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2021 College Football Crystal Ball: Playoff Picks, Dark-Horse Predictions and More

Will Alabama repeat as national champ? Our writers go on record with how they think this season will go, from contenders to pretenders to the Heisman winner.
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After a small slate of Week 0 games, the 2021 FBS college football season kicks off in full this week, more than seven months after Nick Saban claimed his seventh national title by leading a juggernaut Alabama team back to glory. While the Crimson Tide check in at No. 1 in Sports Illustrated’s preseason top 25, several key departures leave open the door for someone else to unseat Saban’s team this fall and winter. Will the usual suspects make the College Football Playoff, or can another program crack what’s largely been an exclusive club?

The SI college football staff’s predictions are in for the playoff, national champion, Heisman winner, biggest disappointment and more.

College football national championship trophy

Playoff and national title predictions

Pat Forde:

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Title game: Alabama vs. Ohio State
National champ: Alabama

Ross Dellenger:

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
National champ: Alabama

Richard Johnson:

No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Georgia
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Oregon
Title game: Oklahoma vs. Georgia
National champ: Georgia

John Garcia:

No. 1 Alabama vs No. 4 Oregon
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
National champ: Alabama

Roundtable questions

Who will win the national championship, and why?

Forde: It seems absurd to pick a team to win the natty that lost three Heisman Trophy finalists and six NFL first-round draft picks—not to mention several key coaching staff members. But you know what’s crazier? Picking against Alabama. The five-star recruits are still rolling in and rising up the depth chart to replace the old five-star guys, and Nick Saban is still the head coach. Trust the process, redundant though it may be.

Dellenger: Roll Tide once again. From an odds standpoint, it’s hard to not pick Alabama each and every single season. Nick Saban has led the Tide to six titles in 12 seasons, including two losses in the championship game. You’ve got a better shot at hitting on them than any other team. The Tide might have a new OC, new QB and three new starting offensive linemen, but Saban might have his best defense in years.

Johnson: There are times when I wonder whether Georgia is really cursed. If it isn’t in the playoff at the very least, I may finally fully buy into that narrative. Considering its quarterback, JT Daniels, is semi-proven, this is the best roster in the sport—the 247Sports team talent composite agrees with me. The offensive metamorphosis under Kirby Smart has been completed thanks to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and it was well on its way last season despite the poor QB play that preceded Daniels’s November return from a knee injury. They have everything, but of course with the Dawgs there is always a catch. Injuries are the only thing that can hold this team back both in the opener against Clemson and beyond, and they have it in spades with their pass-catchers in addition to hybrid tight end Arik Gilbert’s absence from the team for personal reasons.

Other than that, this is Georgia’s year. Where have I heard that before?

Garcia: Alabama. A program hasn't repeated since, wait for it, Bama a decade ago. Conventional reasons to pick against Alabama are alive and well given the loss of talent, assistant coaches and a tough SEC schedule. Nick Saban remains and the quarterback reins now roll to No. 9, Bryce Young, who may have the most unique skillset of the Crimson Tide quarterbacks of late (in addition to some dollars in his pocket). The arm is big, athleticism is easy and he sports an even-keel California cool. With a year to learn the system, one that remains largely unchanged despite Steve Sarkisian's departure, Young will work behind a strong offensive line and feature new skill position names, including Ohio State transfer wide receiver Jameson Williams. Defensively, Bama will look like a classic Saban unit with arguably America's top front-seven along with an experienced—and big—secondary.

Who will win the Heisman Trophy?

Forde: Spencer Rattler still has some proving to do after an uneven first season as the starting quarterback at Oklahoma, but I’ll wager that he makes the necessary improvements and becomes the latest statistical monster in Lincoln Riley’s offense. The Sooners have a schedule built for success, and if Rattler stars in a potential showdown game against Iowa State in November in Norman, that and a playoff berth will give him what he needs to take home the little stiff-armer.

Dellenger: Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler tops my list here. I’m not really going out on a limb, right? Rattler is the prohibitive favorite at many sports books. But it’s tough to bet against the Sooners star. OU seems to be poised to have its best season under Lincoln Riley. The Sooners return more players than any of the CFP’s usuals. There are plenty of Heisman dark horses, though. How about D’Eriq King at Miami or Desmond Ridder with Cincinnati? Sam Howell at North Carolina is an intriguing name as well.

Johnson: Spencer Rattler. Don’t overthink it; he’s the best quarterback in the country, and he will be the first signal-caller to walk across the stage in April and shake Roger Goodell’s hand. But beyond his talent, it’s the way he goes about playing the position that will catch the attention of the nation and the broad Heisman voting base. His live-wire arm and freelancing outside the pocket will remind you of [insert favorite gunslinger here]. He’s got swag that pops whether the helmet is on or off, including arguably the best head of hair in college football. Oh, and his Oklahoma team isn’t half bad either. All are musts for a future Heisman winner.

Garcia: Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud. Believe it or not, a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback has previously won the award without having thrown a pass the year prior (Jameis Winston, 2013), so why not again? Like Winston back then, Stroud was able to sit behind a first-round NFL draft pick and veteran in Justin Fields, to provide the blueprint on how to navigate the pressure and plan under Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have been at their best under a true dual-threat quarterback and Stroud fits that bill behind a veteran offensive line and the best one-two punch at the wide receiver position, nationally, with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Stroud will also benefit from big games early in the season, from the opener at Minnesota to hosting playoff contender Oregon the following week. Penn State also comes to Columbus, so the transition year lines up well for Stroud.

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Which Power 5 team will be the biggest disappointment?

Forde: Notre Dame has a deceptively difficult schedule, playing five games against teams that have an open-date advantage on the Fighting Irish. Brian Kelly is counting on Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan, who was pretty good but not spectacular with the Badgers. There are holes to fill at receiver, offensive line and a few spots on defense. A four-year streak of double-digit victories could be in jeopardy.

Dellenger: Iowa State has found its way into most preseason top 10s. And while the Cyclones seem experienced and talented enough to pose a serious threat to OU’s six straight Big 12 titles, will they really contend? Preseason expectations for such programs often end in disappointments. The Clones get Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma State at home, but they’ve got the Sooners on the road in November.

Johnson: North Carolina. Big things are expected of the Tar Heels this season, but I’m not sure they have what it takes in the trenches to get where they want to go. Sam Howell has one of the best deep balls in college football, but if he’s not upright long enough to throw it, it might not matter. UNC’s offensive line was one of the worst in the ACC at season’s end, according to Pro Football Focus, and just because a team returns starters doesn’t mean those starters are good. Speaking of returners, this is where I should note what the Tarheels don't return: its top two running backs and top two wide receivers from last season. Howell alone can only take this team so far, and they might not yet be ready for prime time as Mack Brown & Co. continue to make waves on the recruiting trail. Good? Yes. Playoff dark horse? Chill out.

Garcia: Iowa State. There is more hype for the Cyclones at this moment than I could remember heading into a college football season, and for good reason. All-America running back Breece Hall is back and so is his backfield mate in quarterback Brock Purdy, so expect points when Matt Campbell's squad takes the field. However, the hype may be a tad too strong on ISU given CFP contender expectations. The schedule is back-loaded, as the program faces a hellacious final month of the season including a trip to Norman, but it's the second game that could send Iowa State into the "darling" arc. Rival Iowa, who ISU has not defeated since Campbell was hired, returns plenty of talent on its own end. Over the last three meetings, the combined margin of victory for Iowa has been just 11 points, so another close call could make or break the Cyclones’ perception.

USC QB Kedon Slovis

Which under-the-radar team will emerge as a surprise playoff contender?

Forde: Cincinnati shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone after making a New Year’s Six bowl last year and starting this season in the top 10. But the Bearcats are from outside the Power 5 establishment, so they’re still swimming upstream in terms of full acceptance as a legitimate contender. Cincy has the talent, the experience, the coaching and—most importantly for a Group of 5 team—the schedule to make it happen. If the Bearcats can go undefeated while beating Indiana, Notre Dame and UCF, they’ll have the résumé.

Dellenger: USC. I know I know, you’ve heard this before. The Trojans haven’t felt relevant in years, though they squeaked into the Pac-12 title game last year. They return 16 starters, and QB Kedon Slovis is an under-the-radar Heisman contender. Clay Helton’s team also avoids Oregon and Washington during the regular season. It sets up perfectly for a second straight appearance in the championship game and, who knows, maybe a playoff spot on the line.

Johnson: The path (on paper) is simple for a Big Ten West team. Win that side of the league, then hope you can beat Ohio State in Indianapolis and go to the playoff. Wisconsin knows this plight all too well, given it’s exactly what happened in 2017. While the Badgers will need to prove that they can rebound from losing key secondary pieces heading into the season, there are reasons for optimism with quarterback Graham Mertz in his third season in Paul Chryst’s complex offense. If he can live up to the hype that comes with being the No. 3-ranked pocket passer as a recruit, then the Badgers could surprise people.

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Garcia: USC. Finding a sneaky playoff contender begins with conference title aspirations, and USC was on the doorstep of the Pac-12 title in 2020 before falling to Oregon in the championship game. A rematch there would make a lot of sense, and if it happens, it would mean the Trojans' passing attack behind Kedon Slovis is as good as most anticipate it to be. The problem for USC on offense was balance, which Texas transfer running back Keontay Ingram looks to correct with his career 5.3 yards per carry to his name. A second avenue for sneaking up the polls is scheduling, and USC has the gift of no gauntlet this year. There is no marquee crossover game with the Pac-12 North and most bigger games are in Los Angeles. The only daunting road opponent, Notre Dame, comes as late in October (the 23rd) as any matchup since 1993, however.

Which coach will be on the hottest seat by midseason?

Forde: No need to even wait until midseason to put Nebraska’s Scott Frost there. He did that in Week 0 with the Cornhuskers’ error-ridden upset loss to Illinois. With a nonconference game at Oklahoma and a closing stretch of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, he could easily be looking at a fourth (and final) losing season at his alma mater.

Dellenger: Let’s go with Nebraska coach Scott Frost, since the Huskers opened the season by dropping a smelly egg in Illinois. The school’s former quarterbacking hero can’t seem to show the necessary progress in Lincoln. He’s 12–21, has never advanced the team to a bowl and has lost twice as many conference games (18) as he’s won (nine). He’s got a new AD, too. And is under investigation for possible NCAA violations. It’s a recipe for a firing.

Johnson: Randy Edsall, UConn. The Huskies haven’t won more than three games in his three years at the helm during this second go-around as head coach (they opted out of 2020). If Saturday’s loss against Fresno State is any indication, UConn might be hard-pressed to beat any FBS opponent on its schedule—even UMass. Heading into that game, its seventh of the season, we should have a pretty good idea of which way the wind is blowing in Storrs.

Garcia: Scott Frost. Even before he dropped the season opener to Illinois, this seemed like the year Frost would have to prove it to Nebraska faithful. The roster is composed mostly of players he recruited through one of the worst runs the storied program had ever seen. Of course there's an eerily timed NCAA investigation linked back to Frost ongoing at the same time, ahead of midseason matchups against Oklahoma, Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan in succession. The lack of winning (12–21 to date), offensive prowess and stability at the quarterback position—elements some expected to be a relatively quick fix after Frost's hiring in 2017—do not seem reversible any time soon.

Who will be the fall's biggest breakout player?

Forde: Texas running back Bijan Robinson will benefit from Steve Sarkisian’s arrival and will be plugged into a Najee Harris–like role for the Longhorns. With 20-plus touches per game running and receiving, looking for the sophomore to position himself for 2022 Heisman contention and high NFL draft consideration thereafter.

Dellenger: Penn State RB Noah Cain. A highly ranked member of the Nittany Lions’ 2019 signing class, Cain burst out as a true freshman, scoring eight touchdowns and averaging 5.3 yards a carry. Poised for a big sophomore season, he suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Ahead of 2021, he’s healthy and ready to run again.

Johnson: Malik Willis, Liberty. At the controls of Hugh Freeze’s offense with a Charmin-soft schedule to run the score up before late season tilts against Ole Miss and Louisiana, Willis should dazzle. There isn’t a better runner at the QB position this season, although his passing consistency does leave a bit to be desired. If he makes strides through the air this offense could take an exciting next step. NFL draftniks have already started sniffing around Lynchburg.

Garcia: Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Every year there is a quarterback who lingers around and then takes his game to another level before the NFL falls in love with his skillset and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see it coming for Jurkovec in 2021. The fourth-year passer has experience, classic quarterback size and a big enough arm to challenge a defense to all three levels, and he will be a part of one of the surprise teams in the country this fall. BC returns its entire offensive line, top passing threat in Zay Flowers and has a marquee replacement for departed tight end Hunter Long in FCS All-American Trae Barry. The Eagles matchup against Clemson on Oct. 2 in Death Valley will likely be a nationally televised chance for Jurkovec to showcase his next-level ability, and I see Boston College entering the game 4–0. 

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