The 25 most important college football players for the 2021 season
Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The 25 most important college football players for the 2021 season

The beauty of college athletics is that every year we see a mass exodus of talent with a whole new crop of guys ready to step in and take on the challenge. Trevor Lawrence can't stay at Clemson for 20 years like a Tom Brady can in the NFL, so it is always a revolving door of opportunities for young men all over the country.

Yet not all of 2020's great talent left for the NFL. There are top-level quarterbacks, playmakers, and defensive standouts who look to build on (or finish) their careers in a big way. With the NCAA's decision to offer an additional year of eligibility, we will see a more experienced season and more seasoned veterans on the gridiron this fall.

We will also, hopefully, see a normal season with limited cancellations and a full slate of games to enjoy (still hard to believe there was no Ohio State-Michigan last year). Figuring all of that in ... and the fact that all four playoff teams from last season losing their starting quarterbacks ... we could have one of the best and exciting seasons of college football.

Here are 25 of the most important players to know heading into the season. 

 
1 of 25

Adam Anderson, LB, Georgia

Adam Anderson, LB, Georgia
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Anderson is a lethal pass rusher who disrupts the timing of offenses. He explodes off the line and his speed makes him nearly impossible to deal with in space. Georgia has dreams of a national title run in 2021 and will rely on the Dawgs' stout defense (especially as UGa takes on Clemson in their season opener) to get them there. Look for Anderson to be more of a factor in the running game and fully flesh out his abilities. 

 
2 of 25

Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn

Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The focus in Auburn will be how new head coach Bryan Harsin develops sophomore quarterback Bo Nix and a bunch of inexperienced receivers, making running back Tank Bigsby a crucial part to get the Tigers offense going. Besides having a fabulous name for a running back, Bigsby was the SEC's freshman of the year with his punishing style of running. With the amount of defensive talent in that division, the ability to wear out a defense will be key to opening up Nix and the passing attack. 

 
3 of 25

Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss

Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Can Ole Miss really be a contender in the SEC West? Maybe they are a ways away from supplanting Alabama for the division crown, but they can certainly be a player in the race due to their quarterback. Matt Corral is a dual-threat quarterback that maximizes Lane Kiffin's offensive playbook. He's a pass-first quarterback who can get out and run when necessary. He led all of college football in total offense last season and has a chance to outdo himself in 2021. 

 
4 of 25

Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State

Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In a shortened season, Dotson led the Big Ten with 884 receiving yards while hauling in eight touchdowns while earning the trust of quarterback Sean Clifford. With tight end Pat Freiermuth gone to the NFL, Dotson should get even more looks from Clifford ... despite the Nittany Lions cache of really good receivers. He's also a weapon on special teams, averaging over 24 yards per punt return in 2020. 

 
5 of 25

Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF

Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Gabriel will put up some numbers. Last year, he tossed 32 TD passes and over 3,500 yards as UCF muddled to a 6-4 record. New head coach Gus Malzahn knows how to use special quarterbacks and will look to expand Gabriel's repertoire.  

 
6 of 25

Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it: Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish have been built on defense. Hamilton is that rare talent that Kelly can line up all over the field. He is great in coverage, outstanding in pursuit, attacks the run game, and can be used as a blitzer. He can be everything for a Notre Dame that's undergoing a transition in the secondary. 

 
7 of 25

Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Cyclones have two Heisman contenders in their backfield. Most people are more familiar with quarterback Brock Purdy, but running back Breece Hall is the key to Iowa State's success in 2021. Hall led the nation with 1,572 rushing yards and trailed on Najee Harris with 21 TDs as a sophomore, and helped lead the Clones to the Big 12 regular-season championship. 

 
8 of 25

Kevin Harris, RB, South Carolina

Kevin Harris, RB, South Carolina
Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Harris is the leading returning rusher in the SEC (1,138 yards, 15 TDs) and will be the focus of a rebuilding South Carolina offense. The Gamecocks struggled last season but hope new head coach Shane Beamer can turn the switch to maximize the offense. The dynamic Harris will be a major part of that, as a playmaker behind an experienced offensive line. Look for Beamer to try to get Harris more involved in the passing attack this year. 

 
9 of 25

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Tar Heel fans are eager for a special season from Howell, the ACC preseason Player of the Year. Howell hasn't disappointed in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill -- 7,227 passing yards, 68 TDs, 14 interceptions. Not only has he been a statistical marvel, but he's also been clutch in big games. He is a winner and has been a vital part of Mack Brown's return to North Carolina and the Tar Heels' return to relevance. 

 
10 of 25

Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern

Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern
Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph had a sensational redshirt freshman season, picking off six passes (including one in the Big Ten championship game) and earning All-American honors. He will help fill the leadership void left by linebacker Pāddy Fisher, who graduated last spring. The Wildcats secondary is talented which should allow Joseph to continue to roam around and make plays. 

 
11 of 25

D'Eriq King, QB, Miami

D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

If it seems as if King has been around forever ... he kind of has. This will be his sixth year of college football after redshirting after four games in 2019 and taking upon the NCAA's extra year of eligibility this year. King also has been at the forefront of the new NIL culture of college athletics, signing multiple endorsement deals right out of the gate. He's also good on the field, throwing for 2,686 yards and 23 TDs (only five interceptions) while rushing for 538 yards and four more scores before going down with an ACL injury in the Cheez-It Bowl. His recovery will be a major story in the ACC Coastal Division where Miami will battle North Carolina for a shot at Clemson in the conference title game. 

 
12 of 25

DeMarvin Leal, DL, Texas A&M

DeMarvin Leal, DL, Texas A&M
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M has had a nice run of defensive linemen and Leal is the latest on that list. He is a disruptive force who excels at pressuring ... well ... everyone. Quarterbacks, blockers, runners and even receiving tight ends. In an SEC filled with great offenses, having a physical, determined defender like Leal can make people uncomfortable. 

 
13 of 25

Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa

Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I know that centers are rarely a glamorous bunch, but Linderbaum is certainly a beauty. Arguably the best center in the country, Linderbaum is not only a physical blocker but keen on blocking calls and making the proper reads. In a wide-open Big Ten West division, the Hawkeyes are contenders because of how well their O-line plays. 

 
14 of 25

Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah

Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Don't sleep on Utah. The Utes got off to a rocky start in 2020 but turned it around over the last three games of the season. Linebacker Devin Lloyd is the leader of a tough Utah defense that nearly snuck into the College Football Playoff in 2019. Lloyd was an All-American last season as he piled up 48 tackles in just five games and is a terror for offensive coordinators to deal with. 

 
15 of 25

Sincere McCormick, RB, Texas-San Antonio

Sincere McCormick, RB, Texas-San Antonio
John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

McCormick was the nation's second-leading rusher last season and leads an offense with ten returning starters. He ran for 251 yards against North Texas in the Roadrunners' regular-season finale and 122 yards against Louisiana in the Servpro First Responder Bowl. Look for UTSA to make a push for a Conference USA title this fall.

 
16 of 25

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

One of the biggest surprises in the offseason was Chris Olave's decision to return to school for another go at it with the Buckeyes. Last season, in just eight games, he caught 50 passes for 729 yards and 7 TD. This season, he's the leader for a stable of receivers that could be the best in the nation. But it is the senior Olave who will be the steadying force for a young quarterback ... whoever that is. 

 
17 of 25

Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
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The three Oklahoma quarterbacks that started prior to Rattler are all starting for NFL teams this fall (two of which won Heisman trophies and were drafted No. 1 overall). Rattler has the talent to be the third Sooners QB to win a Heisman and/or become a top overall draft pick. He threw for 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns over 11 games last season and grew stronger as the year went along. He could have a special season.

 
18 of 25

Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Ridder had his coming-out party last season as he led the Bearcats to a 9-0 regular-season mark and a spot in the Peach Bowl, where Cincy lost to Georgia by three. He came back for his senior season in hopes to build on his (31 total touchdowns) and his team's successes. He is a darkhorse Heisman candidate and could build a resume that vaults him up NFL Draft boards. 

 
19 of 25

Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, Robinson set a Longhorns' record for yards per carry by a freshman. His 703 yards led the Horns last year, but he only found the endzone four times. New head coach Steve Sarkisian will find extra ways to utilize Robinson's ability, especially as he breaks in a new quarterback. Expect a huge season from Bijan. 

 
20 of 25

Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Can Slovis be the guy to vault USC back to Pac-12 championship status? After a breakout in 2019, he "struggled" in 2020 to lead the conference in most passing statistics and had the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game. He also showed he was clutch, coming up big in close games. A full, normal offseason and fine-tuning should have Slovis set to make a jump nationally and have his name alongside Spencer Rattler and Sam Howell for best in the nation. 

 
21 of 25

Derek Stingley Jr., DB, LSU

Derek Stingley Jr., DB, LSU
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Stingley was a hyped recruit coming to LSU and was a solid part of the Tigers' 2019-2020 national championship run. Last year's defense was awful for LSU and a mixed bag for Stingley. With new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones, expect Stingley to return to his All-American form. 

 
22 of 25

Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon

Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
Andy Nelson via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Thibodeaux may be the best defensive player in the nation. Last year, he was the Pac-12's best defensive lineman (voted on by the league's offensive linemen) and is ready to do more damage in a full Oregon season. He is a leader for a stacked defense and should be a top-five pick in next spring's draft. 

 
23 of 25

D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

All Uiagalelei has to do is follow Trevor Lawrence as the Clemson Tigers quarterback. While that certainly feels like a daunting task, Uiagalelei had to do so for two games in 2020 as Lawrence battled COVID (a close win over Boston College and a sparkling showing in a loss to Notre Dame). The job is his now and as Kelly Bryant can tell you, it can be difficult following a Clemson legend. How Uiagalelei handles it will determine if Clemson can be a serious threat to win another national championship. 

 
24 of 25

Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State

Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Vaughn was one of my favorite players in 2020, despite K-State being one of the most up-and-down teams in the nation. The diminutive back is a weapon in both the rushing (642 yds, 7 TDs) and passing (434 yds, 2 TDs) game during his freshman season and should break out even further as a sophomore. The offense returns eight starters which will make the Wildcats more efficient and allow Vaughn to break off some more big plays. 

 
25 of 25

Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Caitie McMekin/Pool via News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As always, there is a ton of talent on Alabama's roster. Despite the massive exodus of outstanding talent, Nick Saban just reloads and takes another shot at a national championship. The key for Alabama's quest for a repeat title rests on how well sophomore QB Bryce Young can become the man in Tuscaloosa. The last three Tide signal-callers all won national titles, which puts a lot of pressure on Young ... who may be the most talented of that bunch. He threw just 22 passes during his freshman season, loses three of the top four receivers from last year, and the program's all-time leading rusher. How Young ... and his young offense ... develops this season will determine if Saban wins his 7th championship with Alabama -- and 8th overall.

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