ESPN Staff

Between recruits, transfers, and new coaches, even the best college football teams vary from year to year. From defending champion Alabama looking for a new offensive coordinator, to Ohio State willing to sacrifice true freshmen, these are the most intriguing newcomers for each of the top 25 teams in the Way-Too-Early Top.

The Tigers have contracted their best recruit for 2021, so there is no shortage of potential stars among true 2021 starters, but the most intriguing member of this class might be receiver Bo Collins. Collins first came to us from St. Joseph’s High School. John Bosco, where he was a teammate with Clemson QB D.J. Wiagaley until last year. It certainly gives Collins a chance to play early, as he has as much chemistry with Viagalea as anyone on the team. Perhaps most importantly, the receiver position was perhaps the Tigers’ biggest weakness in 2020, with Amari Rodgers and hooker Travis Etienne (both now in the NFL) being their most consistent pass receivers. Clemson is in desperate need of an explosive outside linebacker, and with his 6-foot-4 height and speed, Collins could become a valuable weapon. David M. Hale.

Nick Saban has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to putting together his coaching staff. The careers of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian ended in the trash, and Saban had success with both as an offensive coordinator. And now it’s Bill O’Brien’s turn to rehabilitate himself professionally after he caught fire with the Houston Texans. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to life back in college, to the routine of recruiting, and to no longer being in charge of his own program. But in the end, there’s no doubt he’s a quarterback, especially with former blue champion Bryce Young. There may not be a pair of coordinator-quarterbacks in the country whose expectations are greater than those of Young and O’Brien as they try to take the place of Sarkisian and Mack Jones. -Alex Scarborough.

Will Bill O’Brien be the last fired coach to resume his career as Alabama’s offensive coordinator? Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

The Sooners have contracted the QB (Caleb Williams) and the WR (Mario Williams Jr.), and we really want to see both of them on the field. But if the subject matter is the most intriguing, then you should choose Billy Bowman Jr. a young man between 5 and 10 years old, weighing 175 pounds and originally from Denton, Texas, Ryan. He made over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns as a receiver last season, but he also intercepted 10 passes during his high school career. Think about what Lincoln Riley said in December after he signed: I have no idea where he will play for us, but it will be somewhere, he said. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t play a role for us on both sides of the football. Fascinating. -Dave Wilson.

One of the main stories of the offseason in Athens is the loss of Kirby Smart on the defensive line. Linebackers Aziz Ojulari, Monty Rice and Jermaine Johnson have departed, leaving a spot open for a rookie. Well, Georgia has added linebacker Smael London (ESPN 300) as the number one player in the state this season. He is 11th in the class of 2021 and will have plenty of opportunities to make his mark as Georgia’s next great defender. — Harry Lyles, Jr.

There could be multiple answers for Ohio State, as HQ has the #1 defender with Jack Sawyer, the #5 with Kyle McCord and a host of other receivers and defenders. They would all be eligible given the amount of talent in this class, but Trevean Henderson has a chance to really help this offense next season. Henderson is number one in the class, a five-star recruit who can do anything. With Trey Preacher now playing in the NFL, Henderson has a chance to play a role in the field game. -Tom VanHaren

Kendal Daniels is a big 6-4 security mogul who can turn heads quickly. But few national icons are as intriguing as Jordan Moco, a 6-5, 300-pound offensive tackle from Snow College in Utah, who was named the country’s best junior college offensive lineman. While OT recruits don’t usually dazzle fans, Moco’s story is quite different: The Brisbane-based Australian is a former rugby player with just a few years of football experience with the Brisbane Rhinos and a Twitter feed full of highlights. After a season in which the Aggies’ O-line may have been the best MVP in decades and a new quarterback took the place of four-year star Kellen Mond, the new Maroon Goons, led by Moko and Bryce Foster, are worth watching this year. -Dave Wilson.

Mack Brown has unveiled a terrific freshman class of 2021, but perhaps the most intriguing addition is veteran Ty Chandler, who left Tennessee and joined the Tar Heels this spring. Chandler was a long time volunteer, with over 3,000 When you consider that Carolina lost two 1,000 yard backs in the NFL with Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, that’s a lot of hits for one hit. Chandler will have his heels beaten by four-star rookie Camarro Edmonds, but UNC’s offense is suited to different fields and Chandler’s experience will be invaluable to the young fullback. — Hale.

Matt Campbell’s narrative for the Cyclones in 2021 is that rookies might not count at all. This happens at the end of the day when about 20 regulars return and the head coach and top assistants are also back. However, UIS needs to replace two of its top four safeties, which could open the door for a freshman DB like Bo Frayler or Miles Piles, both of whom have been among the best UIS contributors in the class. — Bill Connelly

The Trojans are starting to become a recruiting force again, with several high-ranking officials joining the program, but former Texans head coach Keontae Ingram has the potential to make an immediate impact in 2021. He put down 1,811 rushes in three years with the Longhorns, but after losing his starting job and changing coaches in Austin, he decided to start all over again. — Kyle Bonagura

After running for over 1,800 yards in his career at Texas, Keontay Ingram transferred to USC. AP Photo/Eric Gay

10. Indiana Hoosiers: Defense Coordinator Charlton Warren

In 2020, the Hoosiers experienced hot and cold spells on offense, but their defense continued to bite from week to week. The Hoosiers added 10 regular defenders in 2021, but lost defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, who became head coach at South Alabama after leading an impressive team in Bloomington. For the second consecutive year, coach Tom Allen must replace his coordinator, but the Hoosiers will have to rely on former Georgia assistant Charlton Warren, who is a freshman. Replacing coaches is no easy task, but Warren has spent the last two seasons coaching defenders on one of the best defensive teams in the country in Georgia. With stops at Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and Nebraska, it will be interesting to see how the front-runner from Indiana fits in under a different coach. — Liles.

11. Cincinnati Bear: Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel

Luke Fickell’s team probably lost its best coordinator of the season. Notre Dame, which lost Vanderbilt to alma mater quarterback Clarkus Ley, was able to bring Bearcats defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to South Bend. Defensively, Cincinnati is regularly in the top five of the 2020 SP+, but losing four defensive rookies and bringing in a new coordinator will be a challenge. Former Michigan state adjutant Mike Tressel (yes, Jim’s cousin) is expected to replace Freeman. Tressel was the Spartans’ defensive co-coordinator from 2015 to 2017 and then the team’s sole defensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019. He coached defenders under Mel Tucker in 2020. Although it looks like 2020 will be the year Cincinnati will break through and make the playoffs, the Bearcats will have to try again in 2021 with two Power 5 away games against Indiana and Notre Dame. Tressel will be a key factor in whether they will be able to maintain the momentum from 2020. — Liles.

It may be a while before we see results, but Iowa has contracted ESPN 300 offensive lineman David Davidkov for the 2021 round. This is recruit number 244, he’s 5’8″ and weighs 205 pounds. Davydov is widely considered an elite offensive lineman and the Hawks have had a lot of success with their rookies on the offensive line. It’s not a flashy position group, but Davydov could be a strong anchor on the front line for Iowa, and given that the staff has contracted three other recruits from the offensive line, including ESPN 300 guard Connor Colby, this could be a class to remember at that position. — VanHaaren

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13. Oregon Ducks: Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter

Oregon is starting to become a bus factory. A year after losing offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo to UNLV, defensive coordinator Andy Avalos left the ship to become head coach at Boise State, prompting coach Mario Cristobal to contract Tim DeRuyter from Cal to play defense. DeRuyter, the former head coach at Fresno State, has helped Cal become one of the best defenders in the Pac-12 and may ultimately prove to be an upgrade from his predecessor. — Bonagura

The Huskies’ new quarterback is Sam Huard, the best quarterback in the country in his category. The son of former UW quarterback Damon Huard has the profile of a player who could be a first-team starter from day one, but faces an interesting rivalry with Dylan Morris, who was a solid starter in 2020. — Bonagura

The Irish call upon some of the best recruiting talent, including quarterback Tyler Buckner (ESPN 300), base player Kane Berrong and an outstanding linebacker. They will also use Wisconsin Jack Cone transfer to the quarterback position. But the most intriguing asset is the coach, not the prospect. The arrival of Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator in place of Clark Lea was a major addition to Brian Kelly’s team. Freeman has had a lot of success in Cincinnati. He’s a young coach and a great scout. He has connections or recruiting experience in most areas where Notre Dame recruits, and should be able to boost recruiting efforts. Also, the defense on the field should be in good hands, considering what Freeman was able to do in Cincinnati. — VanHaaren

Coach Dan Mullen has been busy signing a number of transfers that could make an impact, including a big need on the defensive line with tackles from Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn). Perhaps the most important recruit to keep an eye on is cornerback Jason Marshall, the Gators’ highest-rated recruit in the class of 2021. Hope to be on ESPN 300, Marshall fills a big need in high school. It’s no secret that Florida struggled defensively a year ago, especially against passing – the Gators ranked 100th in the country in number of passing yards allowed – so an influx of young talent at this position could be very beneficial. – Andrea Adelson

The Badgers have plenty of efficiency on both sides of the ball, but they have a hole to fill at left tackle. And while the loss of a player like Cole Van Lanen is a concern for almost any team, Tyler Beach is back and Wisconsin has more than a half ton of new top players looking to replace Van Lanen. Former star recruits Logan Brown (2019 class) and Jack Nelson (2020 class) each made two trips last fall, but three other outstanding four-star recruits – Nolan Rucci, Riley Malman and J.P. Benzschawel – signed with Paul Chryst’s newest recruiting class. The one outside the Badgers’ line has a big advantage. — Connelly.

A Maryland graduate is about to transfer to the Ole Miss campus with Chance Campbell. He will almost certainly be the starter of the Rebels’ intermediate lineup next fall, and it goes without saying that they need more playmakers on defense. Campbell is 6-3, 235 pounds and, after leading the Terps in tackles last season, has 43 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in just four games. A year ago, Campbell ranked 12th among FBS players, averaging 11 tackles per game. Campbell will graduate from Maryland in May with a degree in finance and will have two more years of eligibility to play for Ole Miss. — Chris Lowe

Levi Lewis’ comeback has been huge. Coach Billy Napier believes Lewis can become an NFL quarterback with one more year of eligibility. But don’t fall asleep to the recall of Lance LeGendre. He may not offer depth until 2021, but it is the future of the post. The former four-star player first signed at Maryland, where he played six games and made one debut in the last two seasons before transferring. Back in his home state of Louisiana, he will attract a lot of attention every time he sees the field. — Scarborough.

20. IPSAS-Tiger: Defence coordinator Daronte Jones

Offense was not a problem for the Tigers last season. The defense was. Bo Pelini’s grand experiment failed spectacularly and was greeted by management who proceeded to do a complete house cleaning. The hiring of Andre Carter as defensive line coach and Blake Baker as defensive line coach was crucial, but no staff move was more important than the hiring of former Minnesota Viking assistant Daronte Jones as defensive line coordinator. Jones has strong ties to the state of Louisiana, which will certainly help the recruiting process, but even more important is his experience as an advisory coach, which was generally lacking last season and clearly lacking direction. If he can rebuild the high school quickly – and he certainly has a Derek Stingley star to build on – we could see LSU turn the tide after a terrible 2020 season. — Scarborough.

Like his former teammate Billy Bowman Jr. who now plays at Oklahoma, Ja’Tavion Sanders has both offensive and defensive coaches encouraging him. A senior at Denton, Texas, Ryan caught 63 passes for 1,161 yards and 16 TDs and became famous on social media for his one-handed catch. But as a junior, the 220-pound 6-4 had 11 sacks, 24 presses and 20 tackles for loss as a defensive end. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian – himself an intriguing rookie – said Sanders clearly has skills in both tight play and defense, but he’ll assess the team’s composition in the spring, and when Sanders arrives in the summer he’ll have a better idea of how to use it. I’m not ruling out that he will play a role on both sides of the ball, Sarkisian said at a press conference on the day of the signing. — Wilson.

James Franklin took one of the boldest risks of his tenure when he fired offensive coordinator Kirk Charrock after one season and replaced him with former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator (and Ohio State passing coordinator between seasons) Mike Jurcic. Ciarrocca’s offense improved at the end of the year, and Ciarrocca himself tends to do well in his job and get better every year. But now that elite college football is dominated by straighter, faster and sometimes even faster football overseen by Jurcic, PSU is making great strides. How much can quarterback Sean Clifford improve in the offseason? Do receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, and tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson give Jurcic the dynamics and verticality he needs in his receiver body? — Connelly.

No one will replace Tarron Jackson, who won All-American Honors last season and enters the NFL as South Carolina’s sack leader. But in 2021, the Chanticleers will be looking for troublemakers on the board, and one of the new faces to keep an eye on is Emmanuel Johnson, over from Georgia Tech. The 6-6, 265-pound defender played in seven games last season as a first-year Yellow Jackets player and showed enough in spring practice with the Chants that the coaches think he can play both a passing and stopping role next season. Another transfer to keep an eye on is Tre’ Douglas of Vanderbilt, who will compete for a safe starting spot. — Low

The Flames hope TJ Green’s move to Utah will bolster an already strong offense that ranked ninth in the country a year ago with an average of 252.3 yards per game. The 6’5 green-red junior and weighing 205 pounds is a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield, defend the pass, leave defenders in space and make hard yards. He is also enrolled in an intermediate internship and will be interning in the spring. A native of Chandler, Arizona, Green was absent last season and played 25 games for Utah State in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He’s stuck behind Zack Moss in the Utes rankings. Green, state champion 110-yard hurdles in high school, should be a good complement to returning players Joshua Mack and Shedro Louis, not to mention quarterback Malik Willis, who led Liberty last season with 944 yards and 14 touchdowns. — Low

Manny Diaz upgraded his entire defensive coaching staff in the offseason and will now play a defensive end game in 2021. It will help that he just contracted some of the best players from Miami-Dade and Broward. Miami Palmetto defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, ESPN 300 No. 6, is the highest-rated defensive lineman the Hurricanes have ever contracted. Miami needs a disruptive presence inside the defensive line, and Taylor will certainly get a chance to prove himself. He’s not coming until the summer, so his progress in the gym and at training will have a big impact on the impact he will have right away. And then there’s James Williams, the ESPN 300 guard from Fort Lauderdale. Williams won’t be here until the summer either, but the Hurricanes are making a big difference by attracting the best recruits from their region in hopes of building a championship team. — Adelson.

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