Change is swirling through college football, from transfer rules to athlete compensation to the latest bout of realignment. But on the field, it all looks very familiar yet again. Coming into the 2021 season, the usual suspects start in their usual places atop the Sports Illustrated preseason Top 25. We’ll see whether anyone has the stuff to disrupt the natural order of things.
With a complete rebuild on offense, this could look more like a classic Nick Saban team that is built around stopping the opposition. The Crimson Tide are loaded at linebacker (including the arrival of Tennessee leading tackler Henry To’o To’o via the transfer portal) and in the secondary (freshman corner Kool-Aid McKinstry brings both name and game to that unit). Offensively, Bama has averaged more than 45 points per game the past three seasons. While that could happen again, it will require quarterback Bryce Young to be very good immediately under new coordinator Bill O’Brien while also breaking in some new weapons at the skill positions. The Tide not only lost the Heisman Trophy winner (DeVonta Smith) but also four other first-round draft picks on offense. Even by Alabama standards, that’s a lot of reloading to do—but the Tide also landed the No. 1 freshman class in the nation.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Miami (Sept. 4), Florida (Sept. 18), Texas A&M (Oct. 9), LSU (Nov. 6).
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the best wide receiver tandem in America in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. What they don’t have is a quarterback who has thrown a collegiate pass. While that doesn’t mean they’re lacking talent at QB, it does mean that Ryan Day likely will want to make it a soft launch for C.J. Stroud or whoever winds up winning the position. (Don’t expect reclassifying freshman Quinn Ewers to be the guy early on. He will need some acclimation time.) There is talent at running back, and the offensive line will be very good. Defensively, Ohio State will look to improve in the secondary while breaking in a new set of linebackers. Zach Harrison is the next OSU game wrecker as an edge rusher. Day has a little more assembly work to do with this team than last year’s, but he also has the pieces.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Oregon (Sept. 11), Indiana (Oct. 23), Penn State (Oct. 30).
The Bulldogs were busy in the transfer portal, adding immediate plug-and-play athletes to a revamped secondary in Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick and West Virginia safety Tykee Smith. Tight end Arik Gilbert also arrives via LSU and adds a pass-catching weapon who should help make up for the loss of wideout George Pickens to an ACL tear. Former USC quarterback JT Daniels was as good as hoped for when he finally got to play last November, potentially giving Georgia more pop at that position than it has had under Kirby Smart. Zamir White is a blossoming star at running back. Jordan Davis’s return anchors the middle of the defensive line and helps ensure that the Bulldogs will again be tough against the run. Does Georgia have what it takes—from the coaching staff on down—to win the big ones and avoid the one dysfunctional game it seems to produce every season?
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Clemson (Sept. 4), Florida (Oct. 30).
Life After Trevor begins now, and on paper it looks like a pretty good life. D.J. Uiagalelei turned in two very good starts as a freshman last year and seems to have all the tools to be the next in Clemson’s line of NFL-caliber quarterbacks. The return of Justyn Ross to health gives him an elite throwing target, but there is an opening in the running game for someone to step forward. The offensive line, rather pedestrian a year ago, needs to take a step forward. The Tigers’ defense was young in 2020 and allowed 20.2 points per game, its most in five years but should be back to nasty in ’21. Unless Florida State gets its act together, the schedule looks very soft after the opener.
Opponent in the SI Top 25: Georgia (Sept. 4).
The Sooners’ bombshell move to the SEC along with Texas won’t take effect for a few years (we think), so they’re still trying to beat the league before joining it. Routing Florida in the Cotton Bowl got everyone excited about this season. While Oklahoma has a lot of talent, it has to prove on the field it can bridge the gap between national championship contenders and pretenders—it has yet to win a College Football Playoff game in four tries and has only come close once. Talented quarterback Spencer Rattler came on at the end of last season, and he has an abundance of support—especially after OU looted Tennessee for running back Eric Gray and lineman Wanya Morris. A long-suspect defense showed strides late in 2020 but still has to prove itself over the course of a full season. The Sooners lack a marquee nonconference game, which may be detrimental come playoff selection time. But if they run the table, that would be moot.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Texas (Oct. 9), Iowa State (Nov. 20).
If ever a non–Power 5 team started the season with a legitimate chance at the playoff, this would seem to be it. The Bearcats have street cred after going 31–6 the past three seasons, and they came within a questionable third-down play call of beating Georgia in the Peach Bowl last year to complete an undefeated season. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back for a fourth year as starter while cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner returns to lead the defense. Perhaps most important of all for Cincinnati, it has the schedule to command the respect of the CFP committee. The Bearcats visit Indiana and Notre Dame; win both of those and this has the potential to be a historic season.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Indiana (Sept. 18), Notre Dame (Oct. 2), Central Florida (Oct. 16).
7. Iowa State
This could be the team Cyclones fans have waited a lifetime for. Everyone came back—from coach Matt Campbell to 11 starters on offense and 19 of the top 20 tacklers on defense. They have depth. They have experience. They have star power at running back (Breece Hall) and tight end (Charlie Kolar) and an above-average quarterback (Brock Purdy). After consecutive lackluster season openers, the Clones have to get out of the gate better this fall. It may come down to this: Do they have enough overall talent to go into Norman and beat the Sooners? They’ve done it before (2017) and played Oklahoma close each of the last six meetings. The belief should be there; we’ll see about the ability.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Iowa (Sept. 11), Texas (Nov. 6), Oklahoma (Nov. 20).
The Badgers were COVID-19 poster boys last year, with the schedule thrown into chaos and results all over the map. They started the season averaging 47 points per game in two blowout wins, then averaged 10 points a game over the next four, losing three of them. Quarterback Graham Mertz was a highly touted signee who looked like a blossoming star in 2020 before falling hard. Having run off Jack Coan to Notre Dame, the job is his. Running back Jalen Berger is poised to become Wisconsin’s next standout at that position, while six of the top seven tacklers are back on defense. The schedule is challenging but advantageous, with the true road games all highly manageable.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Penn State (Sept. 4), Notre Dame (Sept. 25), Iowa (Oct. 30).
Clay Helton has been the ultimate survivor, now entering his seventh season with more than half that time spent on the hot seat. He has a schedule built for success and a veteran team returning, giving him a chance to firm up his footing. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell came close to going straight Air Raid with QB Kedon Slovis last season and ditching the running game altogether, with the Trojans ranking 120th in rushing yards per game. With the arrival of Texas running back transfer Keaontay Ingram, that may trigger more balance in 2021. USC could be poised for a defensive leap forward in its second season under Todd Orlando, with a lot of returning experience, plus the arrival of SI’s No. 4 recruit of '21, Korey Foreman, at defensive end.
Opponent in the SI Top 25: Notre Dame (Oct. 23).
10. Texas A&M
The Aggies’ progression into national contenders gets a boost from a flush cast of runners and receivers and a schedule that is soft in nonconference and cross-divisional SEC play. Isaiah Spiller, a 1,000-yard rusher and capable receiver, is joined by every top pass catcher from last year’s 9–1 team. The questions are offensive line and quarterback, where either Hayes King or Zach Calzada steps in as a talented but inexperienced replacement for Kellen Mond. A Mike Elko defense that held its final five opponents to 14 points per game returns most of its key pieces. The SEC East opponents are South Carolina and Missouri, and the nonconference slate is Kent State, Colorado, New Mexico and Prairie View A&M.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Alabama (Oct. 9), LSU (Nov. 27).
11. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly’s recruiting has been consistently good for years now, and this will be a big test of that. The Fighting Irish are a team in transition, needing new faces to step up at quarterback, receiver, offensive line and at various positions on defense. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan looks like the starter at QB, possessing the veteran savvy Notre Dame enjoyed with Ian Book. He has a very good running back in Kyren Williams and tight end in Michael Mayer to depend on, and the arrival of Marshall transfer Cain Madden should help solidify the Irish’s traditionally strong offensive line. The best player on the team is safety Kyle Hamilton. Kelly replaced one star defensive coordinator (Clark Lea) with another (Marcus Freeman, expropriated from Cincinnati). The schedule is rigorous.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Wisconsin (Sept. 25), Cincinnati (Oct. 2), USC (Oct. 23), North Carolina (Oct. 30).
The schedule sets up gloriously for the Huskies, who return almost everyone of significance from a 3–1 squad. They could get a disproportionate credibility bump by winning at Michigan on Sept. 11 (big name, questionable ability), then roll into a manageable start to Pac-12 play. The toughest opponent is Oregon, which comes to Seattle. The opportunity is there for second-year coach Jimmy Lake, if he has the right quarterback in Dylan Morris (that remains to be seen, though the job is his to start the season). Washington has had a winning record for 11 straight seasons. It also has had a plus-turnover margin in all those seasons. Those things are not coincidental.
Opponent in the SI Top 25: Oregon (Nov. 6).
13. North Carolina
Sam Howell might be the best returning quarterback in college football, having thrown for more than 7,000 yards and 68 touchdowns in two seasons. The Tar Heels must replace most of the production around him at running back and wide receiver, but Mack Brown has recruited well and Ty Chandler could be a valuable transfer from Tennessee at running back. The offensive line is a strength, and the defense returns intact other than departed high-impact linebacker Chazz Surratt. If the Heels get past Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in a Friday night season opener, they could be off and running through the first half of the schedule.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Miami (Oct. 16), Notre Dame (Oct. 30).
If quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is good to go as expected for the season opener after an ACL tear last year, the Hoosiers have all the pieces in place to produce a third straight successful season. They’ll need him because the schedule is difficult early, starting with a trip to Iowa City. Three of Indiana’s four outstanding receivers return, as does most of the offensive line and most of the defense. Factor in some key additions via the transfer portal, and Tom Allen should keep Indiana on track for sustained relevance after decades as an afterthought.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Iowa (Sept. 4), Cincinnati (Sept. 18), Penn State (Oct. 2), Ohio State (Oct. 23).
The Hurricanes and D’Eriq King are in the same position as the Hoosiers and Penix: If the star QB is ready to go after a late-2020 knee injury, the season is promising. Miami can afford to ease King through preseason camp—he’s a sixth-year senior and there isn’t anything he hasn’t seen before. Charleston Rambo arrives as an Oklahoma transfer, giving King another weapon on the perimeter. The defense has some proving to do after being trampled by North Carolina and Oklahoma State to close last season; the arrival of a pair of five-star freshmen on that side of the ball (tackle Leonard Taylor and safety James Williams) may provide immediate help.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Alabama (Sept. 4), North Carolina (Oct. 16).
There is a lot to like about the Hawkeyes, but the schedule isn’t part of that. Road games in Ames and Madison, plus visits from Indiana and Penn State, make for a big challenge. The preseason depth chart lists just five senior starters, only one of them on the offensive side of the ball. But running back Tyler Goodson, tight end Sam LaPorta and center Tyler Linderbaum are proven quantities, and quarterback Spencer Petras played well to end 2020 and could be ready for a big step forward. There are some holes to fill up front defensively, but the secondary should be very good.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Indiana (Sept. 4), Iowa State (Sept. 11), Penn State (Oct. 9), Wisconsin (Oct. 30).
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Quarterback Anthony Brown has played in a total of eight games the past two seasons at two different schools. He’s been entrusted with the keys to Joe Moorhead’s offense and brings an enhanced dual-threat component to the attack—but how well can he throw it? That’s the key question for a team that returns almost everything else it needs to compete for a Pac-12 title. Recruiting coups Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell key a defense that should be better than last year’s unit. Tim DeRuyter is the new coordinator on that side of the ball.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Ohio State (Sept. 11), Washington (Nov. 6).
This ranking is a direct reflection of faith in Dan Mullen, who isn’t just a program builder but a program sustainer. The Gators lost elite talent in tight end Kyle Pitts, all-purpose back Kadarius Toney and quarterback Kyle Trask, but there shouldn’t be a precipitous drop-off. New QB Emory Jones has talent and got some seasoning last year; now he has to prove he’s ready for the full-time job against quality competition. There were some rocky stretches for Todd Grantham’s defense last season, but that unit should be improved.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Alabama (Sept. 18), LSU (Oct. 16), Georgia (Oct. 30).
19. Penn State
If anyone deserves a 2020 mulligan, it’s probably the Nittany Lions. Their best player (linebacker Micah Parsons) opted out; they had major running back injuries; they lost a wild opener to Indiana on the last play that triggered an 0–5 start; and they had a mismatched offensive coordinator and quarterback. Things should be better this time around, but a lot of that could depend on QB Sean Clifford meshing with new coordinator Mike Yurcich. The defense will benefit from end Arnold Ebiketie, a Temple transfer. The schedule is a doozy as well, especially the first half (Auburn coming to State College Sept. 18 will draw a lot of excitement, but don’t sleep on dangerous Ball State the week before).
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Wisconsin (Sept. 4), Indiana (Oct. 2), Iowa (Oct. 9), Ohio State (Oct. 30).
20. Coastal Carolina
Can the Chanticleers bottle their 11–1 magic and run it back this year, when everyone sees them coming? That’s to be determined, but they return just about everyone but two key playmakers in running back CJ Marable and defensive end Tarron Jackson. Most importantly, they bring back quarterback Grayson McCall, who was excellent as a freshman. The defense has multiple all–Sun Belt returnees. Keeping the core of the team together in an era of instant-eligibility transfers says a lot about what coach Jamey Chadwell is building at Coastal. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn’t offer many opportunities to impress a CFP selection committee that is predisposed to ignore teams like this. Maybe it can schedule BYU on the fly again.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: None.
Other than benefiting from a thrown shoe in The Swamp, not a lot has gone right for the Tigers since winning that 2019 national championship. Last season was bad, the offseason was worse, and then quarterback Myles Brennan broke his arm and gave the starting position to Max Johnson (perhaps the best man for the job regardless). Ed Orgeron hit the reset button on his coordinators, trying to rekindle some Joe Brady magic on offense and to forget entirely about the Bo Pelini fiasco on defense. The bottom line remains forever true at LSU: There is talent. Expect a solid bounce-back season.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Florida (Oct. 16), Alabama (Nov. 13), Texas A&M (Nov. 27).
Billy Napier has gone 21–4 the past two seasons and is still the coach in Lafayette, which is fairly amazing and a huge victory for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Shocking Iowa State to open 2020 put Louisiana on the map, and the Cajuns never left it all season. They bring back everyone but a bellcow running back from a 10–1 squad, and get another juicy opening opportunity at Texas. The hard part might be replicating a 6–1 record in one-score games and a plus-10 turnover margin.
Opponent in the SI Top 25: Texas (Sept. 4).
The Longhorns have hogged the 2021 headlines: trap-dooring Tom Herman at great cost, replacing him with Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and then blowing up the map with their impending move to the SEC alongside Oklahoma. But after the noise subsides, the same question as usual lingers: Is Texas any good? Sark will add immediate juice to the offense, starting with maximizing running back Bijan Robinson but must turn to an unproven quarterback. The defense needs some new playmakers to step up in the wake of Joseph Ossai’s departure. This much is sure: Sark better be ready from the jump, because the opening two games (Louisiana, at Arkansas) loom large.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: Louisiana (Sept. 4), Oklahoma (Oct. 9), Iowa State (Nov. 6).
The Knights might have made the Coaching Hire of the Year, snagging Gus Malzahn on the rebound from Auburn. Malzahn has some modernizing to do after his hurry-up offense grew stale on The Plains, but he’s a good coach and an excellent play-caller. He inherits a great talent in quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who will operate behind a veteran offensive line but needs some new impact players at the skill positions. UCF’s defense must improve, and a couple of Auburn transfers (most notably end Big Kat Bryant) could help immediately.
Opponent in the SI Top 25: Cincinnati (Oct. 16).
The Mountain West is in a bit of flux, with four different champions in the last five years and coaching turnover at Boise State. So why not the Wolf Pack? They might have the league’s best players at quarterback (Carson Strong), wide receiver (Romeo Doubs) and tight end (Cole Turner), plus a productive running back in Toa Taua and a seasoned line. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward immediately improved that unit last year and welcomes back 10 starters. The road schedule is challenging (California, Kansas State, Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Colorado State), but Nevada could be the same type of revelation this year that San Jose State was in 2020.
Opponents in the SI Top 25: None.
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