This unprecedented, discombobulated 2020 college football season just ended with Alabama rolling to another national championship. So, we decided to look ahead to the 2021 campaign, when we hope there is a little more normalcy to the game.
Here's a look at our top 25 teams to watch heading into the 2021 college football season.
Out of the Sun Belt, the Chanticleers were one of the best stories of this topsy-turvy 2020 campaign. We'll see if Coastal can build on that special 11-1 season. Having quarterback Grayson McCall (2,488 yards, 26 touchdowns, three interceptions; 569 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) certainly helps. So too should be the returning talent from a defense that allowed an average of 20.3 points in 2020.
The Cardinals' 7-1 2020 season that resulted in a Mid-American Conference title and a bowl win since will go down as one of the greatest in the history of the Ball State program. As for 2021, the Cardinals are poised to return 20 of 22 starters. That includes quarterback Drew Pitt, who threw for 2,164 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions from an offense that averaged 34.3 points this past season.
We know Mike Gundy's Cowboys will be competitive. The question is will they be good enough to seriously challenge for a Big 12 title? We sound like a broken record (for those of age who know what records sound like), but Oklahoma State tends to follow the same plotline: A good, but not a great team. The return of quarterback Spencer Sanders (2,007 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, eight interceptions) will highlight the Cowboys' collective effort for 2021.
That nightmare -- and historic -- 0-5 start ultimately doomed the Nittany Lions' 2020 season. However, they did win their final four games -- allowing an average of 17.3 points during those victories -- and have some solid returning defensive talent. Sean Clifford (4,732 passing yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) could again be running the offense, but receiver Jahan Dotson (52 receptions, 885 yards, eight touchdowns) might end up being the star of the 2021 offense.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey's decision to bypass his final season of college eligibility in 2021 is a blow to the Wildcats. Still, if we've learned anything from a Pat Fitzgerald-coach program, is that Northwestern tends to overachieve and should never be counted out. If the Wildcats can be as stingy defensively as they were in 2020 (allowing an average of 15.9 points), good things could be there for the taking.
COVID-19 ravaged the Badgers in 2020. However, they did manage to win their final two games, highlighted by a 42-28 triumph over Wake Forest in the Mayo Bowl, to finish 4-3. Quarterback Graham Mertz (1,238 passing yards) will be fun to watch during a full season and within a rhythm. We should also expect Wisconsin to again have one of the nation's top defenses (allowed an average of 17.4 points in 2020).
It was a rough follow-up to that national championship 2019 season for the Tigers, going 5-5 and allowing roughly 35 points per game this past season. Still, star defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. returns from that unit and the hopes are the Tigers can turn things around in this area. Offensively, LSU might have a future star in quarterback Max Johnson, who threw for 1,069 yards with eight touchdowns and an interception over six games during his freshman season of 2020.
We might be at the point in history where Indiana football is actually better than its tradition-laden basketball program. Assuming quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (1,645 passing yards, 14 TDs, four INTs) is healthy, the Hoosiers appear poised to build on this past season's 6-2 effort. Now, will a defense that allowed an average of 20.3 points be as good as it was in 2020?
Iowa lost its first two games of 2020 to Purdue and Northwestern by a combined five points. The Hawkeyes would not lose again to finish 6-2 and take some confidence heading into 2021. While the quarterback Spencer Petras (1,569 passing yards) and running back Tyler Goodson (762 yards, seven TDs) are back, the bigger plus for Iowa is the expected return of defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg (3 1/2 sacks, 8 1/2 tackles for loss) from a unit that gave up an average of 16 points.
Oregon went 4-3 and still managed to win the Pac-12 title in 2020. It would seem the Ducks and USC will again battle it out for the league title in 2021. The progression of quarterback Tyler Shough (1,559 yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions; 271 rushing yards), meanwhile, will be interesting to follow, especially since he has a year of service under his belt. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (12 career sacks, 23 1/2 tackles for loss in two seasons) is also slated to return.
After a rough start, Lane Kiffin's 2020 group won four of its final five games to finish 5-5. That bodes well for 2021, perhaps. Star receiver Elijah Moore might be gone, but quarterback Matt Corral (3,337 passing yards, 29 TDs, 14 INTs) is a name to remember heading into the season. The key for the Rebels will be how much can they improve defensively from a unit that allowed an average of 38.3 points this past season.
Quarterback D'Eriq King (7,611 career passing yards, 73 TDs, 15 INTs; 1,959 rushing yards, 32 TDs) and his recovery from a knee injury suffered last month are the X-factors for the Hurricanes in 2021. While Miami has enough talent to contend in the ACC, it must find a way to clamp down defensively after allowing 41 or more points three times and an average of 174.5 rushing yards in 2020.
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian takes over things at Texas. He won't have Sam Ehlinger at quarterback, but there is plenty of talent for the Longhorns to stay strong on offense (see running back Bijan Robinson's 703 yards). The question is how Texas can improve things on defense, where the 2020 team twice allowed 53 or more points. If not, the Longhorns might just be another 7-8-9-win squad.
Landing prized defensive end recruit Korey Foreman should help the Trojans' defense almost immediately. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Kedon Slovis (5,423 career passing yards, 47 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) and receiver Drake London (33 receptions, 502 yards, three TDs) return to make USC the favorite to win the Pac-12 South Division, and perhaps the entire league.
While we expect the Gators to challenge Georgia for the SEC East title, the loss of quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts leave a couple of big holes to be filled. Emory Jones, who has thrown for 613 yards and seven touchdowns in 24 career games over three seasons, appears to be the next man up at the quarterback position. The Gators must also get serious on defense, where they yielded 107 points to Alabama and Oklahoma in their last games of 2020.
Quarterback Sam Howell (7,227 passing yards, 68 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) returns and might be the best quarterback in the country for 2021. With that, we know the Tar Heels should still be an offensive force. Defensively, if Carolina expects to be a serious contender for an ACC title, it needs to be better than the group that allowed more than 40 points four times in 2020.
Matt Campbell is still coaching Iowa State -- for now, but he remains a hot commodity even amid the NFL ranks. Quarterback Brock Purdy (8,982 career passing yards, 62 touchdowns) is expected to return, as is linebacker Mike Rose, who's recorded 251 tackles and 29 tackles for loss over three seasons. If Breece Hall (1,572 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns) comes back, then the Cyclones should again challenge for the Big 12 title.
The announcement that quarterback Desmond Ridder (6,905 career yards, 57 TDs; 1,825 career rushing yards, 22 TDs) will be back for his senior season is huge for the Bearcats. That alone should make them the preseason favorite in the American Athletic Conference. That said, we'll also be interested to see how well the defense fares after allowing just one team to score more than 24 points in 2020.
The Aggies are coming off their best season amid the early days of the Jimbo Fisher era. While quarterback Kellen Mond and a host of other talented seniors will be gone from the 2020 9-1 team, running back Isaiah Spiller (1,036, nine touchdowns) is slated to return to pace the offense. Questions on the offensive line will surface, but the defense could still be stout.
With Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan (3,278 career passing yards, 23 TDs, eight INTs) apparently on his way to Notre Dame, that gives the Irish an obvious boost in a post-Ian Book quarterback world. So too does the expected return of running back Kyren Williams (1,125 yards, 13 TDs). However, it will be interesting to see the performance of a defensive unit that prior to the ACC Championship Game and College Football Playoff semifinals, allowed an average of 17.1 points.
While it's uncertain if the Buckeye will have enough to claim a national title in 2021, they should again be favored to win the Big Ten. Assuming quarterback Justin Fields leaves for the NFL. If that's the case, there appears no clear favorite for the Ohio State quarterback job, but receiver Garrett Wilson, who has caught over 70 passes in his first two seasons at Ohio State, should be a major target. Defensive end Zach Harrison would appear to be the most high-profiled returner on that side of the ball.
All expectations are that Trevor Lawrence will leave early for the NFL, so let's go with the fact that D.J. Uiagalelei will be starting in 2021. Uiagalelei threw for 781 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in his two 2020 starts (including at Notre Dame). He will have some quality talent surrounding him, while defensive end Myles Murphy is slated to return following a freshman season where he recorded four sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for loss.
Maybe it's a bold choice to rank Georgia this high up -- and ahead of Clemson or Ohio State. However, the Bulldogs were 4-0 with quarterback JT Daniels (1,231 yards, 10 touchdowns) in the lineup. Zamir White (779 rushing yards, 11 TDs) should be the team's featured running back, and George Pickens (36 receptions, 513 yards, eight TDs) might be one of the best receivers in the country. Defensively, linebacker Nakobe Dean and defensive back Lewis Cine combined for 123 tackles last season. And both should be back in 2021.
In terms of quality coming back, Oklahoma, which won its final eight games of 2020, returns a ton. Starting with quarterback Spencer Rattler (3,031 passing yards, 28 TDs, seven INTs; six rushing TDs) and receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, who combined for 74 receptions with 1,140 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020. Of course, with the Sooners, it will depend on how well their defense performs. In 2020, that unit allowed an average of 17.0 points over its last seven contests.
All signs point to Bryce Young taking over at the helm of an Alabama offense that entered the College Football Playoff national championship game averaging 48.2 points. Now, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will be at Texas, so it will be interesting to see how potent that Tide unit remains. Receiver Jahleel Billingsley and running back Jase McClellan could be ready to step into starring roles, as well.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.