Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2021
Other than the Heisman Trophy, individual accolades in college football often take a back seat to team accomplishments. However, the latter rarely happens without a player who performs at one of the highest levels in the conference.
Exceptions exist, but Player of the Year candidates are generally found on the most successful teams. That trend will continue in 2021, and we're projecting the best of the bunch.
In most conferences, they award both an Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year. Our focus is on a single standout performer for the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision leagues.
The list is organized alphabetically by conference names, and the choices are subjective.
AAC: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
While propelling Cincinnati to a New Year's Six bowl, Desmond Ridder won AAC Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 2,296 yards at 8.2 per attempt, tallying 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. Plus, the junior scampered for 592 yards and 12 scores.
And in 2021, Ridder shares something in common with most of these selections: a healthy majority of returning surrounding production.
Even though wide receiver Jayshon Jackson entered the transfer portal, the Bearcats return tight end Josh Whyle and leading wideouts Alec Pierce, Michael Young Jr. and Tre Tucker.
Factor in Ridder's mobility—which Cincinnati made an integral piece of the offense in 2020—and he'll have enough production and team success to edge UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel.
ACC: D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
Even if he hadn't started two games last season, D.J. Uiagalelei would be expected to continue Clemson's ACC dominance. The Tigers have won six straight conference titles and appeared in the College Football Playoff each time.
However, Uiagalelei accounted for 808 yards and six touchdowns when temporarily replacing Trevor Lawrence. Those performances are a major source of optimism.
Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and running back Travis Etienne are gone, but Justyn Ross' potential return from a spine injury theoretically gives Uiagalelei an All-American-caliber target. One of E.J. Williams, Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata should develop into a reliable option next to tight end Braden Galloway too.
Uiagalelei probably won't have overwhelming totals, but his efficiency and Clemson's success will be a great combination.
Big Ten: CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Assuming a first-year starter will thrive is dangerous. Since the Big Ten lacks a transcendent talent like former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, however, the Player of the Year honor kind of defaults to perennial power Ohio State.
Stroud, a borderline 5-star in the 2020 class, has an outrageously positive outlook—provided he beats Jack Miller and Kyle McCord for the starting job. Ohio State returns top wideouts Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams, leading tight end Jeremy Ruckert and has 5-stars Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Emeka Egbuka on the roster.
This cannot be stressed enough: Stroud's college experience is limited to one carry. This is a massive, perhaps even unfair, bar for a new quarterback who's not officially the starter.
He also scored a 48-yard touchdown on that rushing attempt. Good luck slowing this hype train.
Big 12: Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
Iowa State running back Breece Hall and Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler are the definite favorites. Either way you lean, there's a painless defense of the choice.
Hall is excellent. Our pick is Rattler.
Early in 2020, he looked like an inexperienced freshman. Late in 2020, Rattler had Oklahoma playing at a level worthy of a CFP team—but the September/October errors prevented the Sooners from being in that discussion. He finished 2020 with 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, adding six rushing scores.
Oklahoma has a ton of pass-catching talent in Marvin Mims, Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood, Trejan Bridges and a slew of H-backs, including Austin Stogner and Jeremiah Hall. Whether a true No. 1 target emerges may shape the team's upside, but the Sooners are built to have a prolific offense led by Rattler.
Conference USA: Sincere McCormick, RB, UTSA
North Texas wideout Jaelon Darden deservedly earned Conference USA Player of the Year in 2020. Right behind him, though, was Sincere McCormick, the Offensive Player of the Year.
The sophomore ranked No. 2 in the country with 1,467 rushing yards and scored 11 touchdowns. McCormick added 20 catches for 131 yards, helping the Roadrunners secure their second-ever bowl appearance.
Since all five starting linemen will be back in 2021, McCormick has a terrific opportunity to build on those numbers.
MAC: Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State
Although he didn't win MAC Offensive Player of the Year last season, Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum earned first-team All-MAC honors. In just four appearances, he totaled 1,421 offensive yards and accounted for 16 touchdowns.
Crum might have an enormous year in 2021.
Best of all, he'll target a familiar receiving corps that helped the Golden Flashes averaged 49.8 points per game in 2020. Top wideouts Isaiah McKoy, Ja'Shaun Poke, Isaac Vance and Dante Cephas all return, along with Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson.
Factor in his mobility—he's rushed for 947 yards in the last 17 games—and Crum has immense statistical upside. As long as Kent State competes for the MAC title, he's the POY front-runner.
Mountain West: Carson Strong, QB, Nevada
Carson Strong mustered just 6.2 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2019. But last year, he and the Wolf Pack took a stunning leap forward.
Nevada went 7-2, falling just shy of the Mountain West title game. Strong racked up 2,858 yards at 8.1 per passing attempt, throwing for 27 scores and just four interceptions. He also ranked seventh nationally with a 70.1 completion rate.
And basically everyone is back, plus Elijah Cooks—the leading receiver in 2019—will return from a shoulder injury. Cooks, Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner give Strong an outstanding trio of targets.
Expectations should be high for Nevada's offense.
Pac-12: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis is a worthy candidate, but a shaky offensive line is concerning. Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, meanwhile, will be a nightmare to block.
As a true freshman, the edge-rusher exploded for 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Last season, Thibodeaux notched 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in just seven appearances.
While the Ducks must replace linemen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, they have four experienced interior players to fill the void. Noah Sewell, Isaac Slade-Matautia and Mase Funa are the foundation of a veteran linebacker corps too.
Production from the rest of the front seven is important, but Thibodeaux's combination of quickness and power can be overwhelming if his teammates are even mildly threatening.
SEC: Adam Anderson, Edge, Georgia
Perhaps it's a bold choice to pick Adam Anderson, considering what Georgia may accomplish with quarterback JT Daniels, and Alabama's upside with new signal-caller Bryce Young.
Following the departures of edge-rushers Azeez Ojulari and Jermaine Johnson, however, Georgia will lean heavily on Anderson this fall. In his limited snaps last season, Anderson collected 6.5 sacks, 10 hurries and two forced fumbles.
While his slender build (6'5", 225 pounds) is a reasonable concern, Anderson should have plenty of favorable pass-rush situations. If the Daniels-led offense comes anywhere near its upside, the Dawgs will regularly be playing with leads.
Anderson has a path to doubling his production and emerging as the SEC's best player—even if Daniels or Young are more popular.
Sun Belt: Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina
Grayson McCall put up spectacular numbers as the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2020. He threw for 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns against only three interceptions, rushing for 569 yards and seven scores while leading Coastal Carolina to an 11-1 record.
Could his encore be better?
While the Chanticleers lose running back CJ Marable, they return top receivers Jaivon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely. Plus, three starting linemen (Trey Carter, Sam Thompson and Steven Bedosky) and wideouts Kameron Brown and Greg Latushko—who each had at least 15 catches—are using their extra year of eligibility.
McCall is positioned incredibly well for another prolific year at a program on the rise.