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The Yahoo Sports way-too-early 2021 college football top 25

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
·13 min read
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It’s time to start looking ahead to the 2021 college football season.

Monday was the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2021 NFL draft. While the transfer market will churn in the weeks and months to come, college football teams across the country have a good idea of what their rosters will look like for the upcoming season.

It’s a season that we all hope will resemble the normalcy of seasons not so long ago. And, in true modern college football fashion, the teams in the playoff probably won’t change all that much. Here’s our first draft of our preseason 2021 top 25.

1. Alabama (13-0)

DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones and Najee Harris are no longer a part of the Tide’s offense, but this program has amassed so much talent that it’s hard to put any other team atop the 2021 rankings. The majority of the 2020 defense will return, and five-star recruit Bryce Young is ready to step in at quarterback. If he lives up to the hype, Alabama’s offense should be really, really good once again — even with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian leaving for Texas. Bill O’Brien is the reported replacement at OC, and he will have plenty of firepower to work with.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 11: Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) is greeted by Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) during the CFP National Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes on January 11, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Mac Jones is handing off starting QB duties to Bryce Young at Alabama. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2. Clemson (10-2)

Trevor Lawrence will be replaced by D.J. Uiagalelei, the man who played QB in Lawrence’s absence in 2020. The return of WR Justyn Ross is a big boost to a receiving corps that loses both Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell and the running game should be in good shape after Travis Etienne’s departure. On the other side of the ball, the entire Clemson starting defense is back for another run and will add five-star LB Barrett Carter. Five-star OL Tristan Leigh could also see significant playing time as a freshman as the Tigers will look to shore up the offensive line.

3. Oklahoma (9-2)

With two losses, 2020 was somewhat of a down year for Oklahoma and it still managed to win the Big 12 (for the sixth consecutive season) and blow out Florida in the Cotton Bowl. The offense continually improved as the season progressed and quarterback Spencer Rattler will be back in the fold for his second season as the starter with weapons like Marvin Mins and Kennedy Brooks at his side. For years, OU’s defense was a liability but now it’s a strength. This could end up being Lincoln Riley’s best team.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley talks with Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) during an NCAA college football game against Kansas in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Can Oklahoma get back to the College Football Playoff? (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

4. Georgia (8-2)

QB J.T. Daniels transformed the Georgia offense after he was healthy enough to become the team’s starting QB in the middle of the 2020 season. He’s back along with RB Zamir White and WR George Pickens. The offensive line will be great again and LB Nakobe Dean and S Lewis Cine will likely begin the season as preseason all-conference selections. Throw in a top-five recruiting class that includes potential impact players on defense — not to mention top 2021 QB Brock Vandagriff — and Georgia could give the SEC two tams in the College Football Playoff again.

5. Ohio State (7-1)

Ryan Day has done an excellent job since he took the reins from Urban Meyer and there’s no reason to expect a step back from the Buckeyes in 2021. Sure, Justin Fields is moving on to the NFL, but this is easily the most-talented roster in the Big Ten despite the looming inexperience at quarterback. The surprise return of receiver Chris Olave is a massive boost for OSU as well. There will be holes to fill on defense, but OSU has recruited at an extremely high level.

6. Texas A&M (9-1)

The Aggies will have a starting QB not named Kellen Mond for the first time since 2016. While it’s unclear who will emerge from a crowded field of candidates at QB, there’s a lot of starters returning elsewhere. RB Isaiah Spiller is back after rushing for 1,043 yards and nine TDs, and so is WR Ainias Smith and TE Jalen Wydermyer. Pass rushers Bobby Brown and Tyree Johnson are set to return on the defense along with Demarvin Leal. Throw in the No. 7 recruiting class in the country and A&M is set to be the top SEC West challenger to Alabama again.

7. Iowa State (9-3)

Iowa State nearly won its first-ever Big 12 title in 2020 and it will be right in the mix for the conference crown again in 2021. The Cyclones will return nearly their entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball. That includes legitimate starpower like QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall (the nation’s leading rusher), TE Charlie Kolar (all-Big 12), LB Mike Rose (Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year) and DE Will McDonald, who led the Big 12 in sacks. Oh, and all five offensive line starters are expected to return as well. Matt Campbell has already taken ISU to new heights, and expectations will be very high in 2021.

From left; Iowa State linebacker and defensive player of the game O'Rien Vance, head coach Matt Campbell and offense player of the game, quarterback Brock Purdy celebrate after the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Oregon, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. Iowa State won 34-17. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Could Iowa State challenge for a playoff spot? (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

8. Notre Dame (10-2)

Ian Book’s accomplished tenure is over as Notre Dame’s QB. Will he be replaced as the team’s starter by Jack Coan? The former Wisconsin QB announced earlier this month that he was heading to South Bend and could start against his former team on Sept. 25. RB Kyren Williams is one of the top returning rushers in the country and TE Michael Mayer should only get better in his second season of college football. S Kyle Hamilton is back to lead a defense that should be good once again despite losing a lot of key players.

9. Cincinnati (9-1)

Luke Fickell has done a remarkable job in his four years at Cincinnati. The Bearcats nearly pulled off an undefeated season in 2020, but suffered a heartbreaking loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. A significant portion of Cincy’s best players will be back on the field in 2021, including star quarterback Desmond Ridder. The biggest loss for UC is defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who left for the same job at Notre Dame. Still, Cincinnati should be the AAC favorite again in 2021. But will Cincinnati receive more national respect?

10. Oregon (4-2)

Both Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown are back at QB in 2021. Shough threw for over 1,500 yards and 13 TDs while Brown became more involved in the offense over the final two games of the season and saw significant playing time in the Fiesta Bowl. DE Kayvon Thibodeaux has emerged as a dominant presence and could be a top-10 pick in 2022 with another strong season. Thibodeaux and LB Noah Sewell will form one of the best front-seven duos in the country.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18: Oregon Ducks defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) celebrates a sack during the Pac-12 Championship college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the USC Trojans on December 18, 2020, at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. The game was played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Kayvon Thibodeaux leads the Pac-12 favorite Oregon Ducks. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

11. North Carolina (8-4)

It’s hard not to be impressed by what Mack Brown has assembled in Chapel Hill. Many were skeptical about bringing back Brown after a long layoff from coaching, but he has turned North Carolina into one of the ACC’s top programs in short order. Are the Tar Heels ready to knock Clemson from the top of the ACC pecking order? Probably not. But when you have a quarterback like Sam Howell, you have a chance to win every game you play.

12. Florida (8-4)

There’s a lot of talent leaving Gainesville, but Dan Mullen has won at least eight games in each of his three seasons at Florida. There’s no reason to think Florida won’t be good again in 2021. Florida signed QBs Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna (son of ex-NFL QB Jon) and both are enrolling early to prep for the season and potentially challenge Emory Jones for the starting job. Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter will be back to catch passes from whomever starts at QB.

13. Wisconsin (4-3)

UW was ravaged by COVID-19 and injury issues during the 2020 season, so we never really got to see Paul Chryst’s team at full strength. Can the Badgers get back to the top of the Big Ten West in 2021? Graham Mertz showed flashes in his first year as UW’s starting quarterback, and he’ll benefit from the return of most of his top receivers, including tight end Jake Ferguson, an NFL prospect. It’s hard to replace a guy like Jonathan Taylor, but Jalen Berger appears to have emerged as the next bellcow back for the Badgers. We’re expecting Wisconsin to rebound.

14. USC (5-1)

The Trojans should once again enter the season as the favorites in the Pac-12 South. The good news is that QB Kedon Slovis and WRs Drake London and Bru McCoy return along with offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. The bad news is that USC has to replace its top three rushers and WRs Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. S Talanoa Hufanga is off to the NFL draft too, but there’s plenty of talent returning on the defense.

15. Iowa (6-2)

Iowa managed to work its way through offseason controversy and an 0-2 start by turning in a very solid 2020 season. The Hawkeyes finished the year 6-2, winning six straight before their final two contests got canceled. The usual positions of strength for Iowa should be stellar yet again in 2021. Most of the starting offensive line returns, as does the back seven on defense. Can quarterback Spencer Petras take a step forward? Who can fill Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s shoes at receiver? Those are some of the questions facing the Hawkeyes as they aim to win the Big Ten West for the first time since 2015.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras calls a play in the huddle during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Champaign , Ill. Iowa won 35-21. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Can Iowa make the Big Ten title game? (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

16. LSU (5-5)

Things have got to be better in Baton Rouge after coordinator changes on both sides of the ball, right? QB Myles Brennan should be back and healthy after missing most of the season. As he was absent, receiver Kayshon Boutte emerged as a candidate to be the next great Tigers receiver. LBs Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark are back to lead a defense that can’t be any worse than it was under Bo Pelini in 2020. If LSU struggles again in 2021, Ed Orgeron’s seat could get really toasty.

17. Penn State (4-5)

Penn State’s 0-5 start was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 season. But to PSU’s credit, it managed to close the season with four consecutive victories. Still, James Franklin decided to make a big change at offensive coordinator by firing Kirk Ciarrocca and replacing him with ex-Texas OC Mike Yurcich. Yurcich will likely open up the offense, but the success of that unit depends on improvement from veteran quarterback Sean Clifford. PSU also returns star receiver Jahan Dotson and has bolstered its defense with several transfers.

18. Miami (8-3)

The Hurricanes say that QB D’Eriq King will be fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered during the Cheez-It Bowl. Miami has also landed WR Charleston Rambo as a transfer from Oklahoma and DB Tyrique Stevenson as a transfer from Georgia In addition to Tennessee DE Deandre Johnson. All three of them could make a big impact in 2021 if they’re immediately eligible. And if they are, Miami should be a contender to make it to the ACC championship game again.

19. Arizona State (2-2)

The Sun Devils played only four games in 2020, dropping close ones to USC and UCLA before blowing out Arizona and Oregon State. ASU has a lot of young players that got their feet wet in 2020 and should be significant contributors for Herm Edwards in 2021. ASU has been recruiting quite well, with QB Jayden Daniels as the headliner of those efforts. The 2021 season will be Daniels’ third season as ASU’s starter and he is aiming to lead the program to its first Pac-12 South title since 2013.

20. Indiana (6-2)

What can the Hoosiers do for an encore in 2021? QB Michael Penix Jr. should be healthy to start the season and he’ll have WRs Ty Fryfogle and Florida State transfer DJ Matthews to throw to. LBs Micah McFadden and Cam Jones are back to lead a defense under new defensive coordinator and former Georgia assistant Charlton Warren. If Michigan bounces back, the Big Ten East could be one of the most crowded divisions in college football. But we’re confident that Indiana will still be pretty good.

21. Coastal Carolina (11-1)

The Chanticleers were one of the best stories of college football in 2020. Until losing to Liberty in a bowl game, Coastal Carolina was undefeated. It was a run that included a triumphant win over BYU. CCU runs a unique offense under Jamey Chadwell and will have Grayson McCall running the show at quarterback for his sophomore season. CCU returns many of its top players and should be among the better Group of Five teams in the country again.

Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall, right, hands the ball off to CJ Marable during the first half of an NCAA college football game against BYU Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
What can Coastal Carolina do for a sequel in 2021? (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

22. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard are gone, but QB Spencer Sanders is back along with four starters from a young offensive line in 2020. A better offensive line should lead to increased offensive production; the Cowboys averaged nearly a yard fewer per play in 2020 (5.6) than it did in 2019 (6.4). A defense that gave up 23 points per game last season returns both Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel. Things sure look like they’re lining up for another good season in Stillwater that doesn’t result in a Big 12 title game appearance.

23. Texas (7-3)

Texas moved on from Tom Herman and brought in Steve Sarkisian from Alabama. The coaching change has yet to result in a significant amount of roster attrition. Perhaps that’s because Texas’ players watched Sark’s offense at work in the national championship game. Though Sam Ehlinger is moving on after a historic career in Austin, Casey Thompson looked plenty capable in the Alamo Bowl. Not to mention, running back Bjian Robinson could emerge as one of the best running backs in college football. Whether UT can realistically compete for the Big 12 title remains to be seen.

24. Washington (3-1)

The Huskies should have most of their offense back In 2021 after leading receiver Cade Otton announced he was returning to school for his senior season. LT Jaxson Kirkland is back too along with LB Zion Tupuoloa-Fetui who had seven sacks in four games in 2020. The departure of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to Texas will sting but the defense should be good again.

25. Louisiana (10-1)

Billy Napier has turned down a bunch of Power Five coaching offers during his run in Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns have combined for 21 wins over the past two seasons and should be one of the Sun Belt’s best teams again in 2021, especially with quarterback Levi Lewis opting to return for his fifth season. Louisiana gets a big test in Week 1 next year when it travels to face Texas.

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