Saturday Tradition's way-too-early Top 25 for 2021
We’re all in agreement, right?
No, I’m not referring to the pre-pre-preseason ranking that you’re about to dissect. I’ve done this long enough to know that anyone reading this will have at least 1 gripe. That’s to be expected.
We’re all in agreement that the faster we can turn the page from 2020 to 2021 is a good thing. At least I’d hope so. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer not to spend my summer trying to figure out if a season can/will/should happen. I’d much rather get big mad about preseason rankings, award list watch lists and coaching hot seat rumors.
That, my friends, is what we’ve been built to handle as college football fans. In the same way that a tiger would be lost roaming the middle of the suburbs on a hot summer day, we found out just how lost we were trying to figure out football during a pandemic. Granted, we got through it. But there were still some moments in which we, the tigers in the suburbs, had to learn how to dodge oncoming traffic.
The good news is that hopefully, we can get back to our natural habitat for all of 2021. With that in mind, the goal will be to treat this as a somewhat normal way-too-early Top 25 for 2021. That’s based on a few things.
Yes, even in a pandemic season, the body of work from 2020 is the most significant factor. I can’t tell myself that a 2-8 team turned the calendar and instantly became one of the best 25 teams in the sport.
Speaking of that, this is not a projection of where a team will finish. There are a lot of teams that I think should improve greatly by season’s end that have no business starting in the Top 25 (Mississippi State, Illinois, Florida State, etc.). This is about where teams deserve to start the 2021 season based on how they would look in Week 1. I’m not guessing how the year will finish; I’m predicting how the first ranking of 2021 should look.
That’s based on 2020, returning production, coaching moves, recruiting classes, transfers, etc. For what it’s worth, that can change throughout the offseason. Shoot, it could change by next week with some of these NFL Draft announcements.
So with that being said, let’s all agree on this way-too-early Top 25 for 2021:
Wait, you wanted to see Coastal Carolina here? You mean after the Flames beat the Chants on a neutral site and went 2-1 in road games against ACC teams? Nah. As long as Hugh Freeze is still at Liberty and not taking the Tennessee job, Liberty is legit. Liberty finished ranked in the top 25 in scoring offense and scoring defense. Former Auburn backup Malik Willis was a revelation in Freeze’s offense. That combination with the return of leading tailback Joshua Mack will make Liberty a potent offense yet again in 2021.
24. Ole Miss
I know, I know. Ole Miss doesn’t have a defense. Well, it certainly did in the Outback Bowl when it contained (and beat) a legitimate top-15 team. Ole Miss was a defensive disaster in Year 1 of the Lane Kiffin era, yet it was within 2 scores of all 10 opponents it faced. If Ole Miss can just flirt with defensive mediocrity — that seems possible with a full season of Otis Reese and the return of MoMo Sanogo — then Kiffin’s squad is even scarier in 2021. Matt Corral is back as one of the top returning quarterbacks in America. Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, John Rhys Plumlee, Braylon Sanders, Dontario Drummond and a promising group of young skill players from Kiffin’s first 2 classes all return, as well. Replacing Elijah Moore will be a challenge, but Ole Miss’ present and future are bright.
Is Billy Napier back? Yep. Then pencil the Ragin’ Cajuns in for a Top 25 spot. Yeah, they lose their prolific running back duo of Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell. They still return quarterback Levi Lewis, who took advantage of the free year of eligibility. It’s defensively where Louisiana should take another step. Napier’s squad returns leading tackler Lorenzo McCaskill, talented nose tackle Tayland Humphrey and starting linebacker Chauncey Manac. If third-team PFF All-American Bralen Trahan and sacks leader Ferrod Gardner return, this defense will be an even better than the group who stymied Iowa State in Ames.
So the Fightin’ Rece Davises lose their leader on each side of the ball (Paddy Fisher is off to the NFL and Peyton Ramsey is off to the transfer portal) and they lose longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. So what? The Cats won the Big Ten West and gave Ohio State a better game than Clemson did. Pat Fitzgerald loses a lot — he also has to replace defensive starters Blake Gallagher, Earnest Brown, Grant Newsome and JR Pace — but he just boasted a top-5 defense with a bunch of 2- and 3-star recruits. Nobody had more interceptions in America than Brandon Joseph, who will return with promising defensive linemen Adetomiwa Adebawore and prolific senior linebacker Chris Bergin is taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility. Northwestern should again be in the Big Ten West hunt.
21. Oklahoma State
Chuba Hubbard’s departure is huge, but the bowl win against Miami was a nice little glimpse of the future. Spencer Sanders got much better as the season progressed, and freshman Brennan Presley went off against Manny Diaz’s defense. Mike Gundy figured out his offense, albeit a little bit later than fans were hoping for. The Cowboys aren’t on the level of Oklahoma or Iowa State to start the season — I realize that Oklahoma State beat Iowa State in 2020 — but getting to 8 wins with a relatively young team was an impressive feat. That bodes well for an offense that should actually take a step forward without Hubbard.
20. Penn State
James Franklin’s team was a mess in 2020. Just an absolute mess. Micah Parson’s opt-out didn’t help, but basically getting nothing from Journey Brown and Noah Cain proved costly. Franklin fired decorated offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after just 1 ugly 4-5 season and plucked Mike Yurcich from Texas, where he ran a top-10 offense. So what’s to like moving forward? Penn State ended the year on a 4-game winning streak thanks to Sean Clifford’s much-improved play. He’s back, as is Cain, top receiver Jahan Dotson and No. 2 receiver Parker Washington. A young defense, led by likely preseason All-Big Ten linebacker Brandon Smith, got much better down the stretch. Franklin’s squad took some gut punches in 2020, but it’ll be much better for it in 2021.
Even though the Graham Mertz hype train got rolling a little too fast for its own good in 2020, Wisconsin will still be a Big Ten West contender in 2021. Mertz will benefit from not having a herky-jerky season that decimated Wisconsin’s skill positions. If Wisconsin retains defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, the Badgers should again boast a top-10 defense. Jack Sanborn will return to lead a group that has significant experience at all 3 levels. Wisconsin needs to figure out some help at cornerback, and Mertz’s upside is limited if Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor leave, but it’d be foolish to bet against Paul Chryst to roll out a Top-25 team from the jump.
Steve Sarkisian doesn’t have Sam Ehlinger at his disposal, and the Longhorns lost a lot of production in the coaching transition. So what’s there to like? Well, Sarkisian just led the 2 most prolific offenses in Alabama history. That, coupled with the potential of longtime Ehlinger backup Casey Thompson with the returns of leading rusher Bijan Robinson and leading receiver Joshua Moore, bodes well for an offense who finished in the top 10 in 2020. Texas might not be back in Year 1 of the Sarkisian era, but we’re still talking about a program who was 6-3 with all 3 of those losses coming by 1 score. It’s defense where Sarkisian faces major questions, especially with the NFL Draft departure of Joseph Ossai. The good news? DeMarvion Overshown is set to return for a group who was the Achilles’ heel far too often during the Tom Herman era.
Yes, for the first time in 52 years, the Hoosiers will start off ranked in the AP Top 25. Getting a healthy Michael Penix Jr. back is huge behind what should be a veteran offensive line with 4 starters back, but so is the return of Ty Fryfogle, who was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Tom Allen is a yearly lock to crank out prolific defenses, despite the fact that he lost his defensive coordinator Kane Wommack. Getting the likes of Tiawan Mullen and All-American Micah McFadden back would be monumental. Marcelino Ball should provide a major lift after his 2020 was lost to a torn ACL. In other words, no, Indiana’s 2020 wasn’t a flash in the pan.
What a weird year it was in Iowa City. An offseason plagued by racial injustice issues within the program was followed by an 0-2 start … and then a 6-game winning streak to end the season. So weird. Not weird was Iowa cranking out one of the nation’s top defenses, which will lose breakout star Daviyon Nixon and Chauncey Golston but will return Zach VanValkenburg to anchor that defensive line. Spencer Petras and Tyler Goodson will provide stability on offense, and in the least shocking news of 2021, Iowa should again have an elite offensive line with Tyler Linderbaum likely starting as a preseason All-American. Kirk Ferentz’s squad should be the Big Ten West favorite.
Yes, this is perhaps the weirdest ranking in the Top 25. LSU wasn’t a team with a championship hangover. That would imply it bounced back after a couple of games. Nope. LSU didn’t bounce back until December, when it beat a pair of quality foes, including top-10 Florida. I suppose that shouldn’t have been a surprise given the way they celebrate in the Bayou. That’s over now. What’s promising is that LSU recruited extremely well the last 3 years with a trio of top-5 classes, and the blessing of 2020 was that it gave a young squad a chance to get meaningful reps. New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz will look to bring Joe Brady’s brand of offense to a group that’ll be led by Max Johnson or Myles Brennan. Either way, they’ll throw to SEC record-holder for the most receiving yards in a game, Kayshon Boutte. Oh, and remember Derek Stingley? He’ll be back in 2021, as well as the extremely talented corner Eli Ricks. Fortunately for them/all LSU fans, Stingley and Ricks won’t be in Bo Pelini’s defense.
The Pac-12 champs return defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s not just him, though. Joe Moorhead will get a full offseason to work with Tyler Shough, who showed promise in a limited season. He’ll throw to what should be a deep group of pass-catchers. What gets lost in the shuffle of Oregon’s return to national relevance under Mario Cristobal is the fact that he recruited 3 consecutive top-11 classes. There’s loads of talent in Eugene to replace longtime staples CJ Verdell and Penei Sewell (he opted out of the 2021 season). The biggest question will be if the Ducks can improve defensively after losing Andy Avalos to Boise State.
USC was a touchdown away from capping off an undefeated season. Granted, it was only 6 games and the Trojans trailed in the 4th quarter in 4 of them. So what’s there to like? Well, preseason Heisman contender Kedon Slovis is back, and he’ll throw to promising wideout Drake London. So is offensive coordinator/play-caller Graham Harrell, who was reportedly in the market for some bigger jobs. USC just signed the No. 8 class in 2021, highlighted by No. 1 overall player Korey Foreman. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Marlon Tuipulotu, Amon-ra St. Brown, Talanoa Hufanga, Olaijah Griffin and Alijah Vera-Tucker are all off to the NFL. Still, USC could have as many as 15 starters back after going 13-3 in Pac-12 play over the last 2 years.
A ton of production is gone. As we saw in the Cotton Bowl, not having your top 4 receivers makes it difficult on anyone, even someone who put together a historically prolific season like Kyle Trask. That’s going to shape a lot of the preseason discussion with the Gators, who for some reason retained Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Having said that, it’s still a team that’s riding a streak of 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl appearances during the Dan Mullen era. Emory Jones is the first true Mullen quarterback, and there’s young talent at the skill positions who will be better with a full offseason. Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox and Kaiir Elam will be huge for Florida’s defense, which simply has to get better if it wants to return to Atlanta.
I’ll admit this ranking is subject to change based on the progress of D’Eriq King’s rehab after tearing his ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl. If the star signal-caller is a go for the start of the year in that opener against Alabama, you’ll see a lot of preseason momentum in favor of the Canes. Rhett Lashlee modernized that offense in a way that was long overdue. Defensively, Diaz’s defense loses a lot. After losing Gregory Rousseau in the preseason, former No. 1 overall recruit Jaelan Phillips cashed in on his breakout year, as did fellow defensive lineman Quincy Roche (they combined for 30 tackles for loss in 2020). Still, Diaz will have leading tackler Bubba Bolden back to lead that unit. Year 3 of the Diaz era should be the best yet … as long as King makes a full, speedy return.
Sam Howell is a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, and deservedly so. We’re talking about someone who threw for 68 touchdown passes in his first 2 years as a college quarterback. After a slow start, he became a more efficient player in 2020. He’ll give UNC a chance against any ACC team, and that includes Clemson. So why only No. 10? Well, Mack Brown’s squad lost a ton of production. Dynamic running back duo Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are gone, as is leading receiver Dyami Brown and top defensive player Chazz Surratt. The good news? A whopping 10 defensive starters are back. On top of that, Brown signed a pair of top-15 classes with 13 defensive players rated 4-stars or better.
If Howell can take another step as a more mobile quarterback, another New Year’s 6 Bowl is certainly in the cards.
Hopefully, the Playoff selection committee won’t sleep on Cincinnati in 2021 like it did in 2020. The Bearcats are a force, especially now with 3-year starter Desmond Ridder and star defensive end Myjai Sanders back for their senior seasons. Of course, replacing the highly coveted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman won’t be easy (that matchup against Notre Dame is suddenly all the more intriguing). That was a top-10 defense in 2 of the last 3 years, which is no small feat in an offensive-focused conference like the AAC.
Here’s the thing. Cincinnati could best 2016 Houston as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team in the preseason AP Top 25 during the Playoff era. Why is that significant? The Bearcats have that aforementioned matchup vs. Notre Dame and they get Indiana. There’s a Playoff path in there, albeit an extremely difficult one.
8. Notre Dame
Ian Book is finally gone after roughly 18 years in South Bend, but his successor has a lot of promising weapons to work with, mainly tailback Kyren Williams and 247sports true freshman All-American tight end Michael Mayer. As for who will replace Book, the Irish just added Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan, who will compete with Brandon Clark, 2020 backup Drew Pyne and decorated true freshman Tyler Buchner. The good news for the Irish, who replace a ton of talent in the front 7, including Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, is that it just brought in Marcus Freeman to replace new Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea. He cranked out top-10 defenses at Cincinnati without blue-chip recruits, which bodes well for a year of transition in South Bend.
The Irish just won double-digit games for the 4th year in a row. Kelly also earned Notre Dame’s 4th consecutive top-12 finish, which hasn’t happened in 50 years. Another Playoff loss doesn’t mean the Irish are suddenly a borderline Top 25 team.
7. Texas A&M
On one hand, the Aggies must replace a lot. They’re set to lose the majority of the starters on the Joe Moore Award finalist offensive line, and replacing the underrated Buddy Johnson and Bobby Brown from that front 7 won’t be easy. Also, replacing Kellen Mond, AKA the guy who started at quarterback in every game of the first 3 years of the Jimbo Fisher era, isn’t automatic.
But man, there’s still a ton to like in College Station. Like, 10 of the 11 guys who caught a pass in 2020 are back. That doesn’t even include former No. 1 overall tight end Baylor Cupp and veteran wideout Camron Buckley, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries before the start of 2020. Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Spiller, Orange Bowl MVP Devon Achane and versatile Ainias Smith are also back to lead one of the most exciting backfields in America. The Aggies have to answer key questions at quarterback and in the front 7, but it’s hard not to love the potential of 2021 with how well that team played to its strengths after the Alabama game.
6. Iowa State
To be clear, I’m the one who said Iowa State was overrated throughout 2020. This isn’t coming from the crowd who pretended that a 3-score home loss to a Group of 5 team didn’t happen. So why all the love?
Matt Campbell, Brock Purdy and Breece Hall are all back. That feels, um, significant after winning a New Year’s 6 bowl. Fresh off the best season in program history, the Cyclones will head into 2021 with more hype than they’ve ever had. It’s more than those 3 household names, though. The Cyclones, who return their entire starting offensive line, boast offensive balance with Purdy and Hall that few teams in America have to go along with preseason Mackey Award candidate Charlie Kolar, who also returned for another season. And defensively, Iowa State got a huge lift with returning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Rose (29 career tackles for loss), first-team All-Big 12 defensive end Will McDonald and 2-time first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth. The Cyclones are loaded in a way that they’ve never been. There are 2 legitimate Playoff contenders in the Big 12.
5. Ohio State
Is some of this a bit of a blind ranking without knowing which elite players are off to the NFL? Yeah, but when you finish in the top 5 in 4 consecutive seasons, you earn the benefit of the doubt. It’s no secret the Buckeyes are expected to lose a ton to the NFL Draft. Justin Fields, Trey Sermon, Chris Olave, Haskell Garrett, Wyatt Davis, Shaun Wade, Baron Browning and Pete Werner are just a few of the expected NFL Draft departures following Monday night’s championship game loss to Alabama.
But Ohio State is still loaded at receiver with possible preseason All-American Garrett Wilson, and Zach Harrison will headline that improved significantly in the latter half of the first post-Chase Young season. Plus, Ryan Day signed a pair of top-5 classes. The post-Fields era should still have no shortage of talent in Columbus.
Lost in the shuffle of that Cotton Bowl drubbing of Florida was the fact that Oklahoma’s defense finally showed it can hang with a high-powered offense. Granted, it was a Florida offense missing its 4 best receivers, but it was a key statement to make for Alex Grinch in Year 2 in Norman. Spencer Rattler figured things out after his benching and is now the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. He’ll have leading receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease back. The Sooners have some ground game questions to figure out with Rhamondre Stevenson off to the NFL, but the offensive line is seemingly never a liability at Oklahoma. Nik Bonitto’s return will be huge for a defense that actually rushed the passer extremely well in 2020. The ability to replicate that defensive success down the stretch will be what determines the upside of Lincoln Riley’s 2021 squad.
Yep. Get the Georgia hype train rolling. What a difference a month makes. We went from talking about passing the SEC East torch to Florida having just wasted one of the best Georgia defenses ever because of the quarterback situation, to talking about the Dawgs as a worthy top-3 team to start 2021. Why? In case you missed it, the Dawgs got a ton of huge returning announcements.
- QB JT Daniels
- NT Jordan Davis
- RB James Cook
- WR Kearis Jackson
- DT Devonte Wyatt
That’s for a group that already had promising underclassmen returners like Nakobe Dean, George Pickens, Jermaine Burton, Darnell Washington, Travon Walker and Nolan Smith. Add to that group nothing but top-3 recruiting classes and yeah, it’s not crazy to see why the Georgia hype train is off and running. A lot of that is Daniels, who lifted Georgia’s offense to a completely different place once he took over the starting gig. That’ll make the Dawgs a popular preseason pick to finally upend Alabama and end the 1980 jokes.
Is it boring or fair to say that Alabama should be No. 2 in America to start the 2021 season? I’ll go with the latter. While we shouldn’t underestimate the loss of all that offensive production, including Steve Sarkisian, it’s worth noting that 2020 national champion Alabama just had its best offensive season in program history after losing 4 offensive players in the first 15 picks of the NFL Draft. The future is bright with 5-star talent galore. Assuming Mac Jones is off to the NFL Draft, former 5-star quarterback Bryce Young is going to be surrounded by a ton of talent. John Metchie will be a preseason All-SEC receiver, Slade Bolden will return after stepping up in 2020 and the Jahleel Billingsley hype train will be off and running by media days. The ground game will be a question mark with a lot of new pieces, especially with the return of oft-injured former 5-star back Trey Sanders.
It’s defensively where Alabama should unquestionably thrive. Excluding the upcoming NFL announcements, we know that Christian Harris, Will Anderson, Jordan Battle and Malachi Moore are all back. Combine that with Alabama’s loaded classes and yeah, even with a slew of NFL talent gone, Alabama will be just fine there. All signs point to Alabama earning its 12th consecutive top-3 start in the AP Poll.
We’re talking about a program with 6 consecutive Playoff berths. That’s silly. Go figure that Clemson could lose likely No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and all-time ACC leading rusher Travis Etienne, and yet it could be better in 2021. That’s a testament to Dabo Swinney, who signed a pair of top-4 classes. It’s also a testament to D.J. Uiagalelei, who averaged nearly 9 yards per attempt and passed for just shy of 400 yards per game against a pair of elite defensive minds in Clark Lea and Jeff Hafley. Besides Uiagalelei and the promising young group of skill players around him is what Clemson returns in the front 7. Brent Venables has all sorts of key contributors, especially with “Bruise Brothers” James Skalski and Baylon Spector both back. Sophomores-to-be Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy completely lived up to their 5-star billing (combined for 17 TFLs and 8 sacks as true freshmen) and K.J. Henry looked the part when healthy.
The skill players might be a bit new, but the difference between Clemson now compared to 2017 when it lost Deshaun Watson is the recruiting. Love him or hate him, Swinney has done a remarkable job of keeping pace — and even setting it — during the last half decade-plus. Don’t expect that to change in the post-Lawrence era.