Mello's 2021 College Football Top 25

Our new college football editor, Marshal “Mello” Miller, pens his debut column this week as we ramp up our football coverage for the 2021 season and 2022 draft. Mello has served as a scouting assistant at Bleacher Report for five years and is the co-host of the “Two Guys, A Girl and a Podcast” and “Mic’d Up”, a daily sports radio program. He brings an expert-level view of college football to the Draft Scout team as well as upping our game in any drinking challenges, beer pong tournaments and Natty Light fan clubs.

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The 2021 college football season will bring a return to normalcy after a chaotic 2020. We’re excited, and imagine you are too, which is why we’re unveiling our preseason top 25 today as the first State of College Football column that will run weekly during the season.

Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma have strong resumes and claims to the top spots, but how does the rest of the top 25 shake out?

We have you covered.


1. Alabama

Offense:

There isn’t an offense in the nation losing more talent than Alabama, but Alabama is going to do what Alabama does and reload with exceptional young talent. The Tide will have to replace starters at quarterback, running back, two wide receivers, tight end, left tackle, left guard and center. 

Former five-star recruit Bryce Young will get the start at quarterback in 2021 after many thought he might challenge for the job in 2020. Had 2020 been a normal offseason, I believe Young could have challenged Mac Jones for the starting spot - and Mac Jones was drafted 15th overall in the NFL Draft. 

It’s never easy to replace a guy with 26 rushing touchdowns (Najee Harris) or a guy with 23 receiving touchdowns (DeVonta Smith) but Alabama has solid options coming in. John Metchie has already been tabbed the next receiver in a long line of first rounders and Brian Robinson, Jr. returned to be the guy at running back. Bama is in good hands at the skill positions and Jahleel Billingsley is going to emerge as one of the most productive tight ends in the nation. 

As noted, Alabama will have to replace three starters on the offensive line but they are led by massive (6’7”, 359 lbs) left tackle Evan Neal. Neal is considered one of the top tackles in the nation and many NFL scouts have been waiting for the day he would become draft eligible. Fellow returning starter Emil Ekiyor, Jr. will anchor the interior at right guard while Chris Owens (LG) and Darrian Dalcourt (C) take over starting roles. 

Defense:

The Alabama defense is once again the strength of the team after watching high-power offenses the past four seasons. DJ Dale, LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis lead a veteran defensive line that will allow linebackers Christian Harris, Chris Allen, Will Anderson and Henry To'o To'o to make plays all over the field. 

The linebacking corps is the best in the nation and their backups could form a good starting unit at most schools. Harris is regarded as the best draft eligible linebacker while Will Anderson is an early favorite for the 2023 draft and Allen and To’oTo’o could be first team all-conference. 

The linebackers are special but the youth movement in the secondary is equally impressive. Sophomores Malachi Moore and Brian Branch were standout freshmen and will take over bigger roles in 2021 and they have already proven they’re capable. Senior Josh Jobe is also near the top of the draft eligible corners list, along with junior Jordan Battle at safety. 

Key Players:

Bryce Young, Sophomore, QB

John Metchie III, Junior, WR

Jahleel Billingsley, Junior, TE

Malachi Moore, Sophomore, S

Will Anderson Jr., Sophomore, OLB

Incoming Freshman:

JC Latham, OL

Tommy Brockmeyer, OL

Ga’Quincy McKinstry, CB

Record: 13-0


2. Clemson

Offense: 

The top two teams in the country are replacing their starting quarterbacks with former freshman phenoms in Bryce Young and DJ Uiagalelei. Uiagalelei had the benefit of playing and starting two games in 2020 and also returns his head coach and offensive coordinator. Uiagalelei should pick up right where he and the Clemson offensive left off, while adding a big body, running threat to the offense. 

Clemson does have to replace Travis Etienne and his 16 total touchdowns in 2020, but senior Lyn-J Dixon and sophomore Kobe Pace should be able to ease the transition at running back. Receiver is potentially upgrading, despite losing Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, with the return of Justyn Ross. If healthy, Ross is one of the top receiver talents in the nation but the “if healthy” question is still a big question for Ross. If Ross is not able to go then tight end Braden Galloway and receivers EJ Williams and Joseph Ngata will have to step up. 

A young offensive line in 2020 struggled at times and will have to replace LT Jackson Carman in 2021, but they do return three starters, including both guards and the unit should be improved from last year. Tackles Jordan McFadden, Walker Parks and Mitchell Mayes should be able to open running lanes and protect DJ Uiagalelei better than what the former offensive line did in 2020. 

Defense:

Two of the best defensive lineman in the nation play for Clemson and will set the tone for the entire defense. Sophomores Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy both started as true freshmen and made an instant impact on the defense. Now they are established starters, leaders and playmakers. 

Clemson lost Mike Jones (who?) to LSU but still brings back veterans James Skalski and Baylon Spector, who feel like they’ve been at Clemson for 12 years. Regardless, Clemson will be solid at linebacker while breaking in new, young talent at the position. Keep an eye out for Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. and Trenton Simpson as the year goes on. 

The secondary also lost a starter to the transfer portal in Derion Kendrick, but he might not have been eligible anyway AND they return Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones to start at corner with Landen Zanders and Nolan Turner at safety - Clemson will be more than okay defensively once again under defensive coordinator Brent Venables. 

Key Players:

Justyn Ross, Senior, WR

Lyn-J Dixon, Senior, RB

Braden Galloway, Senior, TE

Andrew Booth, JR, CB

James Skalski, Senior, LB

Incoming Freshman:

Will Shipley, RB

Jeremiah Trotter Jr., LB

Jake Briningstool, TE

Record: 13-0

3. Oklahoma

Offense:

Oklahoma returns one of the best offenses for 2021 and quarterback Spencer Rattler is a top Heisman candidate to boot. Rattler was dubbed the guy to lead OU back to a National Championship since Lincoln Riley recruited him and 2021 could be the year. 

The Sooners have had so many talented running backs in the past but could have their best group yet under Lincoln Riley with Kennedy Brooks, Seth McGowen, Marcus Major and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray. OU might not have a 1,000 yard back next season but I think two could go for 700+ in Norman. 

Sophomore receiver Marvin Mims will be one of the most productive receivers in all of college football. Mims brought in 37 catches, 610 yards and 9 touchdowns in a shortened freshman season and will explode in 2021 as the established No. 1 target. Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood and Drake Stoops round out the receiver unit and tight end Austin Stogner will be a big red zone target for the Sooners in 2021. 

Replacing center Creed Humphrey is going to be damn near impossible but returning Erik Swenson, Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson will help. Adding Wanya Morris from Tennessee has potential to be huge, if the former five-star can live up to the hype. 

Defense:

The bend but don’t break defense has been good enough and Oklahoma returns some very talented pass rushers. Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto combined for 16 sacks in 2020 and that number is sure to increase this year. 

Linebacker has been a problem for OU and looks to still be in 2021. Caleb Kelly and DaShaun White return with playing experience but the team still lacks a playmaker at the position. 

Corners Woodi Washington and DJ Graham are not returning starters but had plenty of experience in 2020 and will need to solidify the position in 2021. Safeties Delarrian Turner-Yell and Pat Fields will make the corners job easier, as will the tremendous pass rush from the defensive line. 

Key Players:

Eric Gray, Junio, RB

Austin Stogner, Junior, TE

Isaiah Thomas, Senior, DE

Woodi Woodson, Sophomore, CB

Delarrin Turner-Yell, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Caleb Williams, QB

Clayton Smith, DE

Mario Williams, WR

Record: 13-0


4. Ohio State

Offense:

Quarterback is a question in Columbus but only because we don’t know which stud will start. Two redshirt freshmen (Jack Miller and CJ Stroud) will compete with incoming freshman Kyle McCord. At this time, I have no idea who the starter will be but I would bet on the starter being successful regardless of who it is thanks to the Ryan Day system and talent they’ve recruited. 

Much of the quarterback success will be due to Master Teague at running back. Teague has the power and ability to carry the rock 20+ times a game while incoming freshmen TreVon Henderson and Evan Pryor get comfortable in the backfield. 

Wide Receiver One runs through Columbus as Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave both returned for another season at Ohio State. Not only are two of the best draft eligible receivers at Ohio State, but Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba have already shown they’re the next wave. Add in tight end Jeremy Ruckert and you have some of the best pass catchers in the nation helping usher in a new starter at quarterback. 

Offensive linemen Josh Meyers and Wyatt Davis are gone but the Buckeyes do get Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere back while prized recruit Paris Johnson takes on a starting role. Ohio State is so deep at every level that their biggest question mark is three former four-star quarterbacks competing to start. Sheesh. 

Defense:

The defensive line is always a strength for Ohio State and that won’t change in 2021. Bringing back Haskell Garrett and Antwan Jackson at tackle to go along with Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison on the edge will create one of the scariest lines in the Big Ten. Harrison is a sneaky EDGE1 candidate and should establish himself as a Round One guy this season. 

Pete Warner, Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard are all gone and there is a lot of uncertainty at linebacker. Most of that is because Ohio State and four very good linebackers and underclassmen couldn’t get on the field. They will get their chance in 2021 though and the Buckeyes need veterans K’Vaughn Pope and Dallas Grant to step into big roles. 

Is Ohio State DBU? They’ve made a strong case in the past and will once again have to replace CB1 (Shaun Wade) for the third year in a row. Sevyn Banks is the top corner for the Buckeyes with Josh Proctor and Marcus Williams set to start at safety. 

Key Players:

CJ Stroud, RS Freshman, QB

Jack Miller, RS Freshman, QB

Master Teague, Junior, RB

Zach Harrison, Junior, DE

Sevyn Banks, Senior, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Jack Sawyer, DE

Emeka Egbuka, WR

Donovan Jackson, OL

Record: 13-0

5. Georgia

Offense:

Georgia returns a good amount of starters in 2021, including JT Daniels at quarterback. Daniels was a late addition, via the transfer portal in 2020, and missed a few games to start the season. With Daniels having a full offseason, I fully expect a big year for the junior QB if Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken open up the offense more than they have in years past. 

The backfield has never been a question for the Dawgs and that trend will continue in 2021. Seniors Zamir White and James Cook combined for over 1,000 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns in 2020 (just 10 games played) and look to carry much of the load in 2021. I would be surprised if the duo did NOT rush for 1,500 combined yards in 2021. 

Star receiver George Pickens suffered a potential season ending ACL injury in the spring but the Georgia receiving corps is still one of the best in the conference. Junior Kearis Jackson led the Bulldogs with 514 yards receiving in 2020 while sophomore to be Jermaine Burton emerged as one of the best true freshmen in the nation. Helping the receivers will be two of the top tight ends in the nation. Georgia returns sophomore Darnell Washington who had the potential to be first team All-SEC. One of the only reasons Washington wouldn’t be All-SEC is new teammate Arik Gilbert. Gilbert transferred from LSU to Florida this spring but then later transferred again to Georgia. While there is still speculation about Gilbert’s eligibility, if he is able to get on the field in 2021 he could lead the Dawgs in all receiving categories and is looking to take more reps at receiver in Athens, GA.

The offensive line is led by senior guards Jamaree Sayler and Justin Shaffer and should be a strength once again for Georgia in 2021. Ushering in a new center and left tackle will be concerning for Georgia fans but UGA is still loaded with young potential and guys more than capable of being solid starters. 

Defense:

Georgia had the No. 2 scoring defense in the SEC in 2020 allowing 20 points per game and the top rushing defense in the nation, allowing 72.3 yards per game. The Georgia defensive line returns Jordan Davis at nose with Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt on the ends - making a dynamic trio on the d-line. 

Replacing Azeez Ojulari is going to be tough but as Georgia fans know, and have been waiting for, it’s Nolan Smith’s turn. Smith came to UGA as a top recruit and is looking for his breakout season in year three. Playing opposite Smith at OLB is Adam Anderson. Anderson recorded 5.5 sacks in 2020 and may be the big time pass rusher Georgia fans want Smith to be. The inside linebackers will have to replace four-year starter Monty Rice and that won’t be easy but Nakobe Dean did lead the Dawgs in tackles in 2020 and Qauy Walker is a fourth year player with a ton of good playing experience. 

Here is the biggest question mark on the Georgia team: The secondary. Georgie is replacing both starting corners (Erik Stokes, Tyson Campbell) and their backups (DJ Daniel, Ty Stevenson) along with safeties Richard LeCounte and Mark Webb. The best news for UGA fans is that they get Kelee Ringo back from a shoulder injury and he could emerge as a shutdown corner, as well as adding Derion Kendrick the Clemson transfer. Junior safety Lewis Cline is also back and taking on a bigger leadership role in the young secondary. 

Key Players:

Jermaine Burton, Sophomore, WR

Darnell Washington, Sophomore, TE

Adam Anderson, Senior, OLB

Lewis Cine, Junior, S

Kelee Ringo, Freshman, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Amarius Mims, OL

Brock Vandagriff, QB

Xavier Sorey Jr., OLB

Record: 11-2


6. Florida

Offense:

Replacing Kyle Trask and his 43 passing touchdowns isn’t going to be as difficult as it sounds with Emory Jones taking over at quarterback for the Gators. Jones has been on roster with Dan Mullen and knows this offense. He is also a more athletic quarterback than Gator fans are used to but could be exactly what they need in 2021. 

Florida hasn’t produced a 1,000 yard rusher since Kelvin Taylor in 2015 and I don’t expect that to change in 2021. Florida ranked 96th nationally with just 131 rushing yards per game in 2020 and even though Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are good running backs, Dan Mullen is going to air it out again in 2021. Quarterback Emory Jones could even lead the Gators in rushing. 

Kyle Pitts and Kadarious Toney were one of the best receiving duos in 2020 and it will be almost impossible for Florida to replace those two. They do return solid upperclassmen (Copeland, Gamble and Shorter) and sophomore Xzavier Henderson (brother of CJ Henderson) is looking to take the WR1 title at Florida. 

The Florida offensive line needs to improve from 2020, and returning three starters will help, but if Dan Mullen wants to be able to score on those tough SEC defenses it starts with his offensive line. 

Defense:

Senior defensive end Zach Carter returns his team high 5 sacks from 2020 and is poised for a big year opposite Brenton Cox Jr. The pass rush duo will lead defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s reboot after a disappointing 2020. 

At linebacker, Florida brings back Ventrell Miller and Miller is already a fan favorite after a hard-hitting 2020. Miller will lead the defense again alongside junior Mohamoud Diabate. Another year together should be huge for the linebackers and should produce better results than last season. 

The secondary will be talented in 2021, but can they be consistent? Junior Kaiir Elam is the biggest name in the secondary and could be a top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft but the Gators also have to replace three starters from 2020 and will have to do so with young talent and potentially some true freshmen. 

Key Players:

Emory Jones, Junior, QB

Malik Davis, Senior, RB

Zach Carter, Senior, DE

Brenton Cox, Junior, OLB

Trey Dean, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Jason Marshall Jr., CB

Tyreak Sapp, DE

Corey Collier, S

Record: 10-2

7. Cincinnati

Offense:

Led once again by quarterback Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati is no longer an underdog story. Ridder has the size, arm and athletic ability to be a top quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft and will for sure be a top quarterback in the American Conference. The Bearcats may need to be perfect to get into the College Football Playoff in 2021 but Ridder has the tools to get them there. 

The Bearcats have to replace Gerrid Doaks at running backs but sophomore Jerome Ford had a very good freshman season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry and eight rushing touchdowns. Ford is a breakout player for me this year and will catch a lot of teams by surprise as they prepare for Ridder and the Cincy passing attack. 

The receiving targets in Cincinnati are an underrated group and return two senior receivers and junior tight end Josh Whyle. Whyle led the Bearcats with 353 yards and six touchdowns in 2020 and is a good candidate to do so again in 2021. 

The offensive line is losing both starting tackles from 2020 but should be able to protect against the American Conference defenses in 2021. Bringing back sophomore center Jake Renfro is a great centerpiece and up and coming player. Surrounding Renfro with veteran players should be enough to run through the American Conference undefeated. 

Defense:

To say I was shocked when Myjai Sanders returned for another year at Cincinnati would be an understatement. Sanders had a solid year with seven sacks and looked like an NFL talent in 2020. Now he is back and looking to hit double-digit sack numbers. Cincy also returns Malik Vann and Curtis Brooks on their d-line while adding Jowon Briggs from Virginia. 

Senior linebacker Darrian Beavers was all over the field in 2020 and is the returning leading tackler in 2021. Senior Joel Dublanko also returns after adding 51 tackles in 2020. 

The strength of the Bearcats team has been the secondary and will be once again in 2021. Led by junior corner Ahmad Gardner, the Bearcats return one of the most talented position groups in the nation despite losing two starting safeties. Javon Hicks returns for another year in Cincinnati and looks to fill the void left by safeties Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins. 

Key Players:

Jerome Ford, Sophomore, RB

Josh Whyle, Junior, TE

James Tunstall, Junior, LT

Myjai Sanders, Senior, DE

Coby Bryant, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Chamon Metayer, TE

Bryon Threats, S

Jack Dingle, LB

Record: 12-1


8. Iowa State

Offense:

How in the hell is Brock Purdy still in school? Entering what seems like his sixth season in Ames, Purdy is looking for that elusive Big 12 Championship. Purdy and the Iowa State offense return 10(!) starters in 2021 and Purdy should have his best year yet. 

The star, and 2019 breakout player, of the offense has been and will be Breece Hall. Hall led the Cyclones with 1,572 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2020 and will most likely take on an even bigger role in 2021. 

Iowa State returns its top five receiving targets including tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen. Kolar pulled in 44 catches for 591 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020 and will once again be a top target for Brock Purdy. Leading receiver Xavier Hutchinson burst onto the scene in 2020 with a quiet 64 catches, 771 yards and four touchdowns. The veteran receiver is no secret this year but should see similar production. 

Up front Iowa State returns five starters from 2020 and Remington Award candidate Colin Newell at center. Purdy, Hall and Kolar get a lot of the credit for the Iowa State offense but the offensive line deserves a nod as well. An even stronger group in 2021 will help its stars shine once again next season. 

Defense:

The Cyclones lost one starter from the defensive line, Jaquan Bailey, and while he will not be easily replaced, Will McDonald is stepping into a starting role after having an amazing 10.5 sacks as a rotational player in 2020. 

Mike Rose had an outstanding 2020 season (99 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5 INT) winning the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and decided to return to Ames! Rose will lead a solid defense as a do-it-all linebacker with great size and instincts. 

The Iowa State secondary is led by three-time first-team All-Big 12 player Greg Eisworth. Eisworth isn’t afraid to play in the box and stop the run or drop back into coverage - it’s hard to watch Iowa State and not see Eisworth out there making plays. 

Key Players:

Xavier Hutchinson, Senior, WR

Colin Newell, Senior, C

Will McDonald, Junior, DE

Mike Rose, Senior, LB

Greg Eisworth, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Eli Sanders, RB

Daniel Jackson, WR

Tyler Maro, OL

Record: 10-3

9. Texas A&M

Offense:

Texas A&M is absolutely LOADED on offense but has a question mark at the most important position: quarterback. Redshirt freshman Haynes King is the favorite to start for the Aggies with competition coming from sophomore Zach Calzada. 

Returning rusher Isaiah Spiller is a top two running back in the country alongside Breece Hall from Iowa State. Spiller has the combination of speed and power that every coach is looking for and also does a great job catching the ball too. Spiller will be the best friend and biggest asset to whoever starts at quarterback in 2021. 

The returning receiver talent at A&M is unfair. Junior Ainias Smith is a dynamic playmaker and will be used all over the field, including from the backfield and as a returner. Chase Lane and Hezekiah Jones also return as the No 2 and No. 3 options at receiver. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer is going to remind people of Kyle Pitts’ catch radius and big body. After leading the Aggies in catches (46) and touchdowns (6) in 2020, Wydermyer is a favorite to win the Mackey Award for the top tight end in the country. 

The riches don’t stop with the offensive line as Kenyon Green returns as one of the top offensive line prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft. Green has played primarily at guard but will be kicking out to left tackle in 2021 - where he still projects very nicely at the next level. Another concern will be how does A&M block at the other four spots? A&M will have to replace four starters up front while playing Alabama, Auburn and at LSU in 2021.

Defense:

DeMarvin Leal leads the d-line where he plays both interior and edge for A&M. At 6’4”, 290 pounds, Leal had 2.5 sacks in 2020 and is looking to prove himself in 2021. If Leal plays with a chip on his shoulder in 2021, I feel sorry for opposing lineman and quarterbacks. 

The Aggies lose Buddy Johnson at linebacker but luckily, Johnson is one of only two departing starters. Aaron Hansford and Andre White Jr. will look to fill the void left by Johnson. 

Losing Johnson won’t be easy - due to leadership - but returning your entire secondary will help. Safeties Leon O’Neal and Demani Richardson are top returning safeties in the conference and sophomore corner Jaylon Jones is a top young player. 

Key Players:

Haynes King, RS Freshman, QB

Anias Smith, Junior, WR

Chase Lane, Sophomore, WR

Kenyon Green, Junior, OL

DeMarvin Leal, Junior, DE

Incoming Freshman:

Bryce Foster, OL

Shemar Turner, DL

Tunmise Adeleye, DL

Record: 9-3


10. USC 

Offense:

USC only played six games in 2020 and quarterback Kedon Slovis still threw for 1,921 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those numbers could double in 2021 and Slovis is a top Heisman candidate for the Trojans. 

USC returns Vavae Malepeai at running back and brings in Keontay Ingram from Texas. The duo most likely won’t see many carries in Clay Helton’s pass-heavy offense but should be enough to keep defenses honest. 

The stars of the offense play wide receiver. Drake London is a massive receiver (6’5”, 210) and led the Trojans with 502 receiving yards in 2020. Bru McCoy, John Jackson III, Gary Bryant, Kyle Ford and Colorado transfer KD Nixon should all see significant playing time. The exciting part will be seeing who emerges as the top targets. 

Four returning starters is a beautiful sight but trying to replace Alijah Vera-Tucker is not. USC should still have a top o-line unit in 2021 but did struggle in 2020. Another year together will be huge for what was an inexperienced group last season. 

Defense:

USC’s 3-4 defense has two open spots on the d-line and one of them could be filled by freshman Korey Foreman. Foreman was a five-star recruit and should see action early alongside Nick Figueroa, Brandon Pill and Tuli Tuipulota. 

Outside linebacker Drake Jackson is a top EDGE prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft and will look to put his name up there with fellow Pac 12 pass rusher Keyvon Thibodeaux of Oregon. USC also returns two starters at inside linebacker in Ralen Goforth and Kana’i Mauga.

Chris Steele will lead the secondary and the big-body corner looks to establish himself as a top draft prospect in 2021. Steel has all the traits but will need help replacing Talanoa Hufanga at safety. Texas transfer Xavion Alford seems to be the top candidate to do so. 

Key Players:

Drake London, Junio, WR

Keontay Ingram, Senior, RB

Casey Collier, RS Freshman, LT

Kana’i Mauga, Senior, LB

Chris Steele, Junior, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Korey Foreman, DE

Raesjon Davis, LB

Jaxon Dart, QB

Record: 8-4

11. Oregon

Offense:

Senior Anthony Brown takes over for Tyler Shough after two solid performances for the Ducks in 2020. Running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye will once again take a load off the quarterback and carry the offense. Sophomore receiver Mycah Pittman is a 2021 breakout candidate with a ton of potential. 

Defense:

Keyvon Thibodeaux is the top prospect in the country and probably would have been the top pass rusher in last year's NFL Draft. But the defense isn’t all Thibs. In fact, linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe are two top linebackers in the conference and the secondary brings back Mykeal Wright and Verone McKinley III as well. Look for the defense to lead the Ducks with a solid running game in 2021. 

Key Players:

Anthony Brown, Senior, QB

CJ Verdell, Senior, RB

Mycah Pittman, Sophomore, WR

Mykael Wright, Sophomore, CB

Justin Flowe, RS Freshman, LB

Incoming Freshman:

Kingsley Suamataia, OT

Bram Walden, OT

Ty Thompson, QB

Record: 11-2


12. North Carolina

Offense:

Can Sam Howell produce at the same level without Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams? We’ll find out soon. Howell came into UNC as a big time recruit and will have his chance to prove doubters wrong in 2021. 

Defense:

The UNC defense looked amazing one series and then awful the next. The young group returns eight starters and brings in another great recruiting class. I look for the Tar Heels defense to take strides in 2021 and lead this team. 

Key Players:

Beau Corrales, Senior, WR

Ty Chandler, Senior, RB

Jeremiah Gemmel, Senior, LB

Storm Duck, Sophomore, CB

Myles Murphy, Sophomore, DE

Incoming Freshman:

Drake Maye, QB

Gavin Blackwell, WR

Keeshawn Silver, DE

Raneiria Dillworth, LB

DeAndre Boykin, DB

Record: 10-3


13. Notre Dame

Offense:

Notre Dame returns three starters from 2020 and has to bring in a new quarterback in Jack Coan from Wisconsin. I do not have high hopes for the Irish offense but Michael Mayer is a killer tight end and Kyren Williams is a top five running back. 

Defense:

The defense isn’t as depleted as the offense but does have to replace one of my favorite players in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Safety Kyle Hamilton should help with that. Hamilton is a top playmaker on defense and has the size (6’4”, 215) to play anywhere on the field. A healthy Hamilton could be the top defender in the nation. 

Key Players:

Jack Coan, Senior, QB

Jarrett Patterson, Junior, LT

Zeke Correll, Sophomore, C

Jordan Johnson, Freshman, WR

Drew White, Senior, LB

Incoming Freshman:

Ty Buchner, QB

Blake Fisher, OT

Deion Colzie, WR

Record: 9-3


14. Texas

Offense:

Texas has to replace four-year starter Sam Ehlinger at quarterback but junior Casey Thompson played very well in limited snaps in 2020. Thompson will be competing with freshman Hudson Card to see who gets to hand the ball off to Bijan Robinson in 2021. Robinson is just a sophomore but the expectations are high for the young running back, especially after what Najee Harris was able to do in the Steve Sarkisan offense. A poor offensive line and inexperienced group of receivers is the biggest concern for Texas fans. 

Defense:

Texas has always had the recruits but has rarely had the production. Will 2021 be the year that seniors BJ Foster and Anthony Cook live up to the hype? Senior linebackers DeMarvion Overshown is a name to watch as a Isiaha Simmon/JOK type hybrid linebacker. Overshown made the move to linebacker in 2020 after two years of playing safety and the move was huge for Overshown and the Longhorns defense. 

Key Players:

Casey Thompson, Junior, QB

Josh Moore, Junior, WR

Derek Kerstetter, Senior, LT

DeMarvion Overshown, Senior, LB

Chris Adimora, Junior, DB 

Incoming Freshman:

Troy Omeire, RS FR, WR

Ishmael Ibraheem, DB

JD Coffey, DB

Record: 8-4


15. Wisconsin

Offense:

Graham Mertz is supposed to be the quarterback that leads Wisconsin to the promised land but he’ll have to do so without the dominant running back Badger fans are used to. To absolutely no one's surprise, Wisconsin will have a good o-line once again in 2021. Tight end Jake Ferguson should once again lead Wisconsin in catches, yards and touchdowns. 

Defense:

Bringing back eight starters is a great start and linebacker Jack Sanborn is the star of the show. Sanborn led the Badgers in tackles in 2020 and will most likely do so again in 2021 as defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard continues to coach one of the top defenses in the Big Ten. 

Key Players:

Jalen Burger, Freshman, RB

Logan Brown, Sophomore, LT

Isaiah Mullens, Junior, DE

Nick Herbig, Sophomore, LB

Incoming Freshman:

Nolan Rucci, OT

Jake Ratzlaff, LB

TJ Bollers, DE

Record: 9-4


16. Miami

Offense:

The Hurricanes will keep a close eye on the recovery of quarterback D’Eriq King. With King leading this offense the Canes could easily be a top 10 team. Without King they may be outside the top 25. Miami does return all 10 starters on offense and should be a solid group, but would be very scary with King fully healthy. 

Defense:

The pass rushers were a huge story in 2020 but there is no Jaelan Phillips in 2021. Bubba Bolden will be the biggest name on this Miami defense alongside corner Tyrique Steveson transferring from Georgia. 

Key Players:

Cam’Ron Harris, Junior, RB

Charleston Rambo, Senior, WR

Will Mallory, Junior, TE

Zach McCloud, Senior, DE

Ty Stevenson, Sophomore, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Jake Garcia, QB

James Williams, S

Elijah Arroyo, TE

Record: 9-3


17. Iowa

Offense:

Iowa returns five starters on offense but will have to replace three offensive lineman and both starting receivers in 2021. The good news is that Iowa always has a top o-line and should again with center Tyler Linderbaum leading the group. Quarterback Spencer Petras was solid in 2020 but did nothing to “wow” anyone. He will need to prove he can throw the ball in 2021 or teams will load the box against Tyler Goodson and the running game. 

Defense:

The Hawkeyes had the NO. 2 defense in the Big Ten last season and returns seven starters for next season. Despite not having any big name players on defense, Iowa is still set to have a solid defense once again in 2021. 

Key Players:

Jack Plumb, Junior, LT

Tyler Limderbaum, Junior, C

Sam LaPorta, Junior, TE

Noah Shannon, Junior, DT

Matt Hankins, Senior, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Yahya Black, RS FR, DT

David Davidkof, OT

Justice Sullivan, DE

Record: 8-4


18. Arizona State

Offense:

It’s hard to get a read on the Sun Devils offense after they only played four games in 2020 but I do know that quarterback Jayden Daniels led the offense to 40 points per game in those four games. I expect Daniels to have a bounce-back year in 2021 with the majority of their offense returning. 

Defense:

The defense was boom or bust in their four 2020 games. Giving up 28 points to USC, 25 to UCLA, seven to Arizona and 33 to Oregon State but should improve in 2021. Linebacker Merlin Robertson is a big time draft prospect and viewed as an edge rusher or linebacker by NFL teams while the secondary has two stars in corner Chase Lucas and safety Evan Fields. 

Key Players:

Rachaad White, Junior, RB

LV Bunkley-Shelton, RS Freshman, WR

Kellen Diesch, Senior, OT

Chae Lucas, Senior, CB

Evan Fields, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Isaiah Johnson, CB

Tommi Hill, CB

Jalin Conyers, RS Freshman, TE

Record: 8-4


19. Coastal Carolina

Offense:

The Bell of the Ball in 2020 - Coastal has to prove they can do it again in 2021. Now they are on the radar and Kansas is looking to end a two-game losing streak against the Chanticleers. Quarterback Grayson McCall looks like a legitimate quarterback after a stellar freshman year and should have a big sophomore year with nine returning starters for coach Jamey Chadwell. 

Defense:

The defense gave up just 17 points to the NO. 2 overall pick, Zach Wilson, and the BYU Cougars. CCU returns 10 starters on defense, including defensive end Jeffrey Gunter and his 6.5 sacks. 

Key Players:

Reese White, Junior, RB

Isaiah Likely, Senior, TE

Jaivon Heiligh, Senior, WR

Emmanuel Johnson, Sophomore, DE

Many Stokes, Sophomore, CB

Incoming Freshman:

Josaiah Stewart, DE

Ze’Marion Harrell, LB

Tae’Quan Johnson, WR

Record: 13-0


20. Oklahoma State

Offense:

The Oklahoma State team had a lot to overcome in 2020 and missed the mark on the field. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has to have a big season to compete with an improved Big 12 and will desperately need the help of running backs Desmon Jackson and LD Brown to get things going and try to replace the talent of Chuba Hubbard, Tylan Wallace and Teven Jenkins.  

Defense:

Trace Ford, Tyler Lacy, Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel will lead a solid defense in 2021 and for the first time in forever, the defense may be the strength of the Mike Gundy led Cowboys. 

Key Players:

LD Brown, Senior, RB

Braydon Johnson, Senior, WR

Trace Ford, Sophomore, DE

Malcolm Rodriquez, Senior, LB

Kolby Harvell-Peel, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Bryson Green, WR

Kendal Daniels, S

Aden Kelley, DL

Record: 7-5


21. Liberty

Offense:

This is the Malik Willis show! Willis is the most exciting player entering 2021 and his potential is through the roof. But Willis has to prove he can do it again now that he has everyone’s attention. 

Willis is a dark horse Heisman candidate, only held back by playing at a small school, and could throw for 3,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 yards. 

Defense:

Pass rusher Durrell Johnson is a dynamic pass rusher with eight sacks in 2020 and leads a group returning 10 starters on defense. A solid defense and Willis on offense should equate to double digit wins for the Flames. 

Key Players:

TJ Green, Junior, RB

DJ Stubbs, Senior, WR

Josh Mack, Senior, RB

TreShaun Clark, Senior, DE

Javon Scruggs, Junior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Kaci Seegars, LB

Kylen Austin, WR

Khristian Zachary, DE

Record: 10-2


22. Nevada

Offense:

Nevada has one of my favorite quarterbacks in Carson Strong but they also have a trio of playmakers with running back Toa Taua and receiver Romeo Doubs returning as well. Strong lit up the Mountain West in 2020 and will do so once again with four returning starters on the o-line and tight end Cole Turner. 

Defense:

The 5th ranked defense in the Mountain West returns nine starters and while 5th ranked defense in the Mountain West doesn’t sound like much, you must remember the high-powered offense the Wolf Pack defense is playing with. They’re going to give up some points but not as many points as the offense will score. 

Key Players:

Romeo Doubs, Senior, WR

Toa Taua, Senior, RB

Cole Turner, Senior, TE

Lawson Hall, Senior, LB

Tyson Williams, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Clay Milen, QB

Dominic Eldridge, OL

Jacques Badolato-Birdsell, RB

Record: 10-3


23. Northwestern

Offense:

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is going to lead a top defensive unit but the Wildcats need transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski to put up some points on offense. With just three returning starters, Northwestern has its hands full in 2021. 

Defense:

Like usual, the defense will lead the team. Safety Brandon Joseph is the star of the group after an All-American and six interception season in 2020. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher will have to fill the role of his older brother Blake in 2021 but was solid in limited play in 2020. Alongside Gallagher is Chris Bergin and Peter McIntyre who make a fearsome threesome in the Big Ten. 

Key Players:

Ryan Hilinski, Junior, QB

Cam Porter, Sophomore, RB

Peter Skoronski, Sophomore, LT

Chris Bergin, Senior, LB

Bryce Gallagher, Sophomore, LB

Incoming Freshman:

Jordan Mosley, WR

Mac Uihlein, LB

Najee Story, DE

Record: 7-5


24. Louisiana

Offense:

The Ragin’ Cajuns are led by fifth-year senior quarterback Levi Lewis, one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Louisiana history, but will have to replace the running back duo of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. If Louisiana can find help at running back, their five returning starters on the offensive line will be enough to go along with Lewis and the rest of the Ragin’ Cajun offense. 

Defense:

We’ll find out a lot about the Louisiana defense Week 1 vs Texas. The defense returns 10 starters, led by linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill, and ranked 4th in the Sun Belt in 2020. If the Louisiana defense can slow down Texas, they should be able to stop most of their opponents in 2021. 

Key Players:

Chris Smith, Sophomore, RB

Kyren Lacy, Sophomore, WR

Ferrof Gardner, Senior, LB

Kam Pedescleaux, Sophomore, CB

Bralen Trahan, Junior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Terrence Williams, RB

Montrell Johnson, RB

Ja’Marian Peterson, DE

Record: 11-2


25. Indiana

Offense:

After a magical 2020 season the Hoosiers have to prove they can do it again. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will have to lead the Hoosiers into Iowa for their first game before hosting Cincinnati in Week 3. The key will be road wins against Penn State and Michigan after beating both powerhouses in 2020. But Indiana had a top offense in the Big Ten last season and should be able to score at a similar mark with Penix Jr. and Fryfogle returning in 2021.  

Defense:

Micah McFadden led Indiana in tackles (59) and sacks (6) in 2020 and is the best linebacker Indiana has had in years. Taiwan Mullen is another name to watch at corner for Indiana and should emerge as a 2023 draft prospect as Mullen is just a sophomore. 

Key Players:

Tim Baldwin, Junior, RB

Peyton Hendershot, Junior, TE

Miles Marshall, Sophomore, WR

Tiawan Mullen, Sophomore, CB

Rasheem Layne, Senior, S

Incoming Freshman:

Jaquez Smith, WR

Malachi Holt-Bennett, WR

Cooper Jones, DE

Record: 8-4