College football’s Top 25 for 2021

Matt McGrath, Staff Writer

The 2020 college football season has officially run its course, with the Tuscaloosa Tide reigning victors. Many teams shocked the country this year, with impressive performances from schools such as Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Cincinnati, and BYU. The playoff committee inadvertently made known the biases and distastes for certain schools (Cincinnati, Indiana, Northwestern) and the favoritism for others (UNC, FL, ISU). The point has most certainly been made, with what seems like a carousel of Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Clemson making it with subtle variations.

I will play the role of my own college football playoff committee. Call it the McGrath Power Rankings, if you will. The country would like to see a fair Top-25 again, and I will use both statistics and the eye test, as well as returning players/coaches/new recruits to predict the 25 best teams next season.

1. Alabama

Surprised? Well, don’t be. Another year, another natty for Saban and the Crimson Tide, making it six championship wins since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, as many as the rest of college football combined in that span. It’s no secret Alabama has the talent, but with players like John Metchie and Bryce Young taking over, expect another huge year and potentially National Championship from the Crimson Tide.

2. Georgia

Is this finally the year? Though it seems to have been the narrative for the last three to five years, Georgia seems to love living on the cusp of greatness yet never hoisting the 99-pound playoff trophy, or any championship trophy since 1980. Kirby Smart has recruited better than any coach in college since his tenure, and it’s only a matter of time before everything comes to fruition. With a five-star QB transfer from USC JT Daniels staying another year, as well as recent news of Zamir White’s return, expect UGA to be in the playoff discussion come December.

3. Oklahoma

What else is there to say about a team that finished as hot as OU? After losses to Kansas State and Iowa State early on, it seemed as though the Sooners were down for the count. However, that simply wasn’t the case, steamrolling the back half of the schedule with highlighted wins over Texas, Iowa State, and an absolute obliteration of the Florida Gators in the Cotton Bowl. Now, with major defensive fixes, as well as Rattler’s return, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Oklahoma will be competing for the National Championship.

4. Ohio State

After getting relatively manhandled 52-24 in the championship, Ohio State fans may be wondering what it’ll take to bring them back to a championship-winning season. The answer is relatively simple: The talent never stops. Ryan Day has recruited excellently, and players like Jackson Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming shouldn’t have many troubles replacing Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson at wide receiver. Also, with a five-star quarterback incoming, Fields’ exit for the NFL Draft may not take as big a toll on OSU fans as expected.

5. Cincinnati

Biased as it were, a playoff hope fell just short, with a memorable 2021 campaign for the Bearcats. After a heartbreaking Peach Bowl loss 24-21 to the aforementioned Georgia Bulldogs, Cincinnati remains hungry for a chance for all the marbles. With over 15 returning defenders, as well as quarterback Desmond Ridder and Head Coach Luke Fickell, Cincinnati is a legitimate threat for the playoff this season. With likely two ranked wins in out-of-conference games (Indiana and Notre Dame), if Cincinnati puts together an undefeated season, expect to see them with a legitimate case as next years’ Cinderella story, and the first group-of-five team to make the playoffs. Another thing to keep an eye out for is Desmond Ridder chasing the Heisman trophy, with no preseason standout favorite.

6. Clemson

Averted from popular belief, I don’t see Clemson in next year’s playoff picture. After a disappointing thrashing from the Buckeyes in the semifinals, concern defensively rang out, especially with rumors of top Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables escaping Clemson for a head coaching job. Also, Trevor Lawrence and Etienne are out, as they venture on to bigger things in the NFL. DJ Uiagalelei put on a few impressive performances, but I have doubts about his ability to thrive under a very new, young, and inexperienced offense. I think the Tigers will run through the ACC with ease but will fall to Georgia in a week one out of conference match-up.

7. Florida

The entire 2020 season seemed to be nothing but a dumpster fire from Mullen’s Gators after losing four games with one of the most talented rosters nationwide. This team has fallen short of expectations time and again. I would expect Emory Jones and Justin Shorter to connect as one of the best QB-WR duos in CFB, but it’s time for the defense to step up. Also, if another lackluster season makes an appearance, I wouldn’t be shocked if this was the final year under Coach Mullen’s tenure.

8. Iowa State

From what some may consider a lucky year or a one-hit-wonder, I consider the building block of a new Power 5 team. The Cyclones have built this mini-empire under the likes of offensive wonders in RB Breece Hall and QB Brock Purdy. Holding Oklahoma under 30 points was a big accomplishment, especially in the Big XII Championship. However, more of an accomplishment may have been the Cyclones’ appearance in the conference championship at all. After a devastating blowout loss to Louisiana Tech’s Bulldogs by 17 (yes, you read that correctly), morale was obviously low. It was up to pure determination to not emotionally quit on the season, but that’s what the red and yellow did. The icing on the cake was the season finale, taking down PAC-12 Champion Oregon very convincingly in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Expect to see a rematch of this year’s Big XII title game for the second consecutive season.

9. Indiana

All it took was a controversial week one call in overtime and the Hoosiers were on their way. Tom Allen is arguably a top-five coach in college, and I expect Indiana to play very well throughout the season, with roughly two or three losses, to teams like Cincinnati, Ohio State, or Penn State. Michael Penix is returning for another season, and sports betters should keep an eye on the left-handed prospect to claim the Heisman come January.

10. LSU

Well, that was some revenge tour, eh? After the greatest season in college football history, many expected LSU to return to full form. After a late learning stint with opt-outs from Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr., and Arik Gilbert, the Tigers returned to their traditional selves over the last few games, with wins over Florida and Ole Miss. Much promise came from true freshmen Elias Ricks and Kayshon Boutte, who each respectively received Freshman All-American honors. All but two starters will be returning this season, but this time, with new coordinators, following the firing of Bo Pelini and the demotion of Steve Ensminger. With Max Johnson likely taking the spot from Myles Brennan, the Bayou Bengals may be back to second-in-line in the best division in football.

11. Notre Dame

Independents always make it difficult to determine where they stand, with no true conference championship or schedule caked with ranked opponents. However, Notre Dame has been one of college football’s blue bloods since the beginning of time, and after a playoff appearance just last year, there’s no end in sight for the Fighting Irish. True Freshman Kyren Williams and Wisconsin transfer QB Jack Coan are most certainly going to make for an interesting offense, at the least. All this plus the addition of Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman should blend together a recipe for success. However, I don’t think they will have the resumé necessary to be a top-four or even top-10 team in the country,

12. North Carolina

Maybe others believe a little bit more in the Tar Heels, but I’m not here to chatter about nonsense. UNC is losing their best player on defense, as well as the best RB tandem in college moving on to the next level in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Sure, Sam Howell will be there, but that’s about all. With arguably a bottom-five defense in college football, I anticipate the Tar Heels to lose multiple games and fall shy of a New Years Six bowl appearance, lacking a conference championship competing against teams like FSU, Miami, and most notably Clemson.

13. Penn State

Contrary to popular belief, PSU will most definitely be back to form in 2021. A likely packed Happy Valley will start off the season with an early game against the Auburn Tigers. Fans make a difference like no other in State College, as Techno blares through the speakers with an electric crowd, frightening teams out of their pads. With some more experience under their belt, as well as Jahan Dotson forgoing the NFL Draft, PSU should be back to form. It should also be mentioned that PSU won their last four games of the season, averaging over 30 points per game. Don’t get your hopes up, you won’t see them playing mid-January, but you should be taking note of a major comeback season from the Nittany Lions.

14. Texas A&M

Fourteen? Really? Yes. This team may not even be ranked by week eight or so. After losing what feels like their entire offense with Kellen Mond and Isaiah Spiller, they’ll have minimal firepower heading into next season. Though they have a great defense, we all know the old saying, that starts with “offense wins games.” Well, Aggies fans, get ready for a rough stretch, and a potential bottom half ranking in the division. With teams like LSU, Alabama, and Auburn to worry about, too much is on A&M’s plate to make another run at the playoff. On the bright side, though, Jimbo has done an outstanding job landing top recruits, particularly in-state.

15. Wisconsin

A lot seemed to go on this past season, with a hot start, followed by an ugly skid, then made right again after handily defeating Wake Forest in the Mayo Bowl. I’m a believer in Graham Mertz, as the potential is obviously there. With a year’s experience under his belt, as well as Chryst coaching him up, I expect Mertz to have plenty of time under a top offensive line to make accurate throws. Big games are what’s next, as the grit and grind Badgers will be able to compete and “jump around.”

16. Oregon

Fresh off a PAC-12 championship, but NY6 loss, no one truly knows where Oregon stands in both their conference and in college football as a whole. Defeating USC seemed pretty big for them, but seemingly flukey losses to Cal and their rival Oregon State in the Civil War raised some eyebrows. Questions need to be answered in Eugene, Ore., in pertinence to who will take snaps behind center, come game day. However, Mario Cristobal most certainly knows what he’s doing in his recruiting trail that is the Pacific. Landing touted recruits yet again, questions of Shough being the man for the Ducks is still up in the air, but in a lackluster conference, a proven defense and electric offense should be enough for the Ducks to make a run at the conference title, and maybe even the playoffs.

17. Iowa

One of the most consistent teams in college football, the Hawkeyes seem to always produce eight or more wins. Iowa, time in and out, has had a top-25 defense in college, and with returning talent around the entirety of the defense, anticipate it again. This team has made their name known with hard-hitting defenses, as well as ground-and-pound run style and low scoring affairs. I think it’s time to anticipate this again, perhaps in Indianapolis for the B1G Championship come December.

18. Coastal Carolina

They’re back. A fluke of a season, perhaps, as the ex-South Carolina branch campus displayed pure dominance charting an undefeated regular season. After an eye-catching victory over the Brigham Young Cougars, people viewed the Chanticleers as one of the best Group of 5 teams in the nation. Now returning 20 of 22 starters, including QB Grayson McCall, this emphatic team is practically returning as a whole, just better and more experienced. The Sun Belt is theirs to lose, but after a tough OT loss to Liberty in the bowl game, Coastal has shown that they are beatable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Appalachian State took their spot in 2021 as Sun Belt victors, however.

19. Liberty

Wow. Simply an amazing all-around performance for the Flames this season, who finished their ranked season with a victory over the previously mentioned Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Auburn transfer Malik Willis truly stepped up at quarterback, showing a true dual-threat with plenty of rushing and passing yards and touchdowns on a weekly basis. With his return, all you can anticipate is another great season from him and the rest of the Flames. After their only loss being by one to a ranked NC State on the road, Liberty caught the attention of the common fan, who loves an underdog. Underdogs they were, as legendary coach Hugh Freeze took down Virginia Tech in thrilling fashion, and coach Freeze was bathed in Gatorade. Fighting as independent, anything can happen for the small-time Virginian school, but I expect them to stay in the ranked conversation throughout the season.

20. Ole Miss

Kiffin seems to know what he’s doing, with the right thing going on in Oxford. This offense looked like one of the nation’s best last year, with high scoring affairs against LSU, Alabama, and other SEC foes. After upsetting the Indiana Hoosiers’ Cinderella season, Matt Corral’s name has stoked in next season’s Heisman conversation. With star-receiver Elijah Moore heading on to bigger things, Corral will need to find a new No. 1 receiver. However, SEC West scheduling is never easy, so don’t expect some 10-win season. Playing LSU, Auburn, A&M, and Alabama every year isn’t easy, but I expected the Runnin’ Rebels to win at least one of those games in the upcoming season.

21. Oklahoma State

What is to be expected from Oklahoma State? After an embarrassing display in the Battle of Bedlam, it seemed as though the Cowboys had simply given up on their season. However, things turned around with a 37-34 Cheez-it Bowl Victory against the ACC’s Miami Hurricanes. With running back Chuba Hubbard heading to the NFL, the once-Heisman candidate will no longer be breaking tackles for the black and orange, who’ve greatly implemented him into the offense over the past few years. However, Coach Gundy and young QB Spencer Sanders should be able to run wild in Stillwater, hopefully in a packed house. I’d expect a top-two or -three season from the Cowboys this upcoming season.

22. USC 

What in the world are we to expect from the Trojans? They won out in the regular season, but unconvincingly, at that. Having to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit in four of their six games, this team may not have been deserving of a PAC-12 Championship Game appearance at all. Clay Helton has spent quite some time on the hot seat recently, but I think Slovis and his top tier recruiting class will get things done in a full season, and hopefully rematch Oregon for the conference title, that Oregon so undeservedly snatched from them. The Trojans have a big test week two in South Bend against Notre Dame, and that test will really let us know where the SO-CAL Trojans stand.

23. Texas

“We’re back.” This was uttered by Texas QB Sam Ehlinger after a 2019-2020 season Sugar Bowl Victory over the Georgia Bulldogs. Yet again, in this 2020 season, fell shy of meeting expectations until the bowl game, blowing out ex-Big-12 foe Colorado. However, Herman is out, and Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian is in. Learning under Saban traditionally helps coaches make that leap back up to head coaching, and I love the Sarkisian fit. Losing Ehlinger and Cosmi will be tough on the offense, but put faith in yet another top recruiting class in the nation, as well as potential Heisman finalist: running back Bijan Robinson. I don’t see a conference title in sight just yet, but I believe we’ll see the Longhorns in the Playoff conversation in no time.

24. Miami

They have QBs for the picking. With N’Kosi Perry opting out of the transfer portal, Miami has lethal and versatile options to run the offense, with Heisman hopeful D’Eriq King, N’Kosi Perry, and prodigious recruit Tate Martell. The ACC is Clemson and everyone else, and I expect that to be the case yet again. Losing TE Brevin Jordan and edge rusher Gregory Rousseau won’t be easy on The U, but they’ll be playing for an ACC Coastal title, as well as an overall ACC Championship. After a gut-wrenching comeback attempt versus Oklahoma State in their bowl game, the Hurricanes are playing hungry and looking out for bigger and better things.

25. Boise State

And to top off my top-25, I have the Boise State Broncos squeezing their way in. There’s no way to put this, other than the fact that they are simply the best team in the Mountain West. After a tough beating handed to them by BYU, hopes were low for an MW Title, later claimed by San Jose State. However, with a late comeback of sorts, there was certainly some hope shown as a light in the darkness for what’s to come next season. Returning many starters, as well as consistently being a top-25 program makes them the last team on my list.

Just missing the cut

Many teams were debated for those last few spots, but program prestige and coaching changes gave certain teams the edge. That being said, if you are a fan of Utah, Missouri, Appalachian State, Tulsa, UCF, or Washington, don’t worry. These teams are all borderline ranked teams, and with some upsets, lucky streaks, and fluky wins or losses for these teams’ benefits, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a number next to any of these squads’ names during game week at any given point next season.

That caps off my 2021-22 rankings. If you think I’m wrong, talk to me. Just know, I’m right, and these will be the best teams in the country next year. Hold this against me if I’m wrong, but just get ready for an exciting year of college football! Thanks for reading!

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