Alabama, Cincinnati, Georgia and Michigan will compete for the 2021 national championship in the College Football Playoff, and those teams are well represented on ESPN’s All-America team, as well.
The Crimson Tide have four All-Americans, the Bulldogs have three and the Bearcats and Wolverines each have one.
Of the 26 players included on offense, defense and special teams, only seven were on ESPN’s preseason All-America team in August, proving once again that, just like the polls, production matters more than projections.
Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Kenny Stabler, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones all played quarterback at Alabama, but Young might become the first one to win a Heisman Trophy. In his first season as the starter, Young ranked second in the FBS in Total QBR (88.9). He completed 68% of his passes for 4,322 yards with 43 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He was at his best when it mattered most, with 421 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-24 upset of No. 1 Georgia in the SEC championship game.
The Wake Forest transfer was the key to the Spartans’ revival under second-year coach Mel Tucker. Walker ranked second in the FBS in rushing with 1,636 yards to go with 18 rushing touchdowns. Walker had to work hard for much of his production; his 990 yards after first contact were most among FBS players. He evaded tackles 48 times, second most among running backs, and his 38 broken tackles were tied for third most.
On the 60th anniversary of Ernie Davis’ Heisman Trophy-winning season, Tucker emerged as a star for the Orange. The freshman broke Joe Morris’ 42-year-old school record for rushing yards in a season with 1,496 and set another mark with nine 100-yard games, including seven straight. In a 62-24 rout of FCS program Albany on Sept. 18, Tucker became the first Syracuse player to have 100 yards rushing (132) and receiving (121) in the same game.
Addison and quarterback Kenny Pickett were nearly unstoppable this season while leading the Panthers to an ACC championship and 11 victories in a season for the first time since 1981, when Dan Marino was under center. Addison led FBS players with 17 touchdown catches (most by a Pitt player since Larry Fitzgerald had 22 in 2003) and had 93 receptions for 1,479 yards. Addison had four scoring receptions in a 48-38 win against Virginia on Nov. 20 that tied a school record.
The Boilermakers’ star wide receiver more than answered the bell against top competition this season. In three games against top-five opponents, Bell had 33 receptions for 560 yards with two scores. In Purdue’s upsets of then-No. 2 Iowa and then-No. 3 Michigan State, he had 11 catches with more than 200 yards and a touchdown in each game. Bell ranks second among FBS players with 8.5 catches per game, fourth with 116.9 yards per game, seventh with 93 receptions and ninth with 1,286 yards. The Indianapolis native has already announced he will enter the NFL draft.
Wine from Bowers’ hometown of Napa, California, might get better with time, but the Bulldogs didn’t have to wait for him to deliver. A 6-foot-4, 230-pound freshman, Bowers leads Georgia with 47 catches for 791 yards. His 11 touchdown receptions are the most by a Georgia tight end and tie the school record for any player. Bowers is already an accomplished blocker and route runner. He set an SEC championship game record for tight ends with 10 catches for 139 yards with one score in a loss to Alabama.
OT: Evan Neal, Alabama Crimson Tide
At 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, Neal was a steadying force for Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line. After moving from right tackle to the left side to replace first-round pick Alex Leatherwood, Neal led the Crimson Tide with 32 knockdown blocks in 13 games. He allowed just five quarterback pressures and 1.5 sacks in 481 pass blocks this season. After some early-season struggles, Alabama’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack against Georgia’s vaunted defensive line in the SEC championship game.
Johnson didn’t start playing football until his senior season of high school, but he has developed into one of the best offensive linemen in the country. He allowed just one sack in 2,288 career snaps with the Eagles and had just four blown blocks in 756 snaps this season. He is rated as the No. 2 guard available for the 2022 draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
Linderbaum moved from the defensive line to center after his freshman season, and he will be remembered as one of the best players in Iowa history. A two-time finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which is given to the best center in the FBS, Linderbaum was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year in 2021. He allowed just four quarterback pressures in 363 pass blocks this season. ESPN’s Todd McShay rates him as the No. 17 prospect and No. 1 center for the 2022 draft.
The only returning starter from the Aggies’ celebrated offensive line in 2020, Green has started 35 consecutive games. He was named SEC offensive lineman of the week three times this season and was the Aggies’ offensive MVP. Led by Green, the reshuffled O-line didn’t allow a sack in Texas A&M’s 41-38 upset of No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 9. He is Kiper’s No. 1 guard prospect for the 2022 draft.
As the left tackle in Bulldogs coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense, Cross is under more pressure than perhaps any other offensive lineman in the FBS. Remarkably, he allowed just five pressures and one sack in 682 pass blocks, which were second most in the FBS, behind only teammate LaQuinston Sharp‘s 689. McShay rates Cross as the No. 9 prospect overall and No. 2 offensive tackle available for the draft.
All-purpose: Jameson Williams, Alabama Crimson Tide
What do you give a team that seemingly has everything? Another big-play threat from the transfer portal. Williams, a transfer from Ohio State, had 68 receptions for 1,445 yards with 15 touchdowns. His 21.3 yards per catch were second most among FBS players with more than 30 receptions. Williams had only three drops in 107 targets and he was third in the FBS with 690 yards after catch. He had two kickoff returns for touchdowns against Southern Miss, including a 100-yarder on the game’s opening play.
Hutchinson’s return after breaking his ankle last November propelled the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff and earned him a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist and potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. The Big Ten defensive player of the year had 58 tackles and 14 sacks, which were a Michigan record. He had a season-high seven tackles and three sacks in a 42-27 upset of Ohio State. In 342 pass-rush snaps, Hutchinson was able to create pressure 17.5% of the time and caused 19 incompletions, two interceptions and four turnovers.
DT: Jordan Davis, Georgia Bulldogs
At first glance, Davis’ stat line might seem underwhelming: 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and two sacks. But the junior’s impact for Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense was much more than that. At 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds, Davis commanded double-team blocks on nearly every snap, which freed up Georgia’s linebackers to make plays. He devours running backs like they are Swedish Fish, which famously are Davis’ favorite snack. He also added a 1-yard touchdown run in a 56-7 rout of FCS program Charleston Southern on Nov. 20.
Johnson transferred from Georgia to Florida State to become an every-down player, and the decision paid off, as he was named the ACC defensive player of the year. In his only season with the Seminoles, he had 70 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown. In 394 pass-rushing plays, he created 41 defensive pressures and 12 incompletions.
LB: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Crimson Tide
Bryce Young might win the Heisman Trophy, but Anderson is the Crimson Tide’s best player — and probably the best in the FBS. Anderson led the country with 15.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss, which was 9.5 more than anyone else. Anderson, who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the best defensive player in the nation, was second on his team with 92 tackles, while adding a team-high nine quarterback hurries and two pass breakups.
LB: Nakobe Dean, Georgia Bulldogs
The field general of Georgia’s defense, Dean tied for the team lead with 61 tackles to go with five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Butkus Award winner as the top linebacker in the FBS, Dean is rated as the No. 8 prospect overall and No. 1 inside linebacker available for the 2022 draft by McShay. He is physical enough to match up with running backs and tight ends in space and is a sure tackler in the run game. He had a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown in Georgia’s 34-7 rout of rival Florida on Oct. 30.
A two-time finalist for the Butkus Award, Lloyd helped the Utes win their first Pac-12 championship by leading the team with 106 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and four interceptions. His 22 tackles for loss were the second most among FBS players. The junior had 13 tackles in back-to-back games, against BYU and San Diego State. A safety in high school, Lloyd is ranked as the No. 25 prospect available for the draft by McShay.
The best player on one of the most improved defenses in the FBS, Rodriguez led the Pokes with 112 tackles to go with 14 tackles for loss, two sacks, nine quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. After allowing 23.5 points per game in 2020, the Cowboys surrendered only 16.8 this season. Rodriguez, a senior from Wagoner, Oklahoma, was a two-time state wrestling champion in high school, and he is a sure tackler. He missed just 11 tackles in 699 snaps this season.
A youth football coach gave Gardner the nickname “Sauce” when he was 6 because of his affinity for dipping sauces. Opposing quarterbacks have rarely doubled dipped on Gardner throughout his career at Cincinnati. Going into last week’s AAC title game, he had allowed just 14 receptions on 32 targets in 12 games and had never allowed a touchdown in his career. He also had 35 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks in helping the Bearcats finish unbeaten and become the first team from a Group of 5 conference to make the playoff.
McCreary committed to South Alabama in high school because he believed it was going to be the best scholarship offer he would get. Auburn’s coaches finally came around to offering him after his senior season, and he has developed into one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the country. This season, he had 49 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. McShay ranks him as the No. 13 prospect overall and No. 2 cornerback, behind LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr.
The Ducks’ ball hawking safety led the FBS with six interceptions and was second on his team with 72 tackles. He picked off four passes in three games in September, including one at the Oregon 35-yard line that sealed the Ducks’ 35-28 upset victory at Ohio State on Sept. 11. Six of his 11 career interceptions have come in the red zone. A high school coach’s son, McKinley has grown up around the game and anticipates routes as well as anyone.
A senior from Stafford, Texas, Pitre was named the Big 12 defensive player of the year. At the time, he was the only player in the FBS with at least three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. A hybrid safety/linebacker, Pitre led the Big 12 with 17.5 tackles for loss, and he was third on his team with 55 tackles to go with two sacks and five pass breakups. He was the leader of a defense that allowed only 19.2 points per game and helped the Bears win a Big 12 title, a year after they finished 2-7 in coach Dave Aranda’s first season.
The homegrown star was a field-position weapon for the Aztecs this season, pinning more than half of his 76 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. In fact, he had 39 punts inside the 20-yard line, most among FBS players, and 15 inside the 10. After Araiza’s punts, San Diego State’s opponents’ average starting field position was the 20-yard line. Araiza led the country with a 51.4-yard average.
A transfer from North Carolina, Ruggles led FBS kickers in scoring with 122 points this season. He went 18-for-19 on field goals and made all 68 of his extra point attempts. A senior from Odessa, Florida, Ruggles made four field goals in back-to-back victories, against Penn State and Nebraska, becoming the first Buckeyes kicker to do so. He went 14-of-15 on field goal tries inside 40 yards, and 4-for-4 on attempts outside 40 yards.
Jones transferred to Houston from Troy in 2019 and had a record-breaking impact on returns — and he is a pretty good cornerback for the Cougars too. He has nine career touchdown returns –six on kickoffs and three on punts — which is tied for the FBS career lead with Boise State’s Avery Williams (2017-20) and Washington’s Dante Pettis (2014-17). Jones’ total of kickoff returns for touchdowns is tied for sixth most in the NCAA since 1976. No return was more important than his 100-yarder for a score with 17 seconds left in a 44-37 victory against SMU on Oct. 30.