Georgia will be the top challenger to Alabama in 2021

The latest college football recruiting cycle is finished. The movement through the transfer portal has slowed. Most seniors have decided whether they’ll accept an extra season of NCAA eligibility or move on to getting paid a salary for their work. It’s a good time to look at which teams have the best chance to win the next College Football Playoff championship.

The consensus among national pundits and the signals from the betting markets are that Georgia is top four(ish) behind Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma. Those three programs have multiple College Football Playoff appearances since Georgia was last in it. I understand that past performance is part of their high standing in 2021.

I disagree that’s how it will shake out in the future. I’m taking Georgia over everyone except Bama.

Before I make that case, here’s a look at how some national experts rank the top 5:

Most of those rankings were released soon after Alabama’s CFP Championship game victory over Ohio State. Not much has changed for the top teams since. The players expected to go pro did so. The most significant coaching staff change was known before the title game: Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to Texas as head coach.

The recently published SP+ statistical projections by ESPN’s Bill Connelly pretty agree with the human pundits. The top four are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Oregon is No. 5 and Georgia is No. 6. One of those is not like the others, but I guess we’ll find out quickly if Oregon is for real. The Ducks visit Ohio State on Sept. 11.

Anyway, you can pretty much pencil in the top three or so championship contenders no matter what. The only (mild) upset to that formula was LSU wining the 2019 national title after it was No. 6 in the preseason. The Tigers were better than that because transfer QB Joe Burrow and first-year passing game guru Joe Brady teamed up to produce an all-time great offense.

There doesn’t appear to be a QB like Burrow among the transfers this year. Each of the four teams in the last CFP will be replacing their quarterback with a relative unproven player. The combined number of passes thrown in 2020 by their potential replacements is 145. Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei accounts for 117 of those attempts.

Having Daniels as returning QB gives Georgia an edge. The Bulldogs are in a relatively better position than this time last year. Jake Fromm was gone to the NFL, and there was uncertainty about how Wake Forest transfer QB Jamie Newman would do stepping up in class. Once Newman opted out, the QB situation was unsettled into November

Now Georgia has an incumbent quarterback with a good track record in the SEC. Granted, it’s a short resume. JT Daniels played in four games last season and was good. Add that to his one year as USC’s starter in 2018, and Daniels is the most experienced projected QB starter among the 2021 title contenders.

That’s a strong reason to like Georgia’s chances. The talent surrounding Daniels is another. Georgia is set to field its deepest group of wide receivers since 2018. Daniels was hurt last offseason; this year he can work with his receivers through the spring and summer. UGA will have to replace a couple of offensive linemen, but that’s hardly a worry with Kirby Smart always adding recruits.

Georgia’s defense isn’t a concern, either. The Bulldogs will have to replace talented players in the secondary. There should be little doubt they’ll do so successfully. It’s good for Georgia if its biggest questions are about the defense. Smart has always had the answers even as the roster turns over.

Georgia’s schedule is manageable, too. The Bulldogs open against Clemson in Charlotte. It’s probably better to face the Tigers before Uiagalelei gets more experience. Win that game, and the Bulldogs have a no-sweat slate until going to Auburn on Oct. 9. Auburn has a new coach and less experience than the five-loss team that Georgia blew out in 2020. At Florida, Emory Jones is replacing Kyle Trask, who carved up the Bulldogs in November.

Alabama isn’t on Georgia’s schedule this year. To (finally) win another national championship the Bulldogs surely will have to (finally) beat the Crimson Tide in the postseason. Among the usual busload of Bama players going pro is QB Mac Jones, who carved up Georgia in October. Joining him are running back Najee Harris and wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

Any other program would be reeling from that kind of talent drain (see: LSU, 2020). The expectation is that the Crimson Tide will replace those great players with more of them. Bama has earned every benefit of the doubt.

The Tide are set to replace Jones with Bryce Young, the top dual-threat QB in the 2020 recruiting class. Alabama’s historically good 2021 class includes three wide receivers ranked among the top 80 national recruits by 247Sports. We know the Tide have a recent history of freshman receivers becoming instant stars.

I concur with oddsmakers that Alabama (3-1) should be favored to win another national championship. I don’t buy that Clemson (3½-1) is nearly the Tide’s equal because the Tigers will have young wide receivers and a potentially shaky offensive line. Ohio State (4-1) won’t have QB Justin Fields or several other players who produced on offense and defense in 2020. The question for Oklahoma (8-1) is, as usual, whether it can field a defense good enough to slow the best opponents.

The Bulldogs (10-1) have long had the defense to win it all. They’ve been held back by the lack of explosive passing offense. That’s changing. Georgia has the pairing of proven QB and receivers to put up points. No other top CFP contender in 2021 will have that.

Give me Georgia as the top threat to the Tide in 2021.