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As the clock ticks down to the full-scale opening weekend in college football, not just the teaser on August 28th, the suspense is at an all-time high. The landscape is different going into 2021 and that’s due to many new variables. The new name, image and likeness (NIL) deals are one of those variables, but the most intriguing is the wave of players returning for the extra year of eligibility. That means the gap from top to bottom has shrunk a little bit, which could potentially lead to more upsets.
For this piece though, we’ll focus on the teams I tabbed as top 10 programs. I’ll provide insight and analysis to better understand these teams, top to bottom. Let’s get it started with the defending champions:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
To keep it simple, the offense will be replacing a tremendous amount of production. Mac Jones leaves behind a 4,500-yard season, Najee Harris landed just shy of 1,500 yards, and of course the Heisman winner DeVonta Smith is gone as well. No need to press panic yet because there’s always a reload, and never a rebuild in Tuscaloosa.
Bryce Young looks the part as a signal-caller and learned a lot sitting out last season. Everybody seems to be all in on John Metchie III being able to produce huge numbers on the perimeter, and be the go-to guy for the Crimson Tide. Then, of course, Brian Robinson Jr. will have a ton of hungry underclassmen to split carries with.
The main reason I have Alabama at number one though is because of their defense. Last year it wasn’t always the strongest unit, giving up 45+ points twice in the same season, which has to be the first time under Nick Saban that they’ve done that. However, Alabama only has two spots to replace with Patrick Surtain II and Christian Barmore heading to the NFL.
Jordan Battle will be an All-American selection from his safety spot and will provide leadership to an already experienced secondary. The linebacker crew is absolutely stacked with Will Anderson, Christopher Allen, Christian Harris, and we can’t forget the Tennessee transfer Henry To’oto’o. Incoming freshman phenom Dallas Turner will likely get a couple of cracks off the edge as well. Even though I do believe the defensive line may not be as strong as in years past, there will be plenty of disruption from the edge rushers and plenty of coverage sacks from a lockdown secondary.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
The main concern I have for the Buckeyes is on the defensive side of the ball. Their passing defense was one of the worst in program history last season, ranking 122nd with 304 yards allowed per game (sixth worst in the whole country). Much of that was based on a shortened offseason where a new defensive coordinator, Kerry Coombs, couldn’t fully implement his scheme. Also, many injuries in the secondary and guys playing out of place left the Buckeyes scrambling in coverage.
All that seems to have been worked out though, as Sevyn Banks looks to be the guy to get that streak of first-round defensive backs back on track. The defensive line will wreak absolute havoc this season, as veterans like Haskell Garrett and Zach Harrison will guide freshman stars J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer into the backfield. A revamped linebacker crew and reimplemented “Bullet” position will provide more speed than the defense had in years past.
The offensive side of the ball though is where Ohio State will thrive. The best wide receiver room in the country, coupled with athletic tight ends will make C.J. Stroud a messenger. With All-American talents like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson giving the secondary nightmares, the running game will open right up. If the rumors I’m hearing from Columbus are true, then Miyan Williams will be the first of these talented running backs to run through some massive holes.
All of that is made possible with one of the best offensive line units in the country. Ryan Day has dabbled around a bit and looks like he’s going with the idea to put the best five guys he’s got out there, regardless of position. That means we’ll be seeing the mammoth, Dawand Jones with his 6’8” and 360 lb. frame, Thayer Munford and three other former five-star recruits. The early test against Oregon and Kayvon Thibodeaux will show the grit of this unit as it provides the platform for another OSU run to the College Football Playoffs.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
There’s plenty to be said about the shortcomings and botched decisions of Kirby Smart on the field. Off the field though, he’s produced nothing but top-four recruiting classes since his arrival in Athens. Georgia has needed to provide very little in the developmental department as these kids arrive on campus almost game-ready.
Obviously letting Justin Fields escape was one of the most annoying moments for Georgia fans in recent memory, but JT Daniels now has the stage to rewrite the story. His presence is night and day compared to Jake Fromm. His ability to move the football through the air to his playmakers is something that will keep the Dawgs in the hunt.
Those playmakers in the receiving room, such as Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton and transfer Arik Gilbert, will be hard to stop. Even with George Pickens sidelined, these guys will easily get the job done. Also, the rumblings in the running back room are that Kendall Milton may be the starter for the season. That means that this room already loaded with prime-time talent has a true star if Milton was able to unseat Zamir White as the #1 back.
For the defense, it’s always been the same formula of being aggressive with amazing athletes. There’s not too much to say other than a few players will come from the afterthought range, and rise way up the draft boards just like Azeez Ojulari did last season. Safety Lewis Cine could be that candidate, or maybe one of their four talented linebackers raises his play to another level.
The only concern I have with Georgia is the injuries. The injury report is quite alarming at this point, and the Bulldogs have yet to play a snap. They need as many players healthy as they can get against Clemson to secure a top-five victory in week one.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma is deservingly in the top four of the power rankings, just because of what their offense can become. Spencer Rattler has been tabbed as a Heisman front runner by just about everybody. The success of this offense has been and will continue to hinge on Lincoln Riley’s prowess to create a scheme that gets players as wide open as possible.
After a rough start for the inexperienced Rattler in 2020, he really turned it on in the latter part of the season. His top three wideouts of Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood and Marvin Mims will be difficult to contain, regardless of playing Big 12 defenses. Getting Kennedy Brooks back from sitting out is a massive lift for this offense as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, Alex Grinch has been slowly progressing the Sooners on the right track. I’d tab them as above average in comparison to defenses across the country, but there are pieces that are elite. Linebackers Caleb Kelly and Nik Bonitto will help set the tone for this defense, which simply has to make a few stops per game since the offense will be electric.
5. Clemson Tigers
Dabo Swinney will have to find answers quickly on the offensive side of the ball, as Clemson takes on Georgia week one in Charlotte. In hindsight, D.J. Uiagalelei being thrust into action last season as Trevor Lawrence was out with COVID was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to deal with adversity early, having to come back against Boston College, then play Notre Dame in a nasty environment on the road. The problem is that the most reliable piece is gone.
Replacing the most decorated running back in ACC history, Travis Etienne, will not come easy. True freshman Will Shipley will likely get an opportunity to be that all-purpose threat out of the backfield. That is certainly a tough task as a newcomer right at the get-go, especially starting against the experienced Georgia linebacker crew.
On the outside is where Clemson has a chance to set themselves up for success, especially with the arm talent of Uiagalelei. Justyn Ross, who I have listed as a top-five wideout, will usher in Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata to starting roles. Tight end Braden Galloway is also an option to create mismatches in coverage.
The defensive side of the ball where be what keeps Clemson afloat. Of the five Tigers drafted in 2021, none of them came from Brent Venables’ defense. That means that all the starters on last year’s squad will be running it back.
Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy will look to make huge leaps in their sophomore seasons. Veteran leaders like James Skalski and Nolan Turner decided to skip the NFL Draft and return for one more season. This unit will be one of the best in the country.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
This is really indicative of how I feel about Georgia, and how well the Bearcats played against them last season. Yes, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and really the glue of the whole unit, is off to Notre Dame. Ironically, Cincy will get to match up with the Fighting Irish on October 2nd, where we could see South Bend hosting College GameDay.
When you look at Cincinnati though, this team that has been so hard-nosed on the defensive side will now be great on offense. They still do have a ton of playmakers on the defense though, like Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Myjai Sanders. Though their offense under the leadership of Desmond Ridder is about to take that next step.
The fact that the Bearcats start off the season ranked in the top 10 goes to show that people aren’t sleeping on these guys. Ridder and running back Jerome Ford are going to be playing on Sundays in the near future. They just need to capitalize on this preseason gift if they want to be the first Group of Five team to crash the playoff. This is by far the best shot we’ve seen in the playoff era.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
When you have the highly touted quarterback Sam Howell running the show in Chapel Hill, the sky is really the limit. He showed a ton of anticipation and maturation from year one to year two, being able to boost his completion percentage to 68%. Quite honestly, this whole team has shown continual improvement since Mack Brown’s return to the program, and this may be the year that all the pieces are in place.
Obviously replacing four NFL Draft picks, two 1,000 yard rushers, and two wideouts will take time. However, Howell is capable of elevating the play of everyone around him, especially the incoming receivers. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler will help alleviate the running back purge, along with experienced veteran British Brooks.
On the defensive side of the ball, tackle machines Tomon Fox and Jeremiah Gemmel will get the Heels off the field on third downs. There’s plenty of young talent eager to make an impact as Brown has signed a ton of top 300 recruits on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Tony Grimes comes to mind as an impact player who had a solid freshman season and is in for a massive sophomore campaign.
8. Oregon Ducks
These aren’t your average Ducks that we’ve been accustomed to seeing over the last decade and a half. Those teams in the past were all about scoring points and playing the occasional defense. Now with Mario Cristobal at the helm, you can’t put the “D” in Ducks without mentioning their defense.
They have a ton of team speed as they take the “ducks fly together” approach. Much of this was credited to tone setters in the back end, such as Jevon Holland. Even though he’s moved on much like many of the other secondary players, safety Verone McKinley III is still in Eugene and leading the young secondary and a group of hungry linebackers. Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell should cause problems for teams, but not as many as end crasher and potential first overall pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The offense may experience some growing pains under Boston College transfer Anthony Brown, but they’ll get it figured out. Will it be by game two when the Ducks travel to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes? Probably not, but that’s why they’ll lean heavily on their running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye to set the tone on offense.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Life after Kellen Mond is set to begin in College Station, after what seemed like an eternity that he was in school. The Aggies need someone to built upon what was left by Mond.
Haynes King got tabbed as QB1 this week which is great news, just because he can provide so much in terms of what plays are on the table. He moves well outside the pocket and throws dots on the run, but also he does have a ton of top speed for a quarterback. His speed will terrify teams in the read-option game, allowing Isaiah Spiller to find running room galore.
Other playmakers like Ainias Smith and Jalen Wydermyer will be beneficiaries of a player like King who can extend the play, allowing them to find a soft spot and sit. Also, we’ve yet to see the Aggies unleash the former five-star wideout in the class of 2020, Demond Demas. This offense has a ton of potential, but the quarterback play is the hinge.
The defense will hold up their end of the deal, if there ever was any doubt. They have elite defenders all over the field, like DeMarvin Leal and Leon O’Neal Jr.. They even have some underclassmen, such as Jaylon Jones and Antonio Johnson who are in a position to play real meaningful football for A&M. The constant grind know as the SEC West may put a real dent into this team’s aspirations by the end of the season though.
10. Iowa State Cyclones
This is a team that is riding into 2021 with a ton of momentum, but for some reason, I just can’t buy into the number seven ranking they received. Brock Purdy is a solid quarterback and has some weapons around him like tight end Charlie Kolar and wideout Xavier Hutchinson. The most prominent piece of the offense is running back Breece Hall, who has already been tabbed as a Doak Walker front runner for best back in the country. All these accolades and star power on offense but I just feel like something is missing.
Last year the Cyclones were stunned at home week one, albeit by a much better than anticipated Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns football team. Even though they rebounded and were even able to beat Oklahoma at home, they still dropped the conference title to them in December. Don’t get me wrong in that Matt Campbell’s boys can play ball, but there is just a cap on anyone in the Big 12 not named Oklahoma until proven otherwise.
The defense should keep the Cyclones in games though, as they’re actually very good at getting to the quarterback. Will McDonald IV is returning and so are his 10.5 sacks from a season ago. Iowa State also returns one of the young stars in the Big 12, Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year in the conference, Isheem Young. This team gets after it on this side of the ball, but will it be enough to compete with some of the other high-powered offenses?