College Football Preseason Top 25 Rankings
Are we set to have a “normal” year in 2021? Last year’s season provided teams with a new form of adversity we hadn’t seen in years past. COVID forced teams to adjust on the fly every single day, which at times affected multiple weeks worth of games. With the developments in the world, everyone’s hoping for a normal fall.
Speaking of normal, Alabama got back to its own normal by winning the national championship. They lose a bunch of key pieces, but they’re also Alabama and will reload. Joining them is the cast of usual suspects with Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Ohio State all competing for the crown again. The Buckeyes and Tigers join Alabama with the task of finding a new quarterback, but there are multiple options for each.
Who will be the surprise team in the country? Indiana stunned Penn State to start 2020, and the Hoosiers will be a contender in the Big Ten once again. Iowa State returns nearly every single player on the two-deep on both sides of the ball, but they have to find a way to overthrow Oklahoma this year.
The Pac-12 hopes that this year ends better, and they have a number of teams that are intriguing to watch. Oregon appears to be back to sitting at the top of the conference. USC is a team to watch as well, and Arizona State might be the biggest sleeper team in the country.
At the Group of 5 level, Cincinnati’s ready to prove that it can compete once again with the big dogs. They went down to the wire with Georgia in the Peach Bowl, and they return a ton of talent from last year’s team. Boise State and UCF enter new eras under Andy Avalos and Gus Malzahn, respectively, and are hoping to get back to the top of the G5. Liberty, though not a Group of 5 team, fits in that category and could make a serious run at an undefeated season.
Other teams have questions to address but have Top 25 potential. What will Texas look like under Steve Sarkisian? Can Ole Miss be a competitor? What does the loss of Kyle Trask do to Florida? Will Miami be able to compete with Alabama in Week 1? Is Ed Orgeron on the hot seat at LSU? We’ll know soon enough if these teams are legit, and it’s time to start the Top 25 debate.
*These are not predictions, but rather rankings of where teams are before the season begins.
1. Clemson Tigers
2020 RECORD: 10-2 | KEY PLAYER: QB DJ Uiagalelei
OUTLOOK: Losing a talent like QB Trevor Lawrence would set a program back a year or two normally. At Clemson, they just move on to the next one. Uiagalelei showed his potential last year in a big game against Notre Dame, giving fans confidence about the future of the offense. They’re also blessed with the return of WR Justyn Ross, who sat out all last year with a neck injury. RB Lyn-J Dixon finally gets his chance to be the featured back. Even with Derion Kendrick gone, the defense will be loaded once again. Both Baylon Spector and James Skalski return at linebacker, and the Tigers defensive line is loaded with Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee, KJ Henry, Tyler Davis and Xavier Thomas all back.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
2020 RECORD: 13-0 | KEY PLAYER: QB Bryce Young
OUTLOOK: With Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and DeVonta Smith all gone, the offense needs new playmakers to step up. Luckily, QB Bryce Young, RB Brian Robinson, and WR John Metchie III should fill those roles nicely. It’s just a matter of how well they can do it. TE Jahleel Billingsley is a freak, and also returns kicks at 6’4”, 230 pounds. OT Evan Neal is a future NFL draft pick that leads the line, so there shouldn’t be a huge drop off from last year’s team. LB Christian Harris is the most versatile defensive player in the country, and he’s joined by Will Anderson Jr. and Christopher Allen. On the back side, Josh Jobe and Malachai Moore are names you’ll get to know if you don’t already. All eyes are on Young and the offense, but there’s not a shortage of talent on Nick Saban’s teams.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
2020 RECORD: 9-2 | KEY PLAYER: RB Kennedy Brooks
OUTLOOK: We learned that if Oklahoma’s quarterback needs time to prove his worth, it only take part of a season. After producing three first round picks, Spencer Rattler won the starting job and needed some time to adjust. Oklahoma’s offense struggled at times, but towards the end of the year they couldn’t be stopped. His top target in WR Marvin Mims, as does WR Theo Wease and TE Austin Stogner. The biggest addition will be the return of Brooks, who sat out last year, and was one of the best backs in the country in 2019. Veteran safeties Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields are back, as are linebackers Dashaun White and Nik Bonitto. The momentum they built towards the end of 2020 combined with the returning talent makes this a dangerous team, one that could make a serious run.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
2020 RECORD: 8-2 | KEY PLAYER: TE Darnell Washington
OUTLOOK: Kirby Smart continues to bring in talent to Athens to compete, and that includes transfers. QB JT Daniels came in from USC, and he elevated the offense to new heights when he finally saw the field. Georgia didn’t lose a game with him as the starter. He’s joined by RB Zamir White, who has plenty of potential but hasn’t shown the consistency yet. TE Darnell Washington is a unique talent at 6’7”, 260 pounds, and could be in store for a big year with George Pickens out. The linebackers are extremely athletic, led by Nakobe Dean, and guys like Nolan Smith and Adam Anderson should get more playing time. Even with new faces on the O-line and in the secondary, Georgia has the talent to make the playoff this year.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
2020 RECORD: 7-1 | KEY PLAYER: DT Haskell Garrett
OUTLOOK: Ryan Day continues to prove that he can coach as good as anyone, leading the Buckeyes to another College Football Playoff appearance. He now must find a new quarterback with Justin Fields off to the NFL, but the winner won’t have to be a hero for this team to succeed. Receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson along with TE Jeremy Ruckert make life easy for the new starter. Up front, OT Thayer Munford returns to lead a group that needs a few new starters. The defense is no different, but DT Haskell Garrett, DE Tyreke Smith, and DE Zach Harrison return to lead the defense. The secondary will need to step up this year, because the Buckeyes need four new linebackers. Ohio State has holes to fill, but Day’s proven that he can lead this team to the playoff, and that won’t change in 2021.
6. Iowa State Cyclones
2020 RECORD: 9-3 | KEY PLAYER: LB Mike Rose
OUTLOOK: It’s now or never for the Iowa State Cyclones, as this is the most talent returning to Ames we’ve ever seen. They learned what it was like to be one of the favorites last year, and that experience could help them overthrow Oklahoma in the Big 12. QB Brock Purdy took a step backwards last year, but can still sling it. RB Breece Hall is the best running back in the country and led all backs in rushing with 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns. TE Charlie Kolar turned down the NFL for one more run in college and WR Xavier Hutchinson emerged as their top pass catcher. LB Mike Rose and his 215 career tackles are back to lead a defense that’s loaded with talent. S Greg Eisworth II cam back as well to lead the secondary, and this is a team that’s capable of making a run at the Big 12 title.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
2020 RECORD: 8-4 | KEY PLAYER: CB Tony Grimes
OUTLOOK: The basketball school Tar Heels are quickly turning into a football school under Mack Brown. His hire of Phil Longo to run the offense has turned the offense into a power, and QB Sam Howell returns to lead it once again. While they lose four key starters at running back and wide receiver, guys like Khafre Brown (22.5 ypc) and Josh Downs (17.0 ypc) could step up outside alongside Beau Corrales and TE Garrett Walston. The defense needs a new leader with Chazz Surratt gone, but the Fox brothers, Tomon and Tomari, return after combining for 16.5 tackles for loss and 11.0 sacks last year. Grimes is a rising star in the secondary, and could have played for his high school team last fall.
8. Miami Hurricanes
2020 RECORD: 8-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB D’Eriq King
OUTLOOK: Everyone is pointing to Week 1 against Alabama, but we have to get their first. The health of QB D’Eriq King becomes to most important thing for the Miami Hurricanes heading into this season. After tearing his ACL in the bowl game, King’s rehab is the biggest topic of conversation. A healthy King might not push them over the top against Bama, but it certainly helps a ton. He’s joined in the backfield by RB Cam’ron Harris, and they get back four of their top five pass catchers. Safeties Bubba Bolden and Amari Carter are both back, and Georgia transfer CB Tyrique Stevenson should help the secondary. LB Zach McCloud might see time at defensive end to help the line. Manny Diaz has an exciting team, but are they beat Bama good? We’ll know quickly in Week 1.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
2020 RECORD: 9-1 | KEY PLAYER: RB Isaiah Spiller
OUTLOOK: Jimbo Fisher’s team felt snubbed from the College Football Playoff, and that provides the motivation for this season. While they need to find Kellen Mond’s replacement, the offense should be able to rely on RB Isaiah Spiller to keep the offense going. G Kenyon Green is the only starter on the offensive line, though, so it will be interesting to see how this group gels with so many new faces. Leading tackler Buddy Johnson is gone along with DT Bobby Brown III, but DE Demarvin Leal returns up front. Safeties Leon O’Neal Jr. and Demani Richardson both return, along with long CB Myles Jones and a rising star in other corner Jaylon Jones. This team might be motivated, but they need to find new starters quickly for that to mean something more than just a feeling.
10. Cincinnati Bearcats
2020 RECORD: 9-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Desmond Ridder
OUTLOOK: Luke Fickell continues to turn down Power 5 jobs in favor of the Bearcats, but there also haven’t been a ton of extremely enticing opportunities. His teams won 31 games over the last three years, including two AAC championship game appearances and one win in those games. Now, they’re the power of the AAC, and everyone’s chasing them. QB Desmond Ridder returns after coming on strong towards the end of the year, and the defense returns a ton of experience despite NFL departures. CB Ahmad Gardner is a future pro, and fellow CB Coby Bryant can lock receivers down. RB Jerome Ford takes over for Gerrid Doaks, and WR Michael Young and TE Josh Whyle could be set for breakout seasons.
11. Oregon Ducks
2020 RECORD: 4-3 | KEY PLAYER: LB Noah Sewell
OUTLOOK: How good was Oregon in 2020? They didn’t even win their division and still won the conference. After Washington had COVID issues, the Ducks took their place and upset USC for the crown. If they want to repeat as champs, they’ll need to do it with a new quarterback as Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech. RB CJ Verdell looking to bounce back, and Oregon has tons of potential at receiver. They just need one guy to step up. Devon Williams led the team in receiving and averaged 19.1 yards per catch. It’s weird, because Oregon’s suddenly become a team that leans more on its defense than they ever have in the past. LB Noah Sewell and DE Kayvon Thibodeaux are monsters, and CB Mykael Wright is a future NFLer too.
12. Indiana Hoosiers
2020 RECORD: 6-2 | KEY PLAYER: QB Michael Penix Jr.
OUTLOOK: Anyone who predicted the Hoosiers doing what they did last year made a lot of money. Michael Penix Jr. got the season off with the play of the year to stun Penn State, and now they’re looking to repeat that success. He’s back, and gets his top target in WR Ty Fryfogle back along with TE Peyton Hendershot. A new running back is needed as Stevie Scott decided to turn pro, but the offensive line should be solid led by OT Caleb Jones. On the other side of the ball, rising star CB Tiawan Mullen returns after a big year as does LB Micah McFadden (59 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks, two interceptions) and CB Jaylin Williams (team leading four interceptions). The Hoosiers won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but they’re still a team to worry about on a weekly basis.
13. Liberty Flames
2020 RECORD: 10-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Malik Willis
OUTLOOK: Hugh Freeze is now 18-6 with the Flames, and got a ton of SEC attention this offseason. He proved that he can produce another explosive offense, thanks mostly to his dynamic QB Malik Willis (3,194 total yards, 34 total TD’s in 2020). RB Joshua Mack and leading WR D.J. Stubbs also return to an offense that averaged 38.2 points per game last year. Defensively, defensive ends Durrell Johnson and TreShaun Clark combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks last year, giving them one of the best combinations in college football. The schedule is far from overbearing, and the only game they won’t be favored in is when they play Ole Miss on the road.
14. USC Trojans
2020 RECORD: 5-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Kedon Slovis
OUTLOOK: It’s a big year for the USC Trojans and head coach Clay Helton. After making the conference championship game, the Trojans fell short to Oregon and didn’t play in a bowl game. Even after all of that, fans were still disappointed and are now expecting more. QB Kedon Slovis has a future playing on Sundays, and despite losing two of his top targets, he gets back both Drake London and Bru McCoy. The defense is loaded with athleticism, led by DE Drake Jackson, who defensive coordinator Todd Orlando loves to put anywhere on the field and ask him to do a bunch of different things. CB Chris Steele is an underrated player. Sophomore DE Tuli Tuipulotu is the next great defensive player for the Trojans, and should flash in 2021.
15. Wisconsin Badgers
2020 RECORD: 4-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB Graham Mertz
OUTLOOK: In just two games, the excitement surrounding Wisconsin’s offense reached an all time high, and people were talking about the playoff. Three straight losses to follow killed the buzz (they scored just 20 points in those three). QB Graham Mertz has the potential to open up the offense, and RB Jalen Berger could be the next great Badger running back after averaging 5.0 yards per carry. LB Jack Sanborn returns after leading the team in tackles, and safeties Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder are playmakers who also return. If the Badgers can find ways to get WR Danny Davis III and TE Jake Ferguson the ball in space more, the offense could take off. The Badgers are kings of the Big Ten West, and they’re back to defend their crown and try to add a conference title too.
16. Texas Longhorns
2020 RECORD: 7-3 | KEY PLAYER: RB Bijan Robinson
OUTLOOK: No Sam Ehlinger means a new quarterback is needed for the first time in years, and the likely options are between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. They’ll have the luxury of handing the ball off to Bijan Robinson, who was one of the hottest players towards the end of the season. WR Joshua Moore returns after a year where he showed his big play potential. Steve Sarkisian should be able to work with both of them to make the offense explosive. On the other side, LB DeMarvion Overshown and S BJ Foster are back to lead the defense. This was a group that was fairly average last year, and the offense at times had to carry the team, so competing in the Big 12 will require better from the defense.
17. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2020 RECORD: 8-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB Spencer Sanders
OUTLOOK: Well, expectations are back down after the Cowboys struggled to live up to them last year. The offense loses Tylan Wallace, Tevin Jenkins, and Chuba Hubbard, but they’re reloading. RB LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson are back after seeing significant time in 2020. WR Brennan Presely showed some flash late last year, and QB Spencer Sanders will orchestrate the entire offense. If he can find consistency as a passer, watch out. LB Malcolm Rodriguez along S Kolby Harvell-Peel and S Tre Sterling all decided to come back for one more year to lead a defense that was solid for most of 2020. The Cowboys are back to being the underdogs, and that could make them a dangerous team this year.
18. Florida Gators
2020 RECORD: 8-4 | KEY PLAYER: QB Emory Jones
OUTLOOK: Dan Mullen strayed from the norm last year by opening up the passing attack. He’ll get back to normal this year with Emory Jones running the show. Running the football was a struggle last year, so that’s the biggest thing this team needs to address. Even if they do need to pass, Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, and Xzavier Henderson all return. The defense lost four defensive backs, but that group will still be great. They’ll be playing more man coverage this year thanks to the speed they have returning. Tre Dean III and Kaiir Elam are the big names that people remember, and passing on the Gators won’t be easy. Many believe the defensive line will be scary too. With the offense finding a new identity, it’s the defense that might need to carry the team early.
19. Arizona State Sun Devils
2020 RECORD: 2-2 | KEY PLAYER: QB Jayden Daniels
OUTLOOK: We don’t really know what kind of team the Sun Devils were in 2020, so they’re kind of a wild card. QB Jayden Daniels has NFL potential, and needs to find a go-to receiver. RB Rachaad White led the team in receiving and has explosive ability. He averaged 18.9 yards per reception and 10.0 yards per carry. G Dohnovan West is a nasty player who can set the tone and doesn’t get enough love. Arizona State’s defense will be one of the best in the country too. DT Jermayne Lole is highly underrated up the middle. LB Merlin Robertson has a future in the NFL on the edge, and CB Jack Jones and CB Chase Lucas are also underrated. An underrated team with underrated players has the potential to shock many this year.
20. Ole Miss Rebels
2020 RECORD: 5-5 | KEY PLAYER: RB Jerrion Ealy
OUTLOOK: Lane Kiffin in one season already showed that he can make an impact in college football’s best conference. He elevated Matt Corral into a 70% passer, and helped lead the Rebels to the 14th best scoring offense in the country. Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Connor and Henry Parrish Jr. give Ole Miss a deep running back group, but the pass catchers must find a way to replace Elijah Moore. Dontario Drummond, Jonathan Mingo and Braylon Sanders all return after combining for 1,172 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. While the Rebels could score last year, they also struggled to keep teams off the scoreboard, which needs to be addressed if they want to be a serious contender in the SEC.
21. Iowa Hawkeyes
2020 RECORD: 6-2 | KEY PLAYER: TE Sam Laporta
OUTLOOK: Another Iowa team that exceeds expectations? Not a surprise. Three starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, and this was a group that was great at running the football last year. RB Tyler Goodson is back after rushing for 762 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Sam Laporta is set to be the next great Hawkeyes tight end, and could become QB Spencer Petras’ go-to target with WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette leaving. Another staple of Iowa’s success was a tough defense, and they’ll need to do that this year without three players on the line, though DE Zach VanValkenburg returns. CB Riley Moss and S Jack Koerner return after picking off a combined five passes last year. It’s not a great decision to count Iowa out, and that will once again be true in 2021.
22. Washington Huskies
2020 RECORD: 3-1 | KEY PLAYER: CB Trent McDuffie
OUTLOOK: A four game sample doesn’t give us enough to know what kind of team Washington can be in 2021. QB Dylan Morris had some moments last year, but needs to find pass catchers outside of TE Cade Otton. C Luke Wattenburg and OT Jaxson Kirkland are back to lead an experienced offensive line. Where things get extremely interesting is on the defensive side of the ball. Good interesting that is. LB Ryan Bowman returns as a super senior to lead another talented defense. Washington’s secondary will be one of the best in the country even without Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor. CB Trent McDuffie, CB Kyler Gordon, and S Asa Turner are all back, and passing on the Huskies won’t be fun.
23. UCF Knights
2020 RECORD: 6-4 | KEY PLAYER: WR Jaylon Robinson
OUTLOOK: Gus Malzahn lost his job this offseason, but he found a great spot to land on his feet at UCF. He inherits one of the most explosive offenses in college football, and one of the best quarterbacks in Dillon Gabriel. The Hawaii native has already thrown for over 7,000 yards and 61 touchdowns in his career, and he’ll add to those numbers in a new offense. Malzahn must find a way to incorporate Gabriel’s game in his system, which shouldn’t be tough with the talent on the roster. Without their top receiver, the Knights look to Jaylon Robinson, who nearly surpassed 1,000 yards last year. The offense isn’t the problem, but the defense will need to step it up this year.
24. Boise State Broncos
2020 RECORD: 5-2 | KEY PLAYER: RB George Holani
OUTLOOK: Andy Avalos takes over a Broncos program that hopes to get back to running the Mountain West, and he returns the experience needed to do just that. LB Riley Whimpey used his extra year of eligibility to lead the defense, and is joined by CB Jalen Walker, NB Kekaula Kaniho, DE Shane Irwin and more. The offense was surprisingly explosive last year, finishing 27th in scoring offense, and gets back nearly every key piece. QB Hank Bachmeier, when healthy, can be one of the best in the country. WR’s Khalil Shakir and CT Thomas can ball, and the backfield is loaded with Holani, Andrew Van Buren, and Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio. This is a scary team that man aren’t talking about enough, and they'll show that soon.
25. LSU Tigers
2020 RECORD: 9-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Myles Brennan
OUTLOOK: If QB Myles Brennan is healthy, this LSU offense will be fun to watch again. Brennan got off to a blistering pace before an injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. WR Kayshon Boutte is one of the best in the country, and running backs Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. showed potential running the football. The defense will get another linebacker transfer in former Clemson Tiger Mike Jones Jr. CB Derek Stingley Jr. is still arguably the best at his position in the country, but his teammate Eli Ricks will push him for that title as well. It was a tough year for the former defending champs, but now a rough season is over, and they should be healthy to get things back to normal.