College football season preview: CFP picks, Heisman favorites and more

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Monday, August 30, 2021

Week 1 is finally here. So let's get right into the thick of it.

What coaches are already under pressure? Which players do we think are going to become stars this season? Is there any chance of an underdog reaching the College Football Playoffs?

Our college football reporters break down what they're expecting this season and the games they're most excited to watch:

Which coach is under the most pressure?

David Hale:Clay Helton is the obvious answer here. He has been under fire for several years now, and the fan base isn't going to be patient for much longer -- particularly if USC gets off to a rocky start amid lofty expectations. On a smaller scale, Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente is living on the edge with key boosters eager for change following the program's worst season in decades in 2020. AD Whit Babcock offered a tepid endorsement at season's end, and if the Hokies struggle early (they get North Carolina, West Virginia and Notre Dame in the first five weeks), change may become inevitable.

Chris Low: Chip Kelly's celebrated return to the Pac-12 hasn't come close to matching the success he enjoyed at Oregon, where he went 33-3 against Pac-12 opponents from 2009-12 and steered the Ducks to a BCS national championship game appearance and victories in both the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. As he enters his fourth season at UCLA, he's just 10-15 in Pac-12 play and has yet to have a winning season. The good news is that most of the Bruins' starters from a year ago are back, and these are all Kelly's players now. The home game against LSU the second week of the season presents a great opportunity to set the tone for 2021. But a fourth straight season without a bowl game would make things dicey for Kelly in Westwood.

Alex Scarborough: At some point we're going to have to ask whether Scott Frost was the right person to lead Nebraska back to prominence. Yes, he helped the Huskers win the national title in 1997, and he'll always be a legend in Lincoln for that. But that was more than two decades ago. He was terrific as a coach at UCF, but the AAC isn't the Big Ten and Florida isn't Nebraska. We're three seasons into him leading his alma mater, and the results aren't pretty: 12-20, three straight fifth-place finishes in division and not a single bowl game. To make matters worse, there's now an NCAA investigation looking into whether Frost knew that analysts and consultants were being used improperly and that workouts were being conducted off-campus. While that in itself might not be enough to get him fired, that combined with another sub-.500 season could be the final straw.

TomVanHaaren: I agree with Alex that it's probably Frost, but to put another name in the mix, I'll go with Jim Harbaugh. I don't necessarily view the most pressure as the hot seat, but he has a ton of pressure on him after the 2-4 season, more coaching changes and uncertainty surrounding his future after the season ended. Michigan players have been talking about a renewed energy and excitement. Harbaugh even looked and sounded refreshed himself at Big Ten media days, but with Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State all on the schedule, the Wolverines are going to need to show early on that the talk is translating to the field. If Michigan doesn't get off to a fast start, the questions about Harbaugh are going to come quickly and often.

Bill Connelly:What about Bryan Harsin? It doesn't take much for things to get weird at Auburn, and Harsin has had a particularly odd offseason. He made coordinator hires that would have made a lot more sense in 2013 than 2021 (Mike Bobo and Derek Mason, who haven't seen much success in their specialties in recent years) just to get guys with SEC experience in the building. He didn't make a priority of high vaccination rates until recently -- far less than new rivals Nick Saban and Kirby Smart did -- and ended up testing positive for COVID-19 himself during fall camp. A shaky first offseason can be overcome, but ... it has been a shaky first offseason.

Ryan McGee: I'm with Connelly. The only person I know of who had a worse first semester at Auburn was my high school buddy who flunked out halfway through freshman year.

Mark Schlabach: You can probably throw Washington State's Nick Rolovich and Arizona State's Herm Edwards in there. Rolovich has made some, uh, interesting comments over the past 18 months, and his position on COVID-19 vaccines has left some people out there scratching their heads. Edwards' team is talented enough to win the Pac-12 South, but I'm not sure they can simply put blinders on and ignore the NCAA investigation that has hovered over the program for a couple of months. Three assistants are on administrative leave, and that's never a good thing heading into the season.

Who's your breakout star?

Hale:Does Alabama QB Bryce Young count as a breakout star if he's already getting more than $1 million in endorsement money? Nevertheless, Young will be the guy with the biggest stage and the most responsibility on his shoulders as he takes over for Mac Jones as Alabama's next hotshot QB. All Young has to do is live up to the five-star expectations, help Alabama follow up on one of the greatest offensive seasons in college football history and outduel fellow Southern California QBs D.J. Uiagalelei and JT Daniels en route to a national championship. No biggie.

Low: Texas running back Bijan Robinson is hardly an unknown quantity, not after rushing for 703 yards in nine games a year ago as a true freshman. But don't be surprised if he doubles that production in 2021. For one, he will be healthy after battling a back injury to start his freshman season, and once he turned it on, he turned it on with 220 or more rushing/receiving yards in his last two games. The 6-foot, 214-pound Robinson is poised to make even more explosive plays this season, too, after racking up a team-leading 14 plays of 20 yards or longer as a freshman. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian will look to use Robinson in much the same fashion as Sarkisian utilized Najee Harris at Alabama.

Scarborough: Like his former USC office mate, Lane Kiffin knows how to utilize a star running back. And in Jerrion Ealy, he has exactly that atOle Miss. Ealy is a big play waiting to happen and arguably the most versatile back in the country, having scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a kick return last season. With go-to receiver Elijah Moore off to the NFL, look for Kiffin to move Ealy around and get him even more involved in the passing game. When you have a guy with his ability, you find a way to get him the ball.

VanHaaren: Ohio State is breaking in a new quarterback and has star receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson returning, and with defenses focusing on those two, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba has an opportunity to put up big numbers. He's a former top-100 receiver from Texas, who signed in the 2020 class. He had 10 receptions for 49 yards last season, but should have a bigger role in 2021. Having three talented wide receivers, along with tight end Jeremy Ruckert, should help new starting quarterback C.J. Stroud keep the passing game as a strength this season within the offense and Smith-Njigba should be a big target.

Dave Wilson: I'll take Stroud. A quarterback getting the keys to an absolutely loaded offense with Ryan Day calling the plays is tough to pass up.

Connelly: I'm fascinated by Haynes King's prospects at Texas A&M this year. He had a legendary high school career and was a top-100 recruit, and he managed to pack a touchdown pass, an interception and a strong run into just 16 snaps last fall. Kellen Mond left the bar PRETTY high, but not impossibly high, in College Station, so it's not the worst job in the world to inherit, and if King is the real deal, A&M is too.

Andrea Adelson: Miami receiver Charleston Rambo, and it has nothing to do with his last name. OK it has a little to do with his last name. In all seriousness, Rambo has the potential to provide the type of explosive big plays that were sorely lacking for Miami last season. After transferring in following a disappointing final season with Oklahoma, Rambo opened eyes with his impressive performance in the spring game. Miami made it a priority this offseason to improve its deep ball, and to get there, it needs Rambo to be a force. Miami hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Allen Hurns in 2013, and with D'Eriq King back and more comfortable in Year 2 in the offense, the Hurricanes have a great chance to hit that mark.

Adam Rittenberg: I have been high on Iowa running back Tyler Goodson for a while, and this should be the season he really takes off for a Hawkeye team that always prioritizes the run game. He has had two very similar seasons of production, but will be Iowa's featured runner behind a strong line led by Rimington Trophy candidate Tyler Linderbaum. Goodson averages more than five yards per carry in his career and also provides Iowa with an effective receiver out of the backfield. Iowa is my pick to win the Big Ten West, and Goodson should have a big junior year.

What true freshman are you most excited about?

Hale: Clemson RB Will Shipley has earned raves during the preseason, with players gushing over his physical skills, but also his maturity and leadership. Shipley was a superstar recruit, is versatile as both a runner and pass catcher, and plays a position where Clemson has a real need after the departure of Travis Etienne. The Tigers are likely to open with a backfield-by-committee approach, but don't be surprised if Shipley quickly grabs the lion's share of the snaps, because he's just too good to keep on the sideline.

Low: Be sure you've got plenty of Kool-Aid on hand when Alabama plays this fall, because Kool-Aid McKinstry (yep, that's his name as listed on Alabama's official roster) is the Crimson Tide's next star cornerback. The 6-1, 190-pound McKinstry has been electrifying ever since arriving on campus in the spring, and while it's never easy for a true freshman to walk right in at cornerback and be an every-down player, he has everything it takes (size, speed and physicality) to be one of the Tide's best defensive backs this season. He also has a sweet NIL endorsement deal with -- you guessed it -- the Kool-Aid drink brand. "Oh Yeah!"

Scarborough: Did anyone watch Agiye Hall in Alabama's spring game? Did you see the one-handed catches and all-around acrobatics? He may not have a clever nickname (yet), but he looks like the next great Bama receiver now that the threesome ofJerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are all gone.

Connelly: Edge rusher Korey Foreman walks into a pretty perfect situation at USC. He was the No. 3 prospect in the country and has college-ready size (6-5, 265), and because the Trojans are experienced in the front seven and have a known star in Drake Jackson, coordinator Todd Orlando can put Foreman in the best possible position to succeed early on. He and Jackson could make up one of the best pass rushing tandems in the country pretty quickly, and if the USC defense takes another step forward overall, the Trojans could easily be the favorites in the Pac-12.

McGee: In Columbus, it isn't one guy, it's a gaggle of them and they are all on defense. They might have five true freshmen starting on D, and soon. Defensive end Jack Sawyer was a one-kid showcase in Ohio State's spring game. I say kid, but he's 6-4, 240 and his name is Jack Sawyer. I feel like when he was born in Pickerington, he already looked like he was 30 years old.

Who will be an instant-impact transfer?

Low:It didn't take Henry To'o To'o long to make an impression at Alabama after leading Tennessee a year ago with 10 tackles for loss. Not only was To'o To'o one of Alabama's most productive players from his inside linebacker position this preseason, but he was especially impressive in how quickly he picked up the Crimson Tide's defensive scheme. The Alabama coaching staff loves his leadership and his work ethic and is counting on him to be a staple on what should be one of Nick Saban's best defenses in the last several years. In particular, To'o To'o should help the Tide create more negative plays on defense in 2021.

Wilson:Eric Gray is going to be a key piece at running back for Oklahoma, a position where the Sooners are a little lean. The 5-9, 206-pound transfer from Tennessee averaged 5.1 yards per carry in two seasons for the Vols, rushing for 1,311 yards in 22 games. He also caught 43 passes, and in the OU offense will get an opportunity to show his versatility.

VanHaaren: Penn State getting defensive end Arnold Ebiketie was an important addition to the roster. The staff lost Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney to the NFL, and defensive end Adisa Isaac could be out for the season with an injury. Ebiketie had 42 total tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles last season for Temple. He's going to be needed this season simply because of all the production and depth lost at the position.

Connelly: Defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo could be a vital disruptor next to Ebiketie for Penn State, but let's go with Mike Jones Jr. at LSU. He seemed like a custom-made Isaiah Simmons successor at Clemson in 2020, and he certainly did pretty well (four TFLs, two interceptions), but he could be a focal point for an LSU defense that returns quite a bit of experience but has to replace Jabril Cox. He has bulked up to full linebacker size (234 pounds) instead of being more of a nickel linebacker, but he's still really versatile, and LSU would be well-served deploying him in lots of different ways.

McGee: Is there a better story in college football than McKenzie Milton? If the former UCF stud can get FSU back on track, that question won't even be a discussion.

Adelson: Without question, Milton is the player everyone is hoping to see play again. But I will give you someone on the other side of the ball: defensive end Jermaine Johnson II, who came in from Georgia. Aside from the fact he has incredible size (6-5, 260 pounds), Florida State has gotten bullied up front the past several seasons -- uncharacteristic of a program that has produced so many excellent defensive linemen. Johnson has stood out since the spring, and his ability to get after the passer is going to be hugely important in setting the tone for this defense.

Rittenberg:I'm going with Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer, who started 39 games at Baylor the past three seasons. Brewer struggled with concussions and departed after a tough year in 2020, but he still put up impressive career numbers for both passing yards (6,700) and passing touchdowns (65). Utah has the type of defense to challenge for the Pac-12 title -- the key is getting more from the offense and the passing game. Brewer had an excellent offseason and could be the missing piece in Salt Lake.

Schlabach: How about the guy playing quarterback at Notre Dame, which used to be the most glamorous position in the sport? Jack Coan got Wally Pipp'd at Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to a 10-4 record and trips to the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl in 2019. Last season, he suffered a foot injury during preseason camp, and Graham Mertz assumed the job and ran with it. Coan transferred to Notre Dame, which offered him a lacrosse scholarship in high school. Irish coach Brian Kelly has been looking for a passer who can get the ball down the field, and he might have found him in Coan.

What game are you most excited for?

Hale: Georgia-Clemson. It's not just that it's a season opener between two teams ranked in the top five. That would be enough to label it as the year's biggest regular-season game, but there's so much more to appreciate. It's a battle between two Heisman contenders at QB, Uiagalelei vs. Daniels. It's a historic rivalry of two schools located just an hour apart that tend to compete for the same recruits. It's an early battle between the SEC and ACC, with both leagues hoping to create a playoff narrative they can sell all season. And while it's unlikely to formally eliminate the loser from playoff consideration, it will certainly ramp up the importance of every game that team plays the rest of the way.

Low: We all remember Jimbo Fisher's comments this summer (and I can promise you Nick Saban does) during a Houston Touchdown Club speaking engagement when Fisher was asked what it was going to take, other than Saban's retirement, to beat Alabama. In Fisher's defense, how was he supposed to answer that question with a bunch of Aggies in attendance? "Well, let's just hope he retires soon?" Of course not, so a smiling Fisher assured the Aggie-laden audience that Texas A&M was going to "beat his ass when he's there." Fisher gets yet another shot at his old boss when Alabama visits Texas A&M on Oct. 9 in a potential top-5 showdown. This may be Fisher's most complete team yet in College Station, and a win over the Tide would be historic. Not only is Saban 23-0 against his former assistants, but only twice in those 23 games did a team stay within 13 points of Alabama.

Scarborough: Oregon at Ohio State in Week 2 is going to be all kinds of fun. You get two potential playoff teams and two new quarterbacks (Anthony Brown Jr. and Stroud) in one of the great college football settings in the Horseshoe.

McGee: I am so excited for the return of big cross-conference games. The most pandemic-feeling weekends of them all last season were Labor Day and Thanksgiving because we didn't have the massive throwdowns and rivalry games. But I have my eye on Oct. 2, when Texas plays at TCU and Oklahoma goes to Kansas State. That'll be the first Big 12 road games for both since their conference defections and those atmospheres should be only slightly less venomous than Wrestlemania.

Wilson: On the flip side, McGee, the next weekend (Oct. 9) is A&M-Bama in College Station and Texas-OU at the State Fair of Texas. Two massive SEC matchups in one day in one state. Just getting a little practice in early. That's gonna take some getting used to.

Rittenberg: Liberty-Ole Miss. Can't believe I'm the only one arguing for this. What's wrong with you people? Hugh Freeze returns to Oxford to face Lane Kiffin. I mean, what more do you need?!?!

Who's your Heisman pick?

Hale: Sam Howell. Three things go into winning the Heisman Trophy. First, it helps to be a quarterback (unless you play for Alabama). Second, while it's not a necessity to make the playoff, your team has to spend most of the season competing inside the top 10. Lastly, you've got to put up some eye-popping numbers. Howell checks all the boxes. He enters the year as arguably the nation's best QB, UNC is a preseason dark horse for the College Football Playoff, and Phil Longo's offensive scheme means Howell will have every chance to pad his stats with some truly ridiculous numbers. Is 40 touchdown passes within reach? If so, he'd set the ACC's career record in the process.

Low:Nine of the past 12 Heisman winners have led their team to either a national championship, national championship game appearance or College Football Playoff appearance the year they won it. In other words, a player putting up monster numbers and playing on a team that wins eight or nine games ain't going to win the Heisman. Not in this day and age. I'm going with Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler, a tremendous talent who's surrounded by tremendous talent in a program that's a College Football Playoff fixture. Look for Rattler to put up even better numbers in his second season as a starter in Lincoln Riley's offense. If Rattler does indeed take home the bronze statue, maybe they should rename it the "Soonerman" Award. He would be the third Oklahoma quarterback in the past five years to win the Heisman.

Scarborough: Have you seen Oklahoma's schedule? It's Charmin soft. And have you seen the talent they have at running back and receiver? Rattler has a bevy of gifted pass-catchers to work with. Rattler ended last season on a high note, torching Florida in the Cotton Bowl, and I expect him to carry that over into this season, put up monster numbers and win the Heisman.

Wilson: Lincoln Riley has two Heismans sitting in his office (along with an impressive collection of Air Jordans). Remember when all those dudes on Twitter said, "Yeah, but Baker and Kyler were transfers. Let's see if he can develop his own guy." Well, Rattler is that guy.

Connelly: I can't wait to see what Rattler does this year with the fun weapons at his disposal, but I'm not going to overthink this one. "Starting QB for a prolific offense on the No. 1 team" is a pretty good place to start when it comes to the Heisman race, so let's go with Young.

Adelson: Last season showed the Heisman does not have to always go to a quarterback. So I am going to pick Iowa State running back Breece Hall, who has the capability of putting up 2,000 yards on a projected top 10 team this year.

Schlabach: Robinson, just so former Longhorns coach Tom Herman can look even more silly for squandering his talents a year ago.

Who's making the College Football Playoff?

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