Ranking the Top 10 Contenders for the 2021 College Football Playoff
The 2020 College Football Playoff hasn't even ended yet, but it's never too early to start peeking ahead to next year's competition.
OK, fine, maybe it is a little too early. In addition to the usual uncertainty regarding which underclassmen will declare for the draft, who transfers where and which teams will sign the top still-uncommitted recruits, we also have to wait to see what every single senior in the country decides to do with their free year of eligibility.
Given what we know (or think we know) about next year's roster situations and schedules, however, we've ranked the top candidates to reach the CFP.
Note that this isn't meant to be a ranking of the best teams but rather a ranking of which teams are in the best positions to finish in next year's Top Four. There's not a colossal difference between those two groups, but this factors in schedule difficulty and likelihood of winning a division.
As far as simply ranking the best teams is concerned, we will have our usual way-too-early Top 25 shortly after Monday's national championship game. Keep an eye out for that one.
10. Miami Hurricanes
Miami is very likely going to open the season 0-1. Not only are the Hurricanes facing Alabama (in Atlanta), but they're going to do so with a backup quarterback or a starting quarterback who is barely eight months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Put it this way: If D'Eriq King leads them to a win in that game, we might as well end the Heisman Trophy debate right then and there, because it would be one of the most memorable regular-season results in recent history.
But even with that presumed loss, Miami will have at least a faint playoff pulse.
The Hurricanes should be the second-best team in the ACC, and they won't have to play the best team—Clemson, in case that's not obvious—during the regular season. Unless Florida State takes a big step forward or unless North Carolina remains a New Year's Six-caliber team despite losing its top four skill-position players, Miami very well could finish the regular season on an 11-game winning streak.
The Canes might need to do that just for the right to face the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game, though, which would be rough.
How it boils down: Miami needs to beat Alabama or Clemson—and avoid a letdown in the three months in between—to have a shot at the playoff. The Hurricanes might be one of the 10 best teams in the country next year, but that is a challenging mandate.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Who will come back for Notre Dame?
Quarterback Ian Book was a senior. The top three wide receivers were seniors. Four of the five starters on the offensive line—and two of the top backups—were seniors. Eight of the 11 starters on defense were seniors. Even the place kicker was a senior.
In a typical year, I'd expect the Fighting Irish to drop off a cliff, possibly going straight from the playoff to a .500 campaign.
This is no usual year, however, with everyone possessing the option to come back.
So, again, who will return to South Bend?
Notre Dame will definitely still have Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree at running back, so that's a good start. But if it has to hit the reset button with the offensive line, that running game might not be anywhere near as potent.
Tight end Michael Mayer will also be back after tying for a team-leading 42 receptions as a true freshman. Whether Book returns or Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan takes over, at least they'll have one reliable returning pass-catcher—which is one more than the Irish had coming into this season, for what it's worth.
I can't properly assess this team, though, until we know more about what the seniors will do. The top threat after the Pac-12's top threat feels like an appropriate slot for now. And Notre Dame will get an opportunity to move ahead of USC when the teams square off in late October.
8. USC Trojans
USC did some things very well during its brief 2020 season.
Kedon Slovis averaged 320.2 passing yards and 2.8 touchdowns per game. He was a fringe Heisman candidate before the Pac-12 postponed the start of its season, and the sophomore backed that up nicely. He'll open 2021 comfortably within the top 10 favorites for the stiff-armed trophy.
Slovis also orchestrated a handful of game-winning fourth-quarter drives as the Trojans showed a lot of heart and resolve to repeatedly snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.
And they had a ball-hawking defense, forcing 16 turnovers in six games. By comparison, they forced only 16 in the entire 13-game campaign last year, and even that was better than the 10 takeaways in 12 games the previous year.
The vast majority of those defenders were sophomore and juniors, too. And Slovis has to come back for at least one more year before he can declare for the draft. So they should have a great nucleus in place.
There are two problems, though, holding USC back as the eighth-best candidate for a four-team playoff.
One is that it can't run the ball. The team averaged 97.3 rushing yards per game. No individual managed as many as 50. Slovis is great, but one-dimensional offenses don't go undefeated.
But two is that the Trojans play in the Pac-12, which has been left out of four consecutive playoffs—and only even finished as high as No. 6 in one of those years. Even if USC goes 9-0 in league play, a loss in one of its three nonconference games (vs. San Jose State, at Notre Dame, vs. BYU) might render it unable to finish in the Top Four. That's how far the Pac-12 is behind the other leagues these days.
Maybe that'll change. Colorado was a pleasant surprise this year. UCLA showed some promise. And in what could have been a full-blown rebuilding year, Washington was a COVID-19 outbreak away from playing for the league title. But we'll believe the Pac-12 can put a team in the playoff once it comes close to happening again.
USC has a way better chance than any Group of Five team, though.
7. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin had the most Jekyll and Hyde offense in the country in 2020.
The Badgers scored at least least six touchdowns in each of their first two games and again found paydirt six times in a Duke's Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest. In the four games in between, though, they scored a grand total of four touchdowns and frequently looked incapable of ending drives with points.
But let's put that in context.
Their worst performances came against Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa, which fielded arguably the three best non-Wisconsin defenses in the Big Ten. The Wildcats held their own against Ohio State outside of Trey Sermon's just going off in the second half. The Hoosiers were solid outside of their game at the Buckeyes. The Hawkeyes held all eight of their opponents to 24 points or fewer. A lot of teams looked bad against those defenses.
More noteworthy, Wisconsin had to replace a 6,000-yard rusher (Jonathan Taylor) and its star receiver from last season (Quintez Cephus) and had no choice but to hand the reins to a redshirt freshman quarterback when Jack Coan suffered a foot injury just three weeks before the start of the season. What's more, that inexperienced quarterback (Graham Mertz) was placed in the COVID-19 protocol after the team's first game and wasn't anywhere near as crisp the rest of the season.
That's a lot of roster turmoil in what was a most unusual offseason, especially for the Big Ten. It's little surprise this team was inconsistent.
Mertz was a highly touted prospect, though. So was Jalen Berger, who rushed for 301 yards in just four games. Each of those key offensive weapons should be better next season.
And you can pretty much always count on the Badgers to thrive on defense. This season marked the fifth time in six years that they held their opponents below 17.5 points per game. The offense doesn't need to be elite for Wisconsin to win a lot of games.
We'll find out early if the Badgers are a threat. They host Penn State to start the season, face Notre Dame in Chicago three weeks later and then host Michigan the week after that. They won't have to deal with Ohio State before the Big Ten championship, though, which is always a plus.
6. Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher has something cooking with Texas A&M.
The Aggies started slowly in 2020, narrowly defeating Vanderbilt before losing by 28 to Alabama. But they were thrown for a bit of a loop with September opt-outs by leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon, star linebacker Anthony Hines III and key defensive back Elijah Blades. And we're talking about a team that was already needing to replace a great defensive lineman (Justin Madubuike), two important receivers (Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers) as well as a huge chunk of the depth chart at running back.
Early growing pains were to be expected.
Once they figured out who they could count on, the Aggies became one of the best teams in the country, winning their final eight games.
The good news is most of the players who stepped in were underclassmen, so they'll all be back. That backfield trio of Isaiah Spiller, Ainias Smith and Devon Achane should be nasty with another year of experience.
The bad news is they're presumably going to need to replace Kellen Mond, who was at quarterback for just about every meaningful snap in each of the past three seasons and who leaves without a clear heir apparent.
Unless they snare a ready-made option from the transfer portal, it figures to be a three-way battle between Zach Calzada, Haynes King and incoming freshman Eli Stowers, who have a combined 28 career passing attempts at the collegiate level.
Given the amount of talent Texas A&M has at every other position, it probably just needs a game manager at quarterback to have a shot at the playoff. After all, the Aggies' toughest nonconference game will be against Colorado, they get Alabama at home, and their SEC East opponents will be Missouri and South Carolina. No time like the present to finally make a championship run.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
By far, the biggest "Will he come back or will he go to the NFL?" variable in play for the first few days of the offseason was Georgia quarterback JT Daniels.
Now that he has said he'll be coming back, Georgia might be the favorite to win the SEC.
Because he was still recovering from a torn ACL, Daniels appeared in only four games for the Bulldogs. But the USC transfer looked great, averaging more than 300 passing yards and 2.5 touchdowns per game. He had 15 passes that went for at least 30 yards, which was good for fourth-best in the SEC. And, again, he did that in just four games.
Georgia hasn't had a passing threat like that since Aaron Murray was a junior in 2012. And it's likely that all four of Georgia's top pass-catchers—George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton and James Cook—will be back next year along with Darnell Washington, who is a breakout sensation waiting to happen.
(And if you'll allow a little transfer portal speculation, Georgia might end up getting former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert, who is from Marietta, Georgia, and left the Bayou Bengals at least partially because of homesickness.)
Even if Georgia isn't quite the favorite to win the entire SEC, it'll certainly be the expected top Dawg in the SEC East.
Florida was the only other team in the division to post a winning record this season, and in addition to losing all sorts of star players on offense, the Gators' cross-divisional opponents in 2021 are Alabama and LSU. Georgia, on the other hand, gets Arkansas and Auburn. That's a big advantage for the Bulldogs.
Georgia does open the season with a colossal nonconference game against Clemson, though. If the Dawgs don't win that one, they would probably need to run the table in SEC play, including winning the conference championship. They should be very good—but maybe not that good.
4: To Be Determined Big 12 Favorite
I'm leaning heavily in the direction of Oklahoma as the Big 12 favorite.
The Sooners ended 2020 on an eight-game winning streak, they're going to get back a boatload of key contributors and, come on, it's Oklahoma. Under Lincoln Riley, the Sooners have won four consecutive conference championships and have a 34-5 record against the Big 12 since the start of the 2017 season. Every other team in the league has lost at least six Big 12 games in just the past two seasons.
But Iowa State has handed Oklahoma two of those five losses and is coming off an excellent season that ended with a New Year's Six victory. Breece Hall will be back as the preseason favorite to lead the nation in rushing, and as of Sunday night not a single Cyclone had declared for the 2021 draft. If Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar, Mike Rose, JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald IV all come back, they'll be in business.
And while I think we should all (always) pump the brakes on the "Is Texas back?" talk, there's plenty of reason for optimism in Austin. Bijan Robinson is a phenom in the backfield. Casey Thompson has looked spectacular in his limited opportunities at quarterback. And new head coach Steve Sarkisian just spent the past two seasons overseeing a dominant Alabama offense. If the Longhorns defense could just improve from below average to better than mediocre, that might be enough for them to compete.
Now for the kicker: Oklahoma's nonconference schedule consists of Tulane, Western Carolina and Nebraska. Iowa State faces Northern Iowa, Iowa (at home) and UNLV. And Texas gets Louisiana, Arkansas and Rice. There's a good chance they all will enter league play 3-0 record, which would significantly increase the likelihood the Big 12 champion will reach the playoff.
Schedule strength will be a big question mark, especially if it's Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame or Wisconsin battling the Big 12 champion for the No. 4 seed. But of the 25 teams in the CFP era to win Power Five conference championships and finish the season with zero or one losses, 24 have made the playoff. (Ohio State was the exception in 2018 when Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame all went undefeated.)
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
We can certainly debate the order of the top three teams, but it would be foolish to put anyone other than Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in these top three spots.
Since the start of the CFP era (2014), Alabama has 90 wins, Clemson has 89, Ohio State has 82 and no other team has more than 75. Both Alabama and Clemson have participated in six of the seven playoffs; Ohio State has gone to four. And aside from LSU rocketing to the top last year, no team outside this trio has won a national championship in the past seven years.
That doesn't mean they're guaranteed to reach the playoff next year. Heck, it's possible all three will miss the cut. But if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?
And our rationale for putting Ohio State at the bottom of the trio is the unknown at quarterback.
Alabama (Bryce Young) and Clemson (D.J. Uiagalelei) have quarterbacks who ranked in the top 10 overall in the 2020 recruiting class and who got their feet wet with a decent amount of playing time this year. Ohio State also signed a highly touted quarterback in the 2020 class (C.J. Stroud), but he ranked outside the top 40 overall and did not attempt a single pass this season. (Stroud did have a 48-yard rushing touchdown.)
It's possible Stroud will quickly become the best quarterback from the class, leading an offense that has averaged more than 41 points and 500 yards per game for four straight years. But his lack of experience, Ohio State's not-great passing defense and the difficulty of playing in the Big Ten East will keep the Buckeyes out of the Top Two. They should win the Big Ten again, though.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama's 2021 schedule is no joke.
The Crimson Tide will open things with a neutral-site game against Miami in Atlanta. Then in SEC play, they'll have road games against Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida plus a home game against LSU. People will still complain that "Bama ain't play nobody" because of its nonconference games against Mercer, New Mexico State and Southern Miss, but this is probably the toughest gauntlet any title contender will face.
But Alabama is on its way to the national championship with a 12-0 record following 11 SEC wins and a blowout of Notre Dame, so this team can clearly handle a gauntlet.
We'll need to learn a lot of new names, as the Crimson Tide have eight players—DeVonta Smith, Patrick Surtain II, Jaylen Waddle, Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Christian Barmore, Alex Leatherwood and Dylan Moses—who definitely will or feasibly could be first-round draft picks in a few months. Even by Alabama standards, that's a lot. The Tide have never produced more than four first-round picks in a draft.
Alabama is well-equipped to survive the mass exodus of talent that LSU could not, though.
Bryce Young is going to quickly become a star at quarterback, and he'll be surrounded by weapons in Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders, John Metchie III and Jahleel Billingsley. Maybe the Crimson Tide won't put up 45 points per game for a fourth consecutive season, but I would be stunned if that average dips below 40.
And while losing players such as Surtain and Moses from the defense would cripple most teams, Alabama should be rock-solid on D with Christian Harris, Will Anderson Jr. and Malachi Moore leading the charge.
1. Clemson Tigers
I haven't decided yet if Clemson is going to inhabit the No. 1 spot on my way-too-early Top 25 ballot. In fact, the Tigers most likely will not.
But if I had to bet a limb right here and now on one Power Five team to win its conference next season, it would be the Tigers without hesitation.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Clemson has a 52-3 record against the ACC, including a 6-0 record in conference championship games. One of those three losses was this season's road game against Notre Dame, which was only a temporarily member of the conference. So it's really a 51-2 record.
Clemson is very good, but this league simply has not produced a suitable challenger in quite some time.
Miami is likely going to be the second-best team in the conference, but Clemson would not face the Hurricanes until the ACC Championship Game, if it all.
Aside from the season opener against Georgia, the toughest game on the Tigers' 2021 schedule is...maybe a road tilt against NC State? And Clemson has won eight consecutive games against the Wolfpack by an average of 21.9 points.
There will be a lot of new pieces leading the way for the Tigers, most notably D.J. Uiagalelei taking over for Trevor Lawrence behind center. But even if we assume a loss to Georgia, Clemson should finish 12-1 and reach the playoff for the seventh consecutive year.