linebacker Mike Rose. Add All-American running back Breece Hall, and you have the makings of the “it” team for 2021. The Sept. 11 matchup against in-state rival Iowa is huge. Despite its recent success, Iowa State is still 0-4 in that game under Campbell.
The Bearcats showed they could compete in a New Year’s Day bowl loss to Georgia. The return of quarterback Desmond Ridder ensures the Bearcats will be right back in the mix for another American Athletic Conference championship. Jerome Ford will be the lead back in that run-heavy attack, and Luke Fickell continues to build with Ohio-centric recruiting classes. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is a star of a defense that will have to rebuild the front seven. The Bearcats have road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, so the schedule should not be a question mark on the Bearcats’ 2021 College Football Playoff resume.
LSU bottomed out after a national championship season in 2019, and Ed Orgeron responded by adding Daronte Jones as the new defensive coordinator. Max Johnson appears to be the favorite to start at quarterback, and leading receiver Kayshon Boutte (735 yards) returns. The late-season victory against Florida showed that talent, and Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are tasked with rebuilding that defense. The Tigers are a bounce-back candidate, but the usual hurdles within the SEC won’t be easy.
The Trojans won the Pac-12 South last season, and that took some heat off coach Clay Helton. Kedon Slovis, who has totaled 47 touchdowns to 16 interceptions the last two seasons, returns at quarterback. Drake London and Bru McCoy will be reliable targets in the passing game. Defensive end Korey Foreman, the top recruit in the class of 2021, should make an early impact, too. The standard remains a Pac-12 championship, which has eluded the program since 2017.
The Steve Sarkisian era in Austin begins. The Longhorns’ offense averaged 42.7 points per game last season, but Sam Ehlinger is gone. Casey Thompson and Hudson Card are battling for the starting job, and that should extend into fall camp. Running back Bijan Robinson and a talented group of receivers return, but as usual the questions are on the defensive side. What can Sarkisian do to improve that side of the ball? Texas lost three games by a total of 13 points last season. That’s the difference in the Big 12 race, which will be tight with Oklahoma and Iowa State.
14. North Carolina
Mack Brown led the Tar Heels to a New Year’s Day 6 Bowl in his second season — a testament to his near-instant rebuild in Chapel Hill. Junior Sam Howell could be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, and that’s a good start for an offense that needs to rebuild the running game without Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and their combined 2,557 yards and 33 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2020. Senior British Brooks will be counted on early in the season. The secondary should be a strength too, though North Carolina still needs to be more consistent on a week-to-week basis. The Friday night opener at Virginia Tech is a tone-setter, but five of the next six are at home. A run to the ACC championship game is possible, where another shot at Clemson would be worth watching.
The Hoosiers were the feel-good story of 2020, and Tom Allen has built a Big Ten contender in Bloomington. How will the program handle that success? Michael Penix Jr.’s return from a season-ending injury is the starting point for that return. Whop Philyor is gone, but Ty Fryfogle is back. The offense also added USC running back Stephen Carr. Junior linebacker Micah McFadden returns to a tough defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game. The Hoosiers play Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State in the first five weeks. If Indiana can get through that undefeated, then the Oct. 23 matchup against Ohio State should decide the Big Ten East.
Oregon has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships under Mario Cristobal, but last season was a missed opportunity after a pair of conference losses to Oregon State and Cal. Anthony Brown is up at quarterback after Tyler Shough opted to transfer to Texas Tech. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are back at tailback, and the offense should be more fluid under second-year coordinator Joe Moorhead. Kayvon Thibodeaux, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, leads a defense that also features Noah Sewell and Isaac Slade-Matautia. The Ducks will get a chance to show what they’re made of on Sept. 11 at Ohio State.
17. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys remain a solid Big 12 team, and the offense should continue to produce around junior quarterback Spencer Sanders. Brennan Presley is the best bet among a young group of receivers, and offensive lineman Josh Sills returns. The Cowboys have always been able to score with Mike Gundy, and the defense improved from 26.8 points per game in 2019 to 23.5 ppg in 2020. Trace Ford and Tyler Lacy combined for 8.5 sacks in 2020. Can the Cowboys keep pace with Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State in the Big 12? That would certainly take some heat off Gundy: He is 14-13 in conference play the last three seasons.
The Hawkeyes are our early favorite to win the Big Ten’s West division. Spencer Petras and Tyler Goodson return at quarterback and running back, respectively, and the offensive line is led by Rimington Trophy finalist Tyler Linderbaum, who bypassed the NFL Draft. Zach VanValkenburg’s return also is a boost for the defensive line. Crossover opponents Indiana and Penn State visit Kinnick Stadium. Kirk Ferentz has a team that resembles his 2015 and 2019 squads. They might get a shot at Ohio State in Indianapolis.
D’Eriq King remains on the comeback trail after suffering a knee injury in the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. If he returns, then the Hurricanes can build off an encouraging second season with Manny Diaz — but don’t discount freshman Jake Garcia, who completed 19 of 25 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ spring game. Miami also needs to reestablish a pass rush after losing Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche to the NFL Draft, and that starts with Bradley Jennings. Bubba Bolden brings All-American potential to the secondary. The ultimate measuring stick comes in the opener against Alabama in Atlanta.
COVID-19 wrecked Wisconsin’s season after a promising opener in 2020, and the Badgers had trouble scoring. Graham Mertz returns at quarterback, and Jalen Berger must fill the lead-back position after averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Logan Bruss leads an offensive line that features three seniors. It won’t take long to figure out the Badgers. Penn State visits Camp Randall Stadium in the opener, and Wisconsin faces Notre Dame and Michigan in two of the next three games. The Badgers are always a safe bet to win the Big Ten West division, but it won’t be easy in 2021.
21. Ole Miss
Behold the chaos teams of 2021. Lane Kiffin led Ole Miss to a 5-5 bowl victory in 2020 with an offense that averaged 39.2 points per game. Quarterback Matt Corral and running back Jerrion Early return to that high-powered offense. Ole Miss can score on anybody, but the defense ranked 118th among FBS teams after allowing 38.3 points per game. The Rebels will play in high-scoring thrillers, including the Labor Day opener against Louisville in Atlanta. October road trips at Alabama (Oct. 2), Tennessee (Oct. 16) and Auburn (Oct. 30) should generate a lot of reaction, but will Ole Miss win more than one of those games?
Auburn is the fifth SEC West school in our rankings, a nod to the incredible depth within the toughest division in the FBS. Coach Bryan Harsin takes over after seven seasons at Boise State. His challenge is to build a consistent, physical running game around the three-year starter Bo Nix. Sophomore running back Tank Bigsby averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season and should help with that. The schedule is rough, with a trip to Penn State on Sept. 18 and a conference slate that includes road dates at LSU and Texas A&M. Then, Harsin will get his first crack at the Iron Bowl. The Tigers won at least eight games in each of the last four seasons with Gus Malzahn. Can Harsin hit that mark?
23. Coastal Carolina
Jamey Chadwell won SN Coach of the Year honors in 2020 after a breakthrough season in the Sun Belt. It won’t be easy to maintain that status against conference contenders Louisiana and Appalachian State, which the Chanticleers beat by a combined 14 points last season. Coastal Carolina also visits the Mountaineers on a Wednesday night game on Oct. 20 that should be entertaining. Quarterback Grayson McCall returns after a fantastic freshman season in which he passed for 26 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Encores are never easy, but Coastal Carolina looks built to last with Chadwell.
Jeff Monken’s name continues to pop up in the coaching carousel, but a Power 5 program hasn’t been willing to bite yet. That’s good news for the Black Knights, who return their top five rushers from an offense that averaged 273.0 rushing yards per game. Monken has brought consistency to West Point. Army’s schedule is set up for a fast start, and October matchups against Wisconsin and Wake Forest will get attention. The Nov. 27 matchup at Liberty, another independent that could be ranked by then, will have interesting bowl implications.
25. Penn State
Penn State hit the reset button after a disastrous 2020, but James Franklin has more than enough talent on the roster to make a run at the Big Ten’s East division. Mike Yurcich takes over at offensive coordinator after spending the last two seasons at Ohio State and Texas, respectively. He’ll take over an offense with Sean Clifford returning at quarterback and Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee forming an interesting 1-2 punch at running back. Jahan Dotston is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. But the offensive line needs to improve, as does the defense. which allowed 27.7 points per game in 2020. There is a lot to prove, and the gap with Ohio State continues to widen.
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