College football is back for the 2021 season in a closer-to-normal iteration, and it feels so good.
Here are 10 teams — including a few outside the Power 5 — that you should make time to watch this fall, whether it’s because of a standout player, a Group of 5 team you have to keep tabs on, or simply a team that’s going to punish its opponents most weekends.
Note: This is not a “10 best teams in college football” list.
There’s never going to be any realistic watchable team rankings without featuring Alabama on it. Sorry. I’m keeping the Crimson Tide at the top because until somebody proves on the field that they don’t belong, that’s where I’m going to put them.
The Tide are coming off a season in which they had one of the best teams in college football history, a group that featured 10 NFL draft picks, including Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith.
This season, they have nine returning starters on defense and will have an offense with a bunch of new players. While losing that kind of production would typically mean a large setback for most teams, Alabama isn’t one of them in the Nick Saban era.
Bryce Young will be the starter at quarterback and he will likely find John Metchie III to be his favorite target in this new-look Crimson Tide offense. Watch them figure things out while simultaneously running teams over, because that’s what they do.
There’s nothing that Georgia can’t do, or at least it appears so on paper.
The Bulldogs were a frustrating watch in 2020 because they had skilled players on both sides of the football. Defensively, the work and effort showed up. Offensively, the players with ability were there, but at the quarterback position, things never clicked.
When JT Daniels was cleared to play, he showed what Georgia was capable of all along. In four games, he completed 68% of his passes for more than 1,200 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. College football wizard Bill Connelly named him the next Mac Jones, which is high praise considering how Jones performed in 2020.
Along with Daniels, Zamir White and Kendall Milton are likely going to prove themselves to be the best running back duo in the nation. If the Bulldogs can put it all together, they might just be the best team in the sport.
It’s not difficult to make a case for Oklahoma as a must-watch team in 2021.
The simplest argument: They have Spencer Rattler, the clear Heisman favorite, going up against Big 12 defenses almost every week in his second year as a starter under Lincoln Riley. Riley’s record of producing Heisman-winning quarterbacks is solid. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray are proof. Jalen Hurts, after playing a season at OU, finished in the top two in Heisman voting in 2019 behind Joe Burrow.
Aside from Rattler, the Sooners are bringing back a talented offensive line for him to operate behind, and 15 starters in total.
The Sooners are also going to have a larger target on their backs this season because of their eventual move to the SEC in the coming years. The rest of the Big 12 are going to play with a little more fire when they see the Sooners.
Clemson without Trevor Lawrence feels weird, but the Tigers are still going to be one of the more exciting teams that you should undoubtedly make time for in 2021.
Lawrence’s replacement, D.J. Uiagalelei, has already shown he’s capable of delivering some big-time performances. When Lawrence had COVID-19 and missed both the Boston College and Notre Dame games, we got a taste of what Clemson would look like after Lawrence, and it was pretty similar to what things were already like.
Uiagalelei carried the load against Notre Dame, completing 66% of his passes for 439 yards and two touchdowns.
Not only will Uiagalelei feast against a relatively weak schedule (minus Georgia, and the Tigers avoid North Carolina and Miami), but so will Clemson’s defensive line, one of the most fearsome in the country. Clemson will entertain by overwhelming several football teams this year.
Ohio State’s quarterback competition was the big storyline coming out of Columbus this offseason, and C.J. Stroud came out on top of that battle.
It’s almost always a safe bet that the next guy up at quarterback at a place like Ohio State is going to be good. But confidence is a little higher for Stroud because of the receivers around him.
The Buckeyes return Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, two players who could be playing on Sundays in the future. They are going to be this season’s version of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle (when healthy).
Per usual, Ohio State will boast one of the most outstanding defensive lines in college football, and the Buckeyes will be favored in every game they play.
The Bearcats are likely going to be the best Group of 5 school again in 2021.
Last season, they were best known for their defense, which finished fifth in the final SP+ rankings. Expect much of the same this season, even with defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman now at Notre Dame.
Offensively, Desmond Ridder has the potential to be even more special than he was in 2020. After throwing four interceptions in the first three games, Ridder threw just two in the final seven games of the season. Overall, he completed 66% of his passes for 2,296 yards and 19 touchdowns. On the ground, he ran for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Bearcats have road games at Indiana and Notre Dame with a bye week in between in the first five weeks of the season. They still might not make the College Football Playoff if they go undefeated — the powers that be continue to discuss expanding the field — but they’re still a team worth watching this fall.
Steve Sarkisian’s first year at Texas should be appealing. Similar to Oklahoma, the Longhorns are going to get every team’s best shot in the Big 12 because of their eventual departure for the SEC.
But one problem that has plagued Texas for about the past decade has been an inability to develop talent. Granted, Sarkisian isn’t working with the same level of talent that he was at Alabama, where he orchestrated one of the best offenses college football has ever seen as offensive coordinator.
However, Texas has better talent than most schools, and Sark has the scheme. The biggest name returning on offense is running back Bijan Robinson, who had a combined 651 rushing and receiving yards in just 55 touches in his last five games. Robinson should expect many more touches in 2021 and could emerge as one of the better backs in college football.
Even if the Longhorns play poorly, they will still be entertaining, particularly if you’re consuming some social media with their games. Entertainment comes in many forms.
Like Oklahoma, the quarterback is the main draw with North Carolina.
Sam Howell has the potential to be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft and will be an early Heisman favorite. North Carolina lost its top two running backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, as well as its top two receivers.
However, Howell has the skills to keep the offense moving behind a veteran offensive line. And if the Tar Heels are able to get close to averaging near their 41.7 points per game from 2020, they’re going to be one of the most captivating teams to watch in the country.
The Tar Heels return 10 starters on defense, so even if Howell struggles occasionally, Mack Brown expects his defense to cover for him.
The Chanticleers aren’t going to surprise anybody in 2021 the way they did in 2020. We know about QB Grayson McCall, and we know about the offense that was difficult to prepare for and sometimes a nightmare for opposing defenses.
With 19 returning starters, if you didn’t catch the Chants and the mullets up in Conway, South Carolina, give them a few looks in 2021.
Their schedule is also a fun mix. Four of their first five games will be against The Citadel, Kansas, UMass and UL Monroe. They also have a couple of road challenges at Appalachian State on Oct. 20 and at Georgia Southern on Nov. 6, as well as a home game against Georgia State on Nov. 13.
Coastal is starting the year ranked No. 22 in the preseason AP poll, but it can end up much higher, as we saw last season.
10. Liberty Flames
The Flames are on this list because of two people: Malik Willis and Hugh Freeze.
Willis transferred to Liberty, sat out the 2019 season and had his coming out party in 2020 with a 64.2 completion percentage for 2,250 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions, while rushing for 944 yards and 14 more touchdowns. Those stats come from a combination of Willis’ talent and Freeze’s ability to get the most out of his quarterback.
There aren’t many quarterbacks at any level of football who are truly electric, but Willis is one of them. Sure, flip to another game while Liberty is on defense, but don’t miss Willis carving up opposing defense in whatever way he so chooses.
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