College football preseason power rankings: Alabama — who else? — starts at No. 1

NCAA Football

The college football season will look plenty different in 2021. The college football power rankings? Not quite as much. Despite new quarterbacks at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, those three perennial powers find themselves in the top five. They are joined by Oklahoma and Georgia, which both return quarterbacks in the hopes of winning their first championships of the playoff era.

And then there are teams like Texas A&M, North Carolina and Iowa State, which make the top 10 and are looking to earn a CFP bid for the first time. From the Group of 5, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana all check in.

Where does your favorite team rank?

Methodology: Thirty-three ESPN college football experts submitted their own top 25s, leading to this consensus list.

2020 record: 13-0, national champions
2021 preseason FPI: 1
Key September games: Sept. 4 vs. Miami; Sept. 18 at Florida

Season outlook: Another year, another championship, another rebuild. Replacing DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Mac Jones on offense won’t be easy. Nor will it be easy to recreate the magic of Steve Sarkisian calling plays. But Nick Saban went out and got a former college and pro coach in Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator. John Metchie is back at receiver, along with veteran running back Brian Robinson. All eyes will be on projected starting quarterback Bryce Young, though. The dynamic former five-star recruit was Jones’ understudy last season and has all the tools to be an all-conference player. How he deals with the learning curve of major college football will go a long way toward determining whether Alabama reloads and competes for another championship. — Alex Scarborough

2020 record: 9-2, Big 12 champions
2021 preseason FPI: 3
Key September game: Sept. 18 vs. Nebraska

Season outlook: The Sooners amped up the excitement level this offseason with designs on joining the SEC in the future, but they have a real opportunity to push for a national-title run this season. The schedule sets up nicely: TCU and Iowa State, which can push the Sooners, visit Norman this year, as does Nebraska for a Game of the Century anniversary celebration. The Texas game, as always, is a key test, but FPI gives the Sooners a 68% chance to win the conference. — Dave Wilson

2020 record: 10-2, ACC champions
2021 preseason FPI: 2
Key September game: Sept. 4 vs. Georgia

Season outlook: Trevor Lawrence is gone. Travis Etienne is gone. For most programs, that would mean a massive reset of expectations. At Clemson, however, there’s surprisingly little concern. QB D.J. Uiagalelei got his feet wet replacing Lawrence for two games last year, and he looked like a future star. Five-star recruit Will Shipley has already turned heads in summer workouts, and Clemson’s backfield appears well-stocked with talent. Then add in a healthy Justyn Ross, an absolutely loaded defensive front and a veteran secondary with a chip on its shoulder and, once again, the Tigers are the odds-on favorites to win the ACC. The bigger question for Clemson fans, however, might be how much bigger they should dream. After two straight seasons ended with blowout losses in the playoff, the narrative surrounding Clemson will be less about its command of the conference and more about how quickly the Tigers can once again hoist a national championship trophy. — David M. Hale

2020 record: 7-2
2021 preseason FPI: 5
Key September game: Sept. 4 vs. Clemson

Season outlook: The Bulldogs are one of the favorites to make the College Football Playoff and win a national championship. Georgia’s offense looked like it was finally reaching its potential toward the end of 2020 with JT Daniels at quarterback, and will be returning eight starters in 2021. Defensively, the Dawgs will have to reload some, but the addition of Tykee Smith and Georgia’s general ability to reload year in and year out could have them back in the playoff for the first time since 2017. And from a scheduling standpoint, the Bulldogs avoid Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU. — Harry Lyles Jr.

2020 record: 7-1
2021 preseason FPI: 4
Key September game: Sept. 11 vs. Oregon

Season outlook: The Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback after starter Justin Fields left for the NFL. All signs point to C.J. Stroud getting the starting nod while battling with Jack Miller and Kyle McCord. The good news for the offense is that the unit is returning receivers Chris Olave, one of the top producing receivers in the country, and Garrett Wilson, along with tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who all led the team in receiving touchdowns in 2020. The coaches are adding in some talented freshmen on offense as well, with running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. On defense, the Buckeyes need to see improvement from their secondary, a unit that ranked 122 of all FBS programs in pass yards allowed per game. This is still a team that will be in the College Football Playoff discussion, but the Buckeyes will need some new names to step up if they want to win it all.— Tom VanHaaren

2020 record: 8-1
2021 preseason FPI: 6
Key September game: Sept. 11 vs. Colorado

Season outlook: The Aggies are coming off a season in which they appeared built for sustained success, particularly on defense. They’ll have to rebuild up front with four new starters on the offensive line and break in a new QB, but Jimbo Fisher feels good about those positions. ESPN’s FPI gives A&M a greater than 80% chance to win in each of its first five games before Alabama — which handed the Aggies their only loss last season — visits College Station on Nov. 9. — Wilson

2020 record: 9-3
2021 preseason FPI: 9
Key September game: Sept. 11 vs. Iowa

Season outlook: One of the most impressive feats from the 2020 college football season was Iowa State’s ability to have its best year in school history during a pandemic. Matt Campbell will have much of the same group looking to run it back in 2021. While this will be the most anticipated season in Iowa State’s history, its biggest challenge to a Big 12 title and a playoff berth will likely be the same that stopped the team in 2020: Spencer Rattler and the Sooners. But the Cyclones split games with the Sooners, and with Brock Purdy and Breece Hall leading the charge, the people of Ames can’t help but feel optimistic, as the Cyclones are legitimate playoff contenders. — Lyles

2020 record: 4-3, Pac-12 champion
2021 preseason FPI: 12
Key September game: Sept. 11 vs. Ohio State

Season outlook: After an impressive freshman season and an abbreviated sophomore one, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux heads into his junior year with the potential to be the best player in college football. Yes, he’s that good. But the Ducks are so much more than that. Oregon has been a recruiting power the past few years under Mario Cristobal and has built a deep, talented roster on par with some of the best in college football. There will be a new starting quarterback after Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech, but it appeared likely that Anthony Brown was going to win the job, regardless, after earning playing time at the end of last season. He figures to improve as the team heads into its second year under coordinator Joe Moorhead. — Kyle Bonagura

2020 record: 10-2
2021 preseason FPI: 8
Key September games: Sept. 5 at Florida State, Sept. 25 vs. Wisconsin

Season outlook: The Irish beat Clemson in the regular season and made it to the College Football Playoff last season, but there is a lot of production to replace from last year’s team. Quarterback Ian Book is gone, the offensive line will have new faces across the board and head coach Brian Kelly has a new defensive coordinator in Marcus Freeman. The staff brought in Wisconsin quarterback transfer Jack Coan, who has a shot at starting for Notre Dame this season while battling with Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner. Having tight end Michael Mayer as a big target will help whoever wins that battle, but there are some big holes to fill. On defense, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is gone, but the unit does bring back star safety Kyle Hamilton. How the new faces step into key roles and help early on will be the story of what this Notre Dame team looks like this season. — VanHaaren

2020 record: 8-4
2021 preseason FPI: 14
Key September game: Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech

Season outlook: The state of play in the ACC has been all but etched in stone for the past five years: It’s Clemson and everyone else. But perhaps 2021 is the year a genuine contender to the throne emerges from that “everyone else” category, and no one seems better positioned to do it than North Carolina. On offense, UNC returns arguably the country’s best QB in Sam Howell, along with all five starters on the O-line. On defense, a unit that desperately needed a talent infusion two years ago now has legitimate blue-chip stars ready to contribute, including five-star corner Tony Grimes and five-star end Keeshawn Silver. Even the talent that left appears to have some ready-made replacements, as Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler looks to pick up where 1,000-yard backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams left off, and slot receiver Josh Downs appears poised to become the next Tar Heels superstar. Of course, UNC also suffered embarrassing losses to FSU and Virginia last year, so rather than focus on reaching Clemson’s elite status, the next big step for the Heels might just be finding some consistency. — Hale

2020 record: 9-1, AAC champions
2021 preseason FPI: 22
Key September game: Sept. 18 at Indiana

Season outlook: The biggest storyline from Cincinnati’s offseason was the departure of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Freeman’s defense helped the Bearcats win an American Athletic Conference title. With Freeman now at Notre Dame, coach Luke Fickell will hope that longtime Michigan State assistant Mike Tressel can keep the Bearcats’ defense playing at the same intensity that helped the team earn an appearance against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Offensively, Desmond Ridder is back at quarterback with a new offensive line, but if the defense performs at a similar level that it did in 2020, the Bearcats should be in for another big season. — Lyles

2020 record: 8-2
2021 preseason FPI: 11
Key September game: Sept. 18 vs. Alabama

Season outlook: Two major questions face the Gators as they head into a new season: How will Emory Jones do as the presumptive starter at quarterback, and how much better will the defense be after a heavily criticized performance a year ago? Let’s start with Jones, who has waited three years for the opportunity to start. Jones is a different player from Kyle Trask — during SEC media days, Mullen noted that Jones had a strong arm and was a “dynamic playmaker” with his feet — so the offense will look different. But what about the defense? With veterans like Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox Jr. and Kaiir Elam returning, the Gators have the pieces in place to put together a far more consistent performance. — Andrea Adelson

2020 record: 5-1
2021 preseason FPI: 21
Key September game: Sept. 11 vs. Stanford

Season outlook: The Trojans often didn’t look the part last year, but they still went undefeated through the pandemic-shortened regular season before losing the Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. This year, with a more traditional offseason, expectations are as high as they’ve been since Clay Helton took over. That doesn’t say much, of course, but the feeling around Los Angeles is that if this isn’t the season Helton can break through and become nationally relevant, it’s just not going to happen. QB Kedon Slovis has star potential, but the player to know going into the season is receiver Drake London, a potential All-American. — Bonagura

2020 record: 5-5
2021 preseason FPI: 18
Key September game: Sept. 4 at UCLA

Season outlook: Last year was a complete letdown. The wheels came off early, and it took a rally late and a bizarre penalty for a thrown shoe just to finish at .500. Ed Orgeron then went to work, almost entirely remaking his staff, bringing in Daronte Jones to lead the defense and Jake Peetz to run the offense. The latter was a clear move at trying to recapture the magic of Joe Brady’s dynamic 2019 offense. The good news is that Peetz has two good options at quarterback: Myles Brennan, who threw for 11 touchdowns in three games before an injury ended his season, or Max Johnson, the freshman who led LSU to a back-to-back wins to salvage an otherwise lost season. — Scarborough

2020 record: 8-3
2021 preseason FPI: 10
Key September game: Sept. 4 vs. Alabama

Season outlook: Quarterback D’Eriq King has navigated his rehab from another knee injury better than anyone had imagined when he got hurt in the bowl game, and his return has boosted expectations for a program still finding its footing under Manny Diaz. But the Hurricanes also start the season against Alabama, a tough first test that might end up defining the season. Beyond King’s return, there is optimism the defense will fare better with nine starters back, and Diaz is calling the plays again after making defensive-staff changes this past offseason. — Adelson

2020 record: 4-3
2021 preseason FPI: 17
Key September games: Sept. 4 vs. Penn State; Sept. 25 vs. Notre Dame

Season outlook: The Badgers had an odd 2020 season with a lot of disruption from COVID-19. The team played its first game of the season against Illinois on Oct. 31, then saw its next two games canceled and didn’t play again until Nov. 14 at Michigan. That wasn’t conducive to breaking in quarterback Graham Mertz, who started the season completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Illini, but finished the season with 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in the final six games. Getting some semblance of normalcy and consistency will be key for Mertz and the offense. Having him step into a leadership role will be important, and the Badgers need to come out of the gate in a similar fashion to 2020 with Penn State first on the schedule in 2021. — VanHaaren

2020 record: 6-2
2021 preseason FPI: 27
Key September games: Sept. 4 at Iowa; Sept. 18 vs. Cincinnati

Season outlook: Indiana is typically a basketball school in the country’s most proud basketball state, but last year, nobody could ignore the football Hoosiers. Tom Allen’s team was one of the best stories in what was a difficult 2020 season in college football. The Hoosiers went 6-1 in the regular season, their lone loss a 42-35 contest in Columbus against Ohio State. And had it not been for a rule change, the Hoosiers would have been in the Big Ten title game. In 2021, the Hoosiers will be looking to further prove that the 2020 campaign wasn’t a fluke with 18 of 22 starters coming back. This is the season Indiana tries to exceed any expectation that just about anybody could have for its football program. — Lyles

2020 record: 6-2
2021 preseason FPI: 23
Key September games: Sept. 4 vs. Indiana, Sept. 11 at Iowa State

Season outlook: On offense, Iowa is returning two key pieces in running back Tyler Goodson and quarterback Spencer Petras to provide some consistency this season. The Hawkeyes started the season with two losses but then rattled off six wins to finish. Petras didn’t start out the season the way he wanted with four touchdowns and five interceptions in the first five games. He finished the last two games with five touchdowns and no interceptions, so the team will need him to build off those last two games. Luckily, he will be able to rely on Goodson, who had 762 rush yards in eight games and seven touchdowns on the ground. Goodson should be one of the best backs in the conference and will be running behind center Tyler Linderbaum, one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten. Someone else will have to step up in that running back room, though, to help carry the load, as Iowa starts this season with Indiana and at Iowa State as the first two games on the slate. — VanHaaren

2020 record: 3-1
2021 preseason FPI: 25
Key September game: Sept. 11 at Michigan

Season outlook: Few teams saw their seasons interrupted by the pandemic to the degree that Washington did last year. The Huskies never left Seattle, won the Pac-12 North and then weren’t able to take part in the conference title game. Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland and tight end Cade Otton were left wanting more, and both put the NFL on hold for a chance to finish their college careers with something more memorable. Keep an eye on cornerback Trent McDuffie, who has looked like a future NFL player since he seamlessly stepped into a prominent role as a true freshman. — Bonagura

2020 record: 4-5
2021 preseason FPI: 13
Key September games: Sept. 4 at Wisconsin, Sept. 18 vs. Auburn

Season outlook: It was a wild ride at running back for Penn State, with injuries and some bad luck that whittled down the depth. This season, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are healthy, and the staff added John Lovett from Baylor to go along with Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes. If everyone can stay healthy, that group should be a strength for the offense and new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. The running backs and wide receiver Jahan Dotson will need to chip in as much as possible for quarterback Sean Clifford, who has had an up-and-down college career. On defense, the Nittany Lions are replacing linebacker Micah Parsons, Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney, who are all off to the NFL. Who steps up in their places as a leader and in terms of production will be two of the bigger questions heading into fall camp. — VanHaaren

2020 record: 7-3
2021 preseason FPI: 7
Key September game: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana

Season outlook: No pressure, Steve Sarkisian. The Horns plucked Sark from Alabama to bring a little SEC ball to Austin, then announced they’re headed back that way in however many years. In the meantime, the Longhorns have to contend with a loaded Sooners team, hostile Big 12 fans at every stop, tough road trips to TCU (7-2 against Texas since joining the conference) and Iowa State, and at another bitter old rival in Arkansas. Oh, and that Louisiana team in Week 1 has the most returning production of any team in the country — and beat Iowa State in Ames in last year’s season opener. — Wilson

2020 record: 11-1
2021 preseason FPI: 60
Key September game: Sept. 18 at Buffalo

Season outlook: There might not have been a more entertaining team in college football last season than the Chanticleers. From the teal field to the fast-paced style of offense, they had it all, including the best game of the year when they beat BYU. And outside of defensive end Emmanuel Johnson and running back CJ Marable, every starter is back. That includes quarterback Grayson McCall, who in his first year starting as a sophomore scored a combined 33 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. With a manageable schedule — the only Power 5 opponent is Kansas in Week 2 — don’t be surprised if Coastal is once again the talk of college football. — Scarborough

2020 record: 10-1
2021 preseason FPI: 59
Key September game: Sept. 4 at Texas

Season outlook: As the world continues to ask what’s keeping Billy Napier in Lafayette, he keeps building one of the top Group of 5 programs in college football, winners of 10 games in back-to-back seasons. If not for a loss to Coastal Carolina, the Ragin’ Cajuns would have ended last season undefeated. And incredibly, some 20 starters are back, including fifth-year quarterback Levi Lewis, who threw for 2,274 yards last year. But pay attention to this team, especially early, as it incorporates a bunch of new faces on the coaching staff, including three new assistants on defense. — Scarborough

2020 record: 5-5
2021 preseason FPI: 20
Key September game: Sept. 6 vs. Louisville

Lane Kiffin’s second year in Oxford should be a step above what the Rebels did in 2020. Despite a 5-5 record, they capped off the season with a win over No. 7 Indiana in the Outback Bowl. In 2021, they’ll return eight starters on offense, including QB Matt Corral, and added Western Kentucky transfer WR Jahcour Pearson, who Kiffin will hope can make up for the loss of Elijah Moore. It’ll be a tough season per usual in the SEC West, but the Rebels have the tools to compete in every game. — Lyles

2020 record: 5-5
2021 preseason FPI: 29
Key September game: Sept. 18 vs. BYU

Season outlook: The Sun Devils return 21 starters from a team that was supposed to be good last year but really just never got out of first gear thanks, at least in part, to a COVID-19 outbreak. At Pac-12 media day, coach Herm Edwards and quarterback Jayden Daniels maintained that the ongoing NCAA investigation into conduct by the coaching staff relating to violations of COVID-19 protocols and recruiting rules won’t affect the team on the field. Heading into his junior year, Daniels has a chance to be special and one of the faces of the conference. — Bonagura

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