Despite all the changes that may be coming down the road for college football, in 2021 the College Football Playoff is still just the four slots that 130 schools will be fighting all autumn for. While there may be a bit of boredom of the same schools gobbling up most of the bids (and the same schools are favored to do the same again), there are plenty of opportunities for upsets to happen and dark horses to emerge.
College football fans love to say "every game matters", well we are telling you the 20 that may matter most.
The likelihood of this game having anything to do with the College Football Playoff is slim, but hear me out. Boise State and UCF have set themselves up as the premier Group of 5 programs of the 21st century, and now the two programs get to meet on the field in front of a national audience. UCF had a down season in 2020, but are reinvigorated with Gus Malzahn taking over for Josh Heupel and possessing one of the most electric passing attacks (led by Dillon Gabriel) in the nation. Boise State also has a new head coach (former Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos) and their own talented QB in Hank Bachmeier. The winner will have a leg up for a New Year's Six appearance and could make a run at an undefeated season. With so much turnover among the top teams this year, this could be the time a Group of 5 sneaks into the playoff.
The most anticipated game of the year may happen in the opening week of the season. Clemson begins their post-Trevor Lawrence era against Georgia in Charlotte with both schools having national championship expectations. D.J. Uiagalelei is used to having to jump right into the fire after having to replace Lawrence (who was out with COVID) in Clemson's showdown with Notre Dame last season, and now must open the season against the Dawgs. Georgia will have a focused JT Daniels leading their offense, while the defense will be typically stout. Fireworks in Week 1!
This will be the final "kickoff classic" game for Alabama for at least a decade -- the Tide have typically flexed their muscle in these non-conference showdowns to begin the season. Bama will be breaking in a new quarterback in Bryce Young as well as their typical turnover of talent ... especially in the receiving corps. Miami brings in some swagger and quarterback D'Eriq King will be entering his sixth college season when you take into account him prematurely entering his 2019 season to preserve a year of eligibility and the NCAA's allowance for an extra season due to the pandemic. King can be a wildcard that disrupts even a great defense like Alabama ... especially in a season opener. Miami is a contender for the ACC crown and could announce its candidacy for a playoff spot with a win over Alabama in Atlanta.
The last time these two schools faced off it was for the 2015 College Football Playoff national championship game (the Buckeyes won). The Pac-12 needs to earn national respect and a Ducks win at Ohio State would certainly open some eyes. Freshman Ty Thompson should be the next great Oregon quarterback but he is still a rookie heading into Ohio Stadium. While the Buckeyes will be replacing Justin Fields (redshirt frosh C.J. Stroud should get the first look) the rest of the roster is stacked for another title run. This is a noon start which will bring a lot of national eyes (and some tired eyes out in Eugene).
This rivalry is one of the most slept on in the country. Iowa State is a legit Big 12 championship contender (remember that they won the league by two games in 2020) with two Heisman candidates in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall. This team can make the playoff. Of course, to do so they'll need to beat Iowa -- something they haven't done since 2014. The Hawkeyes looked strong over their final six games of 2020, including blowing out Wisconsin in the season finale. Iowa isn't a final four team, but they have the capability to end final four dreams for teams that are. Teams like the Cyclones.
Many Cincinnati fans were disappointed when their undefeated Bearcats weren't seriously considered for a College Football Playoff spot last year. This year, they strengthened their non-conference schedule, beginning with a trip to Bloomington to take on the Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana fans also felt a bit shunned when the Big Ten changed their (admittedly fluid) rules to allow Ohio State to take Indiana's spot in the conference championship game. Both schools feel like they can take that next step to national contenders and this game will be a tough test that features a fantastic battle of QBs: Hoosiers' Michael Penix vs. Hoosiers' Desmond Ridder.
This could be a preview of the SEC championship game (these two have met 10 times for the conference title, including last year's thrilling showdown). The Crimson Tide has won seven straight against the Gators, but this is the first time Alabama has traveled to Gainsville in ten years. Junior Emory Jones finally gets his chance to start at quarterback for the Gators and brings a bigger dual-threat ability than Kyle Trask did last year and possibly a better arm. That will be an intriguing twist for Nick Saban and an always punishing Alabama defense. Both teams have other landmines in their path, making this a must-win.
The Irish were ACC regular-season champions a year ago (that still sounds so weird) and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff, while the Badgers fizzled to a 4-3 mark in an abbreviated Big Ten season. The two meet in historic Soldier Field in Chicago with Wisconsin feeling like a Big Ten title contender while Notre Dame attempts to get back to the playoff. I'm a Graham Mertz fan and feel a normal offseason program along with the experience he gained last year will catapult him into a big year. Interestingly, Notre Dame's quarterback should be Wisconsin grad transfer, Jack Coan. Coan led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 2019 (he missed all of 2020 due to a foot injury) and completed 68% of his passes that season.
Here's Cincinnati with another trip into the Hoosier state to beef up their non-conference schedule. The Bearcats will travel to South Bend to face the Fighting Irish, the team they felt they stole their playoff berth. Quarterback Desmond Ridder could be a sleeper Heisman candidate and will have a fantastic opportunity to bolster that resume in a nationally televised game against a physical, historic program. Both teams feel they can repeat and build on their successes of 2020 -- though one may see that chance fade away after this battle.
Alabama has had its way with Ole Miss over the last five years, winning each game by an average score of 60-26. The Tide has won 15 of 17 matchups between the two teams ... so why would I think the 2021 edition would be any different? In two words: Lane Kiffin. Kiffin began building his brand of offense in Oxford last year and the program is expecting a major step forward in 2021. The Rebels had the nation's third-best offense last year, behind quarterback Matt Corral (who could become a breakout star), running back Jerrion Ealy, and a very experienced offensive line. Ole Miss isn't a title contender just yet (the defense is terrible), but they certainly could play spoiler for several teams, including the defending national champs. In those two wins over the last 17 years, it was a great quarterback play that toppled a highly ranked Alabama team. That could happen again.
The Red River Rivalry usually has some impact on how the Big 12 season unfolds and this year's edition should continue that trend. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler enters the season as a strong Heisman candidate and the Sooners are searching for their seventh straight conference championship. Texas is rebuilding under new head coach Steve Sarkisian. The Longhorns finished a respectable 7-3 last season with those three losses by a combined 13 points. One of those losses was to Oklahoma in one of the best college football games of the season, a 53-45 Sooners win in four overtimes.
A 52-24 loss at Alabama in the second game of the season kept the Aggies from competing for a national championship last year, a point that has haunted A&M fans all offseason. Jimbo Fisher's bunch is likely the biggest threat to Alabama again this year, and this year's game will be a raucous Kyle Field in College Station. Kellan Mond is gone to the NFL and Fisher will have a few weeks to figure out if freshman speedster Haynes King or big-armed sophomore Zach Calzada will replace him behind center before taking on the Crimson Tide. Until then, Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane can carry the offensive load with one of the best backfield duos in the nation. Do they have enough to take down Alabama? We'll find out on October 9th.
A lot has to go right for either team to be in a position to nab a playoff spot, but these two squads are talented enough to make a run. The Heels and Canes are the frontrunners for the ACC Coastal Division crown, which brings the opportunity to take down the Clemson Tigers in the conference championship game. Miami (Alabama) and North Carolina (Notre Dame) have opportunities for huge wins elsewhere, making this game imperative for a playoff push. Sam Howell vs D'Eriq King is one of the more exciting quarterback matchups of the season.
Who would have ever thought that "Ohio State-Indiana" would make a list of the most important games of the season? It was in 2020 and will be again in 2021. Ohio State held on to beat Indiana, 42-35, in last year's meeting causing the Hoosiers to miss out playing in the Big Ten championship. Most of the Hoosiers offensive starters are back in an effort to topple the mighty Buckeyes and give Indiana their first win over Ohio State since 1988. The winner of this one will be the favorite to win the Big Ten East division.
Last year these two rivals didn't face off against each other for the first time since World War II. This year's matchup should be nationally relevant as Notre Dame wants to get back to the playoff, while USC is building off a solid 2020 with plans to win the Pac-12. Kedon Slovis led the Trojans to an undefeated regular season before getting upset by Oregon in the conference championship game. For Notre Dame, this game comes in the middle of a brutal stretch where the Irish have faced Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Virginia Tech and before they welcome North Carolina. One break for Brian Kelly is that this game will come after a Notre Dame bye week. Both teams must have this win if they plan on getting into the playoff.
The SEC East will likely be decided yet again in Jacksonville as the rivalry formerly known as the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" takes on added importance. The Gators won last year's game and the division, but JT Daniels had the Bulldogs finishing strong with four wins to close out the season. Over the previous 12 seasons, the Gators and Dawgs have alternated three-game winning streaks, with Florida ending Georgia's three-game streak last year. These two schools have won the division eight of the last ten seasons and will likely meet Alabama in Atlanta.
If the Pac-12 wants to finally get back into the College Football Playoff they'll need to put up a worthy candidate. The conference's only two playoff entries have been the Ducks and Huskies and neither has been there since 2017. This year, the league feels one of those two schools (or USC) has what it takes to get there. Oregon brings in a great receiving corps led by Johnny Johnson and a strong runner in CJ Verdell. Washington is more of a defensive club, which makes this an interesting battle of styles that should determine the North Division.
Just imagine if one (or both) of these schools beat Alabama in their earlier meeting. How big could this game be? A&M is loaded for another run at a playoff spot while Ole Miss has the quarterback (Matt Corral), running attack, and ballsy coach to do damage in the SEC. This game very well determines who wins the SEC West and/or if the SEC could manage to get two teams into the playoff. The last four meetings between the Aggies and Rebels have been outstanding games, so expect another tight one.
Iowa State and Oklahoma are the class of the Big 12 this year. The two split their meetings last season, with the Cyclones pulling off an exciting upset in their regular-season meeting, while Oklahoma won the rematch in the Big 12 championship game. Two of the best quarterbacks in the country in Spencer Rattler and Brock Purdy set up an epic late-season fight for the top of the Big 12 standings. With the Big 12 pitting its top two regular-season finishers in the title game, we could see these two hook up again in a couple of weeks.
Of course, the Iron Bowl matters. Auburn and Alabama have alternated wins over the last five seasons, with the Tide crushing the Tigers in last year's edition. Auburn brings in a new head coach in former Boise State headman Bryan Harsin, who plans on bringing out all of quarterback Bo Nix's potential. Hopefully, for Bama fans, Nick Saban's crew will be on the brink of an SEC championship and a defense of their national championship in the College Football Playoff. We've seen Auburn put those hopes to bed before, and the Tigers plan on doing it again.