The book has closed on the memorable 2020 season that saw highs and lows along with plenty of uncertainty.
Which brings us to what lies ahead in 2021 as the start of the season is less than eight months away.
Alabama and Clemson have each made six appearances in the seven seasons of the College Football Playoff. Ohio State and Oklahoma have made four. It won’t be surprising to see this quartet again contending, though the Sooners are the only team returning significant experience at quarterback with Spencer Rattler back for his second season as the starter. The Tigers don’t have a complete unknown as D.J. Uiagalelei led the team for two games when Trevor Lawrence was out.
The other usual playoff suspects should be in the mix with Georgia, Notre Dame and Florida benefiting from years of successful recruiting. There are also some non-traditional contenders inside the top 10.
What makes guessing what happens in the upcoming season so difficult is the unexpected results of NFL draft decisions, an expected and unprecedented amount of players in the transfer portal and uncertainty about what the health situation will be in the fall.
But here goes nothing. An early look at who will be the best teams next season:
Losing three of the top five finishers in the Heisman Trophy voting would send some programs into rebuilding mode. The Crimson Tide will simply reload. Bryce Young, one of the top recruits in the 2020 class, is expected to replace quarterback Mac Jones. There’s sure to be growing pains, but there are enough pieces behind him with John Metchie III poised to be another in the line of elite wide receivers. The defense should again be solid with Christian Harris and Malachi Moore leading the way. If there is something to trip Alabama, it is a road schedule that includes Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn.
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This might finally be the year to end the national title drought. JT Daniels gives the Bulldogs some stability at quarterback where most of the SEC’s top teams have inexperience. The receiving corps, led by George Pickens, has the makings of an excellent group and can bring balance to a run-dominated offense that returns elite ball carriers. Georgia again will have one of the better defenses in the country, helped by the return of defensive lineman Jordan Davis. The lone concern will be experience in the secondary. The first test will come fast in 2021 as the Bulldogs face Clemson in the opener.
Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the third quarter against Arkansas. (Photo: Brett Rojo, USA TODAY Sports)
The development of Rattler gives the Sooners hope that this might be their breakthrough season. He overcame a shaky start to progress into one of the top quarterbacks in the country. The skill positions should be fine, especially with running back Kennedy Brooks back after opting out. The offensive line is a veteran group, but needs to be more consistent against the best teams. No longer maligned under coordinator Alex Grinch, the defense is now a strength. Perrion Winfrey, Isaiah Thomas and Nik Bonitto will lead a dominant line.
Uiagalelei looked good in his two starts – a comeback win against Boston College and double-overtime loss at Notre Dame – to give people an early look at the post-Lawrence era. Of greater concern is the departure of running back Travis Etienne. There’s tons of young talent in the pipeline, so nobody is going to feel bad for the Tigers. They’re still the clear favorite in the ACC, though the gap feels a bit closer.
5. Ohio State
The questions start with the replacement for Justin Fields. Does C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or possibly incoming freshman Kyle McCord win the job? And can any of them come close to being as dynamic as Fields? Master Teague and Garrett Wilson will provide threats at running back and wide receiver, respectively. Key losses along both lines can be filled as the Buckeyes have stockpiled enough pieces to remain the class of the Big Ten. However, like Clemson and Alabama, they might get pushed more than usual next year.
6. Iowa State
Looking for an outsider to crash the party at the final four? The Cyclones would be your pick. After a historic season and Big 12 title game appearance, most of the important contributors on both sides of the ball are staying, led by quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall. Mike Rose and Jake Hummel give the defense two standouts at linebacker. Handling the expectations will be a new challenge. Matt Campbell should be able to keep this group grounded.
7. Texas A&M
Was this season a sign that Jimbo Fisher has the Aggies trending toward the top of the SEC or was it more about an unsettled year with LSU, Auburn and others being down? That’s what we’re about to find out. Kellen Mond’s departure means the offense needs a new figurehead after the four-year starter at quarterback leaves. Isaiah Spiller is one of three talented running backs that will run behind a rebuilt offensive line. The schedule is again manageable with no strong non-conference foes and Missouri and South Carolina its crossover opponents.
8. Notre Dame
Back as an independent, the road to the playoff won’t be as straightforward in the absence of a conference championship game. The Irish added Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who will compete with Drew Pyne and others at quarterback. The offensive line and defense need some retooling. Hiring Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was a coup and will help with some key losses on the unit.
Assuming no COVID-19 cancellations, there should be serious playoff consideration given to the Bearcats if they again finish the regular season unbeaten. Road games against Indiana and Notre Dame would quiet concerns about their schedule. Desmond Ridder's return at quarterback and a host of talented defenders makes Cincinnati the favorite among Group of Five teams, but its sights will be set much higher.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) dives over the top for a touchdown during the second half against Central Florida at the Bounce House in Orlando. (Photo: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports)
Emory Jones saw time at quarterback even with Kyle Trask taking most of the snaps, which should prepare him for the role as the starter. Clemson transfer Demarkus Bowman will add to the running back group that will get more work as the Tigers won't rely on throwing as much. The return of Zachary Carter gives hope to a defense that allowed 107 points in its last two games. Staff changes will hopefully fix the issues.
11. North Carolina
The progression under Mack Brown has been faster than expected. Entering his third season, the Tar Heels are coming off an impressive Orange Bowl performance and look poised to make a run at the ACC title in what should be quarterback Sam Howell’s final season. Improvement on defense is needed to close the gap on Clemson and make a push for the playoff.
The Hoosiers want more after this season's breakthrough that included wins against Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan and an impressive loss at Ohio State. Much rides on the health of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who suffered a knee injury late in the season. He'll have Ty Fryfogle back as his leading receiver. The defense again will be a strength, making Indiana the likeliest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten East.
The fruits of multiple highly ranked recruiting classes should mature in 2021 after the Ducks won an unexpected Pac-12 title last season as one of the youngest teams in the country. Kayvon Thibodeaux will be one of the nation's dominant defensive players. He'll have help with emerging star Noah Sewell at linebacker. Incoming freshman Ty Thompson could compete at quarterback with Tyler Shough and possibly Anthony Brown. Running back CJ Verdell's decision on the NFL looms, but there's plenty of playmakers on offense.
Not much went right for the Badgers in 2020. They lost their starting quarterback before the season, then were hit with a COVID-19 outbreak that impacted new starter Graham Mertz. Losses at receiver and a surprisingly ineffective running game also were issues. Much of those problems will be solved. Mertz should be more comfortable in his second season and points won't be so difficult to generate. The defense, like previous seasons, will again be one of the best in the country with Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal anchoring the linebacker group.
It was a nightmare season for the Tigers as they tried to defend their national title. Players opting out and injuries didn't allow them to do much more than tread water. Myles Brennan went down after three games at quarterback. His return will help after two true freshmen were pressed into action. Bo Pelini is gone after one forgettable year as defensive coordinator. The replacement will be blessed with experience along the line and All-America cornerback Derek Stingley.
16. Penn State
Tthe Nittany Lions were another team that stumbled after high expectations. Thought to be a playoff contender, they lost their first five games before regaining their footing. Sean Clifford will hope to regain his form at quarterback after a tough junior year. A deep stable of running backs and wide receiver Jahan Dotson’s decision to forgo the NFL draft gives the offense a bright outlook.
Jahan Dotson scored all three Penn State touchdowns – including this spectacular grab – in the Nittany Lions' loss to Ohio State. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren, USA TODAY Sports)
17. Southern California
Kedon Slovis will be a Heisman contender after throwing for 1,921 yards and 17 touchdowns in just six games. There's young talent at wide receiver to catch his passes. A more reliable running game would take some pressure off him, however. Korey Foreman, the No. 1 high school recruit, can provide an immediate impact on the defensive line.
This spot might be too low for the the Hawkeyes, who finished with six consecutive wins. Spencer Petras had a solid first season at quarterback. How he continues to develop will determine how far the offense can go. Leading rusher Tyler Goodson will be one of the best in the Big Ten again. Zach VanValkenburg is among the many defensive returners than will make Iowa difficult to score on.
19. Miami (Fla.)
An injury to D'Eriq King in the bowl game changes some of the outlook for the Hurricanes. The dynamic quarterback elevated the offense as the Hurricanes showed promise and inconsistency. If King is back to his usual self by the opener against Alabama, that would be a good sign. However, responsibility also lies on the defense. A bright spot: leading tackler Bubba Bolden is staying to lead the secondary.
The ousting of Tom Herman and arrival of Steve Sarkisian will make for an interesting culture change in Austin. Sam Ehlinger also departs, leaving a huge hole at quarterback. Casey Thompson, who starred in the Alamo Bowl, and Hudson Card get the first chance to be the starter in an offense that should be more aggressive downfield. Running back Bijan Robinson should be a star if the offensive line can provide enough holes and he gets enough carries. There are pieces on defense to build around if someone can bring them together.
21. Arizona State
A truncated season of four games robbed us of seeing quarterback Jayden Daniels and his progression. The rising junior should contend for Pac-12 honors and lead an offense that will be improved as young players were given opportunities in the available games. The defense brings back almost all its key contributors, especially in the secondary. Contending for the conference title is a realistic goal.
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) runs for a touchdown past Oregon State linebacker Doug Taumoelau at Reser Stadium. (Photo: Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports)
Jim Harbaugh's contract extension answered one question for the Wolverines. There's still the matter of how they're going to compete even for second place in the Big Ten East. J.J. McCarthy, one of the nation's top quarterback recruits, could be the answer to concerns at the position if Joe Milton and Cade McNamara can't seize the job. Better play from the offensive line will help whomever is behind center. The defense has to improve after coordinator Don Brown was let go.
23. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy just churns out productive offenses even as his stars depart. The same will be true next season with quarterback Spencer Sanders leading what should be one of the top units in the Big 12. If the defense, led by a strong front line, can boost its performance, this has the makings of a team that can reach its first conference title game.
24. Coastal Carolina
What can the Chanticleers do for an encore? Hopes of repeating an unbeaten regular season rest on the shoulders of quarterback Grayson McCall, who was brilliant as a freshman. There are some key losses, including running back C.J. Marable and defensive lineman Tarron Jackson, to overcome, but enough contributors return to win the Sun Belt again.
25. Boise State
Losing its championship game and then having its coach leave would be a shock to most programs. Not for Boise State, where consistency has been king for the past two decades. Incoming coach Andy Avalos will bring his defensive acumen to the Broncos. Expect more out of quarterback Hank Bachmeier, who has dealt with injuries and inconsistency in his first two seasons.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith
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