Even in a 2020 college football season that featured more starts and stops than Los Angeles traffic, there were a handful of near certainties, such asAlabama, Clemsonand Ohio Statereaching the College Football Playoff.
Even a pandemic couldn't balance power in the most top-heavy sport.
Will we finally see those heavyweights fall back in 2021? Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence has already declared for the NFL draft. Will Alabama's Mac Jones and Ohio State's Justin Fields be next? Will it be enough for programs such asGeorgia, North Carolinaand Texas A&Mto close the gap on teams that have dominated their conferences for much of the past decade?
We'll have to wait about eight months to find out.
For now, here's the first edition of the 2021 Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings, featuring projected returning starters, starters who might leave, key additions and outlooks for each team.
( * Denotes players who have already announced they're leaving for the NFL draft, transferring or not returning to their current programs for other reasons.)
2020 record:10-2, 8-1 ACC
Projected returning starters:five offense, 10 defense, one special teams
Outlook:The Tigers' shortcomings were exposed in the CFP for the second season in a row, as they were pushed around on defense and couldn't protect Lawrence. This time, at least, those problems might be blamed on their youth and inexperience. A potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, Lawrence, as well as Etienne, will be remembered as one of the best players in school history. Rodgers on the perimeter is another big loss.
The good news is Clemson has a more-than-capable quarterback in waiting: freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, who threw for 781 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the two games when Lawrence was sidelined because of COVID-19. Star wide receiver Justyn Ross might be back from a neck injury, along with Joseph Ngata. There isn't an obvious successor at tailback, so that will be a focus in the spring. Three starting offensive linemen are expected back.
The defense was pretty young in 2020 and should only get better; six of its 14 leading tacklers were sophomores, and freshmen Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and Trenton Simpson might have been the best players on that unit. Clemson has the clearest path to the CFP, especially with Notre Dame heading back out of the ACC. The Tigers open the season against Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the winner will be No. 1 in the polls after Week 1.
Projected returning starters:four offense, nine defense, one special teams
Projected losses:QB Mac Jones, RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, WR Jaylen Waddle, OT Alex Leatherwood, C Landon Dickerson, G Deonte Brown, LB Dylan Moses, CB Patrick Surtain II, TE Miller Forristall
Outlook:The Crimson Tide are more than likely going to lose a slew of players to the NFL draft, including potential first-rounders Jones, Smith, Waddle, Surtain and Harris. Perhaps no program has assembled as much talent as Alabama, however, and coach Nick Saban has capable replacements ready to go.
Still, Alabama is losing a lot of experience, as well as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, whom Texas hired as its new coach. More times than not, the Tide figure it out.Former Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien might be Saban's top choice to replace Sarkisian.Bryce Young was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2020 ESPN 300 and is Jones' heir apparent. Running backs Brian Robinson Jr., Jase McClellan and oft-injured Trey Sanders will try to fill Harris' shoes. Replacing Smith and Waddle won't be easy; John Metchie III and Slade Bolden are next in line.
Moses was the only senior starting on defense, although a handful of juniors and redshirt sophomores might leave for the NFL draft. The Tide open the 2021 season against Miami and play SEC road games at Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
2020 record:9-2 (6-2 Big 12)
Projected returning starters:six offense, eight defense, two special teams
Outlook:It has been two decades since the Sooners last won a national championship, and they'll have a chance to end that drought if things fall right in 2021. Quarterback Spencer Rattler improved throughout his first season starting and will be a leading Heisman Trophy contender next season. Five other starters are expected back on offense, although Stevenson's departure stings. OU expects to bring back Brooks, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019 who opted out this past season. Wide receiver Charleston Rambo, who started the past two seasons, entered the transfer portal.
Defensively, the Sooners have made great strides under coordinator Alex Grinch. This past season, they ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (21.7 points) and run defense (105.1 yards) and third in total defense (350.6). OU's nonconference schedule in 2021 is more than manageable with a road contest at Tulane and home games against Nebraska and FCS program Western Carolina.
2020 record:8-2 (7-2 SEC)
Projected returning starters:nine offense, five defense, two special teams
Outlook:Georgia's offense made significant strides with USC transfer JT Daniels playing quarterback in the last four games, and he should be even better with a full offseason in coordinator Todd Monken's offense. He completed 67% of his passes for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and two picks in his four-game audition. There will be plenty of playmakers coming back around him, including wide receivers George Pickens, Jermaine Burton, Arian Smith and Kearis Jackson, as well as tight end Darnell Washington.
The defense will have to replace some of its most productive linebackers, but Adam Anderson, Nolan Smith and Quay Walker are more than capable. The return of Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyattup front helps tremendously. With Stokes, Campbell and DJ Daniel leaving, building cornerback depth will be a priority in the spring. Georgia has assembled a boatload of talent. Is it enough to get over the hump against Alabama?
Projected returning starters:six offense, five defense, zero special teams
Outlook:The Buckeyes have enjoyed a seamless transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day, who has guided them to back-to-back CFP appearances. The Buckeyes don't seem ready to slow down anytime soon. Fields is projected as a top-five pick in the NFL draft, so he's probably leaving after two seasons at OSU. Freshman Jack Miller III, who set the Arizona high school record with 115 career passing touchdowns, was Fields' backup this past season. C.J. Stroud was the No. 2 pocket passer in the 2020 ESPN 300, and incoming freshman McCord was the No. 4 pocket passer in 2021.
There are a handful of other offensive starters who are candidates to leave, including Olave and Sermon. Defensively, the Buckeyes might have big holes to fill on the defensive line and at cornerback and linebacker, depending on who comes back. The Buckeyes' nonconference schedule next season includes home games against Oregon and Tulsa, and they're scheduled to play Big Ten road games at Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers, Indiana and Michigan.
2020 record:9-1 (8-1 SEC)
Projected returning starters:six offense, six defense, two special teams
Outlook:The Aggies finally got a sizable return on their $75 million investment in coach Jimbo Fisher, closing the season with eight straight victories (each of the last seven by 10 or more points), including a 41-27 win over North Carolina in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Texas A&M might be destined for even bigger things in 2021 if it can replace some key pieces on offense. Mond and at least three starters from a very good offensive line are leaving.Freshmen Zach Calzada and Haynes King will battle for the QB job this spring.
Tailbacks Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane, utility man Ainias Smith and tight end Jalen Wydermyer give the Aggies a nice core of returning players on offense. More playmakers are needed on the perimeter. The defense, under coordinator Mike Elko's direction, led the SEC in total defense (317.3 yards per game).Top tacklers Johnson and Hansford, as well as top pass-rusher Bobby Brown III, will have to be replaced.
2020 record:8-4 (7-3 ACC)
Projected returning starters:eight offense, 10 defense, two special teams
Outlook:Mack Brown might only be getting started at UNC. Even with Carter, Williams, Newsome and Brown moving on, UNC should have a high-powered offense coming back in 2021. Quarterback Sam Howell will be a Heisman Trophy favorite, and all five starting offensive linemen are expected to return.
Young wide receivers Josh Downs and Khafre Brown played well against Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, and injured receiver Beau Corrales should be back after a sports hernia limited him to four games in 2020. Six of UNC's defensive starters were freshmen or sophomores this past season, and the returns of top pass-rusher Tomon Fox and linebacker Tyrone Hopper are big boosts. The Tar Heels will play at Notre Dame this coming season.
2020 record:9-3 (8-1 Big 12)
Projected returning starters:10 offense, eight defense, zero special teams
Outlook:It's difficult to say what is more remarkable: Iowa State coach Matt Campbell leading his teams to 32 victories over the past four seasons -- the most in a four-year span in school history -- or the Cyclones hanging on to Campbell despite overtures from multiple high-profile programs and NFL teams. This past season, the Cyclones tied school records with nine wins total and three victories over ranked opponents, including a 34-17 victory over Oregon in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, their first New Year's Six bowl appearance.
With quarterback Brock Purdy (2,750 passing yards, 382 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns) and tailback Breece Hall (1,572 rushing with 21 touchdowns) returning, the Cyclones might have two Heisman Trophy contenders in 2021. Five offensive line starters will return after senior left tackle Sean Foster opted to come back and star tight end Charlie Kolar did the same on Sunday. Bailey, the school's career sacks leader, has already announced he's entering the NFL draft.Eyioma Uwazurike and linebackers Jake Hummel and Mike Rose opted to come back.
9. USC Trojans
2020 record:5-1 Pac-12
Projected returning starters:eight offense, eight defense, two special teams
Outlook:The Trojans squandered their chance at winning a Pac-12 title and playing in a New Year's Six bowl by losing to Oregon 31-24 in the league championship game. USC won its first South Division title since 2017, but the loss to the Ducks soiled what might have been some good equity for embattled coach Clay Helton. He is only 18-13 over the past three seasons, so USC needs to continue to show progress in 2021.
The Trojans can start by improving their woefully inadequate running game, which ranked last in the league and 120th in the FBS, averaging 97.3 yards per game. Maybe that's why Helton fired offensive line coach Tim Drevno and strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus. USC's defense improved under new coordinator Todd Orlando; it ranked third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (26 points) and run defense (153.3 yards). The Trojans are scheduled to play at Notre Dame next season but will avoid Oregon and Washington in conference play.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
2020 record:6-2 (6-1 Big Ten)
Projected returning starters:nine offense, 10 defense, one special teams
Outlook:Indiana put together one of the better seasons in school history, but it never felt as if it got the credit it deserved. The Hoosiers were bypassed for Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and then dropped in the Big Ten's bowl pecking order. Playing without injured quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the Hoosiers lost to Ole Miss 26-20 in the Outback Bowl.
With potentially 19 starters coming back on offense and defense, it seems as if coach Tom Allen is only getting started. Led by a very talented secondary, the Hoosiers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (20.3 points), although Allen is searching for a new coordinator after Kane Wommack was named South Alabama's head coach.
Penix's recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee will be monitored closely this summer. Matthews, who had 84 catches and 582 punt return yards in 35 games at Florida, transferred to Indiana. Former Ole Miss pass-rusher Anderson plans to join the Hoosiers as well.
2020 record:9-1 (6-0 AAC)
Projected returning starters:eight offense, seven defense, one special teams
Outlook:The Bearcats narrowly missed finishing unbeaten, losing to Georgia 24-21 on Jack Podlesny's 53-yard field goal with three seconds left in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. It was still a memorable season for Cincinnati, which has won 31 games in the past three seasons under coach Luke Fickell. Even with defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman departing for Notre Dame, the Bearcats will again be the top AAC contender in 2021.
The new defensive coordinator will have to replace some key pieces, including Ponder and both starting safeties. The good news is quarterback Desmond Ridderannounced he's coming back, along with at least three starting offensive linemen. The Bearcats are scheduled to play road games at Indiana and Notre Dame next season.
12. Iowa Hawkeyes
2020 record:6-2 Big Ten
Projected returning starters:seven offense, six defense, one special teams
Outlook:Iowa's season was delayed and then cut short when its regular-season finale against Michigan and bowl game against Missouri were canceled because of COVID-19 issues. The Hawkeyes still showed promise in finishing the season with a six-game winning streak after an 0-2 start. Tyler Goodson (762 yards) was one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten, and he'll carry more of the load in 2021 with Mekhi Sargent leaving for the NFL.
Quarterback Spencer Petras threw eight touchdowns in the final six games. The offensive line got a boost when center Tyler Linderbaum opted to come back. The defensive line will have to be rebuilt, but end Zach VanValkenburg's return was more good news. The secondary will return intact if cornerback Matt Hankins doesn't turn pro.
13. Oregon Ducks
2020 record:4-3 (3-2 Pac-12)
Projected returning starters:seven offense, seven defense, two special teams
Outlook:It's difficult to put much of a grade on Oregon's performance in 2020 because it played only seven games and was missing a handful of its best players after they opted out before the season, including star tacklePenei Sewell, safety Jevon Holland, linebacker Brady Breeze and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. The Ducks won a Pac-12 title without winning their division and lost to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. Overall, Oregon fans probably anticipated a little more in coach Mario Cristobal's third season.
First and foremost, the Ducks must decide on a starting quarterback this spring. Tyler Shough,Justin Herbert's former understudy, completed 63.5% of his passes for 1,559 yards with 13 touchdowns and six picks. Boston College graduate transfer Anthony Brown took a lot of snaps in the Pac-12 championship game and the bowl game. It's unclear whether Brown will return for another season.
The Oregon defense has three budding stars in Kayvon Thibodeaux, Mase Funa and Mykael Wright, and more help is on the way in linebacker Justin Flowe and cornerback Dontae Manning, who played sparingly because of injuries. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos took the head-coaching job at Boise State, his alma mater.
2020 record:3-1 Pac-12
Projected returning starters:11 offense, eight defense, one special teams
Outlook:Jimmy Lake's first season as Washington's head coach was incomplete, as the Huskies played only four games and won the Pac-12 North but couldn't play in the Pac-12 championship game because of COVID-19 issues.
The good news is that all but three starters might return in 2021 and the Huskies added Huard, the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2021 ESPN 300. Three other quarterbacks -- Ethan Garbers, Jacob Sirmon and Kevin Thomson -- left, so the Huskies also added O'Brien, a Colorado State graduate transfer. Huard and O'Brien will compete with returning starter Dylan Morris, who completed 60.9% of his passes for 897 yards with four touchdowns and three picks.
Washington's priorities this spring are finding a bona fide No. 1 receiver and rebuilding the secondary.
2020 record:10-2 (9-0 ACC)
Projected returning starters:three offense, six defense, two special teams
Projected losses:OT Liam Eichenberg*, G Tommy Kraemer, G Aaron Banks*, OT Robert Hainsey*, QB Ian Book*, WR Javon McKinley, WR Ben Skowronek*, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah*, SS Shaun Crawford*, DE Daelin Hayes*
Outlook:With their 31-14 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One, the Fighting Irish fell to 0-7 in BCS or New Year's Six bowl games since 1998 and have been outscored by 161 points in those games, with all seven losses by at least 14 points. While the Irish have been very good under coach Brian Kelly, they're still not at the level of Alabama (along with just about every other FBS program).
The Irish will have a face-lift on offense, starting at quarterback. Coan, a Wisconsin transfer, will battle Buchner, Drew Pyne and Brendon Clarkfor the starting job this spring. Notre Dame has good pieces on offense to build around, including tailbacks Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree and wide receivers Braden Lenzy and Jordan Johnson.
Four starting linemen are gone; center Jarrett Patterson is coming back from a broken foot. Kelly hired Cincinnati's Marcus Freeman to replace defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who left to become Vanderbilt's coach. Freeman will have to rebuild the defensive line and find more depth in the secondary.
16. Florida Gators
2020 record:8-4 (8-2 SEC)
Projected returning starters:five offense, seven defense, one special teams
Projected losses:QB Kyle Trask*, TE Kyle Pitts*, WR Kadarius Toney*, WR Trevon Grimes*, C Brett Heggie*, OT Stone Forsythe*, LB Ventrell Miller, S Brad Stewart Jr., DL Kyree Campbell*, CB Marco Wilson*, K Evan McPherson*
Outlook:Florida's breakthrough season under coach Dan Mullen ended with a big flop, as the Gators lost their last three games, including a 55-20 rout against Oklahoma in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Most of Florida's offensive firepower is departing, including Heisman Trophy finalist Trask. Sophomore Emory Jones looks like the quarterback of the future, and the Gators will have to identify reliable pass-catchers with Pitts, Grimes and Toney departing.
The defense also will need a major face-lift after it was gutted for 144 points and more than 1,700 yards of offense in those three late losses. The Gators allowed 28 touchdown passes this season, which ranked next to last among FBS teams. They gave up 30.8 points per game, their most since surrendering 41.2 per contest in six games in 1917. Todd Grantham, one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the FBS, seems to be on thin ice. Secondary coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray have already been fired.
2020 record:4-3 (3-3 Big Ten)
Projected returning starters:eight offense, seven defense, two special teams
Outlook:Few programs had their seasons disrupted by COVID-19 more than the Badgers, who had two games canceled and another one postponed. They looked like Big Ten West title contenders after an early 49-11 rout at Michigan, but then quarterback Graham Mertz was sidelined after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Wisconsin never seemed to regain its momentum from there. Its offense also played without top wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor for much of the season because of concussions. The Badgers scored fewer than seven points in three straight losses. Mertz should improve after a full offseason, and Pryor has already announced he's coming back.
18. Ole Miss Rebels
2020 record:5-5 (4-5 SEC)
Projected returning starters:eight offense, nine defense, one special teams
Outlook:First-year Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin showed the SEC that his teams can score against almost anyone, piling up 35 points against Florida and 48 against both Alabama and LSU. The problem: The Rebels surrendered a total of 167 points in those games and lost all three. If Ole Miss can improve just a little bit on defense in 2021, it might be good enough to take the next step in the SEC West.
Quarterback Matt Corral is returning, and backup John Rhys Plumlee showed what he can do with the ball in his hands in the Outback Bowl. The Rebels will miss Moore (86 catches for 1,2293 yards) and Yeboah (27 catches with six touchdowns). The defense got a boost when top pass-rusher Sam Williams and linebacker Lakia Henry opted to return.
2020 record:10-1 (7-1 Sun Belt)
Projected returning starters:nine offense, eight defense, two special teams
Outlook:The Ragin' Cajuns have won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons, captured the Sun Belt West three straight times and won consecutive bowl games -- and managed to keep coach Billy Napier for at least one more year even though at least two SEC schools reached out to gauge his interest. Their only blemish this past season was a 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina.
Quarterback Levi Lewis (2,274 passing and 335 rushing yards) has already announced he'll be back for a fifth season. Top pass-rusher Ferrod Gardner and run-stuffer Tayland Humphrey might be big losses on defense. The Ragin' Cajuns are scheduled to open next season at Texas on Sept. 4.
20. LSU Tigers
2020 record:5-5 SEC
Projected returning starters:eight offense, eight defense, one special teams
Outlook:As magical as LSU's national championship season was in 2019, the follow-up was just as deflating. The Tigers bombed in their encore before salvaging the final two games for a .500 record. Coach Ed Orgeron fired defensive coordinator Bo Pelini after only one season back at LSU; co-offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger was reassigned; and the Tigers parted ways with passing-game coordinator Scott Linehan. Carolina Panthers quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz, who worked with Joe Brady, was hired as offensive coordinator.Orgeron is still seeking a new defensive coordinator.
Despite the massive overhaul, LSU has a boatload of talent coming back. Quarterback Myles Brennanreturns from an abdominal injury and will battle Max Johnson for the starting job. Receiver Kayshon Boutte was a pleasant surprise, and there are plenty of tailbacks on hand. The return of several junior and senior linemen gives the Tigers hope heading into next season.
21. Texas Longhorns
2020 record:7-3 (5-3 Big 12)
Projected returning starters:five offense, seven defense, two special teams
Outlook:Tom Herman's teams never won a Big 12 title and went 1-4 against rival Oklahoma, which wasn't good enough for athletic director Chris Del Conte. Del Conte fired him Jan. 2 and moved quickly to hire Sarkisian as his replacement. After Ehlinger went down with a shoulder injury in the Valero Alamo Bowl, backup Casey Thompson passed for 170 yards with four touchdowns in a 55-23 win over Colorado.
Thompson will battle Hudson Card to replace Ehlinger. An even bigger sign of hope: Tailback Bijan Robinson ran for 183 yards with one score on 10 carries. The Longhorns will miss Ossai, Brown and Sterns on defense, but at least there's a good core coming back in freshman defensive tackle Alfred Collins and linebackers Juwan Mitchell and DeMarvion Overshown.Sarkisian is eyeing a handful of former and current SEC assistants to join his staff, including defensive coordinators Zach Arnett of Mississippi State and Barry Odom of Missouri.
2020 record:4-5 Big Ten
Projected returning starters:eight offense, six defense, two special teams
Outlook:Penn State's 2020 season was derailed shortly after it started when tailbacks Journey Brown and Noah Cain were lost to season-ending injuries. Shortly thereafter, the Nittany Lions lost Freiermuth to shoulder surgery. They lost their first five games before rallying to win the last four. With quarterback Sean Clifford and Cain expected back, Penn State's offense should be more balanced in 2021. On Friday, coach James Franklin fired Kirk Ciarrocca and replaced him with former Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
The defensive line will have to be rebuilt, but help is coming from Temple transfer Ebiketie and Duke transfer Tangelo. Penn State will also have to identify two new starting safeties. Dixon, a starting cornerback at South Carolina last season, will provide some depth in the secondary. After opening next season at Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions host Auburn two weeks later.
2020 record:11-1 (8-0 Sun Belt)
Projected returning starters:six offense, six defense, two special teams
Outlook:The Chanticleers were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt in 2020 preseason voting by the league's coaches and media. Instead, Coastal Carolina went 11-0 in the regular season, won a league title, played in its first bowl game and was ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. What in the world will the Chanticleers do for an encore? They'll undoubtedly miss top edge rusher Jackson (8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss) and leading rusher Marable.
But quarterback Grayson McCall is expected back after throwing for 2,488 yards with 26 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. If the bulk of Coastal Carolina's seniors return, it should be right back in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl bid. The Chanticleers' nonconference schedule in 2021 includes a home game against Kansas, which lost to them in each of the past two seasons.
24. Liberty Flames
Projected returning starters:six offense, seven defense, one special teams
Outlook:It was quite a season for the Flames, who defeated ACC opponents Syracuse and Virginia Tech on the road and spoiled Coastal Carolina's perfect season in a second straight Cure Bowl victory. It was Liberty's first win over a nationally ranked FBS opponent. And Liberty will keep coach Hugh Freeze for at least another year, even after he was mentioned for a couple of SEC openings.
This offseason, the Flames might have to hold off Power 5 suitors for star Malik Willis, a transfer from Auburn who led FBS quarterbacks in rushing (944 yards) and accounted for 34 total touchdowns. Liberty started five seniors on offense and four more on defense, so there might be some roster turnover. Tight end Johnny Huntleyalready announced he's coming back, as well as running back Joshua Mack.
25. Miami Hurricanes
2020 record:8-3 (7-2 ACC)
Projected returning starters:nine offense, seven defense, one special teams
Outlook:The Hurricanes' 37-34 loss to Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl couldn't have gone much worse. Miami's defense was gutted for a second straight game: The Hurricanes surrendered 1,196 yards of offense and 99 points in the last eight quarters of the 2020 season. Worse, quarterback D'Eriq King suffered a torn ACL in the first half, only three days after announcing he was coming back for another season. He's hoping to be ready for the 2021 opener on Sept. 4 against Alabama in Atlanta.
Miami's defense had better improve dramatically before then, and it won't be easy with top pass-rushers Phillips and Roche leaving for the NFL. The Hurricanes added Johnson, a Tennessee transfer, to help replace them. Major upgrades are needed at linebacker, and the secondary needs to be more consistent. If King isn't ready for the start of next season, the Hurricanes probably aren't a top-25 team.