The 2020 college football season just ended, but it’s never too early to start thinking about next season. Here’s a breakdown of one potential star per player in the Way-Too-Early 2021 Top 25.
Number one Clemson: QB D.J. Wiagaley.
That sounds like cheating. Saying Wiagaley will be Clemson’s star player is like predicting the next Marvel movie will make a ton of money. These are not so much predictions as conclusions. Viagaley was one of the most recruited quarterbacks in the country and then gave Clemson fans a discreet look at his abilities when he replaced Trevor Lawrence, who tested positive for COVID-19, in two games. All Hiagaley did was score 18 points against Boston College and then throw for more yards against Notre Dame than any other QB in history. Now that he’s committed to Clemson full-time, his ceiling seems limitless. — David M. Hale
Number two, Alabama: DB Malachi Moore
It makes sense that so much attention was paid to Alabama’s offense last season because he excelled as a quarterback, quarterback, receiver and offensive line. But on defense, the star came out on top. It’s rare to see a true freshman on defense finish off Nick Saban, but he trusted Moore to do it. Moore, who played several positions in high school, finished with 44 tackles and three interceptions, was named to the SEC draft and reminded some people in Tuscaloosa of a young Minka Fitzpatrick. -Alex Scarborough
Number three Oklahoma: Л. B. David Ugwugbu
The Ugwigbu seems to be preparing for a great season in 2021. In year two, he showed his talent when given the chance, whether it was intercepting a Bedlam play, blocking a kick or blowing up blockers. Look for Ugwoegbu, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 251 pounds, with the strength and speed to play an even bigger role than he has had this season, when he played 11 games and started three. — Sam Hahn, Jr.
Number 4, Georgia: QB JT Daniels
It took him a while to finally see the field, and only then did we get a glimpse of Daniels’ talent. There were tough performances against Mississippi and Missouri, but they had to be balanced against such performances against South Carolina and Cincinnati. It was enough to see his potential and how he can cut through Georgia’s perpetual frustration. With George Pickens, Jermaine Burton, Keiris Jackson and Darnell Washington able to throw it, don’t be surprised if Daniels makes big numbers next season. — Scarborough
Number 5, Ohio State: Zach Harrison.
For years, the Buckeyes have produced some of the NFL’s top talent on their defensive line, most recently with the Bosa brothers – Joey and Nick – and Chase Young. Harrison is next, and you might think: Of course we do. He showed incredible talent in the first and second year. In six games in 2020, he has 12 tackles, 4.5 for defeat and two sacks. But Harrison doesn’t have the kind of genius most players are incapable of – those games where a player has a dip on Twitter before halftime. If we see a few of them, his real breakthrough season will be in full swing. — Harry Lyles, Jr.
No. 6 Texas A&M: RB Devon Achan
Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith’s double behind the Aggies’ offensive line has certainly been effective this season, but Smith is so versatile that he has also been the Aggies’ leader in receiving yards. This is why Achan’s late performance next season will pay such dividends. Achan, who scored 115 touchdowns and ran for the fastest running time in the country in high school, averaged 8.5 yards per run on 43 carries, making you wonder how much more dynamic the Aggies’ offense would be if Jimbo Fisher worked with him more often. After Achan put up an MVP of 12 yards on a 140-yard run in the Capital Orange Bowl following Spiller’s injury, it’s clear we’ll know next year. -Dave Wilson
Number 7, North Carolina: CB Tony Grimes
In UNC games last season, the popular thesis was that Grimes should have still been in high school. Of course it’s true. With his school season challenged by the pandemic, Grimes retrained and enrolled at UNC in the fall. He soon found himself on the field, and although he had a few hiccups, for the most part he was excellent. The new five-star rookie, Grimes, had just eight hits on 23 targets and recorded one of his opponents’ best QBRs (7.9) in the CCA. Mack Brown predicts Grimes could thrive in the best part of the country with a year of experience under his belt in a more normal 2021. — Hale.
Number 8, state of Iowa: WR Tarik Milton.
Given how Cyclones will be equipped in 2021 – they’ll run almost all of their initial offense and most of their initial defense – it’s hard to see where new faces can be added. Let’s focus on the famous Cyclone instead: Milton. His junior season was his best since a strong 2019 campaign in which he averaged 20.6 yards per landing, but an injury sidelined him for six games. He ended up catching 15 assists in six games, but if he’s healthy in 2021, Milton Swift could be a key part of an Iowa State offense that also returns QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, TE Charlie Kolar and top WR Xavier Hutchinson in 2020. — Han.
Number 9 USC: WR Bru McCoy.
After making his comeback in 2019, big receiver McCoy showed flashes of genius in his highly anticipated debut for the 2020 season. He finished fourth on the team with 21 strikes for 226 yards. With two players he finished with – Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughn – in the NFL, McCoy is on his way to breaking through. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system will have more than 70 catches next season when quarterback Kedon Slovis begins his third season as a starter. — Kyle Bonagura
Error! The file name is not specified. Bru McCoy may well have over 70 catches next season. AP Photo/Ashley Landis
10 Indiana: WR Miles Marshall
The Hoosiers’ offense will be a little different in 2021, but it will have a healthy Michael Penix Jr. and lead receiver Ty Freifogle has announced he will return for a fifth season. But when Wop Fieler announced he was entering the NFL draft, Indiana’s passing game suddenly got more room, and that’s where Marshall came in. Marshall scored an easy touchdown in the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin, but he also had some other impressive catches in that league. He will be a junior in 2021 and should make a nice jump with more options and an improved penis. Tom Allen thinks he can be one of the best quarterbacks not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire country. — Liles.
Number 11 Cincinnati: RB Jerome Ford
It will be hard to find a player who stands out on this team because there are so many pieces returning. Some seniors enjoyed an extra season of NCAA participation, while others, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, felt it didn’t go as planned. One position that could be a breakthrough, however, is backwards. Top sprinter Gerrid Doakes, who has run for 673 yards and seven touchdowns this season, has declared himself for the NFL draft. Knight was the second oldest on the team, but with Doakes’ transfer from Alabama, Ford, an Alabama veteran returning from a transfer, should be able to get more carries. Ford was third on the team for touchdowns (483), and although he had nearly half the touchdowns that Doak did, Ford had one more touchdown than Doak (eight). With the return of Knight and another season in the system, Ford could have a breakout year at this position. -Tom VanHaren
No. 12 Iowa: WR Tyrone Tracy Jr.
The Hawkeyes lose receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, who led the team in receiving touchdowns with two and placed second and third respectively by receiving yards behind tight end Sam LaPorte. With the return of quarterback Spencer Petras and defensive back Tyler Goodson, the team will need someone to handle the reception. It is possible that Tracy will step in and have a significant impact in 2021. He has 14 receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown in seven games this season. Now that Petras has a season under his belt, he’ll be more comfortable in the system. Therefore, Tracy should be targeted alongside LaPorta and receiver Nico Ragaini in 2021. — VanHaaren
Number 13, Oregon: LB Noah Sewell.
After his older brother Peney left before the season to prepare for the draft, Sewell has made a name for himself as a front-line defender for the Ducks. After being named Pac-12’s first defender of the year, Sewell is expected to be one of the top linebackers in the conference next season. The Ducks are currently without a defensive coordinator after Andy Avalos left the club to become head coach of Boise State, leaving the interesting position to Mario Cristobal. — Bonagura
Number 14 Washington: LB Edefan Ulofoshio
His breakthrough season would be in 2020, but Ulofoshio’s performance in four games for the Husky wasn’t as impressive as it would have been in a 12-game season. The former Ulofoshio was named second All-Pac-12 team this season after finishing the season with 47 tackles. He was a key player on the team that won the Pac-12 North before his season was disrupted by COVID-19. — Bonagura
Number 15, Notre Dame: TEs Kevin Bauman and George Takacs
The tight end was crucial to Notre Dame’s offense this season. Michael Mayer, a freshman, became the team’s second-best receiver and Tommy Tremble contributed immensely to the Irish victory. Meyer is back next season, but Tremblay and Brock Wright are gone, which means someone will have to step in to help Meyer next season. That means we could be looking at a breakthrough season for Bauman or Takaka, or maybe both. Takak has had just three 30-yard receptions this season and Bauman has had one 5-yard catch, but with Tremblay’s departure, someone will need help to replace what he has brought in terms of blocking and receiving. With Mayer as the main option, Takacs and Bauman both have the chance to fill two holes next season and provide consistency at the position. — VanHaaren
Number 16, Florida: RB Damon Pierce
With Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney all moving forward, the Gators’ offense will be very different next season. In fact, the basketball offense could go in the opposite direction with a two-way approach of Emory Jones taking on the quarterback role. The waiting area plays a more important role, which means more opportunities to return. It’s a potentially crowded field, especially with the transfer of Demarkcus Bowman, but the most experienced player is Pierce, who ran for 511 yards and four touchdowns last season. — Scarborough
Error! The file name is not specified. There are many more options for Florida’s backcourt next season. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Number 17 in Wisconsin: L.B. Nick Herbig.
The Badgers’ defense is never without a star skipper, and Herbig could soon fall into that category. The Hawaiian native and former four-star prospect quickly became one of the Badgers’ best defensive players, and was Wisconsin’s third-best tackle in his freshman year. If or when his passing game accelerates, he can be an excellent performer, even in an Army corps that already has confirmed veterans like Jack Sanborn, Noah Burks and Leo Chenal. — Bill Connelly
No. 18 Ole Miss: PR Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders
If Elijah Moore moves on, Matt Corral will have to catch up on a lot of passes. Wait for some receivers to come and get him: Drummond and Sanders. Drummond caught 25 passes in 2020, including seven touchdowns, placing him second behind Moore, while Sanders averaged 25.1 yards per catch on his 15 carries. We know Lane Kiffin’s team is going to throw the ball around; Drummond and Sanders seem to be the big beneficiaries this coming season. — Han.
19. Louisiana: RB Chris Smith
With Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas both declaring their NFL draft entry and combining for 1,636 yards of running and 18 touchdowns, the Cajun Ragin’ Cajuns need a new breakout back. Smith is more than ready. In two years, Smith has amassed 864 yards on 111 rushes and receptions combined. He was one of the most feared players in the country in 2020, registering the most kicking returns at Iowa State and UAB. It’s not as big as Mitchell or Ragas, but could be just as productive in 2020. — Connelly.
Number 20 LSU: WR Keyshawn Butte
Whether it’s Miles Brennan, Max Johnson or even TJ Finley, the starting quarterback, we know who they are counting on to receive first. With Terrace Marshall Jr. in the NFL, Butte’s turnaround is in the spotlight. Butte took a while to develop in his first season, and until then few people were interested in the Tigers. But if so, you have seen a young star with speed and skill. They saw someone who had never had more than 50 yards in a game suddenly accumulate 100 or more in each of his last three games, including a record-setting finale against Ole Miss where he ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns. — Scarborough
Number 21, Texas: RB Bijan Robinson
We’ll give it to Robinson, a concept that seemed to escape the Longhorns last season. Yes, Robinson had 703 rushing yards as a true rookie, including 183 in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Colorado. But Robinson, ranked third in the class of 2020 on ESPN, did that with just 86 in nine games, setting school records for yards per carry per game (19.1 at Kansas) and YPC for a season (8.2). In new coach Steve Sarkisian’s 6-0 attack, 222-pound Robinson will be a household name. — Wilson.
Number 22 Penn State: Parker Washington PR.
The new offensive coordinator, Mike Jurcic, wants to use every inch of the field horizontally and vertically. This could be good news for Washington’s receiver and vertical threat, who emerged as a strong complement to Jahan Dotson in 2020 and was perhaps the most consistent top-down threat for the Nittany Lions. He made 13 total strikes for 188 yards in wins over Michigan and Michigan State, and when he and Dotson produce in the backfield, it opens up the entire Jurcic playbook. — Connelly.
Error! The file name is not specified. Parker Washington could continue to be a constant threat for Penn State. Gregory Schamus/Getty Images
No. 23 Coastal Carolina: RB Reese White
The Chanticleers enter the 2021 season with higher expectations than they could have ever imagined after an exceptional 2020. Since the NCAA has granted an additional year of eligibility to all fall athletes, any player can return. But a guy who doesn’t want to go back to Conway, South Carolina, is the replacement for C.J. Marable, who has declared himself for the NFL draft. This will open up more opportunities for White, who received honorable mention from the All-Sun Belt after posting 478 yards on 88 carries and six touchdowns. He will try to replace Marbles’ 887 yards and 12 touchdowns, and will have to make up a lot of ground in a receiving game where Marbles had 31 receptions for 228 yards and seven scores. — Liles.
No. 24 Freedom : RB TJ Green
With the return of star quarterback Malik Willis after a 10-1 season, the Flames have a promising 2021 season ahead of them. While Willis led the dynamic rush attack, Liberty was seventh nationally in yards per carry (5.7) and ninth in yards per rush play (252.4). Running back Peyton Pickett, who ran for 520 yards and scored six points for the rotation, announced his transfer. But the Flames have added a green transfer, 5-11, 200 pounds, from Utah, who Liberty says is a solid returning player who can help with passing and short yards. — Wilson.
25 Miami: Jafari Harvey.
Perhaps the biggest hole in the Miami 2021 squad is at the final defensive position, where coach Manny Diaz will likely have to replace the two regulars, Quincy Roach and Jaelan Phillips. Diaz put both through the transfer window, and it’s possible the Canes will go that way again this season, but they could also already have the next big star at home to Jafari Harvey. In 2020, when Harvey was in a reserve role, he came under 13 pressure and received five loss-killers. His pressure of 9.6% was just a tick behind Roche, and in 2021, after another season of strength training, the athletic Harvey could easily blossom into an outstanding player. — Hale.