Preseason College Football Rankings 2021: B/R's Super-Early Top 25
Congratulations to the Alabama Crimson Tide for going 13-0 and winning a national championship at the end of a 2020 college football season that was, in a word, unprecedented.
Now, who's ready to talk about next year's rankings?
Publishing a Top 25 moments after the title game, weeks before we'll have a decent grasp on roster situations and eight months before the next game is played is a ridiculous annual tradition.
You know it.
We know it.
But it's fun. And with the exception of the fanbases in Columbus and Tuscaloosa, most college football fans have long since moved on to thinking about the 2021 season. Might as well join them and set a baseline that is sure to move as we find out more about draft declarations and transfer portal entries and departures.
On that front, there's a lot of roster guesswork here. Many players who are eligible to declare for the 2021 NFL draft have officially announced whether or not they'll be doing so, but numerous decisions are still up in the air.
Let's work our way through the Top 25, starting with the 2019 national champion.
25. LSU Tigers
This season was quite the disaster for the defending national champions, but LSU won't be down for long. The Tigers have spent at least one week ranked in the Associated Press Top 12 in 20 consecutive seasons, and they finally found something late in the year in the true freshman-to-true freshman connection between quarterback Max Johnson and receiver Kayshon Boutte. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. also has to spend at least one more year in college, and there's too much talent on this roster to go .500 again.
24. Washington Huskies
Tough to glean anything meaningful from Washington's four-game season, but the Huskies went 3-1 and were competent while hitting the reset button under a new head coach. Keep an eye on former walk-on linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who had averaged nearly 12 tackles per game as a redshirt sophomore.
23. North Carolina State Wolfpack
NC State had something cooking before quarterback Devin Leary suffered a broken leg in mid-October. Assuming he'll be back behind center to open the 2021 season, the Wolfpack could be a sneaky contender. In spite of a revolving door at quarterback and an unusually young roster, they won eight games this year.
22. West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia quietly won six games behind tough defense, but the offense might be the story in 2021. Not many teams that posted winning records are expected to bring back their top quarterback, top running back and top receiver, but the Mountaineers fit that description with Jarret Doege, Leddie Brown and Winston Wright, respectively, each presumably returning for (at least) one more year.
21. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks won the Pac-12, but they weren't even supposed to play in the title game. They stumbled through a mostly disappointing 4-3 season, but a nucleus of quarterback Tyler Shough, running back Travis Dye, edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Noah Sewell is ample reason to buy stock in a bounce-back year. Don't forget: Oregon lost four key players (Penei Sewell, Thomas Graham Jr., Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze) to opt-outs, but that gave the Ducks a jump-start on figuring out how to replace those NFL prospects.
20. Penn State Nittany Lions
Key Departures: Pat Freiermuth (TE), Jayson Oweh (Edge), Micah Parsons* (LB)
Key Returnees: Sean Clifford (QB), Jahan Dotson (WR), Keyvone Lee (RB), Caziah Holmes (RB), Ellis Brooks (LB)
After a horrific 0-5 start, Penn State closed out the season strong with four consecutive wins. At no point were the Nittany Lions close to living up to their preseason Top 10 ranking, but figuring things out late is better than never figuring them out at all.
A big part of that change was the implementation of freshman running back Keyvone Lee. He had 19 carries for 93 yards in PSU's first five games before becoming the featured back of that four-game winning streak, racking up 70 carries for 345 yards down the stretch.
Shortly before the season began, Penn State's leading rusher from last year (Journey Brown) retired from football because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Its second-leading rusher from last year (Noah Cain) suffered a season-ending injury after just three touches. The Nittany Lions also lost former 5-star recruit Ricky Slade as a transfer over the summer. Hardly a surprise that the run game took a huge step backward.
But in Lee and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes, they appear to have a solid foundation for next year. Factor in a third straight year of the Sean Clifford-to-Jahan Dotson connection, and Penn State should bounce back considerably.
*Parsons opted out of the 2020 season.
19. Arizona State Sun Devils
Key Departures: Aashari Crosswell* (DB), Frank Darby (WR)
Key Returnees: Jayden Daniels (QB), Rachaad White (RB), Chip Trayanum (RB), LV Bunkley-Shelton (WR), Tyler Johnson (DL), D.J. Taylor (DB/KR)
Arizona State would have won its opener at USC if the Trojans hadn't (with the help of an onside-kick recovery) scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes. And after a 28-day gap between games because of COVID-19 issues in Tempe, the Sun Devils held a lead late in the fourth quarter against UCLA before letting that one slip away too.
In their other two games, they annihilated Arizona and scored at will in a win over Oregon State.
In other words, Arizona State was better than your average .500 team, and this young nucleus should be even better next year.
For the 2020 recruiting class, it's clear that Herm Edwards' goal was to surround quarterback Jayden Daniels with playmaking talent. The Sun Devils signed eight 4-star recruits, six of whom were of the RB/WR/ATH variety. But it was a brutal year for trying to break in true freshmen, arguably more so in the Pac-12 than any other league.
Even so, the Sun Devils ended their short season looking like a team that could do some real damage next year.
*Crosswell opted out of the 2020 season.
18. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Key Departures: CJ Marable (RB), Tarron Jackson (DE)
Key Returnees: Grayson McCall (QB), Jaivon Heiligh (WR), Isaiah Likely (TE), D'Jordan Strong (DB), Alex Spillum (DB), Derick Bush (DB)
When the NCAA decided the 2020 season would not count against anyone's eligibility clock, I had a feeling some to-be-determined Group of Five team would benefit the most*. A breakout year followed by the option for every player to return sounds like a nice formula for building momentum.
Can Coastal Carolina capitalize on this gift?
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall was going to be coming back no matter what, but running back CJ Marable, wide receivers Kameron Brown, Sam Denmark and Greg Latushko, offensive linemen Sam Thompson, Trey Carter and Steven Bedosky, linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher, and defensive linemen Tarron Jackson and C.J. Brewer are all seniors. That's 11 key players who would not have been eligible to return under normal circumstances.
Marable and Jackson have declared for the draft, but the rest is up in the air. As long as they don't all decide to leave, Coastal Carolina should remain the team to beat in the Sun Belt. Normally, even that status wouldn't be enough to get a team from that conference into the preseason Top 25, but the Sun Belt had a remarkable 2020 season as a whole. It deserves at least one ranked team to open the 2021 campaign.
*In the short term, at any rate. In the long run, there might be even more of a divide between the haves and the have-nots, since the haves are still doing their usual "replace star players with star recruits" thing while the have-nots might be headed for some roster logjam. We'll see how it all plays out over the next two to three years.
17. Iowa Hawkeyes
Key Departures: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (WR), Brandon Smith (WR), Mekhi Sargent (RB), Alaric Jackson (OT), Cole Banwart (OL), Chauncey Golston (DL), Daviyon Nixon (DL), Jack Heflin (DL), Austin Schulte (DL), Nick Niemann (LB), Barrington Wade (LB), Matt Hankins (DB)
Key Returnees: Tyler Goodson (RB), Spencer Petras (QB), Sam LaPorta (TE), Seth Benson (LB), Riley Moss (DB)
Iowa won its final six games, leaning heavily on a defense that allowed neither 25 points nor 400 yards in a single contest.
What happens now that most of that defense is expected to leave?
Well, it's the Hawkeyes, so they'll probably be tough to score against anyway.
This was the fifth consecutive year Iowa held its opponents below 20 points per game, so we almost have to assume this defense will be fine while replacing most of its front seven. (If Djimon Colbert comes back to a starting linebacker gig after sitting out the 2020 season, that would help soften the blow.)
With Iowa, the big question is typically offense. Quarterback Spencer Petras only averaged 196 yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game in his first season as a starter, and he's losing his top two wide receivers. The Hawkeyes will also need to replace backup running back Mekhi Sargent and several offensive linemen from a team that was already subpar on offense.
Translation: Strap in for another season where Iowa contends for a Big Ten West crown in a bunch of games with final scores like 20-13.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
Key Departures: Rachad Wildgoose (DB)
Key Returnees: Graham Mertz (QB), Jalen Berger (RB), Jake Ferguson (TE), Jack Sanborn (LB), Leo Chenal (LB)
Inexperience on offense was a major problem for the 2020 Badgers. It was going to be tough enough without the NFL departures of running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus. But then quarterback Jack Coan suffered an injury in early October that kept him from taking the field, and top returning receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III both battled injury and combined for just 11 receptions this year.
As a result, their starting quarterback was a redshirt freshman who attempted only 10 passes last year. Their top running back was a true freshman. And aside from tight end Jake Ferguson, they didn't have anything close to a go-to pass catcher. Factor in the COVID-19 outbreak that swept through the roster after the first game of the season, and this offense was extremely inconsistent.
But despite losing star linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun—who combined for 24 sacks last year—the defense was great, per usual. Leo Chenal made a huge sophomore leap in becoming arguably the most valuable defender on the roster.
Give that young offense another year to jell and pair it with a defense that typically ranks among the best in the nation, and Wisconsin should be the favorite to win the Big Ten West.
15. Texas Longhorns
Key Departures: Sam Ehlinger (QB), Samuel Cosmi (OT), Brennan Eagles (WR), Joseph Ossai (Edge), Caden Sterns (DB), Ta'quon Graham (DL), Chris Brown (DB)
Key Returnees: Casey Thompson (QB), Bijan Robinson (RB), Joshua Moore (WR), Jake Smith (WR), Alfred Collins (DL)
I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to ask if Texas is back. Nope. Nuh-uh.
But there are some causes for excitement, starting with Bijan Robinson.
The highly touted freshman running back started a bit slow, but he lived up to the hype late with 651 yards from scrimmage over his final four games. In the last two against Kansas State and Colorado, the man averaged 18.5 yards per touch—and most of those touches were running plays. Iowa State's Breece Hall is going to enter the year as the top RB in the Big 12, but Robinson is going to give him a run for his money.
Speaking of efficient offensive weapons, how about Casey Thompson throwing for 225 yards and six touchdowns on just 17 pass attempts? Here's the full list of players in the past two decades who attempted at least 15 passes with a passer efficiency rating of at least 240: Thompson this year and Kyler Murray the year before he won the Heisman. Just saying.
Given what new head coach Steve Sarkisian was able to accomplish as Alabama's offensive coordinator over the past two years...could Texas be back?
The Longhorns need to get better on defense, which will be tough while losing guys like Joseph Ossai and Caden Sterns. Watch out for Alfred Collins, though. The big man was a disruptive force as a true freshman, and he could be a star in short order.
14. North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Departures: Michael Carter (RB), Javonte Williams (RB), Dyami Brown (WR), Dazz Newsome (WR), Garrett Walston (TE), Chazz Surratt (LB)
Key Returnees: Sam Howell (QB), Josh Downs (WR), Khafre Brown (WR), Emery Simmons (WR), Tomon Fox (LB)
Heading into the 2020 season, I was all-in on North Carolina as a title contender. How often do you get to bring back your starting quarterback and four different players—Carter, Williams, Brown and Newsome—who accumulated at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the same year?
Predictably, that offense was swell, averaging 41.7 points per game.
But the Tar Heels were subpar on defense, and now they need to replace all four of those offensive stars. They'll also likely need to replace their best defender (Chazz Surratt).
A precipitous decline could be headed their way.
They do still have Sam Howell, though, who is in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft—if not the early front-runner. Even as Carter, Williams and Brown sat out the Orange Bowl, he darn near led UNC to a win over a very good Texas A&M team. Give Mack Brown a full offseason to get guys like Josh Downs and Khafre Brown implemented into the offense, and maybe North Carolina will win at least eight games for a second straight year.
That said, they better improve on defense if they want to compete for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
13. Miami Hurricanes
Key Departures: Brevin Jordan (TE), Jaelan Phillips (DE), Quincy Roche (DE), Gregory Rousseau* (DE), N'Kosi Perry (QB - in transfer portal)
Key Returnees: D'Eriq King (QB), Cam'Ron Harris (RB), Bubba Bolden (DB)
There are a bunch of questions about Miami heading into this offseason.
Could the Hurricanes have three defensive linemen selected in the first round of the draft? What's the plan at defensive end without Phillips and Roche? Will seniors Mike Harley (WR) and Zach McCloud (LB) return in 2021?
But here's the biggest question: Will D'Eriq King be good to go for the season opener against Alabama?
King suffered a torn ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl and is expected to make a full recovery in time for fall camp, but there can't be much margin for error in that timeline. And with backup QB N'Kosi Perry currently in the transfer portal, Miami has even less room for error on its QB depth chart.
After Tate Martell opted out of this season, would he be an option if King can't go?
We're assuming with this ranking that King will be a healthy, full participant in the 2021 season, in which case Miami should have a potent offense and be the top challenger to Clemson in the ACC.
*Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season.
12. Florida Gators
Key Departures: Kyle Trask (QB), Kyle Pitts (TE), Kadarius Toney (WR), Trevon Grimes (WR)
Key Returnees: Emory Jones (QB), Jacob Copeland (WR), Justin Shorter (WR), Kaiir Elam (DB)
Florida's offense is going to get gutted. In addition to losing basically the entire passing attack, the Gators presumably will need to replace four redshirt seniors along the offensive line.
Fortunately, they still have quite a bit of raw talent.
Emory Jones was a highly touted recruit in the 2018 class, and he'll finally get a real opportunity to show what he can do. While the top three receiving threats are out of the picture, Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson could all blossom into go-to guys in a hurry. The Gators also have proven pass-catchers in the backfield, as Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce and Nay'quan Wright combined to make 67 receptions for 752 yards in 2020.
However, can it be enough to make up for a defense that left much to be desired?
Florida had one of the stingiest defenses in the nation two years ago, allowing just 15.5 points per game. But after losing the likes of CJ Henderson, Jonathan Greenard and David Reese II, that rate nearly doubled to 30.8 points this year. In their four losses, the Gators allowed 46.3 points.
Doesn't much matter how good the offense is when you can't stop the other team.
We'll give the Gators some benefit of the doubt after three straight seasons of finishing in the CFP Top 10, but one needn't squint too hard to see things could go off the rails a bit in 2021.
11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key Departures: Ian Book (QB), Aaron Banks (OL), Liam Eichenberg (OL), Tommy Kraemer (OL), Robert Hainsey (OL), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB), Nick McCloud (DB), Adetokunbo Ogundeji (DL), Ovie Oghoufo (DL), Shaun Crawford (DB)
Key Returnees: Kyren Williams (RB), Michael Mayer (TE), Kyle Hamilton (DB), Clarence Lewis (DB)
Most of Notre Dame's expected departures are still unconfirmed. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is definitely leaving, though, and that's a huge blow. He wasn't quite as versatile as, say, Isaiah Simmons was for Clemson last year or Jabrill Peppers was for Michigan a few years back, but Owusu-Koramoah was the do-everything heart and soul of a stout Fighting Irish defense.
If he was the only departure, they would be fine. But they're probably going to lose half of their starters on defense, so a step backward is almost inevitable.
It's also likely Notre Dame will need to replace most of its starters on offense. Running back Kyren Williams, tight end Michael Mayer and center Jarrett Patterson (who suffered a season-ending foot injury in November) should all be back, but that might be it. Everyone else was a senior, several of them already graduate seniors.
The Fighting Irish did grab Jack Coan as a graduate transfer from Wisconsin. That should significantly help soften the blow of losing Ian Book at quarterback.
But there's a lot of uncertainty here. Probably not "repeat of going 4-8 in 2016" uncertainty, but it does seem likely Notre Dame will open next season somewhere in the Nos. 9-17 range for the ninth time in 11 years.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
Key Departures: Whop Philyor (WR)
Key Returnees: Michael Penix Jr. (QB), Stevie Scott III (RB), Ty Fryfogle (WR), Miles Marshall (WR), Peyton Hendershot (TE), Micah McFadden (LB), Jamar Johnson (DB), Devon Matthews (DB)
Here's a terrifying thought for the rest of the Big Ten East: Of the 15 players to record at least 12 tackles for Indiana's defense in 2020, the only senior was defensive lineman Jerome Johnson. That means not only could they all come back next year, but 14 of the 15 could return for two more years as well.
This defense forced 20 turnovers in its first seven games, holding five of those opponents to 21 points or fewer. Sure, the Hoosiers struggled on defense at Ohio State, but who doesn't? Aside from that, this was a much-improved unit that darn near messed around and won the Big Ten.
If Michael Penix Jr. is able to make a full recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in late November, the offense should be in good shape too. In the four games prior to that injury, the left-handed sophomore threw for 1,391 yards and 13 touchdowns. Extrapolate that to a full 12-game season and you're looking at 4,173 yards and 39 touchdowns.
With leading receiver Ty Fryfogle set to come back for a "super senior" year, those numbers don't seem that far-fetched.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Key Departures: Kellen Mond (QB), Dan Moore Jr. (OL), Ryan McCollum (OL), Jhamon Ausbon* (WR), Anthony Hines III* (LB)
Key Returnees: Isaiah Spiller (RB), Ainias Smith (RB/WR), Devon Achane (RB), Jalen Wydermyer (TE), Chase Lane (WR), Jayden Peevy (DT), Leon O'Neal Jr. (DB), Jaylon Jones (DB)
If Kellen Mond had exercised his option to return for one more season, Texas A&M might have gotten some first-place votes in the preseason AP Top 25.
The Aggies went 9-1 and should bring back the majority of the starters from a pretty young team. All five of the team leaders in total yards from scrimmage were freshmen or sophomores, and redshirt sophomore receiver Caleb Chapman was well on his way to being a part of that club prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in A&M's third game.
Alas, Mond is headed to the draft, and a bunch of key defenders will likely join him. Linebackers Buddy Johnson and Aaron Hansford and defensive back Myles Jones ranked top-four on the team in tackles as seniors and have tough decisions to make. If all three leave, it becomes that much more difficult to supplant Alabama atop the SEC West.
The lack of a clear succession plan at quarterback doesn't help matters, but Texas A&M could be a transfer away from contending for a title. Hendon Hooker or McKenzie Milton could have been great fits to replace the mobile Mond, but those transfers already chose Tennessee and Florida State, respectively. Let's see what develops with this QB situation over the next few weeks. It could be the difference between opening the year in the teens and debuting in the Top Five for the first time since 1995.
*Opted out of the 2020 season.
8. USC Trojans
Key Departures: Amon-Ra St. Brown (WR), Tyler Vaughns (WR), Olaijah Griffin (DB), Talanoa Hufanga (DB), Jay Tufele* (DT), Marlon Tuipulotu (DT), Alijah Vera-Tucker (OT)
Key Returnees: Kedon Slovis (QB), Drake London (WR), Bru McCoy (WR), Gary Bryant Jr. (WR), Kana'i Mauga (LB), Drake Jackson (LB), Chris Steele (DB), Isaiah Pola-Mao (DB)
The Trojans only played six games, but it's not often a team wins at least 80 percent of its games played and then gets to bring back the starting quarterback who averaged better than 300 passing yards per game. Perhaps the only time in the past three years that it happened was when UCF went 13-0, brought back McKenzie Milton and went 12-1.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt USC. The defense was already mediocre and will need to replace at least four key contributors. There's no run game to speak of. And Kedon Slovis is losing two of his favorite targets in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns.
But the Trojans still have Slovis. There's still a ton of talent in the wide receiver room. And it does look like they'll be getting back a handful of playmakers on defense—perhaps enough to significantly improve on that side of the ball.
Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, UCLA and Washington could and should all be in the mix for the Pac-12 title next year. USC is going to be the favorite, though.
*Tufele opted out of the 2020 season.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats
Key Departures: Gerrid Doaks (RB), James Hudson (OT), Jarell White (LB), Elijah Ponder (Edge), James Wiggins (DB), Darrick Forrest (DB), Ethan Tucky (DL)
Key Returnees: Desmond Ridder (QB), Jerome Ford (RB), Darrian Beavers (LB), Coby Bryant (DB), Curtis Brooks (DT), Myjai Sanders (DE), Ahmad Gardner (DB)
It blows my mind that Desmond Ridder didn't even finish in the top 10 of the Heisman vote. He was one of the most impactful individual players in the country for a Bearcats team that was undefeated at the time of the vote.
In 10 games, Ridder racked up 2,296 passing yards, 592 rushing yards and 31 combined touchdowns, accounting for multiple scores in every game. During the five-game stretch before Cincinnati lost a month of games because of COVID-19 issues, he either passed for 270-plus yards or rushed for 100-plus yards and accounted for four touchdowns or more in each of those games.
Voters must have forgotten about him during Cincinnati's hiatus from action, but Ridder is the most noteworthy of a long list of starters who return for the Bearcats in 2021.
Ridder did it all without a go-to receiver. Eight different players made at least 13 receptions for at least 150 yards, but none of them had more than 29 catches or 353 yards. Save for Gerrid Doaks, all of those targets should be back next year too.
They do lose a couple of key defenders—most notably leading tackler Jarell White—but there's little question Cincinnati should be the best Group of Five team once again next year. And the Bearcats may well open the year ranked in the Top 10.
6. Iowa State Cyclones
Key Departures: JaQuan Bailey (DE), Lawrence White IV (DB), Greg Eisworth II (DB)
Key Returnees: Brock Purdy (QB), Breece Hall (RB), Xavier Hutchinson (WR), Charlie Kolar (TE), Will McDonald IV (Edge), Eyioma Uwazurike (DE), Mike Rose (LB), Jake Hummel (LB), O'Rien Vance (LB)
While most teams that finish the season ranked in the CFP Top 10 hope to maintain that level of excellence the following year, Iowa State fans are justifiably optimistic that 2020 was a jumping-off point for an even better 2021.
Despite opening the year with a loss to Louisiana, 2020 was arguably the greatest season in Iowa State football history. But the Cyclones are in line to get just about everyone back next year.
Breece Hall is front and center on that list of returnees after leading the nation in rushing as a sophomore. He finished sixth in the Heisman vote, marking the first time a Cyclone ranked in the top 10 since Troy Davis—who eclipsed 2,000 yards in back-to-back 11-game seasons—finished runner-up to Danny Wuerffel in 1996.
Along with Hall, Iowa State will welcome Brock Purdy and Xavier Hutchinson back with open arms. Charlie Kolar announced Sunday that he'll also be coming back, so Iowa State's entire starting offense will give it another go.
There are a couple of expected changes on defense. At the very least, JaQuan Bailey has entered the draft. But the Cyclones still have one heck of an edge-rusher in Will McDonald IV, and their linebacking group should return.
We'll see if it'll be enough to unseat Oklahoma as Big 12 overlord, but Iowa State should be a real contender.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Departures: Justin Fields (QB), Trey Sermon (RB), Chris Olave (WR), Thayer Munford (OT), Wyatt Davis (OG), Tuf Borland (LB), Pete Werner (LB), Baron Browning (LB), Shaun Wade (CB), Marcus Williamson (CB),
Key Returnees: Master Teague III (RB), Garrett Wilson (WR), Jameson Williams (WR), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (WR), Julian Fleming (WR), Harry Miller (OC/OG), Paris Johnson Jr. (OT), Zach Harrison (DE)
The big question for Ohio State is, who actually comes back on defense?
If 2020 recruit C.J. Stroud is even "average Big Ten quarterback" competent, the Buckeyes offense should remain great. They have several more-than-capable running backs and a wide receiver depth chart with so many recruiting stars it might as well be a planetarium.
However, 13 Buckeyes entered the national championship with at least 13 tackles on the season, and each one of them is eligible for the draft.
Of course, they're all also eligible to return, and Shaun Wade is the only one with significant draft potential. Even Wade's draft stock is substantially lower than it was at the start of the season, so he might be tempted to come back too.
Our guess is the linebacker corps will be hit the hardest, as Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning have each been in Columbus for at least four years. If that whole group bounces, the Buckeyes could have defensive issues on par with the 2018 season.
That team still went 13-1, though, so we're not that concerned. But there are enough question marks for the 2021 Buckeyes to keep them from having a strong claim at one of the top two spots in the way-too-early rankings.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Key Departures: Azeez Ojulari (LB), Monty Rice (LB), Jermaine Johnson (LB), Tyson Campbell (CB), Eric Stokes (CB), Mark Webb (DB), Trey Hill (OL)
Key Returnees: JT Daniels (QB), Kearis Jackson (WR), George Pickens (WR), James Cook (RB), Nolan Smith (Edge), Nakobe Dean (LB), Lewis Cine (DB)
Coming into the 2020 season, Georgia had question marks on offense, but it was one of the top candidates to reach the College Football Playoff because it brought back most of a defense that led the nation at 12.6 points allowed per game in 2019.
Next year will be the opposite.
We're still waiting to hear what leading rusher Zamir White will decide about the NFL draft, but we know James Cook will be back, and that's good enough for now. Cook only got 61 touches this year, but he averaged 6.7 yards per carry and 14.1 yards per reception, and he has now averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry in each of his three seasons with the Bulldogs. If he's the lead back in an offense with JT Daniels, Kearis Jackson and George Pickens, it could be a great unit.
But Georgia has lost a bunch of key defenders to draft declarations and will need to break in a bunch of new faces.
That formula worked well for Florida in 2020, though, and it's not like Georgia is lacking for talent. A mass exodus on defense merely means it's time for guys like Nolan Smith, Travon Walker, Kelee Ringo and Tyrique Stevenson to blossom. There might be some growing pains in the season opener against Clemson, but this should be a legitimate title contender by the end of the year.
3. Clemson Tigers
Key Departures: Trevor Lawrence (QB), Jackson Carman (OT), Travis Etienne (RB), Cornell Powell (WR), Amari Rodgers (WR), Nolan Turner (DB)
Key Returnees: D.J. Uiagalelei (QB), Lyn-J Dixon (RB), E.J. Williams (WR), Frank Ladson Jr. (WR), Bryan Bresee (DT), Myles Murphy (DE), K.J. Henry (DE), James Skalski (LB), Mike Jones Jr. (LB), Andrew Booth Jr. (CB)
Must be nice to be able to lose an all-time great quarterback, two receivers who combined for nearly 2,000 yards this year and a running back who amassed more than 6,000 career yards from scrimmage and think, "Well, maybe we'll have better luck in next year's College Football Playoff."
That just shows how wide the talent gap is between Clemson and the rest of the ACC.
In each year from 2018 to 2021, the Tigers had the top recruiting class in the conference, typically by a wide margin. They have signed 14 5-star recruits during that four-year stretch. The rest of the ACC has combined for five 5-star recruits. And those five non-Clemson ACC stars? Two went to Miami and two went to North Carolina, neither of whom is on Clemson's 2021 schedule. The Tigers are going to run away with this league once again.
It's not just an ACC gap, though. Aside from Ohio State and a couple of SEC teams, no one can hold a candle to Clemson's talent level. And if D.J. Uiagalelei has a full sophomore season anywhere close to what he was able to do in two games as a starter in 2020—59-of-85 for 781 yards and four touchdowns, plus two rushing touchdowns—you can brace yourself for a seventh consecutive year of Clemson in the CFP.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
Key Departures: Rhamondre Stevenson (RB), Tre Norwood (CB), Tre Brown (CB), Adrian Ealy (OT), Creed Humphrey (OC), Charleston Rambo (WR - in transfer portal), T.J. Pledger (RB - in transfer portal)
Key Returnees: Spencer Rattler (QB), Kennedy Brooks* (RB), Seth McGowan (RB), Marvin Mims (WR), Jadon Haselwood (WR), Theo Wease (WR), Trejan Bridges (WR), Isaiah Thomas (DL), Perrion Winfrey (DT), Brian Asamoah (LB), Brendan Radley-Hiles (DB), Delarrin Turner-Yell (DB)
By the end of the year, Oklahoma was arguably the fourth-best team in the country behind Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
While all three of those teams will need to replace their starting quarterbacks and a bunch of other key contributors, the Sooners will be led by a lot of the same players who guided them through their active eight-game winning streak.
They'll also be reintroducing a star player, as Kennedy Brooks—who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both 2018 and 2019—will return to Norman after sitting out this season. That's huge news for a team that averaged 43 points and nearly 500 yards per game without him.
The Sooners should also get back the majority of a defense that—by Big 12 and Oklahoma standards—was pretty stingy. If Oklahoma can adequately replace defensive backs Tre Norwood and Tre Brown (combined for eight interceptions in 2020), it might be the best team in the country.
*Brooks opted out of the 2020 season.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Key Departures: Mac Jones (QB), Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Jaylen Waddle (WR), Landon Dickerson (OL), Alex Leatherwood (OL), Patrick Surtain II (DB), Dylan Moses (LB)
Key Returnees: Bryce Young (QB), Trey Sanders (RB), Jase McClellan (RB), John Metchie III (WR), Jahleel Billingsley (TE), Christian Harris (LB), Will Anderson Jr. (LB), DJ Dale (DT), Shane Lee (LB), Malachi Moore (DB)
It's going to be a few days before we have a comprehensive list of which Alabama players are staying put and which ones are leaving for the NFL draft.
But as long as they don't lose every eligible player with a reasonable shot at getting drafted, Alabama will be ranked either No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25 for a 12th consecutive season.
Even if all Nick Saban gets back are the freshmen, sophomores and incoming recruits, the talent pool in Tuscaloosa will be ridiculously deep.
Sophomores Christian Harris, John Metchie III and Jahleel Billingsley didn't shine as brightly as the triumvirate of Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith, but they were indispensable assets. Will Anderson Jr. was one of the most impactful freshmen in the entire country. Bryce Young is going to be a star now that Jones is (presumably) done blocking his path to the field. If Trey Sanders can finally get and stay healthy, he could be a breakout phenom. And don't forget about Shane Lee, who had 86 tackles as a freshman in 2019 before getting relegated to backup duty with Dylan Moses back.
That group alone should ensure Alabama remains a Top 10 team. Once others rise to the occasion, the Crimson Tide should be on track for a sixth national championship appearance in seven years.