College football’s top 100 players for 2021

We’ve finally made it. The 2021 college football season is kicking off this week. And unlike last year, all conferences are a go right from the start this fall.

With that, it’s time to break down the top 100 players who will be most worth watching. Over the course of a few weeks, we had our college football experts vote on which players would be best this season.

Is Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler primed to be the top player? Should Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei be ranked higher?

This is the complete ranking that came to fruition once all the votes were in. Now, we wait to see what these 100 players bring to the field once games get underway.

Methodology: A team of more than 20 voters was presented with a series of one-on-one votes. For example, “Who will be better in 2021: Sam Howell or Kedon Slovis?” More than 13,000 votes later, these were the results.

Jump to: 1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 41-50
51-60 | 61-70 | 71-80 | 81-90 | 91-100


QB, Oklahoma
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Rattler looked shaky early on last season, with six turnovers in a span of 10 quarters against Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas, and was briefly benched against the Longhorns. But he bounced back to throw for 3,031 yards with 28 TDs to seven interceptions — with just three of those over his final seven games — and complete 47 passes of 20 or more yards last season, which ranked ninth nationally. Now experienced and surrounded by offensive talent, he’s looking to make his case for the Heisman Trophy like all those OU quarterbacks before him.


CB, LSU
Junior
Last year’s ranking: 2

Stingley has been on campus for only two seasons and already has twice been an All-American and All-SEC selection. In 22 games, he has recorded 65 tackles, defended 21 passes and made six interceptions. What’s more, he’s a threat in the return game and has the ability to pull double duty at receiver, if needed.


DE, Oregon
Junior
Last year’s ranking: 6

The potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Thibodeaux has demonstrated over the past two seasons why he arrived in Eugene as the top-ranked player in 2019 class. He’s as dynamic a pass rusher as there is in college football, and the stage is set for a massive 2021.


OT, Alabama
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Linemen who check in at 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds aren’t supposed to be as agile as Neal, who recently completed this wild box jump. The junior from Florida was a freshman All-American at left guard, then switched to right tackle last year where he gave up only 1.5 sacks. With star left tackle Alex Leatherwood off to the NFL, expect Neal to become the anchor of the Alabama offensive line.


QB, North Carolina
Junior
Last year’s ranking: 22

In his first two seasons at UNC, Howell blossomed into arguably the country’s best QB, accounting for 76 TDs and more than 7,400 yards. More importantly, he has rejuvenated the Tar Heels’ program, bringing a sense of swagger to a team that had won just four games in two years prior to his arrival. Now, Howell commands one of the country’s most prolific offenses and has UNC fans thinking about the playoff.


WR, Ohio State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: 27

Olave had 50 receptions for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in a shortened season last year, and the previous season he had 849 yards. He is a feature of Ohio State’s offense and is going to be a big asset to the Buckeyes’ new quarterback in 2021. With another big season, Olave should solidify himself as a top NFL draft prospect.


S, Notre Dame
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

After earning several All-America honors in 2020, Hamilton enters his third (and likely final) season at Notre Dame as one of the nation’s top defensive backs. Although his interceptions total dropped from four to one last year, he’s always around the ball and nearly doubled his solo tackles total from 2019.


WR, Oklahoma
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Among 2021 returnees, no one averaged more yards per route run than Mims. He averaged fewer than 25 snaps per game, but still caught 37 passes for 610 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s also a top-notch punt returner. Just imagine what he can do with a full slate of snaps.


RB, Iowa State
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Hall is a consistent producer for Iowa State, leading the nation in carries (279), rushing yards (1,572) and yards after contact last season (820). He was the first FBS player to run for at least 75 yards and a touchdown in every game of the season since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000 and became the Cyclones’ first unanimous All-American in school history. Opponents know what they’re in for: Hall has rushed for more than 100 yards against every Big 12 school in his career.


LB, Alabama
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

One of the most dangerous pass-rushers in college football, Anderson started at outside linebacker as a freshman last season and won All-SEC honors after registering seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. And remember, he did all that without a spring practice. With a year and a half under his belt, Anderson says he’s comfortable now and taking the next step toward being the best version of himself, which should terrify SEC quarterbacks.


DT, Clemson
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

There is a reason Clemson returns one of the best defensive lines in the country, and it starts with Bresee, a freshman All-American in 2020 who is poised for an even better year for the Tigers. Bresee started 10 games last year, with 33 tackles (6.5 for loss), four sacks, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a safety.


QB, USC
Junior
Last year’s ranking: 26

After completing 70% of his passes for 5,423 yards over the past two seasons, Slovis enters his junior season with expectations to be among the national leaders in every passing statistic. He has been at his best in the fourth quarter, when he has 14 of his 42 career touchdown passes to just one interception.


RB, Texas A&M
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The junior from Texas quietly emerged as one of the best running backs in the country last season, finishing third in the SEC with 103.60 yards per game. He had 1,036 total rushing yards on 188 carries, and he added another 193 yards on 20 catches. Paired with the speedy Devon Achane, the Aggies could boast the best one-two punch at running back in the conference.


RB, Texas
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

In the last four games of his freshman season, Robinson went off: 47 rushes for 522 yards and four touchdowns, eight catches for 129 yards and two more scores. The No. 21 prospect in 2020’s ESPN 300 could be a go-to for Steve Sarkisian’s first Longhorn offense.


DE, Texas A&M
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

At 6-4 and 290 pounds, there might not be a more dynamic defensive lineman in the SEC than Leal, who led Texas A&M with eight hurries as a sophomore last season. Aggies defensive coordinator Mike Elko called him a “unique talent” and someone who “can be a mismatch guy, whether it’s an inside or an outside guy.”


QB, Liberty
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The former Auburn quarterback has blossomed at Liberty under coach Hugh Freeze, emerging into arguably the nation’s top dual-threat QB. Willis led FBS quarterbacks with 944 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season, while firing 20 touchdown passes and finishing 17th nationally in pass efficiency. Willis is very much on the NFL draft radar.


OG, Texas A&M
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Offensive linemen often get overlooked, and Green is no different. A former SEC All-Freshman selection, he was part of one of the best lines in the country last season and was named an All-American. Heading into his junior season, the 6-4, 325-pound Texas native should be a household name.


QB, Ole Miss
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Meet perhaps the most entertaining player in college football. No QB is more willing to chuck it deep in a game than Corral, who finished fifth in the FBS in passing yards per game (333.7) and seventh in passing TDs last season. What’s more, he led the SEC with eight completions of 40 yards or more. If he can cut down on his interceptions — he threw six against Arkansas and five against LSU — he could find himself in the Heisman race.


WR, Ohio State
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Wilson comes into the 2021 season as half of the best receiving duo in the nation opposite of Chris Olave. He caught 43 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns last season, and he is expected to take another leap in 2021, even with the Buckeyes having a quarterback without college experience.


QB, Cincinnati
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

He’s 30-5 as Cincinnati’s QB1 and should see his record improve as the Bearcats enter the season as a top-10 team. Ridder is the reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year and boasts 6,905 career passing yards and 57 touchdowns, while eclipsing 580 rush yards in three consecutive seasons.


QB, Alabama
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

There were times last season when Young flashed some rare ability, whether it was a fastball to a receiver or scrambling from pressure. But a limited schedule kept the true freshman from seeing the kind of playing time coaches had envisioned for him coming out of Mater Dei High School in California as a five-star prospect. Now, he’ll be thrown into the fire as the presumptive starter on a team with championship expectations.


WR, Alabama
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The moment star receiver Jaylen Waddle went down, Metchie stepped up as a reliable target and big-play threat. He averaged 16.7 yards per catch, totaling 916 yards and six touchdowns on 55 catches. With Waddle and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith gone, Metchie will become an even bigger focus of the passing game.


LB, Alabama
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The Louisiana native was thrown into the starting lineup early as a freshman and experienced some ups and downs. But last season Harris proved what he was capable of, ranking second on the team with 79 tackles, seven of which were for a loss. He also had 4.5 sacks, six QB pressures, two pass breakups and an interception.


QB, Georgia
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

So what if it took a little longer than expected for Daniels to make his presence felt at Georgia? He needed time to get his feet under him after transferring from USC. But once he did, he showed why he could make the Bulldogs a championship threat, bookending his four starts with 401- and 392-yard passing performances in wins against Mississippi State and Cincinnati.


DE, Clemson
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Murphy made his presence knowns as a true freshman a year ago, earning freshman All-America honors with 51 tackles (including a team-high 12 for loss) and four sacks. He also became the first Clemson true freshman under coach Dabo Swinney to record three forced fumbles in a season.


CB, Cincinnati
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A centerpiece of Cincinnati’s signature defense, the man nicknamed “Sauce” earned several first- and second-team All-America selections in 2020. Gardner intercepted three passes in each of his first two seasons with the Bearcats and boasts 20 pass deflections in 23 career games.


RB, Auburn
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

There might not have been a more impressive rookie running back in the country than Bigsby, who burst onto the scene with 122.4 all-purpose yards per game last season, winning SEC Freshman of the Year honors. The Georgia native is expected to be the focus of the Tigers’ offense once again now that last season’s top three receivers (Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove) are all gone.

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0:24

Tank Bigsby lives up to his first name with a crushing stiff-arm before scoring the Auburn touchdown.


QB, Clemson
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

The expectation level is always high for Clemson quarterbacks, and it is no different for Uiagalelei, who steps in to replace Heisman Trophy finalist Trevor Lawrence. As a true freshman in 2020, Uiagalelei started two games while Lawrence was out. In 235 snaps over 10 games, Uiagalelei went 78-of-117 for 914 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

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1:49

As D.J. Uiagalelei gets set to replace Trevor Lawrence, relive the Clemson QB’s top moments from last season.


QB, Iowa State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: 42

Purdy’s legacy at Iowa State is secure: He holds 25 school records, including being the winningest quarterback in school history. After being named the MVP of the Cyclones’ Fiesta Bowl win over Oregon, Purdy is back with unfinished business. He completed 68% of his passes and threw for 322 yards against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game last year, but his three interceptions were too much to overcome in a 27-21 loss. With 19 starters returning, Purdy has one more chance to get Iowa State over that hump and take the Cyclones to even greater heights.


DL, Ohio State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Garrett is using his extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA because of COVID-19. He has the most game experience of any Ohio State defensive player with 41 games and despite being shot in the face prior to the season in 2020, Garrett played in all eight games during the season. As a potential All-American at defensive tackle, Garrett is going to be one of the main pieces of the defensive line in 2021.


QB, Coastal Carolina
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

The front man for college football’s most surprising team in 2020 is back on the teal turf of Conway, South Carolina. McCall was brilliant last fall, recording 2,488 passing yards with 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions, and completing nearly 69% of his passes. He projects as a national awards candidate again.


OL, Iowa
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

As a junior this season, Linderbaum is one of the best centers in the country. He was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, which is awarded to the best center in college football. He’s the anchor of Iowa’s offensive line and gives the offense a ton of stability and consistency up front.


QB, UCF
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The 2020 FBS passing-average leader (357 yards per game) already has a place alongside Daunte Culpepper, Blake Bortles and the UCF quarterback greats. He has 11 300-yard passing performances in two years, boasts a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 61-11 and holds team records for yards per completion (14.9) and yards per attempt (8.91).


WR, LSU
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

LSU has produced its share of explosive receivers over the past few years, and Boutte is next in line after emerging as the Tigers’ go-to receiver last season when Terrace Marshall opted out in November. The 6-foot, 190-pound Boutte was a freshman All-America selection, finished with five touchdown receptions and averaged 16.3 yards per catch.


CB, LSU
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Lost in a difficult season for LSU in 2020 was the emergence of Ricks, a talented shutdown cornerback the Tigers could pair with All-American Derek Stingley Jr. Ricks, a 6-2 former four-star prospect, played in all 10 games and led the team with four interceptions.


QB, Miami
Senior
Last year’s ranking: 45

After opting out of the 2019 season at Houston, King transferred to Miami and instantly transformed the Hurricanes’ offense. King threw for 23 TDs with just five picks and tallied more than 3,200 yards of offense. The season ended on a low note, however, as King injured his knee in Miami’s bowl game and required offseason surgery. The rehab hardly slowed him down. King was back running 7-on-7s this summer, and said he’s 100% healthy as he starts his final season with eyes on an ACC championship.

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1:34

D’Eriq King’s first year at Miami has been quite a success, as the quarterback has thrown for 22 touchdowns and added four on the ground.


OLB/DE, Oklahoma
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Among players with at least 15 pass rush attempts per game, only Bonitto (22.2%) and Michigan’s Kwity Paye (21.1%) had a pressure rate over 20%. He logged eight sacks and forced 21 incompletions, and he is the key to Alex Grinch’s defensive assault.


DB, Alabama
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Jobe was the “other” cornerback at Alabama last season opposite Patrick Surtain II, who was the ninth overall pick in the NFL draft. But Jobe, entering his senior season, is plenty talented in his own right and gives the Tide yet another corner with lockdown coverage skills. Jobe was second to Surtain a year ago with 11 pass breakups.


WR, Clemson
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

After missing last season with congenital fusion in his spine, Ross has been medically cleared to play for the Tigers. Clemson hopes his return means more explosive big plays down the field. In 2019, Ross had 865 yards and eight touchdowns, and he had 1,000 yards receiving as a true freshman in 2018.


CB, Florida
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

There were some struggles last season by Florida’s defense, but Elam was terrific. The 6-2, 190-pound junior is versatile in different coverages and has superb instincts. He has made 17 career starts and intercepted two passes last season after picking off three passes as a freshman, becoming just the fifth Gator since 2010 to intercept three passes in his first season.


DB, Georgia
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The Bulldogs needed to replenish their secondary and did just that with Smith, who transferred from West Virginia after earning an All-America mention last season. The 5-10, 198-pound junior has 17 career starts and should fit perfectly into Georgia’s hybrid role of linebacker/slot cornerback/safety. He was second on West Virginia’s team with eight tackles for loss a year ago.


TE, Texas A&M
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A powerful run-blocker, Wydermyer is equally effective as a receiver and has the physical ability and hands to go up and make tough contested catches. And with his 6-5, 255-pound frame, he’s never easy to bring down. Wydermyer heads into his junior season having caught six touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons.


DB, Alabama
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

One of the top true freshmen in the country, Moore started 11 games last season at Alabama’s hybrid “star” position and led the team with four forced turnovers. An injury kept him out of the College Football Playoff and spring practice, but he combines with Josh Jobe to give the Crimson Tide two of the best defensive backs in college football.


RB, Kansas State
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Vaughn may be small at 5-6, but he put up some big numbers in a freshman season that saw him become one of the breakout surprises in the country. Vaughn led K-State in rushing (642) and receiving (434) yards and was selected by coaches as the Big 12’s freshman of the year. He was named second-team all-conference, the first Wildcat freshman so honored on the first or second team since the Big 12 formed in 1996.


QB, Indiana
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Penix is coming into the 2021 season recovering from a torn ACL, with Indiana coach Tom Allen saying his recovery has been on schedule. Before the injury, he threw for 1,645 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions in six games. If the Hoosiers are going to repeat their 2020 success, they’re going to need Penix to be the player he was before the injury, and then some.


RB, Notre Dame
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Williams established himself as a reliable and productive ball carrier in 2020, finishing with 1,125 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns despite eclipsing 20 carries in only three games. A second-team All-ACC selection, Williams and fellow back Chris Tyree will have key roles in helping a new quarterback (likely Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan) this fall.


TE, Notre Dame
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Notre Dame has established itself as a national hub for elite tight ends, and Mayer certainly is next in line. The 6-4, 251-pound true sophomore tied for the team lead with 42 receptions last season, including 19 in the final three games. For a team lacking star pass-catchers, Mayer will have a featured role.


LB, Alabama
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

After leading Tennessee last season with 10 tackles for loss, To’o To’o joins an Alabama linebacker corps that was already one of the best units in the country. To’o To’o’s productivity and leadership this preseason has caught the eye of Nick Saban, meaning the 6-2, 228-pound junior could easily be one of the most impactful transfers in the country.


OL, Ohio State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Munford is another Buckeye taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility, coming back in 2021. He has played most of his career at left tackle, but could end up moving inside to left guard for Ohio State this season as the coaches are looking to get all of their best offensive linemen on the field at one time. He has played in 45 of the past 50 games over the past four seasons for Ohio State, which is the most of any Big Ten offensive lineman. That experience will help him if he doesn’t transition to a new position, but either way, he should be one of the top lineman in the country.


WR, USC
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

In a deep and talented receiving corps, London still came in and made an immediate impact in his first two seasons. With some of those players off to the NFL, the Trojans will be even more reliant on London, who is the type of talent who could play himself into the first round of the NFL draft.


TE, Iowa State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Big enough to serve as a sixth lineman and nimble enough to do all sorts of pass-catching damage in the slot, Kolar is the ultimate security blanket for Cyclones quarterback Purdy and an Iowa State team carrying its highest expectations ever into 2021.


OT, Mississippi State
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

It’s no wonder the Bulldogs had to hold off programs like Auburn, Florida State and LSU to keep Cross in the Magnolia State. Last season, he played 720 snaps at left tackle, which was 630 snaps more than any other SEC freshman offensive lineman. He was pass blocking on nearly every play in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense, allowing five sacks and 13 pressures, according to ESPN Stats & Information.


DL, Michigan
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Hutchinson’s season ended after three games last season due to a leg injury. The prior year, in 2019, the 6-6 defensive end had 68 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. With Hutchinson fully healthy, he’s going to see a different role this season with new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald running a multiple scheme. Hutchinson will play a hybrid defensive end, linebacker position that will allow him to show off his versatility.


WR, Indiana
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Fryfogle led the Hoosiers with 721 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he did that on 37 catches. Now with fellow receiver Whop Philyor, who led the team in receptions, off to the NFL, Fryfogle could see his stats increase even more. The coaches brought in transfer D.J. Matthews from Florida State, but Fryfogle has become a big target for Penix.


RB, Minnesota
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Ibrahim is the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year after he ran for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2020, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He also set a school record with 153.7 yards per game. With Rashod Bateman gone, he’s now the highlight of the offense as Minnesota tries to contend in the Big Ten West.


LB, USC
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Jackson has already declared this to be his “money year” and plans to enter the 2022 NFL draft. It’s for good reason. In 17 career games, Jackson has 17 tackles for loss and will be among the best pass-rushers in the country.


DT, Clemson
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

After a breakout year in 2019, Davis struggled through injuries last season and only played in seven games, with 17 tackles (five for loss), two sacks and a pass breakup. Completely healthy now, watch for Davis to regain the form that made him one of the young rising defensive tackles in the nation.


DE, Clemson
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Thomas is aiming for this to be a big year after complications from COVID-19 and strep throat limited him to seven games in 2020. He certainly has the capability. Thomas earned freshman All-America honors in 2018, with 43 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 3.5 sacks and made an instant impact. Thomas lost 30 pounds this offseason, and Dabo Swinney sees a more focused player heading into the season.


LB, Florida
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The only question mark with Cox is a foot injury that required surgery this summer, but coach Dan Mullen has expressed optimism that the Gators’ best pass-rusher will be ready for the opener. The 6-4, 250-pound Cox had a team-leading 18 quarterback hurries and 9.5 tackles for loss in his only season with Florida after beginning his career at Georgia.


LB, South Carolina
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Another Georgia native who has flourished with the Gamecocks, Enagbare had six sacks in eight games last season. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, he’s skilled enough to play linebacker in the NFL, or put his hand in the dirt and play defensive end. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him as the No. 18 prospect for the 2022 NFL draft.


DL, Ohio State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Ohio State has been a factory for NFL-caliber defensive linemen, and Smith is yet another that’s going through the system. He played in all eight of Ohio State’s games last season, with his biggest one coming against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl with two solo tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and one pass defended. Expect more of that in 2021 before he transitions to Sundays.


S, Northwestern
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Whether or not Northwestern is able to replicate its 2020 success is up for debate, but Joseph’s talent as a safety is not. He’s one of the best in the country, as displayed by his 52 tackles, six interceptions and eight pass deflections last season, winning him the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award. He’ll make Big Ten offensive coordinators think twice before going deep this season.


TE, Alabama
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The 6-4, 230-pound Billingsley played some of his best football down the stretch a year ago. He had 17 of his 18 catches and 274 of his 287 receiving yards in the final seven games. Saban challenged Billingsley to be more committed this preseason. “He does have a lot of ability … but he’s also got to buy into the principles and values of the team,” Saban said.


RB, Oklahoma
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Losing leading rusher Rhamondre Stevenson hurts, but Brooks, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, returns after a 2020 opt-out. He is every bit as explosive as Stevenson, and if his pass-catching abilities improve, he will be one of the best running backs in college football.


QB, Louisville
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Two years ago, Cunningham took over the starting QB role midseason for Scott Satterfield’s offense and he immediately proved he was among the ACC’s biggest talents, throwing for 22 TDs, rushing for six more and finishing with a gaudy 11.5 yards per pass. His role expanded in 2020 but his production became a bit less consistent. Turnovers plagued his 2020 campaign, and both Cunningham and Louisville took a step back. Still, he’s one of the nation’s best deep-ball passers and his skills make him a nightmare for opposing defenses. A rebound to his 2019 numbers might just be the start.


DE, Alabama
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

What Saban called a “pretty significant groin injury” has sidelined Ray this preseason, and unfortunately for the 6-5, 285-pound redshirt senior, injuries have plagued his career. He played in seven games a year ago after missing most of 2019 with a foot injury. If Ray can stay healthy, it would be a huge boost for Alabama’s defensive line.


OT, Kentucky
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A 345-pound senior, Kinnard is a ferocious run-blocker for the physical Wildcats’ offense, and he’s nimble in pass protection — he allowed only three sacks all season while committing zero holding penalties.


WR, Arkansas
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A 6-3, 225-pounder in the slot, Burks is both one of the more reliable (75% catch rate) and explosive (16.1 yards per catch) receivers in the country. He’ll also take a handoff out of the backfield a couple of times per game. He is an offensive coordinator’s muse.


RB, South Carolina
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

New South Carolina coach Shane Beamer’s recipe for success might very well be finding more players like Harris, who last season became the first Gamecock to lead the SEC in rushing with 1,138 yards in 10 games. Ranked the No. 93 prospect in Georgia by ESPN Recruiting in 2019, South Carolina was the only SEC team to offer him a scholarship.


RB/AP, Ole Miss
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

One of the nation’s best all-around players, Ealy scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a kickoff return last season. The 5-9, 190-pound junior will be one of the focal points of the Rebels’ offense this season with his big-play ability. Lane Kiffin will be creative in getting Ealy the ball in a number of different ways.


DL, Purdue
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Karlaftis didn’t get to play the full season in 2020, as he was dealing with an injury and COVID-19 at various points. As a freshman in 2019, Karlaftis was third on the team with 54 total tackles, and he led the team with 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Purdue and Karlaftis are hoping to get that production again in 2021, as he has shown he can be a dominant force along the defensive line.


DT, West Virginia
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

After a 2019 season when he had seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, despite starting just three games, Stills was a disruptive force at tackle last year for a WVU defense that led the nation in fewest passing yards allowed per game (159.6). Pro Football Focus gave him the second-best run-stopping grade in the country last year, saying his 15 tackles for loss or no gain were four more than any other Power 5 interior linemen in the country.


CB, TCU
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The 5-9, 177-pound Hodges-Tomlinson, nephew of TCU legend LaDainian Tomlinson, was a true lockdown corner as a sophomore in his first year as a starter. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the highest coverage grade (90.6) in the country and he broke up more passes (14, also tops in the nation) than he allowed all season (12, on 45 targets).


WR, Georgia
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The Bulldogs have their fingers crossed that Pickens can make it back sooner as opposed to later from a torn ACL he suffered in March. The 6-3, 200-pounder, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic receivers in college football. Coach Kirby Smart said in July that Pickens was making good progress, but “still a ways away.”


CB, Indiana
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Mullen is one of the most important players on an Indiana defense that gave Big Ten opponents fits in 2020. In eight games, he recorded 38 total tackles, 4.5 for loss, three interceptions, seven pass deflections and a forced fumble. The junior became the first Indiana cornerback to earn first-team All-America honors in 2020 and will be a key player for Indiana to have success again in 2021.


LB, Utah
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A two-time All-Pac-12 player, Lloyd was a finalist for the Butkus Award in 2020, given to the nation’s best linebacker. After an abbreviated Utah season, though, he put the NFL on hold to cap off his college career with something more memorable.


S, Auburn
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Some of the best news this offseason for Auburn was that the 6-3, 199-pound Monday was returning for his senior season. A bruising tackler, Monday broke into the starting lineup for the first time a year ago and was fourth on the team with 73 total tackles and two interceptions, one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee.


DE, TCU
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Mathis has already played in 26 games for the Horned Frogs, including four in a redshirt season in 2018. But he broke out last year with nine sacks — tied for fifth nationally — and 46 tackles from his edge rusher position. Mathis has good size at 6-5 and has added about 25 pounds since arriving at TCU, putting him up to nearly 260 pounds without losing his explosion. His 14 tackles for loss were good for third in the Big 12 last year.


WR, SMU
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

SMU received a big boost when Roberson decided to return after injuries the past two seasons cost him 13 games. He remained productive with 65 receptions for 1,277 yards and 11 touchdowns, and boasts 117 career receptions for 2,079 yards. The national awards candidate provides a proven target for SMU’s next quarterback.


CB, North Carolina
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

A five-star recruit, Grimes was set to be the crown jewel of Mack Brown’s 2021 signing class. But when his home state of Virginia nixed the fall high school football season due to COVID-19, Grimes reclassified, finished high school early, and enrolled at UNC last August. He saw limited action until November, then blossomed into one of the top corners in the ACC, allowing just eight completions on 22 targets without a touchdown. His breakout performance came in the Orange Bowl, when he finished with three tackles, a TFL, two pass break-ups and didn’t allow a completion.


LB, Wisconsin
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Sanborn has been a defensive leader for the Badgers and has molded himself into one of the top linebackers nationally. He led the team in total tackles last season with 52, and he also had four tackles for loss and one sack in just seven games. Sanborn is part of a strong group of linebackers and a defense looking to bounce back from an up-and-down season in 2020. He’s on the Bednarik Award watch list, which is awarded to the best defensive player in college football, and will have a chance to have one of his best seasons yet.


LB, Iowa State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

In 12 games, Rose made 10 run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. He generated pressure on 25% of his blitzes. He dropped into coverage constantly and picked off five passes. He is one of the best linebackers in the country no matter what he’s asked to do.


WR, Boston College
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Flowers significantly improved upon his freshman season at BC as a sophomore in 2020. Last year, he finished with 892 yards receiving, second-most in the ACC, on 56 catches, nine of which were touchdowns. For his efforts, he was named to the All-ACC first team. He’ll be an integral part of the Eagles’ offense this season.


DE, Iowa State
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The 245-pounder from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, recorded 15.5 sacks in his past 16 games and gives defensive coordinator Jon Heacock the ultimate weapon for his speedy and confusing 3-3-5 attack.


LB, Texas
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The 6-4, 223-pounder moved from defensive back to linebacker before last season and finished the year as the defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl, where he had six tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and two quarterback hurries. After undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and missing the spring, Overshown, known as “Agent Zero” for the number he wears, is going to be a centerpiece of new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s scheme at inside linebacker.


QB, Arizona State
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The starter since his first game as a true freshman in 2019, Daniels flashed enormous potential in his first season, throwing 17 touchdowns to just two interceptions. With just four games last season, he didn’t have time to build much momentum, but now has the opportunity to make a name for himself nationally.


NG, Georgia
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

The nose tackle’s statistics might be underwhelming — 16 tackles and one sack in seven games in 2020 — but make no mistake: Davis is a big reason the Bulldogs led the FBS in run defense in each of the past two seasons. At 6-6 and 340 pounds, Davis typically requires more than one player to block him, which frees up linebackers to make plays.


LB, Arkansas
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

No one has endured the Hogs’ struggles more than Morgan, a former walk-on, who has played for three different coaches since 2016 — Brett Bielema, Chad Morris and Sam Pittman. In his first season as a starter in 2020, he tied for the FBS lead with 12.3 tackles per game (he had 19 in two different contests) to go with 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.


TE, Washington
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, Otton has been one of the most reliable tight ends in the country over the past two seasons. In 17 games over that span, he has 50 catches for 602 yards with five touchdowns.


RB, Georgia
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

We might never know how good White might have been since he tore the ACL in both his knees before ever getting a carry for the Bulldogs. The first occurred during his senior season of high school and the second before his freshman season of college. He’s powerful and moves the pile well and ran for 1,187 yards with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.

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Zamir White catches a short pass from JT Daniels, taking the ball all the way to the house for a Bulldogs touchdown.


OL, Washington
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Kirkland put the NFL on hold to continue his development at left tackle, where he has a bright future at the next level. He made the switch from guard last season and earned a first-team All-Pac-12 nod.


DB, Washington
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

The latest in a long line of talented Washington defensive backs, McDuffie has been among the best corners in the Pac-12 since he stepped on campus in 2019. A second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, he is on several major award preseason watch lists.


DE, Cincinnati
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

A Bednarik Award semifinalist in 2020, Sanders is a dynamic pass rusher for a potential top-five defense. He has 17.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and seven pass breakups the past two seasons. Kiper lists the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Sanders as his No. 6 defensive end prospect for the 2022 NFL draft.


RB/WR, Texas A&M
Sophomore
Last year’s ranking: NR

Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher calls Smith his Swiss Army knife and one of the best players he has been around, and given Smith’s versatility in his first two seasons, it’s easy to see why. Last season, after moving to running back, Smith caught 43 passes for 564 yards with six touchdowns and ran 49 times for 293 yards with four scores. He also has returned punts and kickoffs. He’ll line up at slot receiver and in the backfield in 2021, and Fisher figures to find myriad ways to get him the ball.


WR, Penn State
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Olave and Wilson understandably get most of the recognition when it comes to naming the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, but Dotson also deserves love. Despite the Nittany Lions having a down year, he managed to have 884 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games. His biggest game came against Ohio State, where he recorded three touchdown receptions, one of which was arguably the best of the 2020 season.

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1:20

Jahan Dotson grabs an impressive one-handed catch and makes magic again on the next play for a Penn State touchdown.


RB, Iowa
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Goodson led the team in rush yards last season with 812 in eight games along with seven touchdowns. He shared the load at running back with Makhi Sargent, who had 76 attempts to Goodson’s 143. Sargent is in the NFL now and Goodson is the feature back for Iowa this season. If he can continue what he was able to do last season, Goodson should be one of the better running backs overall.


RB, Oregon
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Verdell had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and the expectation is for him to return to form in a backfield that also features fellow junior Travis Dye. Durability is a question mark, but his talent is not.


WR, Oregon
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Back for his fifth season, Johnson is an important veteran presence on what should be a dynamic Oregon offense. He enters the season with 114 career receptions for 1,617 yards and 14 TDs.


DT, Oklahoma
Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Thomas didn’t play much early in his career at Oklahoma, but worked his way into a starting job last year as a junior, and he made it count. Thomas led the Sooners in sacks with 8.5 and tackles for loss with 13 and added eight more QB hurries. He was selected to the All-Big 12 second team. At 6-5, 266 pounds, he’s a versatile option for Alex Grinch’s improving defense that led the Big 12 in yards allowed and passing yards allowed.


OL, Louisiana
Junior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Torrence has started all but one game for coach Billy Napier since arriving on campus, and in 2019 became Louisiana’s first true freshman offensive lineman to start since 2004. At 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, Torrence anchors a line that last year ranked in the top seven nationally in fewest sacks and tackles for loss allowed.

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly, David Hale, Chris Low, Harry Lyles Jr., Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough, Mark Schlabach, Tom VanHaaren and Dave Wilson contributed to this story.