The NCAA top 25 football rankings are the bottom-line determination of a team’s fate. Beginning with the Associated Press and coaches polls, and followed by the College Football Playoff rankings, the college football pecking order becomes clearer as the season goes on.
At Sportsnaut, we’ll continue to spice up your college football rankings leading up to the 2021 campaign. 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 are liable to feature some bold departures from how the primary polls stack up.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (Previous Ranking: 1)
Nick Saban simply restocks and reloads with the best talent in the country every year. The Alabama Crimson Tide have had an endless line of great receivers, backs and offensive linemen, so replacing DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Najee Harris and reshuffling the o-line won’t be too difficult.
Fans should be excited about quarterback Bryce Young, who threw for more yards (344) and touchdowns (four) than any QB in his first start in school history. What could’ve been a tough test against the Miami Hurricanes instead turned into a 44-13 rout. Week 3 was a much steeper challenge at Florida, but the Tide pulled out a 31-29 win. That might be just what Young and Co. needed for a wake-up call after nearly blowing a 21-3 lead.
2. Georgia Bulldogs (Previous Ranking: 2)
The Bulldogs are going to be a constant presence in the top five. Given how thoroughly Georgia’s defense shut down Clemson in Week 1’s monumental 10-3 triumph, the offense just has to avoid major errors to keep the Bulldogs in the CFP conversation. Stetson Bennett threw five touchdowns in place of an injured JT Daniels in Week 2’s rout of UAB, but Daniels returned this Saturday to hit 300-plus yards passing and three scores versus South Carolina.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes (Previous Ranking: 5)
Iowa rattled off six straight Big Ten wins following two one-possession defeats to Purdue and Northwestern to kick off the 2020 season. Coach Kirk Ferentz really could’ve had something special with his group last year, but wow, what a statement the Hawkeyes made in steamrolling the Indiana Hoosiers 34-6 in the 2021 opener. They followed that up by crushing Iowa State 27-17 to claim the Cy-Hawk Trophy, and beat Kent State 30-7 on Saturday. Iowa is rolling.
4. Oregon Ducks (Previous Ranking: 7)
It was really hard to evaluate Oregon given its limited 2020 schedule. Coach Mario Cristobal’s team was poised to climb these college football rankings in rapid fashion with a quality start in 2021. Even without star defender Kayvon Thibodeaux in Week 2’s matchup with Ohio State, Oregon managed to pull off an improbable victory in Columbus, so all the credit to the Ducks. They proved this author wrong, and blew out Stony Brook this weekend as they should’ve.
5. Oklahoma Sooners (Previous Ranking: 3)
Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley is a quarterback whisperer. With signal-caller Spencer Rattler’s confidence growing in the second half of 2020, Oklahoma was assumed to return to the College Football Playoff in 2021 and continue to dominate Big 12 competition. We didn’t overreact too much to the Sooners’ second-half letdown in their 40-35 Week 1 victory over Tulane, but their inexplicably close 23-16 win over Nebraska is a massive red flag.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats (Previous Ranking: 4)
The College Football Playoff committee should have more respect for Cincinnati now. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back to lead the offense, and is a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Week 3’s road game against Indiana resulted in a 38-24 win for the Bearcats that was closer than the score would suggest. Not pretty, but they got it done.
7. Florida Gators (Previous Ranking: 11)
In 2020, Kyle Trask had a nation-leading 43 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions. Unfortunately, he’s gone, along with generational tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney. Junior quarterback Emory Jones performed better than expected in Week 3’s showdown with Alabama, so even though the Gators lost, they’ve earned a lot more respect in our latest college football rankings for how tough they played the Crimson Tide.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions (Previous Ranking: 10)
When the Nittany Lions opened the 2020 season with five straight losses, the program looked like it was lost under coach James Franklin. It’s a testament to his leadership and the players dealing with such serious adversity that Penn State banded together and won the next four to finish the year on a high note. Franklin and Co. now have two huge wins in 2021: A 16-10 victory over Wisconsin to kick off the year, and a 28-20 triumph over Auburn.
9. Texas A&M Aggies (Previous Ranking: 8)
A 52-24 defeat to Alabama last season ultimately prevented the Aggies from reaching the College Football Playoff in 2020. Texas A&M does have several quality players returning. With Jimbo Fisher still at the helm as coach, the Aggies have lots of star returnees who can help them contend in the SEC. After barely beating Colorado 10-7, as starting QB Haynes King exited early with an injury, Zach Calzada played much better in Week 3’s 34-0 win over New Mexico.
10. Ole Miss Rebels (Previous Ranking: 14)
Matt Corral is among the most gifted QBs in the nation. He proved that during a blowout 43-24 win over an overmatched Louisville Cardinals team Labor Day night. Corral completed 22-of-32 passes for 381 yards. The Rebels, without head coach Lane Kiffin, recorded a whopping 31 first downs and 569 total yards of offense in the blowout win. Corral threw another five TDs in a blowout of Austin Peay. Chug that Corral Heisman hype train!
11. Ohio State Buckeyes (Previous Ranking: 9)
Quarterback Justin Fields is now on the Chicago Bears, but redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud is taking over and generating early Heisman hype. The Buckeyes defense looked shaky in the opener at Minnesota, and was downright terrible against Oregon. Stroud threw for 484 yards and lost. Ohio State has some things to seriously clean up to reignite its playoff hopes.
12. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (Previous Ranking: 14)
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 last year. Grayson McCall tossed 26 touchdowns to only three picks, with an additional seven scores and 569 yards on the ground in 2020. He’s is a big reason we continue to be bullish on the Chanticleers amid their 3-0 start to this season.
13. UCLA Bruins (Previous Ranking: 13)
Chip Kelly, to his credit, has overcome a slow start at UCLA to build a solid team for 2021. A roster stacked with experienced players and graduate transfer castoffs came together to beat LSU 38-27 in Week 1. An exotic defense and Kelly’s evolved offense will keep the team competitive in the Pac-12, and a stunning Week 3 loss to Fresno State shouldn’t count too much against UCLA, because the Bulldogs are legit.
14. LSU Tigers (Previous Ranking: 16)
Let’s not overreact to LSU’s 5-5 mark of a season ago, or its opening 38-27 defeat at the hands of a severely underrated UCLA team to begin 2021. Lockdown cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. returns to lead another loaded defense, and you can expect the Tigers to reascend in the SEC after a down year. With Max Johnson starting at quarterback, the offense should be in really good hands.
15. Clemson Tigers (Previous Ranking: 6)
While the defense should be improved from a season ago, the Tigers are really hurting without transcendent quarterback and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Trevor Lawrence. He went 34-2 as a starter, led Clemson to the College Football Playoff in all three of his years and won a national championship. D.J. Uiagalelei got overwhelmed in the loss to Georgia. The Tigers barely beat Georgia Tech in Week 3. They come crashing down the rankings as a result.
16. Liberty Flames (Previous Ranking: 18)
The Flames felt like a deserving fit toward the end of Sportsnaut’s top 25 college football rankings all season long last year. Thankfully, they made us look good by defeating previously perfect Coastal Carolina to cap off a spectacular 2020 campaign. We’re fully aboard the Malik Willis bandwagon. Jump on before it’s no longer trendy!
17. Auburn Tigers (Previous Ranking: NR)
Putting Auburn this high up following a loss may seem strange, since the Tigers weren’t in our top 25 before this week. But Penn State’s Beaver Stadium is arguably the hardest place to play in college football. QB Bo Nix and Auburn really competed well against the Nittany Lions in a 28-20 loss. On a neutral field, the outcome may have been different.
18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Previous Ranking: 17)
It took an historical performance from Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan in his Notre Dame debut for the Irish to come away with a hard-fought overtime win over a game Florida State team in Tallahassee. Home cooking didn’t help the Irish much more in Week 2, as they barely beat Toledo 32-29. They were better in their latest win versus Purdue, but in Week 5’s duel with Cincinnati, if not the next game against Wisconsin, Notre Dame should be considered an underdog.
19. North Carolina Tar Heels (Previous Ranking: 19)
The head coach-quarterback combination of Mack Brown and Sam Howell helps the Tar Heels remain on our top 25 college football rankings list despite a 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech in Week 1. Howell lost his two best receivers and the backfield tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. UNC recovered against Georgia State in Week 2, and Howell had the offense absolutely rolling, hanging five touchdown passes and 59 points, all told, on Virginia on Saturday.
20. BYU Cougars (Previous Ranking: NR)
The winner of Week 3’s BYU-Arizona State matchup would almost go here by default, and the Cougars soundly beat the Sun Devils 27-17. QB Jaren Hall almost gets BYU here on his own. You have to love how hall is filling the massive shoes in succeeding New York Jets No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson. Impressive stuff.
21. Fresno State Bulldogs (Previous Ranking: NR)
Let the record show that on our list of top 10 college football quarterbacks, Fresno State’s Jeff Haener was added even before the stuff-of-legends winning effort he pulled off on Saturday in a road upset at UCLA. That Bruins defense is legit, and they battered Haener, who hung tough and showed that the Bulldogs belong among college football’s best.
22. USC Trojans (Previous Ranking: 22)
Quarterback Kedon Slovis was sharp in Week 1’s 30-7 win over San Jose State, but the Trojans were just terrible in their 42-28 Week 2 loss to Stanford, leading to the firing of coach Clay Helton. Slovis got injured in Week 3, but his backup, Jaxson Dart, threw for nearly 400 yards in a win over Washington State. Thus, USC maintains its spot in our top 25 despite obvious instability around the program at the moment.
23. Texas Longhorns (Previous Ranking: 20)
This team is a complete wild card, with longtime quarterback Sam Ehlinger leaving, along with versatile offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi, dynamic edge-rusher Joseph Ossai and defensive back Caden Sterns. New head coach Steve Sarkisian did begin his tenure by crushing Louisiana-Lafayette 38-18, but the Longhorns laid an absolute egg in a 40-21 loss to Arkansas in Week 2. Maybe Texas isn’t ready for the SEC just yet.
24. Iowa State Cyclones (Previous Ranking: 23)
Quarterback Brock Purdy has been far too error-prone in big spots. Iowa State barely won its game against Northern Iowa in Week 1. The Cyclones should’ve crushed their clearly inferior intrastate foe. That’s proved to be an ominous sign for Week 2’s duel with the Iowa Hawkeyes, as Purdy threw three interceptions and got benched late. Woof. Iowa State definitely remains one of the most overrated teams in the country.
25. Michigan Wolverines (Previous Ranking: NR)
Cautious optimism here for Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines. They’re off and running to a 3-0 start, literally, as tailback Blake Corum is driving a stellar rushing attack, and giving Michigan something to build around on offense. We’ll see if the Wolverines hold up when they run the gauntlet of their Big Ten schedule, but so far, so good.
College football rankings: Teams in the hunt
- UL Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
- Michigan State Spartans
- Arizona State Sun Devils