Normalcy has returned to college football with the 2021 season kicking off as scheduled following more than a year of upheaval across not only the sport but the nation as a whole. That normalcy extends beyond the schedule, however, with Alabama entering the season as the defending national champions; Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma all nearly unanimously projected as conference winners; and the Pac-12 battling for representation in preseason top 25 polls.
With the offseason delivering a taste of conference realignment (Texas and Oklahoma off to the SEC at some point) and typical college athletics hyperbole (Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 alliance), time has come to concentrate on what's actually going to happen on the field this season. There is no better way to do that with some prognostications, so CBS Sports is here to do our part with predictions, expert picks and opinionated takes with just days to go until the kickoff.
In addition to projecting the national champion and College Football Playoff, we decided to take a look at which teams may just miss the four-team field, which programs are the most overrated and underrated nationally, and which coaches and players stand the best chance at winning year-end honors.
Let's take a look at our experts' takes as we settle in for what should be the type of college football season we have come to know and love over the years.
Most overrated team
Iowa State: An easy team to love given how coach Matt Campbell has essentially taken a scrappy group of underdogs and molded it into a Big 12 contender. That's also why reality might set in for the Cyclones in 2021 as they begin the season ranked inside the top 10 of the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history at No. 7. With an average finishing spot of 51.6 for their last five recruiting classes in the 247Sports Composite team rankings, the Cyclones are trying to bridge a gargantuan talent gap as they chase the sport's elite. While this team should be really good again, it's hard to see Iowa State besting last season's 9-3 record. -- David Cobb (also Tom Fornelli, Chip Patterson)
Texas: This is not a prediction, it's a habit. Texas has finished unranked five of the last 10 seasons. If it thinks football will be easier in the SEC, it's mistaken. It can't even win the Big 12. Steve Sarkisian was the best name on the board, but he doesn't have a Heisman Trophy winner, Unitas Award winner and Doak Walker winner to populate his offense. Even if the offense does break out with Bijan Robinson, the defense has distressingly underperformed. I'm having a hard time ranking Texas. -- Dennis Dodd
Clemson: I get that the college football world is in love with quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, but he has a ton of work to do in order to lead the Tigers back to the Promised Land. The departure of Travis Etienne is a huge deal, as is the concern surrounding the wide receiving corps sans Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Plus, the offensive line (while talented) isn't exactly a threat to win the Joe Moore Award. The Tigers will win the ACC and make the playoff, but the ceiling for this team isn't as high as it was last season, which makes a run in the CFP very unlikely. -- Barrett Sallee
Notre Dame: This seems like low-hanging fruit, and I don't normally subscribe to the tired, somewhat-outdated idea that Notre Dame is perpetually overrated. But something caught my eye the other day: Six teams will play the Irish coming off of an open week in 2021. Five of those come consecutively: Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina. (Virginia is the sixth team.) That's half of a schedule that's difficult enough on its own. I like what coach Brian Kelly has done here, but that's a bad scheduling break for a top-10 team that needs to reload a bit. A regression from four straight 10-win seasons seems only logical. -- Ben Kercheval
Michigan: Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be the savior. He was supposed to come in and take over the conference from Ohio State. Instead, the Buckeyes continue to dominate and Harbaugh's teams continue to frustrate. In his first season, his team started unranked in the preseason but finished 10-3 and won the Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines were ranked 12th in the final AP Top 25. That is the last time Michigan's season ended with a bowl victory and the last time its postseason ranking was better than its preseason ranking. That is pretty much the definition of overrated. -- Jerry Palm
Most underrated team
Penn State: Simply put, I think people are putting too much weight into what happened to the Nittany Lions last season. Penn State had key players opt out before the campaign began, then saw others suffer injuries that cost them their seasons. Not surprisingly, it was a team that looked bad and out of sorts early; however, the Lions won their final four games of the year, brought in a new offensive coordinator they see as a better fit and are healthy. They're also talented, and I'm counting on Penn State being the team we're accustomed to seeing under James Franklin. -- Fornelli (also Patterson)
Oregon: Oregon is the class of the Pac-12. Best coach, best players, best future. The only question is whether the Ducks can get to the CFP. We'll have an early indicator in Week 2 at Ohio State. Win that and Oregon may not lose as the Ducks do not face a ranked opponent again until Nov. 6. One potential hiccup? Oregon's three toughest games of the season all come on the road. -- Dodd
LSU: Coach Ed Orgeron learned from his lessons last year and hired coordinators who will return the 2019 style to a team that had a dreadful national title defense last season. Quarterback Max Johnson looked like a star down the stretch, the running back corps is diverse and strong, the offensive line returns four starters, and wide receiver Kayshon Boutte is one of the best pass catchers in the country. Plus, the defense will no longer be coordinated by Bo Pelini. That means the talented players on that side of the ball won't be running around with no idea where they need to be. Will LSU win the SEC West? I think so. If not, they are undoubtedly the biggest threat to Alabama's throne. -- Sallee
Boston College: Clemson is rightfully the favorite to win the ACC, but Boston College is closer to that second tier of teams. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec has an arm and some real dudes catching passes on the other end. Wideout Zay Flowers is an All-ACC stud. The defense, once brutally bad, was better in 2020, but it needs to be less reliant on turnovers. I like what coach Jeff Hafley has shown so far and this team could flirt with nine or even 10 wins. -- Kercheval
USC: USC finished at No. 21 in the final AP Top 25 last season, serving as the Pac-12's lone representative in the rankings after an abbreviated season for the conference. The league's irrelevance in 2020 appears to be carrying over to 2021 in the minds of voters, as No. 11 Oregon registered as the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason polls. USC came in second at No. 15, but the Trojans are my pick to win the league this year. While a playoff berth might be a stretch for USC, a favorable schedule gives it a shot at coasting to the conference title game, and a victory there would almost assuredly make them a postseason top-10 squad. -- Cobb
Utah: When you think of the Pac-12 South, you pretty much start and stop with USC. That is the biggest brand name in the conference. However, Utah has won the South the last two full seasons and has a good chance to do so again. The Utes return 17 starters from the team that won its final three games a year ago, including a 38-21 win over No. 21 Colorado. That includes linebacker Devin Lloyd, a second team All-American a year ago. The pollsters have the Utes starting at No. 24. and Caesars has their win total at 8.5. I'll be surprised if Utah doesn't finish better than both of those marks. -- Palm
College Football Playoff predictions
First two out
2021 national champion
Ohio State: Wide receiver is the new luxury position in college football, and no one in the country has a better room than Ohio State. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are hands down the best one-two punch in the sport, but players like Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming and even true freshmen Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. -- both early enrollees who flashed in spring ball -- would be top-three level starters on most Power Five teams. Ohio State's advantage on the rest of the Big Ten has been proven, but this overwhelming assortment of playmakers on the outside is what tips my hand in the Buckeyes' direction. One year after Ohio State made it to the title game for the first time since the 2014 season, it will return and claim the first (of multiple?) national championship under Ryan Day. -- Patterson (also Fornelli, Kercheval)
Alabama: Wow. Really going out on a limb here. Nick Saban has built perhaps his best defense in a decade a year after winning another natty. The offense will be more run-based, which means this team will have more of the look of 2009 than 2020. Bill O'Brien will succeed because every Alabama offensive coordinator succeeds. Alabama might get better at quarterback with Bryce Young, but the sophomore won't have the targets Mac Jones had at his disposal last year. -- Dodd (also Palm)
Georgia: In a year that has so much quarterback uncertainty all over the field, JT Daniels coming back to Georgia is a huge deal. The Bulldogs have a loaded backfield, an ultra-talented offensive line and a full year to actually install Todd Monken's offense. We know they'll be stout on defense based on their track record, and several players chose to come back with the #UnfinishedBusiness hashtag. That gives them a "Clemson 2018" feel, especially since they get a test against those Tigers in the opener in Charlotte, North Carolina. The joke around the country is "1980" -- the last year that the Bulldogs won the national title. That joke will be outdated on Jan. 10 when the Dawgs hoist the national championship trophy in Indianapolis. -- Sallee
Oklahoma: The last two national champions have taught us that quarterbacks and receivers are more important than ever in the championship formula, and that's why Oklahoma is poised to reach the pinnacle in 2021. With a budding star at quarterback in Spencer Rattler, a receiver room that's among the deepest in the country and a manageable schedule, the Sooners are destined to make the College Football Playoff. How they fare upon arrival may depend on their defense, but OU has been trending up on that side of the ball under third-year coordinator Alex Grinch. This is a complete team with a lethal combination of talent, returning production and good coaching to push it over the top. -- Cobb
Coach of the Year
Ryan Day, Ohio State: I had concerns about how well Day would maintain the recruiting edge Ohio State had gained on the Big Ten when he took over for Urban Meyer, but the concerns are fading. Day might be recruiting better than Meyer! He's at the head of one of the most talented teams in the country, a team that should win the Big Ten, and that should be a serious contender for the national title. -- Fornelli (also Patterson, Kercheval)
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: At the tender age of 37, Riley has his best team at Oklahoma. Rattler is coming off an at-times inconsistent first season. He'll be the Heisman favorite until Oklahoma loses a game which it probably won't. The biggest improvement is with Grinch's defense. It's going to finally make a difference at OU. The infusion of three Tennessee transfers put the Sooners over the top. They'll start in the top three, win the Big 12 and end up again in the CFP. Sorry, Iowa State. -- Dodd (also Cobb)
Kirby Smart, Georgia: Smart has been on the brink or in the CFP in three of the last four seasons, and this is the year that his Bulldogs win it all. He has built one of the most talented rosters in the country and finally gets to see Monken's offense in full after last year's COVID-19 interruptions. Smart will show that he has learned from the mistakes on the big stage that he suffered early in his career. -- Sallee
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati: Cincinnati is in a unique spot. It is coming off a big season that ended in a nail-biting loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl for the Bearcats only loss. They return 16 starters, including AAC Offensive Player of the Year Desmond Ridder at quarterback and defensive lineman Myjai Sanders, an All-American candidate. Cincinnati's schedule includes games at No. 17 Indiana and No. 9 Notre Dame. If the Bearcats run the table, they are sure to be the first Group of Five team to get serious discussion for a spot in the playoff. If that happens, Fickell is a shoo-in for Coach of the Year. He might win it anyway at 12-1. This is the best Group of Five team we have seen, and it happened because Fickell built it and then stuck around to make it blossom. -- Palm
Heisman Trophy winner
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma: The Heisman is about checking off boxes. Do you play on a College Football Playoff contender? Do you have the offensive stats to wow? That narrows the list quickly. Rattler had an excellent debut in 2020, especially given an understandably slow start, and he has the type of playmaking ability that garners Heisman buzz. History sometimes shows the winner will come out of nowhere, but Rattler is just Heisman material. He's the pick. -- Kercheval (also Dodd, Sallee, Cobb, Palm)
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: I can't help but wonder if Devonta Smith won't be the start of a trend. With so many quarterbacks putting up video game numbers these days, it's hard for one to truly stand out. We saw this last season with Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones. Smith was able to separate himself from other receivers, which undoubtedly helped his Heisman campaign. I think Olave can have a similar season in the Ohio State offense, which could lead to him taking home the hardware just like Smith did. -- Fornelli
JT Daniels, QB, Georgia: You won't see Daniels have the kind of statistics that Rattler or North Carolina's Sam Howell put up, but Heisman voters are often swayed by the rhythms of the season and this is a prediction saddled with my pick of Georgia to win the SEC title. Finally getting past Alabama in Atlanta is the narrative of all narratives for Georgia football, and fielding a successful offensive effort in the SEC Championship Game against an elite Alabama defense would be the "Heisman moment" that many voters are looking for late in the year. Daniels won't have as many yards or touchdowns as Rattler, but if he can extend the small sample size of late 2020 across an entire season and take the down the Tide, the stiff-arm trophy will be in his reach. -- Patterson