The 2021 college football season is just around the corner. With that in mind, here are the 25 players who will have the biggest impact on the sport in the next year.
College football is the most popular sport in America, and there are a lot of players that have been important to their team’s success. This list includes the top 25 players for 2021. Read more in detail here: top 25 college football.
The past two national championship games in college football perfectly encapsulated the two kinds of stars we end up with: the ones we saw coming and the ones we didn’t. In 2019, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the reigning national champion and college football’s golden kid, faced up against LSU’s late-rising Joe Burrow, who had to transfer and struggle through an up-and-down first season as a starter before exploding.
Last season, we pitted Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the best prospect in Lawrence’s class, against Alabama’s Mac Jones, who didn’t start a game until his third year in Tuscaloosa (and it was only that soon because of injury).
All four of the players mentioned above went on to become stars, although two of them needed star turns later in their careers.
This article is about star turns, particularly the players that may have the most effect on the college football season and national championship race if they make one. This is the third year that we’ve compiled a list of the season’s most important players. In 2019, I came close to securing the top position, placing Burrow at No. 2. The No. 1 player in 2020 was the same player that is No. 1 this year.
Let’s take a look at 2021 now.
Potential for pure transcendence
We already know a lot about these people, but they may have one additional piece of equipment. This is the Ndamukong Suh section of the list for 2009.
Breece Hall of Iowa State is one of the most experienced running backs in the nation, having rushed for 1,572 yards last season. Icon Sportswire/Scott Winters
Breece Hall (Iowa State) is a 25-year-old running back.
If a club wants to win a national championship despite having mediocre recruitment, it will require exceptional quarterback performance, at least one dominant pass rusher, and at least one All-American level player in the skill corps. ISU has all three in Brock Purdy, Will McDonald, and Hall. Hall is one of the most experienced running backs in the nation, mixing outside speed with some of the finest between-the-tackles work you’ll see.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame, No. 24
Notre Dame almost has to replace more play-making talent on defense than any other team in the nation in pass rusher Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, safety Shaun Crawford, and others. The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, still have Hamilton, a former all-world recruit who has lived up to the expectations. He’s a one-man pass defense who can blitz, clamp down in man coverage, and serve as the roaming ball hawk when needed.
23. Quarterback North Carolina’s Sam Howell
You might argue that, as essential as it was for Mack Brown to nail his coordinator choices when he returned to coaching at Chapel Hill in 2019, getting Howell out of Florida State’s clutches was just as vital, if not more so. In two years, he’s thrown for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns, and although he’ll be working with a whole new skill corps this time, he’ll have a seasoned offensive line and a megawatt arm.
RB 22. Texas’ Bijan Robinson
Although Steve Sarkisian’s first Texas offense won’t have the extraordinary skill pool that he had at Alabama last fall, he will have at least one outstanding component in Robinson. In his past five games, the 2020 blue-chipper erupted for a total of 651 running and receiving yards on only 55 touches. In 2021, he’ll likely see as much of the ball as he can handle, and Texas will be the better for it.
LSU’s Derek Stingley (CB) is ranked 21st.
Late in LSU’s 2019 national championship run, Stingley was the greatest defensive player in the country, but injuries sidelined him last fall. Although he wasn’t terrible, opponents threw at Stingley 92 times in 2019, resulting in just 31 completions, six interceptions, and a raw QBR of 23.4. If he’s that guy again, LSU will be a step ahead of where they were last season.
Oklahoma’s DE Nik Bonitto is ranked 20th.
Bonitto had the greatest pressure rate in the nation as a sophomore rush end, recording eight sacks and forcing 21 incompletions. In one of the most havoc-friendly defensive systems in the nation, any progress might make him the scariest pass rusher in the country. OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is one of the most daring play-callers you’ll ever see, and Bonitto, along with tackles Isaiah Thomas and Jalen Redmond, turns risk into reward at an astounding rate.
Other possibilities include OLB Will Anderson Jr. (Alabama, No. 19 last year), RB Tank Bigsby (Auburn), CB Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati), CB Josh Jobe (Alabama), QB D’Eriq King (Miami), DE D’Eriq King (Miami), QB D’Eriq King (Miami), DE D’Eriq King (Miami), QB D’Eriq King (M WR Chris Olave (Ohio State), G/C Jamaree Salyer (Georgia), CB Tiawan Mullen (Indiana), G/C Jamaree Salyer (Georgia), WR Garrett Wilson (Iowa State) (Ohio State)
Quarterbacks who are spoilers
Even if they and/or their teams aren’t quite good enough to accomplish it on a consistent basis, there are plenty of quarterbacks who might pull off a title-turning shock.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska, No. 19 (2019’s No. 9)
Martinez is better than you believe, but he’s not McKenzie Milton, the quarterback who guided Nebraska to success at UCF under Scott Frost’s tutelage. But, oh, the opportunities Martinez will have as a senior. He’ll face teams rated second (Oklahoma), fourth (Ohio State), 12th (Wisconsin), and 18th (Iowa) in the preseason AP poll. Nebraska will not win the Big Ten, but they may have a say in who does.
Ole Miss’ Matt Corral is ranked number 18 in the country.
Ole Miss’ fortunes will be dictated by if (and how much) a dismal defense can improve, but the offense is capable of winning a game by itself, and Corral, like his head coach Lane Kiffin, absolutely knows it. He averaged 334 passing yards per game in 2020, threw at least two TDs in nine games … and threw at least five INTs in two. Ole Miss gets shots at Alabama and Texas A&M this year, and both the Tide and Aggies better put their track shoes on.
Desmond Ridder may be the first quarterback from the Group of 5 to make an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Getty Images/Justin Casterline
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati, No. 17
Here’s another way to look at the word “spoiler”: Following up on last year’s success and with non-conference games against both Indiana and Notre Dame, an undefeated Bearcats team may ruin the party by forcing the CFP committee to place them in the top four at the conclusion of the season. Last season, Ridder jumped to 12th in Total QBR with 2,296 passing yards and 703 pre-sack running yards. If he finishes in the top five this season, Cincinnati may as well.
Other candidates: Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson, Michigan’s Cade McNamara, Auburn’s Bo Nix, Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr., Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims, and [anyone] (Purdue)
Members of the supporting cast
In 2021, these players will serve as important safety nets for either new starting quarterbacks or QBs looking for a breakthrough.
16. RB Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
A&M brings both top-10 expectations and a new starting quarterback to the table this fall, and while we don’t know yet whether Haynes King or Zach Calzada will win the job — the tea leaves suggest King, but we’ll see — said new starter will have one of the steadiest RBs in the country next to him in the backfield. Even with exciting players like Ainias Smith and Devon Achane commanding carries, Spiller rushed for 104 yards per game while serving as a solid bailout passing option.
Following his supporting role last season, receiver John Metchie is expected to be Bryce Young’s go-to man at Alabama. AP Photo/John Bazemore
Alabama’s WR John Metchie is ranked 15th.
Even though DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle, Mac Jones, and three all-conference linemen are gone, it’s difficult to even pretend to be concerned about Alabama. Metchie is one of the main reasons why the Tide will start the season atop the polls. For half of the season, he was the No. 3 option, but he still caught 55 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns, and he’s now Bryce Young’s probable go-to man.
Clemson’s Justyn Ross (WR) is ranked 14th (No. 18 in 2019)
After losing both Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, new Tiger starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei needs a new No. 1 receiver, and a former standout just resurfaced on the depth chart. Ross, who missed 2020 due to a severe neck injury — one of the scarier words in any sport — has been cleared for contact this fall, and if he’s anything like his former self, Clemson’s offensive potential has just become greater.
Other candidates: RB Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), RB Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma), RB Lyn-J Dixon (Clemson), T Kenyon Green (Texas A&M), WR Kearis Jackson (Georgia), WR Drake London (USC), WR Marvin Mims (Oklahoma), RB Master Teague III (Ohio State), WR Parker Washington (Penn State), WR Devon Williams (Oregon), RB Kyren Williams (Notre Dame), RB [whoever] (North Carolina)
Key defenders with the ability to jump
With a big breakthrough, these players may completely change their respective defenses.
Ohio State’s Sevyn Banks, CB
In 2020, Ohio State’s pass defense was a huge letdown, surrendering a 66 percent completion rate and a 143.1 passer rating while failing to adjust to defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs’ more conservative and zone-heavy strategy. With an offseason to respond and prepare, we’ll see what adjustments Coombs has in store, but a significant stride forward from Banks and the other Buckeye corners could make a huge impact, particularly if the pass rush improves as well.
Miami’s [insert defensive end here].
At this moment, few positions deserve the benefit of the doubt more than “Miami defensive end.” The star has come to an end. After combining for 12.5 sacks and 16 run stuffs, Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips are no longer with the team. However, it’s reasonable to expect a mix of Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson, Zach McCloud, and rookies Jahfari Harvey and Chantz Williams to take up the slack and generate large TFL statistics. Still, if Manny Diaz’s Hurricanes are to live up to their top-10 potential, they must go out and do it.
The Gators have lost most of their defensive studs, but cornerback Kaiir Elam is back. Steve Mitchell is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
11. Florida CB Kaiir Elam
Despite a strong offense, Florida finished 8-4, due mostly to an all-or-nothing defense that allowed an average of 46 points per game in defeats. A recovery will be tough with three of last year’s top four linemen and five of last year’s six defensive backs gone, but coordinator Todd Grantham still has Elam, who intercepted two passes, broke up ten others, and allowed a QBR of just 42.9 in coverage. For the Gators to compete, he’ll have to be on the same level as 2019 Derek Stingley Jr., but it’s not impossible.
DT is ten. Clemson’s Bryan Bresee
As a true freshman last year, he may have been the greatest defensive lineman on a playoff team, and now the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2020 class has experience under his belt, not to mention a talented supporting cast. The 300-pounder moves like a defensive end, giving coordinator Brent Venables a plethora of attacking options up front. For a few more years, he and defensive end Myles Murphy (the No. 13 prospect in 2020) will be the attack’s mainstays.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon No. 9
He’s almost there. The No. 1 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class with 9.5 tackles for loss, six rushes stopped at or beyond the line, and even 20 times dropped into coverage. He’s already one of the finest all-around lineman in the nation, and his 14 percent pressure rate and 15 forced incompletions (in seven games) suggest he’s on his way to a big sack total. Oregon’s defense may surge as a result of this.
Other candidates: DE Zach Harrison (Ohio State), DE Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), DE George Karlaftis (Purdue), DE Drake Jackson (USC), DE DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M, No. 17 last year), DT Phidarian Mathis (Alabama), DT Myles Murphy (Clemson), DT Derrick Tangelo (Penn State)
Quarterbacks capable of making a game-changing jump
This is for quarterbacks who could obviously take another step forward… and who, if they did, would dramatically change their team’s perspective.
Penn State’s Sean Clifford is ranked eighth (No. 7 last year, No. 5 in 2019)
Clifford isn’t the first person to appear on the “possible jump?” list, which serves as a reminder that he hasn’t taken the leap yet. Last season, he placed 38th in Total QBR, and he’ll need to improve if James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are to return to the top 10. But with former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich in charge of play-calling and a talented and intriguing skill corps at his disposal, it’s not impossible.
Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) is ranked number seven. (No. 3 the previous year)
4th, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, Before Lincoln Riley gave the keys to a redshirt freshman this fall, that’s where OU quarterbacks placed in the Heisman vote from 2015 through 2019. Now that he’s had a year to settle in, we’re expecting big things from Rattler in 2021. It’s difficult not to view him as a Heisman favorite with the supporting cast surrounding him: receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, running back Kennedy Brooks, a handful of important transfers, and one of the nation’s top offensive lines.
Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), Dylan Morris (Washington), Kedon Slovis (USC), and Dorian Thompson-Robinson are among the other possibilities (UCLA)
For prospective contenders, new starting quarterbacks are needed.
These newcomers must instantly perform at a high level.
6. Haynes King or Zach Calzada, Texas A&M
A&M’s got a loaded skill corps and a potential top-10 defense, but we won’t quite know what we need to know about the Aggies until we’ve seen both the remodeled line and the guy who lines up behind it. King is a runner-gunner play-maker, and Calzada had one of the best arms in the 2019 recruiting class, and if A&M is to threaten for a CFP spot, one of them will probably have to do something predecessor Kellen Mond couldn’t: hang 30-plus on Bama.
5. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (or Jack Miller III, Kyle McCord, or Quinn Ewers).
The Buckeyes’ offensive SP+ rating of 47.0 adjusted points per game, second in FBS and their highest since 2013, has raised the bar even higher than usual. OSU was able to spread the field wonderfully because to Justin Fields’ arm and playmaking abilities, and although his successor might be any number of recent blue-chippers — it seems that Stroud is in the lead — there’s virtually nowhere to go but down, at least momentarily. But how many hiccups will the rookie quarterback face?
Relive D.J. Uiagalelei’s best moments from last season as the Clemson quarterback prepares to replace Trevor Lawrence.
4. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei
Last season, Uiagalelei shone in a two-week starting tryout, completing 69 percent of his throws with no interceptions and displaying good short-yardage running ability at 250 pounds. The training wheels, however, have been removed. He needs to look the part of a CFP quarterback not just without Travis Etienne, but also from the outset of the season: The Tigers’ biggest regular-season game comes against Georgia in Charlotte in Week 1.
3. Alabama’s Bryce Young
There is no pressure on the No. 5 talent in the 2020 class. Without the services of four first-rounders from last year’s supporting cast, all he has to do in his first season as Alabama’s starting quarterback is replicate the numbers of perhaps the greatest Crimson Tide offense ever — and evidently live up to the hundreds of thousands of NIL dollars coming his way. We nearly universally think Nick Saban’s Bama machine will accomplish it, which says a lot about him.
Other contenders are Anthony Brown or Ty Thompson (Oregon), Jack Coan (Notre Dame), Emory Jones (Florida), Casey Thompson or Hudson Card (Texas).
Quarterbacks have the ability to make a game-changing jump as well as a chance to play for a number of different teams.
2. LSU’s Max Johnson
After a shaky half-season as the LSU offensive coordinator, it’s difficult to tell what Johnson is capable of (59 percent completion rate, 72nd in Total QBR). Is he a real game-changer, or should he have been categorized as a possible spoiler instead? We’re going to think the ceiling is high when you have Derek Stingley Jr. and Kayshon Boutte on your squad. Johnson is a runner and improviser, and he may be in a good position if the run game and defense are both more consistent. Otherwise, he may be compelled to improvise much too much.
For the second year in a row, Georgia quarterback JT Daniels leads the list. John Bazemore/Associated Press
1. Georgia’s JT Daniels (#1 previous year, #8 this year)
Daniels was previously dubbed the most likely Next Mac Jones (and Georgia was named the most likely Next Clemson) earlier in the summer, so it was a foregone conclusion that he’d be the top choice here. “With excellent quarterback performance, the Dawgs move from SEC East co-favorites to, possibly, national championship co-favorites,” I wrote last year. The only thing that has changed since then is that late last season, we got a four-game taste of what Daniels was capable of. The Dawgs will have all they need if Daniels can translate his small-sample brilliance into large-sample excellence.
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