Each offseason, dating back to 2014, we here at CBS Sports have compiled some of the biggest names, games and stories to commemorate the 100-day countdown to college football‘s kickoff. Last year, it was a more somber tone with “games we hoped to see” from a season we hoped would happen, so it brings us great joy to deliver our annual 100-item discussion feeling much more optimistic about the outlook for college football in the fall.
In addition to the names and games we are focused on for 2021, there are some bold predictions along with analysis of the Heisman Trophy picture and some of the players I think will end up as the most impactful in the sport by the end of the year. Getting a full spring and summer that was lost in 2020 is going make for a much different season in 2021, and we can’t wait to see how it goes 100 days from today.
1. Oklahoma hype: While the No. 1 team in our post-spring CBS Sports top 25 was Alabama, the Crimson Tide being successful is too boring to really generate hype or buzz, especially considering the massive turnover on the field and on the sideline following last year’s title-winning campaign. While the Sooners may not be the No. 1 team heading into the year, they are the most intriguing national title contender. Oklahoma was playing its best football of the year at the end of the season, noticeable in the performance from quarterback Spencer Rattler and a defense that has gotten better each year under Alex Grinch. After missing the College Football Playoff for the first time in four seasons with Lincoln Riley as coach, the 2021 expectations are not just for a return to the playoff but taking the next step.
At the 100-day mark, most analysts seem reserved to a more conservative approach of “Oklahoma can win a playoff game” as the prediction for 2021. Will the hype grow as we get closer to kickoff such that the Sooners become a popular national championship pick? Few programs have won with the consistency of Oklahoma over the last four years and while the rest of that group has to replace a quarterback that finished as a Heisman finalist. That’s why Oklahoma, with the 2021 Heisman Trophy favorite in Rattler, starts to look like an intriguing option to not just win “a playoff game” but the program’s first national title since 2000.
2. Quarterback turnover at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State: The consolidation of power in college football has made it easy to name Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State as playoff favorites, especially now that they rank as the three winningest programs in the College Football Playoff’s short history combining for 17 of the 21 wins in the seven years of the format. But even if the strength of the rosters and coaching suggest we should not question their title-contending status, what about the quarterback position? Clemson has at least seen its successor to Trevor Lawrence in a high-pressure situation with DJ Uiagalelei stepping in against Boston College and Notre Dame last season, but it’s far less proven than what’s ahead at Alabama and Ohio State.
The Crimson Tide feel good about Bryce Young’s ceiling, and Bill O’Brien has had all spring to figure out how his skill set meshes with a new set of weapons at the skill positions, but it’s still a new coordinator leading an offense that has to replace five first-round NFL Draft picks. Ohio State has three quarterbacks that all appear capable of leading an offense otherwise ready to dominate, but it’s also three quarterbacks that have a combined zero pass attempts in college. When you reach the level of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, the stress of replacing a first-round NFL Draft pick quarterback is lessened by having talented options, but it’s still a question mark at the most important position on the field.
3. Impact of super seniors: When the NCAA announced that everyone would receive an extra year of eligibility, it introduced a numbers game that will have ramifications for years to come. In the immediate future, we have more returning experience than anytime in recent memory thanks to the number of players who opted to take that extra year and return as a “super senior.” ESPN’s Bill Connelly charts returning production every season and noted this year that while the national average is usually around 62% or 63%, the number for 2021 is “67% and climbing” as more returnees are added to the calculations with updated rosters.
In a typical year, having 80% of your returning production makes you one of the most experienced teams in the country, but in 2021, that barely puts you inside the top 25. Louisiana, which leads the nation with 96% of its production returning from a team that went 10-1 and finished No. 15 in the final AP Top 25 poll, has nine super seniors on its roster, including starting quarterback Levi Lewis. Coach Billy Napier said “those are some of the biggest recruits we’ve signed this year,” and the sentiment is echoed across the country with coaches getting leadership, experience and continuity that would not otherwise be available.
4. Playoff expansion, and how results shape the discussion: The decision makers at the time will protest, claiming that the postseason season needed to “evolve” and that there was no single moment to spark a change from the BCS format, but I find it too convenient that the College Football Playoff was finally approved just months after Alabama beat LSU in an SEC West rematch in the 2012 BCS Championship Game. The basics for the four-team playoff started with the plus-one model initially backed by former SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford, but the SEC and ACC didn’t have enough support from the Big Ten and the Pac-12 (then Pac-10) to make the changes to the BCS. Alabama and LSU play for the national title and now all of the sudden the expansion side has the votes to get it through? Not a coincidence, in my opinion.
So how will the 2021 results impact the ongoing discussions around playoff expansion? Some believe there could be changes to the format soon, especially knowing that different models are being evaluated right now. However, in a call with reporters last week, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips was more measured with his approach. Phillips said he was open to the idea of expansion, but had more questions than answers and said the evaluation process would “take some time.”
There are still five years left on the current CFP deal, but the CFP was approved as the new format with three years left on the BCS deal, so the decision window is approaching. If Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — the four teams that account for 20 of the 28 possible bids to the playoff in its seven-year history — end up as the four teams this season, it will only fuel the fire for expansion in the same way an all-SEC title did back in 2011-12.
5. Fans are back: Florida coach Dan Mullen got criticism for his “pack The Swamp” comments in early October 2020, but he wasn’t wrong about the impact fans can have on a game. A full stadium adds an element that cannot be ignored, especially when college athletes are the participants. But while we can debate the value of a “home field advantage,” what having fans in the stands really does is engage the university communities in a way that was missed in 2020. It’s not just having fans to cheer and make an impact on the game — it’s the tailgating, the family atmosphere that’s brought to campus with the return of alumni and the general feeling of investment that fans get from being close to the action.
Fans across the nation watch their favorite college football team on TV, but the way they talk about and engage with the sport during the week is drastically changed when you’ve been able to be in the stadium seeing the sights, hearing the sounds and smelling the many odors that we associate with the sport.
6. Bijan Robinson will win the Heisman Trophy: Maybe the Heisman electorate has also gotten tired of the quarterback run, and Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith’s 2020 win was a turning point in the way voters think about contenders. Smith matched statistical excellence with the intangible recognition that he was simply the most outstanding player on the field. Robinson has the potential to match that profile with his explosiveness leading to highlight-worthy plays and the all-purpose nature of how he could be used in Texas‘ offense basically guarantees yards and touchdowns both on the ground and through the air. Steve Sarkisian thrived as a game-planner and play-caller by moving Smith around and getting him the ball in space with Alabama last year, and he can do the same with Robinson with similar end-of-year results.
7. Penn State will start 3-3 (but finish 8-4): No team in college football has a tougher start to the season than Penn State. The year opens against Wisconsin in Madison, and the nonconference schedule includes a Week 3 home game against Auburn. The sandwich game? A Ball State team that likely looked a lot less intimidating when the game was scheduled than it does now after the defending MAC Champions got 16 seniors from last year’s team to commit to a super senior year in 2021, including starting quarterback Drew Plitt. Week 4 brings a more manageable nonconference foe with Villanova, then it gets tough again with Indiana at home and Iowa on the road in back-to-back weeks. While it’s not likely that all five of Penn State’s FBS opponents in the first half of the season will finish in the top 25, it’s definitely possible that all five will spend at least a week ranked in 2021. I like Penn State as a bounce-back candidate from a disappointing 2020, and the schedule does open up down the stretch, but navigating the first six weeks will be a challenge.
8. Georgia will win its first SEC championship since 2017: On paper, everything is elite for the Bulldogs with an SEC title, three SEC East crowns and four top-10 finishes in the last four years, but each year removed from that 2017 season brings a little bit more pressure for Kirby Smart to return to the College Football Playoff. While Alabama and Florida are breaking in new quarterbacks, the Bulldogs have an established starter who we believe will be one of the best in the country. We stress about the wide receiver room, banged up as its been this spring, but JT Daniels can be a difference-maker to lead Georgia back to the playoff and national title contention.
9. Utah will win the Pac-12 South: Am I making this pick because Charlie Brewer went 15 for 15 in the spring game? No. But I’m not not making this prediction because Charlie Brewer went 15 for 15 in the spring game. The Utes were young and inexperienced after a good bit of turnover from the 2019 squad, but the talent level is impressive and the influx of transfer talent at quarterback (Brewer) and running back (T.J. Pledger from Oklahoma, Chris Curry from LSU) will help spark the offense in a run to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
10. Clemson will have the best defense in the country: James Skalski, Baylon Spector and Nolan Turner will all be super seniors with the extra year of eligibility, but I’m more excited about the super sophomores who saw early action in 2020 because of injuries. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy played key roles for the Tigers last year, and if healthy, they’ll be joined by proven difference-makers in Tyler Davis and Xavier Thomas. Suddenly, Clemson has a defensive line that more closely resembles that group in 2018 that helped power the last national title run. Nine Clemson defenders earned all-conference honors last season, and seven of them are back for 2021, highlighting a unit that ranks No. 3 nationally in returning production. The added experience gives the group real competitive depth, which keeps Brent Venables’ group fresh through the grind of what they plan on being a 15-game season.
New faces, new places
Any questions about whether the pandemic would impact coaches on the hot seat seemed to be answered when South Carolina decided to move on from Will Muschamp in mid-November. About a month later, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Illinois were also open, and then both Texas and Tennessee fired their coaches in January. So while the total number of FBS jobs changing hands (17) was lower than recent years, the Power Five representation and some of the expectations at the jobs making new hires gave the 2020-21 cycle all the intrigue of any other year.
11. Arizona: Jedd Fisch
12. Arkansas State: Butch Jones
13. Auburn: Bryan Harsin
14. Boise State: Andy Avalos
15. Buffalo: Maurice Linquist
16. Illinois: Bret Bielema
17. Kansas: Lance Leipold
18. Louisiana-Monroe: Terry Bowden
19. Marshall: Charles Huff
20. South Alabama: Kane Wommack
21. South Carolina: Shane Beamer
22. Southern Miss: Will Hall
23. Tennessee: Josh Heupel
24. Texas: Steve Sarkisian
25. UCF: Gus Malzahn
26. Utah State: Blake Anderson
27. Vanderbilt: Clark Lea
This is an easy list because even if one of these teams does not win their conference or make the playoffs, the substitute team is not one you feel confident enough picking to win two games against the best teams in college football. We’re not talking about making the playoff; we’re talking about winning it all. The seven years of the CFP so far have proven that teams can rise from being overlooked to make it but winning mostly comes back to roster composition and factors that are settled prior to the start of the season. Odds via William Hill Sportsbook
28. Alabama (3-1)
29. Clemson (4-1)
30. Oklahoma (8-1)
31. Ohio State (7-1)
32. Georgia (10-1)
Every CFP national champion has started the season in the top-10 of the Preseason AP Top 25, so it’s worth considering options beyond the top five while still drawing a pretty strict line in the sand for legitimate title contenders. This next tier includes Notre Dame, some “next-best” options in the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, plus USC if it can run the table in the Pac-12.
Heisman Trophy candidates
Even though we’re coming off our first wide receiver win in decades, the Heisman is still a quarterback award, and so the conversation has to start there. Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia and Alabama are all going to be in the national title picture from the beginning of the season, so that’s why we see them as the early Heisman favorites. Sam Howell, Kedon Slovis and D’Eriq King join this group as players that are not only expected to star for top-20 teams but do so with prolific statistical performances. I’ve also included Stroud here as I’m projecting that he wins the starting job and thrives given the talent the Buckeyes have at wide receiver. Odds via William Hill Sportsbook
40. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma (11/2)
41. DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson (7-1)
42. JT Daniels, QB, USC (12-1)
43. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina (15-1)
44. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama (9-1)
45. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC (20-1)
46. D’Eriq King, QB, Miami (18-1)
47. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State (35-1)
Here is where we get to the fun long shots, which of course includes my bold prediction of Robinson taking the trophy from his current 25-1 odds. Fellow running backs Isaiah Spiller and Tank Bigsby would love to see the Heisman voters continue the non-quarterback trend, and each could carry weight not just as an outstanding player but as the most valuable player to their team. Plus, Kayvon Thibodeaux takes the cake as the mostly likely defensive player to get the Chase Young-Ndomukong Suh tap as a finalist. Could he win it ahead of an offensive player? Probably not, but he’s one of the biggest stars in college football and worth being recognized as such.
48. Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss (35-1)
49. Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State (30-1)
50. Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas (25-1)
51. Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M (60-1)
52. Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn (60-1)
53. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon (OFF)
A few more quarterbacks I’m keeping my eye on, since the Heisman is a quarterback award and we’re always quarterback crazy.
54. Casey Thompson, QB, Texas (50-1)
55. Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF (60-1)
56. Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (Off the board)
57. Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati (100-1)
58. McKenzie Milton, QB, Florida State (40-1)
Players to watch
They may not technically be Heisman contenders (yet), but there’s a number of players who deserve the spotlight before the season even begins. Keep an eye on these names.
59. Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU: Will we see the 2019 version of Stingley this fall? Now on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, he has a chance to return to form as one of the top defensive players in the sport. Stingley got off to a slow start in a 2020 season that saw him miss the opener because of an illness and never record a single interception, but the goods are there for him to be the consensus All-American we saw starring on a national title team full of NFL Draft picks.
60. Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame: While the Fighting Irish have benefited from a “get old and stay old” model that highlights the current state of the program’s player development, Hamilton has been too good to keep off the field since the moment he arrived on campus. A first team All-ACC performer in 2020, Hamilton is going to garner some NFL Draft attention here in year three.
61, Evan Neal, OL, Alabama: The 6-foot-7, 360-pound offensive lineman started 13 games at left guard as a freshman, 13 games at right tackle as a sophomore and seems poised to move over to Alex Leatherwood’s left tackle spot on Alabama’s offensive line. Neal is the kind of all-purpose lineman that makes the entire group better, but in 2021 he’s got the all-important task of helping new starting quarterback Bryce Young be successful.
62. Zion Nelson, OL, Miami: By the end of the season, Nelson had not only reclaimed the starting left tackle job as his but emerged as one of the most impressive lineman in the ACC. Just a three-star prospect coming out of high school in South Carolina, Nelson is a true junior with plenty of experience to suggest he’s worthy of consideration among the best tackles in the sport.
63. Drake Jackson, OLB, USC: There are plenty of stars in the Pac-12 and Big Ten who won’t have the stat totals of their counterparts in other conferences but still found ways to have an impact. Jackson is a pass rushing specialist who, at times, seemed unblockable as he broke out as a Freshman All-American in 2019. He only had two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in six games last year, but the expectation is that with a full schedule he’ll be among the top pass rushers in the country.
64. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: Injuries and COVID-19 availability issues were notable throughout Purdue’s roster, but it became particularly impactful with Karlaftis missing significant time due to both. Karlaftis was a Freshman All-American in 2019 when he led the team in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (17). Even though he only started three games in 2020, he was impressive enough to earn second team all-conference honors at the end of the season.
65. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: In just seven games of action last season, Olave went for at least 100 receiving yards five times and had three games with multiple receiving touchdowns. Long regarded as a key big-play threat for the Buckeyes offense, Olave became a go-to receiver in 2020, and his return for a senior season carries the “unfinished business” narrative we often see with national title contenders a year after coming up just short of their goal.
66. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: The most fun “who ya got?” debate in Columbus might not be fans choosing their favorite quarterback but picking an alpha in the wide receiver room. Wilson has long been regarded as one of the most athletic players on the roster, arriving as a two-sport star from Austin, Texas, with multiple Division I scholarship offers for basketball, and in 2020, his stats are comparable with Olave. Ohio State’s offense is built to overwhelm opponents with wide receivers, and it’s likely both Olave and Wilson are competing for All-American honors on a weekly basis.
67. Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida: Pedigree won’t often steer you wrong and seems time for a national breakout for Elam, whose father Abe played in the NFL for seven seasons and uncle Matt was a star for the Gators and first-round NFL Draft pick in 2013. Elam has played in every game of his college career and started all 12 games as a sophomore in 2020, finishing tied with Patrick Surtain Jr. as the SEC’s leader in passes defended (No. 4 nationally).
68. Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State: One year after Ohio State’s pass defense became a major talking point when evaluating the eventual national runner-up, the spotlight turns to the top pro prospect in the Buckeyes secondary. Banks was ruled out for the rest of spring on April 1, but if he’s full-go health-wise at the start of the season, he quickly becomes the top corner on a defense that ranked No. 122 in the country last season in pass defense and is looking to rebound this fall.
69. Cade Mays, OL, Tennessee: Mays has been a stud for three years, and he’s probably going to be awesome again in 2021 before taking his talents to the NFL. By the time Mays transferred home to Knoxville, he had played in 25 games for Georgia, starting 18, with game action at every position along the offensive and FWAA Freshman All-America honors. He played right guard and right tackle last year for the Vols, but wherever he plays, he’s the best lineman available for new coach Josh Heupel in the new up-tempo offense.
70. Darian Kinnard, OL, Kentucky: Part of the Mark Stoops identity is winning in the trenches, and Kinnard fits the bill for the way he’s developed into one of the most dominating offensive linemen in the country.
71. Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas: Burks first career touchdown and first career 100-yard game came in 2020 against one of the best defenses in the country, totaling seven catches for 102 yards and touchdown against a Georgia secondary that included multiple future pros. Burks was a special teams return game star as a freshman in 2019, but last year was him rounding the turn into one of the sport’s elite wide receivers.
72. Ty Fryfogle, WR, Indiana: We fully expect the Indiana passing attack to be impactful whether Michael Penix or Jack Tuttle is under center, and part of the reason is that Fryfogle is back after a stellar 2020 with the rest of this breakthrough Hoosiers team.
73. Christian Harris, LB, Alabama: We don’t talk about linebackers a lot these days, but Alabama has an awesome group of linebackers for 2021. Harris is the established star, a two-year starter who has excelled playing in some of the biggest games of the year in college football. In the CFP, he got an interception against Notre Dame and tied for the team lead in tackles against Ohio State in the title game. Five times prior to the postseason, the Tide staff named him the defensive player of the week, and it’s likely that he’s one of the most important players on this year’s defense.
74. Henry To’o To’o, LB, Alabama: If Harris is the established star, To’o To’o is the newcomer that brings with him all the expectations that come with his five-star rating as a high school prospect and the experience of being a two-year starter in the SEC. With Harris and To’o To’o at the second level, Alabama has the best one-two punch at linebacker in the country.
76. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: Injuries cut short the junior season for a player that we’ve long considered among the most promising pass rushing talents of the Jim Harbaugh era. Hutchinson was named the team’s rookie of the year for defense in 2018 and built on that success with 13 starts in 2019. Expectations were high for Michigan’s defense in 2020 based on personnel and Hutchinson’s absence contributed to the team’s struggles on that side of the ball. There’s a new defensive coordinator in Ann Arbor, and if Hutchinson is hitting his ceiling here as a senior, the results are going to be better for everyone.
77. Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M: The Maroon Goons have become a mainstay in the SEC as Texas A&M is able to boast an offense that imposes its will at the line of scrimmage. Green has been a huge part of developing that reputation over the last two years, and now as a third-year starter, he’s set to receive some buzz as one of the better offensive linemen in the class.
78. DeMarvin Leal, DL, Texas A&M: On the other side of the ball for Jimbo Fisher is one of the best defensive line talents in the SEC. Leal has been right there with Green, starting since he was a freshman and learning on the fly against the best talent in the SEC. The 6-foot-4 junior from San Antonio is the early nominee for the face of what we expect to be a top-tier Aggie defense in 2021.
79. Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia: From what we can tell, Georgia will once again have an elite defense. But if there are strengths and weaknesses to identify the Bulldogs need the defensive front to live up to its potential to help a secondary turning over personnel at some key spots. Davis is the kind of talent that sets the tone for the interior of that defense, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound nose tackle that has been a mainstay of the rotation for three years now.
80. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson: There’s still an important medical update coming in June to clear Ross for action in the fall, but the excitement for his return was a big storyline of the Clemson spring. Ross could end up making his return as a slot receiver, or lining up on the outside, creating matchup problems for opposing defenses who already have plenty to be concerned about with the Tigers’ wide receivers.
81. Ajou Ajou, WR, Clemson: There’s a handful of wide receivers that could end up being the favored targets for DJ Uiagalelei, but I’m calling my shot that Ajou is the breakout star from that room in 2021. Before moving from Canada to Florida with a heightened focus on his football, he played basketball and competed as a high jumper for track. We’ve seen flashes of athletic supremacy turned into production in spots against Georgia Tech and in the spring game, but Clemson could hit the next level if it’s overwhelming opponents with its wide receivers.
82. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: There’s a decent argument for Hall to be grouped above with the Heisman Trophy contenders but I think he’s more important than likely to win the award. Iowa State can win most downs against most opponents running the ball with Hall and letting Brock Purdy make throws off of play action and in other run-pass option situations. But competing for championships will take some hard yards that will likely fall on Hall for Iowa State. The good news is I think he’s up for the challenge.
83. Marvin Mims, WR, Oklahoma: Because there are so many reps and pass attempts to go around, Oklahoma is going to have a handful of stars during this 2021 campaign. But while the room is a strength with real depth that ranks among the nation’s best, I think the most consistent option in the framework of the offense will end up being Mims. With Charleston Rambo gone he’s next up as the Z receiver and will have plenty of opportunities to impress again this fall.
84. Nik Bonitto, LB, Oklahoma: Part of the Oklahoma defensive improvement has been not just the guidance of Alex Grinch but the execution of Bonitto, a two-year starter from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has embraced the expectations of championship contention in 2021.
85. Tyler Linderbaum, OL, Iowa: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the best center in college football, Linderbaum is going to be in the mix again as one of the top linemen in the sport for a Hawkeyes team competing for a Big Ten West title.
Best nonconference games
We missed out on a lot of elite nonconference games in 2020, so there’s even more excitement to get them back as a part of our college football experience. Below we’ve identified more than a dozen of the best nonconference showdowns, starting with a loaded opening weekend and equally intriguing Week 2.
86. Clemson vs. Georgia — Charlotte — Sept. 4
87. Alabama vs. Miami — Atlanta — Sept. 4
88. LSU at UCLA — Sept. 4
89. Louisiana at Texas — Sept. 4
90. Notre Dame at Florida State — Sept. 5
91. Ole Miss vs. Louisville –Atlanta — Sept. 6
92. Oregon at Ohio State — Sept. 11
93. Iowa at Iowa State — Sept. 11
94. Washington at Michigan — Sept. 11
95. Utah at BYU — Sept. 11
96. Auburn at Penn State — Sept. 18
97. Nebraska at Oklahoma — Sept. 18
98. Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame — Chicago — Sept. 25
99. Cincinnati at Notre Dame — Oct. 2
100. North Carolina at Notre Dame — Oct. 30