College News & Analysis

College Football: Ranking the top 10 offenses entering the 2021 season

Oct 31, 2020; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) warms up before the game against Boston College at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it’s college football or the NFL, building a potent offense is more vital to success than constructing a top-notch defense. That’s not to say defense isn't important — it certainly is — but the old saying of “defense wins championships” is no longer canon.

[Related: Top 10 defenses in college football ahead of 2021 season]

So, let’s dive into the teams that appear to have that box checked. Below are PFF’s top 10 offenses heading into the 2021 college football season. They were chosen based on a variety of factors, including PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine, PFF grades and other advanced stats.

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1. OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Only one college football team enters the 2021 season with a top-five quarterback, offensive play caller, receiving unit, running back and offensive line in PFF’s eyes: the Oklahoma Sooners. And for that reason, they are in the running to take home their first College Football Playoff crown and — as PFF’s Ben Brown said in the 2021 College Football Betting Guide — a good team to bet on to do so.

Oklahoma’s offense produced the fourth-best successful pass play rate among the 65 Power Five programs in 2019, and the three teams ahead of the Sooners all lost their starting quarterbacks. Oklahoma, meanwhile, returns Spencer Rattler, who turned in the best single-season grade by a redshirt or true freshman in the PFF College era last year (92.5). His arm talent and playmaking ability off structure are nothing short of exceptional.

While the Sooners' rushing efficiency was relatively average last year, they welcome back Kennedy Brooks, who didn’t play in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. In 2018 and 2019, no FBS running back churned out a higher rate of 10-plus-yard carries than Brooks (23.4%), and he led the Sooners to the third-most efficient ground game in the Power Five.

Despite all of that success elsewhere, Oklahoma's receivers — albeit a group with monumental potential — were prone to drops in big moments last year. Rattler led all FBS quarterbacks in big-time throws that were dropped in 2020 (eight). However, it's worth noting that drops are relatively unstable year to year.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

2. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

There's really only one positional question mark for Ohio State's offense entering 2021: quarterback. The Buckeyes have the clear-cut best wide receiver trio in college football with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and they also have the best offensive tackle tandem with Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere. But those players can only do so much to help get the team back into the College Football Playoff. Whether the Buckeyes get over that hump comes down to the play of new starting quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Stroud is a promising talent with an incredibly high ceiling, but it’s going to be a tall task replacing Justin Fields‘ production over the past couple of seasons. He was college football’s most valuable player in both 2019 and 2020, according to PFF Wins Above Average (WAA), and led Ohio State to the second-most efficient passing offense in the Power Five.

The 2020 top-50 recruit has already proven to have a big arm, and he can be a threat on the ground, too. His lone career carry resulted in a 48-yard touchdown. The potential is there for Stroud to be elite, but can he reach that high ceiling in Year 1?

3. CLEMSON TIGERS

Clemson already got a taste of what its offense will look like post-Trevor Lawrence, as 2020 top-10 recruit D.J. Uiagalelei started against Boston College and Notre Dame last year. And the returns were extremely promising.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

Showing off an absolute rocket for an arm and throwing lasers left and right, Uiagalelei earned an 83.6 passing grade with five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays. Those two games ended up among the Tigers' three most efficient passing offenses of the season. He’ll have a promising wide receiver tandem at his disposal in Justyn Ross and Joe Ngata, who are each seeking a bounce-back year after dealing with injuries in 2020.

The biggest thing to watch is the impact of Travis Etienne not leading the ground game. Contrary to the NFL, running backs actually are valuable at the college level — and none have been more so than Etienne. With him leading the way, Clemson fielded the most efficient rushing attack in the Power Five since 2018 by a significant margin. While new RB1 Lyn-J Dixon is a quality player, that production is unlikely to hold in 2021.

4. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Alabama's offense produced like no other over the past few seasons. The Crimson Tide generated a colossal 0.31 expected points added (EPA) per play since 2019, the highest in the Power Five by a substantial margin. The No. 2-ranked team generated 0.23, with the average of the 65 teams being zero. 

Alabama hasn't generated negative EPA per play in a single game since its 2018-19 title loss to Clemson. That means the team was in positive territory in every single game of Steve Sarkisian’s playcalling tenure over the past couple of years, and he is now Texas' head coach.

Along with welcoming in a new offensive play caller, Alabama will also have a new starting quarterback in Bryce Young while also riding with inexperienced but promising receivers. Young made a few too many mistakes in his mop-up duty time as a true freshman, but the 2020 No. 2-ranked overall recruit got through his progressions, flashed a good arm and showed an impressive ability to extend plays and make throws when knocked off rhythm.

Moral of the story: Alabama’s offense is still going to be damn good relative to other SEC squads. Young is a promising talent, wide receiver John Metchie III and running back Brian Robinson Jr. are top-10 players at their respective positions and tight end Jahleel Billingsley and wide receiver Agiye Hall look like prime breakout candidates.

Still, offensive regression should be expected from the Crimson Tide. The biggest question is how quickly their young players in prominent roles can get up to speed. That only makes their season-opener against D’Eriq King and the Miami Hurricanes more interesting.

5. GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Georgia starting quarterback JT Daniels is certainly not short of receiving threats despite losing top wide receiver George Pickens to a torn ACL in the spring. The Bulldogs added dynamic receiver Arik Gilbert, who looked like a baby version of Kyle Pitts in his 2020 true freshman season at LSU, and he joins a unit with sky-high potential. From tight end Darnell Washington, who is a physical freak at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds with an 85-inch wingspan and impressive wheels, to wide receiver Dominick Blaylock, who looks to finally stay healthy, to track star and deep threat Arian Smith, the receiving unit is right behind Ohio State for the best in college football.

The only question is, can Daniels seize the opportunity? While he certainly did in his Georgia debut start that ended in a 95.0 PFF grade and 0.52 expected points added (EPA) per pass, his other three outings in 2020 left much to be desired. His passing grade came in below 70.0 outside of his debut game against Mississippi State, and his performance in the Peach Bowl against a good Cincinnati defense was reminiscent of his 2018 season at USC when he earned a 58.6 grade.

Daniels is in a fantastic situation, including a strong supporting cast. Now, he needs to prove he is more than a one-hit wonder. Georgia's offense has such a high ceiling but also a lower floor than most teams on this list. The former is more than enough to place the Bulldogs' offense at No. 5 entering 2021.

6. COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS

With Grayson McCall returning as the starting quarterback, Coastal Carolina's dangerous option offense from 2020 is back for 2021. Unlike most option quarterbacks, McCall can execute an electric passing offense while also leading a strong run game.

He’s a pinpoint accurate passer, and he helped Coastal Carolina rank as a top-five passing offense in terms of expected points added per play last season. He earned a 92.6 passing grade and produced the third-lowest uncatchable pass rate in the FBS on throws of 10 or more yards downfield. Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely, McCall's top pass catchers from 2020, return to the Chanticleers' offense, too.

7. OLE MISS REBELS

Ole Miss fielded an offensive juggernaut in 2020 thanks to Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby’s fast-tempo, play-action-centric offense. The unit was the second-most efficient passing offense in the Power Five, generating an astounding 0.33 expected points added (EPA) per pass play against stiff competition.

Quarterback Matt Corral had a couple of blips as a passer, but overall, he executed the offense at a high level. He went on to finish the season with a 90.5 PFF grade.

The biggest question with this group is the loss of star slot receiver Elijah Moore, who was the third-highest-graded wide receiver in college football last season. There are some promising candidates to step in, but they won't touch Moore's production from last season. The Rebels at least have the quarterback and system in place to replicate their passing success from a season ago.

8. MIAMI HURRICANES

Quarterback D’Eriq King is reportedly recovering well from a torn ACL suffered at the end of the 2020 season, which is obviously fantastic news for the Hurricanes. When fully healthy, he’s an elite dual-threat quarterback, having earned a 90.6 PFF grade in 2020 that ranks in the top five among returning quarterbacks. He and Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee were the main reasons why The U fielded the second-most efficient passing offense in the ACC last season.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

Joining him is Oklahoma transfer wide receiver Charleston Rambo, who was at one point a major big-play threat for the Sooners. Back in 2019 with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, Rambo ranked third in the Big 12 in percentage of targets to result in a 15-plus-yard gain (28.6%). His production tailed off in 2020, but his resume is still impressive. If Rambo can get back to that level while veteran Mike Harley sustains his production from the second half of 2020, then this offense is going to be one of the most explosive units in college football.

An underrated aspect of this Hurricanes team is the big men they have blocking in the trenches. They return tackles Jarrid Williams and Zion Nelson, both of whom ranked inside the top 25 among Power Five tackles in pass-block grade in 2020. Guard Navaughn Donaldson also returns after missing most of 2020 due to injury. 

9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

North Carolina lands here because of one man only: quarterback Sam Howell. Howell is coming off a true sophomore campaign in which he was the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in college football (92.3). Over the past two seasons, he ranks first in the Power Five in 20-plus-yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654), touchdowns (32) and big-time throws (59 — 15 more than the next QB).

The big question mark with this group is how Howell fares without the slew of weapons he has had in his time leading the offense. His top two targets, wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, as well as one of the best running back duos of the PFF College era, Javonte Williams and Michael Carte, have all departed for the NFL ranks.

Now, Howell and play caller Phil Longo will be tasked with propping up the younger talent within the receiving unit. The Tar Heels ranked seventh in the Power Five in expected points added (EPA) per pass last season, but Howell will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to sustain that mark this fall. 

10. KENT STATE GOLDEN FLASHES

Kent State has quietly put together one of the top passing offenses in college football over the past couple of years. The Golden Flashes have generated 0.26 expected points added (EPA) per pass since 2019, the sixth-best mark in the FBS. It’s a favorable offense, but quarterback Dustin Crum has been nearly flawless while leading the charge in that span. He produced a top-10 passing grade over the past two seasons, anchored by the lowest turnover-worthy play rate in college football. Kent State has provided him with the third-highest play-action usage rate in college football since 2019, and he's led the Golden Flashes the second-most efficient offense in college football on those plays — behind only Alabama.

Crum can also do plenty of damage with his legs in the designed run game and is joined by a promising running back duo of Xavier Williams and Marquez Cooper. While it was on a smaller sample than most teams, Kent State also fielded the third-highest-graded rushing attack and produced the highest successful run play rate in the FBS last season.


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