2021 Season Preview: How Ohio State Stacks Up With This Year's Other Top National Championship Contenders

By Dan Hope on August 16, 2021 at 8:35 am
Ohio State's Chris Olave vs. Alabama's Christian Harris

Going into the 2021 college football season, there are five teams that stand out above the rest as frontrunners to win this year’s national championship.

While there’s no clear favorite to hoist the trophy at the end of this season, there is a consensus on the five teams who have the best shot at winning the College Football Playoff this year: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Alabama, the reigning national champion, is ranked No. 1 in the preseason Coaches Poll and is currently the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the title with +250 odds, per Bovada. Clemson has the second-best odds (+375) and is second in the preseason Coaches Poll. Oklahoma came in third in the preseason Coaches Poll but is currently fifth in odds (+700), Georgia is third in odds (+550) and fifth in the poll and Ohio State (+600) is fourth in both. No one else is viewed as a likely national champion in Vegas, with sixth-ranked Texas A&M holding 25/1 odds to win it all.

Ohio State certainly appears to be a legitimate contender for the national championship this season, but it’s likely going to have to get through some combination of the Crimson Tide, Tigers, Bulldogs and Sooners along the way. Given that, we start our 2021 Season Preview here at Eleven Warriors by taking a look at how Ohio State could stack up with each of the other preseason top-five teams at each position to get an idea of where the Buckeyes might have an advantage over their top competition for a title – and what could be the biggest question marks for each of the championship frontrunners.


Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson all enter the 2021 season with similar quarterback situations. After losing their star quarterbacks from 2020, who were all selected in the top 15 picks of this year’s NFL draft, all of them are projected to start second-year quarterbacks this year: D.J. Uiagalalei at Clemson, Bryce Young at Alabama and C.J. Stroud at Ohio State.

Among the top title contenders, only Oklahoma and Georgia have returning starters at quarterback. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler is arguably the best returning quarterback in college football and enters the season as the projected Heisman frontrunner, with +450 odds to win the trophy. Georgia’s JT Daniels was also a five-star recruit when he signed with USC out of high school, but he’s played in just five games over the past two years due to a knee injury, leaving lingering question marks about whether he’s an elite quarterback.

Young, Uiagalelei and Stroud were the three highest-ranked quarterbacks in the recruiting class of 2020, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all of them rank among the best quarterbacks in college football this year. That said, no quarterback on Ohio State’s roster has ever thrown a collegiate pass, while Young attempted just 22 passes in backup duty for Alabama last year. Uiagalelei did look the part of a future star as a freshman, when he made two starts while Trevor Lawrence was sidelined by COVID-19 and appeared in 10 total games, completing 78 of 117 passing attempts for 914 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions.

Ranking: 1. Oklahoma 2. Clemson 3. Georgia 4. Alabama 5. Ohio State

Running Backs

The only one of the top five contenders who returns its leading rusher from last season is George, whose Zamir White – a name that will be familiar to those who follow Ohio State recruiting closely – is back as the Bulldogs’ top running back after rushing for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games last year. James Cook and Kendall Milton (who was also heavily recruited by the Buckeyes) give Georgia a loaded depth chart at the position.

Oklahoma brings back its leading rusher from 2019, Kennedy Brooks, who opted out of the 2020 season but ran for 1,011 yards two years ago, when he seized the Sooners’ starting job away from Trey Sermon. The Sooners also added former Tennessee tailback Eric Gray, who was the top running back in the transfer portal this offseason.

Ohio State (TreVeyon Henderson), Clemson (Will Shipley) and Alabama (Camar Wheaton) add the top three running backs from the recruiting class of 2021 to their running back rosters, which are all likely to feature multiple running backs splitting carries. Miyan Williams, Master Teague and Henderson are all expected to be in the mix for the Buckeyes; Alabama is likely to be led by Brian Robinson Jr., who ran for 483 yards and six touchdowns last year, but Jase McClellan and Trey Sanders are other talented options; Clemson’s top returning veterans are Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace, who combined for just 265 yards on 60 carries in 2020.

Ranking: 1. Georgia 2. Oklahoma 3. Ohio State 4. Alabama 5. Clemson

Zamir White
Zamir White leads a loaded Georgia running back depth chart. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff – USA TODAY Sports)


There’s no debate about who has the best receiving corps in the country. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are arguably the two best individual wide receivers in college football, and they’re joined in Ohio State’s receiver rotation by potential breakout stars in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. That loaded group of wideouts, along with one of the nation’s best tight ends in Jeremy Ruckert, creates a nightmare matchup for any secondary.

That said, the other national championship contenders are loaded with receiving talent, too.

Clemson brings back Justyn Ross, who was one of college football’s best receivers in 2019 before he missed the entire 2020 season due to spinal surgery, and is also loaded with young potential stars at the position including Frank Ladson Jr., Joseph Ngata, E.J. Williams and a pair of true freshmen who were also heavily recruited by Ohio State, Beaux Collins and Troy Stellato.

Oklahoma is also loaded with talented pass-catchers; Marvin Mims (a Freshman All-American in 2020) and Theo Wease return as the Sooners’ top two wideouts from last season, while Jaden Haselwood and Mario Williams were highly touted recruits who could be breakout stars and Arkansas transfer Mike Woods had 1,248 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for the Razorbacks over the past three years.

Georgia lost star receiver George Pickens to a torn ACL in March, but returns its other starting wideouts from last season – Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton – and added former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert, who’s currently away from the team due to personal issues but has superstar potential if he plays this year. Gilbert is set to play wide receiver for the Bulldogs, who also have another potential young star at tight end in Darnell Washington.

Alabama isn’t quite as loaded at wide receiver this year as it has been for the past couple of years, which is why it added Jameson Williams after he chose to transfer from Ohio State, but John Metchie III and Williams give the Crimson Tide a strong pairing of outside receivers while Jahleel Billingsley is a weapon at tight end and true freshmen Jacorey Brooks, Agiye Hall and JoJo Earle were all top-50 overall recruits.

Ranking: 1. Ohio State 2. Clemson 3. Oklahoma 4. Alabama 5. Georgia

Offensive Line

If moving Thayer Munford to left guard and starting Dawand Jones at right tackle works out the way Greg Studrawa believes it can, Ohio State’s offensive line could be the best in college football. A lineup of Nicholas Petit-Frere, Munford, Harry Miller, Paris Johnson Jr. and Jones is one that’s absolutely loaded with size and athleticism, and the Buckeyes also have excellent depth on the line to make changes or replace injured players if needed.

Oklahoma’s offensive line is also expected to be one of college football’s best this year, with another Tennessee transfer – Wanya Morris, a highly touted left tackle – joining three returning senior starters in Marquis Hayes, Tyrese Robinson and Erik Swenson.

Georgia also returns three starters from last season, including one of the nation’s best offensive linemen in Jamaree Salyer, though it’s still uncertain whether Salyer will start at left tackle or center. Alabama also has one of the nation’s best offensive tackles in Evan Neal and an excellent right guard in Emil Ekiyor Jr.; it lost its three other starters from last season, though center Chris Owens was strong in the College Football Playoff after Landon Dickerson suffered a season-ending injury.

Clemson’s offensive line proved to be a weakness in its 49-28 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State last season, and that unit remains a question mark following the departure of left tackle Jackson Carman, as most of its projected starters weren’t top-ranked recruits.

Ranking: 1. Ohio State 2. Oklahoma 3. Alabama 4. Georgia 5. Clemson

Overall Offense

Oklahoma looks to have college football’s most complete offense this season, with experience and high-level talent in every position group. If Ohio State can get elite play from its new quarterback, though, the Buckeyes could easily have the nation’s best offense with all of their receiving weapons and talent up front. Georgia’s offense also has the makeup of a top-notch unit if J.T. Daniels can take the next step and become an elite QB.

Alabama’s offense has no glaring weaknesses, but it’s unlikely to be the offensive juggernaut it was a year ago after losing five offensive players who were first-round NFL draft picks. Clemson should have a dynamic passing attack, but its rushing offense looks weakest among the championship contenders.

Ranking: 1. Oklahoma 2. Ohio State 3. Georgia 4. Alabama 5. Clemson

Spencer Rattler
Spencer Rattler leads an Oklahoma offense that could be the nation's best in 2021. (Photo: Tim Heitman – USA TODAY Sports)

Defensive Line

Great college football teams typically have great defensive lines, and the five teams we’re comparing here might have the five best defensive lines in college football entering 2021.

Clemson returns its entire starting defensive line from last season, including a pair of 2020 Freshman All-Americans in Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, and could have the strongest defensive end rotation in the country with the returns of Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster, who were both sidelined due to tough battles with COVID-19 last year.

Ohio State is also loaded with experience up front, including All-American defensive tackle Haskell Garrett and defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith, while Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau also project to make an immediate impact on the edge, giving Larry Johnson’s unit the potential to re-emerge as a dominant force in 2021.

Oklahoma returns one of the nation’s best edge rushers in Nik Bonitto and a pair of second-team All-Big 12 defensive linemen from last season in Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey. Alabama’s 3-4 defense returns a stout trio of veteran defensive linemen in DJ Dale, LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis, though Ray could miss the start of the season with a groin injury. Georgia returns a pair of star defensive tackles, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, from a defense that led the Football Bowl Subdivision with only 72.3 rushing yards allowed per game last season.

Ranking: 1. Clemson 2. Ohio State 3. Oklahoma 4. Georgia 5. Alabama


Alabama probably already had the best linebacker unit in college football even before it beat out Ohio State for Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o. Will Anderson and Christopher Allen give the Crimson Tide an elite pair of outside linebackers who combined for 23.5 tackles for loss last season, while To’o To’o and Christian Harris could be the nation’s best inside linebacker duo. All four of them were SEC starters last season, and 2019 Freshman All-American Shane Lee provides additional depth.

Clemson’s linebacker corps should also be one of the nation’s best this year. Baylon Spector and James Skalski lead the unit as returning starters. Jake Venables, Trenton Simpson, LaVonta Bentley, Kane Patterson and Keith Maguire were also all in the mix last year, and true freshmen Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. have the talent to make immediate impacts.

Georgia also looks strong at linebacker. Nakobe Dean returns as the leading tackler from last season, while Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith offer high upside at outside linebacker; Anderson had 6.5 sacks as a rotational player last season, while Smith was the No. 1 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2019. Oklahoma has a pair of solid returning starters in DaShaun White and Columbus native Brian Asamoah, and it could get a spark from the return of Caleb Kelly, who was a star for the Sooners’ defense before missing the last two seasons with injuries.

While Ohio State has plenty of promising linebackers among the likes of Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, Dallas Gant and USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote among others, the position is a big question mark for the Buckeyes after they lost their top four linebackers from last season.

Ranking: 1. Alabama 2. Clemson 3. Georgia 4. Oklahoma 5. Ohio State

Will Anderson
Will Anderson leads a star-studded Alabama linebacker corps. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj – USA TODAY Sports)


Even with the departure of top-10 draft pick Patrick Surtain II, Alabama has the pieces for an elite secondary in 2021. Josh Jobe is one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, starting safeties Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright and star/nickelback Malachi Moore are also all back and Kool-Aid McKinstry could make an immediate impact as the No. 1 cornerback in the incoming recruiting class.

Georgia’s secondary also has huge upside with the additions of former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick and former West Virginia nickelback Tykee Smith – a first-team All-American last season – from the transfer portal. The Bulldogs are replacing a pair of top-33 overall NFL draft picks at cornerback, Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, but have another potential star in Kelee Ringo – the No. 1 cornerback from the recruiting class of 2020 – and experienced safeties in Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith.

Clemson’s secondary took a hit with Kendrick’s departure, but still has a strong pair of experienced starting cornerbacks in Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones as well as two returning starters at safety with Nolan Turner and Lannden Zanders. Oklahoma doesn’t have any superstars in its secondary, but it does have three returning starters in cornerback Woodi Washington and safeties Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields.

Ohio State’s secondary was a liability last season, but it should be at least somewhat better this year now that Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor have more experience, Cameron Brown is back from injury and young defensive backs like Lathan Ransom and Ryan Watts could be ready to play substantial roles.

Ranking: 1. Alabama 2. Georgia 3. Clemson 4. Ohio State 5. Oklahoma

Overall Defense

Alabama and Clemson are both loaded with talent and experience on defense. Either one of them could have the best defense in the country this year, as they should each be strong both up front and on the back end, though Alabama’s back seven could give it a slight edge. 

Georgia also has more than enough talent to field an elite defense, though it doesn’t have quite as many proven commodities as the Crimson Tide and Tigers. Oklahoma’s defense looks promising on paper, but Alex Grinch’s unit still has to prove it can hold up against top competition. Ohio State’s defense is as talented as anyone, but its back seven remains a major area of uncertainty that could make or break its championship hopes.

Ranking: 1. Alabama 2. Clemson 3. Georgia 4. Ohio State 5. Oklahoma

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