Biggest questions facing championship contenders

We got our first taste of the 2021 college football season over the weekend, but the real fun begins this week with Week 1.

The schedule is loaded and we will get our first glimpses at the nation’s best programs in action. In the era of the College Football Playoff, there hasn’t been much parity atop the rankings. And based on the preseason national championship odds from BetMGM, the usual suspects are again the favorites in 2021.

But these teams aren’t completely flawless. Below, we highlight the biggest question marks and points of uncertainty surrounding the top teams entering the 2021 season.

Alabama 

AP poll ranking: 1

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 1

National championship odds: +260

For most programs, entering the season with a starting quarterback with 22 career passing attempts would bring some level of concern. I’m not sure that’s the case with Alabama.

Bryce Young was Rivals.com’s top quarterback recruit in the country in 2020 and now he’s in charge of the Alabama offense. As a true freshman, he served as the backup for Mac Jones, a Heisman Trophy finalist and first-round draft pick who led the Crimson Tide to a national title.

Will Young experience some growing pains? Sure, all young quarterbacks do. But Young’s talent is undeniable and the praise out of Alabama’s preseason camp has been consistent.

There are other positions on offense that are more unsettled. The Tide staff is still searching for the best five along the offensive line. And beyond John Metchie, there are a handful of candidates vying for snaps at outside receiver. Could Javon Baker be that guy? Maybe it’s Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams. Freshman JoJo Earle also figures to have a role, perhaps in the slot behind Slade Bolden.

Clemson

AP poll ranking: 3

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 2

National championship odds: +450

Unlike Alabama, Clemson’s new starting quarterback got significant experience in 2020. D.J. Uiagalelei was thrown into the fire when Trevor Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19 and he rose to the occasion, throwing for a combined 781 yards and four TDs in his two starts.

Behind Uiagalelei, though, there’s reason for concern. Taisun Phommachanh tore his Achilles during the spring game but has recovered quickly enough to be available for the opener vs. Georgia, according to Dabo Swinney. Still, it’s hard to project Phommachanh as 100% healthy less than six months removed from such a significant injury.

When Phommachanh first got hurt, Clemson penciled in Hunter Helms, a redshirt freshman walk-on, to serve as Uiagalelei’s backup. Will Taylor, a true freshman, who bypassed the MLB to enroll at Clemson, is also in the mix — though he’s listed as “QB/WR” on the team roster.

Needless to say, Clemson could be in a tough place if Uiagalelei gets hurt.

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) warms up for the team's NCAA college football game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP)
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) warms up for the team’s NCAA college football game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP)

Ohio State

AP poll ranking: 4

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 5

National championship odds: +600

C.J. Stroud emerged from a competition of four and was named Ohio State’s starting quarterback. Stroud, a second-year player out of California, tops what is a tremendously talented — and young — QB depth chart for the Buckeyes. Stroud saw limited action behind Justin Fields in 2020 and will get thrown into the fire early in 2021. OSU opens with a road night game at Minnesota and then hosts Oregon. We’ll know early on whether Stroud has the goods, and he does by every indication we’ve gotten out of Columbus.

The rest of the offense is loaded, especially at receiver, so the biggest question regarding the Buckeyes (after the QB competition, of course) revolved around the defense. The Buckeyes were gashed for 52 points and 621 yards (464 through the air) in last year’s national title game.

That day’s struggles defending the pass weren’t a new occurrence for the 2020 Buckeyes, who finished the year No. 122 out of 127 nationally in pass defense. In 2021, there are a few experienced returnees in the secondary (most notably Sevyn Banks) with a bunch of freshmen knocking at the door for playing time.

Georgia

AP poll ranking: 5

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 3

National championship odds: +600

Was the late-season offensive surge from Georgia last year just a flash in the pan? Or was it a sign of things to come?

The Bulldogs have such a talented roster but were underwhelming on offense for much of the 2020 season. That’s not a new phenomenon for UGA under Kirby Smart, but JT Daniels may be ready to push the Bulldogs over the hump.

When Jamie Newman opted out and D’Wan Mathis struggled, former walk-on Stetson Bennett ended up starting at QB for Georgia until Smart made the move to Daniels, the acclaimed USC transfer. Daniels, who injured his knee at USC, gave the offense a much-needed jolt, throwing for 1,231 yards and 10 TDs in four games. By comparison, Bennett threw for 1,179 yards and eight TDs in eight games played.

Other than the bowl game vs. Cincinnati, Daniels’ success came against mediocre (or outright bad) competition. Will that carry over into 2021? A big part of that equation is the receiver group, which has questions of its own. Georgia has also been hampered by injuries throughout training camp.

Some of these concerns will be addressed on Saturday when the Bulldogs square off against Clemson in Charlotte in the biggest game of the weekend.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Oklahoma

AP poll ranking: 2

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 4

National championship odds: +800

While Georgia’s questions lie on the offensive side of the ball, Oklahoma’s issues have long been defensive.

The Sooners routinely cruise through the Big 12 and into the College Football Playoff. When they arrive to compete with the best, it hasn’t gone well. Oklahoma is 0-4 in CFP semifinals and has allowed an average of 49.8 points per game in those four losses.

It appears as though Alex Grinch has the Sooners’ defense trending in the right direction. Grinch was brought in from Ohio State ahead of the 2019 season after OU finished No. 114 nationally in total defense in 2018. OU jumped all the way to No. 38 in 2019 and was No. 29 last year.

The 2021 defense is the best unit OU has had since Lincoln Riley succeeded Bob Stoops as head coach in 2017. If this defense continues to ascend and Riley produces another elite offense, could this be the year the Sooners break through to CFP success?

Texas A&M 

AP poll ranking: 6

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 6

National championship odds: +4000

Jimbo Fisher has assembled an extremely talented roster in College Station. But in the year he has his best squad yet also happens to be the year he won’t have Kellen Mond as his starting quarterback.

Mond had an up-and-down career, but still left A&M as the program’s all-time leader in completions, passing yards and passing TDs. He was very steady in 2020 and did just what Fisher asked him to do while occasionally ripping off a huge gain with his legs.

In 2021, the QB job has been handed over to Haynes King, who beat out Zach Calzada in preseason camp. King, a dual-threat, appeared in two games in 2020 and completed two-of-four passes for 59 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also had 43 yards on six rushing attempts.

King’s got a lot to work with. The RB room is special, there’s potential at receiver and a loaded group at tight end. But the questions with A&M are bigger than a new quarterback.

Fisher’s got to open up this offense for the Aggies to really compete for a national title. Fisher is 26-10 at A&M, including last year’s excellent 9-1 record. That lone loss, though, was to Alabama. And it wasn’t even competitive.

Fisher runs his offense slowly. He likes to run the ball, and is perfectly content hitting the underneath routes in the passing game. A&M’s offense had 41 plays of 20-plus yards last year. That’s fewer than South Carolina and just one more than Tennessee. Those teams went a combined 5-15.

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher gestures during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against North Carolina, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher gestures during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against North Carolina, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Iowa State

AP poll ranking: 7

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 7

National championship odds: +4000

Iowa State’s ascent under Matt Campbell has been incredible. ISU reached the Big 12 title game last year and lost to Oklahoma before knocking off Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. Entering 2021, the Cyclones return almost every top-end contributor from last year’s squad and have legitimate playoff aspirations.

To live up to the hype, the Cyclones have to navigate a tricky schedule. In Week 2, ISU will host No. 18 Iowa, its arch rival. The Cyclones have not defeated the Hawkeyes since 2014. It will be a mammoth test for Iowa State, which has a 7-11 record in the month of September under Campbell.

The second-half of the Big 12 schedule has several spots with slip-up potential. After Kansas and a bye week, ISU’s schedule looks like this: at Kansas State, vs. Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, vs. Texas, at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma and vs. TCU. That’s about as tough of an eight-week stretch you can have in the Big 12.

This roster is not full of four and five-star talent like the others atop the national title odds. Will experience and development be enough to navigate the Cyclones through that stretch and into the CFP?

Oregon

AP poll ranking: 11

Yahoo Sports preseason top 25: 10

National championship odds: +6600

There are actually quite a few teams (Florida, North Carolina, Miami and LSU) sandwiched between Iowa State at +4000 and Oregon at +6600 on BetMGM’s national championship odds. The Ducks, however, have the best odds of any Pac-12 team, so they are a worthwhile inclusion here.

And much like several other teams listed here, quarterback is the biggest question mark for Oregon. Tyler Shough started most of the 2020 season for the Ducks, but he struggled a bit down the stretch and later transferred to Texas Tech. That left Boston College transfer Anthony Brown and a trio of freshmen — including five-star recruit Ty Thompson — to duke it out for the starting job.

Brown was a multi-year starter at BC but had some injury issues. He saw action in two games last year, throwing two TD passes in a red zone role vs. USC in the Pac-12 title game and taking over for a scuffling Shough in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Iowa State.

Brown worked with the ones throughout the spring and into the summer with Thompson — a five-star 2021 recruit — reportedly taking a serious run at him. Brown will get the nod when the season opens against Fresno State. The Ducks then have a marquee road trip to Ohio State in Week 2.

If Brown has some struggles, Cristobal will have a big decision on his hands as the season progresses. Do you keep riding with Brown or work in the QB of the future in Thompson?