How the 2021 Way-Too-Early college football top 25 teams can make a playoff run

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The College Football Playoff or a New Year's Six bowl game: Which is more likely for college football teams in 2021?

We break down the best-case scenario for each of theWay-Too-Early top 25teams.

1. Clemson Tigers

The road back to the playoff isn't particularly complicated for the Tigers. They remain the class of the ACC, perhaps by a wide margin. Despite the loss of superstars Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence, plenty of talent remains, including presumptive starting QB D.J. Uiagalelei. But what was exposed in an Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State -- a lack of a dynamic outside receiver, problematic run blocking, a defense confused by tempo -- will loom over the program for a while. There's certainly enough talent on the roster to assume Dabo Swinney will find answers, and it would be foolish to doubt Tony Elliott, Brent Venables & Co. won't make the needed adjustments. For Clemson, however, the standard is immeasurably high, and the Tigers have fallen short two straight years. In 2021, the playoff chase will just be the start of their quest for redemption. -- David Hale

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Nick Saban has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offseason attrition, whether that's replacing star players or coaches. But that doesn't mean we're not watching closely. Set aside the need for Bryce Young to become a star at quarterback or whether John Metchie III, Javon Baker& Co. can replace the production of DeVonta Smith at receiver. The bigger picture -- and perhaps the key to competing to make the playoff -- is who will be calling the plays. The hiring of Bill O'Brien to coach quarterbacks and lead the offense is interesting because while he has the college credentials, he obviously struggled some in the NFL with the Houston Texans. He could be great and still fall short of the expectation set by Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin before him. And if O'Brien struggles, you have to wonder whether that's enough to knock the Tide out of the playoff picture this season. -- Alex Scarborough

3. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma's defense made great strides as 2020 went on, and the Sooners looked like one of the best teams in the country at the end of the season. With Spencer Rattler returning, receiver Marvin Mims looking like a star and Kennedy Brooks coming back to carry the load at running back, the offense will be in good shape if the offensive line can fit the right pieces together. With a likely top-5 preseason ranking, the Sooners' biggest hurdle could be Iowa State, which has won two of the past five against Oklahoma under Matt Campbell. But that Texas game always looms large, especially with the Longhorns bringing in Steve Sarkisian as head coach along with a new quarterback. Win those two, and the Sooners are likely home free for the CFP. -- Dave Wilson

4. Georgia Bulldogs

The Bulldogs need to stay healthy, especially at the skill positions on offense. It goes without saying how that applies to quarterback JT Daniels, who took over the position late in the season and showed flashes of promise. But it's who he'll distribute the ball to that's most important here because the offense has a chance to take a huge step forward this year. If James Cook and Zamir White are healthy, they could form the best one-two punch at running back in the SEC. And receiver, for the first time in a long time, could be a strength. If healthy -- and that's been an issue for this group -- the trio of George Pickens, Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson could be very productive. Throw in a promising young tight end in Darnell Washington, and you have the ingredients for a playoff-caliber offense to match an already stout defense. -- Scarborough

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

To nobody's shock, it's reasonable to believe that Ohio State will make the CFP despite losing some of college football's best talents in guys like QB Justin Fields and CB Shaun Wade. The Buckeyes will find an answer at the quarterback position -- between Jack Miller III, who set the Arizona high school record with 115 career passing touchdowns, C.J. Stroud (No. 2 pocket passer in 2020's ESPN 300) and incoming freshman Kyle McCord (No. 4 pocket passer in 2021), it's a crowded quarterback room. Defensively, the Buckeyes are returning just five starters, so if there's any concern, it lies there. But outside of Indiana and Iowa, it doesn't seem like Ohio State has much to worry about in the Big Ten. With nonconference games against Oregon and Tulsa, Ohio State feels like a solid bet to run the table again in 2021. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

With a probable top-10 preseason ranking, the Aggies' schedule couldn't set up any better for an SEC West push. They'll have to survive a trip to Tiger Stadium, but we still don't know what shape LSU will take next season. If the Aggies can beat the Tigers, they'll face winnable road games at Missouri and Ole Miss, the neutral-site game at Jerryworld with Arkansas, then get Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and South Carolina at home. Kellen Mond is gone, but A&M returns Isaiah Spiller and the heart of its ball-control running game, while the Tide will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator and a new QB. If there's a year for the Aggies to dream big, why not this one? -- Wilson

7. North Carolina Tar Heels

In 2020, North Carolina proved it could play with pretty much anyone. Of course, the Tar Heels also proved they could lose to almost anyone. The path to a playoff berth in 2021 requires a lot more consistency from a team loaded with talent but, for the past two years, a bit light on experience. Star QB Sam Howell leads arguably the most explosive offense in the country, and the defense should be markedly improved, as Mack Brown continues to land big-time recruits. UNC won't be intimidated by Clemson, either, after taking the Tigers to the wire in 2019. UNC will be a trendy playoff pick by some, but the question is whether the ups and downs of Brown's first two years back at the helm have instilled enough lessons that this core group is now ready to take the next step. -- Hale

8. Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones return star power on offense with quarterback Brock Purdy, all-everything running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar, along with all five offensive line starters. That's unbelievable news for a team that beat Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl and had the first top-10 finish in school history. The Cyclones get Iowa, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State in Ames -- a huge boost. Navigate that, and give Oklahoma a run in Norman (where the Cyclones won by seven in 2017 and lost by 1 in 2019 before winning in Ames in 2020), and Iowa State fans can start dreaming of a playoff run. -- Wilson

9. USC Trojans

Despite offseason preparations being severely limited by restrictions implemented in the state of California, the Trojans still turned in the best season in the Pac-12 in 2020 and have now won 10 of 12 Pac-12 games dating back to 2019 with both losses against Oregon. The Trojans lose some top-level talent from the past season, but return quarterback Kedon Slovis, a Heisman Trophy candidate, who will enter his third year as USC's starter. The Trojans' nonconference schedule -- San Jose State, Notre Dame, BYU -- should be among the toughest in the country, which could be helpful should strength of schedule come into play during the selection process. Look for receivers Drake London and Bru McCoy to form one of the most dangerous receiving duos in the country. -- Kyle Bonagura

10. Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers probably should have made a New Year's Six bowl in 2020, and after a 26-20 Outback Bowl loss to Mississippi, there's a bad taste left in their mouths. But thanks to the eligibility freeze, Indiana's got a chance to run it back. A New Year's Six bowl is certainly on the table, but you have to imagine the Hoosiers are thinking College Football Playoff after seeing what they're capable of last season. They've got a tough, early nonconference game against Cincinnati, but they play Ohio State at home this time around. They also have an early test on the road against Iowa, but the Hoosiers proved they could play with anybody last year, including one of college football's powers in Ohio State. If they're able to stay healthy, they are capable of winning every game on their schedule. -- Lyles

11. Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats need to find a way to embed people from their administration into the College Football Playoff committee if they want to make it in to the playoff. They were undefeated at 9-0 and still couldn't get in, so their best hope is similar to what happened this season, playing against Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. In all seriousness, the team has quarterback Desmond Ridderreturning, which will be a big help to keep the offense consistent. Ridder was the conference player of the year this past season and threw for 2,296 yards. The staff is losing Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame, and the Irish are on the schedule in 2021. So if Cincinnati wants a shot at the playoff, it's going to need to find a way to beat Notre Dame and Indiana, who it will also face. So use what the coaches know about Freeman against him and try to get through those two games for a shot at making a case at the end of the season. If not, go with the plan about embedding allies into the committee. -- Tom VanHaaren

12. Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa is going to have to come out swinging with Indiana as the first game on the schedule, followed by Iowa State. Northwestern, Penn State, Maryland and Wisconsin sprinkled throughout the rest of the season, making it a challenge. Quarterback Spencer Petras and leading rusher Tyler Goodson are both returning, but the offense loses receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. If the offense can build on some of the momentum it built later in the season, especially with Goodson, who averaged 9.6 yards per carry against Wisconsin, it will have a shot to start on the right foot with wins against Indiana and Iowa State. The staff is going to need playmakers to step up at receiver to help Petras and give the offense a better attack through the air to balance out the ground game. -- VanHaaren

13. Oregon Ducks

After reaching New Year's Six bowls the past two seasons, it's not hard to imagine the Ducks taking the next step and reaching the playoff. Granted, their Fiesta Bowl berth -- and loss -- this season didn't mean much considering they advanced to the Pac-12 title game with a pedestrian 4-2 record, the Ducks' recent recruiting success under Mario Cristobal should pay off under a (hopefully) more normal 2021 season. Whether Tyler Shough or someone else starts at quarterback, a true offseason under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead should make a significant difference for his second season calling plays in Eugene. Losing defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who became the head coach at Boise State, is a blow. However, there is plenty of talent on defense, led by potential All-American defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. -- Bonagura

14. Washington Huskies

An early-season victory against Michigan would give the Huskies the type of high-profile triumph the committee will respect (even if Michigan implodes), then it becomes a matter of winning out in the Pac-12. Washington isn't the type of team that can feel safe about getting in with one loss. The Huskies benefit by missing Utah and USC -- arguably the two best teams in the Pac-12 South -- and they get Oregon at home, so the path to the conference title game couldn't be much better. -- Bonagura

15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish are losing quite a bit on offense and defense, so if they're going to make it back to the playoff or a New Year's Six bowl, the first thing that must happen is they need to find their quarterback early. Ian Book is off to the NFL, so if it's Drew Pyne or incoming freshman Tyler Buchner, the coaches need to stabilize that position. Once they have that position set, the coaches are going to need leaders on defense to step up and help replace some of the big names who are leaving, including linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. With a new coordinator in Marcus Freeman, the team needs Kyle Hamilton, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, among some of the other veterans on defense, to be its best players. With so much change on the roster and the staff, Notre Dame must have everything fall into place to make it back to where it was this season. -- VanHaaren

16. Florida Gators

As it does every year, it will come down to beating Georgia. But what it will look like will be much different than a year ago. Picture a sort of throwback version of the Gators, running the football and playing solid defense. Without Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, that's what it will take. Emory Jones appears ready to take over at quarterback, but he is a different player than Trask, who is most effective running the zone read. With Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Demarkcus Bowman to hand the ball off to, the ground game should be in good shape. What will need the most help is the defense, which struggled mightily last season, especially in coverage. Dan Mullen fired secondary coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray, and their replacements have their hands full. -- Scarborough

17. Wisconsin Badgers

All the best teams on the Badgers' 2021 schedule either come to Camp Randall (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern) or play them on a neutral field (Notre Dame at Soldier Field), so this is the schedule for a run. But even though the Wisconsin linebacking corps -- and the defense as a whole -- could be absolute dynamite again, the Badgers will obviously have to score points. That will require big plays, something they were almost completely bereft of in the fall. If a veteran WR such asKendric Pryor or Danny Davis III return and thrive, that would be huge. If a youngster such as RB Jalen Berger or WR Chimere Dike become all-conference contenders, even better. But Wisconsin desperately needs chunk plays. -- Bill Connelly

18. Ole Miss Rebels

With Matt Corral returning and John Rhys Plumlee potentially becoming another playmaking option, Lane Kiffin's offense will keep piling up points. But any hope of a breakthrough hinges on improving a defense that ranked 126th in yards per game allowed and 117th in points per game allowed (38.3). The Rebels play road games against Alabama and Auburn and face a feisty Liberty team in November, and they have the Egg Bowl scheduled in Starkville. Texas A&M and LSU are both at home. With significant coaching turnover at Auburn, Alabama and LSU as well as new QBs at A&M and Bama, can Kiffin engineer enough shootouts to outlast those teams and deliver a storybook season? -- Wilson

19. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

The short answer, of course, is that Louisiana will not make the 2021 CFP. The playoff committee has shown no interest whatsoever in making a Group of 5 bid a reality. But with Texas, Liberty and Ohio on the nonconference slate and with the Sun Belt's improving stature, theRagin' Cajuns case for a New Year's Six bid will be strong if they can make it to 13-0 or possibly 12-1. For that to happen, they'll need a bounce back on the defensive line. The Ragin' Cajuns weren't great at either defending the run or rushing the passer in 2020, but on the bright side, they didn't have a ton of seniors up front, either. If players such asZi'Yon Hill and Andre Jones go from good to great, the line might have enough pop to hold up. -- Connelly

20. LSU Tigers

Ed Orgeron needs to recapture the magic of 2019. And no, we're not saying he needs a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, star players at every position on offense and an opportunistic defense. That's asking a lot. What Orgeron needs is for his team to get back on the same page and to revive the magic touch he had in 2019 when it came to assembling his coaching staff. Last season was clearly a dud as he tried to replace defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady with Bo Pelini and Scott Linehan, respectively. Reversing course and hiring Brady disciples, Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas need to improve the offense. Likewise, bringing in former Aranda assistant Daronte Jones as defensive coordinator must result in solidifying a unit that looked lost for much of 2020. Do that and there's more than enough talent to compete in Baton Rouge. -- Scarborough

21. Texas Longhorns

Tom Herman went 1-4 against Oklahoma, which is one of the reasons Steve Sarkisian is the new boss in Austin. So let's start there: Any breakthrough at Texas will begin with getting over the hump against Lincoln Riley. Since Mack Brown's exit in 2013, the past eight Red River Showdown games have been decided by a total of 52 points, an average of 6.5 points per game, but the Longhorns are just 2-6 in those. The road schedule is a little salty: at old rival Arkansas, at Baylor, at Iowa State, at West Virginia and a trip to TCU, which is 6-1 against Texas since 2014. Sarkisian will have to find out if Casey Thompson is for real after a near-perfect Alamo Bowl performance, but RB Bijan Robinson gives him an offensive centerpiece to build around. If the Longhorns can finally knock off the Sooners, they'll start to believe. --Wilson

22. Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions began 2020 with a new offensive coordinator and minus perhaps their two best players (linebacker Micah Parsons, running back Journey Brown), and they struggled to find themselves, starting 0-5 before finishing 4-0. Whatever their goals are for 2021, the opposite needs to happen: They have to be a fully formed team from the opening kickoff. They begin the season at Wisconsin, before welcoming MAC champion Ball State and the SEC's Auburn to Happy Valley. A very good team could start that slate 2-1, but with trips to Iowa and Ohio State on deck later in the year, they'll almost certainly need to be 3-0. Whatever changes Mike Yurcich implements for the offense, it needs to have totally clicked in August. -- Connelly

23. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Jamey Chadwell's team surprised everybody in 2020: There might not have been a better surprise and storyline in college football. We know they aren't going to make the College Football Playoff after seeing what happened to Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina being snubbed of a New Year's Six bowl. Assuming the 2021 season is a normal one, the Chanticleers have some easy nonconference games against the Citadel, Kansas and UMass. They're going to be missing key defensive pieces, including their top pass-rusher inDETarron Jackson. But it's hard to predict what the Chanticleers are going to look like after, well, they were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt in 2020 preseason voting by the league's coaches and media and ended up 11-0. If they're able to run the table and have a chance to play the Sun Belt Championship this time around, they should feel great about their chances at a New Year's Six bowl. -- Lyles

24. Liberty Flames

The Flames return 16 starters from a 10-1 team whose only loss was by one point to NC State and that beat No. 12 Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. Assuming coach Hugh Freeze returns, the Flames will be strong again this year behind dynamic quarterback Malik Willis, who threw for 2,260 yards and 20 TDs and ran for 944 yards and 14 more scores. There's a legitimate chance Liberty will be 9-0 when Freeze returns to play Ole Miss on Nov. 6, followed by home games against Louisiana and Army. If they can win those, theFlames would assuredly land in a New Year's Six bowl and stir up a new chorus of concern about outsiders ever being able to crash the CFP. -- Wilson

25. Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes beat everyone they were supposed to beat in 2020, which represented a big step up for Manny Diaz's team in his second year as head coach. But in big games against Clemson and UNC -- the top competition in its conference -- Miami was outscored by a combined 104-43 margin. Diaz has utilized the transfer portal to Miami's benefit, and if D'Eriq King is healthy for the start of 2021, the Canes will certainly be in the mix. But much progress needs to be made at outside receiver and in the middle of the defense -- along with replacing two star pass-rushers -- if Miami is going to compete for a division or league title. -- Hale

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