Some top teams need to replace generational quarterbacks. Others have new coaches who need to fill big roles. No one, not even Clemson and Alabama, is perfect heading into 2021.
Here’s a breakdown of the most pressing offseason questions for each of the Way-Too-Early Top 25 teams.
1. Clemson Tigers: Can the offensive line improve?
Sure, the Tigers are replacing some big names at high-profile positions this offseason, but perhaps the bigger concern in advance of the 2021 campaign is on the offensive line, where four starters are set to return. Clemson’s run blocking in 2020 was problematic, and in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, the Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage. There’s ample talent on the line for the Tigers, and they’re adding five-star tackle Tristan Leigh, but it’s a group that needs to show genuine progress if the offense is to get back to the type of production Clemson fans were used to seeing during the Tigers’ championship seasons. — David M. Hale
A big part of what made Alabama’s offense so great a season ago was the unexpected return of Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood and DeVonta Smith for their senior seasons. And, well, now they’re all gone and what remains is a relatively inexperienced group. Three-fifths of the offensive line were seniors who need to be replaced, along with fifth-year senior tight end Miller Forristall. Replacing a fourth-year junior (Mac Jones) at quarterback is a true sophomore, Bryce Young. Throw in a new offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien), a new offensive line coach (Doug Marrone) and a new running backs coach (Robert Gillespie) and that’s a heck of a learning curve to account for. — Alex Scarborough
The Sooners finished the season playing as one of the hottest teams of the country, allowing 21 points or fewer in their last five games. The defense looks to have turned the corner under Alex Grinch, and quarterback Spencer Rattler returns with breakout star Marvin Mims Jr. and good players across the board. This might be the complete package Lincoln Riley has hoped to see since getting the keys to the Sooners’ machine. So, then, is this the team to break through and get his first win in the College Football Playoff? — Dave Wilson
4. Georgia Bulldogs: Can they take the final step toward elite status?
For the past decade, it has been Alabama and Clemson. Getting into the playoff has been a good accomplishment for anyone, but it has been pretty clear that doesn’t add up to great odds at winning a national title, or in many cases even playing a competitive game. Georgia came close in 2018 against Alabama before Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith cemented themselves in college football history. In 2021, the Bulldogs open against Clemson before running through their SEC slate. The offense should be in a much better spot with JT Daniels, and defensively, should be able to reload despite a significant amount of talent departing. If they’re able to come out with one loss at the end of the season, perhaps Georgia finally breaks through. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Ohio State has former ESPN 300 quarterback recruits C.J Stroud and Jack Miller, but neither completed a pass last season. Both were part of the 2020 recruiting class and will be sophomores. Ryan Day and his staff signed ESPN 300 quarterback Kyle McCord, the No. 5-ranked pocket-passing quarterback, in this 2021 cycle. Stroud was a late pickup in that 2020 cycle and needed time to develop. Was that one year enough for him to push himself past Miller for the starting spot? Can Miller win out or does McCord come in and beat everyone out in his first season? We won’t know until the competition plays out, but it’s a question on how you replace someone like Fields and what he was able to do within the offense. — Tom VanHaaren
6. Texas A&M Aggies: What is life without Kellen Mond like?
For the first time since 2017, someone not named Kellen Mond will line up at quarterback for the Aggies. Mond’s reliability has allowed Jimbo Fisher to stock his QB room with hand-picked recruits in Haynes King, Zach Calzada and Eli Stowers. Calzada and King have both seen extremely limited action, but only King appeared in games in 2020, attempting just four passes. The 6-3, 200-pound sophomore is the likely starter. He’ll have an extremely dependable running attack behind him, but the Aggies’ wide receivers didn’t play much of a featured role last season. In a season where the Aggies are bona fide contenders, King will have to get up to speed quickly. — Dave Wilson
The Heels need to establish a new pecking order at receiver and tailback, and the defense had too many bad games in 2020, but the truth is, the biggest obstacle for North Carolina might not be its shortcomings, but rather its success. Few teams will enter 2021 with more hype than the Heels, who will be a trendy pick to finally end Clemson’s dominance in the ACC. Given some of UNC’s implosions against lesser competition in 2020, it’s fair to wonder how an up-and-coming team will handle so much hype. The Heels have the talent to be special, but learning how to handle the burdens of success is often the last big stumbling block to reaching the mountaintop. — Hale
8. Iowa State Cyclones: Can the passing game provide more big plays?
The Cyclones’ offense was wonderfully efficient in 2020 and should be again with the return of quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and the entire starting line. But if Hall wasn’t creating a chunk play, no one was: Purdy averaged only 11.3 yards per completion, and ISU managed just 1.3 passes per game of 30+ yards (71st in FBS). A lack of big plays means you have to execute well for quite a few plays in a row to score, and ISU’s red zone numbers were pretty mediocre — the Cyclones were 83rd in goal-to-go touchdown rate. A few more easy points could make the difference between another lovely season and a run at the CFP. — Bill Connelly
9. USC Trojans: How does the offensive line develop?
USC’s ability to level up in 2021 could hinge on the development of its offensive line. The Trojans return four of five starters from 2020, but it’s a group that didn’t play particularly well and the lone departure, Alijah Vera-Tucker, was easily the unit’s best player. New offensive line coach Clay Maguire has extensive knowledge working in air-raid schemes, which should provide a boost to a team that is loaded at the skill positions and features a quarterback, Kedon Slovis, who will begin the year in the Heisman discussion — Kyle Bonagura
10. Indiana Hoosiers: How does QB Michael Penix Jr. recover from an ACL tear?
This is a simple one. Penix suffered the injury on Nov. 28 against Maryland, tearing the same ACL as in his freshman season. There’s no question Penix will be at full health at some point, but the timing is crucial as the Hoosiers open the season with a road test at Iowa on Sept. 4. Just a couple of weeks before Penix’s injury, Indiana coach Tom Allen told ESPN he believes that Penix can be an elite quarterback not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country. We’ll have a good idea of whether or not 2021 will be an even bigger step for Penix and the Hoosiers if he’s healthy and they’re able to knock off the Hawkeyes — Lyles
11. Cincinnati Bearcats: Can a new coordinator keep the same elite defense?
Can new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel uphold the standard set by predecessor Marcus Freeman? The Bearcats’ biggest strength was in their defense, which was one of the top in the country, and finished No. 5 in the final SP+ rankings, and typically was in the top three for most of the season. Luckily for Tressel, the Bearcats got a couple of surprises in the returns of Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown, who took advantage of the added year of eligibility by the NCAA and gave Cincinnati more depth than expected on the defensive line. With consecutive Power 5 road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, Tressel will have an opportunity to show that the expectation of a smooth transition of power between him and Freeman wasn’t a lofty one at all. — Lyles
12. Iowa Hawkeyes: What does a new-look DL produce?
The Hawkeyes are losing a lot up front defensively, so the question is how that production is replaced. The staff is losing defensive end Chauncey Golston, who had 45 total tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. The coaches also are losing defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon, Austin Schulte and Jack Helflin. Add in linebackers Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade, who also are not returning, and there are big question marks within this defense. Niemann led the team in tackles, Nixon was third and Golston was sixth. Having linebacker Seth Benson and defensive end Zach VanValkenburg back will help up front, but how Iowa replaces the departures is going to be a key for the team this coming season. — VanHaaren
It’s rare for a sophomore quarterback to lead a team to a conference title and then decide to transfer, especially at the Power 5 level, but that’s the decision Tyler Shough made this offseason. With Shough on his way out, the Ducks’ quarterback situation is cloudy. Anthony Brown figures to have the best shot at winning the job after he saw extended playing time in the Fiesta Bowl, but Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield also figure to factor into the competition. — Bonagura
14. Washington Huskies: What does a new defensive coordinator mean?
Pete Kwiatkowski’s departure to become the defensive coordinator at Texas is a significant loss for the Huskies, who have been among the Pac-12’s best defensive teams since Kwiatkowski arrived with Chris Petersen in 2014. His replacement, Bob Gregory, has extensive history as both a coordinator (Cal 2002-09; Boise State 2001) and on the Huskies’ staff (2014-present), but it’s fair to wonder how another major personnel shift could impact the team. — Bonagura
The Irish have to replace a ton of production on offense and it’s not going to be an easy task. Quarterback Ian Book is gone, as well as tight ends Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright, and receiver Ben Skowronek. The staff brought in Wisconsin quarterback transfer Jack Coan and signed ESPN 300 quarterback Tyler Buchner to help fill Book’s role. But, as Brian Kelly has described him, Book was a winner, the all-time winningest quarterback for the Irish, and helped lead them to the playoff this past season. The offensive line is losing four of the five starters, Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey. How the staff replaces that veteran leadership and talent is a question going into this season. — VanHaaren
16. Florida Gators: How does Dan Mullen replace lots of offensive starpower?
Aside from solving well-documented problems on defense, much of the focus will be on the offense, with Kyle Trask and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson both gone. With Trask behind center in 2020, the offense flourished — and he ended up as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Now that he is on to the NFL, backup Emory Jones is set to take over at quarterback after three years waiting his turn. He is different than Trask — most notably he is a dual-threat quarterback — so the offense is bound to look different. In addition, the Gators will also have to replace tight end Kyle Pitts, and receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes — their top three receivers from a year ago. — Andrea Adelson
17. Wisconsin Badgers: What will the offense look like?
Everything about the Badgers’ offense comes in question form in 2021. What was real about the Graham Mertz we’ll see moving forward — the brilliant start (74% completion rate, seven TDs, no interceptions in his first two games), or the lengthy malaise (passer rating under 100 for games 3-6)? Will the run game rebound after posting extremely mediocre numbers for most of the year? Is blue-chip repeat freshman Jalen Berger still the next great Badgers back? Can the line replace its left side (tackle Cole Van Lanen, Jon Dietzen) without another step backward? What was more telling in 2020: the three games over 40 points or the three games under 10? Things are probably fine here, but that midseason malaise is hard to forget. — Connelly
18. Ole Miss Rebels: Can they fix the defense?
Few teams were more fun to watch on offense last season than Ole Miss, which ranked third nationally in total offense (555.5 yards per game) and 14th nationally in scoring offense (39.2 points per game). But the Rebels were as bad on defense as they were good on offense. They gave up more than 40 points in five of their 10 games and ranked 126th out of 127 FBS teams in total defense. Lane Kiffin, entering his second season as coach, has pushed hard to upgrade the talent on defense. He knows as well as anyone that you can’t make a living winning 50-something to 40-something in every game. Maryland grad transfer Chance Campbell should help at linebacker, and where Ole Miss really needs to get better is in the defensive line. That’s where coveted junior college tackles Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon come in, not to mention Tywone Malone, ESPN’s No. 5-ranked high school tackle nationally. Having safety Otis Reese for an entire season will also help. His transfer waiver wasn’t cleared until late in the year last season. — Chris Low
It’s an ambiguous question, but it begs to be asked: What does Billy Napier see in this program? What gave him the confidence to turn down so many big-time jobs this offseason? Surely it isn’t the warm weather in Lafayette keeping him. There has to be something about this team that he believes in. Maybe it’s the return of quarterback Levi Lewis or linebacker Ferrod Gardner or nose tackle Tayland Humphrey or wide receiver Jalen Williams. Nine players took advantage of the extra year of eligibility, making Louisiana one of the most experienced teams in the Sun Bel. If Napier thinks this group coming back can knock on the door of the College Football Playoff, then maybe sticking around in Lafayette a little longer makes some sense. — Scarborough
20. LSU Tigers: Did Ed Orgeron get the coaching staff right this time?
The question that faces LSU this offseason is the same it faced last offseason: Will Ed Orgeron surround himself with a winning coaching staff? Granted, the dismantling of the 2019 Tigers staff was a result of winning a national championship, whereas the 2020 Tigers barely managed to finish at .500, but the result was the same as a slew of coordinators and assistants left or were shown the door. Orgeron is clearly trying to recreate the magic of 2019 by hiring Joe Brady disciples Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas to lead the offense, while former Dave Aranda assistant Daronte Jones was tabbed to serve as offensive coordinator. On paper, they make much more sense than the decision last offseason to bring in Bo Pelini and Scott Linehan, but only time will tell if Orgeron pulled the right levers this go-around. — Scarborough
21. Texas Longhorns: Growing pains for Steve Sarkisian?
The Longhorns have talent. And Steve Sarkisian has proved his mettle as a playcaller. But coaching changes aren’t always an instant success. Just ask Sarkisian’s former mentor, Nick Saban, who lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season at Alabama. Mack Brown went 8-5 in his final season, and Charlie Strong went 6-7 the next year in Austin. Strong went 5-7 his last season and Tom Herman followed with a 7-6 season. After a 7-3 season last year, can Sarkisian break in a new quarterback and hit the gas? — Wilson
New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich tends to produce lots of points wherever he goes, but you can only go as far as your quarterback can take you, and Sean Clifford has left conflicting impressions over the past two seasons. He produced a 155.5 passer rating with a 27-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio in wins in 2019-20, but in seven losses those numbers were just 123.6 and 12-to-11. He’ll have one of the conference’s better 1-2 receiver punches in Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington and should have a stellar run game at his disposal. But his ceiling will determine Penn State’s, and it’s hard to know what that ceiling actually is. — Connelly
Coming off an 11-win season and a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship, Coastal Carolina doesn’t have many holes to fill. Jamey Chadwell’s Chanticleers return 20 of 22 starters, including quarterback Grayson McCall, who as a redshirt freshman dazzled with 2,488 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes, 569 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. But McCall also was banged up for part of the season, which means finding a dependable No. 2 quarterback will be a priority now that last year’s backup, Fred Payton, transferred to Mercer. Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guest came in the same class as McCall and is poised to make a big jump this offseason. Senior Bryce Carpenter has the most experience and started the last six games of the 2019 season, while Ty Lyles is a promising true freshman who enrolled in January. — Low
24. Liberty Flames: How will they find depth on defense?
Even though Liberty returns 10 of 11 starters on defense, one of the priorities heading into next season will be building depth at linebacker and cornerback. Linebacker Anthony Butler is the only starter not returning from a defense that allowed 21 or fewer points in six of its 11 games a year ago. Two newcomers who could help right away at linebacker are Louisiana-Monroe transfer Rashaad Harding and freshman Ahmad Walker, both of whom will participate in spring practice. Being able to leave Marcus Haskins at cornerback and not having to move him to safety would be a bonus for Liberty’s secondary, creating a big opportunity this offseason for Washington State transfer Skyler Thompson and Incarnate Word transfer Jaylon Jimmerson, a pair of safeties who will also be going through spring practice. Former UTEP cornerback Duron Lowe is also transferring in, giving the Flames another experienced cover guy on the back end. — Low
25. Miami Hurricanes: When will D’Eriq King be healthy?
Will quarterback D’Eriq King be recovered from a right knee injury in time to start the opener against Alabama? We will not have an answer to that until we get closer to the start of the season, but there is no question that all eyes will be focused on his rehab, and how quickly he can return to form after tearing his ACL in the bowl game. Miami has not given a timetable, other than it expects him to be available for the start of fall camp. But much of that will depend on how he recovers over the next six months. Without him this spring, Miami will have an excellent opportunity to develop its young quarterbacks behind King as they begin to find their quarterback of the future. Redshirt freshman Peyton Matocha, true freshman Tyler Van Dyke and early enrollee Jake Garcia — who flipped from USC late — will get extensive snaps and gain much-needed experience. — Adelson