So much has happened since Alabama completed a perfect season by overwhelming Ohio State.
Players can now make money off their name, image and likeness, and can transfer once without having to sit out. The College Football Playoff Board of Managers has approved plans to expand to 12 teams, though what year that will take place is uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma will be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC beginning in 2025 at the latest. The Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC have created an alliance, to protect themselves against the increasing power the SEC now wields, and formed a scheduling partnership.
And, yet, so much is still the same. Playoff mainstays Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State enter the season as favorites in their respective conferences. The Big 12 and Pac-12 feel they have teams capable of snapping their recent playoff omissions. There are dark horses with the potential to crash the party and the Heisman Trophy race appears wide open.
It’s all here in The Post’s college football preseason Top 25:
Surprise, surprise, the upstarts from Tuscaloosa start No. 1. This, obviously, is no surprise. Nick Saban’s powerhouse has started No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll four times in the past six years. There are offensive questions for the Crimson Tide, which lost Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith, record-setting quarterback Mac Jones and do-it-all tailback Najee Harris — all first-round picks. But this being Alabama, there are premier prospects waiting in the wings, most notably quarterback Bryce Young and electric wideout John Metchie III, and an improved defense that includes tackling machine Henry To’o To’o, a Tennessee transfer.
A poor start ruined the Sooners’ playoff chances a year ago, but their finish — eight straight wins capped by a 55-20 bludgeoning of Florida in the Cotton Bowl — provided offseason momentum. The defense, for years the unit holding back Oklahoma, made significant progress and returns elite linebacker Nik Bonitto to lead a stout front seven. After throwing 28 touchdowns in 11 starts, quarterback Spencer Rattler is a Heisman Trophy favorite, and he is surrounded by a deep array of playmakers. The one downside is a soft non-conference schedule that eliminates any margin for error.
There is life after Trevor Lawrence. Clemson is replacing one blue-chip quarterback prospect with another. In two starts a year ago, D.J. Uiagalelei completed 59 of 85 passes for 781 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and also ran for two scores. He won’t have Travis Etienne to hand the ball off to — the ACC’s all-time leading rusher is Lawrence’s teammate with the Jaguars — but top receiver Justyn Ross is back after missing all of last season due to a spinal injury. The defense, which expectedly took a slight step back last year with so many new faces, returns 10 starters and is loaded up front. A seventh straight playoff berth seems likely, especially if Clemson can get by Georgia in Week 1.
4. Ohio State
More and more, the value of elite wide receivers increases in this space-emphasized sport, and Ohio State may have the best tandem in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Add bulldozing running back Master Teague III and a strong offensive line, and the Buckeyes’ offense promises to be lethal, even if it takes time for redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud — Justin Fields’ replacement — to find his footing. Since winning it all in 2014, Ohio State has reached the playoffs three times but fallen short. It won’t get over the hump unless the defense, which has been decimated in recent years by NFL defections, takes a major step forward.
USC transfer JT Daniels looked like the long-awaited answer at quarterback for Georgia late last year in throwing 10 touchdown passes, two interceptions and completing 67.2 percent of his passes in wins over Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina and Cincinnati. Now, he has to do it across an entire season, and likely without star wideout George Pickens, who tore his ACL in the spring. Still, running back Zamir White looks like an emerging star, the offensive line returns three starters, the addition of LSU transfer Arik Gilbert at tight end could be significant — if he returns from personal leave — and the defense should remain formidable, led by all-SEC first-team selection Jordan Davis up front.
6. Iowa State
The Cyclones rose to a program-best eighth in the nation last year in the AP poll and finished ninth, their highest ever. Following the return of star running back Breece Hall, quality quarterback Brock Purdy and playmaking tight end Charlie Kolar, in addition to a host of key defensive players, expectations have risen. Anything but a league crown would be a disappointment.
7. Texas A&M
If anyone had a legitimate argument about being left out of the playoff last year, it was the Aggies, whose lone loss came at Alabama. They knocked off Florida and manhandled North Carolina in the Orange Bowl. Repeating last season’s second-place finish in the rugged SEC West will likely come down to the quarterback position — former four-star recruit Haynes King takes over after Kellen Mond moved on to the NFL. The defense, the SEC’s best a year ago, has nine starters back and top offensive pieces — like running back Isaiah Spiller, tight end Jalen Wydermyer, tackle Kenyon Green and receiver Ainias Smith — return as well.
The schedule, featuring trips to Notre Dame and Indiana, theoretically gives the Bearcats a shot at the playoff. So does the return of dynamic quarterback Desmond Ridder, shutdown cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and playmaking defensive end Myjai Sanders. Of course, until expansion arrives, a non-Power Five program is as likely to get invited as the Jets and Giants meeting in this year’s Super Bowl. But at least Cincinnati would have a leg to stand on if it can run the table.
The Pac-12’s best shot at snapping its five-year playoff drought, the Ducks return premier talent on defense, from defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to linebacker Noah Sewell to defensive back Mykael Wright, and all their key playmakers on offense. Quarterback remains a mystery, whether coach Mario Cristobal goes the safe route with experienced signal-caller Anthony Brown or rolls the dice on true freshman Ty Thompson, a gifted four-star recruit.
By the end of September, it should be apparent if the Badgers are a playoff contender, after games against Penn State and Notre Dame. Sophomores Graham Mertz (quarterback) and Jalen Berger (running back) represent the present and future of the offense after showing flashes of promise as freshmen. The defense, which allowed just 299.9 yards per game a year ago (fifth in nation), returns several key contributors, but none more important than linebacker Jack Sanborn, the leading tackler the previous two seasons.
11. Notre Dame
It wouldn’t be accurate to say Notre Dame is rebuilding. Reloading seems a bit too aggressive as well, after losing so many key pieces — from quarterback Ian Book to offensive linemen Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey to Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. A transition season is more like it. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan of Long Island is the new Irish quarterback, and the addition of impact Marshall transfer Cain Madden up front was significant. The two best players on this team, though, are explosive running back Kyren Williams and All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. They need to have monster seasons for Notre Dame to survive a brutal schedule that includes Wisconsin, Cincinnati, North Carolina and USC.
You can look at the Trojans’ 2020 season one of two ways: Either they were fortunate that three of their five wins came by a combined 10 points or they learned how to win. It’s most likely somewhere in the middle. Most importantly, quarterback Kedon Slovis made positive strides. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram could invigorate the dormant running game, and the defense is experienced — it has eight starters back — and added a potential instant impact freshman in defensive end Korey Foreman.
Indiana isn’t just a basketball school for the moment. There is legitimate hype for football. The Hoosiers came within a touchdown of a Big Ten East crown last fall and boast one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in southpaw Michael Penix Jr. Most of his standout receiving corps is back, led by big-play threat Ty Fryfogle, and the defense is anchored by preseason All-Americans at linebacker (Micah McFadden) and cornerback (Tiawan Mullen). Indiana remains Ohio State’s most dangerous Big Ten threat.
Emory Jones’ time has come. After three years of waiting, the athletic marvel will get his opportunity in The Swamp. A lot is riding on the dual-threat quarterback’s shoulders, after the departure of top skill-position players Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. Look for coach Dan Mullen to rely more on the ground, leaning on Jones’ legs and returning leading rusher Dameon Pierce.
Quarterback Spencer Petras showed progress as the year went on, highlighted by throwing for five scores without an interception in wins over Illinois and Wisconsin. Supported by leading rusher Tyler Goodson, center Tyler Linderbaum and quality tight end Sam LaPorta, Petras could be in for a strong season. The experienced secondary will be the backbone of a traditionally stout defense that will get tested early by Indiana and Iowa State over the season’s first two weeks.
16. North Carolina
After consecutive winning seasons in his first two years in Chapel Hill, Mack Brown hopes to make a run at Clemson atop the ACC, and he has the right guy under center in that pursuit. The question is if Sam Howell, who owns the conference record with 68 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, has enough help around him after losing several key weapons. Wide receiver Beau Corrales could be one answer after an injury-plagued 2020, and the Tar Heels do return their entire starting offensive line.
Changes within Ed Orgeron’s coaching staff and experience for this talented roster should create a season more along the lines of what they expect in Baton Rouge. This isn’t a title contender, but LSU will be improved after last year’s 5-5 start. The cornerback tandem of top NFL prospect Derek Stingley Jr. and sophomore Eli Ricks is one of the nation’s best, and the returning running back duo of John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price should provide a sturdy ground attack for quarterback Max Johnson.
18. Penn State
The good news is, last year is over — a season decimated by opt-outs, injuries and a poor start. It resulted in the program’s first sub-.500 campaign in 16 years. Look for the Nittany Lions to rebound, at least offensively, thanks to the return of quarterback Sean Clifford, offensive tackle Rasheed Walker and receiver Jahan Dotson. The defense lost defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney to the NFL, though the addition of Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie (four sacks, three forced fumbles last year) could help fill that void, and Jaquan Brisker is one the country’s best safeties.
Motivation won’t be hard to come by for the Huskies. Last season ended in a series of positive COVID-19 tests, instead of a football field, as an outbreak knocked Washington out of the Pac-12 title game. The key pieces to that group are back — including the entire starting offensive line, quarterback Dylan Morris, standout tight end Cade Otton, cornerback Trent McDuffie and linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, the team’s leading tackler a year ago.
Last year, the Ragin’ Cajuns stunned Iowa State. The year before, they put a scare into Mississippi State. Texas, which opens with Louisiana, you’ve been warned. Quarterback Levi Lewis has a shot at breaking Jake Delhomme’s school records for both touchdown passes and passing yards, and the defensive line duo of Zi’Yon Hill and Tayland Humphrey key a high-caliber front seven. A third straight 10-win season is realistic.
As long as quarterback D’Eriq King’s torn ACL is healed, and he has said it is, Miami is right there with North Carolina among ACC Coastal division favorites. King was that good in his first year as a Hurricane, producing 27 touchdowns and 3,224 all-purpose yards, and his top receiver (Mike Harley) and top running back (Cam’Ron Harris) are back. Coach Manny Diaz will be calling plays for the defense after remaking his staff, hoping that provides a boost for a unit that flatlined at the end of the season.
22. Coastal Carolina
Last year’s breakthrough 11-1 season was no fluke. Look for the Chanticleers to again be one of the best Group of Five teams in the country after losing just two key players, running back C.J. Marable and defensive end Tarron Jackson. Whether it’s quarterback Grayson McCall, linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher or leading receiver Jaivon Heiligh, Coastal Carolina is deep in experienced difference-makers.
Steve Sarkisian will be the fourth Texas coach in eight years. He would be hard-pressed not to do better than the last men in his position. Charlie Strong and Tom Herman won double-digit games a combined one time in seven years and finished higher than third in the Big 12 once. There’s nowhere to go but up for Sarkisian and the Longhorns, who will rely on game-breaking sophomore running back Bijan Robinson having a big year.
24. Oklahoma State
These aren’t the same Cowboys most college football fans will recognize. They will not simply look to outscore the opposition. Their strength will actually be on defense, where Oklahoma State returns nine starters. The unit, led by all-Big 12 first team safety Kolby Harvell-Peel and leading tackler Malcolm Rodriguez, was No. 1 in the nation a year ago in third-down defense and tied for first with four defensive touchdowns.
25. Ole Miss
Here’s a betting tip: Take the over when Ole Miss is involved. Thank me later. Lane Kiffin’s offense will be electric behind quarterback Matt Corral, who threw for 3,338 passing yards a year ago and can also take off when needed. Running back Jerrion Ealy is a burner, and receivers Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond both showed promise in 2020. As for the Rebels stopping anyone, well, that’s another story. They allowed 38.3 points per game. On the bright side, there is a lot of room for improvement.
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