27. January 2021

ESPN Staff

University football playoffs or the New Year’s Six Nations Cup game: What is most likely for college football teams in 2021?

We present the best case scenario for each of the top 25 teams in the Path to Start campaign.

The road to the playoffs is not particularly difficult for the Tigers. They remain a VAC class, perhaps by a wide margin. Despite the loss of superstars Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence, there is still plenty of talent, including QB D.J. Uiagalelei, who made his debut as a prescient. But what was exposed during the Ohio State Sugar Bowl defeat – the lack of a dynamic outside receiver, a problematic game block, the confusion of defenses with pace – will haunt the program for a long time. There’s certainly enough talent on the roster to suggest that Dabo Swinney will find the answers, and it would be foolish to doubt that Tony Elliott, Brent Venables & Co. won’t make the necessary adjustments. For Clemson, however, the bar is immensely high and the Tigers have been down two years in a row. The continuation of the playoffs in 2021 will only be the beginning of their quest for redemption. — David Hale.

Nick Saban has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to tee times, whether replacing star players or coaches. But that doesn’t mean we’re not looking. Leaving aside the fact that Bryce Young needs to become a star quarterback, or that John Metchey III, Javon Baker & Co. can replace DeVonta Smith’s production as a receiver. The big question – and perhaps the key to the battle for the playoffs – is who will officiate the games. Recruiting Bill O’Brien as quarterback coach and head of offense is interesting because he has a college degree, but apparently had problems with the Houston Texans in the NFL. He could be great and not live up to the expectations Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin had of him. And if O’Brien is in trouble, one has to wonder if that’s enough to take the Tide out of the game this season. -Alex Scarborough.

Oklahoma’s defense made great strides in 2020, and the Sooners looked to be one of the best teams in the country at the end of the season. With the return of Spencer Rattler, star receiver Marvin Mims, and Kennedy Brooks taking the lead in the return run, the offense will be in good shape if the offensive line can get the right pieces together. With a top-five ranking in the preseason, the biggest hurdle for the Sooners could be Iowa State, which has won two of its last five games against Oklahoma under Matt Campbell. But the game against Texas is still in doubt, especially if the Longhorns recruit Steve Sarkisian as head coach and a new quarterback. If you win those two prizes, the Sooners will probably go home free for the SFP. -Dave Wilson.

The Bulldogs need to stay healthy, especially in offensive positions. Needless to say how this applies to quarterback JT Daniels, who took the position at the end of the season and showed glimpses of optimism. But the important thing here is who he gives the ball to, because the offense has the opportunity to take a big step forward this year. If James Cook and Zamir White are healthy, they could pack a better punch upon their return to the SEC. And the receiver could be a force for the first time in a long time. When healthy – and that has been a problem for this group – the trio of George Pickens, Jermaine Burton and Keiris Jackson can be very productive. Add in the young and promising Darnell Washington and you have the makings of an offense that will be up against an already strong playoff defense. — Scarborough.

It’s no surprise that Ohio State reached the CFP despite losing some of the best talent in college football, like QB Justin Fields and QB Sean Wade. The Buckeyes will find an answer at the quarterback position – between Jack Miller III, who set the high school record in Arizona with 115 career touchdowns, C.J. Stroud (#2 on ESPN 300 2020) and newcomer Kyle McCord (#4 on ESPN 300 2021), it’s a crowded space for quarterbacks. Defensively, the Buckeyes only come in five times, so if there’s even a problem, they’re there. But aside from Indiana and Iowa, it’s not like Ohio State has anything to worry about in the Big Ten. With out-of-league games against Oregon and Tulsa, Ohio looks to have a good chance of competing again in 2021. — Harry Lyles, Jr.

Jack Miller III set an Arizona high school record with 115 career touchdown passes. Joseph Majorana-USA Sports

With a likely top 10 ranking in the preseason, the Aggies’ schedule couldn’t be better than the SEC West’s. They’ll have to survive the trip to Tiger Stadium, but we don’t yet know what LSU will look like next season. If the Aggies manage to beat the Tigers, they will play winnable away games at Missouri and Ole Miss, a game on neutral ground at Gerryworld against Arkansas, then Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi and South Carolina at home. Kellen Mond is gone, but A&M is bringing back Isaiah Spiller and the centerpiece of his ball control game, while the Tide will bring in a new offensive coordinator and a new QB. If Aggie has a year to dream big, why not this year? — Wilson.

In 2020, North Carolina proved it can play with anyone. Of course, the Tar Heels have also proven that they can lose to anyone. The road to a playoff spot in 2021 will require much more consistency from a team full of talent, as well as some easy experience over the past two years. QB star Sam Howell leads perhaps the most explosive offense in the country, and the defense should be much better as Mack Brown continues to bring in top recruits. Clemson won’t be afraid of Clamson either after he put the Tigers in their place in 2019. For some, UNC will be a trendy choice for the playoffs, but the question is whether Brown’s ups and downs in his first two years at the helm have taught this core group enough to be ready for the next step. — Hale.

The Cyclones are joined by quarterback Brock Purdy, Breece Hall backbacks and tight end Charlie Kolar and the five regulars on the offensive line. This is incredible news for a team that beat Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl and finished in the top 10 in school history. Cyclones have a strong impact on Iowa, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State in Ames. Going that route and giving Oklahoma State a game in Norman (where the Cyclones won seven times in 2017 and lost one in 2019 before winning in Ames in 2020), Iowa State fans can start dreaming of a playoff game. — Wilson.

Although offseason preparation was severely limited by restrictions imposed by the state of California, the Trojans had their best Pac-12 season in 2020 and have won 10 of 12 Pac-12 games since 2019, with two losses to Oregon. The Trojans lost some talent last season, but quarterback Kedon Slovis, a Heisman Trophy nominee, returns for his third year as a USC starter. The Trojan calendar – San Jose State, Notre Dame, BYU – is expected to be one of the toughest in the country, which could come in handy when calendar strength becomes a factor in the selection process. Expect receivers Drake London and Bru McCoy to form one of the most dangerous receiver duos in the country. — Kyle Bonagura

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He probably should have let the Hoosiers play a New Year’s game in 2020. After the 26-20 defeat of the Outback Cup in Mississippi, it left a bad taste in her mouth. But thanks to the right of admission, Indiana has a chance to get it back. The New Year’s Six Bowl is certainly on the table, but you have to imagine what the Hoosiers think of the College Playoff after seeing what they can do last season. They have a tough non-conference game against Cincinnati, but this time they play at home against Ohio State. They also had a test run against Iowa, but the Hoosiers proved last year that they can play with anyone, including an Ohio State college football team. If they are able to stay healthy, they are capable of winning every game on their schedule. — Liles.

The Bearcats need to find a way to get members of their administration involved with the University Football Playoff Committee if they want to participate in the playoffs. They were undefeated 9-0 and still couldn’t get in. Their best hope, like this season, is to play Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Seriously, quarterback Desmond Ridder returns to the team, which will help the offense a lot in the future. Knight was the conference player of the year last season, with 2,296 yards. Staff loses Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame and the Irish are on track for 2021. If Cincinnati wants to qualify for the playoffs, they need to find a way to beat Notre Dame and Indiana, no matter where they will be facing. So use what the coaches know about Freeman against him and try to get through those two games to have some success at the end of the season. If not, follow the plan for presenting allies to the committee. -Tom VanHaren

Iowa has to go first against Indiana, followed by Iowa State. Northwest, Penn, Maryland and Wisconsin are spread out for the rest of the season, making it a challenge. Quarterback Spencer Petras and captain Tyler Goodson are both back, but the offense is losing receivers Ymir Smith-Marsett and Brandon Smith. If the offense can continue the momentum later in the season, including a 9.6-yard-per-carry average against Wisconsin, Goodson has a chance to start on the right foot with wins over Indiana and Iowa State. The team needs playmakers on the receiving end to help Petras and give the offense a better aerial attack to balance the game on the ground. — VanHaaren

After reaching the New Year’s Cup the last two seasons, it’s not hard to imagine the Ducks moving on to the next stage and making the playoffs. Of course, their place in the Fiesta Bowl – and their defeat – didn’t mean much this season, as they reached the Pac-12 title game with a troubling 4-2 record. The Ducks’ recent recruiting success under Mario Cristobal should hopefully pay off in a more normal 2021 season (hopefully). Whether Tyler Shaw or someone else starts at quarterback, this offseason under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead should make a significant difference in his second season at Eugene. The loss of defensive coordinator Andy Avalos as head coach of Boise State is a blow. However, there are plenty of defensive talents, led by potential All-American defender Kayvon Thibodeau. — Bonagura

QB Tyler Shaw should benefit from a true offseason under the direction of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

A win early in the season against Michigan would give the Huskies the kind of resounding triumph the committee would respect (even if Michigan implodes), so it’s all about winning the Pac-12. Washington is not a team that can be assured of getting there with a loss. The Huskies won over Utah and USC – arguably the two best teams in the Pac-12 South – and they beat Oregon at home, so the road to the Conference title game couldn’t have been easier. — Bonagura

The Irish lose a lot on offense and defense. So if they want to get back to the playoffs or New Year’s Eve, the first thing they need to do is find their quarterback. Ian Book went to the NFL, so the coaches need to stabilize that position, whether it’s Drew Pyne or new recruit Tyler Buckner. Once that position is established, the coaches will need leaders on the defensive line to replace some of the big names who will be leaving the team, including defender Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoa. With new coordinator Marcus Freeman, the team needs experienced defenders to be its best, including Kyle Hamilton, Kurt Heenisch and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. With so many team and staff changes, Notre Dame should have everything it needs to get back to where it was this season. — VanHaaren

Like every year, it all comes down to a win against Georgia. But it will look very different than it did a year ago. Think of it as a retro version of the Gators, football playing and solid defense. You can’t do this without Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. Emory Jones seems ready to take over the quarterback role, but it’s not a player like Trask, who is more effective on zone reads. With Dameon Pearce, Malik Davies and Demarcus Bowman overplaying the ball, the ground game should be fine. The defense will need the most help, which was very difficult last season, especially in coverage. Dan Mullen has fired high school coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray and is busy replacing them. — Scarborough.

All of the top teams in the Badgers’ 2021 schedule come to Camp Randall (Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa State, Northwestern) or play on neutral ground (Notre Dame at Soldier Field), so that’s the game plan for the contest. But even if Wisconsin’s supporting corps – and defense as a whole – could once again be the absolute dynamite, the Badgers obviously need to score. This requires great performances, which have almost completely eluded them this fall. If a veteran like Kendrick Pryor or Danny Davis III came back and blossomed, that would be huge. If a young person like RB Jalen Berger or WR Chimere Dike becomes a conference candidate, that would be even better. But Wisconsin desperately needs parts. — Bill Connelly

With the return of Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee potentially another option in the game, Lane Kiffin’s offense will continue to add points. But any hope of a breakthrough depends on the improvement of the defense, which ranks 126th in terms of yards per game and 117th in terms of points (38.3). In November, the Rebels will play away games against Alabama and Auburn and take on a strong Liberty team. There’s also an Egg Bowl game coming up in Starkville. Texas A&M and LSU are both at home. With a large turnover of coaches at Auburn, Alabama and LSU, and new QBs at A&M and Bama, can Kiffin organize enough penalty killers to outlast these teams and have a legendary season? — Wilson.

Lane Kiffin’s offense will no doubt continue in 2021. Christopher Hanevinkel/USA Monday Sports

The short answer, of course, is that Louisiana will not participate in the 2021 CFP. The Playoff Committee has expressed no interest in pursuing a Group 5 bid. But with Texas, Liberty and Ohio on a non-conference slide and with the Sun Belt in place, the Cajun Ragin’ Cajuns will be strong for the new year if they can make it 13-0 or maybe 12-1. To do that, they need a bounce in the defensive line. In 2020, the Cajun Ragin’ Cajuns weren’t good on defense or offense, but that’s also because they didn’t have many older players up front. If players like Zi’Yon Hill and Andre Jones play well to the big ones, the line could have enough momentum to sustain it. — Connelly.

Ed Orgeron needs to restore the magic of 2019. And no, we’re not saying he needs a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, star players at all offensive positions and an opportunistic defense. It takes a lot. What Orgeron needs is for his team to get back together and regain the magical appeal it had in 2019, when the time came to assemble his coaching staff. Last season was clearly a failure when he tried to replace defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing coordinator Joe Brady with Bo Pelini and Scott Linehan, respectively. Reversing the trend and recruiting Brady, Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas should improve the offense. Also, the appointment of Aranda’s former assistant, Daronte Jones, as defensive coordinator should lead to a stronger unit that seemed lost for much of 2020. Do it, and there’s more than enough talent to go to Baton Rouge. — Scarborough.

Tom Herman won 1-4 over Oklahoma, which partially explains why Steve Sarkisian is the new boss in Austin. So let’s start there: A breakthrough in Texas will begin with a concerted action against Lincoln Riley. Since Mack Brown’s departure in 2013, Red River Showdown’s last eight games have been decided by a total of 52 points, an average of 6.5 points per game, but the Longhorns have scored just 2-6 in the process. The travel schedule is a bit salty with old rivals Arkansas, Baylor, Iowa, West Virginia and a visit to TCU, which has won 6-1 over Texas since 2014. Sarkisian will have to determine if Casey Thompson is really the one after a near-perfect game in the Alamo Bowl, but RB Bijan Robinson gives him an offensive center to build on. If the Longhorns can finally beat the Sooners, they’ll start to believe — Wilson.

The Nittany Lions started the 2020 year with a new offensive coordinator and probably their two best players (linebacker Micah Parsons, running back Journey Brown), and they struggled to find themselves, starting 0-5 and finishing 4-0. Whatever their 2021 targets, the opposite should be true: They need to be a complete team from the first start. They begin the season at Wisconsin and then host state champion MAC Ball and SEC champion Auburn in Happy Valley. A very good team could start 2-1, but with trips to Iowa and Ohio State later in the year on the schedule, they should almost certainly win 3-0. All of the changes Mike Jurcic has made to the offense should be fully implemented by August. — Connelly.

Jamie Chadwell’s team for 2020 surprised everyone: There has never been a better surprise or story in college football. We know they won’t make the playoffs in regular football after what happened to Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina, who were swallowed up by the Sixth Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Assuming the 2021 season goes normally, the Chanticleers have some easy non-conference games against The Citadel, Kansas and UMass. They are missing key defensive elements, including their top runner in DE Tarron Jackson. But it’s hard to predict what the Chanticleers will look like. After all, they were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt in the preseason coaching and media survey of the league for 2020 and finished the season 11-0. If they are able to keep the table and play in the Sun Belt Championship this time around, they should feel good about their chances of making the Sixth Bowl on New Year’s Eve. — Liles.

The Flames brought back 16 starters from a 10-1 squad whose only defeat was a one-point loss against NC State, which ranked No. 1 in the country. 12 Coastal Carolina defeated in the Chicken Bowl. If coach Hugh Freeze is back, the Flames will be strong again this year behind dynamic quarterback Malik Willis, who threw for 2,260 yards and 20 TD and ran for 944 yards and 14 other points. There’s a legitimate chance Liberty is 9-0 when Freeze comes back to play against the 6. November against Ole Miss, followed by home games against Louisiana and Army. If they manage to pull off this victory, the Flames will undoubtedly end up in the New Year’s Eve Bowl, creating a new chorus of concern that the Outsiders could one day crush the CFP. — Wilson.

Hurricanes have beaten everyone they should have beaten in 2020. A big step forward for the team of Manny Diaz, who is in his second year as head coach. But in big games against Clemson and UNC – the best opponents in the conference – Miami was outscored 104-43 overall. Diaz has benefited from the Miami transfer portal, and if D’Eric King is healthy again in early 2021, the Ducks will certainly be in the mix. But if Miami is to lay claim to a divisional or league title, significant progress needs to be made at outside receivers and in the middle of the defense – while also replacing two-star rushers. — Hale.

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