10 Teams That Actually Have a Chance to Win the 2021 College Football Playoff
The 2021 College Football Playoff is many months away, but history says we already have a strong indication of who will win the national championship.
Every year, several teams are dramatically overrated or undervalued heading into the season. From an accountability perspective, it can be humorous—or even nauseating—to see which personal projections end up looking like disasters.
However, the national champion is often in the Top 10 of the preseason AP poll. In the last 20 years, the champion has only held a Nos. 11-15 ranking three times and once fallen outside the Top 20.
While the list is subjective, programs with the strongest perception in the preseason indeed tend to be the most competitive.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Six championships in the last 12 years. Pretty simple, right?
We can mention every obstacle, ranging from the normal SEC schedule to a roster undergoing a large amount of transition. Most specifically, Alabama needs to replace three top-five Heisman Trophy finishers on offense and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
But this isn't new territory, either. Nick Saban has established a powerhouse, and the 2021 depth chart will be loaded with 5-stars and other former blue-chip prospects.
Alabama, which has a single three-loss record in the last 13 seasons, is an obvious inclusion.
Given its returning talent and conference affiliation, Clemson is the most likely team to reach the College Football Playoff.
While the ACC is a decent league, Dabo Swinney and Co. have created an enormous gap at the top of the conference. The program has dropped only three ACC contests in the last six years, and that number might not rise in 2021.
Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a major loss, but Clemson has D.J. Uiagalelei ready to take over and returns the entire defense other than two linemen and a linebacker.
Really, it would be stunning if Clemson isn't in the CFP.
Along with a few others, Georgia is a popular way-too-early championship pick for the 2021 campaign.
Largely, that's because of quarterback JT Daniels' strong finish to 2020. Georgia had a limited offense for most of the season, but the USC transfer threw 10 touchdowns while helping the Bulldogs win four straight games to close the year.
Daniels will become the full-time starter for a unit returning a strong majority of its production. Defensively, the Dawgs need to rebuild the secondary but are very experienced in the front seven.
After opening the season with Clemson, UGA's schedule is relatively favorable. But that result will determine just how much margin for error the Bulldogs will have during SEC play.
Iowa State Cyclones
After earning a trip to the Big 12 title game in 2020, Iowa State has an excellent shot to contend for the national title.
In short: Basically everyone decided to stay.
Senior starters Greg Eisworth II, Jake Hummel, Sean Foster and Eyioma Uwazurike all opted to use the extra year of eligibility. Star juniors Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar and Mike Rose each postponed the chance to pursue an NFL career, too. They'll return alongside Breece Hall, one of the nation's top running backs.
Iowa State needs to outlast Oklahoma when it matters most, but head coach Matt Campbell has a championship threat in 2021.
LSU plummeted from a national championship to a 5-5 season. Considering what the Tigers lost following the 2019 campaign, that's not incomprehensible. Simultaneously, it was really bad!
The result is some dramatically varying predictions for 2021.
Personally, I'd tell you LSU is a Top 25 team and not a major contender. There's also a simple argument for the latter, and it's based on Myles Brennan's performance in limited action, the experience gained in a lost season and a home-heavy schedule. Alabama will host the rivalry game, but Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M will all travel to LSU.
With a couple of favorable bounces—or shoe throws—LSU will have a path back to the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Replacing quarterback Justin Fields will not be easy, but Ohio State is built to navigate his departure. And while we could focus on the roster, the Buckeyes' schedule is also awfully kind.
Yes, they host Oregon in early September. However, the other East Division threats have major concerns. Penn State and Michigan both had dreadful 2020 seasons, and Indiana needs quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to recover from an ACL injury.
Plus, the Buckeyes miss top West Division programs Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern in the regular season.
Ohio State has a terrific chance to enter the Big Ten Championship Game as an undefeated or one-loss team. Win there and the Buckeyes should return to the CFP.
Two early losses cost Oklahoma a shot at the 2020 CFP, but the Sooners ended the campaign on an eight-game winning streak and with a sixth consecutive Big 12 crown.
Although they don't return quite as much production as Iowa State, they're not terribly far off, either. The race for a Big 12 crown will be extremely competitive, and the Spencer Rattler-led Sooners are the deserving preseason favorite.
Rattler totaled 3,191 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, and Oklahoma only lost Charleston Rambo in the receiving corps. Additionally, running back Kennedy Brooks will return from his opt-out.
As long as the Sooners successfully retool the offensive line and reload at cornerback, they'll be positioned for a fifth CFP trip.
Now that quarterback Tyler Shough has transferred, Oregon is a tough inclusion. The 2021 schedule is loaded with road games, including an early tilt at Ohio State. Wisconsin and Notre Dame are among the teams with a reasonable case for the final spot.
Of the third-tier contenders, though, the Ducks have the most experienced team. Oregon is ninth in returning production, according to ESPN's Bill Connelly. That includes star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and several key linebackers.
Granted, it all comes back to the quarterback. Whether it's Boston College transfer Anthony Brown, incoming freshman Ty Thompson or someone else, Oregon needs a new starter to navigate a tricky slate.
But thanks to their experience—especially on defense—the two-time reigning Pac-12 champs must be respected.
Texas A&M Aggies
Similar to Iowa State, Texas A&M received a valuable boost because of the eligibility freeze. Four defensive starters and two likely contributors are returning for another senior year. Overall, the Aggies only need to replace two first-stringers on defense.
That's a strong start. Additionally, they'll return top running backs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane, along with pass-catchers Ainias Smith, Jalen Wydermyer, Caleb Chapman and others.
Now, the Aggies need a quarterback.
The likely replacement for Kellen Mond is Haynes King, a former blue-chip recruit who's attempted four passes in college. Without question, even a home-filled SEC West schedule is daunting for a first-year starter behind a retooled offensive line. But if King thrives, Texas A&M has a well-built roster surrounding him.
Consider this an absolute best-case scenario for USC, which has serious issues on the offensive line. If that doesn't change, it's totally plausible that poor blocking will ruin the Trojans' season.
The passing game, though, keeps USC interesting.
Drake London and Bru McCoy are the foundation of a high-upside receiving corps for quarterback Kedon Slovis. Despite that flawed offensive line and no threat of a running game in 2020, the Trojans still averaged 33.3 points and posted a 5-1 record.
Plus, they have a favorable schedule. Trips to Notre Dame, Arizona State and Cal won't be easy, yet the Trojans host Stanford and Utah while missing Oregon and Washington.
Like LSU, USC may need a couple of friendly bounces. But this offense and an unspectacular Pac-12 make that a real possibility.