Seven weeks into the 2021 college football season, suffice to say, it has not played out as expected. One of the most chaotic seasons of the last 15 years enters the halfway point with 47 games lost by teams ranked at the time in the AP Top 25 and Cincinnati looking like it may become the first Group of Five team to earn a College Football Playoff bid.
Among the other surprises is Georgia already ascending as the clear No. 1 team in the nation, Clemson not only falling off the national radar but also struggling to compete in the ACC, Wake Forest standing as the ACC’s lone unbeaten team, Michigan and Michigan State holding that same distinction in the Big Ten, quarterback Spencer Rattler losing his starting job at Oklahoma and there being no true Heisman Trophy front-runner entering Week 8.
There are some old standbys, though, such as Alabama and Ohio State — despite early losses — appearing to be legitimate CFP contenders and a lack of on-field success leading to coaching vacancies at LSU and USC. In fact, there are five open jobs already among FBS teams with three Power Five spots already available.
We at CBS Sports open each season by having our staff break down its picks for the College Football Playoff, national champion, Coach of the Year and Heisman Trophy winner. But we are human, and even we can get things wrong. There was even a shakeup in our All-America selections on our midseason team.
That’s why we’re back at the halfway point of the season with a handful of second-chance expert picks. Here’s how we believe the rest of the 2021 college football season will play out.
College Football Playoff predictions2021 national champion
Georgia: The Bulldogs defense is, by far, the best unit in the country. Georgia has navigated multiple injuries to quarterback JT Daniels, answered its receiving questions and showcased one of the most punishing rushing attacks in the country. The Dawgs are the most complete team in the country … and it isn’t even close. — Barrett Sallee (Jerry Palm, David Cobb, Shehan Jeyarajah)
Ohio State: The ability to overwhelm opponents with skill talent is a luxury that few teams possess, but Ohio State is at the top of the list. Most don’t have an “easy button” on offense, and the Buckeyes have (at least) three with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and emerging superstar running back Treyveon Henderson. Winning playoff games against elite teams will require an explosive offense, and Ohio State is one of the few teams in the country who have the personnel to match those requirements. — Chip Patterson (Dennis Dodd, Tom Fornelli)
Best team to miss CFP
Alabama: Nobody has more talent top to bottom than Alabama. The recruiting rankings bear that out every season. However, if Georgia goes on to finish the year undefeated, the Crimson Tide will be no better than 11-2 and unlikely to make the College Football Playoff. Many still think Bama is the best team even after the loss to Texas A&M, but if it doesn’t win out, the best team will be home watching the CFP on TV. — Palm (Dodd, Patterson, Sallee, Jeyarajah)
Ohio State: Getting better as the season goes on, Ohio State is also set to face a much tougher schedule. The Buckeyes already have one loss and still have No. 7 Penn State, No. 25 Purdue, No. 9 Michigan State and No. 6 Michigan on the schedule, in addition to road games against Indiana and Nebraska. While they may be favored in each of those games, none of them are particularly easy wins, and a slip up would likely doom Ohio State to best team out status. — Cobb
Cincinnati: Until the CFP Selection Committee gives us a reason to believe it will put a team from outside the Power Five in the playoff, I refuse to expect it. We’ve seen this story play out a few times in the CFP era already. Lets see if the Bearcats are even close to the initial top four when the first set of CFP Rankings are released in early November. — Fornelli
Midseason Coach of the Year
Mel Tucker, Michigan State: In the short term, Tucker has achieved one of the most significant turnarounds in recent memory. Fifteen transfers from 14 schools have contributed mightily to an undefeated season. In his time in the SEC, Tucker was known as the best recruiter in the conference. Apparently, he can coach a little, too. Michigan State is off to its first 7-0 start since 2015. — Dodd (Fornelli, Cobb)
Kirby Smart, Georgia: Before the season — heck, before every season — we all wonder which team is going to be the one to make a run at Alabama. Smart’s Bulldogs have flipped the script. It’s his team everyone is wondering if they can beat. That includes Alabama, which may get a shot to do just that on Dec. 4. The Dawgs’ dominance of the first half of the season is why Smart is the coach of the year, so far. — Palm (Sallee)
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: While these awards are typically reserved for the performance over one season, it’s fair to credit the years of building that brought the Demon Deacons to this point where they are the last remaining unbeaten team in the ACC and chasing the program’s second conference championship in the last 20 years. So much of what Wake Forest does well points back to great coaching and development, and this year we’re seeing it with turnover margin and clutch plays in close games. It’s the attention to detail throughout the roster that helps Wake Forest overcome perceived talent deficiencies and stand here in 2021 as one of the most consistent programs in the ACC. — Patterson
Heisman Trophy front-runner
C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State: We’re all so desperate to find a legitimate Heisman candidate after all the preseason favorites flamed out that I’ve seen talk of Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams being a candidate after one start. Meanwhile, Stroud is at the helm of one of the best offenses in the country and the quarterback of a team that can win the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff. If he continues playing this way over the final half of the season while the Buckeyes face three teams currently ranked in the top 10, he’s going to climb to the top of the leaderboard. — Fornelli (Palm, Patterson)
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama: The sophomore is tied for third in the nation in touchdown passes with 24. He’s only tossed three picks and also has the fourth-best passer rating in the country (180.4). Young has accomplished all of this with a disappointing offensive line and the weight of the college football world on his shoulders. he shouldn’t be written off simply because his defense couldn’t stop Texas A&M. That wasn’t on him. — Sallee (Cobb)
Jordan Davis, NG, Georgia: Davis’ statistical contributions are minimal (1.5 sacks, 3.0 tackles for loss), but his impact cannot be underestimated. Georgia’s nose guard is nicknamed “Godzilla” for a reason. He collapses lines on offense and special teams. There’s a chance the Dawgs wouldn’t be undefeated without him. That’s why Davis is popping up as a legitimate Heisman candidate. — Dodd
Kenneth Walker III, RB, Michigan State: Yes, the Wake Forest transfer is the leading rusher in college football with 997 yards in seven games despite fielding fewer carries than three of the next four running backs on the list. Yes, his presence helped Michigan State jump 90 spots nationally in rushing offense and 82 spots in total offense despite much of the same personnel as the 2020 squad. But most importantly, the junior is the catalyst of a Michigan State rebuild that has the Spartans back in the top 10 for the first time since 2016. Cartoonish statistics? On-field impact? Riveting storyline? Walker checks all the boxes. — Jeyarajah