College News & Analysis

College Football: PFF ELO rankings for all 130 FBS teams heading into the 2021 season

Apr 17, 2021; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; White quarterback Bryce Young (9) hands off to White running back Roydell Williams (23) during the University of Alabama A-Day Game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

The first run of PFF’s college football metrics and simulation happened last week. We have not only our initial rankings in place but also results from our simulation for conference and national championship odds. Let’s take a closer look at our current top 25, with later pieces focusing on the best bets to make for conference and national championship winners.

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1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

National Championship Win Probability: 23.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 51.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: RB Brian Robinson Jr. (83.8)

Alabama remains college football’s highest-rated team, even after losing starting quarterback Mac Jones, Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, top-six pick Jaylen Waddle and countless other players. Our simulation is right about on par with the implied odds of Alabama in the national championship marketplace, and with a breakeven percentage of about 31% for a +225 bet, it’s probably best to wait and see on this presumptive favorite.  

2. CLEMSON TIGERS

National Championship Win Probability: 17.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 58.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: ED Myles Murphy (85.2)

Like Alabama, Clemson lost significant pieces to the NFL. But unlike Alabama, we were able to see the heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence last year in D.J. Uiagalelei, who in 124 dropbacks earned a 77.6 passing grade, making five big-time throws while generating zero turnover-worthy plays (and no interceptions, to boot). The market is super heavy on the Tigers to win the ACC (-835), which is a bit steep, but they should be in the mix come December, as they always are.

3. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

National Championship Win Probability: 13.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 48.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: LT Thayer Munford (85.2)

Justin Fields may have gone lower in the 2021 NFL Draft than we all thought he should have, but make no mistake: He was wonderful last year for the Buckeyes in an abbreviated campaign and will be hard to replace. We have Ohio State winning the Big Ten a bit more than the market-implied number, which includes an over 30% hold, but less than what you would need to have the team winning it at current market numbers (-125, 55.8 percent breakeven). As is the case with the other two favorites above, this is a wait-and-see team in the marketplace for season-long bets.  

4. GEORGIA BULLDOGS

National Championship Win Probability: 7.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 24.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB JT Daniels (88.3)

Georgia is the first team in these rankings with a returning quarterback, and even then, all optimism is largely based on a 128-dropback sample size for JT Daniels in 2020. He was wonderful in such a stint, though, earning an 87.4 grade while producing just six turnover-worthy plays. He’ll miss wide receiver George Pickens for at least some of the season due to an offseason ACL injury, but Kearis Jackson, the Bulldogs' leading receiver by a yard in 2020, returns and should offer some significant punch from the slot in 2021.  

5. OKLAHOMA SOONERS

National Championship Win Probability: 13.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 60.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB Spencer Rattler (92.5)

Spencer Rattler is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy(+550) in 2021, and for good reason. Despite being briefly benched against Texas, the redshirt sophomore continued a tradition of unreal production from the quarterback position at Oklahoma, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt en route to a 92.5 PFF grade with an almost 3-to-1 big-time throw/turnover-worthy play ratio.  Additionally impressive was his ability to, with CeeDee Lamb in Dallas, make quick work of opposing defenses without the benefit of a 700-yard receiver.  At -134 to win the Big 12, and our metrics lower on other Big 12 teams, Oklahoma is one favorite for which we are willing to stick out our neck.

6. TEXAS A&M AGGIES

National Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 5.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: TE Jalen Wydermyer (84.4)

The Aggies lose Kellen Mond, a four-year starter at college football’s most important position, but they still have Jimbo Fisher and company in place to make another run as an elite team in the SEC. Despite having a better ELO rating than Florida, though, Texas A&M has a lower chance of winning the College Football Playoff or the SEC in large part due to playing in the West with Alabama, whereas Florida has a simpler path in the East.  

7. FLORIDA GATORS

National Championship Win Probability: 3.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 10.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB Emory Jones (90.5)

While losing Kyle Trask, Kadarius Toney and, most importantly, Kyle Pitts is a blow to the Florida Gators, the Emory Jones era is being met understandably with a lot of excitement. On just 36 dropbacks in 2020, Jones earned a 90.5 overall grade, making three big-time throws and tossing two touchdowns. On 31 rushing attempts, he averaged almost as many yards per carry (6.3) as he earned in yards per pass attempt, scoring two touchdowns and forcing seven missed tackles. The Gators' path to the playoff or a conference title is clearer than others’, but Jones will need to live up to the hype if those dreams are to come true in 2021.

8. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: NA
Highest-Graded Returning Player: FS Kyle Hamilton (76.7)

On one hand, the Fighting Irish lose Ian Book. On the other hand, Book’s production was not necessarily what his name, or eventual draft status, would have indicated, with just 7.9 yards per pass attempt in 2020. Junior Kyren Williams returns after a year in which he racked up over 3.3 yards after contact while forcing 38 missed tackles and earning a 75.7 PFF grade. With C’Bo Flemister dealing with some off-field issues, look for Williams to be the lead back again in 2021.

9. IOWA HAWKEYES

National Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 17.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: C Tyler Linderbaum (91.5)

This is one of the teams we’re sticking our neck out for. Many people, after the Hawkeyes' 0-2 start that included two one-score losses, and no bowl game due to COVID-19, forgot that Iowa finished the season with six consecutive wins. All but one came by more than one score, which left the team ranked 15th in the country upon season’s end. In a conference where running the ball matters, Iowa is a decent bet on the other side of the conference as Ohio State. 

10. LSU TIGERS

National Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 6.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: CB Eli Ricks (82.8)

LSU is once again looking like a dangerous team being overlooked by most of the betting market. If Derek Stingley Jr. returns to his 2019 form, he will join Eli Ricks to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the country.

Max Johnson showed enough on 177 dropbacks in his freshman season to have LSU fans excited about another potential championship run. The team is tied for the sixth-shortest odds at DraftKings and has the fourth-lowest odds to win the SEC title. With quarterback questions for the other top teams except Georgia, the SEC could be wide-open for the Tigers to once again emerge. 

11. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

National Championship Win Probability: 3.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 18.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB Sam Howell (92.3)

Sam Howell is the second-most likely player to be selected No. 1 overall in next year’s draft, but he will have to at least repeat his 2020 performance with a completely new cast of offensive skill position players. North Carolina's projected starting three wide receivers caught a combined 26 passes from Howell last season. None posted an average PFF receiving grade, which will make this the most difficult season that Howell has experienced in Chapel Hill. If he leads this group to the playoff promised land, he will be deserving of the No. 1 pick next April. 

12. CINCINNATI BEARCATS

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 30.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: TE Josh Whyle (90.9)

Group of Five fans will be furious to see the Bearcats with a 0% chance at winning the national championship, but there seems to be nothing those teams can do to sneak a team into the College Football Playoff. Perfection doesn’t seem to be enough, so unless more teams are added than Power Five conferences, it’s difficult to see a path where the Bearcats get in. They are the heavy favorite to win the AAC championship with star quarterback Desmond Ridder returning for his final collegiate season. 

13. OREGON DUCKS

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 23.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: RB Travis Dye (79.2)

Oregon sits as the co-favorite to win the wide-open Pac-12 title race. The team will feature a new starting quarterback for the second straight year after Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech. Anthony Brown will get the first crack at the starting job after playing 38 snaps over the Ducks' final two regular-season games. He produced an 83.7 PFF passing grade on that very limited sample size, which is a drastic improvement from the passing grades he put up at Boston College. How well he performs to start the season will dictate whether the Ducks stay in contention for the Pac-12 title.

14. WISCONSIN BADGERS

National Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 11.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: LB Jack Sanborn (83.1)

Our simulation matches the implied probability for the Wisconsin Badgers to win the Big Ten title despite our ELO ratings making them the third-best team in the conference. Our simulation likes the Buckeyes to run away with the conference more often than the betting market expectation, which makes us much lower on the second, third and fourth teams in the conference.

Wisconsin is the most likely winner of the Big Ten West but could still be a two-touchdown underdog to the team that comes out of the East. The +800 price on the Badgers finally breaking through does seem decent, though.

15. AUBURN TIGERS

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: CB Nehemiah Pritchett (78.9)

There was hope for Bo Nix at the midpoint of Auburn’s 2020 season, but the Tigers' matchup against Alabama put Nix into a tailspin that he never recovered from. He finished the 2020 season with four game grades at or below 63.0, and he had only four games where he posted an above-average passing grade. 

Auburn feels stuck in the 15-25 ranking window, with little hope of taking that coveted next step if Nix is at quarterback. He also lost his top two wide receivers from last year and will now need to shoulder even more of the offensive responsibility. It is tough to see that being a productive path for the Tigers' offense. 

16. USC TROJANS

National Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 26.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB Kedon Slovis (79.5)

Kedon Slovis has flashed at points in USC’s high-volume passing offense, but he still has more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws in his college career. Most of the talent at the wide receiver position has left for the NFL, with Drake London being the one remaining option who played at least 100 snaps last year. At +400 odds, our simulation finds value on the Trojans to win the Pac-12. 

17. TEXAS LONGHORNS

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 11.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: DI Keondre Coburn (75.8)

Texas will finally have a new look under center with Sam Ehlinger finishing off a productive but sometimes underwhelming college career. Texas never won the Big 12 title game and now opens the 2021 season with its longest odds since 2016. 

Quarterback Casey Thompson has only 34 career dropbacks but showed a propensity to target receivers downfield on the shortest of sample sizes. He offers more dual-threat ability than Ehlinger and forms one of the most dynamic backfields in the country alongside Bijan Robinson

18. MIAMI (FL) HURRICANES

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 7.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: QB D’Eriq King (90.6)

Our simulation results fit in well with the betting market expectation for the Hurricanes, who are tied for the 14th-shortest odds to win the national championship. They are tied with North Carolina for the second-shortest odds to win the ACC championship game, as Clemson is once again a heavy favorite despite a completely remade offense. It’s not a significant stretch to say that D’Eriq King could be the top returning quarterback in the conference due to a playmaking ability unmatched by anyone in the ACC. That is enough of a reason to buy into Miami in 2021. 

19. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: FS Jaquan Brisker (82.8)

Penn State will be going back to Sean Clifford as its starting quarterback after an underwhelming 2020 that saw him earn a career-low PFF passing grade. And there is no clear plan at backup quarterback after Will Levis transferred to Kentucky.

Penn State is tied for the second-shortest odds to win the Big Ten title game, but the team doesn’t come close to its implied probability based on our simulation. It would take a performance we haven’t seen from Clifford yet for the Nittany Lions to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. 

20. OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 9.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: SS Tre Sterling (82.1)

Spencer Sanders returns to an offense without its top two playmakers from 2020. However, the backups in place have shown an ability to carry the significant workload once held by Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard. Landon Wolf and LD Brown have performed well in spot-start duty when the former top Cowboys suffered injuries. If they can perform up to that expectation over the entire season, then the Cowboys should once again challenge for the Big 12 title. 

21. IOWA STATE CYCLONES

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 11.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: TE Charlie Kolar (84.9)

Almost everyone is returning to Ames for an Iowa State squad that has national title aspirations. Our initial ELO ranking is lower on the Cyclones than the betting market, where they are currently priced as the eighth-most likely team to win the national championship (2.9% implied probability). 

If Brock Purdy finally lives up to lofty expectations, the Cyclones should easily be one of the favorites to play in the Big 12 title game. Right now, the market has this as a 50-50 proposition. 

22. BYU COUGARS

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: N/A
Highest-Graded Returning Player: HB Tyler Allgeier (92.1)

After losing the second-best quarterback in college football, not many expect the Cougars to live up to a top-25 ranking. Still, they have playmakers at skill positions and could be returning one of the best offensive lines in the country. Baylor Romney settling into a quarterback-friendly system could allow BYU to surprise again in 2021. 

23. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 3.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: DI Calijah Kancey (80.4)

Pittsburgh could easily be the team that our simulation disagrees most with the current betting market for teams in our top 25. The Panthers are in the group of teams with a .2% implied probability to win the national championship. Our simulation is higher on their odds to win the ACC title game, as the market has them as just the ninth-most likely team.

Kenny Pickett has earned a slightly above-average passing grade over the past two seasons and returns to college football with the second-most dropbacks among active quarterbacks. If continuity is what you seek, there are few options better than the 2021 Pittsburgh Panthers. 

24. INDIANA HOOSIERS

National Championship Win Probability: 1.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 7.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: LB Micah McFadden (85.8)

Indiana has playmakers returning on both sides of the ball, with our ELO rankings and simulation higher on the team than the current betting market expectation. The Hoosiers have a 5.9% implied probability to win the Big Ten title and are tied for the 24th-best odds to win the national championship. Michael Penix Jr. returning from his ACL injury to start the season should be a big boost to the Hoosiers' future outlook. 

25. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 5.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: WR Ronnie Bell (72.2)

The Wolverines always have a tough path to get to the Big Ten title game. They have the same odds as Penn State, with Ohio State being the heavy favorite with a 71.4% implied probability to win the Big Ten East.

Michigan's chances will be heavily tied to the play of Cade McNamara, who posted a 70.7 PFF passing grade on 72 dropbacks last season. This could finally be the year that the Wolverines overtake a rebuilding Ohio State team if McNamara breaks out.

26. UTAH UTES
27. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
28. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
29. WASHINGTON HUSKIES
30. COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS
31. TCU HORNED FROGS
32. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
33. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
34. UCF KNIGHTS
35. LOUISIANA RAGIN' CAJUNS
36. MEMPHIS TIGERS
37. APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS
38. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
39. BOISE STATE BRONCOS
40. MISSISSIPPI REBELS
41. MISSOURI TIGERS
42. NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
43. NORTH CAROLINA STATE WOLFPACK
44. STANFORD CARDINAL
45. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
46. SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS
47. WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS
48. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
49. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
50. SMU MUSTANGS
51. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
52. TULANE GREEN WAVE
53. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
54. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
55. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
56. MARYLAND TERRAPINS
57. UAB BLAZERS
58. TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE
59. COLORADO BUFFALOES
60. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
61. BUFFALO BULLS
62. AIR FORCE FALCONS
63. LIBERTY FLAMES
64. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS
65. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
66. WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
67. ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS
68. CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
69. NEVADA WOLF PACK
70. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
71. UCLA BRUINS
72. WESTERN MICHIGAN BRONCOS
73. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
74. BAYLOR BEARS
75. MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD
76. HOUSTON COUGARS
77. GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES
78. TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS
79. FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS
80. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
81. TOLEDO ROCKETS
82. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
83. TROY TROJANS
84. OREGON STATE BEAVERS
85. FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS
86. OHIO BOBCATS
87. BALL STATE CARDINALS
88. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
89. MIAMI (OH) REDHAWKS
90. WYOMING COWBOYS
91. EAST CAROLINA PIRATES
92. UTSA ROADRUNNERS
93. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
94. KENT STATE GOLDEN FLASHES
95. HAWAII WARRIORS
96. LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS
97. GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS
98. COLORADO STATE RAMS
99. WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS
100. ARIZONA WILDCATS
101. RICE OWLS
102. CENTRAL MICHIGAN CHIPPEWAS
103. CONNECTICUT HUSKIES
104. SYRACUSE ORANGE
105. TEMPLE OWLS
106. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
107. NAVY MIDSHIPMEN
108. RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS
109. CHARLOTTE 49ERS
110. ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES
111. NEW MEXICO LOBOS
112. SOUTHERN MISS GOLDEN EAGLES
113. OLD DOMINION MONARCHS
114. USF BULLS
115. NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN
116. EASTERN MICHIGAN EAGLES
117. KANSAS JAYHAWKS
118. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL GOLDEN PANTHERS
119. UNLV REBELS
120. UTAH STATE AGGIES
121. MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS
122. SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS
123. NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES
124. NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES
125. UTEP MINERS
126. MASSACHUSETTS MINUTEMEN
127. LOUISIANA-MONROE WARHAWKS
128. TEXAS STATE BOBCATS
129. BOWLING GREEN FALCONS
130. AKRON ZIPS

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