2021 Predicted Top 35

1GeorgiaHC Kirby Smart has been recruiting like a national championship program, and 2021 is an excellent opportunity to prove it. The Dawgs offense features not only a returning starter at QB, in JD Daniels, now a Junior; but also have the same OC that has started to open up the offense. Star WR George Pickens tore his ACL in the Spring, but WR Kearis Jackson is back, and he lead the team in receiving yards. And UGA got one of the top offensive ‘free agents’ with the signing of fomer LSU TE Arik Gilbert. The defense has more questions, but the line is strong, athletic and experienced. The secondary needs the most rebuilding, but was helped over the summer by landing former Clemson CB Derion Kendrick. The schedule starts with a bang, a non-conference match up with Clemson in Charlotte, but otherwise, for an SEC schedule not too bad. UGA does not play Bama, A&M or LSU from the West; faces a Florida team with a new QB, and a AU team in transition with a new coach. If the Dawgs open with a win, they could lose the SECCG to Bama and still make the playoffs.
2AlabamaThe Tide lost the Heisman Trophy winner, the Davey O’Brien Award winner and the Doak Walker Award winner, and the OC that pulled it all together! And yet Alabama is still one of the top 3 teams in the nation as the Nick Saban juggernaut continues to roll. The reload on offense begins with blue chipper QB Bryce Young, now a Sophmore with the learning that comes with it. He does get WR John Metchie back, who had just under 1000 yards receiving last year. But the offense is going to rely on a number of inexperienced, but very talented players, as well as direction from a new OC, Bill O’Brien. The defense may be the strength of this team, especially early, as 8 starters are back with experience especially up front and in the secondary. While Alabama is as extremetly talented as always, the player and staff rebuild on the offensive side of the team, gives hope that the door to the national championship is open for a few other top contenders.
3ClemsonThe Tigers lose their superstar QB Trevor Lawrence, fullfiling his destiny as the #1 overall NFL Draft pick. Fortunately though, his back-up DJ Uiagalelei is another elite recruit and looked the part in playing in 2 Clemson games last year when Lawrence was out due to Covid. RB Travis Etienne wont be easy to replace, but the program is chock full of talent at the skill positions, and will get WR Justyn Ross back after an injury kept him out last season. The line play was an issue in games against elite teams the past couple years, but the D-line at least looks to be dominant again. Tigers open with UGA in Charlotte, then do not play a ranked team until the ACCCG. Win or lose that opener. Clemson is heavily favored to win the ACC and get back to the playoffs.
4OklahomaAn 0-2 start in Big 12 play ended the Sooners playoff hopes early, but the 8 straight wins to finish the year has expectations for a playoff return in 2021. It starts with QB Spencer Rattler, the conference Newcomer of the Year in ’20 and the pre-season favorite to win the Heisman. OU’s most experienced RB, Kennedy Brooks, returns after opting out last season. The WR group is talented and experienced as the 3 leading receivers from last year are all back. But offense hasn’t been the issue in Norman in recent years, its been the defense. And maybe that light isn’t an oncoming train but really the end of the tunnel. The defense has improved under DC Alex Grinch, finishing 29th in total and scoring defense in 2020. With 7 starters back and under Grinch’s supervision, the D should continue this trend. OU has a good chance at an undfeated season and a playoff berth; the next question is can they actually win a playoff game?
5Ohio stateBig question with the Buckeyes is the QB position, where a freshman (either RS or true) will win the job; none has thrown a pass in a game. Although Trey Sermon is gone, RB Master Teague is back along with the top 3 WRs. ONly 4 starters are back from a defense that struggled against the pass in ’20, finishing a shocking #122 in pass defense. Buckeyes are still extremely talented but this is a bigger reload than in most years. Schedule features home game with Oregon, and home vs Penn St and at Michigan in key games against the East.
6Texas A&MThe Aggies are coming off a great postseason – beating North Carolina in the Orange Bowl and finishing #4 in the AP Poll – their highest final ranking since the national championship in 1939. But one of the big postseason wins was keeping DC Mike Elko and the fans may be rewarded with not just a good but elite defense. A&M returns 9 starters from a D that was #9 in the nation in total defense and #2 in rushing. While all SEC T Bobby Brown is gone, to linemen in Jayden Perry and Micheal Clemons return for their ‘super’ senior years. The offensive side of the ball isn’t as set. QB Kellen Mond, the holder of the school record for evey major career stat is in the NFL now. The challenge will be replacing Mond and the offensive line at the same time. The good news though is that most of the other skill position players return, including RB Isiah Spiller, who rushed for over 100 yards last year in only 10 games. And the WR corp is mostly intact. For an SEC West school, the schedule is reasonable; no UF or UGA from the East; no ranked OOC game and traditional powers LSU and AU are both in transition. HC JImbo Fisher has really built up the talent level in College Station, enough so that even with a new QB, a 10 win season is very possible.
7Iowa StateExpectations are sky high for the Cyclones, with 19 returning starters off the team that won the Fiesta Bowl. Everybody is back including QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall, giving Iowa State not one but 2 Heisman Trophy candidates. The D finished #21 in the nation in total defense, and again, deep and experienced this year. The key OOC game is vs the in-state rival Hawkeyes, where the Cyclones have suffered through some agonizing losses. The ’21 contest in Ames will be the biggest in years if not decades.
8WisconsinBadgers had an uncharacteristically poor season in ’20, slipping to 4-3 any only .500 (3-3) in the Big Ten. But a number of Seniors took advantage of the new rules to return, and maybe just as important, DC Jim Lennhard turned down some offers to remain with Wisconsin. 8 starters back from a defense that finished in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, rushing and total defense . opens with Penn State at home and big OOC is Notre Dame in Chicago. Does not face Ohio State or Penn State from the East.
9CincinnatiBearcats return Senior QB Desmond Ridder and HC Luke Fickell and two Senior WRs including Michael Young; key holes are the two starting OTs must be replaced. 6 starters back from D that finished #13 nationally in total defense, and return several Seniors that could have moved on. But they’ll have to do it with out highly regarded DC Marcus Freeman. Schedule is tougher but that also brings opportunity with games at Indiana and Notre Dame early in the season. In conference, UCF comes to Nippert Stadium and Memphis is not on the schedule.
10Notre DameThe Irish made the playoffs as a member of the ACC, but the season ended on a sour note, with non competitive losses to Clemson and Alabama. Many teams are returning more seniors than usual this year due to the rule change, But the Irish are completely rebuilding especially on the offensive side of the ball. 9 starters are gone, including veteran QB Ian Book and most of the o-line. Defense has a big loss when DC Clark Lea left to become HC at Vandy, but the Irish brought in the very respected Marcus Freeman, the former DC at Cincinnati. A bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the defense, with the 2 DEs leaving, but experience in the middle. And the star DB is back, is S Kyle Hamilton, but the rest of the secondary will be new starters. The schedule is interesting, and the season will be defined by a late Sept-late October stretch that consists of Wisconsin (Chicago), Cincy, at Va Tech, USC and North Carolina – teams with talent but also their own questions.
11North CarolinaThe Tarheels resurgence under Mack Brown starts with their Heisman candidate at QB Sam Howell, who led UNC to their all time school record for total offense and points per game. Howell has 68 TD passes in two seasons, an ACC record. His weapons will be new as his 2 top WRs and RBs depart, but their backups played well in the Orange Bowl vs Texas A&M. Having all 5 starters on the o-ilne return will greatly help the transition to the new skill position players. The schedule is favorable, mainly because in the ACC that means not playing Clemson (at least not in the regular season). Eight starters back on defense should lead to improvement, and if the “D” can force more turnovers (and give the ball back to that offense), the first Top 10 finish since Mack’s last stint as HC is very much within reach.
12WashingtonThe Huskies were a pleasant surprise in HC Jimmy Lake’s first season, wining the PAC-12 North in a very abbreviated season. Starting QB Dylan Morris is back but will be pushed by 5* recruit Sam Huard (name sound familiar?) All 5 starters return on the o-line along with Cade Otton, one of the top TEs in the country. The defense has 8 starters back, but one of the new faces will be at DC, as the former left for Texas. The line is the strength of the defense but a CB transfer from OU may help the secondary improve. The schedule includes a key OOC game at Michigan, but the Huskies do get the North Division showdown with Oregon at home.
13FloridaA great season for the Gators, beating UGA, SEC East Champions, soured at the end with an upset loss to a dreadful LSU squad and a blowout bowl loss amid a number of opt outs. Gatornation will finally find out what they have in QB Emory Jones, one of the top recruits under HC Dan Mullen. It will be hard to replace Kyle Trask and his 43 TDs (a UF record), but Jones is a much better runner. Jones’ weapons also won’t be what UF had last years as the go to WR Kadarius Toney and ‘unicorn’ TE Kyle Trask have moved on.The defense struggled under DC Todd Grantham, but he returns to try again with a talented but less experienced group. The schedule is typical, with little challenge from the OOC schedule, but will come down to the SEC East and the regular cross over vs LSU.
14OregonA weird season for the Duck (even weirder than most during the Covid year), with a number of opt outs, a great start offensively, then a losing streak, then then Washington Covid issues put Oregon in the Pac 12 Championship game where they upset USC. That got the Ducks to the Fiesta Bowl where they were promptly blown out. A much more normal season though should result in a more normal result for the most talented team in the PAC 12 – a conference championship and an outside shot at the playoffs. The starting QB for most of last season transferred to Texas Tech, but late season starter Anthony Brown is back and will have the full offseason under now 2nd year OC Joe Moorhead. The top 2 RBs and WRs are back and will operate behind an experienced o-line. Defense struggled in ’20 and a new DC comes in as Andy Avalos left to take HC job at Boise State. DE Kayvon Thibodeaux is already being talked up as a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft and the Ducks defense will be built around him. Schedule features a monster OOC game at Ohio State, but USC not on the schedule.
15MiamiThe ‘Canes return a staggering 20 starters from last year, but the 2021 season hinges on only one – QB D’Eriq King, who tore his ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl. If he’s back at full strength, Miami has the talent to win the Coastal and get to their 2nd ever appearance in the ACCCG; but all bets are off if King can’t play. Miam’s offense improved dramatically not only with the transfer King at QB, but under new OC Rhett Lashlee. The defense was inconsistent, holding UVA and Pitt to under 20 points but ended the regular season giving up 62 to UNC. HC Manny Diaz is taking over the play calling for the defense, but the ‘Canes need some help stopping the run (allthough the secondary looks good). The pick here is that King is healthy, but the defense still holds the ‘Canes back from a division title.
16Penn StateLions got off to a terrible start last season, due to opt-outs, injuries and a couple fluky losses, but rebounded to win their last 4. Still, 4-5 is not what is expected in Happy Valley. HC James Franklin got rid of his OC and brought in former Texas OC Mike Yurich. QB Sean Clifford is back from an up and down ’20; team was 2nd in the conference in total offense but he through 9 INTs. His top2 WRs and RBs return though, so its very possible he’ll revert to the form of 2019. Defense does return 7 starters, but is rebuilding up front from a unit that was very good last season. Schedule features an interesting OOC game, a home matchup with Auburn in mid Sept, and the Lions go to both Iowa and Wisconsin from the West.
17LousianaThe Rajun Cajuns stunned the world with their 17 pt win at Iowa State to open last season and gets another chance this year at Texas. ULL returns virtually everybody, the most amount of “returning production” according to Bill Connelly’s system, lead by 5th year Sr QB Lewis. Also back are every WR, every TE and o-line starter; the lead RB did leave but his replacement is experienced. Of the 22 defensive players that were in on at least 100 snaps, 21 of them return from a defense that finished #6 in pass defense. The schedule starts with a bang in the aforementioned opener at Texas; features another OOC at LIberty, but the Sun Belt schedule does not include a regular season match up with Coastal Carolina, the Cajuns only loss last season (by 3).
18LSULSU didn’t rebuild or reload after the national title but instead fielded the worst defense in modern school history and need to win their last 2 games just to fiish at .500 with an all SEC schedule. It appears thought that HC Ed Orgeron has identified his mistakes and is working to correct them. He fired both coordinators and brought in assistants from the Joe Brady tree back when LSU had the phenomenal year on offense with QB Joe Borrough. The Bo Pelini experiement as DC was a disaster so Orgeron brought in Daronte Jones, the Vikings RB coach. The Tigers will have an open competition for the QB position, but will be very experienced on both lines – all starters are back! An interesting opener at UCLA, but the SEC schedule will define the success of the season as usual.
19USCAnother talented team but under embattled HC Clay Helton, what is that going to turn into on the field? The good news is QB Kedon Slovis is back, after finishing 6th in the nation in passing yards per game. The WRs are experienced as is the o-line. The defense was decent and returns 6 starters, and has a couple transfers and incoming highly touted recruits to fill in some holes. The schedule is tough, with Notre Dame, BYU and San Jose State in the OOC games; but the Trojans don’t play Oregon or Washington, the two likely ranked teams from the North Division.
20IowaThe Hawkeyes were a hot team at end of last season – after 0-2 start, won out with 20 point win at Penn State and a 21 point win over Wisconsin. QB Spencer Petras returns but while he led the team to wins, didn’t have great stats. But he should be improved in his 2nd year in the program and he was a good leader. Iowa has 7 starters back from #8 team in nation in total defense. Schedule does not include Ohio State from the East (always a good thing), but the non conference matchup with Iowa State is now a big game. In other words, seems like another solid 8ish win team under HC Kirk Ferentz.
21UtahThe Utes were a very inexperienced team coming in to 2020, and went 3-2 in the weird, Covid shortened season. But they won their last 3 to set the stage for a big rebound in 2021. The key will at QB, where Baylor transfer CHarlie Brewer is epected to win the starting job. Brewer had 39 starts for Baylor, where he completed over 64%of his passes plus rushed for over 1000 yards. Brewer will operate behind a very experience o-line where all 5 starters return. HC Kyle Whittingham enters his 18th year here for extreme stability and with 9 starters back on defense, should field another very good d-line. The OOC schedule does include games at BYU and San Diego State, but they skip Washington from the North Divison and get Oregon at home. If Brewer can step in a high level, the Utes can make a run at another memorable season as they did in 2019.
22TexasAlthough Texas finished 7-3 in the crazy Covid year, losses again to OU and TCU sealed the fate of HC Tom Herman. Former Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian was brought in right after the Tide won the national title, where Texas fans are hopeful Sark can do the same for their program. Sarkisian is the latest graduate of the Nick Saban Rehabilitation School, but the Tide offense was great under his guidance. UT loses their star QB in Sam Ehlinger, but if Casey Thompson plays as well as he did in the 2nd half of the Alamo Bowl vs Colorado, the dropoff might not be too much. What will help a lot is that RB Rijan Robinson and his 8.2 ypc returns, as do 4 of the top 5 receivers. And only 1 O-line starter departs. On defense, some key starters are gone, but looks like a budding playmaker in DE Alfred Collins. The line overall is good and experienced. The schedule features a couple of interesting OOC games, in Louisiana and Arkansas, plus the standard full Big 12 schedule. It’s always hard to judge what’s going to happen in the first year of a new coach, but Texas has the talent for Sark to enjoy a successful debut.
23Coastal CarolinaCoastal had not had a winning season since moving up to FBS, but went undefeated in the regular season (giving otherwise undefeated BYU their only loss) before falling in their bowl to Liberty in OT. Like a number of Group of 5 teams, many players took advantage of the rule changes regarding eligibilty and returned for their ‘super’ senior seasons. QB Grayson McCall runs the Chanticleers triple option to perfection and returns his entire staring o-line. but the two backups are talened and experineced. Coastal loses the conference defensive player of the year, but returns every other starter on defense. The schedule is very managealbe with OC games include Citadel, Kansas, Buffalo and UMass and the Chanticleers do not play ULL in conference play (in the regular season).
24Ole MissThe Reb’s offense exploded under new HC Lane Kiffin and OC Jeff Lebby and more of the same is expected in 2021. QB Matt Corral returns after leading the nation in total offense as does the top 5 rushers from ’20. Superstar WR Elijah Moore is gone, but there is experience and depth in the WR room and oh by the way. 4 of the 5 o-lineman are back too. The defense on the other hand was awful, ending last year in the bottom 15 in scoring, passing and total defense. Only one way to go is up right? Kiffin brought in recruits and transfers to help shore up the defense and UGA transfer S Otis Reese will be available for a full season after joining last year with 2 games remaining. OOC is Louisville (Atlanta), Austin Peay, Tulane and Liberty, and cross division opponents are Vandy and Tennessee, so even 2-4 in the SEC West is 8-4 overall.
25TCUThe Horned Frogs won 11 games in 2017 and finished in the Top 10 of the AP poll, but have posted 3 straight years around .500 with no ranked finishes. This year though, in HC Gary Patterson’s 21st year, are much better positioned to get back in the rankings. TCU brings back 18 starters (2nd most in the Big 12) including their very experienced QB in Max Duggan. Duggan has battled injury issues, but if healthy in 2021 should be a very solid leader. The schedule starts with 3 very winable OOC games with Duquesne, Cal and SMU, then gets Texas at home; TCU is 7-2 against the Horns since joining the Big 12. With the unbalanced conf schedule, TCU does have 5 road games, but with the teams and HC Patterson’s experience, should improve on the 6-4 mark of 2020.
26Arizona StateI wrote back in April that the Herm Edwards era at Arizona State has gone much better than most analysts expectations, but now a drama surrounds the program and with several members of the coaching staff are now on leave pending an NCAA investigation. On the field, this could be the breakthrough year, but off it, have no idea how the distractions will effect the team. The positives start with a great QB in Jayden Daniels, who will get to operate behind an experienced o-line. The WR corp is light on experience but the opposite is true in the running game, with the top 5 (5!) RBs returning. Eight starters are back from the top defense in the conference in points allowed per game (based on 4 games anyway) and should have one of their best Ds in many years. The OOC games feature Southern Utah, UNLV and a rebulding BYU team, before the Pac 12 conference schedule kicks in.
27IndianaA magical season for the Hoosiers (#7 in the AP poll at the end of the regular season), started with an unbelievable win over Penn State and ended in a NY6 bowl. Talented QB Michael Penix is back for his 4th year, but can he stay healthy? He has not finished any of the previous 3 seasons, and the team isn’t deep enough to overcome his absence. The top WR Ty Fryfogle is back as one of the top 3 of the 4 to return. The o-line is experienced but was not good run blocking as IU was 114 in rushing last season. The defense returns 8 starters from a unit that led the BIg Ten in sacks and finished #19 in the country in scoring. The OOC features a big game with Cincinnati plus a crossover game at Iowa (in the opener). Indiana won’t sneak up on teams as they did in 2020, but this is still a talented team with an experienced QB.
28UCFNew HC Gus Malzahn steps into a good situation in Orlando with 17 starters back, the most important one QB Dillion Gabriel – 5th in the nation last year with over 3500 yards passing and a 32-4 TD/INT ratio. Malzahn beat Bama 3 times in the 8 years at Auburn so the guy knows how to coach. Last season, the Knights were only 6-4 but that included 3 conf losses by a total of 12 points. The OOC schedule features an blockbuster opener against Boise St at the Bounce House; and a visit to Louisville in mid Sept. The AAC showdown with Cincy is on the road, but even a loss there means a 9-10 win season is still possible.
29MinnesotaHC PJ Fleck led the Gophers to rare heights in 2019 with an 11 win season capped by a win over an SEC team, Auburn, in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota begin 2020 #21 in the rankings, were blown out by a bad Michigan team and limped to a 3-4 record. However, 2 of the losses were in OT and the Gophers return a whopping 20 starters to form a much more experienced team. Tanner Morgan returns at QB after throwing for 1400 yards in a 7 game season, and the entire RB room is back as well. The top 9 (9!) tacklers are back on defense after only 4 starters were back coming in to 2020. the schedule starts with a bang (Ohio State on the opening Thursday) and ends with one (at Iowa, at Indiana, vs Wisconsin), but Fleck is a good coach and maybe they can find 8 wins including a bowl to get close to the top 25.
30NC StateThe Pack rebounded in a big way in 2020, going 8-4 in the Covid affected season, following a 4-8 campaign in 2019. And 2021 could be even better if QB Devin Leary is 100% recovered from his broken leg last year and plays like he did in his 3 games as a starter. State returns all of his primary weapons, as the top 3 RBs and top 3 WRs return. RB Bam Knight avg 5.5 yards per carry in 2020 with 11 TDs. The defense was ok, but hopefully the 9 returning starters can play with greater consistency, especially in run defense. The ACC schedule isn’t easy, with Clemson in the division and drawing UNC and Miami from the Coastal; but the OOC games vs USF, Miss St, Furman and LA Tech – the only P5 in the bunch was 4-7. All together though this is one of most taltented teams HC Dave Doeren has had in his 9 years at State.
31LibertySay what you will about HC Hugh Freeze off the field, but the man can coach. Liberty finished 10-1, with wins over Syracuse and Va Tech (as an 18 pt dog) and over Coastal in Cure Bowl.The only loss was by 1 pt at NC State. The Flames are lead by QB Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer, who completed 64% of his passes and ran for almost 1000 yards, and is getting talk as a first round NFL draftee. As an independent, the schedule is very managable, leading up to a meeting with Freeze’s former school Ole Miss in early November. If Willis continues to grow in the Freeze’s offense, another 10 win season is very much achievable.
32MissouriHC Eli Drinkwitz did a good job in his first year at Missouri in the COVID altered year with no offseason and an all SEC schedule. Even with the limited prep time, he found a starting QB in Connor Bazelak, who threw for over 2300 yards and was Co-offensive Freshman of the year in the SEC. While his best RB has moved on, 6 of his top 7 targets at receiver return. The defense struggled against the better offenses last season, but 6 of the top 8 d-lineman are back which should lead to improvement (besides taking Alabama off the schedule). The toughtest OOC game is at BC, so even though the Tigers are not in the class of Florida or Georgia, the rest of the division offers up winnable games.
33UABThe Blazers finished 6-3 in the Covid shortened 2020 season, with 2 of those a 4 pt loss to Louisiana and an OT loss to La Tech. Both starting QBs from last season return as does the top RBs in DeWayne McBride; they’ll operate behind an experienced o-line. Defense was the calling for this Blazer team in 2020 though, ranking 7th in the nation in scoring and passing defense. The defense returns most of their starters, including their all conference LD/S in Kristopher Moll. Twelve seniors on the UAB squad took advantage of the rule change to come back in hopes of a special season, and the Blazers open their new home stadium with a visit by Liberty in early October. Looks like a repeat of Conference USA championships for the Blazers.
34OK StateThe Cowboys were poised to have a special season in 2020, but defections, injuries and a mostly all conference schedule derailed that plan. Still, 8-3 with a win over Miami in a bowl game wasn’t too shabby. Chubba Hubbard, finished his career with a disappointing final season, but duel threat QB Spencer Sanders is back. Sanders through for 2000 yards and rushed for another 400 in the shorterned, demonstrating his abilities to attack a defense both ways. The RB room is actually pretty deep with all of the leading rushers except for Hubbard back, the injuries on the o-line last year, will pay off with added depth in 2021. The defense has improved in recent years and is very experienced, with 9 or their 10 leading tacklers back from 2020. Expectations are lower this year, but with more consitent play from a more experienced Sanders, and a few less turnovers, the Pokes may not see much of a dropoff from 2020.
35San Jose StateThe Spartans had not won a conference title since 1991, but surprised everyone by defeating Boise St in the Mountain West Championship game to claim the title. The offense is led by 6th year QB Nick Starkel (yes, that Starkel by way of Texas A&M and Arkansas) who completed 64% of passes and a 16/4 TD/INT ratio in the regular season. While is top WRs are gone, the entire o-line is back for 2021. Speaking of returning starters, all 11 on defense are back for the Spartans. An OOC at USC will be a challenge, but more important, in conference play, SJSU doesn’t draw Boise from the other division and could meet the Broncos in the conference championship game for a 2nd straight year.