The NCAA top 25 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 college football pecking order becomes clearer as the season goes on.
Of course, nothing was normal in 2020, but now with a new season to look forward to, it’s time to break down who the best of the best are across the country. Alabama didn’t leave much to doubt in the College Football Playoff finale, crushing Ohio State 52-24 to win yet another national championship under the legendary Nick Saban. Can the Crimson Tide do it again this coming season?
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
Losing two Heisman Trophy finalists and the winner of the award would be enough to devastate just about any other program outside of Tuscaloosa. That’s not the case for the Tide, though, because Saban simply restocks and reloads with the best talent in the country every year.
Alabama has had an endless line of great receivers, backs and offensive linemen, so replacing DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris won’t be too difficult. However, fans should be really excited about prized quarterback Bryce Young, a dual-threat dynamo who presents a totally different element to the offense that Mac Jones couldn’t provide.
2. Clemson Tigers
While the defense should be improved from a season ago, the Tigers are really going to be hurting without transcendent quarterback and probable 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. The good news? Lawrence’s presumptive successor D.J. Uiagalelei had to face Notre Dame in 2020, and acquitted himself well with 439 yards passing and two touchdowns.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Quarterback Justin Fields is on the way out, so the most important position is very much up in the air in Columbus. The Buckeyes defense had also been dealing with losing consecutive No. 2 overall pick pass-rushers to the NFL in Nick Bosa and Chase Young. Those who are returning on that side of the ball should help Ohio State remain among the nation’s elite, and they’ll be fired up to improve after the embarrassing CFP showing versus Alabama.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley is a quarterback whisperer, this much we know. The Big 12 is a wasteland of bad defenses, though, and Oklahoma needed talent therein to contend with the big dogs from other Power 5 conferences. Well, Riley has recruited the players to get it done defensively, too, and with signal-caller Spencer Rattler’s confidence growing in the second half of 2020, look out for the Sooners to return to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
5. Texas A&M Aggies
A 52-24 defeat to Alabama last season ultimately prevented the Aggies from reaching the College Football Playoff, and now quarterback Kellen Mond is headed to the NFL. Texas A&M does have quite a few quality players returning, though, and with Jimbo Fisher still at the helm as coach continuing to bring in high-end recruits, don’t count Texas A&M out. The Aggies returnees can use their 41-27 win over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl as a springboard to stride into the new season confidently.
6. Georgia Bulldogs
In the College Football Playoff rankings and here, the Bulldogs are going to be a constant presence in the top 10. After some uncertainty at the quarterback position in 2020, as Stetson Bennett came up small against Alabama and Florida, JT Daniels stepped in and rallied the team to a 21-10, fourth-quarter deficit in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, managing to pull out a 24-21 win. Daniels should be the starter this coming season and have Georgia squarely in the SEC title mix.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
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, Howell is going to have to rely on an entirely new cast of skill players, as he’s losing receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome along with an electrifying backfield tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. If he can overcome those losses, Howell has the chance to be a first-round NFL Draft prospect in 2022.
8. Iowa State Cyclones
Quarterback Brock Purdy has been far too error-prone in big spots for someone who’s going to be a fourth-year starter, particularly with 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, though, so maybe Purdy will use all his experience as a senior to boost the Cyclones to a Big 12 title.
9. Florida Gators
The defense routinely produced pro-caliber players. What was different about Florida in 2020 was the emergence of a long-awaited star signal-caller. Kyle Trask had a nation-leading 43 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions. Unfortunately, he’s gone, along with tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney, which is why coach Dan Mullens’ Gators barely check in at the top 10 in our initial college football rankings update ahead of the 2021 season.
10. Cincinnati Bearcats
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 last season. This secondary yielded a 93.6 opponent passer rating, good for second only to Northwestern during their undefeated streak. The College Football Playoff committee should have more respect for the Bearcats going forward, especially after their strong bowl showing versus Georgia. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back to lead the offense, and has the skills to be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
11. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa rattled off six straight Big Ten wins following two one-possession defeats to Purdue and Northwestern to kick off the 2020 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. Don’t sleep on the Hawkeyes in 2021, because they have a promising nucleus in place to be extremely competitive in the Big Ten.
12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Irish got blown out with the ACC championship on the line in a rematch versus Clemson, and again by Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Losing quarterback Ian Book and several other key players like linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah won’t help Notre Dame this coming year, either.
13. USC Trojans
Quarterback Kedon Slovis struggled down the stretch as a sophomore, throwing five interceptions in his final two games, including three picks in the 31-24 loss to Oregon. After being so good about avoiding giveaways, Slovis had lapses in decision-making. Chances are, he’s going to bounce back in a big way, and the rest of the Trojans are going to pick it up to help restore this tradition-rich program among college football’s elite in a hopefully less pandemic-hindered 2021 season.
14. Indiana Hoosiers
The 2021 NFL draft class was 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 of last season, so he’ll need to come back healthy for Indiana to rank higher than here in the college football hierarchy.
15. LSU Tigers
Let’s not overreact to LSU’s 5-5 mark of a season ago. Coach Ed Orgeron was dealing with an impossible amount of turnover and COVID-19 protocols on top of that. Lockdown cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. returns to lead another loaded defense, and you can expect LSU to reascend in the SEC after a down year. Whether Max Johnson or Myles Brennan starts at quarterback, the offense should be in really good hands, as both players showed flashes of promise in 2020.
16. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
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 success. He tossed 26 touchdowns to only three picks, with an additional seven scores and 569 yards on the ground in 2020. McCall is a big reason we continue to be bullish on the Chanticleers.
17. Texas Longhorns
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. There’s a lot of work to do for new head coach Steve Sarkisian, but his splendid tenure as Alabama’s masterful offensive coordinator is reason for Longhorns fans to hope for things to turn around rather quickly.
18. Liberty Flames
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 the previously perfect Coastal Carolina Chanticleers to cap off a spectacular 2020 campaign. A 15-14 loss to NC State was Liberty’s only defeat of the year, and with signal-caller Malik Willis (20 TD passes, 14 rush TDs) returning to lead the team, look for the Flames to continue lighting up the scoreboard in 2021.
19. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys’ three losses in 10 games and lack of true signature wins hurt them throughout 2020.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. Sanders is coming back, so there’s reason to believe the Cowboys’ offense should continue to be a problem for opponents.
20. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
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 last season, with its most notable achievement being a season-opening upset of Iowa State by a convincing 31-14 margin. Until the Ragin’ Cajuns show they can’t compete with the elite, they’re deserving of a place in the top 25.
21. Miami Hurricanes
Quarterback D’Eriq King is the type of dual-threat dynamo who can galvanize a team. He threw for 2,686 yards and rushed for 538 yards in 2020. Despite a horrid team performance against North Carolina, Miami hung tough versus Oklahoma State in its bowl game despite losing King to a torn ACL. The injury was a devastating setback for King, who’s aiming to return in 2021 for one last go with the Hurricanes, which keeps them in the top 25.
22. Wisconsin Badgers
Quarterback Graham Mertz is only going to be a sophomore, so just by the sheer experience he gained amid a turbulent freshman season, he’ll be well-equipped to deal with the inevitable expectations that are part of the territory in leading the Badgers offense. Wisconsin is always sound in the trenches and play disciplined. Its 2020 losses were to Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana. They’re all quality opponents, and a sign the Badgers are close to building something special around Mertz, provided he can rise to the occasion.
23. Oregon Ducks
It’s really hard to evaluate Oregon given its limited 2020 schedule, but there’s a real chance coach Mario Cristobal’s team can climb these college football rankings in rapid fashion with a quality start in 2021. Winning the Pac-12 after losses to Oregon State and California this last season was impressive, and there are enough returning players to suggest the Ducks are in for their best year in quite some time.
24. Northwestern Wildcats
Put coach Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch of gridiron grinders up against darn near any team in the country, and they’re liable to shut them down. Any opponent that’s stood in Northwestern’s way this past year has been met with pure physicality and discipline. Fitzgerald was handsomely rewarded with a contract extension for the next decade, which secures his long-term future with the Wildcats and should have them fired up to build an even better winner in the years to come.
25. Penn State Nittany Lions
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. will be back and reemerge as a Big Ten contender. Such resiliency isn’t by accident.