Most Anticipated College Football Games of 2021
Now that another bowl season is in the books and national signing day in the rearview, it's time to start looking ahead to the 2021 college football season.
This past campaign saw the line between Power Five and Group of Five blur like we haven't seen in years past, and while the latter group was once again shut out of the four-team playoff, the AP poll was littered with teams outside the usual suspects.
With significant turnover at blue bloods like Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State, the landscape is ripe for parity, though those teams will again benefit from the annual influx of elite recruiting talent.
There's still a lot to be sorted out in the months to come before the 2021 season begins, but it's never too early for a preview of some of the biggest games of the year ahead.
Ahead we've highlighted the most anticipated game for each of the season's 13 weeks, along with a handful of others worth watching each week.
Week 1: Georgia vs. Clemson (Charlotte, NC)
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei faces a tall order in replacing Trevor Lawrence next season for the Clemson Tigers, and there will be no cupcake game to settle into the flow.
The Georgia Bulldogs await in Week 1 and will be far and away the toughest test of the campaign for Clemson, which has an ACC schedule that doesn't include North Carolina or Miami.
Uiagalelei, a 5-star recruit in the class of 2020, looked good when called upon last year with a 66.7 percent completion rate, 914 passing yards and five touchdowns against zero interceptions. He also scrambled for 60 yards and four touchdowns and made a pair of starts while Lawrence was sidelined under COVID-19 protocol.
Not to be overlooked, the Bulldogs found their rhythm down the stretch with USC transfer JT Daniels under center, and he's back for another year with a full offseason to better acquaint himself with the offense.
Both of these teams could be in the Top Five of the preseason AP poll, making this one of the most important games of the year right out of the gate.
Others of Note: Alabama vs. Miami; Notre Dame at Florida State; Penn State at Wisconsin; Boise State at UCF; Louisiana at Texas; Ohio State at Minnesota
Week 2: Iowa at Iowa State
The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry is one of the most underrated annual matchups in college football, and it will take on additional meaning with both teams eyeing championship contention in 2021.
Quarterback Brock Purdy, tight end Charlie Kolar and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Rose have all opted to return to the Cyclones for another year despite their NFL potential, and they'll be joined by the nation's leading rusher, Breece Hall, who piled up 1,572 yards and 21 scores on the ground as a sophomore.
On the other side, the Hawkeyes won six in a row to close out the 2020 season after an 0-2 start, and they will once again lean on standout running back Tyler Goodson and a stout offensive line.
Spencer Petras will need to find more consistency after an up-and-down first year as the starter under center, but the pieces are in place for the Hawkeyes to contend for the Big Ten West title.
Others of Note: Oregon at Ohio State; Washington at Michigan; Texas at Arkansas; Tulsa at Oklahoma State; Ball State at Penn State
Week 3: Alabama at Florida
If this were a straight countdown of the 10 most anticipated games of 2021, there's a good chance Cincinnati at Indiana would have also earned a spot.
However, after the way Alabama and Florida did battle in the SEC title game in 2020, there's no question this rematch will be the most anticipated game of Week 3.
Both teams will have a distinctly different look, starting at the quarterback position, where Mac Jones and Kyle Trask should both be suiting up on Sundays next year. The dynamic receiving corps that both teams showcased will also be gutted, with Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and All-American tight end Kyle Pitts moving on.
The 5-star pipeline puts Alabama in a better position to retool the roster, starting with dual-threat quarterback Bryce Young, who has a chance to be college football's next superstar.
Alabama will no doubt be favored, but if Emory Jones can take the quarterback job and run with it in Gainesville, this game could be a tough early test for a Crimson Tide team eyeing another playoff berth.
Others of Note: Cincinnati at Indiana; Nebraska at Oklahoma; Tulsa at Ohio State; Auburn at Penn State; Oklahoma State at Boise State; UCF at Louisville; Minnesota at Colorado
Week 4: Clemson at NC State
A neutral-site game between Notre Dame and Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago will carry plenty of intrigue, but the ACC showdown between Clemson and NC State looks like the most impactful game of Week 4.
Aside from their opening game against Georgia, the toughest remaining test on the Tigers' light schedule will be a trip to Raleigh to face off against the Wolfpack.
NC State improved from 4-8 in 2019 to 8-4 this past season, picking up three road wins and a quality victory over a good Liberty team. They also played Miami extremely tough in a 44-41 loss and were edged out by just two points in the Gator Bowl against Kentucky.
They're a team on the rise with plenty of room for improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where they allowed 29.2 points per game.
If Clemson loses to the Bulldogs in Week 1, this could be a potential elimination game for them as far as their college football playoff hopes are concerned.
Others of Note: Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (in Chicago); SMU at TCU
Week 5: Cincinnati at Notre Dame
After a fairly thin slate of games in Week 4, the Week 5 slate features a handful of heavy hitters, with none bigger than Cincinnati traveling to South Bend, Indiana, to take on Notre Dame.
The Bearcats went 9-0 during the regular season last year and put together perhaps the most compelling case to date for a Group of Five team to be included in the playoff.
However, with Tulsa, SMU and Army as their signature wins, they were passed over in favor of the traditional blue bloods, including the Fighting Irish.
A week after facing a good Indiana team on the road, the Bearcats will have another golden opportunity to pad their resume.
If they escape Week 5 with a 4-0 record, it's going to be difficult not to pencil them into an early playoff spot. SMU, Tulsa and UCF will all pose a challenge once conference play starts, but the foundation would be set for history.
Returning quarterback Desmond Ridder and standout cornerback Ahmad Gardner highlight a talented roster capable of delivering on the underdog story.
Others of Note: Ole Miss at Alabama; Auburn at LSU; Michigan at Wisconsin; Ohio State at Nebraska
Week 6: Alabama at Texas A&M
Even with quarterback Kellen Mond graduating, Texas A&M still looks like the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West.
Whoever wins the quarterback job for the Aggies will have a ton of help from a loaded backfield led by returning starter Isaiah Spiller (1,043 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) and prized 4-star freshman LJ Johnson.
They also return several key contributors from a defense that allowed just 21.7 points per game in 2020 and held four opponents to fewer than 14 points.
The Aggies have not beaten Alabama since 2012—their first season as a member of the SEC after leaving the Big 12—and things haven't been particularly close the last few years.
With the Crimson Tide rebuilding on offense, this might be their best chance to pull off the upset, but there is no question it will be an uphill battle once again against a roster stacked with future NFL talent.
Others of Note: Georgia at Auburn; Penn State at Iowa; Indiana at Michigan; Florida State at North Carolina
Week 7: Miami at North Carolina
The North Carolina Tar Heels are set to lose the two-headed monster of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter out of the backfield, as well as receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown in the passing game.
However, the return of Sam Howell under center should be enough to make them ACC Coastal favorites.
Retooling the roster will be easier thanks to the fantastic job Mack Brown has done with recruiting during his time in the head coach's seat, and it's easy to envision this being a 6-0 team ranked inside the Top 10 in the AP poll by the time this game rolls around.
That said, if anyone is going to rival the Tar Heels for Coastal Division supremacy, it's the Miami Hurricanes.
Led by quarterback D'Eriq King, who is expected to be recovered from a torn ACL by the start of the 2021 campaign, the Hurricanes will be battle-tested by the time Week 7 rolls around, with games against Alabama, Appalachian State and Michigan State already under their belt.
The Tar Heels beat the Hurricanes on the road in a 62-26 blowout in the regular-season finale in 2020, piling up 554 rushing yards in the process.
Others of Note: Florida at LSU; BYU at Baylor; Army at Wisconsin
Week 8: USC at Notre Dame
The shortened 2020 season marked the first since World War ll that USC and Notre Dame did not meet on the football field.
The Fighting Irish have dominated the head-to-head series of late with three straight victories and a 7-3 record in the last 10 games.
However, next year's USC squad figures to be formidable.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis should be one of the nation's top passers, and while the offensive line is unproven, he is surrounded with talented weapons and backed by a strong defensive unit.
Notre Dame will be coming off a bye week, which should give them ample time to game-plan and to potentially sort out what could be an ongoing battle for playing time at the quarterback position.
A win in this one could position USC for a run at an undefeated season. They don't play Oregon, and they face off against Pac-12 South rival Utah at home. It's always wise to expect the unexpected in the Pac-12, but this game could carry major playoff implications if both teams play up to their potential in the early going.
Others of Note: NC State at Miami; Clemson at Pittsburgh; LSU at Ole Miss
Week 9: Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville, Florida
It was tempting to put Notre Dame on here for a second straight week, as the Irish will be welcoming North Carolina to South Bend.
Instead, we'll go with a game that could once again decide who faces Alabama in the SEC title game.
The Bulldogs looked like a different team once JT Daniels took control of the offense, averaging 37.3 points per game. That strong finish has them poised to open 2021 as favorites in the SEC East, with Florida starting the year as an unknown because of so much roster turnover.
Maybe Missouri, Kentucky or Tennessee will take a step forward and make some noise, but the smart money is on the Bulldogs and Gators to once again battle it out for a spot in the conference championship game.
Both teams will be rested coming off bye weeks, so expect them to throw their best punches.
Others of Note: North Carolina at Notre Dame; Indiana at Penn State; Florida State at Clemson; Ole Miss at Auburn
Week 10: Ohio State at Indiana
This will be the game of the year in the Big Ten.
Ohio State needs to figure out who is playing quarterback between C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and 5-star freshman Kyle McCord, but that should be sorted out long before Week 10 rolls around.
The Buckeyes remain the most talented team in the conference, even with their usual exodus of NFL talent, but they were nearly beaten by an upstart Indiana team in 2020.
The Hoosiers will almost certainly begin the year ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1969 after a 6-1 regular season in which their only blemish was a 42-35 slugfest against the Buckeyes.
The health of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will be the biggest key to Indiana's success in 2021, and if he can stay upright, the Hoosiers are more than capable of giving Ohio State a run for its money while playing at home this time around.
In other action, don't sleep on that Liberty-Ole Miss game as potential must-see football, especially if quarterback Malik Willis and the Flames come in undefeated.
Others of Note: Liberty at Ole Miss; LSU at Alabama; Auburn at Texas A&M
Week 11: Texas A&M at Ole Miss
If Ole Miss takes the step forward many are predicting in 2021, this could be its coming-out party.
The Rebels don't play Georgia or Florida in crossover action, giving them one of the more favorable schedules in the SEC, despite still having to play Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
They gave the Crimson Tide a scare in 2020, but the more likely upset is Week 11's game against Texas A&M.
The Aggies offense figures to take a step back with Kellen Mond moving on, and the Rebels had no trouble scoring points a year ago when they averaged 39.2 per contest.
If they can improve on the 38.3 points they allowed defensively (11th-most in the FBS out of 127 teams) and bring their best at home against the Aggies, this game could signal the start of something big in Oxford.
Others of Note: UAB at Marshall; Miami at Florida State
Week 12: Louisiana at Liberty
Never mind the fact that Week 12 has a thin slate of games.
The game of the year in 2020 was a Group of Five matchup between BYU and Coastal Carolina in Week 14. Both teams were in the midst of undefeated seasons and looking for a resume-boosting win.
This could be the 2021 version of that game.
Hugh Freeze guided Liberty to a 10-1 season in his second year as head coach, and he will once again have one of the nation's most dynamic offensive players at his disposal in Malik Willis, who threw for 2,250 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 944 yards and 14 scores.
They'll host to a Louisiana team that went into Ames and beat Iowa State in its season opener a year ago. The Ragin' Cajuns ultimately finished with an identical 10-1 record. Quarterback Levi Lewis is back for another year, and there's enough talent in the pipeline to replace Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas in the backfield.
Louisiana need to survive a tough opener against Texas, and Liberty plays Ole Miss in Week 11. But it's not out of the realm of possibility to think these two teams could both enter this game undefeated.
Others of Note: Penn State at Ohio State; Arkansas at Alabama
Week 13: Alabama at Auburn
It's hard to have a list of the most anticipated games of the season without including the Iron Bowl.
Can offensive-minded Bryan Harsin help get the most out of quarterback Bo Nix after a disappointing sophomore season from the 5-star recruit?
Auburn has played the role of spoiler twice in the past four years, winning as the lower-ranked team in 2017 and 2019, though they were blown out 42-13 this past season.
Another up-and-down season is likely forthcoming as the Tigers search for an identity under their new head coach, but an Alabama team in transition is not expected to be nearly as dominant as the one that steamrolled the competition in 2020.
The Crimson Tide will be favored, but that hasn't stopped Auburn in years past.
Others of Note: Ohio State at Michigan; North Carolina at NC State; Texas A&M at LSU; Army at Liberty; BYU at USC
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.