College football rankings: Preseason Top 25 for the 2021 season

Yes, it’s early. But the best part about looking months ahead is thinking about all the possibilities. After a 2020 season that understandably had a lot of postponements and cancelations because of COVID-19, here’s hoping the 2021 college football season looks more like a normal one.

Expect Alabama, Clemson and other usual names in the mix for the College Football Playoffs. Here’s an early — a very, very, very early — preseason Top 25 for the 2021 season.

College football rankings: Early Top 25 for the 2021 season

1. Alabama (13-0 in 2020, No. 1 in final AP Poll)

Alabama will lose a bunch of talented players and a coordinator — again. But Alabama is Alabama and Nick Saban is Nick Saban.

Yes, Heisman winner WR DeVonta Smith is gone, with RB Najee Harris also a possible first-round pick. Five-star QB Bryce Young could become the next star QB as Mac Jones moves on to the NFL. But he’ll get to throw to John Metchie III. The Tide also always have a strong group of running backs.

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2. Clemson (10-2 in 2020, No. 3 in final AP Poll)

It’s going to be weird not seeing Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne suiting up for Clemson anymore. But that doesn’t mean the Tigers can’t expect another season to include a College Football Playoff appearance.

QB D.J. Uiagalelei, who started two games this season when Lawrence sat out due to testing positive for COVID, has talent to work with, especially if WR Justyn Ross is healthy and back (missed 2020 season). The defense will be older and more experienced, so the biggest concern could be on the offensive front and at running back.

3. Oklahoma (9-2 in 2020, No. 6 in final AP Poll)

OU started 1-2 but then strung together eight consecutive wins to close out the season, including wins against Iowa State (Big 12 title game) and Florida (Cotton Bowl).

QB Spencer Rattler should be even better in 2021 and could be another Heisman-contending QB at OU. But he’ll have help on defense. Though the Big 12’s depth improves, the Sooners’ defensive growth under DC Alex Grinch will have them the conference favorites again.

4. Georgia (8-2 in 2020, No. 7 in final AP Poll)

The Bulldogs figure to be powerful on offense, as QB JT Daniels, RBs Zamir White and James Cook and WR George Pickens are among the returning stars. The secondary is probably the area with the biggest question mark. There’s also pressure on UGA to finally beat ‘Bama.

5. Iowa State (9-3 in 2020, No. 9 in final AP Poll)

Just how excited are the Cyclones for 2021? Well, the 2020 season saw a top-10 finish, a Fiesta Bowl win and a unanimous All-American in RB Breece Hall.

Throw in Hall, QB Brock Purdy and coach Matt Campbell all returning, and you’re looking at what perhaps the most hyped season in program history. We’ll know early on if Iowa State can live up to the expectations — rival Iowa is scheduled for Sept. 11.

6. Ohio State (7-1 in 2020, No. 2 in final AP Poll)

Ohio State shockingly routed Clemson but then ran into juggernaut Alabama in the CFP title game. Even if QB Justin Fields doesn’t return — along with other well-known stars — coach Ryan Day has proven OSU will remain a Big Ten force. But most preseason attention will be focused at quarterback if Fields goes to the NFL.

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7. Texas A&M (9-1 in 2020, No. 4 in final AP Poll)

The Aggies just missed out on the CFP, coming in No. 5. They then outscored UNC to win the Orange Bowl by two touchdowns. Clearly, Jimbo Fisher has made a difference. The major questions for next season are at quarterback (longtime starter Kellen Mond departs) and on the offensive line, where there will be new starters. Good thing RBs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane return, as does RB/WR Ainias Smith.

8. Cincinnati (9-1 in 2020, No. 8 in final AP Poll)

The Bearcats came thisclose to finishing undefeated, falling on a late field goal to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. But Cincinnati could find itself in another prestigious bowl game next season, especially with QB Desmond Ridder back. Though there will be some turnover, the main concern could be the loss of DC Marcus Freeman, who’s now at Notre Dame. Cincinnati also plays Notre Dame in 2021.

9. Indiana (6-2 in 2020, No. 12 in final AP Poll)

What’s next for IU? The Hoosiers surprised almost everyone — except perhaps themselves — but likely still feel like they’re deserving of more respect. A healthy return of QB Michael Penix is a major plus for coach Tom Allen. On defense, look to linebacker Micah McFadden (58 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss).

10. Iowa (6-2 in 2020, No. 16 in final AP Poll)

The Hawkeyes quietly put together a strong 2020. An 0-2 start slid them back in people’s minds, as did rival Iowa State’s march into the top 10. The offense should be strong in 2020, as QB Spencer Petras, RB Tyler Goodson and center Tyler Linderbaum will all be back. Defensive end Zach VanValkenburg will lead the defense.

11. North Carolina (8-4 in 2020, No. 18 in final AP Poll)

Some big names are gone, notably RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and WR Dazz Newsome. But QB Sam Howell is back for his third season and will be an early Heisman favorite.

The defense could end up returning 10 starters, meaning the unit should be another year wiser.

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12. Washington (3-1 in 2020, not ranked in final AP Poll)

A bunch of Huskies are expected back, led by linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui (7 sacks). He should help as Washington will have some new starters in the secondary. QB Dylan Morris will be a sophomore, though elite recruit Sam Huard is also here.

13. Notre Dame (10-2 in 2020, No. 5 in final AP Poll)

It’s going to be strange not seeing QB Ian Book with the Irish anymore. The race to replace him will be worth watching. A bunch of offensive line starters are also gone, so it’s good for Notre Dame that RBs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree are back. But, as usual, Notre Dame still must prove itself on the bright lights of the postseason stage.

14. Wisconsin (4-3 in 2020, not ranked)

The Badgers looked great at the start, crushing Illinois and Michigan behind QB Graham Mertz. But COVID and injuries slowed things down as Wisconsin struggled to score in its three losses. But 2021 should be better, as linebacker Jack Sanborn will be part of a typically strong Wisconsin defense.

15. Florida (8-4 in 2020, No. 13 in final AP Poll)

A promising season that saw QB Kyle Trask become a Heisman finalist and TE Kyle Pitts star as one of the country’s best players ended with three consecutive losses. In steps QB Emory Jones, but the Gators need to defense to step up. Florida allowed 37, 52 and 55 points in its last three games.

16. Oregon (4-3 in 2020, not ranked)

The 2020 season was weird and difficult for all. Oregon is no exception. A bunch of players sat out the season and the Ducks didn’t even win their division, but Oregon got to play in the Pac-12 title game. A win there jumped them into the Fiesta Bowl at only 4-2. Like many teams here, off-season focus is at quarterback. Will it be Tyler Shough? Boston College transfer Anthony Brown? 

17. LSU (5-5 in 2020, not ranked)

It was a dramatic fall from No. 1 for LSU. While a fall had to be expected after winning the national title, a 5-5 record had to be disappointing. Coach Ed Orgeron didn’t waste time in making changes, notably moving on from DC Bo Pelini after one season. QB Myles Brennan is back, but Max Johnson could also get a look.

18. Texas (7-3 in 2020, No. 19 in final AP Poll)

It does seem like the Longhorns enter with hype no matter what. But there is significant excitement with new coach Steve Sarkisian after his ridiculous success as the Alabama OC. Casey Thompson, who led Texas to a win in the Alamo Bowl, is in the chase to replace Sam Ehlinger. RB Bijan Robinson (703 rushing yards, 8.2 yards per carry) might have a huge 2021 season.

19. Coastal Carolina (11-1 in 2020, No. 14 in final AP Poll)

One of last season’s pleasant surprises should have another good season ahead. QB Grayson McCall (2,488 passing yards, 569 rushing yards) will direct the offense; DT C.J. Brewer (11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) is among the returning defensive leaders. Can the Chanticleers take another step and make a New Year’s Six game?

20. Ole Miss (5-5 in 2020, not ranked in final AP Poll)

The Rebels need to get just a bit better on defense to make noise, as Lane Kiffin has the offense set for another season of plenty of points and yards. QB Matt Corral (3,337 passing yards) will enjoy throwing to Dontario Drummond and handing off to Jerrion Ealy.

21. Penn State (4-5 in 2020, not ranked in final AP Poll)

Injuries and early loses sent Penn State to an 0-5 start, but the Nittany Lions regrouped to win their final four games — all by double digits. The offense will hope to take that next step thanks to QB Sean Clifford, returning RB Noah Cain (season-ending 2020 injury) and WR Jahan Dotson. New OC Mike Yurcich comes over from Texas.

22. Miami (8-3 in 2020, No. 22 in final AP Poll)

This is dependent on QB D’Eriq King returning on time and healthy after tearing his ACL in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State. If he’s OK, he and the Hurricanes have a test right away: Alabama.

23. Arizona State (2-2 in 2020, not ranked in final AP Poll)

The Sun Devils played only four games, but they still piled up more than 1,000 rushing yards to go with QB Jayden Daniels’ 701 passing yards. Much of the defensive talent is back as well, including top tackler Evan Fields.

24. USC (5-1 in 2020, No. 21 in final AP Poll)

The Trojans were unbeaten with close wins before falling to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. QB Kedon Slovis can do a lot (1,921 passing yards in six games), but USC struggled to run the ball. Coach Clay Helton would love a breakthrough 2021.

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25. Louisiana (10-1 in 2020, No. 15 in final AP Poll)

What a season. Louisiana won 10 games for the second season in a row, but 2020 was the attention-grabbing year. Coach Billy Napier remains with the Ragin’ Cajuns, who also get another year from QB Levi Lewis. Louisiana continues to challenge Big 12 foes. After upsetting Iowa State in 2020, the Ragin’ Cajuns get Texas to open 2021.

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