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College Football Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2021-22


D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson

Alabama's resounding CFB Playoff National Championship victory over Ohio State over a week ago officially completed the 2020-21 FBS season. Although we do still have FCS football scheduled for this winter/spring, it will be eight months until we once again see the big boys in college football battle it out in the gridiron. Obviously plenty is going to change between now and then, but it's still always a fun exercise to guess which teams will likely top the polls come the summer. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of familiar names up top, but still some intriguing challengers desperate to break the Clemson/Alabama power structure currently happening in the sport.

1. Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners battled through a 1-2 start to win their final eight games and take home their sixth straight Big 12 Title. It's an unbelievable run no matter the league you play in and even though the Big 12 is likely to be improved in 2021, I don't think it's stopping anytime soon. Most of Oklahoma's offensive pieces are set to return this next fall, including QB Spencer Rattler, who will likely top many preseason Heisman lists. Tailback Rhamondre Stevenson may be leaving, but former All-Big 12 back Kennedy Brooks is expected to return after opting out of this past season. There is never any shortage of talent at receiver in Norman, even with Charleston Rambo transferring to Miami, and the O-Line also will have most of their starters back. The big question for Oklahoma is always defense, but this group took significant steps in 2020. Coordinator Alex Grinch continues to do an extremely impressive job on that side of the ball and despite rumors he was in consideration for a couple FBS head coaching jobs, he is back. It's a roster that should remain fairly intact despite all of OU's success, and one without any obvious, soul-crushing departures. The Sooners are ready to make the jump from simply being a dominant power inside the conference to one that can win truly win National Titles, and '21 could be the year to do it.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

If there is anything resembling a universal truth in college football, it's to never bet against Nick Saban and Alabama. The Tide will lose a whole bunch of future NFL Draft selections at key positions, including the three players that finished Top 5 in Heisman voting. And yet, they'll still almost definitely be the favorite to win the SEC again next fall. At quarterback, Mac Jones may be gone, but Bryce Young arrived last year as a five-star true freshman who was rated the top in the country coming out of high school. He's talented enough to run the show, and will have plenty of offensive help, which will include wide out John Metchie III and tight end Jahleel Billingsley. The offense may look slightly different with Bill O'Brien set to take over at offensive coordinator, but the talent that remains should be more than enough to work with. On defense, there's a bunch of superb young talent that played a hefty amount of snaps in 2020. That list includes pass rusher Will Anderson, along with defensive backs Malachi Moore and Brian Branch. They should have no problem stepping into more of a feature role on this Crimson Tide defense. As a sport, college football may be experiencing some Alabama "fatigue", but don't expect this thing to stop rolling anytime in the near future. Without any obvious serious challenger inside the division, I'd be shocked if 'Bama isn't once again in the SEC Championship come next December.

3. Clemson Tigers

Trevor Lawrence is officially taking his talents to the NFL and is the betting favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick. Despite his departure, Clemson shouldn't have too much problems transitioning to soon-to-be sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei, who was tremendous in his moments taking over for Lawrence. The good news for Uiagalelei and Clemson in general is that 2019's top receiver, Justyn Ross, is expected to be back after missing all of 2020 with a scary spinal injury. Ross is almost sure to be a Biletnikoff Award favorite, but he shouldn't overshadow the other talent the Tigers can throw at you on the perimeter, namely E.J. Williams and Frank Ladson. Defensively, there's a lot to like about what's coming back here too, at all three levels. The D-Line has two budding stars in Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, while the "quarterback" of the defense, linebacker James Skalski, is also coming back after missing the end of their semifinal loss to Ohio State. In the secondary, corner Derion Kendrick also made a surprising move to return for another year despite likely being a first or second round pick, helping secure a very solid back-end. As if Clemson needed any more help inside the ACC, their only regular season loss, Notre Dame, exits the conference as it returns to "normal" in 2021.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

The strongest possible threat to yet another Alabama SEC Title once again resides in Athens, as Georgia should be back with a vengeance in 2021. The team did not lose a game after QB J.T. Daniels was inserted into the starting lineup, and he's already announced his plans to return. Daniels is far from the only key cog back in Todd Monken's offense, with tailback Zamir White also planning to return, and a trio of talented receivers in George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, and Jermaine Burton. After a strong start to 2020, UGA's defense tailed off a little down the stretch, but their dominance in recruiting should ensure it is once again back near the top of the nation. The front seven is absolutely loaded with studs, even with sack machine Azeez Ojulari set to go pro, and the secondary should still be really strong. Also helping out the Bulldogs is the fact the staff remains pretty much completely intact for one of the first times in the Kirby Smart era. That is obviously not the case at Alabama, and it could possibly help Smart and UGA close the gap on the Crimson Tide.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

While Ohio State was unable to finish the job in 2020, there's still a lot to like about the state of the program heading into 2021. Ryan Day and staff continue to be dominant in recruiting and they currently play in an East Division without a clear-cut challenger, as Penn State and Michigan are coming off very down seasons. Of course, the Buckeyes will inevitably lose a bunch to the NFL, including Justin Fields, Trey Sermon, likely Chris Olave, and several key defenders. And yet, they'll almost surely still be a serious Playoff contender. Replacing Fields will be a tough part without an experienced option back, but the Buckeyes are loaded at receiver, so whoever steps in should be just fine. The defense may have a slight leadership gap early on but there's no shortage of talent, with names like Zach Harrison and Taron Vincent ready to take the next step and become stars. Day still has yet to lose a game during the regular season, and while '21 will present different challenges than this past season, he could still keep that record intact.

6. Cincinnati Bearcats

Despite being unable to finish the job and beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati had an incredibly successful 2020 campaign. Things won't just stop there, as the Bearcats will again be the favorite to win the American Athletic next fall. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has already announced his plans to return, gifting Luke Fickell and his staff their real offensive star. He will be aided by Jerome Ford at running back, and nearly every receiver from last year's group. Another name to watch offensively is Evan Prater, a former high profile recruit who is a quarterback, and could be used in several different packages in 2021. The primary concern on defense is the loss of coordinator Marcus Freeman, who ended up taking the same gig at Notre Dame. Even so, Cincy does have several key players returning to one of college football's most dominant units. Myjai Sanders is quickly becoming one of college football's most underrated pass rushers, while defensive back Ahmad Gardner should be a Jim Thorpe contender heading into 2021. I'm still not entirely sure the program is ready to wade into unfamiliar territory and become the first ever Group of Five team to make the CFB Playoff, but they'll be in the hunt.

7. Iowa State Cyclones

If you're looking for any team to break the power structure that has dominated college football since the institution of the Playoff in 2014, this Iowa State team could be the one to do it. The biggest news of the off-season in Ames was that head coach Matt Campbell would remain in town, despite being rumored for several high-profile college and NFL gigs. Campbell has taken ISU to heights they haven't seen in their entire history, and 2021 could be even more special. QB Bryce Purdy and back Breece Hall are both set to return, which is bad news for the rest of the Big 12. Purdy will challenge Rattler for the honor of being the league's best QB, while Hall was a serious Heisman contender throughout 2020. In addition, Charlie Kolar is slated to return at tight end, and should be the best at his position in the country. The defense returns every major piece not named Greg Eisworth, as linebackers Jake Hummel and Mike Rose return, as well as sack machine Will McDonald. Everything is set up for Iowa State to put together their best season in program history, even with Oklahoma once again likely to be a preseason favorite. The Cyclones will have to travel to Norman this year, in a game that could have serious Playoff implications.

8. North Carolina Tar Heels

With Mac Jones, Kyle Trask, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence all off to the NFL, the crown of best QB in the country is up for grabs. Don't be surprised if junior Sam Howell ends up taking it, coming off a season in which he threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns. Howell will have to play an even larger role in 2021, as the Tar Heels do lose several complementary offensive weapons, including both of their star running backs. The good news for Howell is that the offensive line should bring nearly everybody back, and the defense could rival Clemson for being the most talented inside the ACC. The front seven does lose a true star in Chazz Surratt, but UNC's efforts on the recruiting trail may already be proving out, with a few youngsters ready to step into the fold. The secondary has been very inconsistent the last two years, but it's awfully talented. Corner Tony Grimes early enrolled last season and is one of the best defenders in the nation in his recruiting class, and Storm Duck has already proven he can be a top-flight player in this conference. Only further helping out the Tar Heels: with the ACC returning to their usual two divisions, they become the overwhelming favorite in the Coastal, especially with Miami star QB D'Eriq King likely to miss the start of 2021.

9. Texas A&M Aggies

Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M program arrived in 2020, as they came extremely close to their first-ever CFB Playoff berth and also won a New Year's Six Bowl. Now comes the possibly even tougher part: keeping it going. Fisher will have to break in a new quarterback, with four-year starter Kellen Mond officially leaving. But, there are several intriguing candidates, with former highly touted recruit Haynes King likely the early favorite. King will be joined by an All-SEC level tailback in Isaiah Spiller and one of the most versatile players in college football, Ainias Smith. Also returning is one of Fisher's favorite targets in the passing game, Jalen Wydermeyer, who could form the best 1-2 tight end combo in the nation if Baylor Cupp can finally get and stay healthy. The defense has slightly more questions top to bottom than the offense, but there's growing star power here. DeMarvin Leal is ready to take the leap and become a real force on the D-Line, and the secondary is in a fairly good spot, with Leon O'Neal and Demani Richardson returning. It may not be quite enough to catch Alabama in 2021, but it's clear the Aggies are starting to put pressure on Saban and the Tide.

10. Oregon Ducks

Even though they went just 4-3, Oregon won their second consecutive Pac-12 Title in 2020, and they are probably going to be the favorite to do it once again in '21. A trio of stud running backs, which includes C.J. Verdell, Travis Dye and Sean Dollars, will lead an offense that put up good numbers throughout much of 2020. The O-Line should also be better with more time to prepare this off-season, and the receiver group has some really fun characters. The ultimate question on offense is at QB, where Tyler Shough and former Boston College transfer Anthony Brown split time. Shough had his moments but really seemed to struggle down the stretch, and Brown just isn't a great passer. Although there are newcomers arriving to push those two, I believe one of them will start the '21 campaign as starter. The defense was hit hard by opt-outs, contributing to underwhelming numbers across the board. It didn't help that coordinator Andy Avalos took the Boise State head coaching job, but there are still things to like. For one, Kayvon Thibodeax looks ready to assert himself as the most dominant pass rusher in all of college football, while the linebacker corps has really impressive young pieces in Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. The secondary may still be a slight problem, but there's talent there as well. 

11. USC Trojans

It was 'SC who Oregon beat to claim the Pac-12 Title in this wacky Pac-12 season, but the Trojans should be back with a vengeance. They have their own star QB in Kedon Slovis, who was still a little streaky in 2020, but has proven he can play high-level football. I'm very excited about what USC's receiver room can do in this Graham Harrell offense, even with Amon-Ra St. Brown set to go pro. Drake London has already shown enough to be the top guy, and Gary Bryant Jr. is a terrific breakout candidate. The defense also took significant strides under Todd Orlando in his first year at USC, and it could be really good again. Edge rusher Drake Jackson is ready to become an All-Pac-12 player and he is joined by the top player in the 2021 recruiting cycle, former Clemson commit Korey Foreman. The back-seven could be a little bit more of a pressing concern, but I like some of the pieces back there. The biggest concern may end up being a familiar one: coaching. I'm actually a bigger Clay Helton fan than most, but the constant hot seat talk has put a serious damper on their ceiling the last few years at a program that never seems to have a shortage of drama.

12. Iowa Hawkeyes

After starting off 2020 0-2, it looked like Iowa might let the season get away from them but to their credit, they responded by winning their final six straight before their bowl game was cancelled. They are my early Big Ten West favorite for 2021, with a bunch returning on both sides of the ball. The offense is led by a breakout star at back in Ty Goodson, while wide outs Nico Ragiani and Tyrone Tracy create on the perimeter. Quarterback Spencer Petras was serviceable in '20, but the Hawkeyes are hopeful he can get even better this next fall. The defense will be hit hard by attrition in the front seven, but DC Phil Parker rebuilds as well as anybody in the Big Ten. The secondary should be the leader of the group, with familiar names like Riley Moss and Jack Koerner slated to return to Iowa City. 

13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Although their two losses to end the '20-'21 campaign cast a shadow over the season, it was a very successful campaign in South Bend. Brian Kelly has elevated the program to one that can consistently withstand losses, and it should be able to transition to a new era without Ian Book as starting QB. Slated to take over for Book is Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan. Coan isn't the type of player who can take this ND program over the top, but he's very solid as a one-year bridge to the future for ND. In addition to Coan, the Irish have a two-headed monster in the backfield in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, and the O-Line is always good. We'll see whether any top-tier playmaker is able to emerge at receiver, which was really missing throughout the 2020 season. On defense, coordinator Clark Lea took the Vanderbilt HC gig, but new hire Marcus Freeman has more than enough to keep things rolling. The primary reason I'm lower than usual on Notre Dame? The schedule, if it holds, is actually really precarious. They face Cincinnati, North Carolina, USC, and Wisconsin in Chicago right now, which could all be Top 15 foes.

14. Indiana Hoosiers

The common assumption among most college football fans is that Indiana's 2020 was a "one-hit wonder" and that they'll return to mediocrity in the Big Ten East. That would be an unwise view, as Tom Allen has once enough back to challenge Ohio State in the division. The offense has some real fun weapons set to return, including star wide out Ty Fryfogle and back Stevie Scott. The big question there is actually at QB, where Michael Penix Jr.'s status for '21 is up in the air. Penix is a top-tier Big Ten QB when healthy but he tore his ACL late in the year, and it's unlikely he'll be able to begin 2021 100 percent. That leaves the offensive reigns up to either Jack Tuttle, or Indiana could be in the grad transfer market. The defense's biggest loss is their coordinator, with Kane Wommack taking over at South Alabama. The good news is that most of the defensive leaders are back in the fold, with physical linebacker Micah McFadden likely the most important.

15. Washington Huskies

Washington and Oregon are going to battle in the preseason for being the Pac-12 favorite, but don't be surprised if Washington seriously challenges them. It's hard to take too much away from Jimmy Lake's debut season in Seattle, as the Huskies went 3-1 and couldn't play in the Pac-12 Championship Game due to COVID problems. But, the backfield remains intact with Dylan Morris returning at QB and Sean McGrew at running back. That is assuming Morris isn't pressured by newcomer Sam Huard, a consensus five-star recruit. Elsewhere, Puka Nacua could put up a breakout season on the outside, and the O-Line should be solid. There's a few pieces set to leave from the defense, but a name to keep an eye on is Zion Tupoala-Fetui, who was dominant in the Utah game and is set to have a big 2021 season. The secondary, which has long been Lake's specialty, is in pretty good hands even as Elijah Molden departs.

16. Wisconsin Badgers

There's no question Wisconsin will once again boast one of the best defenses in the Big Ten again in 2021, as DC Jim Leonhard has plenty back to work with. The linebacker corps is especially strong, with veterans Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal set to lead the way. The more pressing question for the Badgers is on offense, where they started off hot but were dreadful in their final four regular season games. Graham Mertz did enough at QB for Jack Coan to transfer elsewhere, but they really lacked the big plays necessary to open things up for the ground game. Having veteran tight end Jake Ferguson back will be a big help, and wide out Chimere Dike is primed for a huge season. At tailback, the projected starters heading into 2020 will both depart in Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson. That leaves feature back duties to freshman Jalen Berger, who was really good when healthy.

17. Arizona State Sun Devils

Due to serious COVID issues, we saw Arizona State just four times all of 2020 but the small sample size still had signs of encouragement. For one, the defense continues to improve under the tutelage of former NFL star linebacker Antonio Pierce. They will be especially strong in the back-seven, with proven veterans such as Evan Fields, Merlin Robertson and Jack Jones all likely to be back. On offense, QB Jayden Daniels is quickly asserting himself as one of the best young quarterbacks in the country. He played well in 2020 despite the small sample size and a very limited receiver corps that lacked depth. His favorite target, Frank Darby, is almost sure to be gone but there's still talent here, with Johnny Wilson and L.V. Bunkley-Shelton the most likely names to step into the spotlight. The backfield doesn't have any superstars, but does have proven pieces in Rachaad White and Daniyel Ngata. Herm Edwards work on the recruiting trail should continue to pay dividends, and it would not shock me if the Sun Devils ended up coming out of the Pac-12 South.

18. Florida Gators

After winning eight of their first nine games of 2020, Florida lost their final three games, putting a little bit of pressure on Dan Mullen despite an SEC East Title. Mullen will have to make do without his Heisman Finalist QB Kyle Trask and several other key pieces to the offense, including tight end Kyle Pitts and wide out Kadarius Toney. They keys to the offense are likely to fall to dual-threat Emory Jones, but the lack of experience at wide out is concerning. That could force Mullen to rely more on his ground attack than usual, where Clemson transfer Demarckus Bowman arrives. The defense was a lot worse than most expected, and puts pressure on long-time Mullen assistant Todd Grantham to right the ship. There's plenty of talent to work with, including names such as Kaiir Elam and Brenton Cox, but poor tackling and lack of a pass rush really killed them at times. Unless the defense takes major steps forward, it's unlikely the Gators have the horses offensively this year to challenge Georgia in the division.

19. Texas Longhorns

The decision from Texas to move on from Tom Herman and hire Steve Sarkisian wasn't altogether too surprising, but it does mean that the Longhorns will once again enter a season with nearly an entirely new coaching staff. It's a difficult transition in any year, but especially difficult as the impacts of COVID-19 can still be felt around college football. On the bright side, the Longhorns are once again extremely talented, even as long-time QB Sam Ehlinger moves on. His likely replacement is Casey Thompson, who showed flashes in the Alamo Bowl win over Colorado, but will need time. Thompson will be joined on offense by running back Bijan Robinson, who should be in-store for a huge year in Sarkisian's offense. The defense has a few more questions, especially in a secondary that remains inconsistent. Losing Joseph Ossai leaves a major gap as he was UT's top pass rusher, but the Longhorns are very excited about what young defensive end Alfred Collins can be in the future. Sarkisian and Texas are almost certainly below Oklahoma and Iowa State in the league, but they could still provide themselves valuable momentum for a big 2022 and beyond.

20. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

One of the best stories in 2020, Coastal Carolina shouldn't be a one-hit wonder either. They managed to lock down head coach Jamey Chadwell despite interest from several Power Five programs, and Chadwell will once again have plenty to work with. Quarterback Grayson McCall will once again run the show and has already asserted himself as one of the best Group of Five signal-callers in the country. McCall will have to do a little bit more with tailback C.J. Marable likely off to the pros, but his favorite target, Isaiah Likely, should provide him with plenty of help. There may be a slight leadership gap defensively with key contributors such as Teddy Gallagher and Tarron Jackson set to move on, but still plenty of familiar faces. Nose tackle Jerrod Clark should be able to take over as the disruptive force up the middle, and there's talent and athleticism on the back-end. While Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette will also be in the hunt, CCU should begin 2021 as the Sun Belt favorite.

21. Miami Hurricanes

Miami is quite a mystery looking ahead towards 2021, at least at this early point. D'Eriq King, their star QB, announced he would return for another season in Coral Gables before tearing his ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl loss. King should still likely see the field in '21, but how much, and how effective will he be? The offense could still be in a decent spot with a deep backfield, headed by Cam'Ron Harris, but losing tight end Brevin Jordan stings. On the perimeter, the Hurricanes need more from their receiver corps, but adding Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo should help. The defense is also somewhat of a mystery, as it must replace a slew of important contributors from the 2020 team, including Quincy Roche and Jaelen Phillips. However, the return of former USC transfer Bubba Bolden should put the secondary in a good spot moving forward.

22. Nevada Wolfpack

While Boise State has ruled the Mountain West for much of the past decade, I think it will be Nevada who comes out of the league as champion in 2021. The offense has the chance to be really special, thanks in large part to the return of underrated QB Carson Strong, who had nearly 3,000 yards and hit 27 touchdowns in a shortened season. In addition to Strong, Nevada also has the luxury of returning their top rusher in Toa Taua and its top playmaker on the outside in Romeo Doubs. The defense isn't quite as clear-cut looking ahead so far in advance, but its numbers were solid throughout the 2020 season and there's enough experience slated to come back. The Wolfpack will have two prime Power Five possibilities in California and Kansas State, two very beatable teams, albeit both games will be on the road.

23. Penn State Nittany Lions

They may have started 0-5, but Penn State was a much better team than their poor record may have indicated in 2020. James Franklin will have the Nittany Lions back in the mix this upcoming fall, and he already made a key off-season hire by bringing in former Texas OC Mike Yurcich. Yurcich's No. 1 job will be getting more out of QB Sean Clifford, who has had moments in his PSU career but is yet to put it all together. The backfield should be much healthier in '21, with Noah Cain and Devyn Ford both slated to be back and Baylor transfer John Lovett also providing help. While tight end Pat Freiermuth moves on, Jahan Dotson is still likely to come back, providing Clifford with a proven pass-catcher on the outside. The Penn State defense will have to also rediscover itself under DC Brent Pry, but Franklin and his staff have recruited this side of the ball very well. The secondary has been a real problem over the past couple seasons, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields have both announced they'll be back in 2021. Castro-Fields was an All-Big Ten player in 2019 but he was never healthy in '20.

24. LSU Tigers

LSU's 2020 campaign went about as bad as it possibly could have, but things could be looking up for 2021. For one, the Tigers seem to be dialed in on their QB of the future in Max Johnson, who played very well down the stretch. Johnson will have to fend off injured Myles Brennan for the starting job, which will be a fascinating duel to watch through the spring and summer. Whoever wins it will have a rising star to throw to in Kayshon Boutte and hopefully an improved O-Line, although the transfer of dynamic tight end Arik Gilbert is a tough pill to swallow. The defense was shockingly bad in one season under Bo Pelini, and it's still unclear who takes over coordinator duties. Corner Derek Stingley Jr. gives the defense a big name to help lead them, but Stingley seemed to slump at times after a fabulous freshman campaign. The good news is that fellow corner Eli Ricks helped pick up the slack as a true freshman, and now they may provide LSU with the best CB combo in the SEC.

25. Utah Utes

The Utes possibly could've risen even higher up in these rankings if not for the unfortunate death of young tailback Ty Jordan on Christmas Day, who was well on his way to becoming one of the best in the Pac-12. Utah will have a new QB running the show after Jake Bentley transferred, with a pair of Big 12 transplants likely to battle it out, between Baylor's Charlie Brewer and Texas' Ja'Quinden Jackson. Whoever wins the job has an interesting crop of offensive weapons to play with, namely tight end Brant Kuithe. Defensively, there are still some notable holes, but linebacker Devin Floyd has asserted himself as one of the best in the Pac-12. The secondary still looks fairly inexperienced but should really benefit from a full, more "normal" off-season. Corner Clark Phillips, once an Ohio State commit, should continue to grow into a larger role.

Just Missed the Cut

Ole Miss Rebels

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Boise State Broncos

Oklahoma State Cowboys

TCU Horned Frogs

Marshall Thundering Herd

UCF Knights

Missouri Tigers

Memphis Tigers

NC State Wolfpack

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