One thing I love about spring ball -- and the offseason content machine in general -- is that you get to play with house money. Predictions are part of our job, and this is the time of year when you get to unapologetically go all in on a team, coach, player, etc. With spring practices winding down or finishing across the country, our college football staff took a hard look at which teams they're the most excited about ahead of the 2021 season.
A couple of the names you should expect. Another one is bouncing back from a tough 2020. Two more are in a position to make a surprising run to a conference title. Whatever the reason, here are the teams we are zeroing in on as the offseason moves forward into the dog days of summer.
David Cobb: Oklahoma
After six straight two-loss seasons and four College Football Playoff semifinal appearances during that span, this is the time for an Oklahoma breakthrough. The Sooners won their last eight games to close the 2020 season as arguably the hottest team in college football aside from Alabama, and they have carried that momentum into the spring with the addition of Tennessee transfer Eric Gray in the backfield. Having the versatile Gray to pair with backs Kennedy Brooks and Seth McGowan gives coach Lincoln Riley an embarrassment of riches in the playmaking department. The Sooners appear to be absolutely stacked at wide receiver, and with Rattler entering his second season as the starting quarterback, this offense should be special. With the defense on a steady trajectory of improvement under third-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, this Oklahoma team should get back to the playoff, and it has enough talent to finally win a CFP game.
Chip Patterson: Utah
I'm not picking Utah because Charlie Brewer went 15-for-15 passing in the spring game, but I'm not not picking Utah because Charlie Brewer went 15-for-15 passing in the spring game. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's return to Utah in 2019 was in line with Tyler Huntley's senior season, and the result was an offensive explosion that saw Huntley break Pac-12 records for completion percentage (73.1) and yards per attempt (10.3). Brewer is joined by running back Chris Curry (from LSU), running back TJ Pledger (from Oklahoma) and quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson (from Texas) as intriguing arrivals from the transfer portal, and I think these could be the pieces that help the 2021 Utes offense get back closer to that 2019 form. Early signs from spring point to the new guys fitting in with a talented young core at Utah, and that makes the Utes an intriguing Pac-12 title pick for the fall.
Tom Fornelli: Ohio State
A team I'm excited about following spring practice is a team I had some concerns about coming off the 2020 season. I know Ohio State is Ohio State, but not every QB is Justin Fields, and I had concerns about the position heading into the offseason. Based on what I saw in the spring game, I think the offense should be just fine. C.J. Stroud might not be Fields, but he's very talented, and it shows. Then there was freshman Kyle McCord, who looked great for a kid who has been on campus for a couple of months. Of course, that receiving corps helps any QB. On the defensive side of the ball, I still have some concerns about the back end, but the pass rush looks like it should return to what we saw during the Bosa Brothers/Chase Young years. Jack Sawyer looked like an absolute monster at defensive end, and his presence will make life easier for a group of linemen that are all supremely talented in their own right.
Barrett Sallee: LSU
I entered spring practice extremely down on LSU. I thought that the dysfunction from last year would linger, the defense would continue to struggle and the off-the-field issues would create chaos. Now, I'm not one to overreact to spring games, but I'm going to overreact to a spring game. LSU is Alabama's biggest threat in the SEC West -- and it isn't even close. Quarterback Myles Brennan looked like the star he was early last season before getting hurt, wide receiver Kayshon Boutte looks like a Ja'Marr Chase clone, the offense under Jake Peetz looks like the Joe Brady offense from two years ago and the defense under Daronte Jones looked extremely Dave Aranda-ish. That's a complete 180 from last season when Bo Pelini had the Tiger defense playing scared and confused. This season might not match the magical 2019 run, but it'll be a whole lot closer to that than the disaster of 2020.
Ben Kercheval: Iowa State
As a general rule, I try to look for those undervalued teams that could be a pleasant surprise for the upcoming season. But, man, it's hard to not be giddy about what the Cyclones have coming back. There aren't too many question marks because this team is loaded. Practically everyone, save for defensive end JaQuan Bailey, is back. The most valuable names to replace are along the defensive line, but there's plenty of experience with guys like Eyioma Uwazurike and Isaiah Lee.
I don't think this team is too far behind Oklahoma, either; the Cyclones have beaten the Sooners two times in the last four years, came within a point a third time and nearly came from behind to win in the Big 12 Championship Game a year ago. This program is in a window to actually capture a conference title. Within the Big 12, Iowa State has a top-two quarterback (Brock Purdy), the top RB (Breece Hall), several legit tight ends, probably the best offensive line, a top linebacker (Mike Rose), one of the best young defensive players (Isheem Young) and, some would argue, the best coach. This is no longer just a scrappy group of players punching above their weight class. This is a bona fide contender.