College football rankings: Clemson, Oklahoma lead way-too-early top 25 ahead of 2021 season



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We’ve gotten a glimpse of D.J. Uiagalelei, and that’s enough. The quarterback’s athleticism makes him perhaps more dangerous than Trevor Lawrence. Dabo Swinney loses Travis Etienne and some playmakers on defense, but the cupboard is always full at Clemson. Expect a seventh straight ACC title and fifth CFP National Championship in the last seven years. Aside from the opener against Georgia, Clemson’s biggest challenge may be at NC State.2

This has a chance to be Lincoln Riley’s best team at Oklahoma. After two seasons, one as a starter, Spencer Rattler is just now reaching his peak. Remember Kennedy Brooks? The tailback opted out in 2020 after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The Sooners should grab a seventh straight Big 12 title.3

Defensively, the Dawgs have it all. Offensively, they need to match up with the likes of Alabama, Florida and LSU. With JT Daniels back (and healthy), that will be easier. A neutral site opener against Clemson should give us a window on the Dawgs’ playoff worthiness.4

There will be wholesale changes for the Crimson Tide in 2021. No Mac Jones. No DeVonta Smith. No Najee Harris. No Patrick Surtain II. No Dylan Moses. As Nick Saban has proven throughout the years, it doesn’t matter. We take the Tide back in the CFP based on history and faith. The Bryce Young era begins with the sophomore quarterback taking over.5

Best in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes take a step back in 2021. C.J. Stroud or Jack Miller take over for Justin Fields. Ryan Day has options, but we’re going with Stroud, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2020 who has yet to throw a pass. No more Trey Sermon. All the linebackers depart, too.6

Forget his ascension as a college coach, Matt Campbell had the interest of at least two NFL teams in the offseason. He chose a loaded Cyclones squad over the pros. Campbell gets back his quarterback (Brock Purdy), the nation’s leading rusher (Breece Hall) and star linebacker (Mike Rose). It’s Big 12 title or bust in 2021. 7

Sixteen starters return from a Group of Five darling that won nine games and took Georgia to the wire. That means Desmond Ridder at quarterback should be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Ridder gets back all his receivers and three of five offensive line starters. Big loss with defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman going to Notre Dame. Still, this might this be the year if everything falls right the Bearcats break through to the playoff.8

2020 was supposed to be a down season. But this down? There were whispers of Ed Orgeron’s job security prior to beating Florida and Ole Miss to finish 5-5. Expect the Tigers to bounce right back into the top 10. They seem settled at quarterback (Myles Brennan, Max Johnson). The entire defensive line is back, including the massively talented Ali Gaye.9

The Tar Heels were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2020. It’s about to get better in 2021. Quarterback Sam Howell is Heisman contender. Mack Brown will have to find replacements for Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, the best pair of running backs in the country. The future is bright despite the bowl loss. Brown was missing his leading rusher, receiver and tackler and led Texas A&M in the bowl game.10

In Year 3, Jimbo Fisher almost got the Aggies into the playoff. What does he do for an encore in Year 4? Find a replacement for Kellen Mond for starters. The Aggies’ career leading passer turned out to be sneaky good. There is plenty of talent at running back to ease the transition. Jimbo won it all in Year 4 at Florida State. Is that a portent of what is to come?    11

Brian Kelly loses talent. His program hasn’t lost its identity. Jack Coan transferred in from Wisconsin to give the Fighting Irish at chance at quarterback after the loss of Ian Book. There will have to be a replacement for left tackle Liam Eichenberg to make the offense hum. RB Kyren Williams has a 1,500-yard season in him. The defense faces challenges with the loss of the nation’s best linebacker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but All-American safety Kyle Hamilton returns. Huge get in Freeman coming from Cincinnati.    12

The Gators are the second-best team in the SEC East, but what does that mean with the loss of Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes? Emory Jones has shown flashes at quarterback, and coach Dan Mullen is expected to put a stronger emphasis on the run with five-star transfer Demarkcus Bowman coming in from Clemson. Mullen’s erratic behavior at times has to be a concern, but how do you criticize a guy who has won 29 games in three years? Usually that would mean an automatic contract extension.     13

Tom Allen put his stamp on the Hoosiers in 2020. As long as he is there, Indiana will be a factor in the Big Ten. Michael Penix Jr. returns at quarterback after a torn ACL. WR Ty Fryfogle decided to return. The difference is that the Big Ten has been alerted to the Hoosiers’ talent. For the time being, they’re the second-best team in the conference.     14

COVID-19 was going to provide Clay Helton with a mulligan year if he faltered. The USC coach didn’t need it. For the third time in last six years, the Trojans played for the Pac-12 title. Their only loss was to Oregon in that game. Quarterback Kedon Slovis still has a deep receiving squad returning despite the loss of Tyler Vaughns.     15

When D’Eriq King announced he was coming back, the Hurricanes automatically had a chance in 2021. The offense perked up extensively with King in 2020. The next order of business is to win the ACC Coastal.     16

Kirk Ferentz survived a horrendous offseason. There was speculation that, at age 65, 2020 would be his final season. Now there is all kinds of optimism after a 6-2 season. Guess who should be favored to win the Big Ten West?    17

Someone still has to explain to me the quarterback shuffling in the Fiesta Bowl. Tyler Shough or Anthony Brown? The Ducks “won” the Pac-12 (because Washington couldn’t play) but have a lot to prove after going 4-3.     18

There is plenty to look forward to in Steve Sarkisian’s first season. The Alamo Bowl win over Colorado showed the offense can be centered around bruising tailback Bijan Robinson (8.2 yards per carry in 2020). Casey Thompson was a delightful teaser in throwing for four touchdowns against the Buffs. Come talk to me, though, when Texas beats Oklahoma.    19

What does the national coach of the year do for a repeat? For Jamey Chadwell, that means winning the Sun Belt outright and grabbing that New Year’s Six ticket. An 11-win season ended with a thud when the Sun Belt Championship Game was cancelled (Louisiana and Coastal were declared co-champions) and then the Chanticleers suffered a bowl loss to Liberty. The Chants are ready to make another run with quarterback Grayson McCall and most of a unique option offense coming back.     20

The Cowboys were supposed to be one of the most balanced teams of 2020, but a stout defense faltered in the second half allowing at least 29 points in four of the last five games. The tailback room is stacked despite the loss of Chuba Hubbard. Quarterback Spencer Sanders must become more consistent.    21

It’s Graham Mertz’s team now with the transfer of Coan to Notre Dame. The Badgers had one of the more disjointed seasons in the country. Three games were rescheduled or postponed. Mertz threw nine touchdown passes with five interceptions as a redshirt freshman. When was the last time there was uncertainty at tailback? Senior Garrett Groshek was 17th in Big Ten rushing.     22

The bowl game loss to Kentucky left a sour taste but an eight-win season was Dave Doeren’s third in the last four years. Despite the loss of quarterback Bailey Hockman and two offensive line starters, a 6-0 start is possible.     23

All you need to know about the Flames’ 2021 chances: QB Malik Willis is returning. The former Auburn backup had a little bit of Lamar Jackson in him leading Liberty to a 10-1 season and leading the country in quarterback rushing. Pay attention to the Nov. 6 game at Ole Miss. Coach Hugh Freeze is going back to the scene of the … well, you know.     24

The Tigers were amazingly resilient considering COVID-19’s impact and the way the SEC did them wrong. The conference gave Mizzou games against Alabama and LSU early on. The Tigers didn’t blink, beat LSU and were 5-3 in December before losing the last two to Georgia and Mississippi State. Eli Drinkwitz has a quarterback (Connor Bazelak) and an idea of where to take it from here. Check the schedule. Nine wins are possible.     25

Billy Napier was mentioned for several jobs. That will be a reality for as long as he is with the Ragin’ Cajuns and going 10-1. Quarterback Levi Lewis has all of his receivers and entire offensive line back. The defense loses one starter. 



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