Picking the best college football team in each state entering the 2021 season

Choosing the best college football team in each state, as we at CBS Sports have done over the past several years, is rarely a uniform endeavor. But 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic made things even less static. Across every conference at every level, things were different. Some teams played close to a full schedule. Some teams never played at all. Yet, as we enter the 2021 season, our annual preseason task of choosing the best team in each state remains the same. 

So what’s actually changed in our process? Not a ton. We still evaluated Division I programs from the FBS and FCS that cover 48 of 50 states. Alaska and Vermont are the only two states without a college football program at either of those levels (Alaska doesn’t host one at any level), so they are being withheld. All others have at least one FBS or FCS football program. 

By and large, we found many states to be simple. Of course, there are always a handful each year that prove to be more difficult to decide. In some instances, we had to basically disregard what happened in 2020. It’s not a particular team’s fault if they didn’t play due to the pandemic. The same could be said for teams that were hurt by opt outs and/or game cancellations. The “lost year” moniker held up in many cases. 

Before we dive into our choices, a few guidelines:

  • This is not a list of the programs that have had the most all-time success in each state.
  • Instead, we took a deeper dive over the last three or four years. Results from 2020 were considered less in some cases due to COVID-19. Other considerations such as head-to-head matchups, championships won and the like were taken into account.  
  • This is not a projection of the upcoming season. It never has been and it never will be. 

With that in mind, here are our choices for the top football program in each state. Did we get it right? Wrong? Check them out below.

Graphic by Mike Meredith

Alabama — Alabama: The Crimson Tide rolled to the national championship last year. They’ve captured six national titles since 2009 and are recruiting at a level that has never been seen in our sport. I could keep writing in an attempt to make an even more compelling case, but everybody in the world knows of Alabama’s power and this story has a massive word count. — Barrett Sallee

Alaska — n/a

Arizona — Arizona State: The Sun Devils have won their last four against Arizona, including an alarming 70-7 beatdown in 2020. The Wildcats, meanwhile, never had a winning season in three years under Kevin Sumlin. This one is pretty easy. — Ben Kercheval

Arkansas — Arkansas: If Arkansas State was cranking out double-digit win seasons like it did when Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze were there, maybe the Red Wolves should be here. But the Razorbacks showed promise last season in Sam Pittman’s first leading the program. Another year for Pittman to further put his stamp on the program will only widen the gap. — Sallee

California — USC: California has a lot of DI programs and some real contenders for best in the state. USC gets the edge even though it’s underachieved lately under coach Clay Helton. But they made it to the Pac-12 Championship Game a season ago. San Diego State received strong consideration, too, for its success under former coach Rocky Long. San Jose State will also get a chance to upset USC in Week 1 after finishing 7-1 in 2020. — Kercheval

Colorado — Colorado: Ben and I had a pretty serious debate on Colorado vs. Air Force since the Falcons topped the Buffaloes two years ago. But the Buffs went 4-2 last year, including a COVID-depleted loss in the Alamo Bowl, and look like a program on the rise under Karl Dorrell. If Air Force hadn’t gone 3-3 last year, then it’d likely be the choice. It’ll be interesting to see how this debate changes in the summer of 2022. — Sallee

Connecticut — Sacred Heart: UConn, the only FBS program in the state, didn’t play last year, as was the case for FCS teams Central Connecticut and Yale. The only one left was Sacred Heart, which went 3-2 and beat Duquesne when Duquesne was ranked No. 25 in the FCS poll. The Pioneers have the crown for now, and it’ll be interesting to see if UConn can take back control of the state in 2021. — Sallee

Delaware — Delaware: Well, Delaware has owned the series against Delaware State and made it all the way to the FCS semifinals in 2020. Delaware has been one of the easiest states in the years we’ve been doing this, and 2021 is no exception. — Kercheval

Florida — Florida: The Gators have been to three straight New Year’s Six bowl games, won the SEC East last season and produced a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Kyle Trask while ascending back into the national spotlight. This while Florida State is still in rebuilding mode and Miami (FL) is still struggling to be “back.” The Seminoles and Hurricanes have plenty to be excited about, but still have a long way to go to catch the Gators. — Sallee

Georgia — Georgia: The Bulldogs have played in the SEC Championship Game with a berth in the College Football Playoff on the line in three of the last four seasons. They also have one of the most loaded rosters in the country and haven’t lost to Georgia Tech since 2016. The likelihood of the Yellow Jackets unseating the Bulldogs from their throne any time in the near future is about as likely as it is for humidity to leave the state. — Sallee

Hawaii — Hawaii: Congrats to the Rainbow Warriors, the only Division I team on the islands. Still, this is a program that’s enjoyed three straight winning seasons, which surely doesn’t hurt. — Kercheval

Idaho — Boise State: The Broncos, the only FBS program in the state, have established themselves as one of the preeminent powers in Group of Five football. They’re coming off of a 5-2 season and had double-digit win campaigns in the four seasons prior to the COVID-19-shortened campaign. Oh, and it’s not like Idaho and Idaho State are FCS powers. The Broncos win in a landslide. — Sallee

Illinois — Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald continues to do an amazing job in Evanston despite nearly annual preseason disrespect from clowns like us. We paid the price for it last year when the Wildcats earned a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and made life difficult for Ohio State. Will we ever learn our lesson? Maybe! But allow us to at least pay penance by naming Northwestern the best team in Illinois. — Kercheval 

Indiana — Notre Dame: Indiana is definitely on the rise, but it’s still light years away from contending with Notre Dame as the king of the Hoosier State. The Fighting Irish have made the College Football Playoff twice since its inception and even knocked off Clemson last season — their lone campaign as a member of the ACC in football. Notre Dame is one of the most polarizing teams in the sport, but there’s no doubt that it, at the very least, is consistently one of the better teams in America. — Sallee

Iowa — Iowa: Full disclosure: I think that Iowa State will be the best team in the state during the 2021 season (and I’m hardly alone in that opinion). But that isn’t the case right this instant. Iowa and Iowa State didn’t meet last year, but the Hawkeyes have five straight wins over the Cyclones, finished 5-2 last year and ended the season ranked No. 16 — just seven spots behind their in-state rival. Iowa State would probably have been the choice had Iowa struggled last season. That didn’t happen, though. — Sallee

Kansas — Kansas State: There are only two options: Kansas and Kansas State. Nope, there isn’t even an FCS option to throw into the mix. It wouldn’t matter anyway. The Wildcats are 12-11 over the last two seasons and have established themselves as a constant threat in the Big 12. Will new Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold turn the program around and at least make them relevant? Maybe … but he’s got a lot of work to do. — Sallee

Kentucky — Kentucky: The Wildcats have won two straight Governor’s Cups and three of the last four. Coach Mark Stoops has established the program as one that can consistently win in the trenches and produce an offense that is flexible enough to adapt to any given situation. No disrespect to third-year Louisville coach Scott Satterfield and his program because Cardinals fans have plenty to be excited about, but it’s going to take a couple of rivalry wins to flip the power in the state. — Sallee

Louisiana — LSU: The Tigers had a disastrous 5-5 record last season — one year removed from one of the most magical seasons in college football history. How long should Ed Orgeron get credit for that 2019 national title? More than one year, of course. Don’t get me wrong, Billy Napier’s Louisiana program was awesome last year and should be one of the more explosive offenses again in 2021. But LSU gets a semi-pass for its disappointing follow-up to a national title. — Sallee

Maine — Maine: The Black Bears only played four games this past spring and are still the best team in the state. They must either be the best 2-2 team ever … or there are no other Division I programs in the state. It could be both. Who’s to say? — Kercheval 

Maryland — Navy: It’s been a wild ride for the Navy program lately. The Midshipmen won 11 games in 2019 but that was sandwiched in between two three-win seasons. Still, that’s more success than Maryland’s had in several years. — Kercheval 

Massachusetts — Boston College: The Eagles weren’t bad at all in 2020, finishing 6-5 and giving both Clemson and North Carolina a scare. That’s usually good enough on its own in the state of Massachusetts, but Harvard didn’t play football and UMass is … well … UMass. Shout out to Holy Cross, though, for going 3-0 in the spring and making the FCS playoffs. — Kercheval

Michigan — Michigan State: Oh boy. Where do we even start? It’s not that Michigan has been bad under Jim Harbaugh. No, the Wolverines can’t beat Ohio State and therefore can’t get to the Big Ten Championship Game, but they also haven’t been bad — until last year. Michigan State wasn’t good in 2020, either, but it has the most recent head-to-head win. In the past four years, both programs have posted a 10-win season and split the rivalry 2-2. Western Michigan could make a case, too, but the Spartans get a narrow edge for 2021. Perhaps there’s more clarity this time next year. — Kercheval 

Minnesota — Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have traditionally gotten the nod here because of their status as the only DI program in the state. That’s changed with the arrival of St. Thomas, a former DIII program that jumped all the way up to the FCS. Minnesota still wins it this year, and probably will almost every year, but the Tommies have arrived. — Kercheval

Mississippi — Ole Miss: There are three FBS programs in Mississippi, and only one has an offense that scares the daylights out of every opponent. Hint: It isn’t the one coached by Mike Leach. Rebels coach Lane Kiffin has established himself as an offensive wizard and has all of the pieces to be dangerous in 2021. What’s more, the Egg Bowl trophy currently resides in Oxford. — Sallee

Missouri — Missouri: The Tigers are the only FBS program in the Show-Me State, and it’s not like Southeast Missouri State and Missouri State have strong cases to unseat Eli Drinkwitz’s squad. The Tigers have two SEC East crowns to their name and haven’t finished below .500 since 2016. They’re not a superpower by any stretch of the imagination, but they are clearly the top team in the state and one often overlooked in the SEC. — Sallee

Montana — Montana State: There are only two DI schools in the state — Montana and Montana State — so this is pretty straight forward. Montana State has won its last four against Montana and made back-to-back FCS playoffs in 2018 and 2019. — Kercheval

Nebraska — Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are the state’s only Division I team, so they win by default. And when you’ve had five losing seasons in the past six years, you’ll take any win you can get — especially on Scott Frost Day. — Kercheval

Nevada — Nevada: Nevada broke UNLV’s two-game winning streak in the battle for the Fremont Cannon last year with a 30-19 win and posted a 7-2 record that included a win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Wolf Pack did that in the same year that the Rebels went 0-6 and only broke the 20-point mark in two games. This one’s a no contest. — Sallee

New Hampshire — Dartmouth: The Big Green didn’t play football in 2020 due to COVID-19, and New Hampshire only played one game, a loss to Albany. In our eyes, nothing has changed since last year when Dartmouth, the 2019 Ivy League co-champions, was named the best team in the Granite State. — Kercheval 

New Jersey — Princeton: New Jersey was a low-key difficult choice. Princeton won 18 games between 2018 and 2019 and has a pair of Ivy League titles in 2016 and 2018. Monmouth has three FCS playoff appearances in the last four years. Even Rutgers is better under coach Greg Schiano. But Princeton has the last head-to-head over Monmouth and has been a pretty consistent winner lately. — Kercheval 

New Mexico — New Mexico: Well, New Mexico State didn’t play last fall and lost to Tarleton State in one of its two spring games. Danny Gonzales’ New Mexico squad didn’t really impress in 2020 during its 2-5 season, but there are literally no other options to choose in FBS or FCS. — Sallee

New York — Army West Point: Jeff Monken has led the Black Knights to two double-digit win seasons and a 9-3 record last year, which included a 15-0 win over rival Navy in one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports. The only other FBS options in the state are Buffalo and Syracuse, neither of which has the type of notoriety as Monken’s program at this point. — Sallee

North Carolina — North Carolina: Appalachian State held this crown last year, but an 8-3 regular season and berth in the Orange Bowl by the Tar Heels was more than enough to give Mack Brown’s program the top spot. The momentum gained from the hire of Brown, the recruitment of quarterback Sam Howell, and the New Year’s Six appearance has rejuvenated what can only be termed as a sleeping giant. In the here and now, this is one of the most interesting states to discuss. In addition to the Tar Heels and Mountaineers, NC State had back-to-back nine-win seasons prior to last season’s 4-8 debacle and established itself as a relevant player on the ACC stage. — Sallee

North Dakota — North Dakota State: The Bison’s streak of three national championships came to an end in 2020, but the program has captured eight (8!) national titles since 2011. North Dakota State isn’t just the best program in its own state, it has an argument as one of the best programs in college football at any level. — Kercheval 

Ohio — Ohio State: It’s no contest. Ohio State is coming off of a national title game appearance and won the College Football Playoff seven years ago. The Buckeyes’ coaching staff is recruiting so well that an end to their dominance, both in the state and in the Big Ten, isn’t anywhere in sight. — Kercheval 

Oklahoma — Oklahoma: The Sooners have won the last six Big 12 titles and are favorites to win their seventh straight in 2021. Coach Lincoln Riley has this program oh-so-close to winning a national title with four College Football Playoff appearances. They’ve also dominated their in-state Bedlam rivalry against Oklahoma State, winning the last six meetings. — Kercheval 

Oregon — Oregon: Oregon State stunned the Ducks in Corvallis last season, but that doesn’t wipe away the success that Oregon has had against the Beavers over the last decade-plus. The Ducks are 11-2 in the rivalry since 2008, have posted eight double-digit win seasons and played for two national championships. One head-to-head victory by Oregon State in a season marred by COVID-19 isn’t nearly enough to overtake the success that Oregon has had since the turn of the century. — Sallee

Pennsylvania — Penn State: Like LSU, Penn State is one of those schools in which some forgiveness for 2020 is allowed. The Nittany Lions were hit hard by a shortened offseason and opt outs and got off to a terrible 0-5 start. While the 4-5 record was the first losing season since 2004, coach James Franklin has built a Big Ten East contender. — Kercheval

Rhode Island — Rhode Island: Man, Rhode Island has been one of the bleakest states for DI football. Brown didn’t play football in 2020, Bryant finished 2-2, and Rhode Island went 2-1 — but did beat Villanova and Albany, two teams ranked at the time. 2019 wasn’t much better as all three teams combined for just eight wins. The Rhode Island Rams it is! — Kercheval 

South Carolina — Clemson: This one doesn’t really need much of an explanation, but I’ll do so anyway. Clemson has two national championships under Dabo Swinney, seven ACC titles, made the College Football Playoff in six straight seasons and hasn’t lost to South Carolina since 2013. Swinney has built a modern-day college football machine that shows no signs of slowing down. — Sallee

South Dakota — South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits made it all the way to the FCS Championship Game this spring, coming up just short against Sam Houston State. That in and of itself would be enough to name South Dakota the best in the state, but it also routinely posts winning records, beats South Dakota and makes the playoffs. — Kercheval 

Tennessee — Memphis: There are four FBS teams in Tennessee, and only one had a winning record last year. That isn’t the whole story, though. The program has gone from Justin Fuente to Mike Norvell to Ryan Silverfield without missing a beat, which shows the kind of stability for which Tennessee and Vanderbilt can only dream. Memphis has gone from a total joke in 2013 to a consistent AAC power. That deserves a ton of recognition. — Sallee

Texas — Texas A&M: The Aggies are coming off their best season since 2012 when they won 11 games and Johnny Manziel hoisted the Heisman Trophy. Coach Jimbo Fisher finally seems to have this program at the level capable of competing for SEC West titles. Other Lone Star State schools like Texas, SMU, Baylor and TCU have had their moments in recent years, but Texas A&M has remained consistent and now appears to be peaking entering 2021. — Kercheval 

Utah — Utah: Don’t be fooled by BYU’s magical 2020. The Cougars had a great season that stands on its own merit, but the title of best in state has belonged to the Utes for some time. Utah has enjoyed seven straight winning seasons and the last loss to BYU came in 2009. Utah also appeared in back-to-back Pac-12 Championship Games in 2018 and 2019. — Kercheval 

Vermont — n/a

Virginia — Virginia Tech: This one was exceptionally tough considering Virginia Tech finished 5-6 and Virginia finished at .500 at 5-5 record. That’s fresh off of a year in which the Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal and went to the Orange Bowl. With that said, Virginia Tech has won a whopping 20 of the last 22 matchups against its in-state rival, and one magical outlier season by Bronco Mendenhall’s crew in 2019 won’t change the fact that the Hokies own the state. — Sallee

Washington — Washington: They didn’t play the Apple Cup last year due to COVID-19, but it wouldn’t have swayed our decision here. The Huskies have won seven straight and 10 of the last 11 meetings with arch-rival Washington State, and that trend would have likely continued in 2020. The only other option in the state is Eastern Washington, which is a very good program at the FCS level. If both of the FBS schools in the state were dreadful, they might have a chance. That’s not the case, though. — Sallee

West Virginia — West Virginia: Since West Virginia and Marshall don’t play anymore, we can only compare their respective resumes to find the best team in the Mountain State. The Thundering Herd have one more win than the Mountaineers, but their three-game slide to end 2020 was brutal. West Virginia has been rebuilding under coach Neal Brown, but they’ve at least been competitive in the Big 12. — Kercheval

Wisconsin — Wisconsin: The Badgers are the only Division I team in the state, so they technically take this title by default. But even if there was an alternative, it’d be nearly impossible to unseat a team that has established itself as one of the most consistent teams in the country on an annual basis. — Sallee

Wyoming — Wyoming: Wyoming wins this one by default, too, but that shouldn’t take away from a Cowboys team that has quietly become one of the more consistent programs in the Group of Five. Cowboy hats off to a program that has had only one sub-.500 campaign since the start of the 2016 season. That one losing season was last year, which of course has to be treated a bit differently due to COVID-19 disruptions. — Sallee