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ESPN Staff

Some top teams need to replace the generation of quarterbacks. Others have new coaches who should play a big role. No one, not even Clemson and Alabama, is perfect in 2021.

Here’s a selection of the most pressing issues of the offseason for each of the Way-Too-Early Top 25 teams.

1. Clemson Tigers: Can the offensive line improve?

Although the Tigers are replacing some big names at top positions this season, perhaps the biggest concern as we approach the 2021 season is the offensive line, where four regular players will return. Clemson’s stalemate in 2020 was problematic, and in the Sugar Bowl defeat to Ohio State, the Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage. The Tigers have a lot of talent on the line and they’ve added five-star tackler Tristan Lee, but it’s a group that needs to show real progress if we want to get back to the kind of production Clemson fans were used to during the Tigers’ championship season. — David M. Hale

The unexpected return of Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood and DeVonte Smith in their final season contributed a lot to the quality of Alabama’s offense last season. They’re all gone now, and there’s only one relatively inexperienced group left. Three-fifths of the offensive line consisted of older players who needed to be replaced, as did tight senior Miller Forristall. The quarterback replacing the fourth-year senior (Mack Jones) is the real Bryce Young, in his second year. With a new offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien), a new offensive line coach (Doug Marrone) and a new running backs coach (Robert Gillespie), the learning curve is pretty high. -Alex Scarborough.

Can Oklahoma take one last step under Lincoln Riley and win a playoff? Matthew Emmons-USA Today Sports

3. Coming soon to Oklahoma: Can they win a University Football Playoff game?

The Sooners finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the country, scoring 21 points or less in their last five games. The defense seems to be turning the corner under Alex Grinch, and quarterback Spencer Rattler is sending away escaped star Marvin Mims Jr. and some good players. This could be the total package Lincoln Riley has been hoping for since he got the keys to the Sooners’ car. So this is the team that wins and picks up the first win in the college football preliminaries? -Dave Wilson.

4. Bulldogs of Georgia: Can they take the final step to elite status?

The last ten years, it’s been Alabama and Clemson. Getting to the playoffs was a good accomplishment for everyone, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be enough to have a chance at a national championship, or in many cases even a competitive one. Georgia equalized against Alabama in 2018, before Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith made college football history. The Bulldogs open against Clemson in 2021 and then report to the SEC. The offense should be in a much better position with JT Daniels, and defensively they should be able to reload despite a large number of starts. If they manage to come away with a loss at the end of the season, Georgia could finally break through. — Harry Lyles, Jr.

Ohio State recruited former ESPN 300 quarterbacks C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller, but neither made the cut last season. Both were part of the 2020 recruiting class and will be in their second year. Ryan Day and his team signed ESPN 300 quarterback Kyle McCord, a five-time pocket quarterback in the 2021 cycle. Stroud is a late recovery in the 2020 cycle and needs time to develop. Was it only a year before he overtook Miller for the starting position? Can Miller win or will McCord come in and beat everyone in his first season? We won’t know until the end of the game, but it’s a matter of replacing someone like Fields and knowing what he might do if he breaks the rules. -Tom VanHaren

6. Texas Agglomeration: What would life be like without Kellen Moons?

For the first time since 2017, someone other than Kellen Mond will be the Aggies’ quarterback. Monday’s reliability allowed Jimbo Fisher to fill his QB room with hand-picked recruits from Haynes King, Zach Calzada and Eli Stowers. Calzada and King saw very little action, but only King appeared in the 2020 games and attempted just four passes. The young man, 6 to 3 years old and weighing 200 pounds, is likely a regular. He’ll have a very reliable race attack behind him, but the Aggies’ wide receivers didn’t play a big role last season. In a season where the Aggies are a serious contender, King needs to get up to speed quickly. -Dave Wilson.

The Heels need to establish a new playing order for receivers and defenders, and the defense has had too many bad games in 2020, but the truth is that North Carolina’s biggest obstacle may not be their shortcomings, but their success. Few teams enter 2021 with more hype than the Heels, who will be the fashionable choice to finally end Clemson’s dominance in the CCA. With competition less intense in 2020, one wonders how the young team will be able to deal with such a crush. Heels have the talent to be special, but learning to deal with the burden of success is often the last major stumbling block on the way to the top of the mountain. — Hale.

8. Iowa Cyclones: Can a passing play lead to a big play?

The Cyclones’ offense was wonderfully effective in 2020 and should do so again with the return of quarterback Brock Purdy to Breece Hall and the full starting lineup. But if Hall didn’t do the play, nobody did: Pudi averaged just 11.3 yards per game, and UIS averaged just 1.3 passes per game of more than 30 yards (71st in FBS). The lack of big games means you have to play several games in a row to score, and the numbers in ISU’s red zone were pretty bad – the Cyclones were 83rd for goal-line touchdowns. A few easy points can make the difference between another great season and a CFP race. — Bill Connelly

9. USC Trojans: How is the offensive line developing?

USC’s ability to advance in 2021 may depend on the development of the offensive line. The Trojans bring back four of their five regular players from 2020, but it’s a group that hasn’t played particularly well, and the one regular player, Alijah Vera-Tucker, is easily the best player in the unit. Clay McGuire, the new offensive line coach, has a lot of knowledge, is working on air-raid plans that should spur a team with coaching positions, and has quarterback Kedon Slovas to start the year in the Heisman-Kyle Bonagur discussion.

10. Indiana Hoosiers: How does QB Michael Penix Jr. recover from a torn ACL?

It’s very simple. Penix was injured on the 28th. November against Maryland, he tore the same ACL he suffered in his first season. There is no doubt that Penix will be healthy again at some point, but timing is critical as the Hoosiers open the season with a test at Iowa on the 4th. Opened in September. A few weeks before Penix’s injury, Indiana coach Tom Allen told ESPN that he believes Penix could become an elite quarterback, not just in the Big Ten, but across the country. We’ll have a good idea if 2021 is another big step for PENIX and the Hoosiers if it’s healthy and if they can eliminate Hosea…. Lyles.

11. Cincinnati Bear: Can the new coordinator maintain the same elite protection?

Can new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel maintain the standard set by his predecessor Marcus Freeman? The Bearcats’ biggest strength was their defense, which was one of the best in the country, 5th in the last SP+ rankings, and usually in the top three for most of the season. Fortunately for Tressel, the Bearcats had a few surprises with the return of Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown, who took advantage of an extra year of NCAA eligibility and gave Cincinnati more depth than expected on the defensive line. With back-to-back Power 5 away games at Indiana and Notre Dame, Tressel will have a chance to show that the expectation for a smooth power transition between him and Freeman wasn’t so far-fetched. — Liles.

12. Iowa Hawkeyes: What does LD produce in new species?

The Hawkeyes lose a lot defensively, so the question is how to replace that production. The team loses defensive lineman Chauncey Gholston, who had 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. The coaches also lost defenders Davien Nixon, Austin Schulte and Jack Heflin. When you add in defensemen Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade, who are also not returning, you end up with big question marks about this defense. Niemann led the team in tackles, Nixon was third and Gholston sixth. Linebacker Seth Benson and defensive back Zach VanWalkenburg will be useful on the front lines, but how Iowa replaces the starters will be crucial for the team next season. — VanHaaren

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13. Oregon Ducks: What is happening at the quarterback’s station right now?

It’s rare for a second-year quarterback to lead a team to a conference title and then make the decision to transfer, especially to the Power 5, but that’s exactly the decision Tyler Shaw made in the offseason. With Shaw out of the game, it’s unclear where the Ducks’ quarterback stands. Anthony Brown has the best chance after getting a lot of playing time in the Fiesta Bowl, but Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield are also expected to be there. — Bonagura

14. Washington Huskies: What does the new safety coordinator entail?

The departure of Pete Kwiatkowski as Texas’ defensive coordinator is a significant loss for the Huskies, who have been one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12 since Kwiatkowski joined Chris Peterson in 2014. His successor, Bob Gregory, has extensive experience as a coordinator (Cal 2002-09; Boise State 2001) and on the Huskies’ team (2014-present), but you can’t help but wonder how another major personnel change could affect the team. — Bonagura

The Irish need to replace a large number of offending productions, and that will be no easy task. Quarterback Ian Book is missing, as are two defenders Tommy Tremblay and Brock Wright and receiver Ben Skowronek. The staff brought in quarterback Jack Coan from Wisconsin and signed quarterback Tyler Buechner (ESPN 300) to fill the Book position. But as Brian Kelly described it, Beech was a winner, the greatest quarterback of all time with the Irish, helping them reach the playoffs last season. The offensive line lost four of its five starting players – Tommy Kramer, Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey. The question of how the staff will replace these veteran leaders and talents will arise this season. — VanHaaren

16. Florida Alligators: How can Dan Mullen replace much of the Stars’ offensive power?

In addition to the well-documented problems on defense, the focus will be on offense with the departure of Kyle Trask and Brian Johnson, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. With Trask as a center in 2020, the offense has grown and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Now that he’s in the NFL, infielder Emory Jones is expected to take over the quarterback position after waiting three years. He’s different from Trask. First, he’s a dual-threat quarterback, so the offense will be different. In addition, the Gators also need to replace Kyle Pitts, and lost their top three receivers from last year, the Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes receivers. – Andrea Adelson

17. Wisconsin Badgers: What will the crime look like?

In 2021, everything about badger crime will be in question. What really drove Graham Mertz forward – a brilliant start (74% passing, seven TDs, no interceptions in the first two games) or a continued malaise (passing score below 100 in games 3-6)? Will the game rebound after putting up extremely poor numbers for most of the year? Is Jalen Berger, the great repeat offender, still the next great tie? Can the line replace its left side (tackling Cole Van Lanen, John Dietzen) without taking another step back? Which was more significant in 2020: three parts of more than 40 points or three parts of less than 10 points? There’s probably nothing wrong with that, but this mid-season malaise is hard to forget. — Connelly.

18. Ole Miss Rebel: Can they repair the defense?

Few teams had as much fun watching the offense last season as Ole Miss, which ranked third nationally in terms of total offense (555.5 yards per game) and 14th nationally in terms of points (39.2 points per game). But the rebels were as bad on defense as they were on offense. They lost by over 40 points in five of their ten games and ranked 126th out of 127 FBS teams in total defense. Lane Kiffin, now in his second season as coach, has pushed for more talent on defense. He knows as well as anyone that you can’t make a living by winning every game 50-40. The transfer of Chance Campbell from Maryland should help the defender, and where Ole Miss really needs improvement is on the defensive line. Here are coveted students Isaiah Eaton and Jamond Gordon, not to mention Tyvon Malone, ESPN’s 5 point high school national player. Otis Reese will also provide security throughout the year. His transfer was only approved at the end of last season. — Chris Lowe

It’s an ambiguous question, but worth asking: What does Billy Napier see in this program? What gave him the confidence to give up so much work in the offseason? I’m sure it’s not the warm weather in Lafayette that’s holding him back. There has to be something on this team that he believes in. It could be the return of quarterback Levi Lewis or linebacker Ferrod Gardner, or tackler Tayland Humphrey or receiver Jaylen Williams. Nine more players were eligible for one more year, making Louisiana one of the most experienced teams in the Sun Belt. If Napier thinks the return of this group could be a knock on the door of the college football playoffs, it might make sense to stay at Lafayette a little longer. — Scarborough.

20. IPSAS-Tiger: Did Ed Orgeron get the lead this time?

The problem facing LSU this offseason is the same as it has been in the past: Will Ed Orgeron surround the lead with a winner? Yes, the dismantling of the 2019 staff is the result of the national championship win, while the 2020 Tigers finished just .500, but the result is the same as many coordinators and assistants left or were shown the door. Orgeron is clearly trying to recreate the magic of 2019, hiring Joe Brady, student Jake Pitz and DJ Mangas to lead the offense, while calling on Dave Arands former assistant, Daronte Jones, to be the offensive coordinator. On paper, they make a lot more sense than last season’s decision to bring in Bo Pelini and Scott Linehan, but only time will tell if Orgeron pulled the right levers in that direction. — Scarborough.

21. Longhorns of Texas: Growing pains for Steve Sarkisian?

The Longhorns have talent. And Steve Sarkisian has proven his ability as a player. But changes in management do not always lead to immediate success. Just ask former Sarkisian mentor Nick Saban, who lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season at Alabama. Mack Brown scored 8-5 in his final season and Charlie Strong scored 6-7 the following year in Austin. Strong won 5-7 and Tom Herman won 7-6. After last year’s 7-3 season, can Sarkisian put a foot between the gas pedal with a new quarterback? — Wilson.

New offensive coordinator Mike Jurcic tends to score a lot of points everywhere he goes, but you can only go as far as your quarterback can carry you, and Sean Clifford has been erratic the last two seasons. In 2019-20, it scored 155.5 points with a 27-to-5 TD/IT ratio, but those numbers were just 123.6 and 12-to-11 in seven defeats. He will have one of the best 1-2 receivers in the conference with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington and should have an excellent race game. But his cap will define Penn State, and it’s hard to know what that cap really is. — Connelly.

After a season of 11 wins and participation in the Sun Belt Conference Championship, Coastal Carolina doesn’t have many holes to fill. The Jamey Chadwell Chanticleers returned 20 of 22 starters, including quarterback Grayson McCall, who made a comeback for 2,488 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes, 569 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns. But McCall was also injured for part of the season, meaning finding a reliable No. 2 quarterback will be a priority after Fred Payton, last year’s replacement, left for Mercer. Sophomore Jarrett Guest has joined the same class as McCall and is ready to take the plunge this season. Senior Bryce Carpenter is the most experienced and has started the last six games of the 2019 season, while Ty Lyles is a true rookie who signed on in January. — Low

24. Flame of Freedom How will they find the depth of the defense?

Although Liberty returns 10 of their 11 regular defenders, one of the priorities for next season will be to increase the depth on defense and at corners. Linebacker Anthony Butler is the only first starter who has not returned from a defense that scored 21 points or less in six of 11 games last year. The two new players who can help immediately as linebackers are Louisiana transfer Rashaad Harding and Ahmad Walker, who will participate in spring practice. The ability to keep Marcus Haskins at cornerback and not transfer him to safety would be a bonus for Liberty High School and would create a great opportunity this offseason for Skylar Thompson’s transfer from Washington State and Jaylon Jimmerson’s Incarnate Word, both of whom will also participate in spring practice. Former UTEP cornerback Duron Law also switches sides, giving the Flames another veteran in coverage. — Low

25. Hurricanes in Miami: When will D’Eric King be healthy again?

Will quarterback Eric King recover from his right knee injury in time to start the game against Alabama? We won’t get the answer to that question until the start of the season, but all eyes will no doubt be on his rehabilitation and how quickly he can get back into shape after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a bowling match. Miami has not given a schedule, other than to say they expect it to be available at the beginning of fall camp. But much will depend on how he recovers over the next six months. Without him, Miami has a prime opportunity this spring to develop its young quarterbacks behind King as they look for their future quarterback. Newcomer Peyton Matocha, true freshman Tyler Van Dyke and cadet Jake Garcia, a late rookie from the University of Southern California, will train intensely and gain much-needed experience. — Adelson.

frequently asked questions

What is the top 25 ranking in college football?

League table college football: Associated Press Top 25 – NCAA.com

What is the ranking of the top 25 footballers?

College football surveys in AP Top 25 – AP News

Who has the best defense in college football in 2020?


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