Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2021: Alabama Set to Pick Up Where It Left Off

The confetti just fell on Alabama, but it's never to soon to start looking ahead to next year.
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Welcome to the annual crapshoot. This year it’s an even bigger crapshoot than usual, given the state of flux regarding extra years of eligibility and the sudden halting of progress on the one-time transfer legislation by the NCAA. We have only a sketchy idea who is going to be where.

So when in doubt, go with the sure things. College football has gotten itself into a rut in terms of the usual suspects winning everything, and we will predict it continues until proven otherwise.

One big question: which 2020 seasons were pandemic outliers and which will carry over to 2021? Specifically, will Penn State, LSU and Michigan return to winning ways? Were the breakthrough seasons from Coastal Carolina, San Jose State, Ball State and others a blip or a trend? In January, nobody knows—but we’ll pretend we do anyway.

Clemson, Alabama and Georgia make up the top three of SI's Way-Too-Early 2021 Top 25

1. Alabama

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 4th
Actual final AP ranking: 1st

Assuming quarterback Mac Jones joins DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood in the offensive exodus into the draft, there are massive holes to replace. And guess what? The Crimson Tide always have the personnel to do it. Bryce Young is the five-star heir apparent at QB, a big talent who probably benefited from a season watching Jones work. John Metchie III is the next marquee receiver. There is plenty of ability at running back. The defense could return the vast majority of its top 2020 performers. Biggest question is whether the next offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien?) has the magic touch that Steve Sarkisian displayed the past couple of seasons.

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2. Clemson

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 1st
Actual final AP ranking: 3rd

The Trevor Lawrence Era has ended after three straight College Football Playoff appearances and one national title. Travis Etienne and many others depart with him, but the program will not be backsliding anytime soon. The 2020 freshman class was among the nation’s most talented, and many of those players will move into more prominent roles in ’21. There do not appear to be any significant staff departures. And with Notre Dame returning to independent status, only North Carolina would appear to be within a country mile of Clemson in the ACC.

3. Georgia

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 2nd
Actual final AP ranking: 7th

Once transfer quarterback JT Daniels was healthy enough to play, the season changed for Georgia. With Daniels coming back, top running back Zamir White doing the same and the nation’s No. 1 recruiting classes from 2018–20 continuing to suffuse the program with talent, the time is now for the Bulldogs. Yes, there are a lot of early-entry losses to the draft, especially on defense—but the return of interior linemen Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt gives Georgia a chance to once again field the nation’s No. 1 run defense. Can Kirby Smart answer the lingering questions about his in-game coaching?

4. Oklahoma

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 7th
Actual final AP ranking: 6th

This comes with one major presumption—the Sooners will beat Kansas State for the first time since 2018. They have been upset in consecutive years by the Wildcats, contributing to the suspicion that Oklahoma can and will find at least one no-show weekend per season. A loaded ’21 team should perform more consistently and power through the Big 12. Then we’ll see whether the Sooners can avoid playoff embarrassment and win their first CFP game after four semifinal defeats.

5. Ohio State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 3rd

Actual final AP ranking: 2nd

In the final analysis, the Buckeyes played a few great quarters of football against quality competition in 2020: most of the game against Clemson; half the game against Northwestern; one quarter against Indiana. Otherwise, this was a flush team that left you wanting a bit more than it delivered—that certainly was the case in the national championship game. As it stands, Ohio State doesn’t have a quarterback who has thrown a collegiate pass; of course, that isn’t the same as having no talent at QB. There are very good players everywhere else on offense. Defensively, the Buckeyes’ top seven tacklers all were seniors. There is some rebuilding to do there.

6. Cincinnati

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 12th
Actual final AP ranking: 8th

SI’s ranking a year ago raised a few eyebrows—and it turned out it was too low. This year, everyone should see the Bearcats coming. Quarterback Desmond Ridder’s decision to return for a senior season was huge; he’s led the team to a 31–6 record the last three seasons. The defense received a similar lift when leading sacker Myjai Sanders also said he will return for one more ride. There are some big personnel losses on that side of the ball at linebacker and in the secondary, but the biggest hole to fill could be defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman moving on to Notre Dame.

7. Iowa State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 9th

The Cyclones’ best season ever was followed by some great postseason news: neither coach Matt Campbell nor several key draft-eligible players are leaving for the NFL. So the pieces are in place to potentially take the program up one more notch—perhaps overthrowing Oklahoma and winning the Big 12. Expect running back Breece Hall (nearly 2,500 rushing yards his first two seasons) to produce a season worth serious Heisman Trophy consideration.

8. Iowa

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 15th

The Hawkeyes were denied a post-bowl victory bump when their Music City Bowl matchup with Missouri was canceled. But make no mistake, this was a team that ended 2020 on a roll—Iowa won its last six after starting 0–2, with the losses by a combined five points. Quarterback Spencer Petras played his best ball in the final two games and will team with running back Tyler Goodson and center Tyler Linderbaum to lead the offense. Receiver help is needed. There are some notable defensive departures, but when has a Kirk Ferentz team not been solid on that side of the ball?

9. Texas A&M

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 25th
Actual final AP ranking: 4th

After a lot of recruiting success, year four was the big breakthrough for Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies rose to the cusp of the playoff, and are well-positioned for ’21 despite the loss of four-year starting quarterback Kellen Mond and several good offensive linemen. Every skill-position contributor is eligible to return on offense, with perhaps the best collection of running backs in the nation in Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and Ainias Smith. The Aggies led the SEC in total defense in 2020, and that unit shouldn’t slip too far under coordinator Mike Elko.

10. Notre Dame

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 9th
Actual final AP ranking: 5th

Brian Kelly is right when he says his program has elevated to the point of consistent playoff contention—it’s being competitive once the Fighting Irish get there that has been the problem. For the first time in what seems like a decade, Notre Dame will have a new starting quarterback in 2021; Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is an interesting addition, though not necessarily a next-level talent. The offense will feature breakout running back Kyren Williams and blooming monster tight end Michael Mayer. The defense has star safety Kyle Hamilton to build around, with new coordinator Freeman arriving as a big hire.

11. North Carolina

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 19th
Actual final AP ranking: 18th

Sam Howell enters 2021 as arguably the nation’s top quarterback, having thrown for more than 7,000 yards in two seasons. He will operate behind an offensive line that is expected to return intact. There has been a lot of skill-position churn around him, but the arrival of Tennessee transfer running back Ty Chandler is a nice addition. The Tar Heels need to make some strides defensively but have enough talent on that side of the ball to build around.

12. Indiana

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 12th

Much will depend on quarterback Michael Penix’s recovery from a torn ACL. If he can return and play like he did in 2020, this ranking might be too low. He will have three of his four top receiving targets returning in wideouts Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall and tight end Peyton Hendershot. Indiana’s opportunistic secondary, which led the nation in interceptions per game, also is expected to return intact. Tom Allen and the Hoosiers just might be here for the long haul.

13. USC

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 16th
Actual final AP ranking: 21st

It’s hard to say how good (or lucky) the Trojans really were in 2020. They played six games, four of which were decided by seven points or less, and there was no bowl game. Nevertheless, Clay Helton survives and advances, after putting together his best staff. There does seem to be ample talent available for 2021, starting with quarterback Kedon Slovis (who had a weird 2020 himself) and receivers Drake London and Bru McCoy. The running game must improve significantly. The defense will add SI All-American No. 1 interior line prospect Korey Foreman.

14. Florida

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 8th
Actual final AP ranking: 13th

After rising to the cusp of the playoff, the Gators crashed in ugly fashion with three straight losses to end the season. Personnel losses from that team will be huge, starting with Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask at quarterback and likely first-round pick Kyle Pitts at tight end. But Dan Mullen had top-10 recruiting classes in 2019 and ’20, so there should be help on the way. Backup quarterback Emory Jones fits the Mullen dual-threat archetype, but still has to show he can be a high-level passer. Staff changes are underway on the defensive side of the ball, where Florida was pretty terrible last season.

15. Washington

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actually final AP ranking: Unranked

Jimmy Lake’s debut season as head coach lasted all of four games, three of them wins, but he does welcome back almost every key contributor from that team. The entire starting offense is expected to return, though there could be a competition at quarterback between holdover starter Dylan Morris and highly touted incoming freshman Sam Huard. (The Huard name goes back a long way at Washington.) Most of the impact players on the Pac-12’s top defense were sophomores last year, so the Huskies should be good on that side of the ball again as well.

16. Oregon

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 6th
Actual final AP ranking: Unranked

Much like the rest of the Pac-12, the Ducks emerge from 2020 undefined. They won the Pac-12 title game despite not winning their division, then were thumped in the Fiesta Bowl by Iowa State. Mario Cristobal has signed the top recruiting classes in the Pac-12 the past two seasons, which should translate to the field more in ’21. Tyler Shough showed promise in his first season as the starting quarterback, but also made plenty of errors. The Oregon defense only forced turnovers in two of seven games and loses coordinator Andy Avalos. Kayvon Thibodeaux has performed like the recruiting coup he was in 2019 and could be poised for a huge junior season.

17. Coastal Carolina

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 14th

The Chanticleers were the surprise story of 2020, going from a predicted last in their division in the Sun Belt to an 11–0 regular season. They do lose some war daddies off that team, most notably defensive linemen C.J. Brewer and Tarron Jackson and running back CJ Marable. But quarterback Grayson McCall had the biggest impact on the program of anyone in ’20, and he’s back for a redshirt sophomore season after producing more than 3,000 total yards and 33 touchdowns in 11 starts. Louisiana should be very good again and Appalachian State isn’t going away, but the Sun Belt goes through the teal field of Coastal Carolina.

18. Penn State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 5th
Actual final AP ranking: unranked

Few teams busted as badly as the Nittany Lions in ’20, starting 0–5 amid major running back injuries before finding their footing. But by season’s end they had improved appreciably on both sides of the ball and will have enough talent for that to carry over in ’21. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was a ballyhooed hire that didn’t work out, and he’s been replaced by former Texas play-caller Mike Yurcich. That should get quarterback Sean Clifford back in a good place after struggling much of last season.

19. Texas

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 21st
Actual final AP ranking: 19th

The biggest coaching change in the country was in Austin, with Tom Herman out and Steve Sarkisian in. Will it work? Don’t know. Sark was a play-calling savant at Alabama, but he also was operating with the best personnel in the country. How well that carries over to Texas will largely depend on the ability of whoever replaces four-year starting QB Sam Ehlinger. Rest assured, Sark will find plenty of use for sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, who was under-utilized by Herman. Texas was just average defensively in a league that has improved on that side of the ball; that will be an area of emphasis for Sark and whoever he hires as coordinator.

20. LSU

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 10th
Actual final AP ranking: Unranked

After following the national title with a major bust, Ed Orgeron is overhauling his staff—new play-callers on offense and a new (as yet unnamed) coordinator on defense. The fact that LSU has whiffed on several potential DC hires is slightly alarming. There is no question that the Tigers have amassed a lot of talent, and a lot of young players gained valuable (if painful) experience this past season. But the program feels like it is on shaky ground, and it’s up to Orgeron to prove 2020 was an aberration and not a sign of decline.

21. Wisconsin

Predicted 2020 finish last January: 13th
Actual final AP ranking: Unranked

The Badgers’ season was all over the place: a 2–0 start amid COVID-19 issues, a three-game losing streak as the offense fell apart, then two victories to close the season. Fitting that the season ended with quarterback Graham Mertz shattering the Duke’s Mayo Bowl trophy in a postgame celebration. Sophomore running back Jalen Berger looks primed to return Wisconsin to the days of a super-productive feature back, and the defense will be good as usual. With Northwestern gutted by graduation, the Badgers should be the closest challenger to Iowa in the Big Ten West. (But keep an eye out for a Minnesota resurgence.)

22. Ball State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 23rd

The Cardinals were one of the surprises of the season, recording their first winning season since 2013 and scoring upset victories over undefeated opponents in the MAC championship game and the Arizona Bowl. With 16 seniors opting to use their extra season of eligibility and staying in school, Ball State enters 2021 in an unusual position: the team to beat in the MAC and on the national radar.

23. West Virginia

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: Unranked

Look for Neal Brown’s third season in Morgantown to continue the ascendance that started with a 6–4 mark in 2020. There is an abundance of returning experience on offense (though the Mountaineers must improve throwing the ball). West Virginia will lose some studs on defense, but seven of the top 10 tacklers were freshmen, sophomores or juniors. The Big 12 appears to be in flux behind Oklahoma and Iowa State, so the opportunity is there to move up the ranks.

24. San Jose State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actual final AP ranking: 24th

The Spartans had their best season since the 1930s, only to see it end in an upset blowout loss to Ball State in the bowl game. But San Jose retained coach Brent Brennan, which was a major victory, and quarterback Nick Starkel has announced that he’s coming back for one more season of college ball. Most of the Spartans’ defense will be returning as well. With coaching turnover at Boise State, San Jose should start the season as the Mountain West favorite.

25. North Carolina State

Predicted 2020 finish last January: Unranked
Actually final AP ranking: Unranked

The Wolfpack quietly went 8–4 in 2020, and did so with a roster packed with players who should return in ’21. Quarterback Devin Leary flashed his potential before a foot injury ended his season after four games, and most of the skill talent around him should return. There was only one senior who was a major contributor on defense. Dave Doeren is not flashy but has done a nice job establishing a consistently competitive program. This team could be one of his best.