Hank’s Top 25 College Football Preview
August 7, 2021
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August 7, 2021
The Horned Frogs finished 2020 on a high note by winning five out of their last six contests. Coach Gary Patterson’s team hopes to carry that momentum into ’21 and record the program’s first top-25 finish since ’17.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Max Duggan is primed for a breakout year. The Horned Frogs should have one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12, and an improving group of receivers – led by rising star Quentin Johnston – is back on the outside. The addition of Memphis transfer Obinna Eze should help an offensive line that allowed 23 sacks last year.
Offensive Concern: How far will Duggan progress in 2021? The offensive line also has room to improve.
Defensive Strength: A standout defense is usually one of the hallmarks of TCU under Patterson. While a few key players must be replaced, it’s hard to see this defense (24.2 ppg allowed) taking a big step back. The line ranks among the best in the conference, and the Horned Frogs return a standout cornerback tandem in Noah Daniels and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
Defensive Concern: Replacing linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington isn’t going to be easy. TCU also allowed 19 plays of 40-plus yards last season.
The Chanticleers were the breakout star of the 2020 college football season. And with a veteran roster in place, coach Jamey Chadwell’s squad has a chance to run the table and finish ’21 as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team for a spot in the New Year’s Six.
Offensive Strength: Coastal Carolina averaged 5.5 yards per play and 30.3 points a game in 2019. Those totals jumped to 6.7 a snap and 37.2 a contest in ’20, largely due to the emergence of quarterback Grayson McCall. In his first season as the starter, McCall accounted for 33 overall scores and tossed just three picks. He should be even better as a sophomore. McCall’s supporting cast is strong with all five starters back up front and Jaivon Heiligh (receiver) and Isaiah Likely (tight end) back on the outside. Reese White and Shermari Jones should replace the production lost by CJ Marable’s departure at running back.
Offensive Concern: It’s hard to find anything of note here. Marable will be missed, and Coastal Carolina could use another receiver or two to emerge, but both are minor issues for a loaded offense.
Defensive Strength: This unit showed marked improvement last year by limiting teams to 5.5 yards per snap and 20.2 points a game (down from 30.5 in 2019). The Chanticleers return one of the top lines, linebacker units and defensive backfields in the Sun Belt. Simply, a standout defense is going to be as good (or better) than it was in ’20.
Defensive Concern: End Tarron Jackson is the only major personnel loss on this defense, but he was a big piece of last year’s group with 8.5 sacks. There’s room to improve in red zone defense after finishing ninth in the conference last year.
The goal for coach Billy Napier’s team in 2021 is clear. After winning three consecutive Sun Belt West Division titles, the biggest hurdle left to cross is a conference championship. If Louisiana can win the Sun Belt outright, and upset Texas in Week 1, a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl is a realistic possibility.
Offensive Strength: This was one of the top offenses in the Sun Belt last season and there’s little reason to doubt this group in 2021. Quarterback Levi Lewis returns as a super senior, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have one of the top offensive lines in the conference. The receiving corps may not have a clear No. 1 threat, but depth and talent isn’t an issue.
Offensive Concern: Replacing two standout backs in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas won’t be easy. Louisiana has talent and options here, but will the new backs be as productive? The offense has room to improve on third downs and inside the red zone. Finding a consistent kicker is a must.
Defensive Strength: Louisiana allowed only 22 points a game and led the Sun Belt by holding teams to 4.92 yards a snap last season. With 10 starters back, along with depth and talent at every level, this unit should be one of the top defenses at the Group of 5 level. The secondary allowed only 10 passing scores over 11 games and finished first in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: The pass rush could use a spark after generating just 19 sacks in 2020, and the Ragin’ Cajuns could be better on third downs (eighth in the Sun Belt). There’s also room to improve against the run (184.7 yards a game allowed last year).
The Huskies are somewhat of a mystery going into coach Jimmy Lake’s first full year as head coach. After a 3-1 stint and a Pac-12 North title last year, Washington possesses one of the league’s better defenses and a favorable schedule. However, question marks remain on offense.
Offensive Strength: Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland leads a strong offensive line, with Sean McGrew and Richard Newton forming a solid duo at running back. Quarterback Dylan Morris showed promise in the four-game stint in 2020. Tight end Cade Otton is among the best in college football.
Offensive Concern: Will Dylan Morris take a step forward under center? Or will touted freshman Sam Huard eventually push for the job? The Huskies need more consistency and big plays at receiver. The sample size was small last year, but Washington’s offense was statistically better than the previous season. This unit needs to continue to progress, however. How much improvement will coordinator John Donovan generate in ’21?
Defensive Strength: Since 2014, Washington has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. Lake and new play-caller Bob Gregory should have another strong group once again thanks to the return of linebackers Ryan Bowman and Edefuan Ulofoshio and cornerback Trent McDuffie.
Defensive Concern: The Huskies need to get better versus the run (161.2 ypg allowed). Edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui (seven sacks last year) will be missed after an Achilles tear in spring practice. Sorting out the starting safeties and replacing cornerback Elijah Molden top the list of priorities in the secondary.
The Hoosiers were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season and will aim for back-to-back top-25 finishes for the first time since 1945-46.
Offensive Strength: Assuming quarterback Michael Penix makes a full return from an ACL tear, the Hoosiers should be dynamic on offense. Receiver Ty Fryfogle is an All-America candidate, the line brings back four starters, and USC transfer Stephen Carr will provide a boost to the ground game.
Offensive Concern: Can Penix stay healthy? He’s coming off his third season-ending injury at Indiana. The offense averaged 5.1 yards per play, so more down-to-down consistency is needed. Also, will the offense have help in the form of 20 forced turnovers again?
Defensive Strength: Indiana limited teams to 20.2 points a game last year and brings back nine starters, including linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen. A couple of transfers will bolster the line.
Defensive Concern: A new coordinator (Charlton Warren) is calling the shots with coach Tom Allen. Safety Jamar Johnson will be missed. Can the defense lead the Big Ten in takeaways once again?
It’s a new era in Austin. Tom Herman was dismissed after a 32-18 record from 2017-20, with former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepping into the top spot. Sarkisian is one of the top offensive minds in college football, but he will have to do a better job of recruiting and maximizing talent than the previous staff did in order to close the gap to Oklahoma.
Offensive Strength: The strength of Sarkisian’s first team should be the backfield. Bijan Robinson is primed for a monster year after running for 355 yards over Texas’ last two games of 2020. Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson and Roschon Johnson provide depth. The two quarterbacks – Casey Thompson and Hudson Card – vying for the starting job are talented. The Longhorns return four starters up front. Texas averaged 42.7 points a game and 6.65 yards per play last season. This isn’t a rebuilding effort for Sarkisian.
Offensive Concern: The offensive line has room to improve and will miss standout left tackle Sam Cosmi. How fast can Sarkisian settle the quarterback battle? Texas needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver. Troy Omeire is one name to watch there.
Defensive Strength: Sarkisian’s hire of Pete Kwiatkowski to coordinate the defense was one of the best moves of the offseason. Texas isn’t hurting for talent on this side of the ball, while the transfer portal added needed depth and talent to the linebacker room. The line should rank among the best in the Big 12. Cornerback D’Shawn Jamison is one of the top defensive backs in the conference.
Defensive Concern: This unit has room to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play and 32.4 points a game (conference-only games) last year. Losing linebacker Joseph Ossai (five sacks) is a big blow to a pass rush that managed only 17 sacks in 2020.
Things went awry for Penn State last year, but prior to the 4-5 mark in 2020, coach James Franklin’s program won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions open at Wisconsin and catch Auburn in non-conference play.
Offensive Strength: The backfield is deep, and quarterback Sean Clifford has a strong one-two punch at receiver with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington on the outside. Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda and Caedan Wallace form a good foundation up front. New coordinator Mike Yurcich is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason.
Offensive Concern: Penn State regressed on the stat sheet last season and 17 lost turnovers certainly didn’t help. Yurcich has to get Clifford back on track after an uneven 2020 campaign.
Defensive Strength: This unit slipped on the stat sheet a bit last year but still held teams to 5.1 yards per play. Provided the new faces step up in the trenches, Penn State should rebound. The linebacker unit needs to play better, but there’s talent here. Also, the secondary is among the best in the Big Ten.
Defensive Concern: The trenches. The Nittany Lions lost four key linemen from last year’s unit and dipped into the portal for help. Eliminating big plays allowed (eight of 40-plus yards) is a must.
USC returned to the top of the South Division last season but lost to Oregon 31-24 in the conference title game. Coach Clay Helton is under pressure going into 2021, as the Trojans have all of the pieces to contend for the conference championship and a top-10 ranking. Can USC put everything together?
Offensive Strength: Kedon Slovis is Athlon’s first-team all-conference quarterback, and the junior won’t be hurting for talent on the outside with one of the top receiving corps in college football at his disposal. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is a key addition to help spark the ground game.
Offensive Concern: The offensive line. This unit is likely to make-or-break USC’s Pac-12 title hopes. The Trojans have to run the ball more effectively (just 3.2 yards per carry in 2020) and protect Slovis better after giving up 15 sacks in six games.
Defensive Strength: Talent isn’t an issue here, and USC showed some small signs of progress under new coordinator Todd Orlando last year. Edge rusher Drake Jackson is one of the conference’s top defensive players, and end Korey Foreman was a key addition in the 2021 recruiting class.
Defensive Concern: The defense has to do a better job in the red zone and continue to build on last season’s progression. The secondary ranked seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Depth is an issue at linebacker and up front.
The Tigers hope to rebound after a disappointing 5-5 season, which came one year after winning the national championship. Coach Ed Orgeron hopes two new coordinators and other staff changes help the team return to the top of the SEC.
Offensive Strength: Whether it’s Myles Brennan or Max Johnson under center, LSU should feel confident in its quarterback play. The Tigers should improve up front with all five starters returning along the offensive line. Talent isn’t an issue at receiver, and Kayshon Boutte is poised for an All-America-caliber season.
Offensive Concern: The Tigers averaged 7.9 yards per play in 2019 but regressed to 5.5 last year. Can new play-caller Jake Peetz get this group back to its ’19 level? The ground game needs more punch after averaging only 3.3 yards per carry last fall.
Defensive Strength: The talent is in place for this defense to rank among the best in the SEC. The cornerback duo of Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks is arguably the No. 1 tandem in college football. A deep rotation returns up front.
Defensive Concern: The Tigers allowed 7.3 yards per play and 34.9 points a game last season. Is new coordinator Daronte Jones capable of fixing all of the issues in one year? Linebacker depth is a small concern, but Clemson transfer Mike Jones was a key addition.
The Hawkeyes finished 2020 on a six-game winning streak after an 0-2 start. The ’21 schedule features an opener versus Indiana, a road trek to Iowa State in Week 2 and a showdown in Madison against Wisconsin in late October.
Offensive Strength: Running back Tyler Goodson is poised to push for All-America honors. Iowa has holes to fill along the offensive line, but this program generally does a good job of filling the voids up front – and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have All-America center Tyler Linderbaum leading the way. Tight end Sam LaPorta is primed for a big year, and the receiving corps still has options for quarterback Spencer Petras despite the departure of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith.
Offensive Concern: Petras had an up-and-down debut last year. Can he take a step forward in 2021? The line may need a few games to mesh. The Hawkeyes finished 13th in the Big Ten in third-down offense in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Iowa is usually strong on this side of the ball, so even with concerns up front, it’s hard to doubt coach Kirk Ferentz’s defense. The linebacker unit should rank among the best in the conference, and the secondary should as well after finishing 2020 ranked second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: Reloading in the trenches. Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin leave big shoes to fill on a defense that led the conference in fewest yards per play (4.3) in 2020.
All of the pieces are in place for Herm Edwards’ team to win the Pac-12 in 2021. The Sun Devils return nearly everyone off last year’s squad, including quarterback Jayden Daniels and running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum. A crossover game at Washington is tough, and Arizona State travels to Utah, but USC visits Tempe on Nov. 6.
Offensive Strength: This offense is primed for takeoff after leading the Pac-12 in scoring and yards per play last season. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is due for a breakout year, the backfield is among the deepest in college football, and there’s no shortage of intriguing weapons at receiver. The offensive line – an issue the last few years – should take a big step forward with four starters back.
Offensive Concern: Not much. Will the young receivers develop as expected? Arizona State can improve its red-zone offense after finishing seventh in the Pac-12 last year.
Defensive Strength: The Sun Devils paced the Pac-12 in scoring defense and ranked third in yards per play allowed (5.4). With the bulk of the two-deep returning, this unit is among the best in the conference once again. Lineman Jermayne Lole is disruptive, and the secondary features two standout cornerbacks in Jack Jones and Chase Lucas.
Defensive Concern: Coordinator Antonio Pierce has a strong defense in place, but this unit needs to get better versus the run (183.2 ypg allowed).
The Hurricanes were a much-improved team in coach Manny Diaz’s second year at the helm. Quarterback D’Eriq King gives this team a chance to earn a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl, but the defense has to reload in order to defeat North Carolina at the top of the division.
Offensive Strength: King is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State, but all signs point to a full recovery. The Houston transfer is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation. An improving offensive line is in place, and the receiving corps is deeper with the addition of Charleston Rambo. The ‘Canes also have a couple of options at running back.
Offensive Concern: Getting King back to full strength is a must if Miami wants to win the Coastal Division. The line still has room to improve in pass protection (30 sacks allowed), and the ground game needs to take a step forward after generating just 4.2 yards per carry in 2020.
Defensive Strength: After Miami’s defense gave up 27 points a game and 5.8 yards per play last season, Diaz hopes to improve this unit by taking over the play-calling duties. The line has potential with Nesta Jade Silvera leading the way up front, and the secondary gets a boost at cornerback with the arrival of Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson.
Defensive Concern: How much improvement can Diaz get out of this group in one offseason? Miami struggled versus the run (174.5 ypg allowed) and forced only 16 turnovers last year. The ‘Canes need better linebacker play, and ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche (12.5 sacks) must be replaced.
The Badgers – like most of the Big Ten – had an unusual 2020 season. But with a full offseason to develop quarterback Graham Mertz and get healthy at receiver, Wisconsin should use a favorable schedule to return to the top of the Big Ten West Division.
Offensive Strength: Mertz is primed for a breakout year, and a healthy season from Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor should make a big difference in the sophomore quarterback’s development. As usual, Wisconsin should have one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, and running back Jalen Berger is ready to lead the way on the ground.
Offensive Concern: The Badgers need to generate more big plays (only three of 40-plus yards last year). Depth is needed at running back and receiver.
Defensive Strength: Under Jim Leonhard’s watch, Wisconsin limited teams to 17.4 points a game and 5.01 yards per play last fall. With eight starters back, including one of the Big Ten’s best linebacker and secondary units, the Badgers will be near the top of the conference once again.
Defensive Concern: More pressure on opposing quarterbacks is needed after generating only 11 sacks last year. The line must replace the steady play of Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk.
A repeat trip to the CFB Playoff will be a tough assignment for coach Brian Kelly’s team in 2021. Two areas of strength from last season – offensive line and quarterback – are a question mark going into the fall. Also, the defense has to find a replacement for linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Offensive Strength: The Fighting Irish should have one of the top backfields in college football with the return of Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister. Tight end Michael Mayer is poised to push for All-America honors. The arrival of Marshall transfer Cain Madden is a boost to the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is the favorite to start, but can he match Book’s steady play? If not, can freshman Tyler Buchner take over at some point during the 2021 season? Having Madden and Jarrett Patterson is a good start in the trenches, but Notre Dame’s line was one of the best in college football last year. Replacing four starters won’t be a seamless transition.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Marcus Freeman is one of the offseason’s top hires and inherits a group that returns six starters after holding teams to 19.7 points a game last fall. Safety Kyle Hamilton is one of the top defensive players in college football. The Fighting Irish have a few holes to fill up front, but the line shouldn’t be a weakness.
Defensive Concern: Owusu-Koramoah’s all-around ability is a big loss to the defense. Freeman also needs to find a corner to play opposite of Clarence Lewis this fall.
The Gators won the SEC East for the first time under coach Dan Mullen last year and should remain one of the top 10-15 teams in 2021. However, Florida lost key pieces on offense and must improve significantly on defense.
Offensive Strength: Even though quarterback Kyle Trask, receiver Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Pitts are gone, Mullen will find ways for this offense to score points. Quarterback Emory Jones is a breakout candidate, and the Gators have good skill talent on the outside and a deep backfield to build around this fall.
Offensive Concern: Three starters are back, but the offensive line has room to improve.
Defensive Strength: The concerns about this unit are warranted. However, Florida allowed only 15.5 points a game in 2019. There’s talent to work with, including end Zachary Carter, linebackers Brenton Cox Jr. and Ventrell Miller and cornerback Kaiir Elam. Can the returning talent get this group back to its ’19 level?
Defensive Concern: Florida had an uncharacteristic season on defense in 2020, giving up 30.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. Can this group get back on track? Safety play is also under the spotlight.
The Tar Heels have made significant strides in just two years under coach Mack Brown. With quarterback Sam Howell returning, this program should take another step forward this fall, as North Carolina is Athlon’s pick to win the Coastal Division in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Howell is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and guided the offense to an average of 41.7 points a game last year. The Tar Heels have an improving starting group in the trenches. While the turnover at the skill spots is a concern, this unit doesn’t lack for talent.
Offensive Concern: Not much. The new faces at receiver and running back are worth monitoring early in the year.
Defensive Strength: The overall trajectory of this group is in good shape. The Tar Heels generated 36 sacks and finished sixth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Brown’s work on the recruiting trail has added talent to the two-deep and eight returning starters provide a good foundation. Cornerbacks Storm Duck and Tony Grimes are one of the best duos in the ACC.
Defensive Concern: Cutting down on the big plays allowed (18 of 40-plus yards) is a must. Linebacker Chazz Surratt leaves big shoes to fill. North Carolina allowed 5.8 yards per play and 29.4 points a game in 2020. There’s room to improve here.
Coach Mario Cristobal has Oregon primed to win its third Pac-12 title in a row in 2021. An early trek to Ohio State is a huge barometer test, and while road trips to Utah and Washington aren’t easy, the Ducks return the best all-around roster in the conference.
Offensive Strength: Trust in coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Ducks have one of the top play-callers in college football, and even with an unsettled quarterback situation, the offense should be prolific. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye form a potent one-two punch at running back, all five starters are back up front, and there’s plenty of talent at receiver.
Offensive Concern: Anthony Brown is favored to win the quarterback battle, and the Boston College transfer played well in limited time last year. He will be tested right away with a trip to Ohio State in Week 2. The Ducks lost the most turnovers (16) of any team in the Pac-12 last year.
Defensive Strength: Veteran play-caller Tim DeRuyter is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason after Andy Avalos left Eugene to be the head coach at Boise State. Oregon’s defense was hit hard by opt outs at the start of 2020, but seven starters are back for ’21 and this should be one of the top defensive units in the Pac-12. End Kayvon Thibodeaux is a first-team All-American, and linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell are rising stars.
Defensive Concern: How much will the Ducks improve in one offseason after allowing 28.3 points a game – up from 16.5 in 2019? More turnovers are needed (just seven forced last year).
The Bearcats are the top Group of 5 team once again, but coach Luke Fickell’s program has its sights set on something bigger – the CFB Playoff. With a veteran and loaded roster, along with road games versus top-25 teams in Indiana and Notre Dame, Cincinnati will have a chance to state its case for the four-team playoff.
Offensive Strength: An offense that averaged 37.5 points a game and led the AAC in yards per play (6.7) should be strong once again. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is primed for a huge senior year, and Jerome Ford will easily fill the void left behind by Gerrid Doaks at running back. Tight end Josh Whyle is a rising star.
Offensive Concern: How well Cincinnati replaces tackles James Hudson and Darius Harper is the biggest question mark surrounding this team for 2021. The Bearcats could also improve in the red zone after finishing eighth in the AAC.
Defensive Strength: Everything. This is one of the top defenses in college football. Cincinnati limited teams to 16.8 points a game and finished first in the AAC versus the run, fewest yards per play allowed (4.6) and in pass efficiency defense. The cornerback tandem of Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant is one of the best in the nation.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Cincinnati gave up a few big plays (10 of 40-plus) and lost both starting safeties. Neither are huge concerns, however.
The Cyclones are coming off arguably the best season in school history. Coach Matt Campbell’s team finished No. 9 in the final ranking – the highest ever by the program – and won more than eight games for just the third time in the Iowa State history. A run at the CFB Playoff is within reach for 2021.
Offensive Strength: Nearly everyone from last year’s group that averaged 32.9 points a game is back, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and receiver Xavier Hutchinson. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. A healthy Tarique Milton at receiver adds another weapon for Purdy on the outside. In conference-only games, Iowa State led the Big 12 by averaging 6.8 yards per snap.
Offensive Concern: Not much. The Cyclones could use a few more big plays this year. Purdy’s yards per attempt declined to 7.5 last fall after finishing at 10.2 in 2018. The offense needs a backup to emerge to help take some of the workload off Hall.
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, Iowa State’s defense is loaded with talent, depth and experience. Linebacker Mike Rose should rank among the top defensive players in college football, while end Will McDonald (10.5 sacks) is an emerging star off the edge. Having a proven trio of cornerbacks like Anthony Johnson, Datrone Young and Tayvonn Kyle is a big plus in the offensive-minded Big 12. Iowa State limited teams to just 21.4 points a game last fall.
Defensive Concern: Safety Lawrence White and end JaQuan Bailey are key losses for coordinator Jon Heacock. The Cyclones could do a better job at limiting big plays after allowing nine completions of 40-plus yards in 2020.
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies came within one spot of making the CFB Playoff last season and enter 2021 clearly trending in the right direction.
Offensive Strength: The Aggies boast one of the deepest backfields in college football. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer should push for All-America honors. While a new signal-caller must be found, coach Jimbo Fisher has a solid track record at developing quarterbacks.
Offensive Concern: Fisher has two talented players – Zach Calzada and Haynes King – vying to start. Will this battle get settled in fall practice? Texas A&M must replace four starters from a dominant offensive line and get better play out of the wide receivers.
Defensive Strength: This is one of the top defenses in the nation. Lineman DeMarvin Leal is primed for a big year, and the secondary returns intact after allowing only two opponents to exceed more than 240 passing yards in 2020.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Leading tackler Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Bobby Brown III are gone, but the Aggies have talent waiting in the wings.
The Bulldogs had their three-year run atop the East end last year, but coach Kirby Smart’s team is primed for a return to Atlanta – and potentially bigger things in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Georgia’s offense averaged 8.3 points a game more with quarterback JT Daniels in the lineup, and the USC transfer should benefit from a full offseason to work under coordinator Todd Monken. The Bulldogs are loaded at running back, and even with George Pickens sidelined indefinitely, there’s a promising group of receivers.
Offensive Concern: It’s hard to find anything to fit here. The Bulldogs need to sort out an offensive line that returns three starters, but talent isn’t an issue.
Defensive Strength: Georgia should have one of the nation’s top defensive fronts. Lineman Jordan Davis is an All-America candidate, and linebackers Adam Anderson and Nakobe Dean form a strong second level. Also, there’s a deep group of safeties in place with Tykee Smith, Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine in the lineup.
Defensive Concern: The Bulldogs return very little experience at cornerback, but the addition of Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick eases concerns here.
Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in the Big Ten once again. Coach Ryan Day has yet to lose a regular season game in two years in Columbus, and if a new quarterback quickly emerges, along with improvement on defense, the Buckeyes can make another run at a trip to the national title game.
Offensive Strength: The Buckeyes have arguably the best offensive line and receiving corps in college football. Trey Sermon departed to the NFL, but talent is plentiful at running back. All three players competing to start at quarterback are capable of directing this offense at a high level.
Offensive Concern: Not much. A new quarterback always creates some uncertainty, but Ohio State will be fine under center.
Defensive Strength: Anchored by tackle Haskell Garrett and end Zach Harrison, the Buckeyes should have one of the top defensive lines in college football. There are holes to fill at linebacker and defensive back, but Ohio State has plenty of talent waiting to emerge.
Defensive Concern: Can Kerry Coombs get the defense back on track in his second year as coordinator? Ohio State ranked 11th in pass efficiency defense, allowed too many big plays through the air, surrendered 25.8 points a game and 5.95 yards a play – the highest mark in school history – last season.
The Sooners have claimed six Big 12 titles in a row, and coach Lincoln Riley’s team is a heavy favorite to win the league crown once again in 2021. Oklahoma is led by an explosive offense but an improving defense gives the program a better chance to win a playoff game – or perhaps something bigger – this postseason.
Offensive Strength: The Sooners have averaged over 40 points a game for six consecutive years and will once again have one of the nation’s top offenses with quarterback Spencer Rattler directing the attack. Transfers Eric Gray (RB) and Mike Woods (WR), along with the return of running back Kennedy Brooks, adds to a deep collection of talent at the skill positions.
Offensive Concern: You have to squint to find a major concern here. Oklahoma does have an unsettled offensive line, but it’s also hard to doubt assistant Bill Bedenbaugh. Center Creed Humphrey will be missed.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Alex Grinch has brought marked improvement to this group over the last two seasons. After Oklahoma gave up 6.1 yards per play in 2018, the Sooners held teams to 5.19 a snap in ’20. Also, this defense limited offenses to 21.7 points a game last year – down from 33.3 in ’18. All three levels of this group are in good shape, including a defensive line that ranks among the best in college football. Linebacker Nik Bonitto should push for double-digit sacks.
Defensive Concern: Will the improvement trend carry into 2021? The depth chart is deeper than in recent years, and there’s little reason to doubt Grinch after his work the last two seasons. It’s a small concern, but in four games against ranked teams, Oklahoma’s per-play average allowed dipped to 6.04.
Clemson is once again the overwhelming favorite in the ACC this season. The Tigers have won six league titles in a row and all of the pieces are in place to contend for the national title.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is primed for a breakout season. Travis Etienne is gone, but the running back depth is in good shape and receiver Justyn Ross is on track to return after missing 2020 due to injury. Clemson has led the ACC in scoring for three consecutive years and all of the pieces are in place to own one of the nation’s top offenses once again.
Offensive Concern: Depth behind Uiagalelei is a concern after Taisun Phommachanh suffered an Achilles injury in the spring. The offensive line has room to improve after rushers averaged 4.5 yards per carry last fall.
Defensive Strength: Clemson’s defensive line is arguably the best in college football. There’s depth and talent off the edge and on the interior. James Skalski passed on the NFL to anchor the linebacker unit, while rising star Trenton Simpson is poised to add to the depth and talent of this group. Despite losing cornerback Derion Kendrick, the Tigers will be tough against the pass.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Clemson has ranked in the top four of the ACC in fewest yards per play allowed for eight straight years and will continue that run into 2021. After giving up 385 passing yards to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, the secondary has to play better in big games.
The Crimson Tide aim to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since this program reached that goal in 2011-12.
Offensive Strength: Talent. New quarterback Bryce Young is a rising star, the backfield is loaded, and there’s no shortage of options to restock the receiving corps and offensive line.
Offensive Concern: The new faces may take some time to blend. How fast can new play-caller Bill O’Brien get this unit performing at a level similar to 2020?
Defensive Strength: Alabama led the SEC in scoring defense and is loaded at all three levels. This should be one of the top defenses in college football.
Defensive Concern: Cornerback Patrick Surtain, linebacker Dylan Moses and lineman Christian Barmore leave big shoes to fill. Alabama’s defense needs to do a better job at limiting big plays and getting stops on third downs.