The Hotline’s 14th annual ridiculously early top-25 rankings — or maybe it’s the 15th annual (I lost track long ago) — rely on more guesswork than usual because of the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.
We cannot assume seniors are moving on, because they have the option to return.
At the same time, we won’t assume underclassmen are returning, because they have the option to turn pro.
And everyone can transfer.
The potential for transfer portal passage increases the level of complication and speculation by an order of magnitude.
But of this fact, we are reasonably sure:
All the 2021 frontrunners will have starting quarterbacks from the Pac-12 footprint, but none of those teams are in the Pac-12:
— Former USC starter JT Daniels is taking charge at Georgia.
— Phoenix-area product Spencer Rattler will start for Oklahoma for the second year in a row.
— Bryce Young, a former five-star recruit from Southern California, takes over for Mac Jones at Alabama.
— Another former five-star recruit from Southern California, DJ Uiagalelei, takes over for Trevor Lawrence at Clemson.
— We’re not sure who will replace Justin Fields at Ohio State, but the two top candidates are Jack Miller (Phoenix) and CJ Stroud (Southern California).
In fact, those quarterbacks — sorry, those teams — make up the top-five in our rankings below.
The Pac-12 footprint is clearly producing high-level talent at the most important position in the sport. But that talent is leaving the conference at an unprecedented rate.
*** Note: The following rankings will be updated this spring and then again during training camp.
*** Also considered (in no particular order): North Carolina State, Liberty, Army, West Virginia, Coastal Carolina, Utah, TCU, Memphis, UCLA, Boise State, Auburn, Michigan, Cal, Brigham Young and Florida State.
1. Georgia: Assuming good health, quarterback JT Daniels makes the Bulldogs complete — they have five consecutive top-three recruiting classes — and fulfills his destiny 3,000 miles from home. It’s time, finally, for Georgia to break through.
2. Oklahoma: Rattler should thrive in his second season as Lincoln Riley’s starter. Add an ascendant defense under coordinator Alex Grinch, and the Sooners will finally win … yes, win … a playoff game.
3. Alabama: The Tide is better equipped than any program to shrug off heavy attrition, but the skill position talent heading to the NFL is unprecedented, even for a Nick Saban team. We expect a regression, all the way to No. 3.
4. Ohio State: The personnel losses at quarterback (Justin Fields) and on the offensive line generated a moment of hesitation before we slotted the Buckeyes in the four-hole. Per usual, there’s no shortage of playmakers.
5. Clemson: Uiagalelei was superb in his spot duty in 2020, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to high-level play each week for three months. Also, Travis Etienne is gone. Also, the top of the ACC is getting better.
6. North Carolina: Year Three with coach Mack Brown and quarterback Sam Howell — plus an offensive line that should return intact — will mark the point UNC becomes a playoff contender and serious threat to topple Clemson.
7. Wisconsin: We slotted the Badgers into our preseason top five for 2020. Then the Big Ten hit pause, Wisconsin got rocked by COVID, and three losses materialized. But with quarterback Graham Mertz returning, we’re back on the Badger Train for ’21.
8. Cincinnati: The return of quarterback Desmond Ridder cements Cincinnati’s status as the top Group of Five team. And there’s enough fuel in the schedule (Indiana and Notre Dame) to produce a run at the playoff.
9. Iowa State: The personnel losses on defense could pose challenges, but ISU has enough playmakers, including quarterback Brock Purdy — he’s another product of the Pac-12 footprint (Phoenix) — to maintain its standard of success under Matt Campbell.
10. Texas A&M: Quarterback Kellen Mond is gone, but the Aggies will have an experienced defense and the benefits of four full recruiting cycles under Jimbo Fisher.
11. Notre Dame: No program consistently produces better offensive line play than Notre Dame, and we expect another first-rate quintet in 2021. But the defense and passing game (without quarterback Ian Book) are areas of concern.
12. Miami: We’re assuming a complete recovery for quarterback D’Eriq King after the knee injury suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl. We’re also assuming a loss to Alabama in the opener, and then a barrage of wins.
13. Texas: Consider us mildly skeptical about Steve Sarkisian’s ability to take Texas to the next level, even though he’s inheriting plenty of talent and arrives with national championship credibility. Adding to his challenge: The Big 12 should be loaded.
14. Washington: The highest-ranked team in the Pac-12 is only No. 14 overall — such is the state of college football on the West Coast. The Huskies are loaded with returning starters and have an early trip to Michigan that could supercharge their postseason position.
15. Florida: Downside possibilities exceed upside potential for the Gators, who must replace quarterback Kyle Trask and might have revealed their ’21 form in the blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
16. Indiana: What Tom Allen has done in Bloomington mirrors the magic act Matt Campbell has performed at Iowa State. With quarterback Michael Penix set to return, the Hoosiers should remain a contender in the Big Ten. (If only they were in the other division.)
17. Arizona State: The Sun Devils are a sleeper candidate nationally, with a veteran quarterback (Jayden Daniels), a plethora of playmakers and improved talent on the lines of scrimmage. If it doesn’t happen for Herm Edwards in Year Four, it may never happen.
18. Penn State: A major disappointment this season, the Nittany Lions (4-5) have more than enough returning talent to bounce back. Coach James Franklin should have the roster’s full attention after PSU’s first losing season since 2004.
19. Oklahoma State: The combination of coach Mike Gundy and a returning quarterback (in this case: Spencer Sanders) is enough for a spot in the bottom third of the ballot. Cowboys could be one of the 20 best in the country but perhaps No. 4 in the conference.
20. Oregon: What was a transition year for the Ducks in 2020 unfolded in predictable fashion, with uneven play and almost as many losses (three) as wins (four). If the quarterback play is more efficient and the defense solidifies, another conference title could follow.
21. LSU: Ed Orgeron overhauled the coaching staff, and we expect the changes to help maximize the considerable returning talent on both sides of the ball. Of note: The Tigers open 2021 at UCLA.
22. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are so steady but so unspectacular that they are easy to overlook. But they own five consecutive years of eight wins or more, plus the 6-2 mark this season. And the success should continue.
23. USC: We projected the Trojans to be the best team in the Pac-12 this season but see a bevy of issues for 2021, starting with a mediocre offensive line that loses its best player (Alijah Vera-Tucker). A fourth-place finish in the South division wouldn’t surprise us.
24. Louisiana: The Ragin’ Cajuns were winning at a high level before the pandemic season (11 victories in 2019), and they will win at a high level after the pandemic season, with the majority of the starting 22 due back.
25. Mississippi: And Lane Kiffin makes three former or current USC head coaches in our top 25. His offense will score with anyone, but the defense must improve for the win total to climb.