College football was able to get back to something closer to a normal season in 2021, but the individual standout performances we saw were anything but normal.
The Home Depot College Football Awards on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) will celebrate these individuals, who helped bring us the joy and excitement of the sport that was disjointed by postponements, cancellations and abbreviated schedules in 2020.
Just as the awards presentation was in 2020, the two-hour special will be virtual once again this year.
Here are some of the awards that will be announced Thursday, along with the finalists, who I believe should win and my prediction for who will win:
Chuck Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year)
Finalists: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama; Jordan Davis, Georgia; Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame; Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Who should win: Anderson. Singularly, he’s been the best defensive player in college football this season. He has been a consistent force for the Alabama defense and has registered 15.5 total sacks this season and 32.5 tackles for loss, both best in the nation. However, Georgia’s defense has been a main character of the college football season, and Davis has been its leader and an absolute force on the field.
Who will win: Davis.
Biletnikoff Award (outstanding receiver)
Finalists: Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh; David Bell, Purdue; Jameson Williams, Alabama
Who should win: Addison. Along with his quarterback, Kenny Pickett, Addison had a breakout season in 2021. As a true sophomore, Addison caught 93 passes (seventh in FBS) for 1,479 yards (third in FBS) and 17 receiving touchdowns (first in FBS). In the College Football Playoff era, there have been just three Power 5 conference receivers with at least 90 catches, 1,500 total yards and 18 total touchdowns in a season: Justin Jefferson, DeVonta Smith and Addison. One of those guys is among the best receivers in the NFL, another just won the Heisman and the last should win this year’s Biletnikoff.
Who will win: Williams.
Lou Groza Collegiate Place-Kicker Award (outstanding place-kicker)
Finalists: Gabe Brkic, Oklahoma; Jake Moody, Michigan; Noah Ruggles, Ohio State
Who should win: Moody. The senior made 22 of his 24 field goal attempts and was a perfect 56-for-56 on extra points. I’m giving him the slight edge over Ruggles, who missed just one field goal, but had five fewer attempts. We’re splitting hairs between the two, so as long as one of them gets the award — cool.
Who will win: Moody.
Ray Guy Award (punter of the year)
San Diego State punter Matt Araiza kicks it from the end zone and pins Air Force inside its own 20 with a huge 81-yard punt.
Finalists: Matt Araiza, San Diego State; Adam Korsak, Rutgers; Jordan Stout, Penn State
Who should win: Araiza. He’s the LeBron James of punting. Araiza punted 76 times in the Aztecs’ 13 games for an average of 51.4 yards. If Araiza is able to maintain that average through their Frisco Bowl matchup against UTSA, it would give him the FBS record over Texas A&M’s Braden Mann, who averaged 51 yards per punt in 2018.
Who will win: Araiza.
Maxwell Award (college player of the year)
Finalists: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh; Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State; Bryce Young, Alabama
Who should win: Pickett. Some of our favorite college football players of all time felt like they were around for 10 or more years, and Pickett is one of those guys. He morphed into a different player in his super senior year gained from the pandemic. Prior to this season, his best year was his junior campaign in 2019, throwing for 3,098 yards, 13 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with a 61.6 completion percentage. In 2021, he threw for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and 7 interceptions with a 67.2 completion percentage. That’s making the most of an opportunity. Plus, Young is getting the Heisman, give Pickett this one.
Who will win: Young.
Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award (best quarterback)
Finalists: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh; C.J. Stroud, Ohio State; Bryce Young, Alabama
Who should win: Stroud. Statistically, he’s beneath Pickett and Young when it comes to yards and touchdowns (he also played two fewer games), but he led what was arguably college football’s best offense once the Buckeyes got their act together after losing to Oregon in Week 2. Stroud finished the season with 3,862 yards, 38 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions in 11 games. Any of these three quarterbacks could win this award, and most reasonable college football fans would be fine with it. They’re all good and fun to watch, and their teams are significantly different without them.
Who will win: Young.
Outland Trophy (most outstanding interior lineman)
Finalists: Jordan Davis, Georgia; Ikem Ekwonu, NC State; Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
Who should win: Davis. Feel how you want about who should win any of these other awards, but there’s no debate on this one. Period. Georgia’s defense has been the most impressive unit in college football in any phase of the game, and Davis has been the anchor. Davis has 28 total tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Beyond the numbers, he stands out physically in the conference with the best athletes in the country, and although we saw it on a weekly basis, it never got any less impressive.
Who will win: Davis.
Paycom Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back)
Finalists: Coby Bryant, Cincinnati; Verone McKinley III, Oregon; Jalen Pitre, Baylor
Who should win: Pitre. In 13 games, the Bears’ hybrid defensive back had 70 total tackles — 17.5 of which came for a loss, as well as 2.5 sacks. He also had 2 interceptions, 7 pass deflections, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries for Dave Aranda’s defense.
Who will win: McKinley.
Doak Walker Award (premier running back)
Finalists: Tyler Badie, Missouri; Breece Hall, Iowa State; Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Who should win: Walker. Michigan State’s star is second in the FBS in rushing yards with 1,636, and third in rushing touchdowns with 18. Walker was a Heisman candidate for much of the year, with his signature moment coming against Michigan, when he rushed for 197 yards and five touchdowns. That game was already impressive on its own, but seeing now that Michigan is the Big Ten’s representative in the CFP, it means a little more. More generally, if you were to ask somebody what running back they’d want on their college football team this season, the answer is Walker without thinking twice.
Who will win: Walker.
John Mackey Award (outstanding tight end)
Finalists: Trey McBride, Colorado State; Charlie Kolar, Iowa State; Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M
Who should win: Kolar. Iowa State didn’t have the season that the Cyclones had hoped for, but Kolar once again played his role in the offense. In 11 games, Kolar had 58 receptions for 723 yards and five touchdowns. It’s pretty impressive to put up those numbers and simultaneously win the Campbell Trophy, given to the top scholar-athlete in college football (he’s a mechanical engineering major with a near-4.0 grade point average).
Who will win: Wydermyer.
Rimington Trophy (outstanding center)
Finalists: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa; Alec Lindstrom, Boston College; Olusegun Oluwatimi, Virginia
Who should win: Linderbaum. He was a finalist in 2020, and lost to Landon Dickerson of Alabama, which is understandable. In 2021, he was named first-team All-Big Ten by league coaches and media. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. also has him as his top center looking forward to the 2022 NFL draft. Make time to watch him play in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day when Iowa takes on Kentucky.
Who will win: Linderbaum.