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College football rankings: Alabama, Clemson lead way-too-early top 25 for 2021 season

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College football rankings: Alabama, Clemson lead way-too-early top 25 for 2021 season

An unprecedented 2020 college football season comes to its conclusion Monday when No. 1 Alabama plays No. 3 Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game.

All that uncertainty makes it impossible to project what lies ahead in 2021. That said, Sporting News enjoys talking about college football in the offseason, which will come with new storylines — even if the same old teams are at the top.

SN’s way-too-early top 25 for 2021 features several of those contenders among the top five. These rankings are bound to change throughout the offseason with early NFL Draft entries, the transfer portal and the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That said, we’re still going to talk about it:

MORE: Sporting News’ 2020 All-Americans

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College football rankings 2021

1. Alabama

How could a team that is replacing six first-team All-Americans reload? By Continuing “The Process” under Nick Saban. It’s Bryce Young’s turn at quarterback, and Trey Sanders, Jase McClellan, John Metchie and Jahleel Billingsley are next in line as playmakers. The defense should improve too with Will Anderson Jr. and the potential return of Christopher Allen, who combined for 20 sacks in 2020. The season opens with Miami, and there are road dates at Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn. It’s never easy, but the Tide seem well-equipped to handle the challenge.

2. Clemson

D.J. Uiagalelei has offered a glimpse of life after Trevor Lawrence, and it’s clear the Tigers’ offense is in good hands with the former five-star recruit. Lyn-J Dixon will finally step into a starting role at running back, and E.J. Williams and Frank Ladson should take the next step at receiver. Defensive end Myles Murphy and linebacker Trenton Simpson gained valuable experience as freshmen, and the return of James Skalski is huge for a defense that faces a big test out of the gate against Georgia.

3. Ohio State

The Buckeyes likely will lose quarterback Justin Fields to the NFL draft, and that should leave a wide-open competition with C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and incoming five-star freshman Kyle McCord. Whoever takes over will have an absurd amount of talent to work with at the receiver position, led by Garrett Wilson. The defense loses a lot, but Tommy Togiai, Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith can retool the defensive line. Ryan Day has enough to lead a fifth straight Big Ten championship run.

4. Oklahoma

The Sooners were one of the hottest teams at the end of the 2020 season, and Spencer Rattler should be even better in his second year as a starter under coach Lincoln Riley. The tandem of Marcus Major and Seth McGowan in the running game should be fantastic, and Marvin Mims and Theo Wease should be Rattler’s top two targets. The defense improved too, though some key players have a decision to make with the 2021 NFL Draft. Oklahoma will be an “it” team after the strong finish and Cotton Bowl victory against Florida. Will that lead to a fifth CFP appearance?

5. Georgia

JT Daniels steadied the quarterback position late in the season, and the Bulldogs have enough depth built by Kirby Smart’s recruiting to make yet another run toward an SEC championship and Playoff berth. Running back Zamir White and receiver George Pickens are back, too, as well as Georgia’s top two tacklers Nakobe Dean and Lewis Cine. The opener against Clemson is another chance to flex on the national stage.

6. Notre Dame

The Irish — who return to independent status in 2021 — face heavy losses on both sides, including quarterback Ian Book. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has experience, and there are playmakers returning in running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree and tight end Michael Mayer. The offensive line and front seven will need rebuilt, but Brian Kelly successfully retooled both sides of the ball the last three seasons. The matchup against Wisconsin at Soldier Field is an interesting test to see how the interior will hold up on both sides.

7. Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher put the program in the College Football Playoff conversation for the first time in 2020. Now, the challenge is to keep it there. The Aggies lose a loaded senior class, with either Zach Calzada or Haynes King taking over for veteran quarterback Kellen Mond. The good news is leading rusher Isaiah Spiller, top receiver Ainias Smith and All-American guard Kenyon Green return. The defense allowed just 21.7 points per game in 2019. The cross-over schedule is friendly, and Auburn and Alabama have to visit College Station.

8. Florida

The Gators flopped in the bowl game, and key components of that potent passing attack — quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarious Toney — are headed to the next level. That said, Dan Mullen has led three consecutive runs to New Year’s Day 6 bowls, and the offense will change with Emory Jones under center. The other challenge is rebuilding the offensive line. Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox will lead a talented defense. This season will test whether Florida can reload and consistently compete for an SEC championship.

9. Iowa State

Believe it. Matt Campbell has built a special culture in Ames, and quarterback Brock Purdy opted to return for his senior season along with tight end Chase Allen, offensive lineman Sean Foster, tight end Charlie Kolar and linebacker Mike Rose. Add All-American running back Breece Hall and you have the makings of the “it” team of the offseason.

10. Cincinnati

The Bearcats showed they could compete in a New Year’s Day bowl loss to Georgia. The return of quarterback Desmond Ridder ensures the Bearcats will be right back in the mix for another American Athletic Conference championship. Jerome Ford will be the lead back in that run-heavy attack, and Luke Fickell continues to build with Ohio-centric recruiting classes. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is a star of a defense that will have to rebuild the front seven and replace defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. The Bearcats have road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, too.

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11. Texas

Where else are we going to put Texas? The talent is there on offense, and it’s on new coach Steve Sarkisian to make it work with either Casey Thompson or Hudson Card at quarterback. The good news is Bijan Robinson and a talented group of receivers lead that offense, and the key (as usual) will be an improved defense. The Longhorns lost three games by a combined total of 13 points this season. Can Sarkisian be the difference in those close games?

12. LSU

This feels like the right spot for LSU, which bottomed out after a national championship season before building late-season momentum around quarterback Max Johnson and some young playmakers. The victory against Florida showed that talent, and Ed Orgeron’s biggest adjustment will come with the next defensive coordinator. Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are back at cornerback. That’s a good place to start.

13. USC

The Trojans took some of the heat off Clay Helton this season, and the recruiting has stabilized in the last two cycles. Kedon Slovis returns as the best quarterback in the Pac-12. Star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown declared for the NFL Draft, but Drake London returns. Korey Foreman, the top recruit in the class of 2021, should make an early impact, too. The standard remains a Pac-12 championship, which has eluded the program since 2017.

14. North Carolina

Mack Brown led the Tar Heels to a New Year’s Day 6 Bowl in his second season — a testament to the quick rebuild in Chapel Hill. Junior quarterback Sam Howell could be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, and that’s a good start for an offense that needs to rebuild the running game. The secondary should be a strength too, though North Carolina still needs to be more consistent on a week-to-week basis. With Howell, that run to the ACC championship game is possible.

15. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys are in their usual spot, but Mike Gundy should have another productive offense around quarterback Spencer Sanders, who closed the season strong in the Cheez-It Bowl. Offensive lineman Josh Sills returns, and the system has a knack for producing fresh skill-position talent. Oklahoma State made improvements on defense in 2020, and that will need to continue to keep pace with Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State. The Cowboys were 1-2 against those teams last season.

16. Indiana

The Hoosiers exceeded expectations in 2020. Now, the challenge is handling preseason hype that Tom Allen has built in Bloomington. Michael Penix Jr.’s return from a season-ending injury is the starting point for that return. Whop Philyor is gone, but Ty Fryfogle is back. That said, the Hoosiers need to create a more efficient running game. Will Micah McFadden return to a defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game? An opener at Iowa is an interesting tone-setter for both teams.

17. Iowa

Spencer Petras and Tyler Goodson return at quarterback and running back, respectively and the offensive line is led by Rimington Trophy finalist Tyler Linderbaum, who bypassed the NFL Draft. Zach VanValkenburg’s return also is a boost for the defensive line. Crossover opponents Indiana and Penn State visit Kinnick Stadium, and the Hawkeyes are next in line to take a shot at four-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State.

18. Miami

The Hurricanes would be ranked higher if not for D’Eriq King’s knee injury suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. The talent is returning to Coral Gables on both sides of the ball, and Manny Diaz made the right move with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Miami’s good enough to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division title, but the measuring stick for anything more comes in the opener against Alabama.

19. Wisconsin

COVID-19 wrecked Wisconsin’s season before it really started, and the offense was hit or miss with quarterback Graham Mertz. The rushing attack needs to be rebuilt, but the defense returns enough talent among the back seven to re-establish the Badgers in the Big Ten West. Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan all have to come to Camp Randall Stadium, too.

20. Oregon

The Ducks had Playoff aspirations this season, but a pair of Pac-12 losses cut short that run. Oregon did win the Pac-12 championship, however, and Mario Cristobal has recruited well on the West Coast. Tyler Shough returns at quarterback, and Travis Dye hasn’t made a decision for the NFL draft yet. The offensive line was solid despite inexperience, and Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell will lead what should be a tough defense. A trip to Ohio State on Sept. 11 is a huge test.

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21. Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin led Ole Miss to a 5-5 season and a bowl victory with an offense that averaged 39.2 points per game. Quarterback Matt Corral and running back Jerrion Ealy return to that high-powered offense, which will have to replace the production left by All-American receiver Elijah Moore. The Rebels are going to score points with Kiffin, but the question remains whether they can build a defense that can challenge for something more.

22. Auburn

Auburn is the fifth team from the SEC West on this list, and it’s an intriguing transition to first-year coach Bryan Harsin. The former Boise State coach will be introduced to a rough schedule that includes a nonconference matchup against Penn State and road trips with LSU and Texas A&M before the Iron Bowl. Junior quarterback Bo Nix will make that transition a little smoother, but the standards never change for a program striving for more year-to-year consistency.

23. Coastal Carolina

Grayson McCall returns after a fantastic freshman season in which he finished with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. SN Coach of the Year Jamey Chadwell has built a winner in an unlikely place, but the challenge now is to maintain that against other Sun Belt powers such as Louisiana and Appalachian State.

24. Army

The Black Knights shuffled their quarterbacks this season, and they return three of their top four rushers from an attack that averaged 272.8 rushing yards per game this season. Jeff Monken has built a consistent inner at West Point, and the schedule features a late-season showdown with another up-and-coming independent in Liberty.

25. Penn State

Everything that could go wrong did for the Nittany Lions in 2020, but quarterback Sean Clifford returns to what should be an improved team. Senior receiver Jahan Dotson will return, as will running back Devyn Ford. James Franklin still has a lot of talent on the roster, and it needs to show up before the gap with Ohio State widens more.

Just missed: West Virginia, N.C. State, Liberty, Northwestern

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Masahiro Tanaka free agency: Right-hander returns to Japan after seven years with Yankees

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Masahiro Tanaka free agency: Right-hander returns to Japan after seven years with Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka is back pitching in Japan after completing a mostly successful tenure with the Yankees.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles announced Thursday that Tanaka had returned to his original club, which posted him in late 2013 so he could play stateside. Terms were not disclosed. Reports on Wednesday said the sides were close to an agreement.

Tanaka, 32, became an MLB free agent in the offseason after his seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees expired. He was solid during his time in the Bronx, posting a 3.74 ERA in the regular season and a 3.33 mark in the postseason. 

Tanaka put up those numbers despite pitching almost his entire Yankees career with a partial elbow ligament tear. He was hurt during the 2014 season but opted to rehab and treat the injury rather than have surgery.

MORE: Why did the Yankees trade Adam Ottavino?

Last year, he started his season a week late after suffering a concussion during summer camp. He was struck in the head by a Giancarlo Stanton line drive during live batting practice at Yankee Stadium.

He publicly opened the door to a return to Japan around New Year’s when he said in a radio interview that he would consider signing with the Golden Eagles or the Yomiuri Giants. Before then, his focus reportedly was on re-signing with the Yankees.

While Tanaka stayed on the market, New York traded for Jameson Taillon and signed free agent Corey Kluber. They join a rotation that has multiple question marks after Gerrit Cole.

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Glazers in? Divisive family on verge of success with Manchester United, Buccaneers

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Glazers in? Divisive family on verge of success with Manchester United, Buccaneers

Glazers out.

Many times over the last 15 years these words have been seen scrawled on a banner or posted on social media.

The Glazer family famously owns world soccer powerhouse Manchester United and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Its leadership of both organizations isn’t really associated with success, with the Red Devils and Bucs both going through extensive periods without much glory.

MORE: Man Utd loss to Sheffield United had been coming | Brady leads Bucs to NFC title

But in recent times, the two clubs have turned it around on the field: The Bucs have made it to Super Bowl 55 and Manchester United is a realistic title contender for the first time in nearly eight years.

American businessman Malcolm Glazer and his six children purchased the Bucs franchise for a then-record $192 million in January 1995. The team hadn’t reached the playoffs since 1982 and had won just 87 games in 19 seasons prior to the purchase. The franchise picked up in the years after.

Following four visits to the playoffs in five seasons, Tampa Bay won its only Super Bowl title in 2003 against the then-Oakland Raiders, in Jon Gruden’s first campaign as the team’s head coach.

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The Bucs struggled to replicate the success in following seasons, and the Glazers eventually fired the long-serving Gruden in 2008. That began a spiral that wouldn’t see the team qualify for the playoffs until 2020.

Between 2008 and 2019, the Glazers hired and fired four coaches as the franchise managed just two winning seasons. Current coach Bruce Arians was hired in 2019 and then legendary quarterback Tom Brady arrived in March last year. Their leadership has driven the Bucs to the Super Bowl.

The Glazers’ purchase of Manchester United in 2005 has seen the English Premier League giants embark on an eerily similar path as the Bucs despite the vast differences in their historical success.

With sons Joel and Avram by his side, Malcolm Glazer controversially took control of the Red Devils while they were in the midst of a glorious era under Sir Alex Ferguson and with players of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs in the squad.

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The club’s supporters weren’t happy with the American family buying the club because the deal saddled the financial powerhouse with debt of around $900 million as the Glazers used a leveraged buyout plan financed by loans for the purchase.

On the field, the situation wasn’t much better. Chelsea, under master coach Jose Mourinho, won the Premier League title in 2004-05 and 2005-06 during the early stages of the Glazer ownership at Old Trafford.

A stroke and illness to patriarch Malcolm Glazer in 2006 led to sons Joel and Avram assuming leadership of the Red Devils. The elder Glazer died in 2014.

Protests were regularly seen inside and outside Old Trafford, with “Glazers out” emblazoned on banners at nearly every match.

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Just like with the Bucs, Manchester United was building in the early days of the Glazer leadership, before a sustained period of success in which the Red Devils won the next three Premier League titles and five of the next seven.

This was achieved under the leadership Joel and Avram Glazer, with Malcolm taking a back seat after his stroke.

However, the retirement of the legendary Ferguson as Man Utd coach at the end of 2013 saw the Red Devils experience a decline similar to what occurred with the Bucs.

Just like with the coaching turnover with the Bucs, the Glazers couldn’t settle on a manager at the Theatre of Dreams. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho were all hired and fired without really getting close to a league title.

Suddenly, almost surprisingly, both the Bucs and Manchester United are contenders to win their domestic titles in 2020.

The Bucs have been rewarded by sticking with Arians after a 7-9 campaign last season. The signing of Brady, who many thought was well past his best at 43, now looks inspired.

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At Manchester United, the Glazers installed club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a coach with a modest record in the profession but a personality who understood the culture at Old Trafford through his playing years at the club.

Despite Solskjaer’s struggles at times, the Glazers and club’s hierarchy have stuck with the novice Norwegian and it seems as if they are being rewarded. The Red Devils are in Premier League title contention and among the favorites to win the FA Cup.

It seems both Man United and the Bucs have enjoyed a meteoric rise at least partly because of the stability installed in the club by the Glazers after years of tumult and short-term fixes.

Even though the Glazers have been in charge for a long time, it seems a method for success in their ownership may have finally been found.

Glazers in?

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Who is David Culley? Texans bringing in veteran NFL assistant as head coach

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Who is David Culley? Texans bringing in veteran NFL assistant as head coach

David Culley is finally getting his opportunity to lead an NFL team after working for more than a quarter-century as a pro assistant. He is about to become the Texans’ new head coach, replacing Bill O’Brien and interim coach Romeo Crennel, according to multiple reports Wednesday night.

Culley, 65, is joining Houston by way of Baltimore, where he worked the past two seasons as the Ravens’ assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. That means he’s moving from Lamar Jackson to, for the moment, Deshaun Watson. Whether Watson will be behind center for the Texans in Week 1 remains to be seen.

MORE: The hunt to find Deshaun Watson jersey-swapped onto every NFL team

If Watson does stay, then he will be playing for a respected NFL coaching vet whose history is on the offensive side of the ball.

A quick SN sketch of Culley, who inherits a 4-12 team that may be in transition in the offseason:

Culley is the newest branch on the Andy Reid coaching tree

Culley was a part of Reid’s staff in Philadelphia and Kansas City for a combined 18 seasons (1999-2016) before moving to the Bills (and ex-Reid assistant Sean McDermott) in 2017 and then the Ravens (and ex-Reid assistant John Harbaugh) in 2019. He was Reid’s wide receivers coach in both places, adding assistant HC duties along the way.

Reid, who is preparing the Chiefs for Super Bowl 55, pointed out some of Culley’s top personal traits.

Positive energy and people skills will be needed after the Texans’ poor season, which left star pass-rusher J.J. Watt frustrated.  

Personal qualities aside, Culley is a first-time head coach with no experience as a full-time coordinator, but the Houston Chronicle reported that new Texans general manager Nick Caserio told Culley in their second interview that Caserio had no issues with that lack of experience.

Culley had a long college coaching career before the NFL

He began in the college ranks in 1978 with Austin Peay. Stops at Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State, Chattanooga, Southwestern Louisiana, UTEP and Texas A&M followed before he was hired by the Buccaneers in 1994.

Former Aggies coach R.C. Slocum lauded his ex-assistant for his character.

“He’ll do a great job. He is the kind of guy in the clubhouse that players want to play for. He’ll rally the guys around him,” Slocum told the Chronicle after learning that the Texans were about to hire Culley.

He edged out former NFL head coaches for the Texans job

The Chronicle reported that the Texans also interviewed Leslie Frazier, Jim Caldwell and Marvin Lewis for the job, as well as assistants Matt Eberflus, Brandon Staley (who became the Chargers’ head coach) and Joe Brady.

WATSON TRADE TRACKER: Timeline of rumors, dysfunction

Per the Chronicle, they also interviewed Eric Bieniemy, Reid’s current offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Watson reportedly became upset when the Texans initially did not follow his suggestion to talk to Bieniemy. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes reportedly gave Bieniemy a strong recommendation in a conversation with Watson. 

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