It might seem easy to offer predictions for the college football season. Just put Clemson and Alabama in the playoff field and figure out the rest. But there’s a lot more to forecast than just two teams in the field of four, and the sport is unpredictable and chaotic every season.

Trevor Lawrence was a shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy and Clemson was the overwhelming favorite for the national title last year. Yet, Lawrence didn’t even make it to New York as a finalist and the Tigers were blown away in the semifinals against Ohio State.

There should be more surprises this year. Among the questions beyond the playoff field and Heisman are which teams emerge or disappoint. Which coach makes the right move? What will be the game of the year?

Our experts provide their answers.
Which teams make College Football Playoff?

Jace Evans

Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma have put considerable distance between themselves and the rest of their conferences, with four, six and six consecutive league titles, respectively. As always, the greatest intrigue for the 2021 season revolves around the SEC. I am picking Georgia to win the conference title thanks to the presence of quarterback JT Daniels, perhaps the most dynamic starting QB that Kirby Smart has had in Athens, as well as a fairly manageable schedule between the Bulldogs’ opener vs. Clemson and the SEC championship game.

Paul Myerberg

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma. A few others could get there, namely Georgia and Texas A&M. But these are the safest picks at a time when there are very few off-the-radar playoff contenders coming out of the Power Five.

Erick Smith

History and talent evaluation brings you to the same conclusion as most seasons. It will likely be Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State. That said, the margin between these four and the rest of their conference brethren is much closer in recent seasons. Keep an eye on Wisconsin and Penn State in the Big Ten, Georgia in the SEC and Iowa State in the Big 12. Oregon and Cincinnati also have good shots to make a run.

Eddie Timanus

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma. Yeah, I know – total copout. But it’s been some combination of these four through the first seven years of the playoff system. We might not get all four this time, but I’m willing to bet at least three of these will be in the field.

Dan Wolken

There’s not likely to be any new contenders this year, though I do think Clemson will lose its season opener to Georgia and ultimately fall short, perhaps even as a result of that head-to-head meeting. I’ll take Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State as my four playoff teams.
Which team wins national championship?
Defending national champion Alabama has a pretty weak schedule other than a matchup against the Miami Hurricanes in Atlanta.

Jace Evans

Oklahoma. If Oklahoma is going to win the national title under Lincoln Riley, this is the year to do it. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State – the other playoff regulars – are all breaking in full-time QBs, but the Sooners’ offense should be able to hit the ground running with second-year starter Spencer Rattler. Combine that with a favorable schedule and a defense that has steadily improved under coordinator Alex Grinch and it could produce OU’s first national title since 2000.

Paul Myerberg

Ohio State. The Buckeyes are probably undervalued heading into September. This is still the class of the Big Ten by a huge margin and likely the most talented team in the country this side of Alabama. Having gotten close to a national title under coach Ryan Day, this is the year OSU takes the next step.

Erick Smith

Alabama. The narrative is to look at the players that Alabama lost. The bigger question is who is still there? The answer is loads of talent, starting with Bryce Young at quarterback and some skill people ready to break out. The decisive part of this team will be a stingy defense that will slow even the best offenses.

Eddie Timanus

Clemson. Nobody in the ACC will derail the Tigers, and by the time they get to the playoff they’ll have any defensive deficiencies ironed out.

Dan Wolken

Alabama. Despite all the personnel losses and staff changes on the offensive side of the ball, Alabama’s defense is going to be tremendous and its talent offensively is so deep that I don’t think there will be a major drop-off. Alabama might be riding another wave of titles.
Who wins the Heisman Trophy?
Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler is the top quarterback prospect for the 2022 NFL draft.

Jace Evans

Spencer Rattler. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray each won the Heisman Trophy under Lincoln Riley before going on to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Could Rattler follow that same path? The Oklahoma quarterback is at least on course, slotted in as the preseason betting favorite. If he guides the Sooners to the offensive heights projected, it’ll be hard to knock Rattler off the inside track to college football’s top individual award.

Paul Myerberg

Spencer Rattler. It’s almost too easy to pick an established OU starter under Lincoln Riley to win the Heisman. After a strong close to his debut season in the lineup, Rattler is poised to follow in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts.

Erick Smith

D.J. Uiagalelei. It’s rare the perceived favorite takes the Heisman and the past two winners – Joe Burrow and DeVonta Smith – came from way off the board. Uiagalelei isn’t that kind of surprise, but he can make an early impression with a win against Georgia and that momentum gives him a great chance to take home the award.

Eddie Timanus

Spencer Rattler. Tempted to go with Uiagalelei here, but Clemson QBs of recent vintage seem to come up short in the final voting for whatever reason. In this case, I think Rattler’s numbers will just be too good to ignore.

Dan Wolken

I’ll go with J.T. Daniels, who is going to be the best quarterback in an SEC where there isn’t a ton of high-end quarterback talent. Georgia will be able to open up the offense more in the second year of Todd Monken’s system, so the numbers and the wins will be there.

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What will be the game of the year?

Jace Evans

Georgia vs. Clemson – Sept 4. Now this is how you start a college football season! This matchup of top-five titans is the kind of neutral-site, non-conference showdown largely absent in 2020 – and the result will have a huge impact on the College Football Playoff conversation the entire year.

Paul Myerberg

Iowa State at Oklahoma – Nov. 20. There are a number of SEC games to choose from, especially those involving teams at the top of the West division. But if the Cyclones are as good as expected, the matchup in Norman will go a long way toward determining whether the Big 12 has a team in the top four heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Erick Smith

Cincinnati at Notre Dame – Oct. 2. There are three other games matching teams in the preseason top 10 that will get more attention. But this fourth one could have a huge impact on the playoff race with the winner getting a much-needed résumé boost in what should be a tightly contested game. Plus, it could help the Bearcats make history by being the first Group of Five team in the field.

Eddie Timanus

Alabama at Texas A&M – Oct. 9. This is the Aggies’ chance to crash the playoff party. The Crimson Tide have a home date with Ole Miss the week before that could get a little crazy, but for all intents and purposes the SEC West comes down to this clash in College Station.

Dan Wolken

Oregon at Ohio State – Sept. 11. This is a great matchup that will have the most impact on the playoff, particularly for the Pac-12’s chances of making it.
What is the biggest surprise and disappointment?

Jace Evans

Surprise: The absence of Alabama from the College Football Playoff. Don’t get me wrong: The Crimson Tide will still be a great team, but I do think people are hand-waving away just how much they have to replace from 2020’s record-setting squad under the premise that Alabama always reloads. The five-stars are there, sure, but Mac Jones, Heisman winner DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris had historic campaigns for the Crimson Tide. It seems a big ask for Bryce Young and Co. to try to replace that output, especially under a new offensive coordinator and in the face of a schedule that includes what could be several challenging road contests.

Disappointment: Texas A&M, which will fail to make the playoff once again despite starting the year with the No. 6 ranking in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and despite a schedule that is about as smooth as you can find in the rugged SEC West.

Paul Myerberg

Surprise: Southern California. The Trojans may not have what it takes to get into the playoff but 10 wins would take heat off of coach Clay Helton. The schedule is friendly and USC has one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Kedon Slovis.

Disappointment: Florida. Ranked No. 12 in the preseason poll, the Gators have a new quarterback and a tough schedule that includes Alabama, LSU and Georgia.

Erick Smith

Surprise: The Pac-12 South, but not USC. This is about UCLA, Utah and Arizona State. All three are going to be much improved and fight it out for the division title and the winner could take the conference crown, too. Early edge goes to the Sun Devils.

Disappointment: North Carolina. Lots of attention is being given to Sam Howell and the Tar Heels as a playoff contender. There’s just not enough there to justify a top 10 ranking. North Carolina State might be the best team in the state by the end of the year.

Eddie Timanus

Surprise: Washington. The Huskies are getting surprisingly little attention, in part because we didn’t see them much during the abbreviated 2020 season. But there’s a lot of talent in place, and their schedule sets up well missing Utah and USC from the Pac-12 South and getting Oregon at home. The buzz will be turned up a bit if they can pull off a win at Michigan in Week Two.

Disappointment: LSU. Many prognosticators have the Tigers pegged for a bounce-back season after they followed their 2019 championship run with a 5-5 clunker. Those projections could be correct – a 6-0 start appears likely assuming they get by Auburn at home and potential sleeper Kentucky on the road. But the back half of their slate is loaded. Florida and Texas A&M have to come to Baton Rouge, but LSU must visit Mississippi and Alabama in between. If they can manage a split in that quartet a 10-2 finish is likely, but they have a lot to prove before getting to that point.

Dan Wolken

Surprise: TCU bouncing back to make the Big 12 championship game. This feels like a huge season for Gary Patterson after a few stagnant seasons, but I like the transfers they brought in on defense and they’ve got a very talented quarterback. The schedule isn’t that tough, so I think the Horned Frogs can be right there with Oklahoma.

Disappointment: Iowa State. The offseason hype got a bit out of control, and now the Cyclones have a huge target on their back.
Who is the coach of the year?
Justin Fields celebrates with Ohio State coach Ryan Day after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl to earn a spot in the national title game.

Jace Evans

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati. Can a Group of Five team crash the College Football Playoff? If any squad has a chance at it ahead of playoff expansion it’s this Bearcats squad. Starting the season as the highest-ranked Group of Five team (No. 10), Cincinnati has marquee opportunities at Indiana and at Notre Dame. Even if the Bearcats can’t pull off the upsets, especially in South Bend, Cincinnati still has a great chance at double-digit wins and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Fickell would have his choice of any open Power Five job with a season like that – if the Ohio native wanted it.

Paul Myerberg

Ryan Day, Ohio State. He’s been overlooked since replacing Urban Meyer and not included among the short list of the nation’s top head coaches. But Day already has led OSU to two Big Ten titles and two trips to the playoff, with this year’s team again looking good enough to win the whole thing.

Erick Smith

James Franklin, Penn State. He has his detractors and last year’s awful start might have soured even some of his supporters. However, Franklin has the Nittany Lions poised for a big rebound. With Ohio State a bit off its torrid pace, it wouldn’t be a shock for Penn State to get back to the Big Ten title game.

Eddie Timanus

Gus Malzahn, Central Florida. It might take all of one game for this prediction to blow up if the Knights drop their home opener to Boise State. But if UCF gets past that one, then wins at Louisville a couple weeks later, and a potential top-20 showdown on Oct. 16 at Cincinnati could be in the offing. A win there would clear the path to an AAC title and a probable major bowl bid, which will have all of Orlando hopping on the Gus Bus.

 

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