School soccer post-spring High 25 energy rankings
Alabama, the defending national champion, had six players selected in the first round of last week’s NFL draft, tying the Miami Hurricanes’ previous record set in 2004.
Alabama and Ohio State each had 10 players drafted overall, the most of any program in this year’s draft. Georgia was third with nine draft selections, the most in school history.
Yet even after those heavy personnel losses, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State figure to be among the favorites to grab one of the four coveted spots in this season’s College Football Playoff.
Which team might be best equipped to reach the CFP? Oklahoma, which hasn’t won a national championship since 2000 and has lost three straight CFP semifinal games to SEC opponents under coach Lincoln Riley.
The Sooners, who bring back quarterback Spencer Rattler and nine starters from an improving defense, are No. 1 in the latest version of the 2021 Top 25 — ahead of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State.
Here are the latest rankings:
2020 record: 9-2 (6-2 Big 12)
Projected returning starters: seven offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Adrian Ealy, C Creed Humphrey, RB Rhamondre Stevenson, DE Ronnie Perkins, CB Tre Brown, DB Tre Norwood, WR Charleston Rambo
Key additions: RB Kennedy Brooks, WR Mario Williams Jr., OT Savion Byrd
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 3
Outlook: The Sooners are looking to end a 21-year drought without a national championship, and coach Lincoln Riley is trying to guide his team to a victory in a CFP game, after losing three in a row. OU has more than enough playmakers on offense and its defense might be just good enough to do it, especially with a more-than-manageable nonconference schedule.
The Sooners have offered us a glimpse of what the FBS might look like in an everybody-can-transfer world. Since the end of last season, Riley deftly added six FBS transfers, including three players from Tennessee: running back Eric Gray, offensive tackle Wanya Morris and defensive back Key Lawrence. Each of the former Vols might start for OU this coming season.
OU just recently added former Arkansas receiver Mike Woods, who might help compensate for the loss of Rambo, who departed for Miami. Woods and freshman Mario Williams, who had a team-high five catches for 84 yards in the spring game, should help a receiver corps that was plagued by drops in 2020.
Riley grabbed former Penn State quarterback Micah Bowens after backups Tanner Mordecai and Chandler Morris transferred to SMU and TCU, respectively. Bowens will battle freshman quarterback Caleb Williams for the backup job behind Spencer Rattler; Williams completed 10 of 11 passes for 99 yards with one score and ran for 61 yards in the spring game.
2020 record: 13-0 (10-0 SEC)
Projected returning starters: four offense, nine defense, one special teams
Key losses: QB Mac Jones, RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, WR Jaylen Waddle, OT Alex Leatherwood, C Landon Dickerson, G Deonte Brown, LB Dylan Moses, CB Patrick Surtain II
Key additions: OT Tommy Brockermeyer, OT J.C. Latham, OLB Dallas Turner, DT Damon Payne, CB Ga’Quincy McKinstry, WR Jacorey Brooks, WR Agiye Hall
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 2
Outlook: Yes, Georgia might appear more talented on paper; Oklahoma might be more explosive on offense, and Ohio State and Clemson might have easier CFP paths while playing in the Big Ten and ACC, respectively.
Until someone knocks the defending national champions off their perch, however, I’ll go with the Crimson Tide to win the SEC once again and get back in the CFP — even after losing six first-rounders in last week’s NFL draft.
Quarterback Bryce Young looked comfortable in the spring game, completing 25 of 44 passes for 333 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Tide coach Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will undoubtedly be preaching ball security during the offseason, after he nearly threw a pick and lost a fumble on a sack that resulted in a defensive score.
Freshman receiver Hall was impressive during the spring as the Tide continue to search for pass-catchers to replace Smith (the Heisman Trophy winner) and Waddle.
2020 record: 8-2 (7-2 SEC)
Projected returning starters: eight offense, four defense, two special teams
Key losses: LB Azeez Ojulari, LB Monty Rice, CB Eric Stokes, CB Tyson Campbell, S Richard LeCounte, DE Malik Herring, C Trey Hill, G Ben Cleveland
Key additions: CB Kelee Ringo, S Tykee Smith, WR Dominick Blaylock, QB Brock Vandagriff
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 4
Outlook: Georgia’s national championship drought is at 41 years and counting, and it’s starting to feel like it’s now or never for the Bulldogs. If they can rebuild the back end of their typically stingy defense, they should be back in the mix for the first CFP appearance since 2017. Georgia coach Kirby Smart addressed one of the holes in the secondary by securing the former West Virginia starting safety Smith.
For the first time in a while, Georgia’s strength this coming season might be its offense. Quarterback JT Daniels, a one-time transfer from USC, is poised to flourish in his second season in coordinator Todd Monken’s offense. He completed 67% of his passes for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and two picks in the final four games of 2020.
Daniels probably won’t have star receiver George Pickens, at least for the first several games, after he tore the ACL in his right knee during spring practice. Pickens underwent surgery and it isn’t certain if he’ll play at all this season.
Even without Pickens, Georgia has plenty of playmakers on the perimeter, especially if Blaylock (missed all of 2020 with a knee injury) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (leg) are healthy. Tight end Darnell Washington looked like a matchup nightmare in the spring, and freshman Adonai Mitchell was a pleasant surprise.
JT Daniels will be the key for Georgia breaking its 41-year drought without a national championship. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
2020 record: 10-2 (8-1 ACC)
Projected returning starters: five offense, nine defense, one special teams
Key losses: QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne, WR Amari Rodgers, CB Derion Kendrick, OT Jackson Carman, C Cade Stewart
Key additions: LB Jeremiah Trotter Jr., RB Will Shipley, DT Payton Page, WR Beaux Collins
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 1
Outlook: The post-Lawrence era begins with one of the most highly anticipated openers in recent memory — against Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei is expected to be under center after throwing for 914 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions last season. He looked more than capable of doing the job this spring.
One of Clemson’s biggest concerns this offseason will be identifying a backup quarterback after sophomore Taisun Phommachanh tore his Achilles during the spring game. Quarterback signees Bubba Chandler and Will Taylor are considered potential first-round picks in June’s MLB draft, so walk-ons Hunter Helms and Billy Wiles might be the only other healthy quarterbacks on campus this fall (unless coach Dabo Swinney dips into the transfer portal).
The Tigers won’t find out until June if receiver Justyn Ross, who missed all of last season with a spinal condition, will be allowed to play football again.
2020 record: 7-1 (5-0 Big Ten)
Projected returning starters: seven offense, five defense, zero special teams
Key losses: QB Justin Fields, RB Trey Sermon, C Josh Myers, G Wyatt Davis, LB Pete Werner, LB Tuf Borland, CB Shaun Wade
Key additions: RB TreVeyon Henderson, DE Jack Sawyer, WR Emeka Egbuka, QB Kyle McCord, WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 5
Outlook: There wasn’t much clarity, at least publicly, concerning Ohio State’s three-man race this spring to replace Justin Fields, the 2020 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Jack Miller III took the first snaps in the spring game, but it figures to be an ongoing competition with C.J. Stroud and early enrollee McCord. OSU coach Ryan Day probably won’t name a starter until shortly before the Sept. 2 opener at Minnesota.
One thing that was clear this spring: Henderson, the No. 1 running back and No. 9 prospect in the 2021 ESPN 300, is as good as advertised and will help immediately. So will defensive end Sawyer, the No. 1 prospect in the freshman class.
Ohio State’s defense, which was shredded for 621 yards in a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the CFP National Championship, has plenty of starters to replace, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. That wasn’t easy this spring with projected starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown sidelined with injuries. Safety Marcus Hooker was suspended after he pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while impaired in April.
2020 record: 9-3 (8-1 Big 12)
Projected returning starters: 10 offense, eight defense, zero special teams
Key losses: DE JaQuan Bailey, FS Lawrence White IV, RB Kene Nwangwu
Key additions: OT Tyler Maro, DT Howard Brown, OT Jim Bonifas, RB Deon Silas, S Ben Langston
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 8
Outlook: With all but four starters returning on offense and defense from the best team in school history, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell put his players through less contact this spring and instead focused on physical development and fundamentals. He believes the lack of a traditional spring practice during the pandemic helped the Cyclones peak at the right time in 2020.
It must have worked, as Iowa State beat Oklahoma during the regular season, played in its first Big 12 championship game and won its first New Year’s Six bowl game. ESPN’s FPI, which had the Cyclones fourth in its first preseason rankings, considers them a top-10 unit on offense and defense heading into 2021.
With quarterback Brock Purdy, wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson, tight end Charlie Kolar and running back Breece Hall returning, the Cyclones worked this spring to shore up their depth at wide receiver and on the defensive line.
2020 record: 9-1 (8-1 SEC)
Projected returning starters: six offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB Kellen Mond, OT Dan Moore Jr., C Ryan McCollum, G Jared Hocker, OT Carson Green, LB Buddy Johnson
Key additions: OL Jahmir Johnson, DE Shemar Turner, DE Tunmise Adeleye, WR Shadrach Banks, ATH Dreyden Norwood, G Bryce Foster, CB Elijah Blades, LB Ke’Shun Brown
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 6
Outlook: Like many CFP contenders, Texas A&M is also searching for a new quarterback after Mond, a four-year starter and the program’s all-time leading passer, departed. Sophomore Haynes King seems to have a slight edge over sophomore Zach Calzada after the spring, with the competition figuring to stretch into preseason camp. Both players looked solid in the spring game. King completed 16-of-31 passes for 211 yards with one touchdown and one interception; Calzada threw for 253 yards with one score and one pick on 19-of-40 passing.
The more pressing concern for the Aggies this offseason is rebuilding an offensive line that was their biggest strength in 2020. All-America guard Kenyon Green is the only returning starter and is moving to left tackle. Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson, the projected starter at right tackle, won’t join the team until this summer.
With a new quarterback and rebuilt offensive line, the Aggies figure to lean heavily on tailbacks Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane and an improving defense in 2021.
2020 record: 8-4 (7-3 ACC)
Projected returning starters: eight offense, 10 defense, two special teams
Key losses: RB Michael Carter, RB Javonte Williams, WR Dazz Newsome, WR Dyami Brown, LB Chazz Surratt
Key additions: RB Ty Chandler, DE Keeshawn Silver, QB Drake Maye, LB Raneiria Dillworth, LB Power Echols, WR Gavin Blackwell
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 7
Outlook: If anyone is going to finally challenge Clemson in the ACC, it might be the Tar Heels, who are enjoying a resurgence in Hall of Fame coach Mack Brown’s second tour.
With quarterback Sam Howell and all five starting offensive linemen back, the Tar Heels spent the spring trying to identify replacements for 1,000-yard runners Carter and Williams and top pass-catchers Newsome and Brown. Slot receiver Josh Downs emerged as Howell’s No. 1 target, while Antoine Green and Emery Simmons proved to be reliable options as well.
Versatile transfer Chandler, who had 3,291 all-purpose yards in 46 games over four seasons at Tennessee, showed he will definitely help at running back. Josh Henderson, D.J. Jones, Elijah Green and Caleb Hood will battle for the rest of the carries.
Defensively, the Tar Heels were searching for a more effective pass rush, and Desmond Evans showed some promising signs, along with Myles Murphy and Kaimon Rucker.
2020 record: 9-1 (6-0 AAC)
Projected returning starters: eight offense, seven defense, one special teams
Key losses: S James Wiggins, S Darrick Forrest, LB Jarell White, DE Elijah Ponder, RB Gerrid Doaks, OT James Hudson, OT Darius Harper, C Jakari Robinson
Key additions: DL Jowon Briggs, QB Evan Prater, WR Jadon Thompson, LB Jaheim Thomas
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 11
Outlook: It might be hard to imagine Cincinnati’s top-10 scoring defense getting even better in 2021, especially without coordinator Marcus Freeman, who left for Notre Dame. The unit helped the Bearcats win an American Athletic Conference title and make an appearance against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Even without Freeman and a handful of All-AAC performers, however, coach Luke Fickell believes the unit might be poised to take it to another level.
Fickell hired longtime Michigan State assistant Mike Tressel to replace Freeman, and he inherits a squad led by defensive end Myjai Sanders, cornerback Coby Bryant and linebacker Darrian Beavers.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back, but the offensive line has to be rebuilt after both tackles departed and Robinson transferred to Memphis. Stony Brook’s James Tunstall might be an option at tackle.
2020 record: 4-3 (3-2 Pac-12)
Projected returning starters: seven offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: TE Hunter Kampmoyer, NG Jordon Scott, DT Austin Faoliu, CB Deommodore Lenoir, S Nick Pickett
Key additions: WR Isaiah Brevard, QB Ty Thompson, WR Troy Franklin, WR Dont’e Thornton
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 13
Outlook: The Ducks’ potential quarterback controversy seemed to be settled when 2020 starter Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech. Anthony Brown, a former graduate transfer from Boston College, didn’t see action until the final two games of last season, throwing for 164 yards with two touchdowns and running for 40 yards with two scores in the Pac-12 championship game and against Iowa State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
The Ducks have recruited exceptionally well under coach Mario Cristobal, and they should begin to reap the benefits of those classes. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who replaced Andy Avalos (new head coach at Boise State), inherits a unit that is arguably the most talented in school history, at least according to ESPN Recruiting rankings.
In 2019, Oregon signed No. 1 defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (a potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft), No. 2 cornerback Mykael Wright and No. 5 outside linebacker Mase Funa. The next year, the Ducks signed No. 1 inside linebacker Justin Flowe, No. 2 cornerback Dontae Manning and No. 3 inside linebacker Noah Sewell. This year’s class included No. 2 cornerback Avante Dickerson.
2020 record: 6-2 (5-1 Big Ten)
Projected returning starters: nine offense, 10 defense, one special teams
Key losses: WR Whop Philyor, C Harry Crider, DT Jerome Johnson, S Jamar Johnson
Key additions: DE Ryder Anderson, P James Evans, C Zach Carpenter, WR Rashawn Williams, RB Tim Baldwin, WR D.J. Matthews, OT Luke Haggard, G Dylan Powell
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 10
Outlook: The Hoosiers’ lofty ranking comes with a caveat: It’s largely dependent on whether injured quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is fully recovered from a torn ACL in his right knee by the Sept. 4 opener at Iowa. He didn’t practice in the spring, but Hoosiers coach Tom Allen is optimistic he’ll be ready by preseason camp.
If not, former Utah player Jack Tuttle should assume the starting role. He completed 61.1% of his passes for 362 yards with two touchdowns and one pick in Penix’s absence last year. Matthews, a transfer from Florida State and an explosive punt returner, is the favorite to replace Philyor in the slot.
Indiana’s defense was one of the big reasons it challenged Ohio State for a Big Ten title last season. The Hoosiers led the league in sacks (25) and interceptions (17) and ranked fourth in points allowed (20.3). New coordinator Charlton Warren, a former coach of the secondary at Georgia, inherits a defense that returns all but one starter. IU added Anderson, a transfer from Ole Miss, and brought back safety Marcelino McCrary-Ball, a team captain, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
Hopes are high that quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will be able to start the season on Sept. 4 against Iowa. He’s recovering from a torn ACL in late November. AP Photo/Darron Cummings
2020 record: 10-2 (9-0 ACC)
Projected returning starters: three offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Liam Eichenberg, G Tommy Kraemer, G Aaron Banks, OT Robert Hainsey, QB Ian Book, WR Javon McKinley, WR Ben Skowronek, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, SS Shaun Crawford, DE Daelin Hayes
Key additions: QB Jack Coan, QB Tyler Buchner, TE Cane Berrong, G Rocco Spindler, WR Deion Colzie
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 15
Outlook: Much of the offseason attention at Notre Dame has focused on Freeman, the new defensive coordinator, who built dominant units at Cincinnati. But second-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees might be more of a factor in whether the Fighting Irish return to the CFP for a second straight season.
Rees, a former Irish quarterback, has hinted that he plans to open up the offense and incorporate RPOs this coming season. Last season, the Irish ranked 58th in the FBS in passing offense (237.4 yards) and 41st in yards per attempt (7.9). Former starter Book is the winningest quarterback in school history, but the offense was clearly limited at times because of his lack of arm strength.
Coan, a Wisconsin transfer, completed a school-record 236 passes for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and five picks in 14 starts for the Badgers in 2019. With tailbacks Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer and receiver Kevin Austin Jr. returning, the pieces are in place for an explosive offense. The Irish have to replace four starting offensive linemen, which won’t be easy.
2020 record: 5-1 Pac-12
Projected returning starters: eight offense, eight defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Alijah Vera-Tucker, S Talanoa Hufanga, WR Tyler Vaughns, WR Amon-Ra. St. Brown, CB Olaijah Griffin, DT Marlon Tuipulotu
Key additions: DE Korey Foreman, RB Keaontay Ingram, DT Ishmael Sopsher, S Xavion Alford, QB Miller Moss, QB Jaxson Dart, ATH Kyron Ware-Hudson, ATH Julien Simon
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 9
Outlook: The Trojans might return one of the better rosters in the Pac-12, but if they can’t block, it might not matter. Quarterback Kedon Slovis is back for his third season as a starter, along with four starting offensive linemen, top two rushers and nine players who caught a pass in 2020. The defense brings back 18 of its top 21 tacklers from last season.
Whether the Trojans are a legitimate Pac-12 championship contender — and potentially the league’s first CFP participant since Washington in 2017 — is probably going to come down to one critical area. Can the offensive line protect Slovis and establish a running game to take pressure off of him?
Last season, USC ranked last in the Pac-12 and 120th in the FBS, averaging 97.3 yards per game. Clay Helton fired offensive line coach Tim Drevno and replaced him with Air Raid disciple Clay McGuire, who worked with Mike Leach at Washington State. The early results weren’t great in the spring: USC’s quarterbacks were sacked eight times in the spring game, including six times before halftime. One sliver of hope: Tailbacks Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr averaged 5.2 yards on 16 carries.
2020 record: 6-2 Big Ten
Projected returning starters: seven offense, six defense, one special teams
Key losses: OT Alaric Jackson, DT Daviyon Nixon, DE Chauncey Golston, DE Jack Heflin, WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR Brandon Smith, LB Nick Niemann, G Cole Banwart, K Keith Duncan
Key additions: DB Xavior Williams, DE Matt Lorbeck, DE Deontae Craig, WR Keagan Johnson, WR Arland Bruce IV, LB Justice Sullivan
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 12
Outlook: The Hawkeyes won their final six games of 2020 and were denied a chance to play in the Music City Bowl, which was canceled because of COVID-19 issues at Missouri.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is hoping his offense picks up where it left off this coming season. Quarterback Spencer Petras struggled at times, completing only 57.1% of his passes with nine touchdowns and five interceptions, but he threw for 431 yards with five scores and no picks in the final two contests. He seems to have held off challengers Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan this spring.
The Hawkeyes will miss top receivers Smith and Smith-Marsette. Tyrone Tracy Jr. and freshman Johnson emerged as reliable replacements this spring. Three starting offensive linemen, including tackles Jackson and Mark Kallenberger, will have to be replaced as well.
Rebuilding the defensive line, where three starters departed, was also a priority. Former walk-on Joe Evans emerged as a steady pass-rushing threat this spring.
2020 record: 3-1 Pac-12
Projected returning starters: 11 offense, eight defense, one special teams
Key losses: DB Elijah Molden, DB Keith Taylor, DL Josiah Bronson
Key additions: QB Sam Huard, TE Quentin Moore, QB Patrick O’Brien, LB Will Latu, WR Ja’Lynn Polk, DB Brendan Radley-Hiles, LB/DE Jeremiah Martin
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 14
Outlook: The Huskies were dealt a couple of big blows during spring practice when star pass-rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui ruptured his Achilles tendon and will be sidelined for six to 10 months, putting his availability for this coming season in serious jeopardy. The junior from Pearl City, Hawaii, had seven sacks and three forced fumbles in only four games in 2020. Promising outside linebacker Laiatu Latu was also forced to medically retire from football because of a neck injury.
Washington’s quarterback battle also seemed to become a little bit clear during spring practice, as O’Brien, a Colorado State transfer, battled sophomore Dylan Morris for the No. 1 snaps. Huskies coach Jimmy Lake seems content to bring freshman Huard, the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2021 ESPN 300, along slowly.
Washington added three more players through the transfer portal: receiver Polk (Texas Tech), defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles (Oklahoma) and defensive end Jeremiah Martin (Texas A&M). Polk had 28 catches for 264 yards with two touchdowns as a freshman with the Red Raiders.
2020 record: 10-1 (7-1 Sun Belt)
Returning starters: 10 offense, 10 defense, two special teams
Key losses: RB Elijah Mitchell, RB Trey Ragas, LB Joe Dillon
Key additions: TE Glenn Beal, S Tyrone Lewis Jr., WR John Stephens Jr., WR Reginald Johnson, DT Jordan Lawson, OL T.J. Fiailoa, RB Jacob Kibodi
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 19
Outlook: The Ragin’ Cajuns’ breakthrough season in 2020, in which they won 10 games for the second straight season, captured the Sun Belt West for the third straight time and won back-to-back bowl games, came with a price. Several assistant coaches left for jobs at Power 5 programs or in the NFL, and coach Billy Napier was forced to completely overhaul his staff.
Napier, who calls the plays on offense, elevated tight ends coach Michael Desormeaux and receivers coach Tim Leger to co-offensive coordinators. Napier plucked Florida Atlantic’s Jeff Norrid to coach the offensive line; he’ll be assisted by Darnell Stapleton, who previously worked at Sam Houston State.
On defense, there are three new assistants: cornerbacks coach Jeff Burris (Louisiana Tech), inside linebackers coach Galen Scott (North Texas) and safeties coach Wes Neighbors (South Florida).
With 10 starters coming back on offense and defense, the Ragin’ Cajuns should again be favorites to win the Sun Belt. Sophomore Chris Smith emerged as the No. 1 tailback, running for 61 yards on 14 attempts in the spring game. Mitchell and Ragas combined to run for 1,636 yards with 18 touchdowns in 2020.
2020 record: 8-4 (8-2 SEC)
Projected returning starters: five offense, eight defense, one special teams
Key losses: QB Kyle Trask, TE Kyle Pitts, WR Kadarius Toney, WR Trevon Grimes, C Brett Heggie, OT Stone Forsythe, DL Kyree Campbell, C Marco Wilson
Key additions: RB Demarkcus Bowman, DL Daquan Newkirk, DT Antonio Shelton, S Kamar Wilcoxson, S Donovan McMillon, CB Jason Marshall, DB Ethan Pouncey
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 16
Outlook: It’s difficult to know what the Gators’ rebuilt offense might look like this season, as coach Dan Mullen didn’t hold a spring game and severely limited access for fans and media at practices. Regardless, the Gators are undergoing a facelift after losing so many playmakers from a team that won the first SEC East title of Mullen’s tenure.
The Gators figure to go from a pass-heavy to run-heavy offense, even when the ball is in new quarterback Emory Jones’ hands. Florida’s running backs room is especially crowded, and Mullen will look to get the ball into Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, Nay’Quan Wright, Bowman and former Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard’s hands as much as possible.
Florida’s defense also is undergoing a makeover after it ranked 100th in the FBS in pass defense (257.5 yards per game) in 2020. Mullen hired former Auburn secondary coach Wesley McGriff, and South Florida’s Jules Montinar was hired as cornerbacks coach.
2020 record: 4-3 (3-3 Big Ten)
Projected returning starters: eight offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Cole Van Lanen, G Jon Dietzen, DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, DE Garrett Rand, S Eric Burrell, QB Jack Coan, RB Nakia Watson
Key additions: DE Isaac Townsend, WR Markus Allen, OT Nolan Rucci, S Hunter Wohler, DE T.J. Bollers, S Braelon Allen
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 17
Outlook: After the Badgers ranked 88th in scoring (25.1 points) and 103rd in total offense (345.6 yards) in the FBS in 2020, coach Paul Chryst decided to take over the playcalling and coach quarterback again. Former offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will focus on the offensive line and serve as run game coordinator this season.
Chryst’s track record with quarterbacks — he coached Russell Wilson during his record-setting season in 2011 — is welcome news for returning starter Graham Mertz. He was sidelined for a while after testing positive for the coronavirus and also battled a shoulder injury last season.
The Badgers also shuffled their offensive line this spring after losing two starters. Right tackle Tyler Beach moved from right tackle to left tackle, and Logan Bruss moved from right guard to right tackle (where he played in 2019). Jack Nelson, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman, was working as the No. 1 right guard during the spring.
2020 record: 5-5 (4-5 SEC)
Projected returning starters: eight offense, nine defense, one special teams
Key losses: WR Elijah Moore, TE Kenny Yeboah, OT Royce Newman, DE Ryder Anderson
Key additions: WR Jahcour Pearson, LB Chance Campbell, S Jake Springer, DB M.J. Daniels, WR Bralon Brown, S Tysheem Johnson, DT Jamond Gordon, DT Isaiah Iton
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 18
Outlook: Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin is proving to be as unpredictable as ever. He fired offensive line coach Randy Clements a few days after the spring game. Sources told ESPN that the decision was football-related. What makes the decision even more surprising is that the Rebels ranked third in the SEC in rushing (210.6 yards) and fourth in sacks allowed (19) in 2020. Kiffin hasn’t yet named a replacement.
Ole Miss should again have one of the most explosive offenses in the FBS with quarterback Matt Corral returning. The Rebels added former Western Kentucky slot receiver Pearson, whom they hope will help replace some of Moore’s production. He had 76 catches for 804 yards with seven touchdowns for the Hilltoppers in 2019. He played in only two games last season before leaving the team in September.
Much of Ole Miss’ attention this spring was on improving what was a woefully bad defense in 2020. Juco defensive linemen Gordon and Iton looked like they might be ready to help, and cornerbacks Deane Leonard and Miles Battle played well. Johnson might be able to play right away, and Navy transfer Springer, who sat out last season, was working with the No. 1 defense.
2020 record: 5-5 SEC
Projected returning starters: eight offense, eight defense, one special teams
Key losses: LB Jabril Cox, S JaCoby Stevens, WR Terrace Marshall Jr., P Zach Von Rosenberg, WR Racey McMath, TE/FB Tory Carter
Key additions: S Derrick Davis Jr., OT Garrett Dellinger, DT Maason Smith, ATH Sage Ryan, DE Bryce Langston, LB Mike Jones Jr.
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 20
Outlook: After flaming out in the defense of their national championship in 2020, the Tigers are undergoing a massive rebuild. Coach Ed Orgeron has two new coordinators — former Carolina Panthers assistant Jake Peetz is leading the offense and former Minnesota Vikings secondary coach Daronte Jones is guiding the defense. There are three other new assistants as well, including passing game coordinator DJ Mangas, who like Peetz worked with former LSU coordinator Joe Brady.
There was a four-way battle for the starting quarterback job this spring, and Myles Brennan and Max Johnson will keep competing into preseason camp. Brennan opened 2020 as the starter, but he missed the final seven games with a torn abdominal muscle. Johnson played well as a freshman last season, and Peetz might favor his mobility.
The Tigers brought back their entire starting offensive line, although Anthony Bradford was pushing right guard Chasen Hines during the spring. It needs to perform better than it did a year ago. Marshall Jr. turned pro, along with Ja’Marr Chase, who opted out of the entire 2020 season. Tight end Arik Gilbert’s availability for next season is also uncertain.
2020 record: 11-1 (8-0 Sun Belt)
Projected returning starters: 10 offense, 10 defense, two special teams
Key losses: DE Tarron Jackson, RB CJ Marable, WR Sam Denmark
Key additions: DE Emmanuel Johnson, OL Zovon Lindsay, CB Tre’ Douglas, C Michael Myslinski, G Kimo Makaneole, QB Jay Allen
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 23
Outlook: After going unbeaten in the regular season and coming within an overtime loss to Liberty in the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl of a perfect season, the Chanticleers might be poised for another such season in 2021. About a dozen seniors and graduates took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility and returned for another season.
Besides Jackson and Marable, every starter on offense and defense is expected back. That includes star quarterback Grayson McCall, leading receiver Jaivon Heiligh, leading tacklers Silas Kelly, Enock Makonzo and Teddy Gallagher, and cornerback D’Jordan Strong.
Just as importantly, the Chanticleers were able to keep coach Jamey Chadwell, who had some interest from South Carolina and other Power 5 schools. His contract was extended through the 2027 season, and Coastal Carolina officials provided pay increases for assistant coaches and facility upgrades.
2020 record: 7-3 (5-3 Big 12)
Projected returning starters: six offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB Sam Ehlinger, WR Brennan Eagles, OT Samuel Cosmi, DT Ta’Quon Graham, LB Joseph Ossai, SS Chris Brown, FS Caden Sterns
Key additions: OLB Ray Thornton, ILB Ben Davis, OLB Ovie Oghoufo, OLB Devin Richardson, ATH Ja’Tavion Sanders, CB Ishmael Ibraheem, OLB Derrick Harris Jr., S J.D. Coffey, CB Darion Dunn
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 21
Outlook: Steve Sarkisian’s first spring camp concluded without a definitive answer on who will replace Ehlinger, a four-year starter. Casey Thompson took snaps with the No. 1 offense in the spring game, and he’ll continue to battle Hudson Card throughout the offseason.
New defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski will have a busy offseason trying to build depth at linebacker and on the edge. Along with losing Ossai to the NFL draft, 2020 leading tackler Juwan Mitchell announced on Monday he will transfer to Tennessee.
The Longhorns added Thornton (LSU), Davis (Alabama), Oghoufo (Notre Dame) and Richardson (New Mexico State) from the portal. Richardson had 69 tackles as a freshman in 2019 and was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American team.
In the secondary, graduate transfer Brenden Schooler, who played wide receiver for the Longhorns last season, moved to strong safety. He played there at Oregon as a freshman and had 74 tackles and four interceptions. Texas also added a seasoned cornerback by flipping Dunn (McNeese State) from NC State on signing day. He tied for the Southland Conference lead with five interceptions and 16 pass breakups in 2019.
2020 record: 4-5 Big Ten
Projected returning starters: eight offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: TE Pat Freiermuth, G Will Fries, DE Shaka Toney, DT Antonio Shelton, DE Odafe Oweh, C Michal Menet, S Lamont Wade
Key additions: CB John Dixon, DE Arnold Ebiketie, RB John Lovett, DT Derrick Tangelo, OT Landon Tengwall, S Jaylen Reed, CB Kalen King
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 22
Outlook: Hoping to build on a four-game winning streak to end a disappointing 2020 season, the Nittany Lions are counting on a handful of graduate transfers to help on defense, including Temple transfer Ebiketie and Duke transfer Tangelo on the defensive line. In the secondary, South Carolina transfer Dixon played well in the spring, along with early enrollee King.
The Nittany Lions might be shopping for another graduate transfer to play behind returning quarterback Sean Clifford. He’s their only quarterback who has completed a pass in college. Freshmen Ta’Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux are the only other quarterbacks on the roster after Will Levis transferred to Kentucky and Micah Bowens left for Oklahoma.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin was impressed with Baylor transfer Lovett during the spring, noting that he brings a breakaway threat his team lacked last season. Along with Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee, Penn State has a trio of capable running backs.
2020 record: 2-2 Pac-12
Projected returning starters: 10 offense, 11 defense, two special teams
Key losses: WR Frank Darby, S Aashari Crosswell
Key additions: WR Bryan Thompson, TE Jalin Conyers, OT Triston Miller, DE Travez Moore, LB Xavier Steele, CB Isaiah Johnson, CB Tommi Hill, WR Lonyatta Alexander
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: Unranked
Outlook: The Sun Devils played only four games in 2020, but the last two were mighty impressive: 70-7 at rival Arizona (the most lopsided outcome in the Territorial Cup’s history) and 46-33 at Oregon State.
With all but one starter expected back on offense and defense, the Sun Devils might be ready to break out under coach Herm Edwards. They haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1997, when Jake Plummer was the quarterback and Pat Tillman was roaming in the secondary.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels is entering his third season as the starter. Last season, he struggled with his accuracy, completing only 58.3% of his passes. He still has thrown only three interceptions in 17 games, and he increased his rushing average from 2.8 yards per carry to 6.8 in 2020. He’ll have two new weapons in Elijhah Badger, who sat out last season because of academic reasons, and Utah transfer Thompson, who averaged 25.6 yards per catch in 2019. Oklahoma transfer Conyers was the No. 2 tight end prospect in the 2020 class.
On defense, Antonio Pierce became the sole coordinator after former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was named special assistant to the head coach.
2020 record: 8-3 (7-2 ACC)
Projected returning starters: nine offense, seven defense, one special teams
Key losses: DE Jaelan Phillips, DE Quincy Roche, TE Brevin Jordan, K Jose Borregales
Key additions: WR Charleston Rambo, DE Deandre Johnson, S Avantae Williams, CB Tyrique Stevenson, LB Chase Smith, S Kamren Kinchens, DT Leonard Taylor, LB James Williams, QB Jake Garcia
Previous Way-Too-Early ranking: 25
Outlook: The Hurricanes’ best news coming out of the spring was that quarterback D’Eriq King, who tore an ACL in the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl, was “smashing every benchmark” in his return and remained on track to be ready for the state of the season. Miami coach Manny Diaz told reporters that King was running again and throwing from a stationary position.
Still, Miami worked to get freshmen Tyler Van Dyke and Garcia ready to go in case King isn’t available. Van Dyke played in two games in 2020; Garcia was the No. 23 prospect in the 2021 ESPN 300 and enrolled early. Former starter N’Kosi Perry transferred to Florida Atlantic, and Tate Martell entered the transfer portal (again).
Three highly regarded transfers — Johnson from Tennessee, Stevenson from Georgia and Rambo from Oklahoma — had big impacts during the spring.
Dropped out: Liberty (24)