College Football Teams with Best Shot to Go Undefeated in 2021
Although the four-team College Football Playoff offers a small margin for error, the safest path to competing for a national championship involves an undefeated record.
Well, for power-conference programs, of course.
The most successful teams lately are expected to stay that way in 2021. Considering what has happened in the past decade, nobody will be surprised to see Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State or Oklahoma among the most likely unbeaten teams.
Looking ahead to the fall, however, Alabama and Oklahoma both have a key contender in their respective conference.
Although neither Cincinnati nor Coastal Carolina could crack the CFP conversation with a perfect regular-season record in 2020, we're not solely focused on the Power Five. Finishing off an undefeated year, no matter the postseason reward, would be a huge accomplishment.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Key games: vs. Miami (Sep. 4 in Atlanta), at Florida (Sep. 18), at Texas A&M (Oct. 9), vs. LSU (Nov. 6), at Auburn (Nov. 27)
Consider this a zero on the surprise meter.
Sure, Alabama needs to break in a new quarterback. Yes, the offense must replace several key contributors, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. The Crimson Tide lost a top performer at each level of the defense, too.
But it's not like Nick Saban and Co. haven't figured this out before. Alabama has six championships in the past 12 years. Plus, the Tide have entered the College Football Playoff with an undefeated record three times in the last half-decade.
As long as quarterback Bryce Young settles into his full-time starting job and the defense is a little stingier, Alabama should be threatening for an undefeated record again.
Key games: vs. Georgia (Sep. 4 in Charlotte), at NC State (Sep. 25), at Pitt (Oct. 23), vs. Florida State (Oct. 30)
The first impression of Clemson's schedule is straightforward: If the Tigers win the opener, they're very likely returning to the College Football Playoff for the seventh straight year.
Clemson meets Georgia for neutral-site showdown to begin the campaign. Considering the rest of the schedule, Dabo Swinney's team could afford a loss. Knocking off UGA, however, means Clemson also has a favorable road to an undefeated record.
The ACC continues to lack a true contender to Clemson, which loses star quarterback Trevor Lawrence but has D.J. Uiagalelei ready to take over. Additionally, the defense brings back a strong majority of its production and should be overpowering.
Maybe a trip to NC State or Pitt becomes an issue. Perhaps UCF transfer McKenzie Milton propels Florida State to a strong year.
But there's a whole lot of uncertainty in the ACC around Clemson, the undisputed top team in the league.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Key games: vs. Kansas (Sep. 11), at Arkansas State (Oct. 7), at Appalachian State (Oct. 20), vs. Georgia State (Nov. 13)
Coastal Carolina put together an incredible 2020, finishing the regular season 11-0 with a true freshman at quarterback. Grayson McCall accounted for 3,057 yards of total offense and 33 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
And the Chanticleers have a great chance at repeating the feat.
Versatile running back CJ Marable and star defensive end Tarron Jackson are headed to the NFL. Otherwise, Coastal Carolina returns, well, almost everyone else. Only two other players even participated in CCU's Pro Day with Marable and Jackson.
The lack of a threatening nonconference game―sorry, Kansas―gives Coastal Carolina an edge over Cincinnati (Indiana, Notre Dame), Liberty (Ole Miss) and Louisiana (Texas).
Even without CFP upside, Coastal Carolina merits the mention.
Key games: vs. Clemson (Sep. 4 in Charlotte), at Auburn (Oct. 9), vs. Kentucky (Oct. 16), vs. Florida (Oct. 30 in Jacksonville)
One of Clemson or Georgia is guaranteed to vanish from this conversation on the opening weekend of September. Even if you expect to pick Clemson, though, let's say Georgia wins.
After that, the Bulldogs have a remarkably manageable slate.
Georgia always plays Auburn―this season, the Dawgs happen to be on the road―and clashes with Florida in Jacksonville. There is no SEC gauntlet for Georgia, which avoids all of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and even Mississippi in crossover play.
The other conference road games are Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and UGA travels to rival Georgia Tech. Not exactly a daunting slate outside of Athens, either.
But it all hinges on that Sep. 4 result against Clemson.
Iowa State Cyclones
Key games: vs. Iowa (Sep. 11), at Kansas State (Oct. 16), at West Virginia (Oct. 30), vs. Texas (Nov. 6), at Oklahoma (Nov. 20)
Since 2017, Iowa State has a total of 19 losses. Exclude bowls, and the number drops by two. Of those 17 losses, eight have happened in the opening month of the season.
Beyond hosting rival Iowa, the Cyclones must navigate FCS foe Northern Iowa―which took ISU to three overtimes in 2019―and trips to UNLV and Baylor in September. That's not an incredibly difficult stretch on paper, but the trend is important to know.
On the other hand, the Big 12 slate is an arduous one. While the Cyclones host Texas, they travel to Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
But if there's ever a season to win anyway, it's 2021.
Iowa State returns quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and five starters on the offensive line. On defense, pass-rushers Will McDonald and Eyioma Uwazurike, linebackers Mike Rose, Jake Hummel and O'Rien Vance and defensive backs Greg Eisworth II and Isheem Young are back.
Purdy's occasional nightmare games are a concern, but Iowa State undoubtedly has the talent to finish undefeated.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Key games: vs. Oregon (Sep. 11), at Indiana (Oct. 23), vs. Penn State (Oct. 30), at Michigan (Nov. 27)
Similar to Clemson, Ohio State has an "until proven otherwise" benefit of the doubt. The key difference is the Big Ten has a stronger group of second-tier programs than the ACC.
However, those matchups arrive in the latter part of the season.
Ohio State kicks off the campaign at Minnesota and home to Oregon, but the next four contests are against Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers and Maryland. While the Buckeyes' new quarterback―likely C.J. Stroud―has a trickly welcome, that's a friendly stretch to learn and build confidence before a bumpy finish.
Indiana put a scare into the Buckeyes last season and finished 6-2. Penn State and Michigan both struggled in 2020, but they routinely have the Big Ten's most talented rosters after OSU.
Get by Oregon, and Ohio State should be in terrific shape. It's easier to pick out a potential upset for the Buckeyes than Clemson, though.
Key games: at Kansas State (Oct. 2), vs. Texas (Oct. 9 in Dallas), vs. Iowa State (Nov. 20), at Oklahoma State (Nov. 27)
Since 2017, Oklahoma has only lost regular-season games to Iowa State (twice), Kansas State (twice) and Texas. Will the Sooners finally be able to defeat all three? Throw in November trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State and this is a tough schedule.
As usual, OU will lean on a dynamic offense. Heisman Trophy candidate Spencer Rattler leads a scoring attack that should be among the most productive units in the country.
The bigger question is the secondary, which lost corner/nickelbacks Tre Brown, Tre Norwood and Brendan Radley-Hiles. Fortunately for the Sooners, they have a superb defensive line with Nik Bonitto, Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Jalen Redmond.
Oklahoma has a single undefeated Big 12 record (2016) in its six-year conference title streak. History says the Sooners will drop a game, but a 49-6 league mark in that span shows they're always close, too.