Sporting News’ top 40 college football players for 2021, ranked

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Sporting News top 40 college football players for 2021 features nine quarterbacks.

Our list starts and ends with quarterbacks listed among the Heisman Trophy favorites this season, a group that will try to fill the void left by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Albama’s Mac Jones. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler leads this year’s list, but the competition at the position is deep. 

Per usual, this list is dominated by the Southeastern Conference. A total of 11 SEC players made the list, and the Big 12 finished second with seven players. The Big Ten and ACC had six players apiece. 

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Who else made the list? Sporting News presents its Top 40 for 2021:

  • It’s a big year for Daniels, who averaged 10.3 yards per attempt with a 178.5 quarterback rating after taking over the starting job late last season. Daniels took better care of the football, and a full offseason with offensive coordinator Todd Monken should produce even more numbers. Can Daniels lead that long-awaited push to a national championship?

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  • Bigsby did not take long to become established as a physical runner in the SEC. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry as a freshman, and he capped the season with a 192-yard performance against Mississippi State. Bryan Harsin excels at maximizing running backs, and that came in the form of six 1,000-yard rushers the last seven seasons at Boise State. Bigsby fits the profile for success.

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  • Rose, the returning Big 12 defensive player of the year, enjoyed a breakout season with 99 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and a conference-best five interceptions. He’s one of the most-athletic linebackers in the FBS, and his decision to come back to school was a pleasant surprise for the Cyclones.

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  • Smith transferred from West Virginia, and he’s a big get in the secondary for the Bulldogs. Smith averaged 55 tackles and five tackles for loss the last two seasons, and he had four interceptions for the Mountaineers. He should be active in Georgia’s defense.

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  • Get to know this Group of 5 standout. McCormick rushed for 1,467 yards and 11 TDs, and the 5-9, 200-pounder closed the season with 546 rushing yards in the Roadrunners’ last three games. He is a consistent producer who should continue that run in Conference-USA.

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  • Harris is the top-returning rusher in the SEC. He piled up 1,138 yards and 15 TDs while averaging 6.2 yards per carry for the Gamecocks last season. That included a 243-yard, five-TD outburst against Ole Miss. Harris should be the focal point of first-year coach Shane Beamer’s offense in 2021.

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  • Stills, a 280-pound interior lineman, averages four sacks per season with the Mountaineers. The senior continues to be a disruptive presence in the middle and appears ready for a full-fledged breakout in Morgantown.

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  • Lloyd is one of the most-consistent performers in the Pac-12, and that is because he is always around the ball. He’s averaged 7.4 tackles per game the past two seasons, and he totaled 10 tackles for loss in five games for the Utes in 2021.

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  • Kinnard has made 26 consecutive starts for Kentucky, and he piled up 79 knockdowns the past two seasons. At 6-5, 345 pounds, he is one of the most-imposing players in the FBS. He is on track to be a first-round tackle in the NFL, too.

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  • King is tasked with taking Miami to the next level in the ACC. He stood out last season with new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, and that led to a season with 2,866 passing yards, 536 rushing yards and 27 total TDs. He suffered a torn ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl, but King is on track to play in a monster opener against Alabama.

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  • Vaughn, a 5-5, 165-pound all-purpose back, is among the most-exciting players in the FBS. He put up 642 rushing yards and 434 receiving yards on 148 touches, an average of 7.3 yards per touch. He also averaged 20.7 yards per kickoff return.

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  • Ross missed last season after team doctors discovered a congenital fusion in his spine. Ross underwent surgery, and he has the potential to be one of the best comeback stories of the year in 2021. Ross caught 17 TDs and averaged 16.7 yards per catch in his first two seasons, so it is a scenario worth watching.

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  • Alabama returns a stellar group of linebackers that also includes Anderson, Christian Miller and Henry To’o To’o, and any one of those three could emerge as an All-American this season. Anderson should build on a fantastic freshman season in which he totaled 52 tackles, seven sacks and 10.5 sacks for loss. He put up seven sacks in Alabama’s last six games.

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  • Williams emerged as an all-around playmaker out of the backfield for the Irish, and he has a gift for making the big play at the right time. He finished with 1,125 rushing yards and 13 TDs, but he also had 35 receptions for 313 yards and a TD. With a new quarterback, Williams will take on an even more important role in 2021.

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  • USC has a deep tradition at the quarterback position, and Slovis has the opportunity to make his mark. The 6-2, 200-pound three-year starter is efficient — he has completed more than 70 percent of his passes with 47 TDs and 16 interceptions. Now, the task is to win the big games and lead a Pac-12 championship run.

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  • Kolar made the surprise decision to return for another season, and that gives Brock Purdy a go-to target in the passing game. Kolar had 10 red-zone TDs the last two seasons, but he also showed big-play capability with four TD receptions for 20 yards or more. He is a mismatch for Big 12 defenses.

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  • Northwestern has turned a corner as a program, and Joseph is another difference-maker who will keep that trending in the right direction. He finished with six interceptions in a breakout freshman season, and that included a one-handed pick against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. He also totaled four interceptions against Wisconsin and Iowa. He is a perfect fit for longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald.

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  • The former five-star recruit can make the highlight-reel catch at any time. The 6-3, 193-pound junior put up four 100-yard games at the start of last season, and he will continue to see favorable coverage with a loaded group of receivers in Columbus. He could move up this board with ease.

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  • Green emerged as a dominant run blocker as a sophomore with the Aggies. Texas A&M averaged 202.9 rushing yards per game, and the 325-pound interior lineman showed improvement with each week. He played 691 snaps last season, and that durability is a major plus for Texas A&M in the SEC West.

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  • Ohio State returns a dominant defensive line in 2021. Garrett, who creates havoc on the interior, is the hidden key to their success. He is the highest-rated defensive tackle in the FBS according to Pro Football Focus, and that athleticism can only lead to more statistical production (and more sacks for his teammates).

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  • Mims had 37 receptions as a freshman, and nine of those catches went for TDs. He is the vertical target for Spencer Rattler, and he averaged 16.5 yards per catch and is a threat in the return game. With a full offseason, Mims has the potential to be the best receiver in the FBS. The offense will create those opportunities.

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  • Dotston is yet another talented receiver bound to build on a strong 2020 season. He averaged 17.0 yards per catch in five games with 100-plus yards. He touched up Ohio State for 144 yards and three TDs, and his ability to make the acrobatic catch is an added bonus.

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  • Gabriel took full advantage of the opportunity to be the Knights’ starting quarterback. He has averaged 3,611 passing yards and 31 TDs the past two seasons as UCF has averaged 42.9 points per game. He doesn’t turn the ball over often, and he should improve his completion percentage with new coach Gus Malzahn. We like the upside.

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  • Gardner is yet another reason why Cincinnati brings a playoff-caliber defense into the 2021 season. He is a lock-down cornerback who averaged 30 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups per season, and QBs have a 35.3 passer rating when throwing at him according to PFF. With a nickname like “Sauce,” you know Gardner can bring it.

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  • Nick Saban continues to churn out reliable offensive line talent, and Neal is the next first-round pick. The 6-7, 360-pound right tackle has made 26 starts between tackle and guard, and he allowed just 1.5 sacks last year while making the transition. He is the anchor of yet another dominant offensive line in Tuscaloosa.

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  • Robinson is another super sophomore expected to break out this season, and he averaged an incredible 8.0 yards per carry as a freshman. That potential surfaced in the last two games, where he rushed 19 times for 355 yards and four TDs against Kansas State and Colorado. That home-run hitting ability will translate with first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

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  • The five-star sophomore learned on the job last season, and there are flashes of dominance that should become more frequent. Bresee had four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, and he is surrounded by four- and five-star talent. There is a high ceiling, and Bresee appears ready to touch it.

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  • Leal has helped lead Jimbo Fisher’s revival at Texas A&M, and should improve with Mike Elko in College Station. The 6-4, 290-pounder is consistent against the run, and he should add to that sack total. Look for Leal to be the next first-round pick off the Aggies’ defensive line, even if he is a different blend of player than Von Miller and Myles Garrett.

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  • Bonitto is a high-energy player off the edge for the Sooners. He averaged six sacks and nine tackles for loss the last two seasons, and he finished strong with 6.5 sacks in Oklahoma’s last four games. He can help the Sooners answer the big question about that defense in 2021.

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  • Olave remains one of the purest route runners in college football, and his decision to return for another season is huge for Ohio State. He has 110 receptions and 22 career TDs, and he showed consistency with 100-yard performances in five of seven games. That counts in a high-yield offense.

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  • Corral led all quarterbacks with 3,843 yards of total offense in 2020. He passed for 29 TDs and 13 interceptions, but he also rushed for 506 yards for an offense that put up 39.2 points per game. Lane Kiffin’s play-calling and Corral’s play-making ability are a beautiful match.

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  • There are big shoes to fill at Clemson with Lawrence gone, but Uiagalelei has the frame at 6-4, 250 pounds to be the literal next big thing. He played in two high-profile starts against Boston College and Notre Dame. He finished with 914 yards, five TDs and no interceptions as a freshman, and he showed a knack for scoring rushing TDs in the red zone with four scores. Clemson’s offense is in good hands, and the potential for a national championship run is there.

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  • Hall was a first-team SN All-American in 2020, and he led the FBS with 1,606 yards from scrimmage. He scored at least one TD in every game, and that kind of consistency in the backfield should continue in his junior season. Hall has 13 games with at least 100-yards rushing the last two seasons.

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  • Hamilton’s versatility is a trademark in the Notre Dame secondary. He averaged more than 50 tackles the last two seasons, and that comes with 5.5 tackles for loss and five interceptions. That high-level play makes him a mismatch for offenses, and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will find ways to exploit that for the Fighting Irish.

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  • The Rimington Trophy finalist returned for a redshirt junior season, and that is good news for Iowa given he has made 19 starts the last two seasons. He had a higher PFF grade than Alabama’s Landon Dickerson last season. The 6-3, 290-pounder figures to be a dominant offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

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  • Stingley Jr. averaged three interceptions and 10 pass breakups the last two seasons, and there is no doubting the potential first-round talent given what he offers in tackling and the return game. That said, Stingley Jr. had a sophomore slump, and there is more to prove with new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones.

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  • Thibodeaux was a SN Preseason All-American in 2020, and his talent translates into a top-five pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He compiled 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks for the Ducks the last two seasons, and he has the tools to be the best edge rusher in the FBS. A full Pac-12 season will help those totals.

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  • Howell has been at the center of a super-quick rebuild under Mack Brown, and he enters his third year as a starter near the front of the Heisman conversation. Howell averaged 10.3 yards per attempt the last two seasons, and he piled up 7,224 yards, 68 TDs and 14 interceptions the last two seasons. Howell is a next-level player who can put the Tar Heels on his back, and a run to the ACC championship game is possible.

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  • Rattler is the Heisman favorite, and he enters a second season with Lincoln Riley carrying College Football Playoff and national championship expectations. Rattler followed Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, but he forged his own path with a torrid streak in Oklahoma’s last eight games where he averaged 255.8 passing yards with 18 TDs and two interceptions.

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