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2021 PFF College Football Awards: Alabama QB Bryce Young to take home the Heisman Trophy

Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) passes against the Georgia Bulldogs during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 college football regular season has officially come to a close, so the time has come to recognize the top players across the country.

The winners of the annual college football awards will be announced tonight, Thursday, Dec. 9, with the Heisman Trophy given out on Saturday, Dec. 11. So what better way to prepare than by naming PFF's choices for all the top honors.

Below you will find PFF’s selections for all the major awards for the 2021 college football season. We made these picks with the help of PFF grades and advanced statistics, which are now available to PFF’s CFB Premium Stats+ Subscribers.

Editor's note: These selections are not associated with the Home Depot College Football Award Show.

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HEISMAN TROPHY: MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
MAXWELL AWARD: MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
WALTER CAMP AWARD: PLAYER OF THE YEAR 

BRYCE YOUNG, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Young's first year as the Crimson Tide's starter has been nothing short of exceptional. The true sophomore, who only got reps in garbage time last season, earned a 92.9 PFF grade in his 13 outings this year — not only is that the highest of the 2021 season, but it’s also the best that PFF College has on record from a non-draft-eligible quarterback.

The Alabama quarterback had to deal with lackluster pass protection for most of the season. Still, he showed poise beyond his years, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and tossing 15 touchdowns to only two interceptions when under pressure in the regular season. Meanwhile, his 94.9 passing grade from a clean pocket ranked first among the 144 FBS signal-callers with at least 100 clean-pocket dropbacks over the regular season.

Young finished with a 2% turnover-worthy play rate overall, a top-10 rate among Power Five quarterbacks, an incredible rate for such a young passer. There simply isn’t a better processor at the position in college football; he’s been the most impressive quarterback of 2021 and the key reason Alabama is sitting atop the College Football Playoff rankings.

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DOAK WALKER AWARD: NATIONAL RUNNING BACK AWARD

KENNETH WALKER III, MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Walker carried the ball a whopping 262 times in 2021, ranking top-five among Power Five backs in broken tackles per attempt (0.34) and yards after contact per attempt (4.5). The Michigan State back also produced 25 runs that featured 10 or more yards after contact, the best mark in the Power Five. And for reference, only three backs in the country managed to crack more than 15.

Walker's Power Five-best 1,168 yards after contact would rank 11th among all Power Five running backs in rushing yards overall. He ended the season with a 90.7 rushing grade and is the deserving winner of this award.


FRED BILETNIKOFF AWARD: MOST OUTSTANDING RECEIVER

JAMESON WILLIAMS, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Williams is best known as one of the most dangerous receivers in the game. The 6-foot-2, 189-pound receiver is one of the fastest players at the position in the country, making him an explosive play waiting to happen. He’s turned 30% of his targets into a gain of 15-plus yards — third in the Power Five — while averaging a Power Five-leading 21.4 yards per catch overall.

The Ohio State transfer has caught 12 passes over 20 yards downfield for 631 yards and eight touchdowns, generating a separation rate that sits in the 92nd percentile among FBS receivers and averaging an incredible 9.9 yards after the catch per reception.

JOHN MACKEY AWARD: MOST OUTSTANDING TIGHT END

TREY MCBRIDE, COLORADO STATE RAMS

McBride was the engine of the Rams’ offense this season. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end was targeted on 30% of his routes run this year — the second-highest rate at the position — and he finished the season averaging an incredible 2.77 yards per route run. The Colorado State tight end earned a stellar 95.0 PFF overall grade in 2021, second to only 2020 Kyle Pitts in the PFF College era, and he also picked up 18 more combined first downs and touchdowns than any other FBS tight end.

As if that wasn't enough, he also put up the seventh-most positively graded run blocks among FBS tight ends. Between the receiving ability and blocking prowess, McBride has made his name known as an all-around weapon at the position.


OUTLAND TROPHY: MOST OUTSTANDING INTERIOR LINEMAN
RIMINGTON TROPHY: MOST OUTSTANDING CENTER

TYLER LINDERBAUM, IOWA HAWKEYES

Linderbaum has simply had one of the best college careers we have seen from an offensive lineman in the PFF College era.

In just two years, the 6-foot-3, 290-pounder transitioned from a defensive tackle to the best offensive lineman in college football. He played both sides of the ball in high school and was recruited to play on the interior defensive line, where he logged 18 snaps in his first season. He then flipped to center for the 2019 campaign, where he started and recorded the fifth-best grade among FBS centers at 81.7.

Linderbaum was the highest-graded center in the FBS a season ago and is on pace to do the same in 2021, as he owns a 95.2 PFF grade entering bowl season. Not only is that the best of the 2021 season, but it’s the best single-season mark from a Power Five center in PFF’s eight years of grading college football.


CHUCK BEDNARIK AWARD: DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
BRONKO NAGURSKI AWARD: DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
TED HENDRICKS AWARD: DEFENSIVE END OF THE YEAR AWARD 

AIDAN HUTCHINSON, MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

According to PFF Wins Above Average (WAA), Hutchinson is in the midst of the most valuable season by an FBS edge defender in the PFF College era, surpassing Chase Young, Nick Bosa and Joey Bosa.

The Michigan star has put up an FBS-leading 94.7 PFF grade across his 13 games, and he produced two of the most dominant outings of the PFF College era with his 15-pressure day against the Ohio State Buckeyes (the most by a pass-rusher in a single game in the PFF College era) and his 93.2-graded performance against Iowa in the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge defender is the most advanced pass-rusher in the country and had to deal with double teams, constant chips and missed holding calls all season long. Despite that, he still produced more pressure in the regular season than any Power Five edge defender in the last five years.

If it weren’t for Bryce Young shredding the No. 1 defense in college football this past week, Hutchinson would have been PFF's Heisman winner.

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DICK BUTKUS AWARD: MOST OUSTANDING LINEBACKER 

NAKOBE DEAN, GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Dean is an athletic freak who has been a nightmare for offenses all season. He has made plays both as a blitzer and as a matchup weapon in coverage, and he earned a 90.0-plus PFF grade in both facets of play — something no other Power Five off-ball linebacker has done in a full year in the PFF College era.

The 6-foot, 225-pounder has totaled 23 pressures, including seven sacks, on 97 rushes, along with two interceptions, two pass breakups and 10 passing stops in coverage. He did that while allowing only 61 yards on 26 targets and 252 coverage snaps.


JIM THORPE AWARD: MOST OUTSTANDING DEFENSIVE BACK

Ahmad GARDNER, CINCINNATI BEARCATS

Despite playing mostly on an island in press coverage, Gardner has allowed fewer than 20 yards in every single one of his 13 starts and allowed only 117 yards in total across 428 coverage snaps — an average of 0.27 yards per coverage snap. And of those 428 snaps, 355 of them came in press coverage.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound corner used his length and physicality to his advantage, and opposing offenses largely decided to ignore him, targeting the player in his coverage just 2.7 times per game on average. That’s a true evaluation of lockdown coverage play — it's not just the number of plays made on the ball.

When they did throw the ball his way, it almost always netted negative results, as the opposition collectively generated a 20.3 passer rating on throws into Gardner's coverage. Throwing the ball in the grass every play would net a higher passer rating — that’s how good he is.


PAUL HORNUNG AWARD: MOST VERSATILE PLAYER

MARCUS JONES, HOUSTON COUGARS

Jones is the definition of versatile. He ranks first in kick-return grade and fourth in punt-return grade among all FBS return specialists. He also ranks eighth in PFF grade among FBS cornerbacks for the 2021 season. Jones is the only player in the 2021 season with a kick- and a punt-return touchdown, and he has multiple in each.

He also played slot receiver for the first four games of the season, where the Cougar ran 40 routes in total and picked up a solid 2.73 yards per route run in that span.

The Houston star has generated 0.6 PFF WAA this year, the third-most by a non-quarterback this year.


FRANK BROYLES AWARD: ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR

JEFF GRIMES, BAYLOR BEARS

No Power Five offense has boosted its success rate more than the Baylor Bears over the last year, as the Bears have improved in that metric by more than 11 percentage points since 2020. Baylor didn’t gain any substantial talent on the offensive side of the ball but instead got a new offensive architect.

The Bears welcomed in Jeff Grimes — who helped Zach Wilson break out at BYU in 2020 — as their new playcaller and offensive coordinator, and he’s been the difference. He shifted the offense to focus on wide zone, with a lot of heavy personnel, motion and play-action. And it’s done wonders for the run game, as they finished top-10 in the Power Five in expected points added (EPA) per rush after ranking second-to-last in that same metric in 2020.

In the passing game, Grimes runs a high rate of play-action off the wide-zone concept to ease the load on the quarterbacks, who went on to complete 94-of-141 play-action attempts for 1,270 yards and 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions on the year.

Grimes turned an offense full of middling talent into an all-around solid unit, and he's one of the main reasons why Baylor secured the Big 12 title.

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COACH OF THE YEAR

JIM HARBAUGH, MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Many thought the contract extension Harbaugh received after last year’s 2-4 shortened season was ludicrous. The public consensus was that it was time for the Harbaugh era to come to a close after years of falling short of Ohio State in the Big Ten.

The market thought that trend would continue in 2021, as their season win total was set at 7.5 wins during the offseason. However, Harbaugh instead got the right leaders in place of the defensive unit and developed the talent he recruited on both sides of the ball into a juggernaut.

The Wolverines surpassed that preseason projection with flying colors, going 11-1 in regular-season play, including a victory over the Buckeyes en route to a blowout Big Ten championship win and the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance. The Blue now sit at 12 wins in 2021, the third time in program history they have reached that mark. They became the first team in the CFP era to go from unranked to making the final four.

No team improved their PFF Power Rating from Week 0 to now than the Michigan Wolverines. They are one of three teams to rank top-10 in both EPA per play generated and EPA allowed per play for the 2021 season. Harbaugh is at the forefront of a rapid, masterful improvement that will be remembered.

The cherry on top is that instead of seeking more money, Harbaugh is giving out any and all bonuses he receives from this season to Michigan athletic department staffers who had their pay cut due to the pandemic.

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