Top 25 coaches poll: Closer look at every team as the college football preseason kicks off

The preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, with 2020 records and outlooks for the Top 25. All times Eastern.

No. 1 Alabama (13-0)

Points: 1,621 (63 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 1. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 16 Miami (Florida) in Atlanta (ABC, 3:30).

Outlook: There hasn’t been this kind of quarterback uncertainty for the Crimson Tide since Jalen Hurts won the job as a true freshman in 2016. Bryce Young seems destined to be the program’s latest great signal caller, but he threw just 22 passes last year as a freshman. Even if he has the expected growing pains of a first-year starter, there’s plenty of talent around him as Nick Saban looks for his seventh national title at the school. John Metchie III looks like the school’s next great receiver. The offensive line again should be excellent. The defense is full of talent and will benefit at linebacker from Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o.

No. 2 Clemson (10-2)

Points: 1,508. Previous ranking: 3. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 5 Georgia at Charlotte, North Carolina (ABC, 7:30).

Outlook: The Tigers once again are heavily favored to win the ACC. We won’t have to wait long to see how they might stack up against other playoff contenders as they’ll face Georgia in the marquee game of opening weekend. The quarterback job is in good hands with D.J. Uiagalelei. Travis Etienne’s versatility out of the backfield will be missed, but Lyn-J Dixon can get the tough yards. Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee will anchor the defensive line, which figures to be the strength of the unit.

No. 3 Oklahoma (9-2)

Points: 1,481 (2 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 6. Opens: Sept. 4 at Tulane (ABC, noon).

Outlook: The Sooners won their sixth Big 12 title in a row during a rebuilding year that saw QB Spencer Rattler struggle early in his first year as a starter. He enters this season as a Heisman Trophy favorite. A talented group of skill players were bolstered by transfers, including running backs Eric Gray of Tennessee and Kevontre Bradford of LSU. Wanya Morris – also from Tennessee – joins to help solidify an offensive line that was inconsistent. What really makes this team capable of breaking through in the playoff is the defense. Gone are the days of wondering if it is good enough. The Sooners boast an impressive front seven, led by Nik Bonitto and Perrion Winfrey, that stops the run and pressures the passer. 

No. 4 Ohio State (7-1)

Wide receiver Garrett Wilson will be a key target for the Buckeyes in their pursuit of a playoff slot.

Points: 1,435. Previous ranking: 2. Opens: Sept. 2 at Minnesota (Fox, 8).

Outlook:  A national championship always is the goal for the Buckeyes, though it's harder to peg their prospects without knowing exactly what Ryan Day will get at quarterback. (C.J. Stroud is the heavy favorite to replace Justin Fields.) But it's no surprise to see Ohio State overflowing with talent across the board on offense, especially at wide receiver with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. What may determine the Buckeyes' 2021 season is whether the defense can improve along the back seven; all three starters must be replaced at linebacker.

No. 5 Georgia (8-2)

Points: 1,386. Previous ranking: 7. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 2 Clemson at Charlotte, North Carolina (ABC, 7:30).

Outlook: The Bulldogs will benefit from quarterback JT Daniels and his strong run as the starter over the second half of last season. There is tremendous talent and depth at the skill positions and the front seven on defense, especially if wide receiver George Pickens can recover from a spring ACL injury. Kirby Smart countered the loss of Pickens with the transfer of Arik Gilbert from LSU. Concerns in the defensive backfield also were addressed through the transfer portal as Derion Kendrick joined from Clemson to provide a major boost at cornerback. Now Georgia just needs to prove itself by finally defeating Alabama and winning the SEC title.

No. 6 Texas A&M (9-1)

Points: 1,286. Previous ranking: 4. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Kent State (ESPNU, 8).

Outlook: Is this the year the Aggies make the playoff? The disappointment of coming close last year could motivate them to leave no doubt in 2021, though that likely would demand a win against Alabama and a West division championship. A&M must first find a replacement for quarterback Kellen Mond, a four-year starter. Haynes King looks to be the favorite but Zach Calzada is still in the running. The rebuilding of the offensive line is key with RB Isaiah Spiller leading a talented group of skill people. DL DeMarvin Leal and DB Myles Jones are part of a defense full of talented recruits who could be lethal. 

No. 7 Notre Dame (10-2)

Points: 1,139. Previous ranking: 5. Opens: Sept. 5 at Florida State (ABC, 7:30).

Outlook: In hopes of seamlessly replacing QB Ian Book, the Irish turned to Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who was missed last season due to injury after 18 starts for the Badgers. Should Cohen provide stability, the offense looks to be on solid footing with RBs Kyren Williams and David Tyree carrying the load. The biggest concern is an offensive line that lacks experience. DB Kyle Hamilton is the star of the defense that brings in coordinator Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati. How quickly that unit gels will be key as the offense finds its way against a difficult early schedule.

No. 8 Iowa State (9-3)

Matt Campbell led the Cyclones past Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

Points: 1,131. Previous ranking: 9. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Northern Iowa.

Outlook: The hypothesis may seem strange, but it’s hard to argue against the Cyclones being among the top College Football Playoff contenders with Breece Hall and Mike Rose returning as Big 12 offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively. QB Brock Purdy enters his senior season as one of the country’s better quarterbacks, but he still needs to limit turnovers. Several veterans stayed to bolster a defense that led the conference against the run and was second in total defense. Now that they’re ranked the highest they've been in the preseason poll, how do the Cyclones adjust to big expectations?

No. 9 North Carolina (8-4)

Points: 999. Previous ranking: 17. Opens: Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech (ESPN, 6).

Outlook: Coming off an 8-4 campaign and with prolific passer Sam Howell back in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are the popular pick to win the ACC Coastal and possibly give Clemson a run for the league title. A lot of Howell’s weapons are gone, but Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler could emerge quickly as the featured running back. Tomon Fox, an outside linebacker/rush end hybrid, has next-level talent, but the defensive secondary must tighten things up to compete with elite aerial attacks.

No. 10 Cincinnati (9-1)

Points: 979. Previous ranking: 8. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Miami (Ohio).

Outlook: Matching last season’s perfect regular season and major bowl appearance will be a challenge for the Bearcats, who have a lot of returning talent but also some question marks. The headliner again will be dynamic QB Desmond Ridder, who’ll be rejoined by primary targets WR Michael Young and TE Josh Whyle. RB Gerrid Doaks is gone, so Jerome Ford will become the main ball carrier behind a line that must replace both starting tackles. The defensive backfield, featuring CBs Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner, will be solid. Road wins against Indiana and Notre Dame could put this team in the playoff picture come December.

No. 11 Florida (8-4)

Points: 870. Previous ranking: 12. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Florida Atlantic (SEC Network, 7:30).

Outlook: Emory Jones replaces Kyle Trask at quarterback, but don’t expect the Gators to continue to air things out as they did last year. Jones is more of a dual threat and his running ability will provide a different dimension. Focusing more on the ground should take some pressure off a defense that was statistically the worst in the program’s history. There’s some top-level talent with DL Zachary Carter and DB Kaiir Elam plus the linebacking duo of Ventrell Miller and Brenton Cox. The pressure is on coordinator Todd Grantham to put the pieces together.

No. 12 Oregon (4-3)

Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and the Pac-12 champion Ducks are looking to get back in the championship game mix.

Points: 842. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Fresno State (Pac-12 Network, 2).

Outlook: The defending Pac-12 champion Ducks have the league’s highest starting point, and the opportunities are there to aim even higher. That would mean an upset at Ohio State on Sept. 11 in addition to handling all challengers in the conference, but it’s at least conceivable. Anthony Brown takes over at QB with Tyler Shough off to Texas Tech. The RB tandem of Travis Dye and C.J. Verdell are back, and all three should benefit from an experienced line. The late start to the 2020 season didn’t help the talented defense come together, so Kayvon Thibodeaux and Co. should have more success this year with a full camp.

No. 13 LSU (5-5)

Points: 664. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 4 at UCLA  (Fox, 8:30).

Outlook: Opt-outs and injuries last season doomed the Tigers, who cratered on defense, forcing them to cut ties with coordinator Bo Pelini after just one season. His replacement, Daronte Jones, spent the last five seasons in the NFL. All-America cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.'s impact as a shutdown defender should allow the secondary to thrive. The situation at quarterback could determine whether LSU can contend in the SEC. Myles Brennan was expected to compete with Max Johnson, but Brennan was lost to arm surgery, leaving Johnson and true freshman Garrett Nussmeier as the only scholarship signal callers until Brennan recovers.

No. 14 Southern California (5-1)

Points: 655. Previous ranking: 21. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. San Jose State (Pac-12 Network, 5).

Outlook: The Trojans will enter as the Pac-12 South favorites, thanks in part to a favorable cross-divisional schedule that avoids Oregon and Washington from the North. They face a challenging slate nonetheless, and some close calls last year suggest they aren’t likely to run away with it. QB Kedon Slovis is back, but he’ll need to develop new targets behind top returnee Drake London. The defense must generate more pressure, and DEs Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa are capable of delivering.

No. 15 Wisconsin (4-3)

Points: 654. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 20 Penn State (Fox, noon).

Outlook: Pressed into action early by a preseason injury, QB Graham Mertz struggled in his first year as a starter. He will be helped by the healthy return of receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. More important is the return of a usually dominating Badgers offensive line that struggled to establish the run. The defense ranked in the top 10 in scoring for the second consecutive year. The unit is led by a strong linebacker contingent that includes Nick Herbig and Jack Sanborn. Up front, there's some replacement needed from a line that held opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and just two scores in 2020.

No. 16 Miami (Florida) (8-3)

The Hurricanes open at No. 16 and face defending champion Alabama in their opener Sept. 4.

Points: 575. Previous ranking: 22. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta (ABC, 3:30).

Outlook: Whether the Hurricanes live up to their preseason projection largely will depend on the health of QB D’Eriq King, who suffered a torn ACL in Miami’s bowl game. He expects to be ready, but won’t have time to ease back into game shape with the ‘Canes opener coming against Alabama. His top target, Mike Harley, is back, and Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo’s arrival should provide a good complement. There are holes to fill on defense, but DB Bubba Bolden returns to anchor the secondary.

No. 17 Indiana (6-2)

Points: 573. Previous ranking: 13. Opens: Sept. 4 at No. 18 Iowa (BTN, 3:30).

Outlook: The ability for the Hoosiers to build upon their landmark season that saw them beat Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State starts with the recovery of QB Michael Penix. The senior tore his ACL last November and is hopeful of being ready for a tough opener against Iowa. Ty Fryfogle could emerge as the Big Ten's top receiver, while Southern Cal transfer Stephen Carr is expected to provide some needed juice to the running game. The defense that was stingy last year returns LB Micah McFadden and several other important contributors. 

No. 18 Iowa (6-2)

Points: 554. Previous ranking: 15. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 17 Indiana (BTN, 3:30).

Outlook: After losing their first two games by a combined five points, the Hawkeyes were one of the hottest teams in the country at the end of last season. How does that momentum carry over? QB Spencer Petras must be more productive in the passing game to open up the offense for RB Tyler Goodson. Iowa is replacing three starters on a line that keyed the stiffest run defense in the Big Ten (2.8 yards allowed per carry). The new group will build around a good one in DL Zach VanValkenburg.

No. 19 Texas (7-3)

Texas hits the reset button with new coach Steve Sarkisian, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator for five seasons.

Points: 427. Previous ranking: 20. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette (Fox, 4:30).

Outlook: After four frustrating years under Tom Herman, Texas moved on by hiring Steve Sarkisian after his impressive stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Optimism runs high in Austin with the hope the Longhorns will look like Crimson Tide’s high-powered offense, but that will take some time. RB Bijan Robinson should be an elite performer as long as he gets enough touches, something that didn’t happen last year. Casey Thompson and Hudson Card have the inside track on filling the shoes of Sam Ehlinger, a four-year starter at quarterback who leaves a leadership void. Whomever wins the job must be up to speed quickly with an early schedule that starts with challenging non-conference games against Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas. 

No. 20 Penn State (4-5)

Points: 422. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 4 at No. 15 Wisconsin (Fox, noon).

Outlook: A disastrous start to the season saw the Nittany Lions lose their first five games. The results mirrored the play of QB Sean Clifford, who got his footing late in the year when the team won its last four. In an attempt to improve the offense, Mike Yurcich was brought in as the coordinator. He'll have an impressive stable of running backs and standout WR Jahan Dotson to work with. The defense will be boosted by the arrival of Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie on the line and strong returners in the secondary. 

No. 21 Washington (3-1)

Points: 404. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Montana (Pac-12, 8).

Outlook: The Jimmy Lake era in Seattle got off to a difficult but promising start as the Huskies were only able to get in four games during the pandemic season. The offense should be more explosive this year with plenty of experienced people, starting with an intact line featuring standout OL Jaxson Kirkland. Dylan Morris will likely retain the quarterback job, and there will be a number of options behind him to take handoffs. LB Edefuan Ulofoshio will be the centerpiece of the defense that should be among the Pac-12’s best.

No. 22 Oklahoma State (8-3)

Points: 216. Previous ranking: 19. Opens: Sept. 4 vs. Missouri State, (Big 12 Network, 7).

Outlook: Everything seemed in place for the Cowboys to make their first Big 12 title game last season before injuries hit. QB Spencer Sanders had an up-and-down campaign dimming some of the high expectations for him. He will be joined by Dezmon Jackson, who looks to be another in the line of the program’s talented running backs. LB Malcolm Rodriguez and the secondary tandem of Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel lead a veteran defense that could be a strength and may be the difference in changing this season's outcome.

No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette (10-1)

Points: 153. Previous ranking: 16. Opens: Sept. 4 at No. 19 Texas (Fox, 4:30).

Outlook: Perhaps the biggest win of the offseason following the Ragin’ Cajuns’ historic 2020 campaign is that coach Billy Napier is still around. After pulling off last year’s stunner at Iowa State, they won’t sneak up on Texas, but they’re well positioned to win their division in the Sun Belt. Dual threat QB Levi Lewis is back along with his entire offensive line. The defense that snagged 16 interceptions regains the services of DB Bralen Trahan.

No. 24 Coastal Carolina (11-1)

Points: 150. Previous ranking: 14. Opens: Sept. 2 vs. The Citadel.

Outlook: One of the feel-good stories of the strange 2020 season, the Chanticleers, now entering their fifth season in the Sun Belt, look to produce an encore after running the table in the conference. Most of the key contributors on the offensive side are back, including breakout star QB Grayson McCall. WR Jaivon Heiligh and TE Isaiah Likely also return. Leading rusher C.J. Marable is the lone key departure. The defense returns largely intact as well, with the exception of DE Tarron Jackson. The strength will be the LB corps featuring Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher.

No. 25 Mississippi (5-5)

Points: 149. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 6 vs. Louisville in Atlanta (ESPN, 8).

Outlook: The defense needs to make up major ground to join an offense that already is one of the most electric in the SEC. Such is the challenge for coach Lane Kiffin in his second season that follows an entertaining debut that brought points for both sides. Two areas in immediate need of improvement: the pass rush and forcing turnovers. Matt Corral gives Kiffin possibly the best QB in the SEC. You know this team is going to put up points at a high rate. The Rebels, however, need to do it more efficiently to support their defense.