Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2021 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2021

Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2021 College Football Season

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    These days, it's difficult to find many star seniors in college football. Sometimes there are late bloomers, and with others, you get a few who elect to hang around for the college experience.

    Most of the time, if the big bucks of the NFL come calling, it's hard for amateurs to turn them down. 

    Just because there aren't as many stars as there are in the junior and sophomore classes doesn't mean there aren't terrific players among the 2021 seniors.

    After all, players like offensive line anchors Ohio State's Thayer Munford, Kentucky's Darian Kinnard and Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum, Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr., Indiana pass-catcher Ty Fryfogle, Cincinnati defensive back Ahmad Gardner and Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan failed to make the list.

    Neither did quarterbacks like Miami's D'Eriq King, Minnesota's Tanner Morgan, LSU's Myles Brennan, Kent State's Dustin Crum or San Jose State's Nick Starkel. King would have made the list (probably high on it, too) if not for the torn ACL suffered in late December, but his status is enough to barely knock him off here.

    Plenty of quality players made it, including a pair of signal-callers, a bunch of defenders and a group of upperclassman talent from the Big Ten. Using production, projection and potential to star, we narrowed the list down to the 10 best. 

10. Devin Lloyd, Linebacker, Utah

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Everybody is talking about Oregon and USC in the Pac-12, while Arizona State considered a bit of a sleeper in the South.

    You shouldn't forget about Utah, though.

    Coach Kyle Whittingham's team is ready to make some noise, and it has a lot of key pieces back, including all 11 defensive starters. That group is led by potential All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd.

    A year ago, the 6'3", 232-pound junior had 10 tackles for a loss in five games and made plays all over the field. He is a captain who was a Butkus Award finalist, an honor that goes to the nation's top linebacker.

    He elected to return to try to do something special and win a championship in 2021, and he could be the anchor on a unit that could quietly become one of the nation's best.

    The Chula Vista, California, native has improved every year he's been in Salt Lake City. After an honorable mention All-Pac-12 season in 2019, he was a first-teamer last season, finishing with 48 total tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.

    He will terrorize offenses throughout the conference this year and stands to make himself a lot of money with a big final season.

9. Jordan Davis, Nose Guard, Georgia

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    If you're looking at statistics, nothing is going to jump out at you when looking at Georgia nose guard Jordan Davis.

    Watch him impact a game, though. The big-bodied nose guard truly shows his impact throughout the grueling SEC season, dominating the trenches, plugging gaps and changing the scope of the game. He is a stalwart on coordinator Dan Lanning's defense and an underappreciated player.

    At 6'6", 330 pounds, Davis is a force to be reckoned with, and he has the potential to swallow up running backs and the athleticism and length to make things difficult for quarterbacks.

    He would have made a lot of money in the NFL, but he elected to return to Athens. He's almost certain to draw double-teams yet again, which will allow the Bulldogs' talented second-level playmakers and edge defenders to rack up stats.

    "I felt like I could use a little bit more development," Davis told Chuck Dowdle on 680 AM's Bulldog Roundtable (via Athens Banner-Herald's Marc Weiszer). "I want to achieve as much as I can here, win a national championship. Having a love for the team and knowing we still have work to do. When I really sat down and thought about it, it wasn't a hard decision to make."

    Davis is arguably the most valuable player on one of the nation's top defenses. He was named a second-team All-American as voted on by the American Football Coaches Association a season ago and was a second-team All-SEC pick, too.

    This year, he could explode for an even more decorated season.

8. Jahan Dotson, Wide Receiver, Penn State

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    If you like Big Ten upperclassman talent, you need to watch the 2021 college football season. When it comes to veteran leadership, there are tons of playmakers who could carry their teams next season.

    One of those is explosive pass-catcher Jahan Dotson of Penn State, who narrowly beat out Indiana counterpart Ty Fryfogle because of his ability to stretch the field and make game-breaking plays. There's another receiver from the conference on this list who is the best at that, too.

    In a disappointing 2020 season for coach James Franklin's Nittany Lions, Dotson was a bright spot, and it was a bit of a surprise he returned to Happy Valley for another year considering just how much talent Penn State has watched leave early the past couple of seasons.

    Last year, Dotson was third in the conference with an average of 98.2 yards per game, but his 884 yards led the league, and he also tied with Purdue's David Bell for the Big Ten lead in receiving touchdowns with eight. 

    The 5'11", 182-pound Pennsylvania native isn't the biggest or flashiest pass-catcher, which is probably why he decided to come back instead of entering a receiver-heavy draft. With another big season, he's going to prove he belongs in the conversation as an elite playmaker.

    He also could surge up the Penn State career receiving list (currently 13th in TDs and 17th in receiving yards, per his bio) with another nice season, so there's a lot to play for in 2021. 

7. Josh Jobe, Cornerback, Alabama

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    When you share a football field—and a defensive backfield—with elite superstars, it's hard to flash. But even with Josh Jobe playing in the shadow of probable first-round pick Patrick Surtain II a season ago, he showed he was legit.

    The national champion Crimson Tide featured stars all over the field, but Jobe more than held his own. That's why he has the ability to be a shutdown corner in 2021 with Surtain moving on to the NFL. This could be a massive season season for the 6'1", 192-pound cornerback from Miami.

    Playing at the other cornerback spot opposite Surtain a season ago, Jobe finished with 55 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and two sacks. He also recorded 11 pass breakups to go with two forced fumbles and one quarterback pressure.

    Now, he'll step into the spotlight, and he's ready. This could be an All-American-type year for him.

    The elder statesman of the group has elite talent around him, including Malachi Moore, Brian Branch, Jalyn Armour-Davis and a bunch of terrific freshmen, but he could be the straw that stirs things up on the back end for a Tide defense that might be even better this year.

    "Josh knows what he's doing," head coach Nick Saban told BamaOnline's Charlie Potter. "He's confident in doing what he's supposed to do."

6. Desmond Ridder, Quarterback, Cincinnati

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Desmond Ridder isn't the top quarterback in the AAC; that distinction belongs to Central Florida's Dillon Gabriel.

    But nobody's upside is higher than the Cincinnati leader's, and he has the ability to have a breakout season in 2021 for a team that is a sleeper to make it to the College Football Playoff. If the Bearcats can somehow upset Notre Dame and Indiana and then run the table in the league, they'll do it.

    Ridder is the key to it all, and with the offensive line being one of the few question marks on coach Luke Fickell's loaded team, Ridder's mobility will be a factor. 

    In 2020, the 6'4", 215-pound dual-threat quarterback completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 2,296 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. He added 592 rushing yards and 12 more scores, proving he can do it all. He is a gamer, too, showing up in the biggest matchups.

    Despite being sacked eight times in the Peach Bowl loss to Georgia, Ridder had 206 passing yards and two scores. He also had big games to close the year in the AAC Championship Game win over Tulsa and the conference-clinching win over UCF.

    While his pro potential is all over the place, Ridder could surge up draft boards with a monster final season. He's an intriguing prospect who has the wheels, the arm and the athleticism to make scouts stand up and take notice. Adding another championship-caliber season would help that, too.

5. Brock Purdy, Quarterback, Iowa State

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    There probably won't be a more polarizing player on this list than Brock Purdy.

    On the one hand, the Iowa State quarterback isn't anywhere near as explosive as a healthy D'Eriq King (who didn't make the list) and doesn't have the same athletic skills as Desmond Ridder (who did), but there's so much in Purdy's tool box with which to work.

    When the Cyclones signal-caller is on, he is a methodical quarterback who can dissect a defense and lead coach Matt Campbell's offense to touchdowns while torching defenses. But Purdy is prone to giveaways, and that problem reared its head several times last season.

    He threw three interceptions in the Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma, three more against Baylor and didn't have a single touchdown pass in a disappointing season-opening loss to Louisiana.

    But the 6'1", 212-pound quarterback is a three-year starter who's thrown a total of 62 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions while amassing nearly 9,000 yards. He's also run for 939 more and 18 scores. Yes, he's had some bad games, but he's also steady.

    With all the weapons around him in 2021, Purdy has the potential to be spectacular and ride a big final season to a Big 12 title and surge up draft boards. This is going to be the year he puts everything together.

4. Haskell Garrett, Defensive Tackle, Ohio State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    The Ohio State Buckeyes fell just short of a national title in 2020, running into a crimson buzzsaw and one of the best Alabama teams ever assembled. 

    The way the Crimson Tide dissected the Buckeyes defense in the championship game probably didn't sit well with OSU, and there are a lot of important pieces of that puzzle returning in '21 to try to make things right.

    While losing quarterback Justin Fields is going to hurt on the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes have weapons all over the place, and the defense boasts an important returning leader in second-team All-American defensive tackle Haskell Garrett.

    The 6'2", 300-pound Las Vegas native didn't have a huge stats year, much like Georgia's Jordan Davis, but he was noticed regardless. Despite finishing as just a third-team All-Big Ten selection, Garrett was a first-team All-American according to CBS and a second-teamer per The Athletic.

    He was also a second-team selection from the Associated Press and a first-team pick for Pro Football Focus.

    "He's been here, and now he's moved that stick very high," legendary OSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson told Eleven Warriors' Colin Hass-Hill. "Now he's in a place where I call rare air. I talk to a lot of guys about that. Now it's time to move forward."

    If Garrett takes another step, he could soar up this list.

3. Mohamed Ibrahim, Running Back, Minnesota

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Plenty of players get more headlines than Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, but the Golden Gophers' offensive star is just the latest in a long line of stat-producers for coach P.J. Fleck.

    After a huge 2020 season, he could wind up putting forth an even better performance this year.

    Despite Fleck's team struggling, Ibrahim was the Big Ten's 2020 Running Back of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection, finishing the year with 1,076 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. That would have been a big year for a full season, but the Gophers played just seven games.

    He set the single-season school record with 153.7 rushing yards per game, and his four rushing scores against Maryland and Illinois tied the school record for most in a game. Ibrahim has now run for more than 100 yards in eight consecutive games.

    It's possible he's the most productive returning running back in all of college football.

    Ibrahim is a big reason Fleck is bullish on this year's Gophers.

    "What they went though together [in 2020], what they've overcome together, how they've failed together, how they've succeeded together," Fleck told the Pioneer Press' Andy Greder. "They've gone through it together and we have a lot of guys that have done it. And to me, that is a dangerous football team."

    And nobody is more lethal than the rising senior running back from Baltimore.

2. Mike Rose, Linebacker, Iowa State

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    Matthew Putney/Associated Press

    While pro potential does play a role in positioning on this list, the most weight lies with on-field production, and it's tough to have a better resume than Iowa State rising senior linebacker Mike Rose.

    The 6'4", 245-pound linebacker from Brecksville, Ohio, is the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and he returns to Ames to anchor a corps that should be among the nation's best, if not running away with that honor.

    Alongside teammates Jake Hummel and O'Rien Vance, Rose should shine once again. But it's going to be difficult to top the dream season he had a year ago when he led the Big 12 with 96 tackles and all college football linebackers with five interceptions. He added 10.5 tackles for a loss, six hurries and two pass breakups.

    Even so, that's not good enough, according to him. He returned to improve his pass-rushing skills, prove to the NFL he's a legit draft candidate and, most importantly, win a championship.

    "Mike Rose was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year but he still feels like he has a lot more to accomplish," Iowa State linebackers coach Tyson Veidt told The Gazette's Ben Visser. "…If you were to ask Mike if that award was the end of the road, he would not agree with that. He believes there's more for him and especially us as a defense to accomplish."

    There may be a bit remaining for Rose to prove to scouts, but he is about as good of a collegiate defender as there is in all of college football.

1. Chris Olave, Wide Receiver, Ohio State

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    While plenty of shuffling, rethinking and tough decisions went into the order of the other nine players on this list, there was never any question who college football's top returning senior is.

    That would be Ohio State big-play pass-catcher Chris Olave, who will team with Garrett Wilson to give coach Ryan Day the nation's top playmaking duo of receivers.

    The 6'1", 189-pound San Marcos, California, native is a field-stretching phenom who can change games with one sprint to paydirt. It's become a common scene to watch him streak down the field past opposing defensive backs.

    Even with the Buckeyes having an embarrassment of receiving riches, Olave stands out. In 2020, he had 50 catches for 729 yards and seven touchdowns a year after breaking out for 840 yards and 12 scores. 

    It's going to be an adjustment with Justin Fields not throwing him the ball, but the Buckeyes will find a talented signal-caller, and Olave will shine once again. The speedy, first-team All-Big Ten receiver has All-American written all over him, and he's an outstanding pro prospect.

    "I feel like I needed to work on some things so I came back to get in the weight room more and get a lot stronger, turn into a more complete receiver so I can be ready Week 1 when I go to the NFL," Olave said, according to Lettermen Row's Pete Nakos.

    With a big year, he could be a top-20 pick.


    Recruit rankings via 247Sports. Stats via CFBStats and Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. 


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