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Earlier this week, we were given the first official Top 25 rankings of the 2021 college football season, courtesy of the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Every team currently has a zero in the loss column, but for each of the teams ranked in the Top 10, what are the odds of finishing the regular season with that zero still intact?
Please note the emphasis on “regular season” there. We’re not talking about undefeated national champions, but rather teams who enter their conference championship—or, in Notre Dame’s case, bowl season—with a perfect 12-0 record.
Each of these teams should be quite good this season, but with varying strengths and weaknesses and extremely unequal schedules, our undefeated odds are all over place, ranging from 250-to-1 to darn near even.
Teams are presented in ascending order of their coaches poll ranking.
Odds are not intended to reflect betting odds, but rather each team’s realistic chance of running the table.
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Aaron Doster/Associated Press
Fresh off a perfect 9-0 regular season that ended with a close loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati is hoping to follow in the footsteps of conference rival UCF, which put up undefeated back-to-back regular seasons in 2017-18.
The Bearcats certainly have enough returning talent to be even better than they were in 2020. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is a legitimate Heisman candidate, and I’m excited to find out what former Alabama running back Jerome Ford can do in year No. 2 with Cincinnati. But the real strength of this team is the defense led by sack artist Myjai Sanders and the cornerback tandem of Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner.
Cincinnati’s 2021 schedule will be a double-edged sword. If the Bearcats are able to run the table again, there’s a good, perhaps even great chance they’ll partake in the College Football Playoff.
That’s because their nonconference schedule is much more challenging.
Instead of home games against Austin Peay and Army, Cincinnati will play games on the road against Indiana and Notre Dame. The Bearcats are all but certain to be underdogs in both of those contests, probably by around six points against the Hoosiers and by double digits against the Fighting Irish.
If they happen to survive both of those major tests, though, I like their chances of finishing the fight from there. They get each of UCF, SMU and Tulsa at home, and they don’t need to face Memphis during the regular season. As a result, the toughest game on Cincinnati’s AAC schedule is either the home game against UCF or the road game against Tulane, each of which they should be heavily favored to win.
There’s about a 50-50 chance they go undefeated in league play, but a full 12-0 campaign is rather unlikely.
Undefeated Odds: 60-1
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
North Carolina brings back 18 of its 22 primary starters from last season, which is a mightily impressive percentage, even in a year when every player in the country was eligible to return.
However, the Tar Heels have so many massive shoes to fill that an undefeated season seems like a pipe dream.
Part of that is because, even though they combined for 313 carries, 50 receptions, 2,957 yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns last season, losing both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter only counts as losing one starter. In reality, the Tar Heels lost one of the most productive RB tandems in recent memory, and bringing in Ty Chandler as a graduate transfer from Tennessee doesn’t even begin to balance that export/import scale.
Throw in losing the two best wide receivers (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome) from the past two years and one of the best linebackers in program history (Chazz Surratt), and it sure feels like the Tar Heels lost a lot more than four starters.
The good news is they still have Sam Howell at quarterback. A top candidate to become both a Heisman winner and the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Howell’s talent should make it a lot easier for guys like Josh Downs, Khafre Brown and British Brooks to step into much bigger roles this season.
Here’s the thing, though: North Carolina averaged 41.7 points per game last year and still lost one-third of those games—against what was a rather favorable schedule. Even if they manage to maintain their scoring pace despite losing their top four producers, they need to improve if they expect to come anywhere close to going undefeated.
There’s a good chance UNC’s dream will end before most teams have even played their first game of the year, as the Heels have a difficult road game against Virginia Tech on Friday, Sept. 3. Consecutive October games against Florida State (home), Miami (home) and Notre Dame (road) will almost certainly ensure North Carolina doesn’t enter November with a chance at a perfect season.
Undefeated Odds: 250-1
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Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Lest you think I’m only down on North Carolina because it isn’t a perennial powerhouse, I’m all the way in on Iowa State as a College Football Playoff contender.
Led by running back Breece Hall, the Cyclones bring back 19 starters from last season. They also retained a bunch of key non-starters, such as backup tight end Chase Allen, who would be a starter at just about any other school in the country, and Trevor Downing, who was a starting offensive lineman prior to suffering a season-ending injury in Iowa State’s opener.
The only substantial loss is JaQuan Bailey, who had 25 sacks in his career with the Cyclones. But they still have Will McDonald IV, who had 10.5 sacks in 2020. Behind him, they boast what should be one of the best linebacker corps in the nation.
For Iowa State, it’s not a question of whether the team will be good, but rather whether it will be good enough to win at Oklahoma.
Outside of that road game in late November, Iowa State should be in good shape. The nonconference schedule (vs. Northern Iowa, vs. Iowa, at UNLV) isn’t anything too daunting, and the Cyclones will get Texas at home in what figures to be their second-toughest game of the season. An 11-1 record is a legitimate possibility, if not the most likely outcome for this team.
We’re not talking about horseshoes or hand grenades, though. Starting 10-0 before dropping a game is just as much a non-undefeated season as losing one right away over Labor Day weekend. And though Iowa State did win at Oklahoma in 2017 and darn near did it again in 2019, it figures to be a substantial underdog in that game.
Undefeated Odds: 75-1
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Notre Dame is in a scheduling sweet spot. It has plenty of tests on the calendar to prove itself worthy of a spot in the playoff, and yet, there’s not a single game the Fighting Irish would be expected to lose.
They’ll play four games against teams in the Top 15 of the preseason coaches poll, but none of those are against teams in the Top 8, nor are any of them true road games. They get No. 9 North Carolina, No. 10 Cincinnati and No. 14 USC at home and will face No. 15 Wisconsin in Chicago.
The tricky part is that they’ll play all four of those games in the span of six weeks, drawing Wisconsin and Cincinnati on back-to-back Saturdays, as well as USC and North Carolina on back-to-back Saturdays. Notre Dame would’ve been much better suited taking a page from Alabama’s annual playbook and spacing those tests out over the course of the entire season.
Still, those are all games that Notre Dame should win, provided Jack Coan is the answer at quarterback.
The Wisconsin transfer was a more than adequate starter in 2019, guiding the Badgers to a 10-4 record in which only one of the losses (at Ohio State) got out of hand. Granted, his job was to mostly stay out of the way while letting the defense and excellent running back do their thing Jonathan Taylor, but that’s not unlike the situation he’s inheriting in South Bend, where running back Kyren Williams is the biggest star and where the defense has held opponents below 20 points per game in each of the last three seasons.
Coan completed 69.6 percent of his pass attempts that season and barely averaged one interception for every three games. If he’s able to replicate that, A) no one is even going to notice that Notre Dame replaced a three-year starter at quarterback and B) a zero in the loss column is a realistic possibility.
Undefeated Odds: 20-1
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Thomas Graning/Associated Press
When trying to be consistently good enough to win 12 consecutive games, pretty much the last thing you want is to be breaking in either a new starter at quarterback or four new starters on the offensive line.
Unfortunately, both of those are true for Texas A&M.
The good news, though, is the Aggies have an early schedule conducive to such an adjustment period. A road game against one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 (Colorado) is sandwiched by home games against Kent State and New Mexico. After that, it’s home games against Arkansas and Mississippi State, who figure to be the two worst teams in the SEC West.
Jimbo Fisher could decide a month into the season that he made the wrong choice for starting quarterback and the Aggies still might start out 5-0.
Even if Fisher pulls all the right strings, though, getting to 6-0 is going to be the problem, as Oct. 9 is when Texas A&M hosts Alabama.
The Aggies backed the Brinks truck up to Fisher’s home in Florida a few years ago so that he could win this game every now and then, but each of the three games since he was hired were won by Alabama by at least 19 points. This one might be closer than the previous three, but no one outside of College Station actually expects A&M to win it.
But, hey, let’s have some fun and say they do knock off the near-unanimous No. 1 team in the preseason polls. Could they also maintain a perfect record through the back half of the schedule?
It’s at least feasible. Road games against Ole Miss and LSU will be challenges, and the home game against Auburn could be a problem. If the Aggies are able to start 6-0 with a win over Alabama, though, we could at least somewhat safely assume they wouldn’t lose two or more games down the stretch to open the door for the Crimson Tide to still win the division.
To reiterate, though, we’re talking about a world in which a team with a new quarterback and an 80 percent new offensive line beats one of the greatest dynasties in the history of college football.
Undefeated Odds: 50-1
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
By multiplying together the win percentage odds given to Georgia by ESPN’s Football Power Index, we find there is a 15.5 percent chance the Bulldogs win each of their final 11 games of the 2021 season.
(If we’re being honest, that number is a bit low, because the FPI is a multiyear data tool that evaluates Auburn as the 15th-best team in the country, even though the Tigers likely won’t open the season in either the Coaches or AP Top 25—which means Georgia should be given a better than 63.2 percent chance of winning its road game against Auburn. Change that one to an 80 percent chance of victory and Georgia’s odds of finishing the regular season on an 11-game winning streak are more like 4-to-1.)
About that first game, though…
In what certainly profiles as the biggest game of the entire 2021 regular season, Georgia will travel to Charlotte to face Clemson in its home away from home—the Tigers are 6-0 when playing in ACC championship games held at Bank of America Stadium. The Bulldogs absolutely could win that game, but Clemson is going to be the favorite, likely by either three or 3.5 points.
Factoring that game into the FPI projections, Georgia’s chances of running the table drop from 15.5 percent to 4.5 percent.
But if someone is actually willing to let you bet on Georgia at greater than 20-1 odds of going undefeated, let me know, because I’d love a piece of that action. If transfers Tykee Smith (West Virginia) and Derion Kendrick (Clemson) and redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo are anywhere near as good as advertised in the secondary, it’s going to be tough to find a weakness on this team. And with JT Daniels’ big arm fully entrenched at starting quarterback, this offense figures to be more entertaining than at any other point under Kirby Smart’s tutelage.
Ignoring what FPI says, I’d put Georgia’s odds of beating Clemson at 35 percent, and I’d also put its odds of winning the next 11 games at 35 percent. Multiply those together and convert it to odds and you’re looking at roughly 7-1 for an undefeated season. Let’s split the difference a bit and call it…
Undefeated Odds: 12-1
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Al Goldis/Associated Press
Ohio State has carried an undefeated record into the College Football Playoff in each of the past two seasons.
Despite not having a single quarterback on the roster with any collegiate game experience, the expectation is that the Buckeyes will do it for a third consecutive year.
And, frankly, it’s hard to argue with that.
For one thing, Ohio State has carried either a zero-loss or one-loss record into bowl season in eight of the last nine seasons. That type of near-decade-long momentum can vanish in a New York minute in college football, but that type of consistent success within a program can’t be ignored.
For another, no one really knows what to make of the Big Ten after the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. Will Indiana build on last season and push the Buckeyes to the limit when they visit Bloomington in late October? Will Michigan bounce back from a disastrous 2020 campaign and finally put an end to Jim Harbaugh’s 0-for-life record against Ohio State? Time will tell on both fronts, but the Buckeyes avoid both Iowa and Wisconsin in the cross-divisional games, which will always boost one’s chances of running the table.
But most importantly, Ohio State is overflowing with talent (much of it proven talent) at all of the non-QB positions.
If the guy Ryan Day ultimately chooses at quarterback is functional enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, there’s a good chance he can thrive with a receiving corps led by Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and tight end Jeremy Ruckert.
And while the OSU secondary just had one of its most disappointing seasons in recent memory, part of that was a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Shaun Wade was repeatedly getting burned when left alone against an opponent’s best or second-best receiver. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much else from that position group this offseason and should be much improved in 2021.
ESPN’s FPI gives Ohio State at least an 80 percent chance of winning each game this season. That’s probably a bit aggressive for the road game against Indiana, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Week 2 game against Oregon goes down to the wire. But this team is clearly one of the most likely to run the table during the regular season.
Undefeated Odds: 9-2
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Oklahoma should go undefeated.
Its nonconference schedule (at Tulane, vs. Western Carolina, vs. Nebraska) inspires no fear whatsoever. As previously mentioned, the Sooners get Iowa State at home, which is a nice advantage against what is either the best or second-best team in the Big 12. And you have to like Oklahoma’s chances of winning the Red River Rivalry, considering Texas is breaking in both a new head coach and a new starting quarterback.
The problem with putting any faith in Oklahoma to actually pull off an undefeated season is its annoying propensity for losing to unranked opponents.
The Sooners suffered two such losses early last season, including a stunning home loss to Kansas State that might make even less sense now than it did at the time. They also lost at Kansas State in 2019 and lost a home game to Iowa State in 2017.
So while it’s tempting to say Oklahoma should have no problem at least carrying a 5-0 record into the showdown with Texas, those preceding games against West Virginia and Kansas State seem to have “Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown” written all over them.
That said, it’s hard to find any rational reason to doubt this team prior to the College Football Playoff.
Spencer Rattler made some bad throws while cutting his teeth as a starter in those early losses last year, but he was impressive for the remainder of the season. He’ll be back behind center, surrounded by a cornucopia of talent at running back and wide receiver, including the return of Kennedy Brooks in the backfield after he sat out the 2020 season. And though this seems to be a narrative every August in recent years, this may well be the best Oklahoma defense that we’ve seen in the past decade.
I’m unwilling to say Oklahoma is more likely to go 12-0 than Ohio State is, but I’m also not willing to say it’s less likely to happen.
Undefeated Odds: 9-2
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Matt Cashore/Associated Press
Dating back to the beginning of 2015, Clemson has a 67-3 record during the regular season.
One of those three losses was a double-overtime game at Notre Dame last season, in which Trevor Lawrence was unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol. Another one of the losses came down to a last-second, 48-yard field goal against Pittsburgh. And the third one was a Friday night game at Syracuse in which starting QB Kelly Bryant was injured in the second quarter, and they almost came back to win.
Even on their off/short-handed days, the Tigers almost always find a way to get the W. And with what will probably be the best defense in the country at their disposal, that trend should continue in 2021.
There may be some games where Clemson’s offense doesn’t look totally crisp after replacing Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and Jackson Carman, but that will just mean beating some of their overmatched ACC competition by scores like 31-3 instead of 48-3.
Clemson does not face North Carolina, Miami or Virginia Tech this season, which means the toughest game on its conference schedule is a road game against North Carolina State—a program against which the Tigers currently have an eight-game winning streak by a combined margin of 175 points.
Clemson also has nonconference home games against South Carolina State and Connecticut, both of which are going to be blowouts by the end of the first quarter.
The only legitimate challenge on Clemson’s schedule is the aforementioned opener against Georgia. The Tigers will be favored, but that will probably be the only game of the entire regular season in which they aren’t favored by double digits.
I previously said Georgia has both a 35 percent chance of winning the opener against Clemson and a 35 percent chance of winning the 11 games after that. Clemson is in the inverse position with a 65 percent chance of starting 1-0 and a 65 percent chance of entering the ACC championship on a winning streak of at least 11 games.
Undefeated Odds: 3-2
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Alabama is No. 1 in the preseason rankings and the favorite to win the national championship, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Crimson Tide are the team most likely to run the table.
That’s because—even though people love to yell “Bama ain’t played nobody!” year after year—the Crimson Tide have a much more difficult schedule than that of Clemson, Oklahoma or Ohio State.
They open the season with a neutral-site game (in Atlanta) against Coaches Poll No. 16 Miami. They later have road games against No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 11 Florida, as well as home games against No. 13 LSU and No. 25 Ole Miss. And even if they get over all of those hurdles unscathed, they still need to finish out the regular season with a rivalry road game against Auburn.
Surely Alabama will be favored in all six of those games, but that is a slate against which any normal, non-juggernaut team would be expected to lose multiple times.
Per FPI projections, there’s only a 26.8 percent chance that Alabama wins all six of those games, and only a 20.5 percent chance it wins all 12 games on the schedule.
As with Georgia, if you can actually find a sportsbook willing to let you bet on a line based on those FPI projections—which would be 4-to-1 in Alabama’s case—do please let us know. According to Vegas Insider, Alabama has a win total line of 11.5 with equal odds on both the over and the under. Translation: Alabama has a 50-50 shot at going undefeated.
For a team that just lost eight of the top 38 picks in the NFL draft, 50-50 seems a wee bit aggressive. Alabama is loaded with talent, of course, but needing to replace at least one of the best players from each and every position group is a classic recipe for potential growing pains. And for as consistently dominant as Alabama has been under Nick Saban, it has “only” gone undefeated during the regular season three times in the past decade.
Undefeated Odds: 2-1