One of the most-anticipated seasons in modern college football history has delivered at nearly every level. With fans back in the stands and schedules actually aligned across the country, the sport returned to its traditional place in the calendar, and the on-field product featured both familiar characters and narratives as well as some new twists that kept us on our toes.
We should have known a unique season was in store when six weeks into the season we had seen 40 ranked teams take losses, the most of the poll era. The 40th team was Alabama, and its loss also snapped Nick Saban’s undefeated record against his former assistants.
When Cincinnati reached its highest-ever ranking in the AP Top 25, it should have been clear that its shot at making history was better than many expected, and sure enough, the Bearcats finished the year as the first program from outside the Power Five conferences to make the College Football Playoff. Michigan snapped its drought against Ohio State, Oklahoma State did the same against Oklahoma and for the first time since 2008, the ACC has a conference champion not named Clemson or Florida State.
And all of these on-field developments happened in the foreground while conference realignment, College Football Playoff expansion, name, image and likeness, and one of the craziest coaching carousels ever churned in the background. You put it all together and realize this 2021 college football season has been among the most interesting in the sport’s history.
So as we put a bow on this memorable year, it’s time to take a look at the best and brightest from the sport as voted on by our panel of CBS Sports and 247Sports college football experts. Be sure to check out the 2021 CBS Sports All-America team for more honorees.
2021 CBS Sports college football awards
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
The narrative arc of Harbaugh through 2021 has been one of the great success stories of the year. After finishing last season at 2-4 with plenty of hot seat-related noise, Harbaugh agreed to a new four-year deal with the school in January that featured a decreased base salary and heavy incentives for reaching goals. When asked about his winless record against Ohio State as a coach, Harbaugh indicated that the effort would involve beating the Buckeyes or he would “die trying”.
Fast forward to early December 2021, and Harbaugh has not only beaten Ohio State but led the program to its first outright Big Ten championship since 2003. Michigan is the No. 2 seed in the playoff, and no one is questioning whether Harbaugh is the best coach to lead this program.
How did he do it? It starts with identifying talent and fit, not just in recruiting for this current roster but on the coaching staff as well. Year 2 with Josh Gattis has paid off with a ruthlessly efficient offense and a Broyles Award for the offensive coordinator. The offseason hire of Mike Macdonald to replace longtime Harbaugh assistant Don Brown has resulted in a top-10 defense as well.
In this era where even the best coaches in the game seem less tied to their current position than ever before, is there any fan base (other than Alabama) that feels more secure in its coaching situation than Michigan? Harbaugh started the year putting the program’s best interests at the forefront, and the on-field success that’s followed is one of the best stories in college football.
Player of the Year: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Young was a runaway winner for this honor, seizing control of the race as he guided the Crimson Tide down the tightrope of College Football Playoff contention over the last two months of the season. Since the loss at Texas A&M, Young threw 23 touchdowns to just one interception over the final seven games of the season, culminating in the 421-yard, three-touchdown performance against Georgia to secure the SEC championship and punch Alabama’s ticket as the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
But this award doesn’t just come as a result of recency bias as Young stacks up undeniably against the top players in the entire country based on his 13-game body of work. Young ranks in the top-10 nationally in passing touchdowns (No. 2), passing yards (No. 6), passer rating (No. 5) and completion percentage (No. 10). When Alabama’s rushing attack wasn’t firing on all cylinders — the Crimson Tide ranked No. 10 in the SEC in rushing offense — it was Young and the passing attack who helped deliver the plays needed to keep the team in the SEC title and CFP picture.
But even more than that, Young, in his first year as a starter, has been a real leader on this national title contender. The Tide have been forced to lean on some new and younger faces at the wide receiver position. Coach Nick Saban credits some of their success to how Young handles his responsibility as the team’s quarterback.
“I think that a lot of that comes from Bryce having trust and confidence in those guys as well because a good quarterback can make receivers look good,” Saban said after the SEC Championship Game. “I think his faith, trust, and confidence in those guys have helped their development tremendously.”
Freshman of the Year: TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
It’s been said that Henderson could have been a key piece of Ohio State’s playoff run last year because he was that developed and polished as a running back prospect. Well, he enrolled early and lived up to his five-star projections almost immediately. A 270-yard performance against Tulsa early in the season broke a freshman school rushing record held by Archie Griffin, and Henderson continued to produce in the Buckeyes’ offense to become just the fourth true freshman in program history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
An interesting note is that Henderson’s closest competition in the balloting was actually OSU teammate C.J. Stroud. While Stroud was on the roster last season, he appeared in only three games and preserved his eligibility as a redshirt freshman. Stroud did win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, but more of our voters leaned Henderson’s way in a tight race.