Brett McMurphy’s Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2021

Now that 2020 is thankfully over, it’s time for my incredibly-way-too-early preseason top 25 rankings.

Looking back at my top 25 from last year, it had its share of good, bad and ugly.

First, the good: I correctly had three of this year’s College Football Playoff field (Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama) in my top four. I also had Texas A&M ranked No. 6 and Oklahoma and Iowa State in my top 10.

Now the bad… I did not have Cincinnati anywhere in last year’s way-too-early top 25, which is a huge surprise because (A) I love Skyline Chili and (B) the Bearcats. I promise it won’t happen again.

As for the ugly, did I really rank LSU No. 3 and Auburn No. 5 last season? I’ll try to do much better this year.

I want to give a special shoutout to The Action Network’s Collin Wilson for contributing his power ratings for 2021. Because several players have yet to announce their NFL plans, these rankings could be much different from my preseason top 25 rankings later in August.

[RELATED: College Football’s Ten Best Non-Conference Games in 2021]

No. 1 Ohio State
Last year: 7-1 (lost to Alabama in National Championship)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 vs. Oregon, Nov. 6 at Indiana, Nov. 20 vs. Penn State, Nov. 27 at Michigan

In August when the Big Ten originally canceled its season, Ohio State coach Ryan Day was upset because he said the Buckeyes had the chance for a “once in a lifetime team” in 2020. Well, the 2021 edition might be better. Even without QB Justin Fields, who is expected to leave for the NFL, the Buckeyes are my No. 1 team — at least in early January — because they are deep and loaded with talent. Depending on how many NFL Draft defections they have, Ohio State could be the favorite to win the 2021 national title.

No. 2 Alabama
Last year: 13-0 (defeated Ohio State in National Championship)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Miami in Atlanta, TBA at Florida, TBA at Texas A&M, TBA vs. LSU, TBA at Auburn

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Alabama loses multiple players to the NFL Draft and a coordinator, yet still makes the College Football Playoff the following season. The Tide could have five first-round NFL Draft picks (Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, CB Patrick Surtain II, QB Mac Jones, OL Landon Dickerson and WR Jaylen Waddle) and also must replace offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (off to Texas). But it will remain high tide as long as Nick Saban is around. Highly touted QB Bryce Young joins a group of about 13 returning starters overall. Trust the process, baby.

No. 3 Georgia
Last year: 8-2 (defeated Cincinnati in Peach Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Clemson in Charlotte, Sept. 11 vs. UAB, Oct. 30 vs. Florida in Jacksonville, TBA at Auburn

With JT Daniels’ late-season emergence/Kirby Smart finally making the change at quarterback, the Bulldogs closed last season on a four-game winning streak. The Bulldogs could have eight returning offensive starters, depending on if leading rusher Zamir White leaves for the NFL. The defense, usually Georgia’s strength, only has four starters back, but received a boost with NT Jordan Davis deciding to stay. Besides its SEC schedule, Georgia opens the season with consecutive games against ACC champion Clemson and C-USA champion UAB.

No. 4 Oklahoma
Last year: 9-2 (defeated Florida in Cotton Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 18 vs. Nebraska, TBA at Oklahoma State, TBA vs. Texas in Dallas, TBA vs. Iowa State

Lincoln Riley has had so much success at Oklahoma it is now a major disappointment if the Sooners don’t win the Big 12 title and reach the College Football Playoff. The Sooners have won four Big 12 titles in as many seasons and will be favored to make it 5-for-5 under Riley. OU returns QB Spencer Rattler and up to 16 starters. The Sooners should be the best team in a very deep Big 12 Conference.

No. 5 Clemson
Last year: 10-2 (lost to Ohio State in CFB Playoff)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Georgia in Charlotte, TBA vs. Florida State, TBA at Pitt, Nov. 27 at South Carolina

The Tigers lose QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne to the NFL Draft, but still return a ton of talent in 14 returning starters. D.J. Uiagalelei, who was impressive in two starts vs. Boston College and Notre Dame, takes over the offense at quarterback, while the Tigers’ defensive heartbeat LB James Skalski announced on Twitter with an epic The Wolf of Wall Street video clip that he will be back.

No. 6 Texas A&M
Last year: 9-1 (defeated North Carolina in Orange Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 at Colorado, TBA vs. Alabama, TBA vs. Auburn, TBA at LSU, TBA at Ole Miss

Only a loss to Alabama kept Texas A&M from a berth in the College Football Playoff. Is this the year Jimbo Fisher finally kicks down that Bama door to earn an SEC title game appearance? The Aggies will be loaded on defense, returning nine starters. Offensively, QB Kellen Mond is off to the NFL, but OL Kenyon Green, RB Isaiah Spiller, RB/WR Ainias Smith and TE Jalen Wydermyer all return, giving the Aggies’ new QB — Haynes King or Zach Calzada — a solid nucleus to work with.

No. 7 Iowa State
Last year: 9-3 (defeated Oregon in Fiesta Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 vs. Iowa, TBA vs. Oklahoma State, TBA at Oklahoma, TBA vs. Texas

After last year’s unprecedented season at Iowa State, here comes the hard part for the Cyclones: proving they are not one-year wonders. Last season, Iowa State played in the Big 12 title game and its first New Year’s Six bowl, defeating Pac-12 champion Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. Expectations in 2021 will be even higher with at least 18 starters back, including one of the nation’s best QB-RB duos in Brock Purdy and Breece Hall. A September date with in-state rival Iowa could determine if ISU is a serious College Football Playoff contender.

No. 8 Texas
Last year: 7-3 (defeated Colorado in Alamo Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana, Sept. 11 at Arkansas, TBA vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, TBA vs. Oklahoma State, TBA at Iowa State

Texas is (going to be) back! That’s my prediction under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who has resurrected his career since being fired at USC. It won’t hurt Sark in his debut season that Texas returns 14 starters. QB Sam Ehlinger is gone, but leading receiver Joshua Moore will be back. Replacing Ehlinger is Casey Thompson, who threw four touchdowns in the bowl win vs. Colorado. Also, RB Bijan Robinson, who had 355 yards rushing on only 19 carries in UT’s final two games, will be a major, major force.

No. 9 North Carolina
Last year: 8-4 (lost to Texas A&M in Orange Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Oct. 30 at Notre Dame, TBA vs. Miami, TBA at Virginia Tech

So far, so good for the return of the Mack in Chapel Hill. In two years since head coach Mack Brown returned to UNC, the Tar Heels have improved from seven to eight wins, including a 3-3 record against top-25 opponents. And 2021 should be much better. UNC returns 18 starters, most notably QB Sam Howell, the entire offensive line and LB Tomon Fox, who led UNC in sacks. With a manageable non-conference schedule, UNC could reach at least 10 wins for the fourth time under Brown, who accomplished it three times during his first stint at UNC from 1988-97.

No. 10 Penn State
Last year: 4-5
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 at Wisconsin, Sept. 11 vs. Ball State, Sept. 18 vs. Auburn, Oct. 9 at Iowa, Oct. 30 vs. Indiana, Nov. 13 vs. Michigan, Nov. 20 at Ohio State

Penn State’s streak of 15 consecutive winning seasons ended in 2020, but the Nittany Lions should return to their winning ways. Quarterback Sean Clifford is back and will be working with new offensive coordinator/QB coach Mike Yurcich, who comes to State College after a one-year stint at Texas. Overall, the Nittany Lions will return at least 16 starters — nine on offense and seven on defense. They’ll be tested early, opening the season at Wisconsin followed by consecutive home games against MAC champion Ball State and Auburn under new coach Bryan Harsin.

No. 11 Utah
Last year: 3-2
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 at BYU, TBA at USC, TBA vs. Arizona State, TBA vs. Oregon, TBA vs. UCLA

The tragedy and heartbreak of the sudden death of freshman RB Ty Jordan still resonates as the Utes look toward the 2021 season. Utah will have 19 returning starters — nine on offense, 10 on defense. The quarterback battle should be interesting between Cam Rising, who will miss spring practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery, transfers Charlie Brewer, a three-year starter at Baylor, and Ja’Quinden Jackson from Texas, and incoming freshman Peter Costelli.

No. 12 Oregon
Last year: 4-3 (lost to Iowa State in Fiesta Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 at Ohio State, TBA at UCLA, TBA at Utah, TBA at Washington

Only in 2020 could a team not win its division, but then advance to the conference title game when the division winner has COVID-19 issues. And then the replacement team wins the league title and earns a New Year’s Six bowl berth. In 2021, Mario Cristobal plans on the Ducks winning a third consecutive Pac-12 title, and he has the talent to do so with Oregon having as many as 17 returning starters back. The Ducks will be tested early when they visit Ohio State, but a win would put them squarely in contention for a College Football Playoff berth.

No. 13 Florida
Last year: 8-4 (lost to Oklahoma in Cotton Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Oct. 30 vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 27 vs. Florida State, TBA at LSU, TBA vs. Alabama

In Florida’s Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma, the Gators got an early preview of what this fall might look like. Playing without its top four receivers and two defensive starters, the Gators were overwhelmed. UF will replace Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask with dual-threat QB Emory Jones. The Gators will rely on a lot of new faces with only nine starters returning but with a motivated Dan Mullen, UF should battle Georgia for the SEC East title.

No. 14 Notre Dame
Last year: 10-2 (lost to Alabama in CFB Playoff)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 25 vs. Wisconsin in Chicago, Oct. 2 vs. Cincinnati, Oct. 23 vs. USC, Oct. 30 vs. North Carolina, Nov. 27 at Stanford

Notre Dame’s one-year run in the ACC is over and it’s back to independent status. The biggest losses are QB Ian Book, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive coordinator Clark Lea (to Vanderbilt). However, Notre Dame returns 10 starters and picked up graduate transfer QB Jack Coan, who started at Wisconsin, and hired Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman. Based on early power ratings, the Irish could be favored in all 12 games in 2021. Does that mean another College Football Playoff appearance? Not necessarily. But it will be a historic season as Brian Kelly needs only four wins to pass Knute Rockne as the school’s winningest coach.

No. 15 Wisconsin
Last year: 4-3 (defeated Wake Forest in Duke’s Mayo Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Penn State, Sept. 25 vs. Notre Dame in Chicago, Oct. 2 vs. Michigan, Nov. 20 at Nebraska, Nov. 27 vs. Iowa

In Wisconsin’s biggest non-conference game against Notre Dame, the Badgers won’t need to spend much time breaking down the quarterback position for Notre Dame. That’s because the Irish are expected to start graduate transfer QB Jack Coan, who started for Wisconsin in 2019. As for the Badgers, they are set at QB with Graham Mertz and also return 15 starters overall. The Badgers open the season at home against Penn State and end the regular season at home vs. Iowa. Wisconsin’s success in those games could determine its Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes.

No. 16 Miami
Last year: 8-3 (lost to Oklahoma State in Cheez-It Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Sept. 18 vs. Michigan State, TBA at Florida State, TBA at North Carolina

Miami’s biggest win last season occurred off the field when QB D’Eriq King announced he would return in 2021. It will be his sixth year at the collegiate level, but King suffered a setback when he tore his ACL in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State. King is expected to be ready for the opener against Alabama. With King among 19 returning starters, this should be head coach Manny Diaz’s best team as the Hurricanes fight to reach only their second ACC title game.

No. 17 Cincinnati
Last year: 9-1 (lost to Georgia in Peach Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 18 at Indiana, Oct. 2 at Notre Dame, TBA vs. UCF

Cincinnati got some great news when star QB Desmond Ridder and DE Myjai Sanders announced Friday they would return next season. Unfortunately, hours later defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left to become DC at Notre Dame. The Bearcats will have 15 returning starters as they try to return to a New Year’s Six bowl — or maybe even make a run at the College Football Playoff. Last year, Cincinnati was criticized for a schedule lacking top-25 opponents. That should change this year as they’ll visit Freeman and the Irish on Oct. 2.

No. 18 Oklahoma State
Last year: 8-3 (defeated Miami in Cheez-It Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 18 at Boise State, TBA vs. Oklahoma, TBA at Iowa State, TBA at Texas

Oklahoma State has now reeled off 15 consecutive winning seasons under Mike Gundy. A 16th straight shouldn’t be a problem even with RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Tylan Wallace off to the NFL. Dynamic QB Spencer Sanders is back along with OL Josh Sills. The defense will feature safeties Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel, LB Malcolm Rodriguez and linemen Trace Ford and Tyler Lacy. In all, the Cowboys have 14 returning starters plus promising RB Dezmon Jackson, who had 235 yards and three TDs while subbing for Hubbard vs. Texas Tech.

No. 19 Washington
Last year: 3-1
Schedule highlights: Sept. 11 at Michigan, TBA at Stanford, TBA vs. Arizona State, TBA vs. Oregon, TBA vs. UCLA

What a debut season for first-year head coach Jimmy Lake. Washington wins the Pac-12 North and earns a berth in the Pac-12 title game but was unable to compete because of COVID-19 issues. The Huskies look to repeat in the Pac-12 North and will have plenty of returning talent to do so. Washington returns every offensive starter and only lost three starters on defense: DBs Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor, and DL Josiah Bronson. The Huskies’ stiffest non-conference test is at Michigan, while they get their toughest Pac-12 opponents (Arizona State and Oregon) at home.

No. 20 Arizona State
Last year: 2-2
Schedule highlights: Sept. 18 at BYU, TBA vs. USC, TBA at UCLA, TBA at Utah, TBA at Washington

Herm Edwards has proven all those skeptics wrong that questioned his hiring. Now in his fourth year at Arizona State, this will be Edwards’ best and deepest team in Tempe. All 11 defensive starters are back and nine starters return from what was the Pac-12’s top offense last year in the yards per game category. Leading the offense is QB Jayden Daniels and RB Rachaad White aka “The Human First Down.” Last year, White averaged 10 yards a carry (420 yards on 42 carries).

No. 21 Virginia Tech
Last year: 5-6
Schedule highlights: Sept. 18 at West Virginia, Oct. 9 vs. Notre Dame, TBA at Miami, TBA vs. North Carolina

Virginia Tech’s 27-year bowl streak was interrupted last season when the school decided to turn down a bowl bid. Even for 2020, it was a strange year. There was also speculation about coach Justin Fuente’s future in Blacksburg. Since a 19-8 run in his first two seasons, the Hokies are 19-18 over the past three years. But this should be a bounce-back season for the Hokies, who return 16 starters, including nine on offense. The biggest loss is talented RB Khalil Herbert. Braxton Burmeister takes over at quarterback after starting the season finale win against Virginia and the transfer of Hendon Hooker to Tennessee.

No. 22 Iowa
Last year: 6-2
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Indiana, Sept. 11 at Iowa State, Oct. 2 at Northwestern, Oct. 9 vs. Penn State, Nov. 6 at Nebraska, Nov. 27 at Wisconsin

In the past three years, Iowa is 25-9, but eight of the Hawkeyes’ nine losses were by seven points or less — oh so close. This fall, Iowa will once again be a Big Ten contender. The Hawkeyes return 13 starters from last year’s 6-2 team, including QB Spencer Petras and RB Tyler Goodson. Iowa will be tested from the outset, opening the season with Indiana and then at rival Iowa State.

No. 23 USC
Last year: 5-1
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. San Jose State, Oct. 23 at Notre Dame, TBA at Arizona State, TBA vs. UCLA, TBA vs. Utah

We’re now into the sixth full season under head coach Clay Helton, who supposedly has been continually sitting on the hottest seat in college football. Since 2018’s 5-7 season, the Trojans are 13-6 over the past two years but haven’t captured a Pac-12 title. QB Kedon Slovis is among at least six returning offensive starters but he loses his two favorite targets from last year: Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. USC could also have as many as six returning starters on defense. USC’s schedule will be challenging, including a season opener with Mountain West champion San Jose State and road trips to Notre Dame and Arizona State.

No. 24 Ole Miss
Last year: 5-5 (defeated Indiana in Outback Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Sept. 4 vs. Louisville in Atlanta, Nov. 6 vs. Liberty, TBA at Tennessee, TBA at Alabama, TBA vs. Texas A&M, TBA vs. LSU

The Lane Train sputtered out of the gate, losing four of its first five. However, along the way Ole Miss put up 48 points against Alabama — the most the Tide allowed entering Monday’s national title game. Ole Miss finished strong, winning four of its last five, including an upset of No. 7 Indiana in the Outback Bowl. In year two under Lane Kiffin, the Rebels return 18 starters (eight on offense and 10 on defense). Matt Corral’s return at QB will give Ole Miss one of the nation’s most potent offenses.

No. 25 Liberty
Last year: 10-1 (defeated Coastal Carolina in Cure Bowl)
Schedule highlights: Oct. 2 at UAB, Nov. 6 at Ole Miss, Nov. 20 vs. Louisiana

Liberty proved it was a top-25 team last season, winning two of three games against Power Five opponents, and upsetting previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. The Flames could have similar success in 2021 with 21 of 22 starters returning, most notably QB Malik Willis. The schedule is highlighted by Liberty coach Hugh Freeze’s return to Ole Miss, where he coached from 2012-16. Liberty also has road games at Syracuse and C-USA champion UAB, plus a home game with Sun Belt co-champion Louisiana.

Rounding out my top 40 teams (in alphabetical order):
Appalachian State, Arkansas, Auburn, BYU, Indiana, Louisville, LSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, Pitt, TCU, UCF, UCLA, Virginia, West Virginia