Ranking College Football's Best Dynamic Duos in 2021
Several college football one-two punches can hit you in the mouth for a knockout.
There are offensive skill-position duos who are like the gridiron's versions of tag-team wrestling tandems who gang up on the opponent and barrage them before they know it. Others are delivering blows from the defensive and can change games on a dime.
All of these duos have shown promise, even if some of their potential is just being realized. The criteria used for these rankings is the ability of the tandem to team up and wreak havoc on the other team and take the game over. Plenty of teammates fit the bill, but these are the best.
Here are the most explosive dynamic duos in the sport.
12. Sam Howell and Khafre Brown, North Carolina Tar Heels
Maybe only the Alabama Crimson Tide lost the offensive production that bolted Chapel Hill after the 2020 season.
It will be extremely difficult to replace the dynamic running back tandem of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, as well as star pass-catchers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. But the North Carolina Tar Heels still have gunslinging signal-caller Sam Howell, and he has weapons around him.
The best of those could be Khafre Brown. As a freshman a season ago, the receiver finished with just 15 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns, but his strong Orange Bowl showing (two catches, 40 yards) has led to some offseason excitement.
Brown is the younger brother of Dyami, who had a terrific career at UNC, especially after coach Mack Brown returned to the school in 2019.
When you've got a quarterback as good as Howell, you've got to throw the ball all over the field. And with Dyami and Newsome gone, Khafre will benefit while showing off his star power.
With the running backs off to the pros, this offense will open it up again, so look for this duo to hook up for a lot of scores.
11. Desmond Ridder and Jerome Ford, Cincinnati Bearcats
This could be a special year for coach Luke Fickell's Cincinnati Bearcats. Win back-to-back early-season showdowns against Indiana and Notre Dame, and the College Football Playoff talk is a reality.
Yes, they're a long way from inking themselves into the Final Four bracket, but the Bearcats have weapons all over the field. And though the trenches feature question marks, there's enough talent elsewhere to make the team a threat to everybody they play.
Cincinnati's biggest star, of course, is quarterback Desmond Ridder, who could ride a huge final season in the Queen City into the NFL's first round or two.
Last year, he teamed with Gerrid Doaks for a terrific offensive duo, but Doaks is off to the NFL. In a featured role, his former backup could be better. That's Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, who can make a house call at any time.
With defenses keying on Ridder's dual-threat skill set, they'd better not forget about Ford, or he can hurt them just as badly.
A loaded defense and quality coaching are a couple of reasons this AAC juggernaut could make noise on a national level again this year, but the Ridder-Ford duo must perform at a high level if it's going to happen.
It's a strong bet it will.
10. Jayden Daniels and Rachaad White, Arizona State Sun Devils
One of the biggest sleeper picks in college football this year could be coach Herm Edwards' Arizona State Sun Devils, who return the majority of their playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, they could be the top unit in the Pac-12. On offense, Edwards features a rising star quarterback in Jayden Daniels, who should improve dramatically in his junior year. He already has elite athletic ability, and his growing knowledge of the system should pay huge dividends.
The supporting cast around him is terrific too. While Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata have breakout ability at running back, the best of the bunch a season ago was JUCO transfer Rachaad White, who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
With weapons everywhere, Sun Devils fans should be excited about the possibility of knocking off USC in the Pac-12 South and heading to the conference title game.
But for that to happen, Daniels will have to turn into a dependable quarterback, distributing the ball all over the field and taking off when plays break down. White needs another huge year and a surge to the top of his position in the league.
Those two can post numbers with the best of them, and if they evolve in 2021, Arizona State could start to dominate.
9. D.J. Uiagalelei and Justyn Ross, Clemson Tigers
This inclusion is a big gamble, but the first of two Clemson tandems on this list have as much upside as anybody.
Elite quarterback Trevor Lawrence is off to the NFL where he's the likely top overall pick. But don't feel sorry for head coach Dabo Swinney; the cupboard is far from bare.
A season ago when Lawrence sat because of a positive COVID-19 test, true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei showed why he was a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in 2020. He threw for a combined 781 yards and four touchdowns in two starts against Boston College and Notre Dame, going 1-1. Uiagalelei also ran for two more scores. He's 6'4", 250 pounds, possesses a strong arm and has good athleticism for a quarterback his size.
One guy he didn't get a chance to throw to was Justyn Ross, who sat out the year because of a scary congenital fusion condition in his neck and spine. But the star pass-catcher is back in '21 with a lot to prove.
If Ross can show the pros he is all the way back from the injury, he'll be a high draft pick next year. With Uiagalelei throwing him the ball, they could be one of the most prolific aerial combinations in the sport.
8. Noah Sewell and Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Ducks
Let's head north to Eugene, Oregon, where the Ducks have a good chance to continue their onslaught on the Pac-12.
Plenty of question marks surround this offense, as Oregon has to find a starting quarterback after Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech, but coordinator Joe Moorhead has a slew of talented options.
On the other side, Oregon is loaded and should have another electric unit on all levels of the defense, despite some defections to the NFL.
After losing four-year leading tackler Troy Dye to the pros before last year, head coach Mario Cristobal added true freshman Noah Sewell, and all he did was nearly lead the team in tackles and blossom into one of the league's best defenders.
Sewell won Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, the second consecutive time a Duck did that, joining Kayvon Thibodeaux. The elite edge-rusher is one of the top players in college football and is primed for a huge year after a steady, strong sophomore campaign (three sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss).
Thibodeaux can play with his hand on the ground or standing up, and Sewell anchors the middle to give offenses fits. They've got talented teammates like Mase Funa and redshirt freshman Justin Flowe who could join the party in giving Oregon one of the nation's best defenses.
7. Will Anderson Jr. and Christian Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has also welcomed extraordinary freshman talents who were impossible to keep off the field in recent years.
Unlike the Ducks, the Crimson Tide can't boast back-to-back league Freshmen Defensive Players of the Year, but both Will Anderson Jr. and Christian Harris were deserving.
Last year, Anderson terrorized offenses with his relentless pressure and lightning-quick step off the edge, earning a starting job for the national champions early and becoming one of the biggest stars on a team full of standouts.
The season before, Harris had an amazing campaign too, though a little more quietly. With Joshua McMillon and Dylan Moses out with injuries, he stepped into an inside linebacker role and led all SEC freshmen with 7.5 tackles for loss and made several All-Freshman teams.
It's been a while since Alabama was known for its defense. But while the Tide still have talented playmakers on offense, they may have to rely a little more on Pete Golding's unit as offensive arrivals get up to speed.
A duo like Anderson and Harris can do the heavy lifting and keep opponents out of the end zone.
6. Brock Purdy and Breece Hall, Iowa State Cyclones
The only thing holding back Iowa State's offensive leaders from being the country's best is more consistency from Brock Purdy.
It's now or never for the senior quarterback, who has shown flashes of brilliance in helping head coach Matt Campbell build his program into a steady force that should contend for the Big 12 (if not bigger things) in 2021.
But Purdy has been known to throw up a clunker or two in big games (see his three-interception performance in last year's Big 12 title game), and that has to end.
The other star playmaker, junior running back Breece Hall, is as steady and good as they come. He was seventh nationally in yards per game with 131 and led college football with 1,572 rushing yards a season ago.
Hall also finished with 21 touchdowns, averaged 5.6 yards per carry and was hard to handle no matter who he played.
The Cyclones have pass-catchers in Xavier Hutchinson and Charlie Kolar in a balanced, explosive attack. But Purdy has to be better. He has that ability, and it's those moments of greatness and his experience that have this duo this high on the list.
5. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, Clemson Tigers
No tandem of first-year teammates had the impact that Clemson defensive linemen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy did a season ago.
When you combine that type of unteachable talent with a keen developer like coordinator Brent Venables, the results are incredible. That's why the Tigers may have a better defense line than their legendary unit from three years ago.
That team featured Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and others.
There's a reason Bresee and Murphy were among the top prospects in the 2020 recruiting class, and they showed why right away. Bresee plugged gaps in the middle of the line and showed the propensity to collapse the pocket from the interior.
Murphy was perhaps the best run defender at defensive end in the ACC and proved he can get after quarterbacks too.
They combined for 84 tackles, including 17 for a loss, eight sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a safety. And half the time, they were still learning what they were doing.
That's got to be terrifying for the rest of college football that these guys could play four more years if they want (though they won't).
4. Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks, LSU Tigers
No shortage of swagger will be present in the LSU secondary in 2021, and for good reason.
Cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond has two of the nation's best in Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks, who emerged the past two seasons as some of the nation's top freshmen.
Stingley battled nagging injuries and illness in 2020 and took a step back statistically, but there's no reason to believe the 6'1", 195-pound superstar will stay down for long. If he's healthy, he's one of the sport's best playmakers.
If he has another big showing, he could wind up at the top of the NFL draft's first round.
With Stingley not himself a season ago while the Bayou Bengals suffered growing pains, a bright spot was true freshman Eli Ricks, who moved from prestigious Mater Dei High School in California to IMG Academy in Florida and then DBU.
All he did as a freshman was finish second in the SEC in interceptions and become a shutdown presence quarterbacks tried to avoid at times.
These guys have the short memories cornerbacks must have, and they have game-breaking ability that could turn both into a pair of the biggest playmaking defenders in the nation.
3. Kedon Slovis and Drake London, USC Trojans
After losing star receivers like Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, most teams would take a significant step back in the passing game. Something like that may happen at a place like North Carolina, where the Tar Heels will miss their two star receivers.
That shouldn't be the case at USC.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and head coach Clay Helton have stockpiled weapons for quarterback Kedon Slovis, who could be a Heisman Trophy contender if he has a healthy year in 2021. Playmakers are all around him.
While Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford are getting some offseason buzz, the returning passing-game weapon who'll play Robin to Slovis' Batman is Drake London.
The 6'5", 210-pound receiver is built like a tight end and can flex over and play the position if necessary. But he's also fast enough to make plays on the perimeter. A year ago, sharing reps with St. Brown and Vaughns, London grabbed 33 passes for 502 yards and scored three touchdowns.
When you consider the Trojans played just six games, those numbers would extrapolate into 1,000-plus yards in 2021.
If Slovis is a factor for individual honors, it will be because London is his go-to guy and one of the best playmakers in the Pac-12.
2. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Ohio State
It's not a question of how exciting Ohio State receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson can be.
The only concern is who's going to get them the football?
Head coach Ryan Day and Co. have plenty of talented quarterback options, and they will find the right guy to lead the way. When they do, Olave and Wilson will be a problem for defensive backs across the nation.
A season ago with Justin Fields throwing them the ball, they combined for 93 catches in eight games, amassing 1,452 yards and 13 touchdowns. Olave had 729 of those, but as much of a big-play threat as he is, Wilson had six fewer yards on seven fewer catches.
Their value isn't just in big numbers. Pro Football Focus routinely looks beyond the stats, and there's still no question who the best returning pass-catching duo in college football is.
"Ohio State has the clear-cut best WR duo in the country," said Anthony Treash of PFF.
That's why it's paramount Day finds the right signal-caller—starting with a competitive spring practice—and lets him lean on the two guys who can churn out yards with the best of them.
1. Spencer Rattler and Marvin Mims, Oklahoma Sooners
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has a stable full of weapons.
Now, quit faking your shocked face and realize that just because a bunch of guys most haven't heard of dot that depth chart, and just because an experienced playmaker like Charleston Rambo transferred to Miami, doesn't mean the Sooners will regress.
As a matter of fact, they should be even better offensively.
The catalyst for it all is redshirt sophomore Spencer Rattler, who has emerged as a Heisman Trophy front-runner after a monster second half of the season while OU finished as one of the nation's hottest teams.
While Jadon Haselwood is returning from injury and there are new playmakers like Tennessee transfer running back Eric Gray and incoming freshmen Mario Williams and Cody Jackson, the top returning target was also a freshman in 2020.
Marvin Mims was one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12 as a true freshman, leading the Sooners with 610 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 37 catches. His touchdown catch total led the Big 12 and was an Oklahoma freshman record.
The Rattler-to-Mims refrain will become familiar this year, as Riley will boast the top scoring tandem in the nation. It's going to be fun to watch these guys fly all over the field.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.