The book has closed on spring practices and college football teams are headed into a break with training camps less than three months away. It’s a perfect time to take a step back and look at where things stand for the upcoming season.
The last Top 25 predictions came the day after Alabama took care of business against Ohio State to win another championship. A lot has changed since then with some players unexpectedly leaving for the NFL, some surprising by staying for an extra year and others taking advantage of the transfer portal to find new homes.
The result is a different picture for 2021. The Crimson Tide will enter as favorites, but there are some modifications in the top five and throughout the rest of the list. The postseason rankings from January are in parenthesis.
1. Alabama (1)
If you focus on what the Crimson Tide lost then you would expect they’ll take a big step back. Gone are three of the top five finishers in the Heisman Trophy race, who also were three of the team’s six first-round picks in the NFL draft. But Nick Saban has been here before and he simply reloads with another group. Bryce Young, one of the top recruits in the 2020 class, slides in as the successor to quarterback Mac Jones after impressing this spring. John Metchie III is poised to be another in the line of elite wide receivers. The defense should again be solid with Christian Harris and Malachi Moore two of the top performers. If there is something to trip Alabama, it is a conference road schedule that includes Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn.
2. Oklahoma (3)
Two key transfers from Tennessee — running back Eric Gray and offensive lineman Wanya Morris — and the addition of Arkansas wide receiver Mike Woods addressed areas of need for the Sooners, who could have their best team in the playoff era. The offensive line remains a question until it can clear consistent holes for the running game. Having quarterback Spencer Rattler back in his second year as a starter should make the passing attack more consistent. No longer maligned, the defense is now a strength under coordinator Alex Grinch. Perrion Winfrey, Isaiah Thomas and Nik Bonitto headline a dominant line.
3. Ohio State (5)
When the final whistle blew on spring practice, the question of who takes over at quarterback for Justin Fields remained unanswered. C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and incoming freshman Kyle McCord all had an opportunity to showcase their skills. The competition will continue in the fall. The surprise decision of wide receiver Chris Olave to return will only help whomever wins the starting role. He will team with Garrett Wilson to form one of the best pass-catching tandems in the country. Key losses along both lines can be filled as the Buckeyes have stockpiled enough pieces to remain the class of the Big Ten, although they might be pushed more than usual.
4. Clemson (4)
D.J. Uiagalelei provided an early look to the post-Trevor Lawrence era in his two starts — a comeback win against Boston College and double-overtime loss at Notre Dame. The announced return of Justyn Ross from a neck injury adds to a talented wide receiver group. The big area of concerns on offense are sorting out running back and issues along the line. Nobody is going to feel sorry for the Tigers, though. The defense brings back almost every key contributor, making them the clear favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference. However, the gap feels a bit closer and could portend some more narrow wins this season.
5. Georgia (2)
Heading into the offseason, the Bulldogs were positioned to make a serious run at Alabama and possibly end their national title drought. However, George Pickens, a potential All-America wide receiver, went down with a torn ACL early in spring practice. The loss of their big-play target for a significant period will slow an offense that was expected to be more balanced with quarterback JT Daniels firmly entrenched as the starter. Georgia again will have one of the better defenses in the country, especially in the front seven, but is there enough offense with an opener against Clemson before the challenge of the Southeastern Conference schedule?
6. Iowa State (6)
If the returning Cyclones were at Auburn, Penn State or another big-name program that has yet to make the playoff, then doubters of this team would have to find a different conversation point. Yes, Iowa State isn’t typically a place associated with big-time football, but it has everything needed to be the top contender among teams seeking their first final four. Most of the important contributors on both sides of the ball return, led by quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall. Mike Rose and Jake Hummel give the defense two standouts at linebacker with All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth leading the secondary. The biggest challenge — besides Oklahoma — for coach Matt Campbell will be handling the big expectations for a team that has never started higher than No. 24 in the preseason poll.
7. Cincinnati (9)
When Luke Fickell passed on the Michigan State job after the 2019 season, it was confirmation of his belief the Bearcats were on the verge of something big. This looks like the year. Being the first Group of Five playoff team seems realistic after last year’s unbeaten regular season. There are a host of starters back, including quarterback Desmond Ridder. Potential concerns about a soft schedule should be alleviated by non-conference road games against Indiana and Notre Dame along with some quality American Athletic Conference opponents. Now they just have to win all those games.
8. Texas A&M (7)
The Aggies entered the spring with one major question: Who follows departed quarterback Kellen Mond, the school leader in almost every major career passing category? Haynes King appears to have an early edge with Zach Calzada also in contention. The ability of the new signal caller to keep the offense productive will determine whether last season was a breakthrough year for Jimbo Fisher or just the product of the rest of the SEC West being historically down. The good news is breaking in the new starter will be easier with a soft non-conference schedule and Missouri and South Carolina as A&M’s crossover opponents from the SEC East.
9. Notre Dame (8)
The one-year run as a member of the ACC is history for the Irish. The theme for this season is like that of many other title contenders — finding a replacement for a veteran quarterback. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan was added to enhance the competition and he looked solid in the spring with Drew Pyne also in the mix. Usually a strength, the offensive line will require some retooling, but the rest of the offense looks good, led by running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. A third trip to the playoff in four years isn’t out of the question if new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman can get his scheme implemented smoothly.
10. Florida (10)
Emory Jones looks firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback after spring practice as the Gators transition to a more run-based offense after the departure of Kyle Trask. The move also should help the defense that won’t be on the field as much as last season when it gave up a school-record 370 points in 12 games. Staff changes and the arrival of defensive linemen Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton from Auburn and Penn State, respectively, will hopefully fix the issues.
11. LSU (15)
So the national title defense didn’t quite go as planned for the Tigers. Players opted out. Starting quarterback Myles Brennan went down after three games, and there was no one with experience behind him. The move to defensive coordinator Bo Pelini turned out to be a one-year disaster. Brennan likely returns as the starter, though there is competition. The offensive line is back in full and Kayshon Boutte looks to be another potential star wide receiver for the program. The defense is led by All-America cornerback Derek Stingley and also features depth along the line. There’s enough talent in place for a swift rebound.
12. North Carolina (11)
There are no questions about the leader of the offense. Junior quarterback Sam Howell is being talked about as a possible No. 1 overall draft pick after the season. What’s uncertain are the playmakers supporting him. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter combined for 2,385 yards rushing, leaving Howell as last year’s top returner with 113 yards. The story is the same at receiver with the departure of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. The rest of the picture for Mack Brown’s team looks good as he enters year three of his tenure, with Clemson firmly in his sights.
13. Wisconsin (14)
The Badgers will be looking to bounce back after a stop-and-start season that limited them to just seven games. Much will be on the shoulders of quarterback Graham Mertz. He showed flashes of his ability after being unexpectedly pushed into the starting role, but there also were moments of inconsistency after he tested positive for COVID-19. How much he develops with a full offseason will play a critical role. Improvement with the running game and better health at wide receiver also are key. The defense, like previous seasons, will again be one of the best in the country with Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal anchoring the linebackers. It won’t take long to see where the season is headed with Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan among the first four games.
14. Oregon (13)
When last we left the Ducks, there was a quarterback competition brewing between Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown after Brown saw significant time in the Fiesta Bowl. The mystery was resolved with Shough transferring to Texas Tech. The return of CJ Verdell and Travis Dye gives the Ducks two running back options behind what should be a solid offensive line. The fruits of multiple highly ranked recruiting classes should mature in 2021, giving the team plenty of playmakers. Kayvon Thibodeaux will be one of the nation’s dominant defensive players. He’ll have help with emerging stars Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe at linebacker. After a surprise Pac-12 title last year, Oregon enters this season as the favorite.
15. Iowa (18)
When you think of the Hawkeyes, you don’t think of offense. However, they were second in the Big Ten in scoring at 31.8 points per game last year against a schedule only featuring conference opponents. There’s the possibility the production is better this season with quarterback Spencer Petras returning after a solid first season. Someone has to emerge at receiver, however leading rusher Tyler Goodson should have a big campaign. The defense — one of the best in 2020 — again should be the backbone of the team’s success.
16. Penn State (16)
It’s hard to make sense of the Nittany Lions after they started with five losses last year and then finished with four consecutive wins. It would be easy to overreact to the lows given the loss of their two best players — Micah Parsons and Journey Brown — right before the season. Quarterback Sean Clifford had a major slump that coincided with the arrival of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. New coordinator Mike Yurcich is tasked with rebuilding Clifford’s confidence. A deep stable of running backs and wide receiver Jahan Dotson’s decision to forgo the NFL draft gives the offense some major pop. Two transfers — Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and South Carolina cornerback Johnny Dixon — bolster a unit that should be closer to the usual high standard of the James Franklin era.
17. Indiana (12)
The benefit of quarterback Michael Penix being sidelined with a knee injury was the extra reps for backup quarterback Jack Tuttle this spring. Tuttle started the final two games last season when Penix was lost for the year after the Hoosiers had breakthrough wins against Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. Ty Fryfogle and Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews could form an explosive receiving combination for whichever player is behind center for the opener against Iowa. The defense looks positioned to repeat as one of the Big Ten’s best.
18. Miami (Florida) (19)
The absence of D’Eriq King from spring practice allowed the Hurricanes to test their quarterback options should the returning senior’s recovery from a knee injury make him unavailable for the opener against Alabama. With King at full strength, Miami could surprise some people with all but three starters returning. The pass rush is a concern but the transfers of Charleston Rambo of Oklahoma and Tyrique Stevenson of Georgia are big additions at wide receiver and defensive back, respectively. The ceiling is high for the Hurricanes, but they haven’t been able to reach it recently.
19. Southern California (17)
Clay Helton keeps rolling along in his tenure with the Trojans even as critics continue to anticipate his departure. His offense will be in good hands with quarterback Kedon Slovis among the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy. There’s plenty of potential among the skill positions, but the bigger concern is the offensive line that led a running attack that averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and allowed 15 sacks in six games. While USC starts as one of the Pac-12 South favorites, but the division is one of the most competitive in the country.
20. Arizona State (21)
The shortened season robbed us of the opportunity to see where the Sun Devils were in the third year under Herm Edwards. It started with a close loss to USC and then four weeks between their next game due to COVID-19. Almost every key performer returns from that 2-2 team. Jayden Daniels is a burgeoning star at quarterback and there’s young playmakers at his side. The defense will be led by the secondary, starting with Chase Lucas. Defensive lineman Tyler Johnson should be a standout after earning Pac-12 honors. Now comes the hard part: Winning when there are expectations.
21. Oklahoma State (23)
The loss of stars Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace will put more responsibility on Spencer Sanders, who enters his third season as the starting quarterback. He has the potential for a breakout season if he can stay healthy and reduce errors. Surrounding him won’t be any big names, but there’s lots of talent at the skill positions. The offensive line solidifying would make this one of the best offenses in the Big 12. Leading tackler Malcolm Rodriguez gives the defense an anchor at linebacker and Kolby Harvey-Peel is a standout in the secondary. If the defensive line comes along, the unit should be good enough to allow the Cowboys to make a push in the Big 12.
22. Texas (20)
The third coaching hire since the departure of Mack Brown brings the same optimism as the previous two for the Longhorns. They hope the script is different with Steve Sarkisian than it was for Charlie Strong and Tom Herman. There’s a culture change on the field, too, with four-year starter Sam Ehlinger leaving a huge hole at quarterback. Casey Thompson, who starred in the Alamo Bowl, and Hudson Card are fighting for the opening. Look for running back Bijan Robinson to be a breakout star if the offensive line can provide enough holes and he gets enough carries. There’s some pieces on defense, notably Alfred Collins and DaMarvion Overshown, but that side of the ball needs to be better to make a run in the Big 12.
23. Coastal Carolina (24)
Last year, the Chanticleers went from obscurity to an unbeaten regular season and a No. 14 ranking in the final coaches poll. Now they’ll trying to continue that success with most of the team returning. Grayson McCall, who was brilliant as a freshman quarterback, is the centerpiece of the offense. There are two key losses — running back C.J. Marable and defensive lineman Tarron Jackson — to overcome, but enough contributors return to win the Sun Belt again.
24. Washington (NR)
Though the Huskies won three of their four outings last year, there are still questions about how good this year’s team will be with most of that group back. Dylan Morris faces competition at quarterback. The skill positions have depth, but some playmakers are needed to make the unit dynamic. The offensive line looks to be in great shape with tackle Jaxson Kirkland projected as a top draft pick.
25. Louisiana-Lafayette (NR)
The biggest win of the offseason for the Ragin’ Cajuns may have been avoiding the loss of coach Billy Napier, whose name was mentioned for some big jobs after leading the team to 21 wins in the last two seasons. Besides the departure of their top two rushers, almost everyone is back to make another run at double-digit wins. Quarterback Levi Lewis gives the offense a steady hand and the defense has top tacklers Lorenzo McCaskill and Ferrod Gardner back. Looming is a potential matchup with Coastal Carolina in the conference title game.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith