January 25, 2021

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End of Year College Football Power Rankings

by Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)
January 13th, 2021

Another college football season has come and gone, but this one was not like the rest. Teams were missing games because of a deadly pandemic, players used their power to influence legislature and an election, and while the world grew more chaotic by the minute, these men played football. That’s not meant to be a slight of any sort, it’s just an observation as to how insane our world truly is and where our priorities lie. Yes, our country enjoyed football this season and it was wonderful to see the DeVonta Smiths, the BYUs and Coastal Carolinas, and the Kylin Hills of the world burst onto the scene, but was it worth it?

As we watch Keyontae Johnson collapse on the court in college basketball from a heart condition caused by this virus, can we honestly say it was worth it? When we see Jaylen Waddle hobbling back out onto the field to catch a dig for four yards, clearly still injured from the gruesome dislocated ankle he suffered three months before, can we honestly say this immorality is worth it? When we see Will Muschamp, Gus Malzahn, and Tom Herman collect a combined $61 million dollars to simply not coach a football team while players aren’t paid and people in our country go without, dying, starving, and becoming homeless because our governments claim to not have enough money, is it worth it?

To some it may have been, and even to many of the players it will have been. But when the world watches and asks why Alabama is playing an injured young man they don’t need on the field to win a game and the announcing booth praises the heart of the player, I can’t help but wonder why we do this. Every situation calls for an adult in the room to make sure the creativity and ideas of a group don’t go too far. College football has proven time and time again that there’s no adult in the places of power.

College football always has been a farce. It’s a cartel of middle-aged to old men profiting off of young men who put their literal lives on the line to play a game while the coaches reap cash, claim there isn’t enough to pay the players, and continue to make decisions that would literally result in a parent losing their child were this a domestic case and not a ridiculous, shamateurisic sport.

Dabo Swinney was upset at Florida State because their program wasn’t willing to risk their players to Covid-19 while Clemson was actively travelling with a positive player in their team. Hugh Freeze was soliciting prostitutes on a “company” phone and now has a job at one of the most zealous religious programs in the nation. Mike Gundy doesn’t regularly participate with his players, totes conspiracy theorizing paraphernalia, and expects Chuba Hubbard to apologize for calling him out on supporting a company that has expressed support for white supremacists and domestic terrorism. D.J. Durkin had a player die under his supervision.

All of these middle-aged children have jobs, will continue to have jobs, and will continue to fail their way upwards socially because they’re good at rubbing elbows with the parents of impressionable kids. So yes, it was a weird year, and yes, there were a ton of players and coaches who wanted to get back on the field despite their being misinformed and their being put in danger in the process. Was the football fun? At times. But year after year we continue to see that college football doesn’t have an adult in the room. Every year there’s no one to save college football from themselves. The Good Ol’ Boys Club keeps getting gooder and older. And that’s exactly how they like it.

Full disclaimer, these probably aren’t the way I would end up ranking these teams were I taking this list seriously, but it isn’t far. There’s some exaggeration and hyperbolic movement, things I’m happy to explain when we get there, but I want to be clear that these aren’t necessarily serious.

25 – Tulsa (6-3)

The Golden Hurricane didn’t quite close their season in the way the team might have liked, but their progress as a program was undeniable. There wasn’t a single bad loss on the schedule and had the defense been able to use Zaven Collins in the bowl game against Mississippi State, they probably would have won the game. Phil Montgomery’s offense still needs to take some steps forward in taking care of the ball, but for the most part Tulsa is doing a great job at becoming one of those really good programs in the G5 who have a legitimate chance of knocking off P5 teams at some point during the season.

24 – San José State (7-1)

The Spartans of San José took similar program-altering steps this season by knocking off the powers that be in the Mountain West Conference and turning a season of doubt into an undefeated regular schedule. The loss in the Arizona Bowl is fine because it’s a bowl, but the stepping stones here are significant. The offense was very good and the defense had playmakers that established how the entire unit played. Recruiting has become a bit easier for smaller schools in recent years, especially in California, so there’s a chance that the Spartans can improve on this success of a season and challenge for MWC titles every season.

23 – Appalachian State (9-3)

This was undoubtedly one of the best seasons in the history of the Sun Belt conference with three very good teams in its ranks, especially considering Appalachian State was the worst of the top three a year after losing their prized head coach. Zac Thomas, Camerun Peoples, and a slew of talented offensive linemen and receivers made this offense potent while the defense was a top 20 scoring unit in the country. I do have my concerns about replicability with this team considering the immense playmaking efforts on defense and the difficulty of bringing guys like Peoples and Thomas in year after year, but State is an established brand at this point and that helps a lot. Shawn Clark going 9-3 with a bowl win in his first season will also help quite a bit with recruiting.

22 – Northwestern (7-2)

This might seem low to a lot of people, but I was skeptical of Medill University’s real prowess on the football field all season and that won’t subside with a Citrus Bowl win over a corpse of an Auburn team. Northwestern’s defense was undoubtedly in the best shape it’s ever been, turning over good offenses with startling regularity and holding Ohio State to 22 points, but unfortunately the other side of the ball counts just as much as defense, and in this version of college football, it often counts more. The fact of the matter is that the offense was just bad. They showed flashes of semblance against Auburn, but again, corpse. I would like to see Northwestern become a perennial Big 10 West contender, but I just don’t see that happening with all the other contributing factors. But regardless, it was a great season for the Wildcats.

21 – Buffalo (6-1)

Despite a mercurial start to the season, this year ended up being something of a disappointment for Buffalo as they were boat-raced in the MAC Championship game by a very good Ball State team. The offense, especially the run game led by Jaret Patterson, was great and moved the ball at will. While it would have been nice to see more playmaking on the defensive side of the ball, it’s tough to argue with their numbers. But the real story for Buffalo is Jaret Patterson. The running back had a season worthy of a Heisman had it been over 12 games instead of seven and had one of the best rushing games the sport has ever seen. I hope that people remember his contributions to the team just as much as they remember anything else about the program.

20 – Florida (8-4)

I get all the arguments about Florida not having its receivers against Oklahoma and whatnot, but Kyle Trask was flatly bad against the Sooners and that’s the fact of the matter. The Gators were teetering on the brink of disaster in a lot of their games this season and when they played the truly good teams, they were beat convincingly. That’s not to say that LSU is a good team, but that game serves as an indication of why Florida wasn’t successful. The Gators had a great offense this season but the rest of the team was neglected and they paid for that. The defense wasn’t mature enough physically or mentally for the SEC and week after week we saw that play out poorly, and week after we saw Dan Mullen make an ass out of himself. So I suppose it wasn’t all a loss. Either way, the passing game was truly marvelous and I’m excited to see where the future leads for both parts of the Kyle connection.

19 – North Carolina (8-4)

The fact that Mack Brown did this with this program is really awesome to see, especially while Texas was probably just as good/inconsistent and caught so much more flak from the media and public eye. The Tar Heels have a seriously great quarterback in Sam Howell who is only going to get better next year and will compete with guys like D’Eriq King to be at the top quarterback in the draft class. Of course the run game won’t be anywhere near as dynamic with NFL talents Javonte WIlliams and Michael Carter heading to the league, and replacing Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown won’t be easy either, but Mack can make it work. If the defense can just get a little better to the point where it isn’t a liability I could see them being the second or third best team in the conference with regularity.

18 – Indiana (6-2)

Indiana was a lot of fun to watch this season and made a run at Ohio State in the end of their game with the Bucks, but it just wasn’t enough to get through the season unscathed. In addition, the loss of Michael Penix Jr. severely limited the upside of the program, shining brightly in their loss to Ole Miss to cap the season. Though while the receivers were good and Penix was entertaining, the defense was the real reason the Hoosiers were so good. Only two opponents managed more than 30 points (one being an overtime game), two opponents managed less than 10 (one being a shutout), and they held Mississippi to less points than Florida and Alabama did. Tom Allen is a great coach and I think there’s a chance he stays for a long time. Just a few years ago Indiana was one of the most undesirable jobs in college football. Now it’s one of the powers of the Big 10 East.

17 – Iowa (6-2)

I was late to the party on Iowa because they lost to Purdue and an unrecognized Northwestern team to start the season, but this was a really good team with a surprisingly versatile offense for an Iowa squad and a traditional Hawkeye defense that made playing offense a chore. Spencer Petras showed a lot of promise for a quarterback with only one real target and the thought of another year of him should excite Iowa fans. Imagine how good this team could be if human dumpster juice Kirk Ferentz and his regime were ousted from the program!

16 – Miami (8-3)

Overall the Canes saw a lot of good things this season on both sides of the ball. We saw a lot of what made Miami great in years past in the offense and defense and and improvement, even if it was just marginal, from Manny Diaz and his staff. There’s still clear and obvious kinks to be worked out, but I loved what I saw for the most part. Miami scored a big win when D’Eriq King announced he would return to the program, but was devastated soon after when he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma State. King should be back in time for the start of the season but if he isn’t N’Kosi Perry should fill in nicely. Recruiting should be a tad easier for the Canes in coming years with Diaz’s success and understanding of the area so I really do think the Canes can be “back” in the next couple of years.

15 – Texas (7-3)

The Longhorns were one of the more inconsistent teams in the country this season and I believe were lucky to finish 7-3. This is a team that could have easily finished 5-5 or even with a losing record had some breaks gone the other way, but they worked out for the Longhorns. Unfortunately for Tom Herman, even that wasn’t enough to save his job. Instead, Texas will be moving forward with Steve Sarkisian who should be able to further the ceiling of an already dynamic offense. The defense will have trouble replacing guys like Joseph Ossai, but if Sark can bring some recruiting charm and promise to the most football-oriented state in the union, we can expect some Earl Campbell awards, Heisman chatter, and Burnt Orange resurgence in the near future.

14 – Ball State (7-1)

The Cardinals weren’t taken seriously for most of their season as they were at best the 3rd best team from Indiana, but their statement win over Buffalo in the MAC Championship game got a lot of attention, followed by even more when they beat San José State in the Arizona Bowl. Outside of the wonderfully named Yo’Heinz Taylor the team was full of pretty pedestrian players, but they were all consistent. Do I expect Ball State to become an annual power in the MAC? No, but they’re more than deserving of holding this season in very high regard until their next great run.

13 – Liberty (10-1)

It is a bit funny that Liberty was able to sit in the corner and watch while BYU and Coastal Carolina gave us one of the best games of the season, right? Regardless, Liberty was able to cap their season with a win over that Coastal Carolina team and hold them from an undefeated season which is a huge accomplishment and validation to the highest degree. The Malik Willis effect was felt as he passed and ran this team to a place where they could really be successful, Joshua Mack, Peytton Pickett, and Shedro Lewis assisting him in the run game. There’s a lot of talent on the offense and defense and as long as Hugh Freeze is running the show I suspect Liberty will be a tough team to compete with.

12 – Georgia (8-2)

Had JT Daniels been healthy for the entire season we might have seen Georgia make a case for the College Football Playoff, but Kirby Smart had to start the season with Stetson Bennett IV and that was just an instant derailment. While the defense was pretty good again but suffered down the stretch with injuries and Covid absences, the offense was the opposite. As the season progressed it evolved from the smashmouth form of football that limits potential to a layered system with a ton of options and methods of attack. Georgia is a perennial powerhouse and if they keep this approach I think they’ll be back at the top of the SEC East next season with another season of JT Daniels.

11 – Clemson (10-2)

Had Clemson played more games they might have been able to better gauge the fact they would get their heads caved in by Ohio State in the semifinal.

10 – Iowa State (9-3)

Matt Campbell has put together the best season in Iowa State history this year. That’s just factual. They used a slew of awesome offensive players and a fantastic defense to tear through the Big 12 and despite their loss late to the Sooners, the season was a huge success. The defense was loaded with stars like Will McDonald and Mike Rose while Breece Hall, Brock Purdy, and Charlie Kolar made the offense a true threat. Will State be able to finish this high again next season? It’s unlikely. Will Matt Campbell stick around to turn State into a Big 12 powerhouse? Probably not. But there’s a ton of upside around the program and even if Campbell leaves the job will be desirable and draw some good looks. There’s some G5 coaches whose teams are on this list that will surely get looks. Don’t doubt the future of this program.

9 – Louisiana (10-1)

The three-pronged offensive attack that ULL ran was one of the most fun in college football and when it came down to it, it was one of the best. Lewis, Ragas, and Mitchell tore up the Sun Belt and Big 12 alike and were only sent packing by Coastal Carolina despite being put in perilous situations every week. The defense was stacked with playmakers that were constantly turning over opposing offenses and giving the ball back to that dangerous offense. I don’t know how well the future will go when these players leave considering the pulling power of teams around them in terms of recruiting, but I expect Billy Napier to continue pulling together competitive teams from the scraps of the SEC as long as he stays with the program.

8 – Brigham Young (11-1)

Kilani Sitake, Zach Wilson, and the Cougs were a couple yards short of having a right claim to the National Championship and to be honest I wouldn’t have had an issue with it. BYU was one of the best teams in the country all season on both sides of the ball and proved time and time again that they could do it against good teams. They nearly beat Coastal and smashed UCF in their bowl game and if nothing else were the most fun team to watch this season. They had one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Wilson and a ton of guys who just made plays and were reliable and consistent enough to win games. The future of BYU is bright with Sitake in charge and though they will drop off without a Zach Wilson, they will always be relevant.

7 – Coastal Carolina (11-1)

The Myrtle Beach Murder Chickens will forever live in infamy for their remarkable 2020 season. Sure, they lost to Liberty in their bowl game, but I won’t hold that against them considering all the contributing factors both inside and outside of the game. Jamey Chadwell made a serious contender out of Coastal and that’s not an easy thing to do for a team in a competitive non-power conference. Be it CJ Marable, Grayson McCall, and Jaivon Heiligh on offense or Alex Spillum, D’Jordan Strong, Jeffery Gunter, or Tarron Jackson on defense, this team was legit with very good players up and down the roster. There’s a lot of returning studs so winning the Sun Belt next season is in question and as long as Chadwell is the coach there, this team will be good.

6 – Oklahoma (9-2)

If Kansas State doesn’t have one of the flukiest wins of the season against Oklahoma early in the season, Notre Dame probably isn’t a Playoff team. To be honest, I’m almost surprised it wasn’t the case anyway, and considering how well Oklahoma played down the stretch, it might have been a better game than the version we got. Once Spencer Rattler settled into the quarterback position the Sooners were able to kick things into high gear. They began doing Oklahoma things like murdering Oklahoma State and finished the season with a convincing bowl win over Florida 55-20. As good as the Sooners were to finish this season, they’ll be even better next season. This is a 2021 Playoff team and they won’t be the four seed, I promise you that.

5 – Texas A&M (9-1)

Major props to A&M for finishing strong. I had assumed they would be the third or fourth best team in the SEC West this season and they proved me wrong, something I’m not upset about. Kellan Mond was good, Isaiah Spiller became that dude that he needed to be, and the Fisher effect was felt in the rest of the offensive positions as high guys were able to turn the unit into one of the best in the country. On defense they had some big time playmakers help them win games when the offense needed a bit more time to get going. The only issue with that is that now we see how big the gap still is. A&M did get better after playing Bama, but they didn’t get 28 points better. There’s so much room to still make up before challenging for the SEC West that it might just take Nick Saban retiring before that happens.

4 – Notre Dame (10-2)

Well after seeing what happened in the National Championship game we can be certain that the Irish aren’t a bad team. We knew that Notre Dame wasn’t bad to begin with, but it’s still startling that despite being the best team Notre Dame has fielded in my lifetime, they struggled to keep the game within 20 points even when Bama took their foot off the gas. Ian Book turned into a real playmaker this season with a wonderful offensive line in front of him and a surprisingly thin pass catching corps. Kyren Williams was really the only other playmaker on the offense and that should speak to how good Book was. Luckily the defense was great this season with a ton of skill at all three levels. They’re going to pull another great recruiting class and win a ton of games again next year whether they’re in the ACC or not. The future is very bright for Notre Dame right now and if they find a suitable replacement for Book, they’ll be very certain going forward.

3 – Ohio State (7-1)

Justin Fields going out there and playing while never receiving a diagnosis about his injuries that clearly weren’t healed is both troubling and admirable, but it was ultimately fruitless as Ohio State was unable to come close against one of, if not, the best college football teams of all time. I was shocked that they were able to get past Clemson considering their shortcomings on both sides of the ball, exposed by Indiana and Northwestern, but they did and they deserved to be where they arrived. There were a million guys who could make the difference and Ryan Day did a decent job of managing those players and getting them into a system that could beat one of the great college football dynasties in the Tigers. Not winning the title isn’t an indictment. If anything it’s a recruiting tool for Day. “You’re the piece that can push us over the edge to win a College Football National Championship.” There’s going to be a lot of recruits hearing that. Ohio State is going to be the number two in the country behind Alabama going forward and I expect to see a lot of battles with Oklahoma in the future.

2 – Cincinnati (9-1)

Cincinnati could not have done more. If there was ever a year for a team to get into the College Football Playoff as a non-Power 5 team, this was the year, but that’s clearly not a possibility. Cincinnati beat everyone they could and still didn’t get in. That’s a crying shame. But there’s so much good to be had from this. The Bearcats are going to be a powerhouse for as long as Luke Fickell stays around. They’re going to be one of the three best G5 teams every season. There’s going to be talk of the team getting into the Playoff every year, and that’s who change comes. Desmond Ridder and Gerrid Doaks and the small country’s worth of stud defenders will draw recruits and attention to a program that represents a large portion of college football that isn’t represented. Cincinnati is more than capable of keeping this pressure on the NCAA to be fair in their assessment of teams and we’re going to see more excellence from the team moving forward. And for that loss to Georgia, they just didn’t want to be there. Didn’t really mean anything. Those Bulldogs were lucky to have the chance to play on the same field as such a team like Cincinnati. That sound familiar? Hmm.

1 – Alabama (11-0)

I called an Alabama undefeated season in my preview of the team, but I’m not necessarily proud of that or even wanting to gloat. It was kind of obvious. From the jump they had the best receivers and backs in college football. They were going to have one of the best defensive and offensive lines, and the secondary and linebackers were up there for being the best as well. Mac Jones was already a monster. He continued to be that. DeVonta Smith was easily the best player in college football and was rightfully rewarded for it. The Tide could have 10 first round picks and no one would blink an eye. This is the best college football team of all time. Thanks for reading.