A locked-in college football schedule with no sudden changes. Tailgates with friends and family. Stadiums packed to the brim. Students storming the streets after a major upset win. It’s all coming soon — the college football landscape is returning to normal.
The 2021 college football season kicks off in just under two months, and what better way to preview it than by running through PFF’s preseason awards, starting with the Preseason All-America Team. The team below was selected with the help of PFF grades and advanced statistics, which are now available to PFF’s CFB Premium Stats+ Subscribers.
First-Team: Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Rattler took over the OU starting job as a redshirt freshman last season, hoping to continue Oklahoma's run of dominance at the quarterback position under head coach Lincoln Riley. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound signal-caller lived up to expectations, earning a 92.5 mark that not only ranked fourth in the FBS but was also the best grade PFF has ever given to a true or redshirt freshman quarterback.
Rattler has a little bit of Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes in him, both stylistically and situationally. He has an ultra-quick, effortless release to pair with jaw-dropping arm talent and elite playmaking ability outside of structure. The Oklahoma quarterback produced a 91.3 passing grade and a 69.7% accurate-pass rate when creating off structure in 2020, both of which led all FBS passers. That passing grade beat out Joe Burrow for the best grade ever earned by a Power Five quarterback.
Rattler is the best player returning to college football and should be the favorite for the Heisman Trophy when the 2021 college football season kicks off on Aug. 28.
First-Team: Tank Bigsby, Auburn
The 2020 four-star recruit, who ranked 40th nationally according to 247Sports, was easily among the most elusive ball carriers in college football last year. His strong contact balance was on full display as he came away with the fifth-most broken tackles per attempt (0.34) in the FBS. The 6-foot, 204-pound back was the third-highest-graded ball carrier in the FBS behind Javonte Williams and Khalil Herbert before suffering an injury in Week 12 against Tennessee. He’s the favorite to claim that top spot in a fully healthy 2021.
First-Team: Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
Like Bigsby, Vaughn was also one of the top first-year players in college football last season. The 5-foot-5 running back made it known from the get-go that he would end up in the conversation for the best dual-threat back in the country. Only Vaughn and North Carolina’s Michael Carter earned grades above 85.0 as both a runner and receiver in 2020. Vaughn can take defenders' souls in the open field with his blend of quickness and agility.
First-Team: Chris Olave, Ohio State
Olave was projected to be a first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft but made the surprising decision to return to school and boost his stock even higher. For the Buckeyes, this is fantastic news. They are returning perhaps the most refined route-runner in college football.
Olave has generated a step or more of separation on over 87% of his targets since 2019, the highest rate in the country. Against single coverage over the past two seasons, he has racked up 15 receptions of 15-plus yards in which he had more than a couple of steps of separation, trailing only Alabama's DeVonta Smith for the most in the FBS (19) and was five more than the next-best Power Five receiver.
First-Team: Garrett Wilson, Ohio State
Like his teammate Olave, Wilson is one of the best route-runners in the game. He impressed against single coverage (sixth in PFF grade on such plays) and frequently found soft spots against zone while working from the slot, leading to a separation rate that ranked eighth-best in college football this past season. The 2019 five-star recruit is bound to put up numbers in this offense once again in 2021.
First-Team: Justyn Ross, Clemson
Ross missed the 2020 season due to a spinal condition that put his career in jeopardy. Fortunately, he was able to come back, and that means Clemson returns a top-three receiver in the game. The 6-foot-4 receiver established himself as one of the best deep threats in college football in his two seasons before 2020, coming away with the third-most touchdowns on targets of 20-plus yards during that span (11). His size comes in clutch on these targets, as he flat-out bodies defensive backs in contested situations — he's hauled in nine of 13 such deep targets in his career. Ross isn’t uber-athletic, but he wins so often because of his physicality.
First-Team: Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
There's no question that Kolar's work as an in-line blocker has been the weak link in his game so far, but I’d rather have a top-tier receiving tight end than college football's best blocker at the position. And Kolar has made short work of moving up the receiving ranks over the last two seasons, as his PFF receiving grade over that span ranks second to only Kyle Pitts among FBS tight ends. Over those two years, Kolar’s receiving grade in the slot or out wide actually surpasses Pitts' for the best in the FBS.
First-Team: Thayer Munford, Ohio State
Munford is taking advantage of his “super senior” year and returning to school for the 2021 season, which is a big positive for the Buckeyes. He was a decent starter at left tackle for Ohio State in 2018 and 2019, but he improved his play even further in 2020. Munford posted a 91.8 PFF grade this past season, the fourth-best mark in the FBS and the highest mark among returning tackles. His pass protection was nearly flawless in 2020.
Munford stood strong against quality pass-rush units, such as Michigan, Clemson and Alabama, and displayed tremendous processing speed against stunts and blitzes all year long. Over 264 pass-blocking snaps, he allowed just three pressures, none of which were sacks or hits on quarterback Justin Fields. In turn, his pressure rate allowed was half a percentage point lower than any other Power Five left tackle.
First-Team: Darrian Kinnard, Kentucky
While Kinnard’s pass protection is good, he ranks third here largely because of his impact in the run game. The 6-foot-5, 345-pound right tackle has consistently paved holes for ball carriers over the past two years, notching run-blocking grades of 89.1 in 2019 and 91.9 in 2020, top-10 marks in college football. Kentucky employed heavy doses of inside zone in that span, and zone concepts just happen to be Kinnard’s bread and butter. No tackle has managed a higher zone run-blocking grade since 2019.
First-Team: Cain Madden, Notre Dame
The Irish, who saw four of their five starting offensive linemen leave for the NFL, landed one of the best players in the transfer portal in Cain Madden. He started at right guard for Marshall over the past three years, providing great pass protection in each campaign. His grades in that facet came out to 84.6, 79.0 and 82.0. And he was performing at unprecedented levels as a run-blocker in 2020, posting a 93.0 grade in that facet.
First-Team: Justin Shaffer, Georgia
Shaffer finally earned a starting spot in 2020 after three years of limited game action. While he was inconsistent, his high-end play earns a spot on this list. He was the fourth-highest-graded Power Five guard in 2020. Shaffer finished with the seventh-best positively graded run-block rate in the Power Five last season, performing well on true pass sets for a first-time starter in the SEC. He ranked eighth in the Power Five and second in the SEC in true pass set blocking grade.
First-Team: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
Linderbaum went from defensive tackle to the best offensive lineman in college football in just two years. 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 in the FBS at the position (81.7). And this past year, Linderbaum claimed the No. 1 spot with an astounding 91.5 PFF grade, featuring just three pressures allowed on 280 pass-blocking snaps.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
First-Team: Haskell Garrett, Ohio State
Garrett was a four-star prospect and a top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, but he didn’t consistently see the field until the 2020 season after just over 400 snaps over his first three college campaigns. Yet, Garrett broke out in a big way in 2020, earning an astounding 88.9 pass-rush grade that trailed only Alabama's Christian Barmore — a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — for the best in the Power Five. Garrett may have generated only 18 pressures in eight games, but he won consistently. In fact, his 17.9% win rate also trailed only Barmore for the best mark in the Power Five. He is a force of nature with heavy hands, bound to wreak havoc again in 2021.
First-Team: Jermayne Lole, Arizona State
Arizona State’s defense underwent a scheme tweak in 2020, which moved Lole from a versatile role that predominantly saw him on the edge to an every-down interior defender. And that paid big dividends, as expected. He was one of the 10 highest-graded Power Five defensive linemen against the run when playing defensive tackle in 2019.
That remained the case in 2020, but he was even better against the run and looked far more polished as a pass-rusher. In fact, Lole was the third-highest-graded Power Five defensive linemen when playing 3-technique this past season. The fact that he played only four games in 2020 and still came away with 18 pressures and 17 defensive stops is quite impressive.
First-Team: Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma
Bonitto might be the most underrated player in all of college football. The rush-end led all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush grade (93.6), pass-rush win rate (28%) and pressure rate generated (25.7%) in 2020. Among all Power Five edge defenders since we began grading college seven years ago, Bonitto ranks in the top five in all three metrics.
Bonitto’s explosiveness and athleticism caused headaches for every offensive tackle he faced, and no lineman succeeded in shutting him down in 2020. His lowest win rate in a single game this past year sat at 17.6% — a pretty solid day for most FBS edge rushers.
First-Team: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Thibodeaux’s 2020 campaign started slowly, but he turned on the jets down the stretch and looked like an elite edge defender over his final four games (out of seven on the year). Thibodeaux was one of the highest-graded players at his position over that span, boasting an 87.2 PFF grade that included a 12-pressure performance against USC and Alijah Vera-Tucker — a first-round pick in 2021 — in the Pac-12 championship game.
If you were to build a perfect college pass-rusher among those playing next year, Thibodeaux’s get-off and bend would be precisely what you'd want. He is an elite talent who is bound for a monstrous 2021. Be sure to circle the calendar for Week 2 when he goes up against the best tackle duo in college football — Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — as the Ducks take on the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio.
First-Team: Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington
He may have only seven career starts to his name, but the 2018 two-star walk-on has done enough to cement his place as one of the top off-ball linebackers in college football. Ulofoshio has yet to have a bad outing in his two years of game action at Washington, proving to be a consistent playmaker in every facet of play.
Across 452 snaps since 2019, Ulofoshio has posted a grade above 82.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage. No one else in the Power Five accomplished the feat in that span. His tackling is no issue, either, as he missed just five times across 93 career attempts, forming a 5.4% missed tackle rate that ranks third among Power Five linebackers.
First-Team: Mike Jones Jr., LSU
Jones places this high solely because of his impact in the passing game. He is fresh off a season with the Clemson Tigers in which he posted an elite 90.2 coverage grade and was a blitz weapon with 11 pressures on 48 pass-rush snaps. His athleticism will be an asset to the Tigers, who no longer have to be too worried about the departure of standout coverage linebacker Jabril Cox.
First-Team: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Stingley might be the best athlete to take the field this fall. He’s such a rare one that even Coach O is thinking about giving him some reps on offense. Coming out of high school in 2019, the five-star cornerback clocked a 4.3-second 40 time and a 42-inch vertical. He then proceeded to have the best true freshman season since PFF College's inception back in 2014, recording a 91.7 PFF grade and 0.97 wins above average (WAA), the latter being the best mark among non-quarterbacks all year.
Last year, he saw two fewer targets per game on average, as it quickly became apparent that opposing quarterbacks weren’t looking to test him. Stingley saw 30 over his seven outings, allowing just seven first downs while forcing five incompletions, three of which came against Mizzou when he played most of the game with an ankle injury.
First-Team: Sauce Gardner, Cincinnati
Gardner arrived in the Queen City as a three-star recruit in 2019 and earned a PFF coverage grade of 90.2 right off the bat as a true freshman, defying the dreaded learning curve at almost every turn. He was seemingly always at the catch point and hardly ever lost. And nothing changed in Year 2.
Gardner has developed into one of the best press-man coverage corners in college football over the last few years. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound cornerback has seen 84 targets in press coverage since landing in Cincinnati, and he has allowed just 16 first downs while making a whopping 22 plays on the ball, the most in the FBS over that time. He has yet to allow a touchdown in his college career, with opposing quarterbacks netting a 35.3 passer rating on throws into his primary coverage. Throwing the ball in the grass every play would generate a passer rating of 39.6.
First-Team: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
Hamilton stands at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, and he is one of the most explosive safeties in the game. His 42-inch vertical may have helped land him on Bruce Feldman’s 2020 Freaks List, but he also pairs his physical skill set with great eyes in coverage, making him a certified playmaker.
Hamilton has compiled 16 combined pass breakups and interceptions and 15 passing stops as a true freshman and sophomore. Better yet, he was responsible for only three explosive pass plays of 15-plus yards over that span. The Notre Dame safety has generated the third-most WAA among players at his position over the last two years.
First-Team: Brandon Joseph, Northwestern
Joseph played only 13 snaps in his first season on campus in 2019 before taking a redshirt, but he exploded in 2020 and established himself as one of the game's top cover safeties. He intercepted six passes while being responsible for only one explosive pass play of 15-plus yards.
It didn’t matter if he was playing single- or two-high deep safety or if he was down in the box or manning the slot, Joseph’s coverage ability was on full display all season, and it ended in a top-three coverage grade among FBS safeties (88.5).
First-Team: Tykee Smith, Georgia
Smith, a three-star recruit of the 2019 class, has recorded the third-best slot coverage grade in the FBS over his true freshman and sophomore seasons while serving as the “spear” in West Virginia’s defense. Now, he’ll be taking his talents to the Georgia Bulldogs, where he will anchor a secondary that was gutted this past offseason. Smith’s 2020 campaign was a sight to behold: He was targeted 38 times in coverage across 10 games and allowed just 110 yards for the season. He did not give up a single explosive pass play of 15 or more yards while making five plays on the ball and forcing 10 passing stops.