The College Football Playoff field is set, and it features three programs that have not won a national championship this millennium -- No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Cincinnati -- along with No. 1 Alabama, the reigning national champion. A fresh playoff field in 2021 also delivers a new slate of playmakers that can redefine the national title race.
The four-team field features some of the best players in the nation, including Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, Thorpe Award winner Coby Bryant, Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean and Rotary Lombardi winner Aidan Hutchinson. There are seven national award winners in all between the teams, along with 11 players voted to the CBS Sports All-America team.
This list doesn't simply rank the best players, however. Instead, the collection below includes the players who are best poised to change everything for their teams and deliver a national championship on Jan. 10, 2022.
Without further ado, here are the 20 most impactful players in the 2021 College Football Playoff.
20. Michigan RB Hassan Haskins
Haskins is the engine that makes Michigan's highly-efficient offense go. The battering ram leads the Wolverines with 261 carries for 1,288 yards and 20 touchdowns, the latter of which leads the Power Five. Haskins' consistent play has carried Michigan in its biggest games, especially when he ran for 169 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State. He won't make many highlight reels, but his workmanlike production is why UM is playing on this stage.
19. Georgia DE Travon Walker
Since Adam Anderson was suspended, Georgia has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. However, Walker is poised to cause havoc on the edge. Walker posted 21 quarterback hurries and four sacks as part of that vaunted Bulldogs unit, impressive numbers for the 275-pounder. If the Dawgs face Alabama again, they need Walker to be a difference-maker in getting after the quarterback.
18. Cincinnati RB Jerome Ford
Ford started his career at Alabama before transferring to Cincinnati after two seasons. He has since established himself as one of the most electric runners in the College Football Playoff while with the Bearcats. Ford rushed for 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry, including 187 yards and two touchdowns against Houston in the AAC Championship Game. There's little reason to expect that Cincinnati can get a push against Alabama's defensive line. However, the 220-pound Ford is built to withstand punishment. If he can keep Cincinnati on schedule, it could be a game-changing factor.
17. Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr.
The Tide's offensive line has been shaky, but Robinson's 225-pound build allows him to keep the Alabama offense moving. Against Ole Miss, Robinson rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns to take pressure off the young offensive unit. Especially against Georgia's physical defensive front, should the SEC foes meet again, Robinson can emerge as a difference-maker – and likely as an NFL Draft prospect as well.
16. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett
For all the negative comments hurled in his direction, Bennett has quietly put together a hyper-efficient campaign. Georgia ranks No. 4 nationally in Expected Points Added per pass attempt and No. 4 in passing success rate behind Bennett's 2,325 yards passing and 24 touchdowns on 10.1 yards per pass attempt. However, Bennett has rarely been pressured and generally has been able to make simple reads out of play action. Bennett has the chance to answer all the questions about his upside and lead Georgia to college football's top prize.
15. Michigan DE David Ojabo
Ojabo sometimes gets overlooked because of Aidan Hutchinson's numbers, but he is a game-changing player of his own. The Scotland native's 11 sacks is tied for No. 4 all-time at Michigan, while his 12 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles rank among the team leaders. Michigan needs Ojabo at his best to wreak havoc on playoff offenses.
14. Cincinnati CB Coby Bryant
It's a testament to the College Football Playoff that the Thorpe Award winner lies so low on the list. However, especially as teams have stopped testing Ahmad Gardner, Bryant has quietly become a monster in coverage. The senior broke up 11 passes and forced three interceptions in 70 targets, allowing just 44.3% of passes to be caught. Cincinnati generally keeps their corners in place, so Bryant will likely cover Jameson Williams against Alabama for several snaps. He's up to the challenge.
13. Alabama OT Evan Neal
The Crimson Tide's offensive line has quietly been shaky, but Neal is a brick wall on the left side. The likely first-round NFL Draft pick has earned All-America honors from numerous places after replacing Alex Leatherwood on Bryce Young's blind side. If the Tide get Michigan's fearsome pass-rushing duo, Neal's stability will be a game-changing attribute in game-planning.
12. Michigan S Daxton Hill
The pass rushers on Michigan's defense are a known commodity, but Hill is a major playmaker on the back end. He posted seven pass breakups, 4.5 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions while playing all over the field for the Wolverines defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is willing to play Hill at slot corner, box safety or free safety, depending on the matchup. His versatility will be key against Georgia -- especially with Bulldogs tight end Brock Bowers roaming the secondary.
11. Georgia DT Jordan Davis
Davis was an early Heisman Trophy contender as the face of Georgia's defense, but his play will be more valuable than ever as UGA preps for the College Football Playoff. The hulking 340-pounder ranks as perhaps the best gap-filler in college football and his talents will be key to stopping Michigan's elite run game up the middle and clearing pathways for Georgia's linebackers to cause havoc. A great playoff performance from Davis could lead the Bulldogs to their first national title in 40 years.
10. Cincinnati DE Myjai Sanders
Alabama doesn't have many weaknesses, but the right side of the offensive line has looked shaky at times. That's where Sanders comes in. The senior has 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including 10 credited QB hurries in 2021. Teams have game-planned to stop Sanders from getting home, but he has the explosive potential off the edge to get quarterbacks off schedule.
9. Georgia TE Brock Bowers
When things break down in the pocket, Bennett looks for his safety valve. Enter Bowers, who tripled every other receiver in the SEC Championship Game with 15 of Georgia's 44 targets as Bennett was under duress. Georgia's pass offense has been mediocre through its 12-1 campaign, but Bowers has stood out. The superstar freshman made his case for being the best tight end in the country after catching 47 passes for 781 yards and 11 touchdowns, all marks that easily lead the team.
8. Michigan RB Blake Corum
While Haskins keeps Michigan on schedule, Corum is the speedster who can take the top off a defense from the running back position. More than 47% of Corum's yards rushing came on breakaway runs, with more than one-in-seven of his attempts eclipsing 10 yards. Michigan needs to generate some explosive plays to space out defenses, and Corum is the most explosive offensive playmaker on the roster.
7. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder
The Bearcats offensive line likely cannot keep up with the other three playoff teams' defensive lines, but Ridder is good enough that it might not matter. The senior completed 66% of his passes, threw 30 touchdowns and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt. After running for more than 500 yards in each of his first three seasons, Ridder kept things in the pocket with much more consistency in 2021. However, the freelancing and throwing-on-the-run ability that Ridder boasts should give the Bearcats far more ability to take advantage of mismatches and broken plays than their opponents. As the most experienced quarterback in the playoff, Ridder proves to be a key wild card.
6. Alabama WR Jameson Williams
One year ago, Williams was fighting for playing time in a crowded Ohio State receiver room. Now he's arguably the biggest skill talent mismatch in the College Football Playoff. Williams is averaging 21.3 yards per catch and has 15 touchdowns after playing both out of the slot and out wide while earning All-America honors from numerous outlets after finishing with 1,445 yards and 68 catches. His presence becomes infinitely more important after John Metchie III suffered an ACL tear in the SEC title game. Williams cleared 120 yards in five of his last six games.
5. Alabama LB Will Anderson
The Tide are solid at every level of the defense, but Anderson is on another level. The sophomore boasts a freaky 92 tackles and 15.5 sacks. His NCAA record 32.5 tackles for loss, however, is the number that sets him apart. No other player has cleared even 23 TFLs since 2018. Alabama uses him not only as a pass rusher but also a disruptive chess piece up the middle and in run support. On a slightly less effective Alabama defense than in normal years, Anderson is the star.
4. Georgia LB Nakobe Dean
With the amount of bulk Georgia has on the interior, teams are going to challenge the Bulldogs on the edge. Teams will then be tasked with facing Dean, a Butkus Award winner who virtually covers sideline-to-sideline. On a unit filled with stars, Dean stands above with 61 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 20 quarterback hurries, five pass breakups and two interceptions. Against a Michigan squad that utilizes misdirection in the run game, Dean's speed and awareness will play a critical role.
3. Cincinnati CB Ahmad Gardner
The Bearcats have a Thorpe Award winner, and he's not even the best defensive back on the roster. Gardner is so feared by opponents that they rarely test him anymore. The senior was targeted just 36 times in 448 coverage snaps, while fellow corners Bryant and Arquon Bush were each targeted 70 times. Gardner allowed just 17 catches for 117 yards all season long with three interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed. The chess match between Gardner, Bryant and Williams will be perhaps the best of the season.
2. Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson
If Bryce Young didn't play like he did in the SEC title game, Hutchinson very well might have become the first defensive player since Charles Woodson to win the Heisman Trophy. Hutchinson ranks as perhaps the most physical pass rusher in the nation and set the Michigan single-season record with 14 sacks. While Michigan is solid at every level, Hutchinson and Ojabo are the special sauce that makes the Wolverines defense one of the nation's best.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young
If there was any doubt that Young can be the most impactful player in college football, he put it to rest during the SEC Championship Game. Young threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns against a previously-unmarred Georgia defense, a performance impressive enough to win the Heisman. If Young is performing at peak potential, there might not be a team in college football that can stop the Tide. With Metchie out for the season, he needs to be even better.
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