I can tell you one thing: I’d much rather put together a Top 25 with everyone playing as opposed to wondering who in the world is actually going to have a season. Regardless of whether 2021 yields forfeits or whatnot, that’s a win. We’re not seeing conferences go back and forth on playing or not playing. That’s a win.

What’s also a win is the fact that we’re not pushing the season back, either. Football will be played this month, just like it should be. No, August isn’t too early for college football. Yes, that was a dumb question.

(Apologies if you didn’t ask “is August too early for college football?” I’m just a little fired up today.)

Here’s a brief rundown for how I like to do preseason rankings of any kind. It isn’t a projection based on what I think will happen at the end of the season. If that were the case, I’d just rank my Playoff teams 1-4. This is based on how I think teams would stack up if they stepped on the field tomorrow.

Does that mean veteran-laden teams will get the benefit of the doubt? Absolutely. Does it also mean that programs like Alabama and Ohio State have proven that they can withstand massive turnover and doubting their head coaches is silly? Yep.

This is the Saturday Down South Preseason Top 25 for 2021:

25. Louisiana

Confession time. Last season, I used Louisiana as a punch line to explain why Iowa State wasn’t worthy of such lofty Playoff rankings. That was a bit of a disservice to the job that future SEC coach Billy Napier did. Now, he’s got starting quarterback Levi Lewis back … along with 93% of last year’s production. That’s No. 3 in FBS. From a top-15 team. Crap. I might be disrespecting the Ragin’ Cajuns again.

24. Northwestern

Look. I get it. The Wildcats aren’t showing up in many preseason Top 25s because usually when a team lacking blue-chip recruits wins a lot of games and then loses talent to the NFL Draft, we assume a setback year is in store. Yeah, defensively, there’s a lot of turnover. Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Earnest Brown, Grant Newsome, JR Pace AND longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz are gone. But FBS interceptions leader Brandon Joseph, promising defensive linemen Adetomiwa Adebawore and prolific senior linebacker Chris Bergin are all back. Plus, Northwestern won the Big Ten West with a team full of 2- and 3-star recruits. If Ryan Hilinski can shake off the issues that prevented him from seeing the field in Mike Bobo’s offense, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad will win a bunch of games once again.

23. Coastal Carolina

In my first way-too-early Top 25, I didn’t have Coastal Carolina in there. I thought, ya know, it’s a 1-year wonder. Fun story, but 2021 will be a back-to-earth season. Nah. I’m buying the Jamey Chadwell buzz, and not just because the dude is going to be rocking a full mullet at the start of the season. I’m buying a team with 89% of its 2020 production returning, including 2020 Sun Belt Player of the Year Grayson McCall, who became the ideal fit to run Chadwell’s modified triple-option offense. That returning group also includes preseason All-American tight end Isaiah Likely and leading receiver Jaivon Heiligh. The Chants’ run as America’s team might not be over.

22. Liberty

Let the record show that I never sold my Malik Willis stock when I predicted after Auburn’s 2019 spring camp that he’d win the starting job. Did I think I’d be able to see profits like him turning into a first-round draft prospect? Nope. But here we are. Chadwell told me that if he wasn’t playing for Liberty in the Cure Bowl, Coastal Carolina would’ve won that game by 2 touchdowns. Willis is back, and surprisingly, so is Hugh Freeze, who was the subject of seemingly every Power 5 opening. While teams are dialed in on Willis, tailback Joshua Mack is in position to thrive in this dynamic offense. A big year is in store in Lynchburg.

21. Penn State

On one hand, I’d be terrified if I was a Penn State fan. Last year was somewhat salvaged by a 4-game winning streak, though Kirk Ciarrocca’s job wasn’t salvaged after 1 year as the much-hyped offensive coordinator. Now, Mike Yurich is hoping to bring some of the success he had with a top-10 offense at Texas. The question is what version of Sean Clifford will we get? Will we get the first half of 2020 version who looked like he was a freshman getting his first start? Or will he thrive alongside the return of Noah Cain, top receiver Jahan Dotson and No. 2 receiver Parker Washington? We don’t know. Maybe a young defense, led by likely preseason All-Big Ten linebacker Brandon Smith, can keep the Lions in contention early to withstand the offensive inconsistency.

20. Ole Miss

You know the offensive firepower is there with Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby’s group. Matt Corral is the best quarterback in the SEC, Jerrion Ealy is a preseason Paul Hornung Award favorite, John Rhys Plumlee is one of the more exciting players in America when he gets touches and after losing Elijah Moore, the receiving group with Braylon Sanders and Dontario Drummond is promising. Can the defense just … flirt with mediocrity? That’s the ultimate question. Ten starters are back, including the invaluable Otis Reese. Ole Miss’ upside is dependent on this defense.

19. Texas

You’re gonna say it. You think Texas is overrated. I know. But it’s easy to forget that amidst the $24 million the Longhorns paid to fire the coaching staff — $15 million went to Tom Herman — was that it was a 7-3 season with some promise. Texas needs Steve Sarkisian to work his magic immediately to finish with a ranking like this. But all the guy did was build the 2 most prolific Alabama offenses in school history. Now, he’s got an All-American candidate tailback in Bijan Robinson and he’s got 2 capable quarterback options in Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. Don’t sleep on the impact of Kyle Flood on that offensive line, either. Will Texas defend? Pete Kwiatkowski was a respected addition from Jimmy Lake’s Washington staff, but that question will remain a mystery. The Longhorns won’t be back until that happens.

18. Wisconsin

It’s tempting not to put Wisconsin higher for 4 reasons:

  1. Graham Mertz in Year 2 is uniquely exciting for the Badgers
  2. Paul Chryst makes it seem like he can roll out of bed and fire off a 10-win season
  3. Wisconsin returns 83% of its 2020 production
  4. Jim Leonhard is still there because the HC market for elite P5 defensive coordinators is … woof

So what’s the issue? Why not put Wisconsin as a top-10 team and as the obvious favorite in the Big Ten West? Well, even with Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis back, I still question the offensive upside of that system. We give Chryst a lot of credit, but he’s an offensive-minded head coach with 2 top-60 offenses in 6 seasons. Both of those, not surprisingly, were with Jonathan Taylor. I think the Badgers put too much pressure on their defense, and without a true offensive identity — a strange thing to say about the typically run-heavy, physical Wisconsin offense — there’s a ceiling.

17. Iowa

When you finish the season on a 6-game winning streak, people notice. Even if you’re not a Spencer Petras believer, there’s a lot to like with Kirk Ferentz squad. Shocking, but Iowa should be elite at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Zach VanValkenburg (defensive line) and Tyler Linderbaum (offensive line) could both be All-Americans in 2021. Is Tyler Goodson capable of becoming that 1,300-yard back you can build an offense around? I lean “yes” with that. If Iowa can at least avoid the giant step back defensively after last year’s unit finished No. 6, Iowa’s first Big Ten West title in 6 years is a definite possibility.

16. Indiana

The last time Indiana started in the AP Top 25 was … 1968. Yeah. That’ll be the ultimate flex for Tom Allen, who would be getting even more love had his team not collapsed in the Outback Bowl. Yes, Michael Penix Jr. was out. He’s widely considered one of the top returning quarterbacks in America, though he struggled with consistency a bit before his season-ending injury. He’ll lean heavily on Ty Fryfogle, who along with Purdue’s David Bell, is an interesting candidate to lead the nation in receiving. Indiana is here because its defense, led by Micah McFadden, Tiawan Mullen and Marcelino McCrary-Ball. Allen should have another top-20 unit, and as a result, Indiana could start and finish as a Top 25 team for the first time since … ever. Yeah.

15. LSU

Do you believe that LSU really was the perfect victim for a totally disjointed season? Or were there perhaps some cracks in the foundation in Baton Rouge? It might be a little of both. Regardless of where you stand on that question, LSU is getting an upgrade on defense. How do I know that? Because Bo Pelini’s system was as bad as it gets. Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are the best returning cornerback duo in America, and they’ll be able to play with a lot more freedom than last year. LSU’s quarterback room looks like an ideal situation, whether it’s Max Johnson or Myles Brennan. Can Jake Peetz lead a top-15 offense? It’s possible, but LSU simply HAS to run the ball better than it did in 2020.

14. Oregon

Mario Cristobal is trying to get Oregon back to a Rose Bowl level like 2019. Possible No. 1 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, who will be at the top of every scouting report in 2021, will be a key piece of that. Losing Andy Avalos to Boise State can’t be an excuse for the Oregon defense, either. This is where Cristobal recruiting 3 consecutive top-11 classes should pay off. Offensively, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are one of the best backfield 1-2 punches in college football, but Joe Moorhead’s unit will depend on the growth of quarterback Anthony Brown, whose late-season emergence led to the transfer of Tyler Shough. Fortunately, Brown has a normal offseason and a bevy of talented receivers to work with. There’s a path for Oregon to 3-peat in the Pac-12.

13. USC

Flip a coin for Oregon or USC in the Pac-12. I’ll give USC a slight edge early. That’s not just because of Kedon Slovis, though the connection he and Drake London have should light up plenty a Pac-12 scoreboard in 2021. Eight offensive starters are back for the Trojans — not including Texas transfer tailback Keaontay Ingram – who had your standard 5-1 season last year. It consisted of trailing in the 4th quarter in 4 of 6 games, including a Pac-12 Championship loss to Oregon. Can USC get a redemption season from Todd Orlando after his defense sputtered at Texas? That’ll determine if USC can get to its first New Year’s 6 Bowl since 2017.

12. Florida

I’m higher on the Gators than you are. That’s OK. I’m well aware of all the lost passing game production, and the notion that Florida’s 2021 upside seems like it’s dependent on Todd Grantham’s defense figuring things out is, um, not ideal. I do think, though, that with a full offseason and talented front-7 playmakers like Ventrell Miller, Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter all back, it’s going to feel a bit more like a true Grantham defense. What’s Emory Jones’ potential? That depends on how much you believe in Dan Mullen as an offensive mind. I happen to believe in him a lot. And if the pass-catchers don’t turn into an all-world group like last year’s? I think Florida shifts to becoming a more run-heavy team that still wins plenty of games in 2021.

11. Miami

I didn’t want to let D’Eriq King’s return sway this ranking too much because whether he’s officially cleared for the Alabama opener or not, I don’t think it makes a difference in the final score. King does appear poised to return in Year 2 in Rhett Lashlee’s offense, which ranked No. 26 in FBS last year. That was the Canes’ best offense in 17 years. Wild. Miami added Oklahoma receiver Charleston Rambo, who had a nice connection with Jalen Hurts back in 2019 (43 catches for 743 yards).

Manny Diaz has to rebuild a front 7 that lost Gregory Rousseau (he opted out prior to 2020) and former No. 1 overall recruit Jaelan Phillips. The strength will be the secondary, where Bubba Bolden will lead a group that added talented Georgia corner Tyrique Stevenson. Still, that group needs the front to take some pressure off the back end.

10. Notre Dame

This ranking is a nod to the Irish coaching staff more than anything else. Notre Dame ranked No. 123 out of 127 teams in percentage of returning production after having 9 players drafted. One of those guys was the invaluable Ian Book, who finished his prolific college career with over 10,000 total yards and 89 touchdowns. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan? He’s a downgrade at the position. I wonder how he’ll perform when teams aren’t daring him to throw because he can’t turn and hand the ball off to Jonathan Taylor. Can Kyren Williams be that type of guy? We’ll see. He was darn good as a breakout sophomore. The good news is that Notre Dame added stud interior offensive lineman Cain Madden from Marshall.

And we can’t talk key offseason Irish additions without mentioning new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who turned down LSU for a chance to stay in the Midwest. Kelly has never had to replace this much production, but he also showed Notre Dame’s floor is at a different place now than it was 5 years ago.

9. UNC

As much as we want to talk about Sam Howell, any discussion about UNC’s preseason outlook needs to mention the loss of 1-2 tailback punch Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. It was the best backfield duo in America in 2020, and if you don’t believe that, you might’ve missed the fact that they each racked up north of 1,400 scrimmage yards. On top of that, 1,000-yard receiver Dyami Brown is also gone and defensive stud Chazz Surratt is off to the NFL, as well. So besides Howell, what’s there to like about the Heels? How about the fact that UNC still returns 79% of last year’s production, including 10 defensive starters. Tony Grimes should lead one of the more improved defenses in America.

Can that combined with Howell in his pre-draft season fuel UNC to consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowls for the first time this century? I wouldn’t doubt it.

8. Cincinnati

Now we’re having some fun. Cincinnati moved up another spot in my preseason rankings after a deeper dive this offseason. How high am I on the Bearcats? I’ve got them going to the Playoff. That’s coming from someone who is a Marcus Freeman believer (the DC is off to Notre Dame) and not crazy high on returning quarterback Desmond Ridder.

I do, however, like that Ridder can beat teams in multiple ways. I also like that Luke Fickell returns an offense that features former Alabama transfer Jerome Ford (he gashed UGA’s No. 1 run defense for 97 yards on just 8 carries) and All-American candidate Josh Whyle at tight end. Defensively, preseason All-Americans Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Myjai Sanders are going to fuel an even better unit than last year’s No. 8 finish. Cincinnati would have even more offseason buzz had it closed out Georgia after leading most of the Peach Bowl, but instead, it’ll have to settle for dark horse Playoff contender status.

7. Texas A&M

You can approach A&M’s 2021 outlook in 2 different ways. You can take the glass half-empty side and argue that losing 4 of starters on the offensive line, along with longtime starting quarterback Kellen Mond, will result in a step back year. Or you can argue that returning arguably the best backfield trio in America, along with 9 of 11 guys who caught a pass last year, will result in a step up this year. The Aggies’ offense needs to figure out the offensive line in a hurry with a new starting quarterback, but the pieces around A&M’s signal-caller are ideal. Don’t sleep on the return of deep threat Caleb Chapman, either.

On defense, Mike Elko should have his best unit yet, especially on the defensive line. DeMarvin Leal is getting top-5 pick consideration in way-too-early mock drafts, and Jayden Peevy broke out down the stretch in 2020. The Aggies aren’t going anywhere.

6. Iowa State

If you’re not understanding the Iowa State buzz, here’s what you need to know. Matt Campbell is back. Need I say more? Ok, I will. Breece Hall is back after leading the nation in rushing, Brock Purdy returns for Year 4 as a starter with nearly 10,000 career scrimmage yards and 80 touchdowns to his name and Charlie Kolar is getting preseason All-America love as the nation’s top tight end (A&M’s Jalen Wydermyer would get my vote). Only 3 Power 5 teams have a higher percentage of returning production than Iowa State (88%).

That’s for a team who won a New Year’s 6 Bowl and capped its best AP Top 25 finish in program history. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Rose (29 career tackles for loss), first-team All-Big 12 defensive end Will McDonald and 2-time first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth are all back, as well. The preseason Playoff hype is real in Ames.

5. Ohio State

Remember how I said certain programs have shown they can overcome massive losses in production and still compete for a national title? The Buckeyes are in that camp. Ryan Day has to figure things out in the post-Justin Fields era, but CJ Stroud appears to be up for the challenge. It helps that he’s got the best receiver duo in America in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. And there might not be a better defensive line duo in the country than Haskell Garrett and Zach Harrison.

You know Ohio State is gonna score points on offense and get to the quarterback on defense. Just like last year, though, the secondary is a massive question. Can Kerry Coombs improve last year’s No. 122-ranked pass defense? That’s what could stand in the way from improving on last year’s runner-up season.

4. Oklahoma

The more I thought about the Sooners, the more I thought that this was easily Lincoln Riley’s best team. It got better and better throughout the offseason with the transfer additions of:

  • Tennessee RB Eric Gray
  • Tennessee OT Wanya Morris
  • Tennessee DB Key Lawrence
  • Arkansas WR Mike Woods

How do you get over the hump and finally beat an SEC team in the Playoff? Get SEC players. Riley has that, as well as a loaded group that figured things out in the latter half of last year. Nik Bonitto will lead an Oklahoma defense that allowed 16 points per game in its final 7 contests. That’s the area that’s been lacking throughout the vast majority of the Playoff era. But with Alex Grinch leading that group, it should be another top-30 unit. Combine that with the offensive firepower with preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler and yes, there’s a real chance that Oklahoma’s Playoff semifinal woes come to an end.

3. Alabama

Think about this. The Tide had 9 offensive players drafted in the first round the past 2 years. Those guys fueled the best 2 offenses in program history, which was led by Steve Sarkisian. Now, he’s gone, as well. Yet would anyone be surprised if Alabama still had a top-5 offense nationally and won the SEC? Nope. A big part of that is the promise of redshirt freshman Bryce Young, who entered with even more recruiting hype than Tua Tagovailoa. Can he gel with Bill O’Brien? And what kind of pressure will Brian Robinson take off this passing game as it works to find a No. 2 weapon alongside John Metchie? Those are the offensive questions.

Defensively, though, Alabama might have the best unit in the country. The secondary is loaded with Josh Jobe, Malachi Moore and Jordan Battle. The linebackers were already elite with Will Anderson and Christian Harris, then Nick Saban casually added proven Henry To’o To’o from Tennessee. It’ll have a different identity than it did in 2020, but Saban’s squad is again poised to have a final seat at the table.

2. Georgia

When I did my way-too-early rankings, I had UGA had No. 3 behind Alabama. Why the switch? Am I just falling for another UGA trap? Well, Kirby Smart addressed 2 massive secondary needs by going out and getting elite slot defender Tykee Smith from West Virginia and Smart got Clemson’s Derion Kendrick to play on the outside. Suddenly, those secondary questions don’t seem as urgent, especially when you consider the promise of Adam Anderson rushing the passer, and as any Georgia fan will tell you, Nakobe Dean has All-America potential at inside linebacker. It won’t be a vintage Smart group, but if this offense can live up to some major (and justified) preseason hype with JT Daniels, that’ll be enough to at least compete for a ring. No, I don’t think the George Pickens absence will lead to a drop-off offensively while he’s out. There are enough pass-catching weapons and the backfield is arguably the deepest in the country.

If I had to pick between UGA and Alabama playing a game in Atlanta tomorrow, I’d roll with the Dawgs. This has the makings of a special year in Athens, regardless of how that opener against Clemson goes.

1. Clemson

When I close my eyes and play out the 2021 season, it feels an awful lot like 2018. It’s not just that Clemson has a former 5-star quarterback who’ll start for the first time. The 2018 feel is based on the fact that Brent Venables returns a defense loaded with experience that’ll dominate all year, but won’t necessarily get that national love because of a weak ACC schedule. I think that Clemson defense took last year’s Justin Fields-fueled ending personally. Yes, losing the aforementioned Kendrick to Georgia wasn’t ideal, and neither was watching Mike Jones bolt for LSU. But this is a very 2018-like defensive line with Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis and Myles Murphy. Including 45-year-old James Skalski, Clemson’s defense had more than half (!) of the preseason first-team All-ACC selections. Sheesh. Yes, so much of the Tigers’ 2021 potential depends on the ability to replace Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, but D.J. Uiagalelei already showed a ton of promise in Lawrence’s absence last year, and if Justyn Ross makes a full return, Clemson will still have one of the nation’s top offenses.

Of course, we’ll find out how elite the Tigers are starting Sept. 4. I just get the feeling we’ll be saying “feels like 2018” a lot with Dabo Swinney’s team in 2021.