The top 25 college football rankings are the bottom-line determination of a team’s fate. Beginning with the Associated Press and Amway polls, and followed by the College Football Playoff rankings, the NCAA football pecking order becomes clearer as the season goes on.
Of course, nothing was normal in 2020, but now that the postseason is underway, it’s becoming far clearer who’s a legitimate team and who’s a pretender. After an action-packed New Year’s Day to kick off 2021, Alabama emerged victorious over Notre Dame, while Ohio State pulled a slight upset in blowing out Clemson in the second College Football Playoff semifinal, making for a fantastic Buckeyes-Crimson Tide grand finale for the national championship.
At Sportsnaut, we’ll continue to spice up your weekly college football rankings until the season ends. Instead of sticking to the status quo of the AP or Amway polls, or even the CFP rankings, check out our own editorial NCAA gridiron hierarchy, which will be updated a little more and feature some bold departures from how the primary polls stack up.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0)
Is Mac Jones the new Joe Burrow? Not quite, but Jones has made a similar leap from relative obscurity and afterthought to legitimate Heisman candidate and NFL draft prospect. He also threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns against Burrow’s former team, LSU, in the Tide’s 55-17 blowout win weeks ago, and guided the Tide to a 52-46 triumph over Florida to win the SEC title.
Jones could well win the national title, the Heisman and be drafted in the first round, and all of the Crimson Tide’s trademark strengths are still there: an elite defense and punishing rushing attack. Combine that with a precise passer like Jones (77%) who isn’t afraid to take downfield shots, and it seems unlikely anyone will dethrone Alabama. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith had three touchdown catches in a 31-14 CFP semifinal rout of Notre Dame, joining running back Najee Harris as a 20-TD scorer in 2020.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (7-0)
This team played sluggishly against Indiana, as quarterback Justin Fields threw as many interceptions (three) versus the Hoosiers as he had all of last season and the start of 2020 combined. The Buckeyes defense also contributed to a flat second-half effort in Week 12 that resulted in a 42-35 close call in Columbus.
Fields looked bad in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, managing only 12 completions in 27 pass attempts with two picks. Running back Trey Sermon bailed the Buckeyes out with an epic performance rushing the football 331 yards on 29 carries.
An easy schedule and a conference title in a reputable Power 5 cluster meant the CFP selection committee wouldn’t knock the Buckeyes out unless they lost. Instead of falling apart against Clemson, though, to Fields’ credit, he threw six touchdown passes, overcame a monster hit and led Ohio State to a 49-28 victory in the Sugar Bowl. Now, a national title tilt with Alabama awaits.
3. Clemson Tigers (10-2)
The loss to Notre Dame stuck out, but even without Trevor Lawrence for that marquee duel, the Tigers nearly pulled it off in South Bend. Lawrence has been back in the lineup, and Clemson got their chance at redemption in the ACC Championship Game and took full advantage of it. Turns out, Lawrence is a big deal. He accounted for 412 yards of total offense in a 34-10 romp.
Losing so much defensive talent to the NFL in the past couple of seasons showed when the Tigers got beat by Ohio State in the postseason. Lawrence couldn’t do enough to outduel Fields despite throwing for 400 yards. It’ll be interesting to see how Clemson moves forward in 2021 without Lawrence and a defense that just got shredded on the playoff stage.
4. Texas A&M Aggies (9-1)
The Aggies owned the No. 3 third-down offense in the country, converting on 54.89% of such tries on the most critical plays of the game. On the other side of the ball, Texas A&M concedes just 3.3 yards per rush, creating quite the lethal complementary football combination.
What’s telling about this bunch of players is how they responded following a 52-24 defeat to Alabama, as Mac Jones had his coming-out party with 435 yards passing. Instead of folding like a cheap suit, the Aggies proceeded to score the final 10 points in a 41-38 victory over Florida the next week, and have been rolling ever since. Unfortunately, an 8-1 record in the SEC wasn’t enough to get into the College Football Playoff, but Texas A&M pulled off a 41-27 win over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl.
5. Georgia Bulldogs (8-2)
In the College Football Playoff rankings and here, the Bulldogs are all the way up in the top 10. Wow. It’s interesting to wonder whether Jamie Newman opting out of the 2020 campaign doomed Georgia from the jump. The Wake Forest grad transfer might’ve provided a pivotal QB upgrade, but that’s all water under the bridge at this point.
Stetson Bennett came up small against Alabama and Florida, as the Bulldogs pivoted to JT Daniels too late. Since Florida only lost once down the stretch, there wasn’t a conference title clash for Georgia to look forward to. The Bulldogs nevertheless staged a valiant rally from a 21-10, fourth-quarter deficit in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, managing to pull out a 24-21 win.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats (9-1)
Opponents only gained a meager 4.1 yards per play against the Bearcats’ vaunted defense in the regular season. That unit is a big reason why Cincinnati jumped out to a 9-0 record. This secondary yielded a 93.6 opponent passer rating, good for second only to Northwestern during their undefeated streak.
One would think Cincy’s nearly perfect mark would merit a higher spot, but the quality of the Power 5 gives those teams the edge, as is the case in other major college football rankings. However, after falling just short to Georgia in the Peach Bowl, the College Football Playoff committee came under fire.
7. Oklahoma Sooners (9-2)
Someone tell Sooners coach Lincoln Riley he has this quarterback thing all figured out. Now it’s time for Oklahoma — and heck, the Big 12 in general — to recruit a defense. Get some real talent on that side of the ball, and the Sooners should have the goods to win a national championship during Riley’s tenure if he doesn’t bolt for the NFL.
Hope could be on the horizon for the program’s defensive efforts, however. After a convincing 41-13 triumph over rival Oklahoma State and a 27-14 win over Baylor, it looks like Riley and Co. may have just peaked too late to have a chance at the playoffs in 2020. The defense did get the job done by forcing three interceptions in a 27-21 victory over Iowa State to win the Big 12 title.
All phases came together for Oklahoma to crush a shorthanded Florida team 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl, which boosts the Sooners nearly into the playoff picture in Sportsnaut’s latest college football rankings.
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-2)
After that prime-time, signature win for coach Brian Kelly’s program over Clemson, it seemed like the Fighting Irish might finally be getting over the hump on the big stage. They’ve had success during Kelly’s tenure, yet Notre Dame is always looked down upon as a legitimate national title contender. All that may have changed this season. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Irish got blown out with the ACC championship on the line.
Quarterback Ian Book is limited as a passer, and that tended to show up more often than not against elite competition, including in Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama. The devastating defeat at the hands of Clemson evidently created a hangover effect for the College Football Playoff, and the Irish will go back to the drawing board to figure out how to get over the hump next year.
9. Florida Gators (8-4)
The defense routinely produced pro-caliber players. What’s different about Florida this year is the emergence of a long-awaited star signal-caller. Kyle Trask is answering the bell for coach Dan Mullen’s offense.
Aided by the presence of slam-dunk first-round pick Kyle Pitts as college football’s best tight end, Trask balled out this year, finishing with a nation-leading 43 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions. Unfortunately, two of those picks came against LSU and proved costly in the Gators’ loss, crushing what remained of their fading playoff hopes.
Following a valiant effort to play spoiler to Alabama in the SEC title game, Pitts and several other key playmakers opted out of Florida’s bowl game, resulting in an ugly loss to Oklahoma in which Trask threw three INTs and hurt his 2021 NFL Draft stock.
10. BYU Cougars (11-1)
Quarterback Zach Wilson couldn’t do enough to vault the Cougars into the College Football Playoff, as they fell to Coastal Carolina. Establishing himself this year as a top-10 NFL draft prospect, Wilson is the type of game-changing presence at the most vital spot on the field who could help an underdog slay one of college football’s giants in the postseason.
Wilson got a shot to prove himself to pro scouts in a bowl game, and made the most of it, throwing for 425 yards and accounting for five total touchdowns to cap his collegiate career (presumably) with a 49-23 romp over UCF. In the initial College Football Playoff rankings, the committee had it about right by slotting BYU in 14th, but Wilson boosts the Cougars a little higher here.
11. Iowa State Cyclones (9-3)
That Big 12 showdown with Texas was telling, as Iowa State pulled off a 23-20 win and used that momentum to blow out West Virginia 42-6 in Week 14. Although the Cyclones were previously atop the Big 12 with a 8-1 conference record, they didn’t feel like the best team. That honor went to reigning champion Oklahoma before the teams met in the Big 12 Championship Game this past weekend. It’s unclear why the major polls loved Iowa State so much. The Cyclones deserved to be double-digit underdogs to the Sooners.
Quarterback Brock Purdy has been far too error-prone in big spots for someone who’s essentially a third-year starter, particularly with the nation’s leading rusher in Breece Hall alongside him in the backfield. And would you look at that? Purdy chucked three picks against Oklahoma in a game that was decided by six points. Pretty rough. Iowa State bounced back to crush Oregon 34-17 in the Fiesta Bowl to boost its ranking in our latest update, though.
12. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4)
The head coach-quarterback combination of Mack Brown and Sam Howell helps the Tar Heels reach this high on our top 25 college football rankings list. However, it was the rushing attack in Week 15 that set the sport on fire. Despite losing three times in 2020, UNC was able to hang tough with Notre Dame, entering halftime tied at 17 before falling short by a score of 31-17. Then, the Tar Heels proceeded to obliterate Miami 62-26 in Week 15, thanks to 554 yards rushing and six TDs against the Hurricanes.
Although Howell is a sophomore who ranks sixth in the country in passing yards (3,586) and sixth in touchdown throws (30), North Carolina’s backfield is incredible. Michael Carter ran for 308 yards and two scores versus Miami, while Javonte Williams added 236 yards and three trips to pay dirt. A date with Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl proved to be too much for the Tar Heels, yet they’re still among the best teams in the nation.
13. Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2)
The Hawkeyes’ two-headed backfield monster of Mekhi Sargent and Tyler Goodson is on fire at the minute, as Iowa has rattled off six straight Big Ten wins following two one-possession defeats to Purdue and Northwestern to kick off the season.
It’s too bad, because coach Kirk Ferentz really could’ve had something special with this group if they’d had a normal schedule to work out the kinks prior to conference play. No one wants any part of the Hawkeyes right now, and they made easy work of Wisconsin by a score of 28-7 to close the regular season.
14. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (11-1)
Hey now, the Sun Belt Conference is no joke — and the Chanticleers navigated themselves to an 11-0 mark before falling 37-34 to Liberty in the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl. Their swarming defensive front translated to a sack rate of 7.86% (28th in FBS). Generating that much pressure on the opposing passer wasn’t an accident.
Freshman phenom Grayson McCall was a big reason for Coastal Carolina’s immense success. He played with poise beyond his years, tossing 26 touchdowns to only three picks, with an additional seven scores and 569 yards on the ground in 2020.
15. Northwestern Wildcats (7-2)
Put coach Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch of gridiron grinders up against darn near any team in the country right now, and they’re liable to shut them down. Any opponent that’s stood in Northwestern’s way this year has been met with pure physicality and discipline, but a 29-20 loss to a wildly inconsistent Michigan State program showed the Wildcats’ offense is too limited to hang with the country’s elite.
They never really relented defensively, so the Wildcats deserve to be well inside the top 25 of these college football rankings. No less, a defeat to a previously 1-3 team is a blatant stain on a resume that’s too severe to overlook. That’s why Northwestern trails Iowa despite winning its Big Ten division and beating the Hawkeyes in a prior duel. The Wildcats are too limited on offense to justify a serious rise, evident in the loss to Ohio State.
But capping the postseason with a decisive 35-19 triumph over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl sent Northwestern out with a bang.
16. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (10-1)
Is Louisiana in here on merit, or is “Ragin’ Cajuns” so satisfying to type that it justifies their slot in these college football rankings regardless? Well, other than a 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina, Louisiana won its other 10 games, with its most notable achievement being a season-opening upset of Iowa State by a convincing 31-14 margin.
Louisiana overcame its long snapper’s waking nightmare to keep its winning streak alive heading into the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, where the Ragin’ Cajuns took care of business in a 31-24 triumph over the University of Texas at San Antonio.
17. USC Trojans (5-1)
Again, the Pac-12 slate is so limited at this point that we can’t dismiss the Trojans’ five prior victories. On the other hand, they weren’t convincing winners leading into the conference championship game, and suffered an ugly 31-24 loss to Oregon.
The Trojans defense held up pretty well against the Ducks, but quarterback Kedon Slovis — who averaged 320 yards through the air in six starts — really hindered USC with three interceptions. After being so good about avoiding giveaways, Slovis threw five picks over his last two games of 2020. He’ll need to clean that up prior to the Trojans’ bowl game.
18. Texas Longhorns (6-3)
Sam Ehlinger is one of the most gifted all-around field generals in the NCAA with his ability to run and previously demonstrated throwing prowess. Unfortunately, it feels like Ehlinger is trying to do too much at times, and his accuracy has become scattershot in the form of a 60.1% completion rate.
While the Longhorns have won four of five and are showing signs of an improved defense, they ascended higher in these rankings more due to the fact that teams ahead of them stumbled. Give them credit for ending the year on a high note, however, soundly defeating Colorado 55-23 in the Alamo Bowl.
19. Indiana Hoosiers (6-2)
The 2021 NFL draft class is probably too loaded at quarterback for Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. to consider entering. He still has multiple years of eligibility left, and after his stunning performance against Ohio State in which he threw for 491 yards and five scores, there’s reason to believe Penix could eventually lead the Hoosiers to a CFP berth before he leaves Bloomington.
Unfortunately, Penix tore his ACL in Week 13, so playoff aspirations will have to wait until at least 2021 if the rest of the Hoosiers program can pick up the slack and the signal-caller can come back with 100% health. Penix’s absence was glaring as Indiana lost 26-20 to a previously 4-5 Ole Miss team in the Outback Bowl.
20. Liberty Flames (10-1)
The Flames felt like a deserving fit toward the end of Sportsnaut’s top 25 college football rankings all season long. Thankfully, they made us look good by defeating the previously perfect Coastal Carolina Chanticleers to cap off a spectacular 2020 season.
A 15-14 loss to NC State was Liberty’s only defeat of the year. The Flames were forced to reschedule their chance to spoil Coastal Carolina’s undefeated year due to COVID-19, and after BYU stepped in but failed to get the job done, Liberty answered the bell in the postseason and came out on top.
21. Oklahoma State Cowboys (8-3)
The late-season opt out from star running back Chuba Hubbard didn’t hinder the Cowboys as much as expected, yet their three losses in 10 games and lack of true signature wins hurt them throughout the 2020 campaign.
That is, until the Cheez-It Bowl, where Oklahoma State managed to defeat Miami (Florida) 37-34 thanks in large part to quarterback Spencer Sanders, who threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns.
22. Miami Hurricanes (8-3)
Let’s give the ACC some love. The haters have said for years Clemson just beats on the bad competition in that conference, yet with Notre Dame joining the fray and the Hurricanes in the midst of a resurgence under second-year coach Manny Diaz, it’s not the cakewalk it was in seasons past. That was proven more than ever when Miami’s defense got shredded by UNC in Week 15.
Graduate transfer quarterback D’Eriq King is the type of dual-threat dynamo who can galvanize a team, albeit not as much as, say, BYU’s Wilson or Ohio State’s Fields. Nevertheless, King threw for 2,686 yards and rushed for 538 yards in 2020. Despite the horrid performance against the Tar Heels, Miami hung tough versus Oklahoma State in the bowl game despite losing King to a torn ACL. That helps them remain in the top 25.
23. San Jose State Spartans (7-1)
Running through the underrated Mountain West with an unblemished record isn’t exactly an easy feat. It’s also an impressive rise for Spartans coach Brent Brennan, who won only three games in his first two seasons and went 5-7 in 2019. Already achieving a new high in wins at San Jose State, Brennan has rewarded the program’s patience in a big way.
Boise State is the traditional power in this conference, yet the Spartans got a crack at them for the Mountain West crown last Saturday and didn’t disappoint, securing a 34-20 win.
Unfortunately, the team lost its bowl game to Ball State 34-13. It was revealed just prior to kickoff that six key players and two coaches would be out for the Arizona Bowl. Whatever happened there, the ugly loss dropped the Spartans all the way down here from No. 17 in our last rankings.
24. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (6-3)
The reason Tulsa hangs in here at No. 24 is because the Golden Hurricane fought hard in a 28-26 loss to Mississippi State in the Armed Forces Bowl despite being without their best player in linebacker Zaven Collins. A potential first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Collins was instrumental in the team’s success in 2020, and didn’t want to risk injury prior to making the leap to the pros.
It’s a bittersweet end to his collegiate career, but probably the best long-term move for Collins. As for Tulsa’s top-25 candidacy, the team’s only other losses were by nine to Oklahoma State in the opener, and a 27-24 close call versus Cincinnati.
25. Ball State Cardinals (7-1)
Edging ahead of NC State in this latest update are the Cardinals, whose previously cited romp over San Jose State can’t be ignored. Ball State did, after all, win the MAC championship this season, limiting prolific Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson to 47 yards on 18 carries in the conference title game.
That type of defensive effort isn’t an accident, and Ball State proved its season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio) was more a fluke than anything else by crushing the Spartans in a favorable bowl matchup.