College Football Rankings: B/R's Top 25 Ahead of Week 1

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IAugust 30, 2021

College Football Rankings: B/R's Top 25 Ahead of Week 1

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    College football returns in all its glory this weekend, folks. After a long offseason, Week 1 will kick off in earnest Thursday evening. The start of every college football season means questions will soon be answered for several teams. Can perennial powers like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State stay atop the CFB universe despite losing their star quarterbacks? Can a non-Power Five team finally make it into the College Football Playoff? Who will emerge as the surprise title contender? These, and others, will finally be answered with the start of the season. Buckle up. 

    Ahead of the season's official start, Bleacher Report college football experts David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Morgan Moriarty voted for our top 25. A first-place vote is worth 25 points, followed by 24 points for second, 23 for third, etc. Let's see where we decided each team should rank: 

    1. Oklahoma

    2. Clemson

    3. Alabama

    4. Ohio State

    5. Georgia

    6. Iowa State

    7. Cincinnati

    8. Texas A&M

    9. Oregon

    10. North Carolina

    11. Wisconsin

    12. Notre Dame

    13. USC

    14. Florida

    15. Coastal Carolina

    16. Miami

    17. Texas

    18. LSU

    19. Indiana

    20. Penn State

    21. Louisiana-Lafayette

    22. Iowa

    23. Utah

    24. Washington

    25. Arizona State

    Others receiving votes: Oklahoma State (8), Ole Miss (7), TCU (5), Michigan (4), UCLA (3), Liberty (2), Missouri (2), Northwestern (1).

Who's Hot: Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson (The Usual Suspects)

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    Josh Morgan/Associated Press

    Just as it has been for much of the last decade, the Buckeyes, Crimson Tide and Tigers appear to be the CFP favorites. This year, though, the trio are replacing a ton of talent, especially on offense. For starters, all three of their quarterbacks (Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence) left for the NFL. But it's more than just a new face under center for CFB's perennial powers.

    Clemson returns just four starters, including three offensive linemen and tight end Braden Galloway.

    Tigers starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame in Lawrence's absence because of COVID-19 last season. The expectations surrounding the former 5-star recruit are high, and rightfully so. The pressure will be on the talent around him for the Tigers to keep humming at a championship pace.

    Star receiver Justyn Ross, who missed all of 2020 after undergoing a scary spinal surgery last June, will be back for the Tigers. During his first two seasons at Clemson, he had 1,865 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Clemson's ground game, which must replace first-rounder Travis Etienne, will have backs Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon leading the way. Dixon has the edge in experience, with 190 yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries last season, but Pace has reportedly come on strong in fall camp. We'll get to see just how good this rebuilt offense looks against Georgia in Week 1. 

    Like Clemson, Alabama has considerable holes to fill.

    The Tide's list includes the aforementioned Jones, running back Najee Harris and receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, who has just 13 career completions, will take over under center this fall. While we haven't seen much of Young, the former 5-star recruit will have big shoes to fill. Wideout John Metchie III, who had 916 yards and six touchdowns behind Smith, will lead the receiving corps. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. will head up the Tide's running game after averaging 5.3 yards per carry last season.

    And that leaves us with Ohio State, which gets six starters back.

    Those include second-team All-Big Ten receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who combined for 13 touchdowns last season. Master Teague III, who had 514 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 2020, will lead the Bucks' rushing attack. He'll be tasked with replacing Trey Sermon and his 7.5 yards per carry last season. The biggest question mark is at quarterback for OSU, with redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud getting the starting nod.

Fun Fact: These Year 2 Coaches Have a Chance to Gain Some Ground in 2021

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Considering how COVID-19 protocols affected the season, 2020 was certainly more of a challenge than usual for first-year head coaches. But which of these guys can make big strides in their second year? There are a handful of coaches to watch for.

    Florida State was historically bad in Mike Norvell's first season last year, finishing 3-6. That's the Seminoles worst record since they went 3-8 in 1975.

    But this season, Norvell is surely looking to get Florida State back to its winning ways. It should help that the 'Noles now have quarterback McKenzie Milton, who had a prolific career at UCF before a gruesome leg injury sidelined him for over a year. FSU returns its entire offensive line as well. If Norvell wants to prove he can get the 'Noles back into the national spotlight, upsetting No. 9 Notre Dame in prime time Sunday night would be an excellent start. 

    In the SEC, Mississippi State went 4-7 last year in Mike Leach's Starkville debut.

    The quarterback whisperer may have found his answer under center this season, bringing in Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham to compete for the starting job. Abraham accounted for over 7,000 passing yards and 41 touchdowns during his three years with the Golden Eagles. Sophomore Will Rogers, who started the Bulldogs' last six games in 2020, threw for 1,976 and 11 touchdowns on the season. We'll see if Leach can get his offense back on track this season once he chooses a starter.

    Sticking with the SEC, Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss could cause some chaos in the SEC West after finishing with a mediocre .500 record in 2020.

    As I touched on previously, the Rebels return many key pieces of their offense, including quarterback Matt Corral. This is the same offense that put up 48 points on Alabama's defense last season and hung with the Tide for four quarters. Their SEC East slate of games includes Tennessee and Vanderbilt, too, so the Rebels could have a big year in store.  

    And in the Big 12, Dave Aranda will look to better a Baylor team that finished 2-7 last season, which was a major decline from the Bears' 11-3 campaign in 2019.

    With numerous returning starters on defense, Baylor may lean on that unit as its offense rebounds from scoring a lackluster 23.3 points per game a season ago. The Bears held opponents to 383.4 yards per game, which ranked 48th in the country. At quarterback, Baylor will have to replace four-year starter Charlie Brewer. It'll turn to junior Gerry Bohanon, a former 4-star recruit, as his successor this season.

What to Watch For: Which Teams Will Be Tested Early?

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    The CFP rewards teams for scheduling big nonconference games. Luckily for us, this has resulted in a more loaded Week 1 than years past. This season's opening weekend features five Top 25 matchups, highlighted by No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami and No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson.

    But even several of the non-ranked vs. ranked games are intriguing.

    No. 4 Ohio State opens its season on the road at Minnesota on Thursday night, so we'll get to see what a Justin Fields-less Buckeyes team looks like early. No. 10 North Carolina also opens its season on the road, facing Virginia Tech in an important ACC Coastal battle. The Tar Heels are a potential dark-horse candidate to take down Clemson in the ACC this season. No. 19 Penn State plays No. 12 Wisconsin on Saturday in what should be a fun cross-divisional B1G matchup. 

    In the prime-time matchups, Miami has a chance to prove it can regain national relevancy if it hangs with the top-ranked Tide. Canes head coach Manny Diaz's Year 3 would be off to a great start if his team can pull off the upset.

    The biggest matchup of the weekend is Georgia-Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's their first meeting since 2014, which resulted in a 45-21 Bulldogs rout. Both teams are serious playoff contenders, so this will give us a great feel for how legit they are.

    And last but certainly not least, No. 9 Notre Dame vs. Florida State is just the 11th all-time meeting between the storied programs. The last time these two met in Tallahassee was in 2014, and FSU won 31-27. Notre Dame beat the 'Noles 42-26 last season in South Bend.

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