Predicting Every Power 5 College Football Team's MVP for 2021 Season
Not every college football team can have a Heisman Trophy candidate, but every team will eventually have a most valuable player.
And with the start of the 2021 season barely one week away, we made it our mission to forecast the MVP for each of the 65 Power Five programs.
Generally speaking, the quarterback is the most important player (or is at least externally viewed as such) on any given team. However, we wanted to make sure to spread the love around the full roster, resulting in more defensive players (20) than quarterbacks (12) on this list. You'll even find a few offensive linemen, a couple of tight ends and both a kicker and a punter among our projected MVPs.
Teams are broken down by conference, as well as by division, where applicable. But let's get started with a notable independent.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Kyren Williams, RB
After getting just five touches as a freshman in 2019, Williams exploded for 211 carries and 35 receptions for a total of 1,438 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. The Fighting Irish need to replace nine 2021 draft picks, plus two other players (quarterback Ian Book and wide receiver Javon McKinley) who weren't drafted. But with Chris Tyree and C'Bo Flemister also returning in the backfield, at least they are in fantastic shape at running back.
Boston College Eagles: Zay Flowers, WR
Pardon the low-hanging pun, but Flowers blossomed last season. He made 56 receptions for 892 yards and nine touchdowns and had three games with more than 160 receiving yards. And with star tight end Hunter Long (57 receptions, 685 yards, five touchdowns) out of the picture, the Eagles figure to rely on Flowers even more in the receiving game in 2021.
Clemson Tigers: D.J. Uiagalelei, QB
Uiagalelei started a pair of games last season while Trevor Lawrence was out because of COVID-19 protocol. In those two contests against Boston College and Notre Dame, the true freshman completed 69.4 percent of his pass attempts and averaged 390.5 passing yards, 2.0 passing touchdowns and 1.0 rushing touchdowns. It was a promising start to say the least, and we're all excited to see how well his strong arm pairs with Justyn Ross deep down the sidelines.
Florida State Seminoles: McKenzie Milton, QB
It has been a rough four years for Florida State, and a lot of that stems from inconsistent play at quarterback. Granted, it's hard to be consistent when you're consistently running for your life, as has been the case for anyone taking snaps behind this offensive line as of late. But perhaps the transfer from UCF can start to stabilize things for the Seminoles. Milton was great prior to his devastating leg injury suffered in November 2018. If he's even 75 percent of the player he once was, maybe Florida State, too, can be 75 percent as good as it used to be.
Louisville Cardinals: Shai Werts, WR
Forecasting Werts as the most valuable player for Louisville might be a bit overzealous, but the former four-year starter at quarterback in Georgia Southern's triple-option offense is one of the most intriguing players to keep an eye on as he transitions to wide receiver. With Javian Hawkins, Dez Fitzpatrick and Tutu Atwell all gone, there's plenty of opportunity for Werts to become a key playmaker.
NC State Wolfpack: Zonovan Knight, RB
There were six ACC players who rushed for at least 820 yards last season, but none will return this fall. As a result, Knight has emerged as the league's top running back, almost by default. In each of his freshman and sophomore seasons, Knight averaged 5.5 yards per carry while leading the Wolfpack in rushing yards. Ricky Person Jr. and Jordan Houston are both still around, too, but perhaps this will be the year they lean more heavily on Knight to carry the ground game.
Syracuse Orange: Andre Szmyt, K
Syracuse didn't get into field-goal range all that often while sputtering to a 1-10 record last season, but the Orange do have one of the most accurate kickers in the game when those opportunities arise. Szmyt has made 86.2 percent of the 65 field-goal attempts thus far in his career, including crushing 4-of-5 attempts from at least 50 yards out.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Jaquarii Roberson, WR
Wake Forest lost all four of its top receivers after the 2019 season, and Roberson stepped emphatically into that void. After making just 13 receptions for 154 yards in his first two seasons with the Demon Deacons, Roberson exploded for 62 catches, 926 yards and eight scores in nine games last year. In just the final four contests, he went for 566 yards and seven touchdowns. If any of that late-season momentum carries into 2021, look out.
Duke Blue Devils: Mataeo Durant, RB
Duke didn't have much worth writing home about last season, and two of its best players—edge-rushers Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje—moved to the NFL. But Durant was a pleasant surprise, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. And with Deon Jackson out of the picture, he should get the lion's share of the carries this year.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Jahmyr Gibbs, AP
Gibbs only managed to play in seven of Georgia Tech's 10 games as a true freshman, but he averaged over 100 yards from scrimmage in those seven contests. Two of those were against the stout defenses of Clemson and Notre Dame, but he still fared well in each. No one would be surprised if he leads the league in all-purpose yards in 2021.
Miami Hurricanes: D'Eriq King, QB
Miami is one of the biggest unknowns heading into this season, in large part because King is planning on suiting up at quarterback roughly nine months removed from a torn ACL. He was one of the country's most electrifying players last season, and even with that knee injury, King is arguably one of the top 10 candidates to win the Heisman. If he looks healthy, Miami might be the top challenger to Clemson in the ACC.
North Carolina Tar Heels: Sam Howell, QB
If North Carolina is to have any hope of living up to the preseason hype as one of the 10 best teams in the country, it will be because of Howell's arm. The Tar Heels have to replace their four biggest rushing/receiving producers from each of the past two seasons, but expectations are still sky-high because of the likely No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Howell has thrown for at least 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, and he should reach those marks once again.
Pitt Panthers: SirVocea Dennis, LB
Replacing the pass rushing of Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver won't be easy, but at least the Panthers D will have one returning building block in Dennis. The linebacker tallied 14 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, and most of that production came in the span of four games in the middle of the season.
Virginia Cavaliers: Nick Jackson, LB
Jackson is on a short list of returning players who averaged at least 10 total tackles per game while playing in at least six contests last season. He didn't do much in the "other" stat categories, ending the year with 2.5 sacks, two passes defended and nary an interception nor a fumble recovery, but his presence in the middle of the defense will be indispensable.
Virginia Tech Hokies: Amare' Barno, DE
Clemson may well get a clean sweep along the defensive line when it comes to the ACC's first team, but not if Barno has something to say about it. The Hokies edge-rusher had 6.5 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss in 2020, leading the ACC in the latter category.
Baylor Bears: Jalen Pitre, S
Baylor's offense was a hot mess last season, and its defensive front seven wasn't much better. The secondary was solid, though, and just about every piece of that group is back as either a fourth- or fifth-year senior. Pitre is the biggest star among those defensive backs. He led the team in tackles last season and had a pick-six in back-to-back weeks.
Iowa State Cyclones: Mike Rose, LB
This could have gone any number of directions, as Brock Purdy, Breece Hall, Xavier Hutchinson, Charlie Kolar and Will McDonald IV are all likely candidates for some end-of-season awards. But Rose is the heart and soul of this defense, equally capable of blowing up a play in the backfield or dropping into coverage for an interception. They aren't the same player, but don't be surprised if Rose gets a "Jabrill Peppers" amount of individual national attention if Iowa State is as good as it should be.
Kansas Jayhawks: Kenny Logan Jr., S/KR
Logan led the Jayhawks in both tackles and interceptions in 2020. He was also the team's top kick-returner, which is probably his most noteworthy skill, given how frequently Kansas allows its opponent to score. North Texas transfer Jason Bean is also a candidate to start at quarterback for the Jayhawks, which could be intriguing.
Kansas State Wildcats: Deuce Vaughn, AP
Vaughn's freshman season got a lot of folks reminiscing about Darren Sproles, largely because both of those versatile running backs are maybe 5'6" in the right pair of cleats. Regardless of his size, Vaughn had one heck of a debut year with Kansas State, rushing for 642 yards while gaining another 434 as a receiver. He also served as a kick returner late in the year, as the Wildcats tried to find as many ways as possible to get him touches.
Oklahoma Sooners: Spencer Rattler, QB
As long as Rattler doesn't get rattled, Oklahoma might be the team to beat this season—not just in the Big 12, but in the entire country. There are a bunch of extremely capable receivers at his disposal, and he showed throughout his redshirt freshman season that he has both the arm and the vision to put them to good use. An Oklahoma QB has won the Heisman four times in the past two decades, and Rattler may well be the next.
Oklahoma State Cowboys: Malcolm Rodriguez, LB
It almost feels wrong to highlight a defensive player as Oklahoma State's biggest star after the past few years of hyping offensive phenoms like Tylan Wallace, Chuba Hubbard and James Washington. But defense figures to be the Cowboys' calling card this year, and Rodriguez will be at the center of it all. The fifth-year senior was Oklahoma State's leading tackler in each of the past two seasons, and he'll be responsible for covering even more ground than usual following the departure of running mate Amen Ogbongbemiga.
TCU Horned Frogs: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB
Last year, much of the preseason talk about TCU was focused on the safety tandem of Trevon Moehrig-Woodard and Ar'Darius Washington. But as Big 12 quarterbacks tried to avoid those two ball hawks, a new star emerged. Hodges-Tomlinson led all Big 12 players with 13 passes defended last season, and now that Moehrig-Woodard and Washington are gone, he figures to be the one opponents try not to test too often.
Texas Longhorns: Bijan Robinson, RB
Robinson was the highest-rated running back in last year's recruiting class, and he wasted little time in delivering on that potential. Over his final four games of 2020, Robinson had 522 rushing yards and 129 receiving yards with 10 total touchdowns. If he can come anywhere close to that pace over a full 12- or 13-game season, there will be Heisman votes heading his way.
Texas Tech Red Raiders: Erik Ezukanma, WR
There has been no consistency at quarterback for Texas Tech over the past several years, but at least Ezukanma has managed to produce, leading the Red Raiders in receiving yards in both 2019 and 2020. If Oregon transfer Tyler Shough can stay healthy and lock down that QB gig, the two should form a beautiful relationship in what has long been a pass-heavy offense.
West Virginia Mountaineers: Dante Stills, DL
After racking up 14 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks in 2019, Stills regressed in 2020, finishing with just 9.5 and 2.0, respectively. Older brother Darius departed for the 2021 NFL draft, but Dante will be back for (at least) one more year in hopes of recapturing some of that 2019 lightning in a bottle.
Big Ten East
Indiana Hoosiers: Michael Penix Jr., QB
In five games with a fully healthy Penix, Indiana averaged 34.0 points and 312.2 passing yards per contest, and darn near messed around and won a road game against Ohio State—which has happened just once in the past 70 years. He suffered a torn ACL in late November, but all signs point toward his being ready to go for the season opener Sept. 4 against Iowa. Indiana is a viable Top 10 team if he's as good as he was last year.
Maryland Terrapins: Jeshaun Jones, AP
In the first game of his collegiate career, Jones had a passing touchdown, rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown in a 2018 upset of Texas. He didn't do much after that, missed all of 2019 with a torn ACL and managed just 11 receptions for 181 yards in four games this past fall, but there's still hope that he could be the guy who puts the team on his back in 2021.
Michigan Wolverines: Aidan Hutchinson, DE
Hutchinson missed most of last season with a fractured ankle, and his return is one of the many reasons Michigan fans are optimistic that 2021 will be much better than 2020. Hutchinson had 69 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, six passes defended and three forced fumbles in 2019, ranking fourth or better on the team in all five of those categories. He is on the short list of viable candidates to become Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Michigan State Spartans: Jalen Nailor, WR
Nailor missed a bunch of games in both 2018 and 2019 due to injuries, but last fall was a semi-extended reminder of his playmaking ability. The Spartans only played seven games, and Nailor led the way with 515 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He and Jayden Reed should be one of the better one-two WR punches this conference has to offer. (As far as the rest of MSU's roster is concerned, though...)
Ohio State Buckeyes: Thayer Munford, LT
Ohio State's receiving corps is absurdly loaded, and its defensive line should rank among the best in the country. But with the team's lack of collegiate experience at quarterback, the most valuable player on the Buckeyes roster is the one tasked with protecting C.J. Stroud's (we think?) blind side. If that pocket stays as clean as it should, Ohio State figures to carry an undefeated record at least into the Big Ten Championship Game.
Penn State Nittany Lions: Jahan Dotson, WR
From his freshman to sophomore year, Dotson's tally of both receptions and receiving yards roughly doubled. And it happened again last year as he emerged as one of the top receiving threats in the conference, finishing the nine-game season with 52 receptions, 884 yards and eight scores. It sure would be something if he continues on that trajectory and doubles his stats for a third time.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Bo Melton, WR
For the first time in a long time, Rutgers was at least competent on offense last season. And Bo Melton was the brightest star during that rise from the Power Five scoring basement. He made 47 receptions for 638 yards and six touchdowns, and had 69 rushing yards and two more scores on the ground. Melton also dabbled in kick returns, resulting in five (of nine) games with at least 100 all-purpose yards. If the Scarlet Knights are to even flirt with bowl eligibility, he'll need to be special.
Big Ten West
Illinois Fighting Illini: Blake Hayes, P
I'm not trying to be cruel to Illinois fans by picking a punter as the team's most valuable player, but I would like to point out a unique opportunity for Hayes, who has been responsible for all but two of the Illini's punts over the past four years. Thanks to the bonus year of eligibility, there's a good chance he'll finish this season as the NCAA's all-time leader in punt yards. He only needs 2,878 to break the record (14,084) held by Wake Forest's Alexander Kinal, and Hayes racked up 3,437 yards in 2019.
Iowa Hawkeyes: Tyler Linderbaum, C
Iowa always seems to have one of the best offensive lines in the country, and this year should be no different. With Alabama's Landon Dickerson out of the picture, Linderbaum is the clear preseason favorite for the Rimington Trophy and the center spot on the All-American first team. The Hawkeyes are unusually inexperienced at both tackles, but running Tyler Goodson up the gut behind Linderbaum will be a great Plan A and Plan B for this offense all season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Mohamed Ibrahim, RB
Rushing for over 1,000 yards in a normal season is impressive. Doing so in a seven-game campaign is remarkable. But that's what Ibrahim did for the Golden Gophers last year, carrying the ball nearly 30 times per game for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns. He rushed for at least 100 yards in each of Minnesota's seven games, averaging better than 5.2 yards per carry for the third consecutive year. Were it not for Iowa State's Breece Hall and Texas' Bijan Robinson, Ibrahim would be a popular choice for first-team All-American.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Adrian Martinez, QB
It feels like a lifetime ago that Martinez was one of the top preseason candidates to win the Heisman. It was actually two years ago, and he has battled through more than his fair share of inconsistency since then. But with Luke McCaffrey's transfer to Rice, it's pretty much "Martinez or bust" at quarterback for the 'Huskers. If head coach Scott Frost's job can still be saved, it'll be up to Martinez to save it.
Northwestern Wildcats: Brandon Joseph, S
Joseph made six interceptions last season, tying him with Georgia Southern's Derrick Canteen for the most in the nation. Also of note: Joseph was a redshirt freshman, and Northwestern only played nine games. We'll see what he's able to do for an encore, but you can't ask for a more promising start to a college career. (When Syracuse's Andre Cisco tied for the national lead in interceptions as a freshman in 2018, he followed it up with five picks the following year.)
Purdue Boilermakers: George Karlaftis, DE
Similar to Aidan Hutchinson in the Big Ten East, Karlaftis had an excellent 2019 (17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries) before missing most of 2020. He did have a pair of sacks in his limited playing time last year, though, and seems to be poised for a big bounce-back season.
Wisconsin Badgers: Jake Ferguson, TE
When was the last time Wisconsin didn't have a reliable pass-catching tight end? Carrying on a lineage that includes the likes of Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and Troy Fumagalli, Ferguson has racked up 99 receptions for 1,168 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past three seasons. He led the Badgers in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns in 2020, quickly cementing himself as Graham Mertz's go-to guy.
California Golden Bears: Cameron Goode, LB
In Goode's 16 games played over the past two seasons, the Cal outside linebacker has made 22 tackles for loss, 12.5 of which were sacks. Goode ranked third in the Pac-12 in sacks per game in 2019 and was sixth in that department last year. Cal's offense remains very much a work in progress heading into Justin Wilcox's fifth year as head coach, but Goode and fellow linebacker Kuony Deng will at least give the Golden Bears a chance to defend their way to some wins.
Oregon Ducks: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE
Much like Chase Young a couple of years ago at Ohio State, Thibodeaux enters his junior season as the heavy favorite to be the first non-QB taken in the upcoming NFL draft. Even in what can only be described as a chaotic 2020 campaign for the Pac-12, the phenomenal edge-rusher accumulated 42 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and three passes defended in seven games. The Week 2 war between this guy and Ohio State left tackle Thayer Munford should be special.
Oregon State Beavers: Deshaun Fenwick, RB
Fenwick is one of the few transfers we chose, and he might not even be the starter. However, Oregon State has big shoes to fill at running back after Jermar Jefferson left for the NFL. Fenwick only got 97 rushing attempts over the past three seasons at South Carolina, but he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Running behind an offensive line anchored by center Nathan Eldridge, he should find nice lanes in Corvallis, too.
Stanford Cardinal: Tanner McKee, QB
During the 2018 recruiting cycle, McKee was one of the most coveted quarterbacks in the country. Since then, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields both finished impressive college careers while McKee went on a two-year Mormon mission and barely saw the field last season as a true freshman. But this could be a breakout year for him—provided he beats Jack West for the starting gig.
Washington Huskies: Cade Otton, TE
Washington's tight end had at least 100 receiving yards in half the team's games in 2020. Granted, the Huskies only played four games, but Otton went off for 100 yards and a score against Arizona, as well as 108 yards and two touchdowns against Utah. He had twice as many receptions as his next-closest teammate and led the team in total yards from scrimmage. Again, it was a small sample size, but it was more than enough to make him the obvious choice for top tight end in the Pac-12.
Washington State Cougars: Max Borghi, RB
Borghi only played in one game last year because of a back injury suffered during the preseason, but he rushed 10 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in that lone appearance. It's still unclear whether the Cougars will try to insert him into the passing game the way Mike Leach did while he was the Cougars' head coach—Borghi made 86 receptions out of the backfield in 2019, good for second-most in the entire conference—but even if he's more or less "exclusively" a rusher now, he should make a major impact in 2021.
Arizona Wildcats: Jalen Harris DE/LB
It's slim pickins in the stars department for a team that lost the final 12 games of Kevin Sumlin's tenure by a combined 257 points, but Harris was a promising edge-rusher at one point. He didn't have any sacks last season (Arizona only had two), but he did have seven sacks as a part-time starter between the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Arizona State Sun Devils: Jayden Daniels, QB
Daniels has thrown for 22 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his college career. He has also rushed for 578 yards and seven scores. He has had the type of efficiency that Jalen Hurts displayed during his first two years at Alabama. Let's see if the Sun Devils can get him to tap into some of that "Oklahoma Jalen Hurts" potential in 2021.
Colorado Buffaloes: Jarek Broussard, RB
In his first four games with Colorado, Broussard exploded for 733 rushing yards, including a 301-yard performance against Arizona. And even when he cooled off, he still ran for 80 yards against Utah and 82 against Texas. Looking forward to seeing what Broussard can accomplish in what will hopefully be a more normal, full season.
UCLA Bruins: Greg Dulcich, TE
Say this much for the Chip Kelly era as head coach of the Bruins: They've gotten a lot of use out of their tight ends. Caleb Wilson had almost 1,000 yards in 2018, Devin Asiasi emerged as a top target in 2019 and last year was Dulcich's time to start shining. He averaged just a shade under 20 yards per reception, finishing the abridged season with 517 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Bruins in both categories.
USC Trojans: Kedon Slovis, QB
Slovis was one of the top preseason candidates for the 2020 Heisman before the Pac-12 postponed its season, and he did have an impressive sophomore campaign, averaging better than 320 yards and just under three passing touchdowns per game. He'll throw to a lot of new faces with Amon-Ra. St Brown and Tyler Vaughns in the NFL and Bru McCoy suspended indefinitely, but there's still a ridiculous amount of talent in that receiving corps. (Get ready for Kyle Ford to finally arrive.)
Utah Utes: Devin Lloyd, LB
The Utes have a ton of intriguing incoming transfers who will help them compete for this division title, but the MVP should be the linebacker who led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Lloyd averaged 9.6 total tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and 0.4 sacks per game in 2020, this after ranking second to Bradlee Anae in both sacks and tackles for loss the previous year. He should be a model of consistency for this defense.
Florida Gators: Kaiir Elam, CB
In 2019, Florida held opponents to 15.5 points per game. That rate nearly doubled to 30.8 in 2020 as the Gators offense did most of the heavy lifting. Following the departures of Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, though, it'll be back on the defense to lead the way, and that starts with their star cornerback. Elam broke up 11 passes last season and intercepted two others, doing his best to make up for what was otherwise a disappointing secondary.
Georgia Bulldogs: JT Daniels, QB
By the time Daniels' surgically repaired knee was healthy enough to take the field, it was too late to salvage a spot in last season's College Football Playoff. However, his play over the final four games is the biggest reason Georgia is a top candidate for this year's CFP. The transfer from USC averaged better than 10 yards per attempt and more than 300 passing yards per game, giving the Bulldogs a vertical threat that had been lacking for years.
Kentucky Wildcats: Darian Kinnard, OT
The "Big Blue Wall" has been a consistent strength for Kentucky over the past few seasons, repeatedly paving the way for guys like Boom Williams, Benny Snell Jr., Asim Rose and Chris Rodriguez Jr. to shine in the run game. Kinnard easily could have gone pro after this past season, but he's back for one more year in which he might be the best offensive lineman in the conference. If he can help keep new quarterback Will Levis on his feet, Kentucky could be a nine-win team.
Missouri Tigers: Trajan Jeffcoat, DL
After playing in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2018, Jeffcoat missed the entire 2019 season for reasons that were never disclosed. But he was back in 2020 for six sacks and reasonably could emerge as the best pass-rusher in the conference this season.
South Carolina Gamecocks: Kevin Harris, RB
In what was otherwise a woeful year for South Carolina, Harris was a breakout star, rushing for 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the SEC in rushing yards per game, and he figures to be one half of what might be the best rushing tandem in the country. MarShawn Lloyd missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but the biggest offensive star of South Carolina's 2020 recruiting class should be ready to work in the backfield this year.
Tennessee Volunteers: Velus Jones Jr., WR/KR
Offensive lineman Cade Mays is the Volunteer with the highest draft ceiling, but Jones is the guy who they most need to be a leader and a star. Following a litany of transfers, the sixth-year senior is the most productive returnee. He figures to be the No. 1 receiver, as well as the primary kick returner. It's hard to imagine they'll be competitive in many games if he doesn't thrive.
Vanderbilt Commodores: Cam Johnson, WR
Johnson was just about the only reliable source of production for the Commodores last year. The 6-foot slot receiver doesn't get a ton of yards per catch, but he made twice as many receptions (56) as his closest teammate, finishing last season with 545 yards and three touchdowns. For an offense that didn't even average 15 points per game, that's a noteworthy stat line.
Alabama Crimson Tide: John Metchie III, WR
Sans DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Mac Jones and Jaylen Waddle, Metchie is the clear-cut "veteran" leader of Alabama's offense. It's only his third season in Tuscaloosa, but he was a critical contributor on that 13-0 national champion last season. While it's unlikely he can replicate what Smith did en route to the Heisman, you have to figure Metchie will be the favorite target of new quarterback Bryce Young. How brightly he shines will determine whether Alabama will be one of the nation's three highest-scoring teams for a fourth consecutive year.
Arkansas Razorbacks: Grant Morgan, LB
Morgan led the nation in tackles per game in 2020 (12.3). He also had a pick-six and broke up five passes, individually thriving in the middle of a defense that has a lot of room for improvement, to put it nicely. But with all six of last year's leading tacklers back—and with a slightly more forgiving schedule on tap—some degree of positive change is to be expected.
Auburn Tigers: Tank Bigsby, RB
After a slow start to his freshman season against the defenses of Kentucky and Georgia, Bigsby averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 98.5 rushing yards per game the rest of the way. And despite not making a single reception in his final seven games, Bigsby made more catches last season (11) than any other returning player for Auburn. Suffice it to say, he's going to be an important piece of the offense.
LSU Tigers: Derek Stingley Jr., CB
LSU's defense was some kind of awful last season, as Stingley—who was injured to start the season and never quite looked right—was unable to shoulder the load as one of the lone returning starters from the 2019 national championship team. But with substantially fewer starting jobs to fill and a normal offseason to prepare, both the defense and Stingley should be in a much better place to shine in 2021. If he can get back to being arguably the best corner in the nation, LSU should bounce back considerably from last season's 5-5 mess.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: Jo'quavious Marks, AP
When Kylin Hill opted out after three games, Marks stepped into that void and ended up leading the Bulldogs in both carries (70) and receptions (60) as a freshman. All those touches merely amounted to 580 total yards and three touchdowns, but look for him to take a big step forward now that he has gotten his feet wet.
Ole Miss Rebels: Matt Corral, QB
One year after splitting snaps with John Rhys Plumlee and throwing just six touchdowns in the entire 2019 season, Corral became one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. He did have a couple of horrendous games in the interceptions department, but he averaged better than 10 yards per attempt and completed better than 70 percent of his passes. A repeat of that would get him into the mix for the Heisman, now that voters know to keep an eye on him.
Texas A&M Aggies: Ainias Smith, AP
Isaiah Spiller is the star running back and Jalen Wydermyer might be the best tight end in the country, but Smith is the glue that can hold this team together in its quest to win this loaded division. Smith had 49 carries and 43 receptions for a combined 857 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He's also the Aggies' primary punt returner. And as they break in a new QB for the first time in several years, Smith's presence as a checkdown option should prove invaluable.