There’s no more ubiquitous measure of “good” in college sports than the top-25 college football poll, and yet, it’s entirely arbitrary.
Entering the College Football Playoff, Ohio State was ranked one spot ahead of Notre Dame, which was one spot ahead of Texas A&M. But the margin between the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish was obviously much wider than that of the Irish and Aggies.
And why do we cut off our rankings at 25? Is the 25th-ranked team good and No. 26 not? Over the past five seasons, teams ranked 21 through 25 are just 48-56 against unranked opponents with a winning record.
So what’s the solution?
To quote the great philosopher Cosmo Kramer: “Levels.” Or, to use a more sports-specific term, tiers.
Instead of a preseason top 25, we’re giving you a look at all 130 FBS teams broken down by tier — from the group of playoff favorites to those awaiting their next participation trophy.
Now, a lot can happen between January and September, so this is hardly an exact science, but we think it’ll get us a little closer to identifying who’s good, who’s not, who’s trending up and who’s headed in the wrong direction.
Tier 1: Championship favorites
Bet on consistency in college football, and you’ll never look dumb. In the playoff era, four teams have won at least 80% of their games: Alabama (.919), Ohio State (.901), Clemson (.899) and Oklahoma (.815). All four won their conference last year, along with 22 of 28 league titles in the playoff era and represent 20 of 28 playoff participants.
The wild card in the bunch is Georgia. While the Bulldogs don’t crack that 80% barrier and have made just one playoff appearance (2017), they also hold the fifth-best record of any Power 5 program during the playoff era (.783) and return a roster that screams “now or never” for Kirby Smart. QB JT Daniels appeared to have finally provided the missing piece in Georgia’s offensive attack, averaging better than 10 yards per attempt in three of his four starts — a mark UGA hadn’t hit against a Power 5 opponent since 2018. Add in the return of wide receiver George Pickens, a deep corps of running backs and a ferocious defense, and there’s a lot to like about Georgia in 2021. But beyond that, we’re believers that talent eventually wins out, and UGA will likely finish with a top-three recruiting class for the fifth straight year, giving the Bulldogs as talented a roster as there is in the country.
Tier 2: Knocking on the door
If talent and opportunity are the ultimate arbiters of who wins a national championship, these teams meet the criteria, but they also come with a few more significant question marks than those in Tier 1. All have at least three top-20 recruiting classes over the past four seasons. All have had at least one New Year’s Six appearance in the past two years. All but Penn State and Oregon won at least seven games in 2020 (though the Ducks won the Pac-12 and the Nittany Lions finished on a four-game winning streak).
The most intriguing member of this tier might be North Carolina. While Texas, A&M, Florida, Notre Dame and Oregon all enter 2021 with QB questions, UNC arguably has the best quarterback in the country in Sam Howell, and Mack Brown has recruited some burgeoning stars on defense, including corner Tony Grimes. If anyone is going to dethrone Clemson in the ACC, it’s North Carolina.
It might be easy to look at Penn State’s 0-5 start and suggest this isn’t a team capable of a playoff run, but that stretch also included two losses in which the Lions outgained their opposition by 200 or more yards. This was a team that lost two stars before the season (Journey Brown to injury, Micah Parsons to opt-out) and had a QB dealing with some significant struggles. But Sean Clifford’s second-half surge (66% completions, 8.2 yards/pass, 7 TD, 1 INT in his last four games) portends a better 2021, and the bad luck endured during a COVID-19 year could easily flip toward an unexpectedly strong season in 2021.
But if there’s an argument about a team in this tier, it’s surely Texas. How does a team that just fired its coach get listed among the title contenders? It’s a fair point, and we certainly aren’t going to claim Texas is back (there’ll be plenty of time for that in the months to come). But the recruiting was strong under former coach Tom Herman, the bowl performance by running back Bijan Robinson has folks in Austin drooling over his potential, and nine of the Longhorns’ 12 losses in the past three seasons have been by a TD or less. (UNC, by the way, has 13 such losses in that span.)
For Texas and Notre Dame, in particular, a QB change has the potential to dramatically alter their trajectories. Both were led by established veterans who won a lot of games and performed well, but neither Sam Ehlinger nor Ian Book was able to elevate teams to the championship level the way Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Justin Fields and Mac Jones have done. It’s entirely possible their replacements will prove to be a big step in the wrong direction. There’s a lot more room to get worse than to get better following Book’s and Ehlinger’s impressive careers. But a genuine difference-maker at QB might be the biggest thing separating those teams from a title shot, and as Burrow and Jones proved, those difference-makers aren’t always who you’d expect.
Tier 3: Teams we’ll spend a lot of time making a case for who won’t actually make the playoff
The playoff has been a static group through seven years, with five teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame) accounting for 22 of the 28 possible slots. The other six went to some supremely talented rosters (Florida State and Oregon in 2014, 2017 Georgia, 2019 LSU) and some veteran teams with a few big stars (2015 Michigan State, 2016 Washington). The lesson seems simple: Be an elite blue blood or have a workable path to finish undefeated in a Power 5 conference. None of the teams in this tier quite fit that standard, but they’re all good enough to provide us with a lot of interesting hypotheticals as the 2021 season unfolds.
Cincinnati is the perfect example. The Bearcats finished the regular season undefeated in a COVID-19 year, but didn’t sniff the playoff. The reason was the conference. Never mind that the AAC was every bit as good as the ACC, which produced two playoff teams. There’s a stigma to playing outside the Power 5, and the committee has made it quite clear with its rankings of Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina in 2020 and UCF in years prior. But perhaps 2021 really is the year that stigma can be overcome — at least for Cincinnati. The Bearcats return star QB Desmond Ridder, have an exceptional defense, have the preseason pedigree that comes with nearly upending Georgia in the Peach Bowl and, most importantly, can actually prove something on the field in 2021 with road trips to both Indiana and Notre Dame. Think it can happen? We doubt it. The committee hasn’t shown a willingness to take a Group of 5 team seriously, and even if Cincinnati manages to pull off a few upsets in 2021, it will also need to avoid being surprised by an AAC underdog, which is tough to do for two straight seasons.
There will be plenty on the Iowa State bandwagon, too. The Cyclones had a very nice 2020 campaign and are bringing back QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall, making for one of the best backfield tandems in the country. But look past the two big names and recall Iowa State’s recruiting rankings: 52nd in 2017, 55th in 2018, 46th in 2019 and 46th in 2020. Sure, recruiting isn’t the only thing that matters. But it matters more than anything else. Just look at the 11 teams to make the playoff. Only that 2015 Michigan State team recruited outside an elite level — and even the Spartans weren’t nearly as far off as Iowa State is now. (Their four recruiting classes leading up to that playoff run ranked 34th, 37th, 26th and 23rd.) It’s not to say the Cyclones can’t make a playoff run. It’s just that they’d be breaking new ground if they did.
The same can be said (to varying degrees) about Iowa, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin. None are elite recruiters and all showed obvious flaws in 2020 that will require significant improvement for the 2021 season to be special. On the flip side, there’s Washington, Miami and USC. All three recruit at an elite level, but have also vastly underperformed that talent in the past few seasons. If you’re betting on one of the programs in this tier to rise up, those three represent the safer wagers, but all would be something of a surprise.
Tier 4: High ceiling, low floor
There’s a solid chance every team in this category disappoints in 2021, but disappointment is a result of high expectations, and these teams have enough talent to warrant that.
Arizona State played just four games in 2020, winning two, but the Sun Devils belong in the same club as Texas and North Carolina — teams with increasingly strong recruiting matched with middling records deflated by a barrage of close losses. Under Herm Edwards, Arizona State has five losses by a touchdown or less, including three by two points or less. With the Pac-12 imminently winnable, there’s a viable path for the Sun Devils. Of course, it would also represent uncharted waters for Arizona State, a program that hasn’t won nine games since 2014 and hasn’t finished in the top 10 nationally since 1996.
On the flip side of Arizona State is Michigan, a team with an illustrious history that appears to be trending in the wrong direction. Jim Harbaugh’s contract extension represents a tepid endorsement following a 2-4 campaign in 2020 that included a loss to rival Michigan State and a narrow overtime win over lowly Rutgers. Michigan has recruited at a playoff level, but it sure feels like things are getting worse.
LSU is just a year removed from a national championship, but catastrophic losses to the NFL, opt-outs and coaching promotions meant the 2020 team was a shell of the one that hoisted the trophy. Can Ed Orgeron get things turned around? He still has a few stars, such as Derek Stingley Jr., and he brought in a new coaching staff to light a fire, but more questions than answers remain in a division that is likely going to be the toughest in college football.
UCLA lost four games in 2020, all by less than a TD. Two losses came after blowing a fourth-quarter lead. But Chip Kelly’s offense finally began to resemble his Oregon days, with the Bruins topping 34 points five times. UCLA’s explosiveness differential (the margin between its offensive and defensive explosive play rates) was 12th in the country. The Bruins were the only team in the top 22 to finish with a losing record. A lot of metrics point toward a sharp turn in a better direction in 2021.
Ole Miss’s offensive win probability added (WPA) was tops in the country in 2020, and the Rebels gave eventual champ Alabama all it could handle. But Lane Kiffin has a big job trying to get the defense sorted out. Louisville’s offense was terrific in 2020, too, but unlike Ole Miss, the Cards’ defense actually made progress also. The unit shaved nearly a half-yard per play off its average from 2019, but a mix of turnovers and bad luck doomed Louisville’s 2020 campaign. UCF also endured its share of bad luck. Its three regular-season losses came by a total of 12 points, all games in which the Knights blew a fourth-quarter lead. QB Dillon Gabriel is a star, but this also feels like a team that’s a big step behind the 2017 and 2018 teams that went to the New Year’s Six.
Then there’s Auburn. Can Bryan Harsin turn quarterback Bo Nix into a star? That will be one of the most fascinating things to watch in 2021, but the recent history of underachieving will plague the Tigers until Harsin proves things have changed.
Tier 5: High floor, low ceiling
Every team in this tier is probably a safer bet to finish in the top 25 than the tier above, but the odds of actually pushing for the playoff aren’t nearly as good. This is the group of good-but-not-great teams who aren’t going to disappoint, but won’t provide too much excitement either.
Coastal was college football’s 2020 Cinderella, and there’s no reason to expect a major step backward in 2021, but it’s hard to make the glass slipper fit two years in a row. And, like its Group of 5 peers, the schedule just won’t allow for a serious run at the playoff.
Northwestern provided some thrills in 2020, and that defense was special (No. 3 nationally in adjusted expected points added). But the offense? Not so much (No. 64 in adjusted EPA). Northwestern ranked 108th in offensive explosive play rate (Army was the only team worse to finish better than .500) but 28th defensively. It’s a recipe for boredom … and eight wins.
The Northwestern model — a strong defense, offense that lacks even the excitement of paint drying — fit Indiana, Kentucky, TCU and West Virginia, too. The Hoosiers were 12th in defensive EPA but 55th in offense. The Wildcats were 35th on D, 71st on offense. Utah was 17th on defense, 89th on offense. And the Mountaineers matched the 20th-ranked defense (by EPA) with the 65th-ranked offense.
Among the group, TCU perhaps offers the most upside. The Horned Frogs checked in at No. 41 in offensive EPA and 65th in explosiveness. Neither number is particularly good, and for much of the year, TCU seemed to lack anything approaching an offensive identity. But Gary Patterson’s team finished the year by winning five of six, including four games scoring 30 or more. If the Horned Frogs can find a little spark on offense in 2021, they might have a real chance in the Big 12.
Tier 6: Let’s get nuts
We’ve established one truth in college football: You must have blue-chip talent to make a run for a national championship. But blue-chip talent doesn’t always translate into greatness. All of these teams have recruited well — at least at times — during the past five years, and have rosters that include genuine stars. But there’s definitely something (or a lot of things) missing. None of these five teams finished 2020 with a winning record and none should sniff the preseason top 25. But there are enough pieces in place that it wouldn’t be a complete shock if one member of this group actually did take a big step forward in 2021 if everything breaks just right.
Let’s look at two of college football’s all-time name brands: FSU and Nebraska. At present, they’re both in bad shape. FSU is 14-20 in its past three seasons and Nebraska is 12-20. FSU fired its coach in 2019, then endured a mass exodus in 2020. Nebraska coach Scott Frost will open the 2021 season firmly on the hot seat, with the gap between expectations and reality as wide at Nebraska as anywhere in the country.
But dig a little more.
FSU had three straight top-25 recruiting classes before 2021. Injuries and COVID-19 wreaked havoc with Mike Norvell in his first season, but by enduring the pitfalls, he also has weeded out some of the cultural problems on the roster. And after years without a QB, FSU might actually have a few options for 2021, with incumbent starter Jordan Travis, a touted prospect in Chubba Purdy and big-name transfer McKenzie Milton all competing.
At Nebraska, Frost’s recruiting has been solid, with a fourth straight top-25 class set for 2021. For all the on-field shortcomings, there’s a good case that Nebraska will enter the season as the most talented team in the Big Ten West. And while 2020 included some ugly performances, three of the Huskers’ losses were by a TD or less.
Then there’s the issue of luck. FSU ranks 109th in turnover margin over the past three seasons. Nebraska ranks 117th. Some of that is bad QB play. Some of it is luck. If both turn around in 2021, the win-loss record can shift quickly.
There are similar cases to be made for the Terps, Spartans and Vols. No one would suggest betting heavily on any of these teams, but if you’re picking a long shot, there’s upside with each. Just be prepared for disappointment.
Tier 7: The résumé-builders
Air Force, Appalachian State, Arkansas, Ball State, Baylor, Boston College, Buffalo, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Houston, Kansas State, Kent State, Liberty, Louisiana, Marshall, Memphis, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon State, Pitt, San Diego State, San Jose State, SMU, Stanford, Tulane, Tulsa, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
We all know a great win when we see one. Two top-10 teams face off, one emerges a victor, and we’ve got ourselves a clear playoff contender. But those games actually are pretty rare. Last season, we had just nine regular-season games between top-15 teams, with only Alabama playing in more than one. In 2019, there were just 17 such games and only five teams (including all four that made the playoff) won more than one of them. That’s why this tier of teams is so important. They’re the solid C+ students. These teams can help us split hairs between the elites.
It’s a mistake to use “top-25 wins” on a playoff team’s résumé because how much better is a win over No. 24 than one against No. 28? Identifying teams outside the top 25 that offer some measure of talent, coaching, star power or experience is critical because, while they’re unlikely to make a run at the playoff, they provide real challenges to the teams that will. While Clemson, Oregon or Oklahoma might face just one other elite opponent in 2021, a steady diet of “not half-bad teams” offers its own challenges, too.
Will anyone in this group make a push for something more? Odds are, at least one will. Who saw Coastal Carolina coming last year? Or Minnesota in 2019? Or Washington State in 2018? You might want to argue for Liberty, though the Flames’ 4-1 record in one-score games offers concern. They also were the only team in the playoff era to finish in the AP top 20 with an FPI ranking worse than 70th. Perhaps better cases can be made for App State (No. 26 in SP+), Virginia Tech (No. 28) or Minnesota (No. 34). And then there’s BYU. The Cougars certainly weren’t a one-man team in 2020, but the headline act from Zach Wilson was so impressive that it’s hard to see this team repeating the performance with a new QB in 2021.
Somewhere in this mix are one or two legitimate top-20 programs and the rest likely provide cannon fodder for the elite teams looking to pad their résumés. In short, after we get past the truly interesting teams, this tier represents the rest of the top half of college football.
Tier 8: ‘You’re Not Going to Get Us to Say Anything Bad About Army’
We’re stealing a joke from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for this tier, because it’s really the best way to describe these teams. We don’t want to badmouth anyone. This group is … fine. They’ve got some nice qualities. At the Group of 5 level, they’re solid teams. The Power 5 entrants are trending up, even if they’re still a ways away. We like them. They’re nice teams. You’re not going to get us to say anything bad about them. Really.
Tier 9: Yikes
We wish the best for everyone here. At least one of them will make us look foolish next season. Perhaps a team like Arizona, with a new coach, some awful turnover luck and a manageable schedule. Or Georgia Tech, with a potentially program-changing QB. Either program can actually make a big leap in 2021. But on the path toward a playoff, these guys are starting out way in the back of the pack.
Tier 10: UConn and Kansas
We’ll be making a lot of UConn and Kansas jokes this year. This is the first one. We hope you enjoyed it.