Projecting Every Conference's Best Receiving Corps for the 2021 CFB Season
Every year, college football seems to become more of a glorified passing contest.
Defense, blocking, running and special teams remain critical components of building a title contender, and the most productive passing attacks don't necessarily belong to the teams most likely to win the College Football Playoff. All the same, it is almost impossible to truly contend in the modern era of the sport without at least an above-average receiving corps.
So, which teams figure to be the best in that department in 2021?
Rather than our tried-and-true approach of ranking the 10 best (insert position group) in the country, we wanted to make sure to show some love to more than just the occasional Group of Five team. Thus, we're taking a conference-by-conference look at the various position groups for the 2021 season.
Now, it's time to venture out of the trenches and into the world of wideouts.
Within each conference, we'll highlight which team should reign supreme at that position, pinpoint the one team most likely to make a serious push for that title and mention another squad worth monitoring. That third "Keep an Eye on" group isn't necessarily expected to be third-best in the conference, but it's an intriguing unit.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
Important Note: "Receiving Corps" includes both wide receivers and tight ends, but not pass-catching running backs or fullbacks. Where relevant, we'll certainly mention players who fall into that latter bucket, but they are an afterthought as opposed to a factor in choosing the Best of the Bunch or the Top Challenger in a conference. We'll focus more specifically on running backs later in this series.
American Athletic Conference
Best of the Bunch: Memphis Tigers
Damonte Coxie entered the NFL draft and Tahj Washington transferred to USC. Throw in needing to replace three-year starting QB Brady White and you're more than welcome to have some doubts about Memphis' passing game in 2021.
But as they move on from that former Arizona State signal caller, the Tigers are setting up Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell for immediate success at quarterback. (Or maybe it'll be LSU transfer Peter Parrish. We shall see.)
Along with DeVonta Smith, Marlon Williams, Jaelon Darden and Jonathan Adams Jr., Calvin Austin III was one of five players with at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2020. He's the only member of that quintet still playing college football. Memphis also retains sixth-year tight end Sean Dykes, who made 47 catches for 581 yards and seven scores last year. Good luck finding a better one-two punch in this conference.
Watch out for Javon Ivory, too. He had 356 receiving yards as a redshirt freshman last year, and he's got the speed to put up big numbers in an expanded role.
Top Challenger: UCF Knights
The Knights lost three of their five best wide receivers to the 2021 NFL draft, and replacing Marlon Williams, Jacob Harris and Tre Nixon while also adjusting to a new coaching staff won't be easy. But they still have Dillon Gabriel slinging rockets at quarterback, as well as 2020 breakout star Jaylon Robinson (55 receptions, 979 yards, six touchdowns) running routes. They also added Nate Craig-Myers, Jordan Johnson and Brandon Johnson via the transfer portal. A third consecutive season averaging better than 300 passing yards per game is more than feasible.
Keep an Eye on: SMU Mustangs
SMU has three returning receivers who amassed at least 400 yards last season, most notably Reggie Roberson Jr., who had 474 yards in the team's first four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Mustangs also bring in former Oklahoma tight end Grant Calcaterra, which should help soften the blow of losing Kylen Granson (1,257 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons) to the NFL draft. He'll be reunited with fellow Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai, who is (presumably) finally going to get his shot as a starting quarterback.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Best of the Bunch: Clemson Tigers
Save for the one year with Kelly Bryant as the starting quarterback, Clemson has consistently had one of the most productive receiving groups in the ACC for the past decade. Needing to move on from the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and Tee Higgins didn't slow the Tigers down, and we see no reason to project a down year as they adjust to life after Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and Trevor Lawrence.
That may largely depend on Justyn Ross getting cleared to play. He had 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns between the 2018 and 2019 seasons before missing 2020 with a career-threatening spine condition. The expectation is that he'll be able to suit up this fall and that he'll become a first-team All-ACC wide receiver in the process, but no part of that is guaranteed just yet.
Even if he can't play, though, there's no shortage of talent on this roster. Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. were both top-10 wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class. E.J. Williams had an impressive true-freshman campaign in 2020 with more than 300 receiving yards. Beaux Collins could do the same this year. And tight end Braden Galloway is probably best in the ACC at that position now that Hunter Long and Brevin Jordan are out of the picture.
Having a star like D.J. Uiagalelei throwing the ball will make everything look easier, too.
Top Challenger: Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Last fall, Wake Forest had to replace 2019 starting quarterback Jamie Newman as well as his four favorite targets. Inexplicably, the Demon Deacons became even more potent on offense. Jaquarii Roberson exploded for 926 receiving yards after making just 13 receptions in the previous two seasons combined. Redshirt freshman Donavon Greene ranked second in the ACC in yards per reception (20.1), combining with fellow redshirt freshman Taylor Morin for 987 yards on 61 receptions. With that trio and QB Sam Hartman all back for another season, Wake Forest will at least be a team capable of scoring on anyone.
Keep an Eye on: North Carolina Tar Heels
UNC averaged better than 300 receiving yards per game in 2020, but lost all four of Sam Howell's favorite targets. Still, we're talking about the likely No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. With guys like Josh Downs, Khafre Brown, Beau Corrales, Garrett Walston and Emery Simmons still at his disposal, the Tar Heels offense should be fine. The ceiling for this receiving corps really depends on whether the Heels can adequately replace the two-headed monster of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter at running back, lest they risk becoming one-dimensional and easier to defend.
Big 12 Conference
Best of the Bunch: Oklahoma Sooners
After five consecutive seasons with at least one receiver who eclipsed 1,000 yards, Oklahoma didn't have anyone come anywhere close to that mark in 2020. The Sooners averaged 315 passing yards per game, but instead of one or two stars, they had 10 players with at least a dozen receptions.
But for the first time in a long time, at least there's a ton of familiarity atop the depth chart. Starting quarterback Spencer Rattler returns, as do wide receivers Theo Wease and Marvin Mims and H-back Austin Stogner. That trio combined for 1,562 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns last fall, and it's going to become one heck of a quartet with the return of Jadon Haselwood.
The No. 4 overall recruit in the 2019 class was well behind both CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo on the depth chart two years ago and missed most of last season with a torn ACL. Provided he can stay healthy this year, he should be the breakout star for a team that might lead the nation in passing yards.
Top Challenger: Iowa State Cyclones
As with Oklahoma, Iowa State's projected top producers already know each other quite well. Charlie Kolar is the clear choice for best tight end in the conference, if not the country. Teammate Chase Allen might be the Big 12's second-best tight end. After leading the Big 12 in receptions (64) in 2020, Xavier Hutchinson should be an easy choice for first-team all-conference in the preseason. And QB Brock Purdy is entering his fourth year as the starter. However, we've got Oklahoma's receiving corps at No. 1 because the Sooners utilize the deep ball much more frequently than the Cyclones do.
Keep an Eye on: West Virginia Mountaineers
Maybe don't expect a repeat of the 2018 season, when Will Grier led one of the best passing attacks in the nation. However, the Mountaineers attempted more than 40 passes per game last season and bring back all five guys who made at least 25 receptions. Winston Wright Jr. led the way with 47 grabs and was named second-team all-conference.
Big Ten Conference
Best of the Bunch: Ohio State Buckeyes
Not exactly a difficult decision here.
The Big Ten coaches voted Ohio State's Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson as the league's first-team wide receivers last fall. The Big Ten media had both members of the Buckeyes tandem on the second-team roster. Both guys will be back in 2021, and you're not going to find a better returning duo in the country. They combined for 1,452 yards and 13 touchdowns in OSU's eight-game season.
The Buckeyes will also bring back starting tight end and phenomenal red-zone target Jeremy Ruckert. And the supporting cast to that primary trio is anything but lacking in talent. In Gee Scott Jr. and 5-star phenoms Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State signed three of the top 10 wide receivers in the 2020 recruiting class. Just for good measure, they added three of the top 15 receivers in the 2021 class, including the No. 1 guy on that list, Emeka Egbuka.
Suffice it to say, whether C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III or Kyle McCord wins the starting QB job, he shouldn't have any trouble finding capable hands.
Top Challenger: Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers lost their top possession receiver, Whop Philyor, but they still have one of the nation's best deep threats in Ty Fryfogle and maybe the Big Ten's best tight end in Peyton Hendershot. Tom Allen also made some very intriguing acquisitions from the waiver wire. Getting former 5-star RB Stephen Carr from USC was the biggest splash, but he also snagged Florida State's D.J. Matthews Jr. and Texas A&M's Camron Buckley. Each one had more than 800 receiving yards from 2017-19 and should add some quality depth.
Keep an Eye on: Purdue Boilermakers
First it was Rondale Moore. Then David Bell became a breakout star. Dating back to his years at Western Kentucky, Jeff Brohm just has a knack for finding and developing these guys. Moore is gone now, but at least Bell is back as a potential first-team all-B1G talent. We'll see if Brohm has any other aces up his sleeve.
Best of the Bunch: UTSA Roadrunners
Each of the other Group of 5 leagues brings back at least two first-team all-conference wide receivers, but not Conference USA. Rice's Austin Trammell, UAB's Austin Watkins, Louisiana Tech's Adrian Hardy and, most notably, North Texas' Jaelon Darden are all gone, leaving behind quite the vacuum at the position.
And let's be sure to point out this was not a prolific passing league in 2020 to begin with. North Texas led Conference USA at 283.0 passing yards per game and Middle Tennessee was second in the league—tied for 62nd in the nation—at 230.4.
So, why not UTSA then?
The Roadrunners only averaged 199.9 passing yards per game last fall, but at least their dynamic duo is back. Zakhari Franklin ranked second (to Darden) in the league with 694 receiving yards. Joshua Cephus was sixth in that category, making 58 receptions for 547 yards. Those two might be enough for UTSA to reign supreme through the air.
Top Challenger: North Texas Mean Green
North Texas has ranked either first or second in Conference USA in passing yards per game in each of the past four seasons. Replacing Darden's 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns from last season alone won't be easy, but the combo of Jyaire Shorter and Deonte Simpson will at least give the Mean Green a chance. Shorter missed most of last season, but he has averaged slightly better than 20 yards per reception in his career and had nine touchdowns in 2019. Simpson went for 20.7 yards per catch in 2020 as one of the top deep threats in the league.
Keep an Eye on: Marshall Thundering Herd
Tight end Xavier Gaines and wide receiver Corey Gammage each eclipsed 400 receiving yards last fall and will return alongside sixth-year senior WR Willie Johnson. With RB Brenden Knox out of the picture and with QB Grant Wells more established after an impressive redshirt freshman campaign, the Thundering Herd at least have the pieces to embrace more of a pass-first offense under new head coach Charles Huff.
Best of the Bunch: Ball State Cardinals
Ball State's Justin Hall has accumulated at least 600 receiving yards in each of the past four seasons, and he had more receiving yards in 2020 (665) than any other returnee in the MAC.
No. 2 on that list? His teammate, Yo'Heinz Tyler, who made 42 receptions for 607 yards and a conference-best eight touchdowns. Tyler hasn't been as prolific as Hall, nor for as long, but he did have over 500 yards in 2019 before moving into a more prominent role last fall.
And watch out for Jalen McGaughy. He only made five receptions in 2020, but he racked up 171 yards and three touchdowns in those limited opportunities. Not too shabby for the third wheel in the receiving game.
Ball State is also on the extremely short list of teams that not only use a fullback, but also throw him the ball. Cody Rudy made 12 catches for 110 yards last fall and is back as a fifth-year senior. We didn't need to include him as part of the receiving corps in order to lock the Cardinals in as the best of the MAC, but he's a nice wild card for them.
Top Challenger: Toledo Rockets
Even though an injury to Eli Peters forced Toledo to change quarterbacks four games into the season, the Rockets led the MAC in passing yards per game with a mark of 325.8. All six of the team leaders in both receptions and yards will return this fall. (One of those six was running back Bryant Koback, who had more than twice as many receiving yards as any other MAC running back.) However, the team leader in yards (Isaiah Winstead) averaged fewer yards and receptions per game than both of Ball State's top guys, so we gave the nod to the Cardinals.
Keep an Eye on: Western Michigan Broncos
D'Wayne Eskridge was a huge loss, but the Broncos still have two established weapons in Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall. They also still have Kaleb Eleby at quarterback, who quietly had an incredible sophomore season of 18 touchdowns and two interceptions in six games. If DaShon Bussell plays more like he did in 2019 (27 receptions, 445 yards) than he did in 2020 (two receptions, 25 yards), WMU will be in good shape.
Mountain West Conference
Best of the Bunch: Nevada Wolf Pack
Nevada might mess around and have the most potent aerial assault in the entire country this season.
The Wolf Pack ranked 12th in passing yards per game in 2020 at a rate of 319.1, and they get everyone back. First and foremost, that includes quarterback Carson Strong, who completed 70.1 percent of his passes last fall with a 27-4 TD-INT ratio.
The list of returnees also includes his favorite target, Romeo Doubs (58 receptions, 1,002 yards, nine touchdowns), and his second-favorite target, tight end Cole Turner (49 receptions, 605 yards, nine touchdowns), who were both first-team All-MWC last year. Also back are Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart, each of whom made at least 20 catches for more than 200 yards.
What might elevate Nevada to No. 1 in the nation, though, is the return of Elijah Cooks. The team's leading receiver in 2019 had 76 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns before missing almost all of 2020 with a shoulder injury. Reintroducing him to an already strong group will be like throwing gas on a fire.
Top Challenger: Fresno State Bulldogs
While Nevada ranked 12th, Fresno State was fifth in the country in passing yards per game at 356.3. Like the Wolf Pack, the Bulldogs bring back just about everyone. Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly each averaged at least 55 receiving yards per game. And they also get back Zane Pope (47 receptions for 525 yards in 2019), a key player who missed most of last season.
Circle Oct. 23 on your calendar if you want to watch Nevada and Fresno State try to combine for 1,000 receiving yards in a head-to-head battle.
Keep an Eye on: Boise State Broncos
Boise State has an intriguing battle raging for the starting QB job between Hank Bachmeier and former USC transfer Jack Sears. The winner will have the privilege of throwing passes to Khalil Shakir and CT Thomas, each of whom has at least 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns in his receiving career. Shakir was particularly solid last year, averaging better than 100 yards per game.
Best of the Bunch: USC Trojans
It's kind of ridiculous that USC lost Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns—more than 5,000 combined career receiving yards—and yet this wasn't even a tough call.
That's partially because QB Kedon Slovis is on the short list of legitimate candidates to be taken No. 1 overall in the 2022 NFL draft. It's partially because USC's rushing attack has been so dreadful over the past two seasons that it has had little choice but to rely heavily on the wide receivers. It's also partially because of the transfer portal, where the Trojans added Colorado's K.D. Nixon and Memphis' Tahj Washington.
But it's mostly the culmination of several years of great recruiting at receiver. Bru McCoy, Kyle Ford and Gary Bryant Jr. were each top-50 overall recruits in their respective classes, and Drake London was a lower 4-star guy who has more than delivered on his potential.
All told, USC has (at least) six wide receivers capable of going off for 100 yards on any given night, as well as a quarterback plenty capable of getting them the ball. If the questionable O-line gives Slovis enough time to read the defense, the Trojans should easily eclipse 300 passing yards per game.
Top Challenger: Oregon Ducks
USC has so many quality receivers that one of them made a nice new home with Oregon. After transferring away from the Trojans, Devon Williams led the Ducks in receiving yards (286) last year, though only by a slim margin over Jaylon Redd (281) and Johnny Johnson III (267). That full trio and tight end D.J. Johnson return in 2021. However, with a new QB (Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech), we'll see if Oregon can live up to its potential as one of the best passing attacks on the West Coast.
Keep an Eye on: UCLA Bruins
Aside from Florida's Kyle Pitts, UCLA's Greg Dulcich was one of the most productive tight ends in the country last year, tallying 26 catches for 517 yards and five touchdowns in just seven games. He's back for the Bruins, as is Kyle Phillips after averaging better than five receptions per game. How the depth chart will come together beyond that duo is a bit of an unknown, but teaming that pair with QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson for another year should be good.
Best of the Bunch: Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has led the nation in passer efficiency rating in each of the past three seasons. And even though the Crimson Tide has to replace Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, speedster Jaylen Waddle and QB Mac Jones, there's still plenty to like here.
No. 1 on that list is John Metchie III, who exploded for 916 yards and six touchdowns in his first year as a starter. With Smith, Florida's Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney and Mississippi's Elijah Moore all now in the NFL, Metchie is easily one of the top returning pass catchers in the conference.
Tight end Jahleel Billingsley is another big returning name. He wasn't really a factor in the offense until late November, but he made multiple catches in six of Alabama's final seven games. No one would be surprised in the slightest if he replicates Irv Smith Jr.'s 710-yard, seven-touchdown 2018 campaign.
And of the many options beyond that duo, true freshman Agiye Hall might have the highest ceiling, based on what he showed during spring camp.
Top Challenger: Georgia Bulldogs
We're assuming that George Pickens won't be available for the Bulldogs after suffering a torn ACL in March. Even without him, though, they're loaded. Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson both return after combining for more than 900 yards while both breaking out last fall. Tight end Darnell Washington is back as a gigantic target with a ton of upside. And Kirby Smart won the transfer portal lottery when WR/TE Arik Gilbert (as well as CB Derion Kendrick) committed to UGA in early June. That's one heck of a Plan B after losing Pickens.
Keep an Eye on: Texas A&M Aggies
Eight players had at least 60 receiving yards for Texas A&M last fall, and all eight remain on the roster. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer and scatback Ainias Smith are the most notable of the bunch, but watch out for Caleb Chapman, too. He was rapidly emerging as a go-to receiver before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The real question here isn't the legs running routes, but rather the arm responsible for getting the ball to those route runners. If Kellen Mond had returned for a fifth season, the Aggies would've had a much more compelling case for the top spot.
Sun Belt Conference
Best of the Bunch: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
It is Heiligh Likely that Coastal Carolina will lead the Sun Belt in receiving yards in 2021, as in Jaivon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely.
The former racked up 998 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games played this past fall. The latter amassed 601 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games of work as a tight end. Each one has 15 career touchdowns and well over 1,000 career yards. They've both built up a nice rapport with returning starting quarterback Grayson McCall.
Kameron Brown and Greg Latushko will also still be suiting up for the Chanticleers. In what was supposed to be the final year of eligibility for each receiver, they combined for 538 yards and five touchdowns. Now fifth-year seniors, they'll once again provide quality depth for an offense that might lean a little more on the passing game after losing RB CJ Marable to the NFL.
Top Challenger: South Alabama Jaguars
Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Jake Bentley's senior year. He suffered a season-ending broken foot in the 2019 opener with South Carolina and then struggled to the tune of six touchdowns and six interceptions in five games with Utah last fall. Now he's at South Alabama, where he'll at least get to work with Jalen Tolbert, who has more than 1,600 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns since the beginning of 2019. Jalen Wayne (33 receptions, 418 yards in 2020) also returns for the Jaguars.
Keep an Eye on: Arkansas State Red Wolves
They lost top receiver Jonathan Adams Jr., No. 2 receiver Brandon Bowling and one half of their QB tandem (Logan Bonner), but we must mention the offense that ranked second in the nation in passing yards per game last season. The Red Wolves do still have Corey Rucker, Dahu Green and Jeff Foreman, each of whom had more than 400 receiving yards in 2020. They also added WR transfers from Boise State, Kentucky and TCU, as well as former Florida State QB James Blackman. Factor in the poor defense and a frequent need to play from behind, and there should still be quite a lot of passing yards here.