With the FCS Spring Championship concluded, it feels like empty Saturday afternoons stretch out in front of us like a highway coursing through a barren desert. Nevertheless, we’re moving closer to the 2021 college football season and further away from the NFL Draft. With “just” 94 days until the start of the season, our team of analysts came together to create Pro Football Network’s consensus college football top 25 rankings for the 2021 season.
Which teams made the top 25 of our early 2021 college football rankings?
25) Penn State
It’s tough to be optimistic about Penn State after their disappointing 2020 campaign, in which they slid outside the season-ending Top 25 for the first time since 2015. Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions have some modest appeal, and they’ll undoubtedly be aiming to redeem themselves.
Third-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford will lead penn State, but that’s not exactly a selling point. What is, however, is the return of Jahan Dotson, Mike Miranda, and Rasheed Walker on the offensive side of the ball.
On defense, the secondary is where the Nittany Lions should thrive. Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields return to school after being touted as potential 2021 NFL Draft prospects. They’ll be joined by the long, athletic Joey Porter Jr., who could be a breakout candidate as a redshirt sophomore.
24) Boston College
Can Boston College be the team that emerges as the surprise of the 2021 college football season? In his second season with the program, quarterback Phil Jurkovec should establish himself as one of the best passers in the ACC. His job will be made easier with the return of the entire offensive line and his relationship with wide receiver Zay Flowers.
In Flowers and Jaelen Gill, the Eagles possess two explosive playmakers. The addition of former Jacksonville State tight end Trae Barry should excite fans and worry opposing defenses.
Despite losing Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson to the draft, they return some important defensive pieces while adding multiple transfers that should start from Day 1. You won’t find the Eagles in many 2021 preseason college football top 25 rankings, but it won’t be a surprise to see them ranked by the end of the year.
Gary Patterson’s team failed to breach the college football top 25 last season, but they start 2021 inside our rankings. TCU has an intriguing playmaker at the quarterback position in Max Duggan. The junior signal-caller is a breakout candidate this year and is joined in the backfield by a former five-star recruit in running back Zach Evans. Transfer tackle Obinna Eze could be one of the best in the nation this year.
As you’d expect from a Patterson-coached team, they’re loaded with defensive playmakers too. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Ochaun Mathis, and Khari Coleman are all names to get familiar with for this coming season. Trips to Norman and Stillwater to face Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will be the ultimate test of how good this Horned Frogs team can be.
If you were a college football player in the transfer portal this spring, you likely made your way to Utah. An incredible seven Division I players transferred to the Utes, all from Power Five conferences. They have landed offensive weapons such as Theo Howard, T.J. Pledger, and Chris Curry. Furthermore, former Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer is the addition that could truly ignite this Utes program.
If Brewer can return to the form that made Baylor a Big 12 contender in 2019, then Utah could be a surprise contender in the Pac-12.
Defensively, they added Josh Calvert to a linebacker unit that already hosts one of the best in the nation in Devin Lloyd. They have playmakers in all three levels of the defense, with cornerback Clark Phillips III an exciting second-year player to keep an eye on.
The Gators’ offense exploded in 2020 – there’s no other word for it. The unit’s historic production helped make Kyle Trask a second-round pick, and offensive playmakers Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney both went in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Dan Mullen’s squad lost a lot of the talent that made it so productive in 2020, but there’s a reason Florida is still in the Top 25. Emory Jones has an intriguing physical skill set, and there’s still plenty of raw talent in the skill core, with Justin Shorter, Keon Zipperer, and Xzavier Henderson on deck.
What truly boosts Florida’s preseason stock, however, is its defense. Kaiir Elam is one of the best returning CBs in the game, and he’s joined on that side of the ball by a talented cast that includes Jeremiah Moon, Brenton Cox, Ventrell Miller, Gervon Dexter, Trey Dean, and Jaydon Hill.
20) Ole Miss
The Ole Miss Rebels were one of college football’s most exciting teams in Lane Kiffin’s first year as the head coach — for all the reasons, right and wrong. There’s still a need for refinement, but the Rebels have the potential to play spoiler for several SEC favorites in 2021.
For Kiffin’s squad, it all starts on offense. Matt Corral has the physical talent to be one of the best QBs in the nation. He’ll be assisted by an offensive skill cast that includes Jerrion Ealy, Braylon Sanders, Dontario Drummond, and Snoop Connor. It also helps to have Nick Broeker and Ben Brown on the line, both of whom have legitimate NFL potential.
Defensively, there will be more questions to answer for the Rebels. Nevertheless, they have talent there as well. Sam Williams is one of the best returning edge defenders in the nation, and he has Tariqious Tisdale on the line alongside him. There’s also A.J. Finley in the secondary, who broke out with 3 interceptions and 7 deflections in 2020.
19) Notre Dame
This may seem a bit low for Brian Kelly’s squad, and it may ultimately be. The Fighting Irish are always contenders to some degree, and they’ve proven that they can keep talent flowing through the program on a year-to-year basis.
The key selling point for Notre Dame in 2021 is safety Kyle Hamilton, an ultra-dynamic and versatile defensive catalyst who has the makings of an early first-round selection. However, beyond Hamilton and a few holdovers on offense, there is plenty of uncertainty.
Above all else, Notre Dame will be moving on from long-term starting quarterback Ian Book, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is in line to replace Book, but the move seems like a downgrade for now. The Irish will also be tasked with replacing a lot of offensive talent around him.
Is Texas finally, finally back? At this point, we can never be sure. But it seems like things are at least heading in the right direction for the always-talented squad. Gone is Tom Herman at head coach, and in his place is Steve Sarkisian, the play-caller who helped Alabama win a championship in 2020.
Sarkisian inherits an offense that boasts one of the best backs in college football in Bijan Robinson, as well as weapons like Joshua Moore and the highly-rated Troy Omeire. And on defense, he fields another promising unit, led by hyper-athletic linebacker DeMarvion Overshown.
The Longhorns will need to figure out what to do at quarterback. With respected competitor Sam Ehlinger out the door, the job falls to either Casey Thompson or Hudson Card. Nevertheless, Texas has a roster brimming with potential beyond the QB questions, and Sarkisian might just be the man to lead them.
17) Coastal Carolina
In many respects, Coastal Carolina was the fairytale story of the 2020 college football season. The underrated Chanticleers were one of just five teams that went undefeated. Their innovative offense combined with a fun-loving but hard-hitting defense made them one of the most entertaining teams in the sport.
Other than defensive end Tarron Jackson and running back C.J. Marable, they’ve barely lost any of the talents that led them to that 11-0 finish a year ago. Quarterback Grayson McCall is one of the most talented young signal-callers in the game. They’ve got critical offensive pieces in Isaiah Likely and Jaivon Heiligh for him to utilize. Defensive players like D’Jordan Strong, Silas Kelly, and Teddy Gallagher are back, as are the mullets.
It was a shortened inaugural season for Jimmy Lake, the successor to Chris Petersen. But still, the rookie head coach proved his mettle, going 3-1 in the four-game slate and earning the first-place spot in the Pac-12 North. Now, the hope is that the Huskies can ride a resilient 2020 season into a 2021 emergence.
Much depends on what the Huskies do on offense, but their defense is already a driving force in the conference. Losing sack leader Zion Tupuola-Fetui is brutal, but even beyond him, Washington has an abundance of playmakers, among them Edefuan Ulofoshio, Trent McDuffie, Kyler Gordon, and Sav’ell Smalls.
The quarterback position is a big question for Washington. Will the starter be incumbent Dylan Morris, transfer Patrick O’Brien, or top recruit Sam Huard? Whatever the case, that QB will benefit from having tight end Cade Otton, as well as a mauler on the offensive line in Jaxson Kirkland.
It’s not always pretty, but you can count on Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst to win football games in the Big Ten. Over the past six seasons, he’s eclipsed the 10-win mark four times. The Badgers only played seven games in 2020 due to COVID cancellations, but they still managed to take home a bowl game victory against Wake Forest.
With Justin Fields gone to the NFL, there’s an element of uncertainty in the Big Ten this year. Ohio State no doubt has a next man up in mind, but the Badgers, who bring back highly-touted quarterback recruit Graham Mertz, may have legitimate aspirations of challenging for the conference crown.
Things still haven’t quite clicked for Mertz, but if they do, he can be a breakout player in 2021. He’ll have one of his top weapons returning in Jake Ferguson, and he’ll also have a well-stocked offensive line led by senior Logan Bruss.
Unlike most teams in our early 2021 college football top 25 rankings, Miami is set on offense heading into the season. Rhett Lashlee had the Hurricanes blowing downfield in rapid speed last season, and aside from Brevin Jordan, they return much of their talent on that side of the ball.
Actually, D’Eriq King has even more weaponry in the form of Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo. Miami also has an intriguing backfield rotation with Cam’Ron Harris, Don Chaney Jr., and Jaylan Knighton. Add in the most experienced offensive line that the Hurricanes have generated in recent years, and they’re primed to succeed.
However, the biggest issue will be how they replace their lost pass-rush production. Even though Gregory Rousseau didn’t play last year, Miami has lost their three best pass rushers from the previous two seasons.
13) Arizona State
You might need to bust out the shades for the Sun Devils as the future is bright under Herm Edwards. Although the COVID-impacted 2020 season wasn’t particularly bountiful, there’s plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2021.
Jayden Daniels draws the most recognition, and with good reason. He’s a physically talented quarterback who could emerge in an ambiguous class. But even beyond Daniels, the Sun Devils have talent. They boast a true thunder-and-lightning RB combo with Deamonte Travanum and Rachaad White, and they also have Dohnovan West and Kellen Diesch returning on the line.
On defense, the ASU is just as talented, if not more so. Merlin Robertson, Jermayne Lole, and Tyler Johnson headline a stellar front. And in the secondary, Jack Jones and Chase Lucas constitute one of the best returning DB tandems in the nation.
12) North Carolina
North Carolina was one of the most contentious teams when compiling these consensus 2021 college football top 25 rankings. They were one of the most exciting offensive teams in the nation last season; there can be no denying that.
The Tar Heels return the two components that made that offense tick in quarterback Sam Howell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Moreover, they also have the entire offensive line coming back to protect Howell.
That said, they have lost an incredible amount of talent from the offense. Both of Howell’s top targets from last season — Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown — are off to the NFL. So is their double-headed backfield monster of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. It isn’t easy to see where that production is coming from this year.
North Carolina does retain some experience on defense. Yet, based on last season, it’s challenging to ascertain whether that is positive or negative.
Another fairytale story from last season, Indiana finished 2020 with the best record in program history since 1967. They played eventual Big Ten Champion and national championship runner-up Ohio State extremely close and narrowly lost to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl.
Tom Allen’s team has a whole host of returning talent, giving no reason to believe that they won’t be a continuing presence in the 2021 college football rankings. Michael Penix Jr. to Ty Fryfogle should be one of the most electric combinations in the FBS. Right tackle Matthew Bedford is very highly rated and should help keep Penix Jr. upright.
On defense, Tiawan Mullen and Marcelino Ball are impressive playmakers that should help mitigate the loss of safety Jamar Johnson. An early matchup against AAC powerhouse Cincinnati will go a long way to define their season.