Ranking the Top 10 NCAA Football Teams for 2021

By Dan Vasta in College Football
| July 8, 2021 6:21 am PDT

The summer is my favorite time of the year, not just due to the great weather. It’s the calm before the storm when college football is nearly upon us.

The preseason magazines are in full force, while message boards and social media are usually full of the best trolls and hype machines.

Before actual NCAA football games kickoff, I love chattering over which teams will be ranked in the preseason AP poll. Taking it a step further, I am ready to rank exactly where the top 10 teams will land in the upcoming preseason 2021 college football AP Poll.

Here are my predictions for the top 10 college football teams in the 2021 season.

10. North Carolina Tar Heels

Landing Sam Howell was one fine pickup for Mack Brown, and it has helped rejuvenate the Tar Heels program. Many other solid additions have been had, and the expectations have quickly picked up.

None compare to Howell, of course, who is the face of the North Carolina offense, and just might be the #1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

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Coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, North Carolina will enter as a favorite in the Coastal division and a true threat to dethroning Clemson. While Miami won’t be far behind, the combination of Brown and Howell is tough to match.

Despite losing some key pieces on both sides of the ball, Howell developed a rapport in the bowl preparations with some youngsters.

The trio of Beau Corrales, Josh Downs, and Khafre Brown can look like world-beaters, with Howell spinning the magic bean. The addition of Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler will help make up for the losses of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Those two put together historic seasons, but playing with Howell will make life easier.

The defense seemed to be the one glaring weakness that was holding the team back a bit. They were involved in way too many shootouts and ranked among the worst pass defenses. The Tar Heels finished the year ranked No. 87 in the FBS (246.7 YPG).

If they can shore that up, perhaps the Heels could make their mark as the ACC champion on their way to a berth in the College Football Playoff.

  • Key Game: 10/16 vs. Miami

9. Cincinnati Bearcats

Luke Fickell nearly put together a perfect 2020 season had it not been for some poor clock management and an inability to close out Georgia in the closing moments.

The Bearcats bring back plenty of offensive talent and none more important than quarterback Desmond Ridder. One of the top dual-threat players in the nation, Ridder is a mismatch for most defenses that cannot get after the passer.

Suffice to say; he’ll be a real threat to take home AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2021.

Michael Young Jr. and Alec Pierce are a dynamic duo when healthy, and we should see quicker drives thanks to more explosive plays in the passing game. Ridder will also get help from running back Mike Ford, who exploded to pay dirt with a 79-yard score in that Cotton Bowl.

This team’s physical ability was off the charts for a group of five school, and many feel they will only be better in 2021. Myjai Sanders was a freak off the edge that nobody could block, and he should demand plenty of attention.

The schedule is more daunting, though, with trips to Bloomington and Notre Dame.

If they can at least split those and run the table in a very challenging American Athletic Conference, another premier bowl should be well within reach. Managing expectations will be interesting to witness since the program will be a preseason Top 10 team for the first-ever time.

  • Key Game: 10/2 at Notre Dame

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Brian Kelly received a lot of negativity from the naysayers until the last few years when he made the haters eat some crow. He has been a premier coach in America and has gotten the Irish as close to the national spotlight as we have seen in decades arguably.

Ian Book is finally gone after setting several records, none more impressive than program wins (30). It looks like former Wisconsin signal-caller and current graduate transfer Jack Coan will become the new Irish starter. Drew Pyne should provide great depth as he will have ample opportunities if Coan struggles. The former Badger had a respectable 18/5 TD-INT ratio in 2019.

Luckily, there is a backfield teammate named Kyren Williams, who was remarkable last season.

Just look at his stat line from a year ago.

Games Rush ATT Rush YDS Rush TDs YPC Rec Rec YDS Rec TDs
12 211 1,125 13 5.3 35 313 1

The soon-to-be junior will carry even more of a workload and should become the go-to guy on the Notre Dame offense.

The combination of a tough schedule and lots of fresh faces could give the season a few roadblocks. The Irish are fifth to last in the entire FBS in terms of returning production. Opening at Doak Campbell Stadium against Florida State on the day before Labor Day could go a long way towards how special of a season we witness from Notre Dame.

Home dates against many top 20 squads are on the horizon with Cincinnati, USC, and North Carolina. Winning two of those games might be too tall of a task. But, throw in a trip to Blacksburg, and suddenly that opener against the Seminoles could dictate if this team can even win double-digit games in 2021.

  • Key Game: 10/23 vs. USC

7. Iowa State Cyclones

Matt Campbell’s job at Iowa State is remarkable, and I wouldn’t put it past him to get back to a New Year’s Six bowl. Brock Purdy, Breece Hall, and Charlie Kolar are some of the finest offensive trios you will find in the nation.

Hall just might be one of the best 2021 Heisman Trophy sleepers worth tracking all year long.

Hall dominated Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, which many were taken back by how physically sound the Cyclones were against the Ducks. However, this Big 12 team is no pushover and has officially reached national relevancy after their greatest season ever.

This was their first-ever BCS/NY6 victory, and many are expecting another one.

Iowa State had never even appeared in four straight bowls before now, and the program has never even been in the preseason Top 15 before. That is all going to change, and so much experience is returning that Ames will be electric in 2021.

Among power five programs, only UCLA and Miami are hauling back more returning production. Brock Purdy already has his name in a ton of program records, and a few more will be placed in 2021.

If the Cyclones can remain upbeat going into Norman against the Sooners, we should see another rematch of the 2020 Big 12 championship. Purdy made an ill-advised pass late in the game that was up for grabs, or perhaps Iowa State could have had a chance to pull off the upset.

The amount of success we have seen from this program has been highly entertaining. There is a strong possibility we at least see a similar season to 2020 even though the ‘Clones will have a legitimate target on their backs for the first time in perhaps ever.

  • Key Game: 11/20 at Oklahoma

6. Texas A&M Aggies

Jimbo Fisher has done a very good job at College Station. Coming off a thrilling victory in the Orange Bowl, the Aggies finished fourth in the final AP Poll, and many are hoping they can take that next step or at least stay as a formidable contender in both the SEC and the national landscape.

Kellen Mond was under center for seemingly the last decade, but he did not choose to return with an extra year of eligibility. So, the next quarterback will be expected to fill those shoes by taking care of the ball and making simple throws to move the chains.

The stud talent is there on both sides of the ball.

Running back Isaiah Spiller looks like one of the five best in the country, and tight end Jalen Wydermyer is in the same discussion. Backup runner Ainias Smith has shown flashes, and there was not a better closer in a bowl game arguably than the explosive Devon Achane.

Achane dazzled the Orange Bowl crowd with a go-ahead 76-yard scamper and then, for good measure, added another score from a yard out.

Redshirt sophomore Zach Calzada or redshirt freshman Haynes King should be the starting quarterback, and they just need to avoid meltdowns by taking care of the ball.

The schedule is not overly rough outside of a home date against Alabama and trips to Oxford and Baton Rouge. Nevertheless, this should be a double-digit victory squad on paper.

If Jimbo Fisher can pull out a few close wins like last season (see Vanderbilt, Florida, North Carolina), we might see the Aggies finally breakthrough and appear in the College Football Playoff.

  • Key Game: 10/9 vs. Alabama

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

This program amazes me every season, and it doesn’t matter which first-rounder leaves for Sunday football.

Ryan Day has been great, and certainly would love to get back to a national title game regardless of who the competition is. They will need to replace a ton of talent from a season ago, as they rank No. 121 in terms of returning production.

That could be one argument against them if you’re betting on the highest college football win totals in 2021.

Quarterback Justin Fields and bell-cow back Trey Sermon are gone for greener pastures, but they return the top duo in the nation at wide receiver. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are two bright stars who will likely play their final season together in Scarlet and Grey.

Wilson is overly explosive and truly makes the life of a quarterback much simpler. Olave is a red-zone machine, snatching pigskins for paydirt with the best of them.

The offensive line continues to go under the radar, and despite losing a few key pieces, they do return a pair of premier tackles in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere.

Who ultimately replaces Fields and Sermon and how close the production is could determine if the Buckeyes make back-to-back trips to the national title.

C.J. Stroud is the probable favorite to land the starting gig, and the man next to him most likely will be Master Teague, a fantastic backup bruising tailback in 2019. Teague has popped off for over 1,300 yards and 12 scores over the last two seasons.

The talent is up there with anybody in the nation, and if the young quarterback group can carry its weight, there will be no restrictions on the 2021 season.

  • Key Game: 9/11 vs. Oregon

4. Georgia Bulldogs

Kirby Smart has done a solid job thus far, and many would argue he has been very good, but the Bulldog nation wants one thing. Their first national title since 1980 is at the very top of the wish list.

There have been too many frustrating seasons since then despite all the national success they have earned.

The ‘Dawgs have never been preseason Top 5 in the AP Poll for three straight seasons, and they look like locks to accomplish that feat for a fourth straight season entering the 2021 polls.

JT Daniels is arguably the biggest reason why this squad could finally get over the hump.

The final drive Daniels orchestrated in the Cotton Bowl over Cincinnati was virtuoso.

Now, George Pickens could miss the majority (perhaps the entire season) of the 2021 campaign, but the depth is not much of a concern. The backfield is primed to run roughshod on the SEC thanks to a bonafide offensive line once again.

The defense was spectacular last season in spurts with so much speed on the field. However, if we see some youngsters take that next step, such as Adam Anderson and Nakobe Dean, then this Georgia team could finally be the one to knock down the door.

  • Key Game: 9/4 vs. Georgia

3. Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners have the quarterback whisperer in Lincoln Riley, and it seems as if this program is only missing a national title or at least more trips to the College Football Playoff. They have done so much despite their defenses not matching up with the likes of a team like Alabama or Clemson.

That may not matter with the preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler, who is entering his redshirt sophomore season. It can’t hurt that he was amazing under pressure in 2020.

It could be his final year in Norman since he is three years removed from high school football. However, the steps that Rattler took down the stretch in wins over Iowa State and Florida could springboard the Sooner signal-caller towards Heisman glory.

The defense, thanks in large part to coordinator Alex Grinch, did some special things last season. As a result, many are expecting them to once again be dominant upfront in the trenches. Perrion Winfrey was a man amongst boys last year, and it wouldn’t shock me if he became one of the best interior linemen in the country.

The Big 12 should be respectable up top again, but making the Big 12 title likely won’t be overly impossible with home dates against Iowa State and TCU. The annual neutral-site game against Texas is never easy, and a road trip to Stillwater to end the regular season could be the one to circle.

A win there would put them surely in the Big 12 title and more than likely a game away from getting back to the College Football Playoff.

  • Key Game: 11/20 vs. Iowa State

2. Clemson Tigers

Dabo Swinney has two national titles, and yet the last few seasons were slightly disappointing with Trevor Lawrence under center. Winning it all with him as a freshman was one hell of a time, but these last two seasons were tough to watch those Tigers in the College Football Playoff.

One knows just how great Clemson has it when compared to Alabama, but it is not like this program is complete with major success.

Clemson is looking for its third ring under Swinney, and there is an impressive feat that they are getting closer to.

The Tigers have finished in the final AP or Coaches Top 4 for the last 7 consecutive seasons. The all-time record once looked unbreakable as Florida State did it 14 seasons in a row (1987-2000). Perhaps D.J. Uiagalelei can keep the good times rolling as he showed a lot of promise last season.

A quarterback with a cannon for an arm and a bevy of weapons surrounding him are the keys to success. Justyn Ross returning from injury (neck fusion) should be a reliable threat, but youngsters Frank Ladson Jr. and E.J. Williams could take the next step that many Tiger wideouts have.

A very favorable schedule should put Clemson right there for another ACC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. How well they play on New Year’s Eve in one of those semifinals (Cotton, Orange) will determine whether or not these Tigers can return to national glory.

  • Key Game: 9/4 vs. Georgia

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Need I remind you Nick Saban is 23-0 against his former assistants and is arguably the greatest ever? Alabama has been favored in 80 straight games and 152 of its last 153 meetings. The last time we saw Nick Saban’s Tide as an underdog was in 2015 on the road against Georgia. The Tide cruised to a 38-10 victory as a one-point underdog.

They’re also coming off a big title win last year.

It does not look like there will be games in the regular season in which Bama will be an underdog albeit a trip to College Station is no walk in the park.

The state of Florida will get their cracks against Alabama, where a neutral-site game against Miami (Atlanta) and road matchup with Florida could be fun ones to see if anybody can stay within single digits. Hosting Ole Miss and LSU is favorable, and heading to the Plains should not be as challenging as it has been to Saban over the years (Bama has lost 3 of the last 4).

One of the more amazing stats out there is Alabama is on the verge of making it 13 straight seasons in the preseason AP Top 5. That recently broke an all-time record at Florida State from 1990-2000.

Yes, it is safe to say that Alabama has had the historic swagger for a while now.

  • Key Game: 10/9 at Texas A&M

Betting on NCAA Football in 2021

Predicting the college football top-10 for 2021 is just the start. Eventually, you’ll want to gauge which teams will win their conference and who will win the 2021 College Football Playoff.

Betting on individual games and player props will be something to look at, as well.

These preseason top-10 college football rankings only tell you who the best teams are supposed to be. Bettors may also want to consider which would-be elite team will disappoint greatly.

Since 2007, in all but one season, there has been at least one preseason AP Top 10 team that has finished the season unranked. That usually requires four or five losses, and some schedules are an absolute gauntlet.

It is what we call the kiss of death, but it is unpredictable for many prognosticators to project which team will be a bust. Injuries, schedules, and player development are all fluid in college football, and it is why the regular season is bonkers every year.

Could someone in this year’s college football top-10 rankings fail beyond anyone’s imagination? That’s one more question to answer as you prepare to bet on football in 2021.

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