An unprecedented 2020 college football season comes to its conclusion Monday when No. 1 Alabama plays No. 3 Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game.
All that uncertainty makes it impossible to project what lies ahead in 2021. That said, Sporting News enjoys talking about college football in the offseason, which will come with new storylines — even if the same old teams are at the top.
SN’s way-too-early top 25 for 2021 features several of those contenders among the top five. These rankings are bound to change throughout the offseason with early NFL Draft entries, the transfer portal and the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, we’re still going to talk about it:
College football rankings 2021
How could a team that is replacing six first-team All-Americans reload? By Continuing “The Process” under Nick Saban. It’s Bryce Young’s turn at quarterback, and Trey Sanders, Jase McClellan, John Metchie and Jahleel Billingsley are next in line as playmakers. The defense should improve too with Will Anderson Jr. and the potential return of Christopher Allen, who combined for 20 sacks in 2020. The season opens with Miami, and there are road dates at Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn. It’s never easy, but the Tide seem well-equipped to handle the challenge.
D.J. Uiagalelei has offered a glimpse of life after Trevor Lawrence, and it’s clear the Tigers’ offense is in good hands with the former five-star recruit. Lyn-J Dixon will finally step into a starting role at running back, and E.J. Williams and Frank Ladson should take the next step at receiver. Defensive end Myles Murphy and linebacker Trenton Simpson gained valuable experience as freshmen, and the return of James Skalski is huge for a defense that faces a big test out of the gate against Georgia.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes likely will lose quarterback Justin Fields to the NFL draft, and that should leave a wide-open competition with C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and incoming five-star freshman Kyle McCord. Whoever takes over will have an absurd amount of talent to work with at the receiver position, led by Garrett Wilson. The defense loses a lot, but Tommy Togiai, Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith can retool the defensive line. Ryan Day has enough to lead a fifth straight Big Ten championship run.
The Sooners were one of the hottest teams at the end of the 2020 season, and Spencer Rattler should be even better in his second year as a starter under coach Lincoln Riley. The tandem of Marcus Major and Seth McGowan in the running game should be fantastic, and Marvin Mims and Theo Wease should be Rattler’s top two targets. The defense improved too, though some key players have a decision to make with the 2021 NFL Draft. Oklahoma will be an “it” team after the strong finish and Cotton Bowl victory against Florida. Will that lead to a fifth CFP appearance?
JT Daniels steadied the quarterback position late in the season, and the Bulldogs have enough depth built by Kirby Smart’s recruiting to make yet another run toward an SEC championship and Playoff berth. Running back Zamir White and receiver George Pickens are back, too, as well as Georgia’s top two tacklers Nakobe Dean and Lewis Cine. The opener against Clemson is another chance to flex on the national stage.
6. Notre Dame
The Irish — who return to independent status in 2021 — face heavy losses on both sides, including quarterback Ian Book. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has experience, and there are playmakers returning in running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree and tight end Michael Mayer. The offensive line and front seven will need rebuilt, but Brian Kelly successfully retooled both sides of the ball the last three seasons. The matchup against Wisconsin at Soldier Field is an interesting test to see how the interior will hold up on both sides.
7. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher put the program in the College Football Playoff conversation for the first time in 2020. Now, the challenge is to keep it there. The Aggies lose a loaded senior class, with 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 cross-over schedule is friendly, and Auburn and Alabama have to visit College Station.
The Gators flopped in the bowl game, and key components of that potent passing attack — quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarious Toney — are headed to the next level. 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. Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox will lead a talented defense. This season will test whether Florida can reload and consistently compete for an SEC championship.
9. Iowa State
Believe it. Matt Campbell has built a special culture in Ames, and quarterback Brock Purdy opted to return for his senior season 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 of the offseason.
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 and replace defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. The Bearcats have road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, too.
Where else are we going to put Texas? The talent is there on offense, and it’s on new coach Steve Sarkisian to make it work with either Casey Thompson or Hudson Card at quarterback. The good news is Bijan Robinson and a talented group of receivers lead that offense, and the key (as usual) will be an improved defense. The Longhorns lost three games by a combined total of 13 points this season. Can Sarkisian be the difference in those close games?
This feels like the right spot for LSU, which bottomed out after a national championship season before building late-season momentum around quarterback Max Johnson and some young playmakers. The victory against Florida showed that talent, and Ed Orgeron’s biggest adjustment will come with the next defensive coordinator. Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are back at cornerback. That’s a good place to start.
The Trojans took some of the heat off Clay Helton this season, and the recruiting has stabilized in the last two cycles. Kedon Slovis returns as the best quarterback in the Pac-12. Star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown declared for the NFL Draft, but Drake London returns. 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.
14. North Carolina
Mack Brown led the Tar Heels to a New Year’s Day 6 Bowl in his second season — a testament to the quick rebuild in Chapel Hill. Junior quarterback 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. The secondary should be a strength too, though North Carolina still needs to be more consistent on a week-to-week basis. With Howell, that run to the ACC championship game is possible.
15. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are in their usual spot, but Mike Gundy should have another productive offense around quarterback Spencer Sanders, who closed the season strong in the Cheez-It Bowl. Offensive lineman Josh Sills returns, and the system has a knack for producing fresh skill-position talent. Oklahoma State made improvements on defense in 2020, and that will need to continue to keep pace with Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State. The Cowboys were 1-2 against those teams last season.
The Hoosiers exceeded expectations in 2020. Now, the challenge is handling preseason hype that Tom Allen has built in Bloomington. 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. That said, the Hoosiers need to create a more efficient running game. Will Micah McFadden return to a defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game? An opener at Iowa is an interesting tone-setter for both teams.
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, and the Hawkeyes are next in line to take a shot at four-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State.
The Hurricanes would be ranked higher if not for D’Eriq King’s knee injury suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. The talent is returning to Coral Gables on both sides of the ball, and Manny Diaz made the right move with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Miami’s good enough to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division title, but the measuring stick for anything more comes in the opener against Alabama.
COVID-19 wrecked Wisconsin’s season before it really started, and the offense was hit or miss with quarterback Graham Mertz. The rushing attack needs to be rebuilt, but the defense returns enough talent among the back seven to re-establish the Badgers in the Big Ten West. Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan all have to come to Camp Randall Stadium, too.
The Ducks had Playoff aspirations this season, but a pair of Pac-12 losses cut short that run. Oregon did win the Pac-12 championship, however, and Mario Cristobal has recruited well on the West Coast. Tyler Shough returns at quarterback, and Travis Dye hasn’t made a decision for the NFL draft yet. The offensive line was solid despite inexperience, and Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell will lead what should be a tough defense. A trip to Ohio State on Sept. 11 is a huge test.
21. Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin led Ole Miss to a 5-5 season and a bowl victory with an offense that averaged 39.2 points per game. Quarterback Matt Corral and running back Jerrion Ealy return to that high-powered offense, which will have to replace the production left by All-American receiver Elijah Moore. The Rebels are going to score points with Kiffin, but the question remains whether they can build a defense that can challenge for something more.
Auburn is the fifth team from the SEC West on this list, and it’s an intriguing transition to first-year coach Bryan Harsin. The former Boise State coach will be introduced to a rough schedule that includes a nonconference matchup against Penn State and road trips with LSU and Texas A&M before the Iron Bowl. Junior quarterback Bo Nix will make that transition a little smoother, but the standards never change for a program striving for more year-to-year consistency.
23. Coastal Carolina
Grayson McCall returns after a fantastic freshman season in which he finished with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. SN Coach of the Year Jamey Chadwell has built a winner in an unlikely place, but the challenge now is to maintain that against other Sun Belt powers such as Louisiana and Appalachian State.
The Black Knights shuffled their quarterbacks this season, and they return three of their top four rushers from an attack that averaged 272.8 rushing yards per game this season. Jeff Monken has built a consistent inner at West Point, and the schedule features a late-season showdown with another up-and-coming independent in Liberty.
25. Penn State
Everything that could go wrong did for the Nittany Lions in 2020, but quarterback Sean Clifford returns to what should be an improved team. Senior receiver Jahan Dotson will return, as will running back Devyn Ford. James Franklin still has a lot of talent on the roster, and it needs to show up before the gap with Ohio State widens more.
Just missed: West Virginia, N.C. State, Liberty, Northwestern