RJ's Early Top 25 For 2021
By RJ Young
FOX Sports college football reporter
No one could’ve predicted that Coastal Carolina or Brigham Young or Cincinnati would rank as top-10 teams at one point in 2020, yet that’s exactly what happened.
I think it can and will happen again.
After a look at 2021 schedules and important players and coaches returning across college football, here’s a look at my Top 25 teams just a few moments removed from the national title game.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
It has been plug-and-play in Tuscaloosa since Blake Sims was quarterback, and each time a more prolific QB has emerged — from Jalen Hurts, to Tua Tagovailoa, to Mac Jones.
Now former five-star recruit Bryce Young takes over the most important position on the nation’s only active dynasty. With the return of Malachi Moore, Christian Harris and Jordan Battle on the defense and John Metchie on offense, there’s little reason to believe Nick Saban’s squad will not be a strong contender for yet another national championship.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost defensive end Ronnie Perkins and running back Rhamondre Stevenson to early entrance to the 2021 NFL Draft, but they’re likely to return Kennedy Brooks, Nik Bonitto and Jalen Redmond to the 2021 group.
After showing what the offense could do against an undermanned Florida and a full-strength Iowa State, the Sooners are loaded for a national title run led by Heisman-favorite Spencer Rattler.
For OU, the toughest nonconference game on the schedule is at home against Nebraska.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
The window for Georgia to win a national title hasn’t been this open in four years. With a returning starter at quarterback and playmakers on offense and defense, the Dawgs ought to come out of the SEC East unscathed and challenge for the SEC crown.
JT Daniels, George Pickens and that elite bevy of backs makes this a "No Excuses Year" for UGA coach Kirby Smart. It’s simple for the Bulldogs: Win the SEC title, and then compete in the College Football Playoff.
4. Clemson Tigers
D.J. Uiagalelei led Clemson to a comeback victory against Boston College, and the freshman threw for more than 400 yards against Notre Dame on the road. With James Skalski returning on defense, the Tigers should be designated as the dominant force in the ACC for a seventh consecutive year.
They also have on the schedule one of the most intriguing games, which could act like a quarterfinal for the CFP: against Georgia to open the season on Sept. 4.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ryan Day has been head coach at Ohio State for two years, and he has run the regular-season table in both. Losing Justin Fields might be devastating for most teams, but the Buckeyes have quarterbacks CJ Stroud and Jack Miller on campus, along with five-star recruit Kyle McCord on his way to Columbus.
With games against Minnesota, Oregon and Tulsa to open, the Buckeyes could have one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country.
6. Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher was magic in Year 4 at Florida State, and if he turns either Haynes King or freshman Eli Stowers into a playmaker at quarterback, the Aggies should compete for SEC West supremacy and perhaps their first SEC Championship en route to a College Football Playoff spot.
A&M plays Colorado on the road, but should run through its nonconference schedule unblemished.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats lost their star defensive play-caller, Marcus Freeman, to Notre Dame, but Cincy coach Luke Fickell welcomes back quarterback Desmond Ridder, who could end up as the first QB off the board in the 2022 NFL Draft.
With games against Indiana and Notre Dame in their first four, the Bearcats will have a chance to prove they belong at No. 7. And if they make it past ND and IU, complete an undefeated conference season and repeat as the American champs, it would be difficult to leave them out of the Playoff.
8. Iowa State Cyclones
Matt Campbell turned down a chance to interview for an NFL head coaching job. He also returns his three most important players on offense, including the first unanimous All-American in Cyclones history, Breece Hall, at tailback.
The Cyclones also got a boost from the return of safety Greg Eisworth, and defensive end Will McDonald IV is one of my favorite players heading into the 2021 season. McDonald notched 10.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2020, which tied for No. 1 in the nation.
Add the return of linebacker Mike Rose — who notched five interceptions last season, tied for the third-most in the country — and the Cyclones will threaten Oklahoma once again for Big 12 supremacy.
9. LSU Tigers
LSU’s victory at Florida was not a fluke. We know this because the Bayou Bengals walked into the Swamp with 54 scholarship players and a true freshman quarterback making his first start, and UF lost by a shoe.
They also have just one Power 5 nonconference game in 2021, and their SEC cross matchups are Kentucky and Florida. LSU is talented enough to win 10 games in 2021 — if Ed Orgeron nails his defensive coordinator hire.
With nonconference games against UCLA, McNeese, Central Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe, LSU should walk into its matchup at Alabama as a Top 20 team.
If offensive coordinator Jake Peetz and passing game coordinator DJ Mangas can summon some of that 2019 magic, expect LSU to join Alabama and A&M in a fight for the SEC West title.
10. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Jamey Chadwell and Grayson McCall are joined by a group of Chants who can repeat as Sun Belt champs, with their toughest nonconference game coming at Kansas in 2021.
To be clear, I’m ranking the Chants here not because I believe they can beat Iowa or Notre Dame, for example, but because their schedule points toward another double-digit win total. More importantly, they should have an opportunity to prove they can or can’t compete against those teams — in an expanded playoff.
11. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes averaged nearly twice as many points (31.8) as their opponents (16.0). Iowa’s only losses were to Purdue and a one-point defeat to a Northwestern team that finished in the Top 25. Iowa's toughest opponents in 2021 include Indiana, Iowa State and Wisconsin. Kirk Ferentz’s men ought to win at least nine games.
12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Irish coach Brian Kelly added Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan at quarterback and replaced Clark Lea with Marcus Freeman at defensive coordinator. Still, the New Year's Six ceiling for ND seems to get tougher to break through each season. And there is no conference championship to play for in 2021 to assure a spot in the Playoff. Safety Kyle Hamilton is going to get early buzz on preseason watch lists as one of the best defenders in 2021.
13. Indiana Hoosiers
The return of the Big Ten’s best receiver, Ty Fryfogle, locks Indiana as a Top 25 team. If quarterback Michael Penix comes back from injury looking like he did in 2020, the Hoosiers can challenge for Big Ten East supremacy.
14. Penn State Nittany Lions
The young Nittany Lions took their lumps in 2020. But with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich moving into Happy Valley, expect James Franklin’s squad to contend with Indiana and Ohio State for the Big Ten East title.
15. Oregon Ducks
One of the youngest teams in the sport managed to win a Pac-12 title without winning its division. But the reason to believe is Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is the best pure pass rusher in the sport. The Ducks will have a chance to prove the Pac-12 belongs in the Playoff with an early-season showdown at Ohio State.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
Pair Graham Mertz with running back Jalen Berger and tight end Jake Ferguson for another year, let Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard cook, and the Badgers should be one of the two best teams in the Big Ten West. The schedule features a big matchup against Notre Dame on Sept. 25 and a trap game against Army on Oct. 16.
17. Miami Hurricanes
If D’Eriq King comes back from injury ready to play at the start of the season, the Hurricanes will contend in the ACC. And King will have to because Miami hosts Alabama in its season opener on Sept. 4, Appalachian State on Sept. 11 and Michigan State on Sept. 18.
18. North Carolina Tar Heels
Sam Howell’s return and UNC coach Mack Brown’s ability to hang on to hot coordinators Phil Longo and Jay Bateman give the Heels a puncher’s chance in every game in 2021. But there’s a lot of production to replace at the skill positions, including the best tandem backfield in the country in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.
19. Army Black Knights
The Black Knights are capable of beating any team, anytime, anywhere. Jeff Monken’s flexbone offense gives defensive coordinators fits, and his teams force every opponent to be fundamentally sound. If the Black Knights are undefeated after their Oct. 16 date with Wisconsin, expect to hear that Army is a top-10 team.
20. Texas Longhorns
Steve Sarkisian is taking over a talented program with tremendous resources — none of which is more important than running back Bijan Robinson. If he can get the same production out of Robinson that he got out of Najee Harris, the Longhorns should win nine games in Sark's first season in Austin.
21. SMU Mustangs
Ulysses Bentley IV averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was 87 yards short of a 1,000-yard season in 2020. Add OU transfer Tanner Mordecai to the mix, and the Mustangs could be back in the American title game again. The toughest game on the nonconference schedule for SMU is TCU, and the Mustangs should compete for the conference title in 2021.
22. Ole Miss Rebels
The Rebels finished 5-5, but they put up more yards on Alabama than any other team this season — a whopping 647 total yards and 48 points — and earned their fifth win with a victory against nationally ranked Indiana. With quarterback Matt Corral returning, the Lane Train continues full-steam ahead. Ole Miss needs to prove it’s an SEC asset and not a liability when the Rebels face Liberty late in the season, though, on Nov. 6.
23. Washington Huskies
Just two UW players declared for the NFL Draft following the Huskies’ Pac-12 North title, and they add five-star quarterback Sam Huard to the 2021 class. The Huskies should compete with Oregon in 2021 for the division title. UW can build its résumé with a win at the Big House against Michigan on Sept. 11 before trying to repeat as North champs.
24. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
The Golden Hurricane will lose All-American linebacker Zaven Collins, but they’ll return defensive tackle Jaxson Player and defensive back Allie Green, who anchored a stout 2020 defense. If TU plays Ohio State in 2021 as tightly as it did Oklahoma State in 2020, it’ll have proved its ranking.
25. Florida State Seminoles
McKenzie Milton was good enough to be considered a Heisman candidate at UCF in 2017 and playing well in 2018 before injuring his knee. Jermaine Johnson was rated the No. 1 player in the country coming out of JUCO when he signed with Georgia in 2019. Running back DJ Williams is a transfer from Auburn. All three are Seminoles now. That bodes well for FSU and Noles coach Mike Norvell in Year 2. We’ll find out what the Noles are made of Sept. 5, when they face Notre Dame.
RJ Young is a national college football reporter and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to The RJ Young Show on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.