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Andy Wittry | | August 23, 2021

5 college football programs that could have a historically great season in 2021

Preseason AP football poll: Breaking down the first 2021 rankings

The preseason AP Top 25 poll for the 2021 college football season has been released and if the preseason rankings are a sign of what's to come — or at least a sign of a team's potential ceiling — then there are a handful of teams that could be on the verge of a historic season.

Here are five FBS programs that could soon kick off an all-time great season in their respective program's history.

The programs are listed in descending order of how long it's been since they were ranked as high in the preseason AP poll as they are this season.

Joe Camporeale | USA TODAY Sports Images Breece Hall was a consensus First Team All-American in 2020.

Iowa State

Preseason AP poll ranking: No. 7
Best preseason ranking since: Ever
2020 record: 9-3

Iowa State's preseason No. 7 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll is the program's best mark ever. The Cyclones peaked at No. 8 last season and their 2021 preseason ranking marks just the fourth time in school history that Iowa State has been ranked to start the season. Two of the three previous times were in 2019 and 2020, which shows the status that the Cyclones have reached under coach Matt Campbell.

Now, Iowa State is a contender for the Big 12 championship — and with it, a potential College Football Playoff appearance. The Cyclones are tied for second nationally with six players who were named a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports, including first teamers in running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar, as well as linebacker Mike Rose.

The Cyclones' toughest game — at least on paper, in the preseason — is a road game at preseason No. 2 Oklahoma on Saturday, Nov. 20, but Iowa State will host rival Iowa (preseason No. 18), preseason No. 21 Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU, so the Cyclones' schedule is arguably a net positive. Last season, they beat Oklahoma by 7 points at home before losing by 6 points in a rematch in the Big 12 championship. In their last trip to Norman, they lost 42-41 in 2019 and they beat Oklahoma 38-31 on the road in 2017, so Iowa State has held its own of late.

Iowa State has never won 10 or more games in a season and the Cyclones appear primed to do so if they're able to live up to their preseason expectations. This is a program that has only finished in the AP Top 25 three times ever — No. 9 last season, No. 25 in the 2000 season and No. 19 in 1976 — so it's not hyperbole to say Iowa State could have its best team in school history in 2021.

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Kareem Elgazzar | USA TODAY Sports Cincinnati finished 9-1 last season.


Preseason AP poll ranking: No. 8
Best preseason ranking since: Ever
2020 record: 9-1

Cincinnati's only loss last season was a 24-21 loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl after the Bearcats ran off an undefeated regular season that culminated in an AAC championship. They beat then-No. 22 Army, then-No. 16 SMU and then-No. 20 Tulsa along the way.

Now, they're ranked in the preseason AP poll for just the second time ever, after starting last season at No. 20. This century, Cincinnati hasn't been a stranger to the AP Top 25, having appeared in it in eight of the last 14 seasons, but it is rare for the Bearcats to start there, especially in the top 10. They won 11 games in both the second and third seasons of coach Luke Fickell's tenure and they peaked at No. 6 in the country last season.

With a non-conference schedule that includes trips to preseason No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 17 Indiana, Cincinnati has an opportunity to reach even new heights if it can win the AAC again, plus at least one of those two marquee non-conference matchups.

With the return of quarterback Desmond Ridder and preseason First Team All-American cornerback Ahmad Gardner, the Bearcats have players on both sides of the ball who rank among the best in the conference, if not the country.

Under former coach Brian Kelly, who could finish his career as the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, Cincinnati played in the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, but it lost in both historic bowl games, and the Bearcats came up short in the Peach Bowl last season. If Cincinnati could make a bowl game of that stature — and win — then it could be the best season in program history.

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Douglas DeFelice | USA TODAY Sports Images Indiana went 6-2 last season and peaked at No. 7 in the AP poll.


Preseason AP poll ranking: No. 17
Best preseason ranking since: Ever
2020 record: 6-2

The last time Indiana was ranked in the preseason AP poll, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had recently walked on the Moon, The Beatles had performed their final live show only months earlier and it was the year Wal-Mart incorporated. We're talking about 1969, when the Hoosiers debuted at No. 14 in the AP poll, two years removed from their first and only Rose Bowl appearance.

While playing just eight games last season, Indiana won six of them — something the program hadn't done from 1995 through 2006, even when playing full seasons. The Hoosiers peaked at No. 7 in the AP poll last season, when they defeated Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time ever, and they fell to eventual national runner-up Ohio State by 7 points on the road.

With the return of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (the reining Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year in the Big Ten), linebacker Micah McFadden, cornerback Tiawan Mullen and an infusion of talent through the addition of transfers, such as wide receiver D.J. Matthews (Florida State), running back Stephen Carr (USC) and defensive end Jaren Handy (Auburn), Indiana could make another run at a top-two finish in the Big Ten East.

The Hoosiers haven't won more than eight games in a season since '67 (their Rose Bowl season) and they haven't won a bowl game since the 1991 season, so even in one of the most competitive divisions in college football, Indiana has multiple ways for this to potentially be a historic season, whether that's through a win total, a high-water mark in the polls or CFP rankings, an elusive win over Ohio State or a bowl win.

Sam Navarro | USA TODAY Sports Images Texas A&M went 9-1 during the 2020 season, including a win in the Orange Bowl.

Texas A&M

Preseason AP poll ranking: No. 6
Best preseason ranking since: 1995 (No. 3)
2020 record: 9-1

The Aggies' lone blemish last season was to eventual undefeated national champion Alabama, which boasted a Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver in DeVonta Smith, plus five other first round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. That game — a 28-point loss to the Crimson tide — wasn't particularly close, but Texas A&M beat everyone else on its schedule, including a 14-point win over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl after the Aggies finished at No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

Given the roster turnover at Alabama, especially the loss of its starting quarterback, running back, wide receivers and a tackle from its other-worldly offense, it will be on the preseason No. 1 Crimson Tide to reload, potentially leaving the SEC West title more available than it is in most years when the machine that is Alabama is humming like normal. The Aggies will host the nation's No. 1 team (in the preseason) on Saturday, Oct. 9, offering Texas A&M a prime opportunity to try to dethrone Alabama. Texas A&M has only four true road games this season and only one other matchup against a team ranked in the AP Top 25 in the preseason — a road date with preseason No. 16 LSU in the regular season finale.

According to Athlon Sports, offensive lineman Kenyon Green and defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal are preseason First Team All-Americans, so the Aggies project to be strong in the trenches, and tight end Jalen Wydermyer is a second team selection. How Texas A&M replaces four-year starting quarterback Kellen Mond, and how his backup performs, could determine the Aggies' ceiling. Haynes King, Zach Calzada and Eli Stowers started competing for the spot in the spring.

Texas A&M has won double-digit games in a season only once this century — the Aggies went 11-2 in the 2012 campaign — and last season, when they finished at No. 4 in the final AP poll, was the highest postseason ranking they'd earned since the 1939 campaign, when they finished at No. 1 after going 11-0.

Based on Sports Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), which takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule, last season's Aggies squad was the 13th-best in program history, with their 1976 team that went 10-2 and finished at No. 7 in the AP poll being the highest-rated team in the SR, with the undefeated '39 team ranking second.

In 118 years of Division I football, Texas A&M has had only four top-five finishes in the AP poll, with last season being the fourth, and if the Aggies continue, or improve upon, their trajectory, they could have back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since 1993-94.

Sam Navarro | USA TODAY Sports Images North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell is a potential All-America candidate.

North Carolina

Preseason AP poll ranking: No. 10
Best preseason ranking since: 1997 (No. 7)
2020 record: 8-4

North Carolina's preseason No. 10 ranking in this year's debut AP Top 25 poll is the program's highest Mack Brown's final season during his last stint with the Tar Heels, who started at No. 7 in the 1997 season, peaked at No. 4 and finished at No. 6 after going 11-1. They went 8-4 last season, which is a win total North Carolina has hit in six of the last 13 seasons (wins in two of those seasons were later vacated). North Carolina has won more than eight games in a season only once since Brown left Chapel Hill — the Tar Heels went 11-3 in the 2015 season — and now they're the second-highest ranked ACC team in the preseason poll, with the potential for another special season.

Notably, North Carolina doesn't play preseason No. 3 Clemson in the regular season, but it does host preseason No. 14 Miami and travel to No. 9 Notre Dame two weeks later.

The Tar Heels return quarterback Sam Howell, who could be a potential All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate if North Carolina lives up to its potential, but the team will have to replace the production of Michael Carter (1,245 rushing yards) and Javonte Williams (1,140 yards), who ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in rushing yards last season. The Tar Heels will also have to look for new top receiving threats after Dyami Brown (1,099 yards and eight touchdowns) and Dazz Newsome (684 yards and six touchdowns) moved on to the NFL, too.

Even with ACC juggernaut Clemson potentially lying in wait in a potential ACC championship game matchup, an appearance in the conference championship and a double-digit win total could still mark a special season in Chapel Hill.

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