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Iowa State QB Brock PurdyRick Scuteri/Associated Press
Since the usual suspects will likely sit atop college football’s preseason AP Top 25, the greatest intrigue of the ranking should start just outside the Top Five.
In some order, the highest-ranked teams will be Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma. They’re the programs most often mentioned in College Football Playoff projections for the 2021 season, and deservedly so.
But the next collection of teams will provide the national consensus on second-tier contenders. Top 10 possibilities include Cincinnati, Florida, Iowa State, LSU, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oregon, Texas A&M and USC, among others. While the AP Top 25 has no impact on CFP choices, it’s otherwise viewed as the poll of record.
The following order is a projection of how the AP’s preseason ranking will unfold in mid-August after fall camp begins earlier in the month.
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Ole Miss QB Matt CorralChris O’Meara/Associated Press
25. Ole Miss Rebels
Offense? Great. Defense? Probably not. Head coach Lane Kiffin can be a divisive figure, but there’s no questioning the success of his scoring attack. Dual-threat quarterback Matt Corral returns for the Rebels in 2021 too. Navigating the SEC West with a defense that surrendered 6.7 yards per snap last season is the major concern.
24. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Voters traditionally have a top-tier program from the Group of Five in the back end of the ranking. Louisiana fits the billing after consecutive 10-win years. This season, the Ragin’ Cajuns are expected to battle Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina for the Sun Belt crown.
23. Arizona State Sun Devils
Will the cloud of alleged recruiting violations sting Arizona State in the fall? Probably not, but it’s possible. Still, the Sun Devils have a young, talent-filled offense, led by third-year quarterback Jayden Daniels, hoping to complement a defense that should be among the Pac-12’s best units.
22. Washington Huskies
Defense should be the foundation of this Washington team, given the All-American upside of linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio and cornerback Trent McDuffie. Still, the offense is an uncertainty. Despite the unit’s encouraging performance in 2020, gleaning much from a four-game sample is dangerous.
21. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Every year, it’s the same question: Can the Pokes avoid an upset and take out Oklahoma? Until it proves otherwise, Oklahoma State is best viewed as a Top 11-25 team. That can only change if quarterback Spencer Sanders stays healthy and avoids the two or three nightmare games that always plague OSU.
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Texas RB Bijan RobinsonEric Gay/Associated Press
20. Indiana Hoosiers
As long as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has no setbacks in his recovery from a torn right ACL, Indiana will be a quality team. But one massive obstacle for the Hoosiers is a tough schedule. Ohio State resides in the Big Ten East, and Indiana has road trips to Iowa, Penn State and Michigan.
19. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa ripped off six consecutive wins to close 2020, so there’s no shortage of optimism around the Hawkeyes. While the program is adept at developing the offensive and defensive lines, Iowa lost a ton of experience in the trenches. How quickly the Hawkeyes replenish those units will determine if they can win the Big Ten West.
18. Miami Hurricanes
Will quarterback D’Eriq King be ready for the opener against Alabama? The dual-threat star is returning from an ACL injury. And, if yes, will the 2021 ‘Canes improve enough on the offensive line and in the back seven? Those are two massive hurdles for Miami to clear. Nevertheless, a healthy King gives the Hurricanes a legitimate shot at a Coastal Division crown.
17. Penn State Nittany Lions
Just throw Penn State’s 2020 season in the trash. Well, the first part, anyway. After dropping the first five games, the Nittany Lions beat up low-level Big Ten competition to finish 4-5. Other than the defensive line—and incoming transfers should help there—Penn State returns a fair bit of experience at each level. In all likelihood, 2020 will be remembered as an outlier. Fitting, right?
16. Texas Longhorns
If you trust Steve Sarkisian to put Casey Thompson or Hudson Card in the best position to succeed and believe a veteran secondary can finally put it together, Texas isn’t ranked high enough. If you see a new coach with a first-year quarterback and a defense that won’t be as strong collectively as the talent is individually, the Longhorns are ranked too high. Simply making the Big 12 Championship Game would be a win for Sark in year one.
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USC QB Kedon SlovisAshley Landis/Associated Press
15. Wisconsin Badgers
Seeking its 20th straight winning season, Wisconsin is one of the nation’s most reliable teams. It’s safe to assume the Badgers will attain bowl eligibility and make a run at the Big Ten West title. Anything beyond that hinges on the offense’s ability to avoid the annual game in which it basically disappears.
14. LSU Tigers
Similar to Penn State, LSU had a miserable start to 2020. But the Tigers probably endured an outlier year too. Between a bunch of returning production and quarterback Myles Brennan’s recovered health after a bizarre injury to his abdomen, LSU should be an eight- or nine-win team in a difficult SEC West.
13. USC Trojans
Kedon Slovis and a stacked receiving corps are built for a massive year. Is the offensive line? More than anything, that juxtaposition will define the Trojans’ season. The best-case scenario is Slovis leading the charge to a Pac-12 title, but he’ll need much better protection up front—and a semblance of a running game wouldn’t hurt, either. USC mustered only 3.2 yards per carry last season.
12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2021 seems like a gap year for Notre Dame, which brought in quarterback Jack Coan from Wisconsin but must replace four starters on the offensive line. Every unit of the defense has a marquee name returning and a major void (or two) to fill. The five-game stretch against Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina will shape the perception of Notre Dame’s season.
11. Florida Gators
The offense can’t possibly be better, right? Gone are quarterback Kyle Trask and top targets Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes. But the secondary can’t possibly be worse, right? Florida ceded 28 passing scores and an ugly 7.8 yards per pass attempt last year. We’ll know those answers early; the Gators take on Alabama, Kentucky, LSU and Georgia before the end of October.
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Cincinnati HC Luke FickellJohn Raoux/Associated Press
10. Oregon Ducks
The pieces are mostly there for Oregon, which has recruited at a high level under Mario Cristobal. Ultimately, though, this is all about the quarterback. Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech, leaving Anthony Brown and freshman Ty Thompson to battle for the job. If this offense doesn’t excel, the Ducks won’t be a national title contender. Yet if the offense is competent, Oregon might win the Pac-12 because of the Kayvon Thibodeaux-led defense.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina didn’t have many departures, especially on defense. Star quarterback Sam Howell returns too. However, what the Heels did lose—running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome—is a quartet of hugely productive players. UNC’s ceiling likely is competing for an ACC title, but that’s still pretty darn good.
8. Cincinnati Bearcats
Expect AP voters to slot Cincinnati between their personal list of College Football Playoff contenders and second-tier teams. If the Bearcats couldn’t crack the CFP at 9-0 in a weird 2020, it won’t happen in 2021. Yet a roster that returns All-AAC quarterback Desmond Ridder, edge-rusher Myjai Sanders and cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant will be respected.
7. Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State is 2021’s prime example of “if everything comes together perfectly.” The Cyclones have no glaring weakness—great experience, good production and promising depth—so the pressure is on quarterback Brock Purdy. The fourth-year quarterback is accurate, efficient and mobile. His bad moments, however, can be incredibly bad. Eliminate those, and Iowa State is a national threat.
6. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M is the SEC’s version of Oregon; a solidly built roster and a big question at quarterback. The defense, which surrendered just 21.7 points per game in 2020, brings back nine starters and several key rotational pieces. Quarterback Kellen Mond’s departure means either Haynes King (four career pass attempts) or Zach Calzada (24) will lead the offense. And their performance will dictate A&M’s year.
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Ohio State WR Chris OlaveJay LaPrete/Associated Press
Ohio State has a stable of outstanding receivers for expected first-year quarterback C.J. Stroud. There isn’t a more impressive group in the nation than Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming, among others.
The primary concern is on the opposite side.
Last season, the Buckeyes gave up 7.7 yards per pass attempt and 16 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. The defensive line has immense talent, but the back seven—especially at corner—is unproven. Unless the pass rush is unstoppable, the coverage unit may again be a weakness.
But if Stroud and Co. score 45 points per game, it might not matter until the CFP anyway.
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JT DanielsL.G. Patterson/Associated Press
Georgia’s hype train understandably slowed when top receiver George Pickens tore his right ACL in spring practice.
It’s not stalled, though.
As usual, the Dawgs are stacked at running back and have a promising offensive line. The front seven should be excellent, and two transfers—cornerback Derion Kendrick (Clemson) and safety Tykee Smith (West Virginia)—figure to settle a secondary in transition.
Yet the main source of optimism is quarterback JT Daniels, who threw for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns in four starts after recovering from his own ACL injury. If he plays up to that lofty standard even without Pickens, Georgia will be in the CFP picture.
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Spencer RattlerAssociated Press
This is probably Oklahoma’s best chance at solving the CFP puzzle to date. While four appearances in the CFP’s seven-year existence is spectacular, the Sooners are an imperfect 0-4.
Yes, offseason perception is not always correct. Nobody expected Joe Burrow to become a record-smashing quarterback in 2019 when LSU eventually hammered OU in the Peach Bowl. But there isn’t an overwhelming favorite this season, either.
If the Sooners can successfully retool the secondary after losing three key players from the unit, they’re well-positioned for a championship run. The defense has an impressive group of pass-rushers, and redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler headlines an offense that is loaded at running back and full of high-end receiving talent.
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Dabo SwinneyMatt Cashore/Associated Press
As long as Clemson is ranked in the Top Four, it doesn’t much matter. The program has earned six consecutive ACC titles and reached the College Football Playoff in each of those seasons.
That streak has to end sometime. But in 2021?
The ACC still doesn’t have an undisputed threat that can stall the Tigers’ dynastic reign. New full-time starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei played extremely well in two unexpected starts last year. The defense returns a rare mix of long-time starters and experienced youth.
If Georgia wins the Sep. 4 showdown in Charlotte, North Carolina, then Clemson will relinquish its margin for error. If the Tigers win, though, which two opponents will spring an upset?
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Bryce YoungL.G. Patterson/Associated Press
Shocker, for sure. The reigning champions will likely be the No. 1 team in the AP’s preseason poll.
Alabama is reloading the skill positions on offense beyond wide receiver John Metchie III and tight end Jahleel Billingsley. New prominent faces should include quarterback Bryce Young, running back Brian Robinson Jr. and a host of former top-recruited wideouts. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian left for Texas, too, replaced by Bill O’Brien.
At a regular program, integrating everyone would be a monumental task. Alabama, however, is not a regular program.
Yes, it’s an unfair burden of expectation to place on a group of 18- to 23-year-old athletes, but not head coach Nick Saban. In the last 13 seasons, the Tide have 17 losses and six national titles. He’s handled any number of major transitions with incredible success.
Factor in what should be an enormously stingy defense, and there’s little reason not to anticipate yet another title contender.