College football is a cultural phenomenon. It’s full of regional influences, marching bands, tailgating, rivalries, legends and trophies. 2020 deprived us of a lot, including fans and tailgating, but 2021 is set to be our redemption.
2020 ended like many previous years, Nick Sabin and Alabama basking in the glory of another National Title. The feat was much more impressive considering they played a 10 game SEC only regular season, a conference title game and the playoffs, coming out unscathed. Last year also saw some leagues play limited schedules due to COVID, creating an unusual season for all parties included. All teams missed out on spring practice, there were major changes to the recruiting visits and the players eligibility was forgiven. These situations are going to impact future teams and recruiting cycles due to players staying for an additional year and having their scholarship count and reduce the available opportunities for future classes. These adjustments along with the expansion of the College Football Playoff and conference realignments will continue to drive the landscape. These movements pale in comparison to the Name, Image Likeness (NIL) ruling this past summer and how those connections could entice recruits.
Those changes are big and will dictate the game we love for years to come, but the 2021 season will be decided on the field. The AP and Coaches Polls came out this past weekend and those rankings will dictate the march to the National Championship Game. I truly believe the rankings, especially preseason are a waste and actually present a negative impact. They speculate off the previous year and if a team is ranked high to start, they have a nice platform unless they lose multiple games. Does that mean they are actually a great team or are they barely winning and just holding the status quo of their preseason ranking? If they have a bad schedule, are they punished for that or rewarded just by their record? If the polls weren’t released until October, would there be changes and would they actually show who the best 25 teams in the nation truly are? These have been questions that people have been asking for years and hopefully the expanded playoff helps solve for that.
Enough reviewing last year and the future impacts to the game, let’s look toward kickoff in a few weeks. Alabama and Clemson are looking to replace a ton of talent including first round quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones. Ohio State is looking to remain the alpha dog of the Big Ten, but first they need to find their replacement for QB Justin Fields. Oklahoma is loaded and looking to fend off Texas, Oklahoma State and Top 10 Iowa State on their way to another playoff appearance. Georgia is coming in with huge expectations and the same question, is 2021 finally the year? The PAC 12 has a bunch of good teams, but are any good enough to be a National contender? Outside of the Power 5 conferences, Luke Fickle and Cincinnati have built a strong program and a legit candidate to make the playoff and be the first Group of 5 member to do so. Maybe the games don’t matter and the potential National Champion is already ranked in Top 5 and if history is correct, they are. Since the beginning of the CFP, all 7 of the National Champions were ranked in the preseason Top 6. There is a twist, 5 teams that were ranked outside the preseason Top 10 have reached the playoff. So there is a chance for a run and yes, every game played across the country still counts.
The SEC is the home to the defending National Champion and is stacked with talented rosters across the footprint. I have questions about Alabama’s depth coming into this campaign based off of the talent they have lost over the previous two seasons. At some point, the machine has to lose some steam for longer than 1 season, will this year be the start for the Tide? Jimbo has built a force in College Station and unlike previous Aggie squads, they are well rounded and have legit players on both lines. LSU will always have athletes and an amazing home field advantage, but can they challenge Bama? Both teams in the state of Mississippi are exciting and I think Lane Kiffin is prepared to take Ole Miss to the next level. Arkansas is a rough and tough squad that embodies their head coach Sam Pitman. The Hogs will cause trouble for teams in the west and I think they will pull off a major upset this year. Auburn is an enigma and I honestly don’t know what to expect. Their offense lacks consistency and that is because they don’t have a quarterback. Maybe the new staff can get them going, but I don’t think it will be in 2021. The Alabama – Texas A&M game will decide the SEC West entrant into the Title Game and I think Jimbo will be the first Saban assistant to beat him.
The SEC East is currently owned by Cousin Eddy and the athletic Florida Gators, but for how long. The Gators lost a ton of offensive star power and had a rare inept defense last year. I think Florida’s defense returns to their roots and play very stout. Their offense will hold them back and be much more of a run oriented approach. They host Alabama on September 18th and we’ll know a lot about both after that. This brings us to Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs. The Dawgs are loaded with talent at every position and continue to recruit at an elite level. The offense lacked a confident passing game at the beginning of 2020 and it cost them 2 games. Once JT Daniels was fully healthy and made his way into the huddle, the offense took off and raised expectations to astronomical levels. Bulldog Nation has been here before in 2008 and 2018, coming off electric and surprising seasons and a star QB on the roster. Neither of these teams won an SEC title, much less the ever elusive National Title. The one thing that Kirby Smart has changed at UGA is the elite national recruiting and depth. Those reasons, along with the players and great staff are why everyone is asking if this is the year. The Dawgs kickoff 2021 against perennial power Clemson and this will be a huge measuring stick. The Dawgs schedule is not impossible, but as Dawgs fans know all too well, the team has slipped up against lesser foes like Vandy and Kentucky in the past. The Dawgs just need to navigate their schedule and keep the main thing the main thing, aka, just win. South Carolina is at the beginning of a rebuild, but Shane Beamer is the perfect head coach to lead their return. The situation on Rocky Top is a little more difficult and it will take a lot to climb back up the mountain for Josh Heupel and the Vols. Kentucky and Mizzou are rising and will provide problems for the Dawgs and Gators chances. Vandy is Vandy and I don’t see them as a threat, but would not be surprised if they shock a team this fall. As a Bulldog fan, I know I shouldn’t say this since I can’t remember when we have lived up to the preseason hype, but I think the Dawgs take the East and hoist the SEC trophy in Atlanta this December.
The ACC is very top heavy and even considering the loss of Lawrence, Ettienne and Rodgers, Clemson is still the class of the conference. The Tigers defense is loaded and will present numerous problems for Daniels and the Dawgs on Labor Day weekend. Their schedule is a cake walk since they avoid UNC and Norte Dame. They will most likely find a spot in the CFP even if they lose to Georgia. UNC lost both of their stud running backs to the draft, but Sam Howell is a very good QB and should continue to improve. The Tar Heels hope to face Clemson for the title. Manny Díaz and D’Erik King have The U fueled for a return to glory but they will need to be consistent. Miami was built on tremendous athletes dominating opponents the entire 60 minutes. Díaz hopes that he can guide this return and bring home some hardware. Miami starts out in the Top 25 and I think they will be good enough to face Clemson for the ACC Title. Outside of those 3, the talent is not very deep. I think the second tier of teams are NC State, Pitt and FSU. The Noles are still a few years away, but they will be better than the squads that took the field the previous 3 to 5 years.
The Big Ten is hands down, the second best football conference year in and year out without question. Ohio State played for a title last year and won’t have much trouble restocking. This year might be a “down” year and it would still be a dream year if it happened to 80 other schools. The Buckeyes have depth everywhere and once they settle on the QB, they’ll be set. This is not your grandfathers or fathers Big Ten this year. Indiana is nationally ranked and has a legit team with a very explosive QB at the helm. The Hoosiers aren’t the only team that can challenge Ohio State for a spot in the title game. Last year was an anomaly for Penn State and I think they return in a major way. Michigan is a head scratcher and I don’t think anyone knows what to expect. I do know that they aren’t elite and Charles Woodson, Braylon Edwards, Brian Griese and others aren’t suiting up for the Maize and Blue. The Badgers are the Badgers, a tenacious defense orchestrated by Jim Lenhard and an offense with unknowns who play together. They hope to return to the title game, but as has been the case, they are their own worst enemy in getting there. Their traditional rival Minnesota has had a couple seasons under PJ Fleck, but this will be the test of his recruiting and development. He has seen players like Antoine Winfield Jr, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman go to the NFL but has Morgan returning at QB. Pat Fitzgerald has mastered recruiting and developing players at Northwestern, which is evident with 2 trips to the title game in the last few years. He has done an absolutely astounding job in Evansville and if it was up to me, I’d build him a statue today. Unlike Paul Cryst at Wisconsin and Fitzgerald at Northwestern, living up to the legacy as an alum and the head coach has not bared fruit for Scott Frost and Nebraska. A storied program built on toughness and defense has seen Coach Osborne’s proud tradition sink to mediocrity. This is year 4 for Scott Frost and in this fast paced college football landscape, he might be running out of time to produce the wins like he did at UCF. Iowa is another proud program that has been through a scandal and seeing it’s in state rival starting the year in the Top 10. In a weird way, Iowa usually has a good year every other season, so I expect the Hawkeyes to rally together and win 9 plus games. My team to keep an eye on is Maryland. This year will have growing pains, but those will produce wins in 22’. The Terps signed 3 of the top 8 OLB, one being a 5 star per ESPN and 2 top 16 DT’s in their 2021 class. All this being said, the match up for the Big 10 Title will be Penn State and Wisconsin, which ironically is the season opener for both schools on September 4th.
The Big 12 is collapsing faster than a Celebrity marriage and with just as much drama. Oklahoma is coming off a beat down of Florida in the Cotton Bowl and hopes to keep their wagon charging back to the CFP. Last year had some growing pains for Spencer Rattler and the Sooners, but this year, business will be booming. There is another squad in the Top 10 and they aren’t Texas, Okie State or Baylor. Iowa State and Brock Purdy are fueled by their Fiesta Bowl victory and looking to redeem themselves for their narrow loss in the 2020 Big 12 title game. They are well coached and are resilient, but now they aren’t the underdogs and are in the crosshairs of everyone else. This will be the biggest test for them and their first challenge will be winning CyHawk Trophy. Texas has been saying they’re back for a while but I doubt it’s happening in 2021. Sarkesian is in a great spot and I think he’ll get them back to the premier sooner than later. Oklahoma State had their window in 2020 and they choked. I don’t know how much longer Mike Gundy can last if he doesn’t start beating Oklahoma and playing for titles very soon. Baylor is a solid program that Matt Rhule revitalized and is in great shape with Dave Aranda at the helm. I don’t see them playing for a title just yet. Gary Patterson and TCU are not terrible but not great, that won’t change in 2021. The same can be said for Texas Tech and West Virginia. The bottom feeders are K State and Kansas, no need to discuss but hope they get it right. One thing that might fuel the league is that the teams might play with an extra edge against the 2 schools who are running to the SEC. All that being said, the Sooners take the title and look to win a National title.
The PAC 12 is a muddy mess when it comes to seeing who is the best, but that will create a fun and wild year. Oregon has the resources and has been recruiting at an epic level for years now. They have played for a couple titles, but I don’t see them getting near there. Mariotta and Herbert were great, but the team just wasn’t built to go undefeated. This years team has a stacked defense and that will be the driving force. USC has been the traditional power forever and nobody knows when they’ll return to that status. Clay Helton is trying but I don’t think he’s the coach that can get the Trojans back to their level. On the other side of LA, another storied program is in the midst of a rebuild and I think UCLA is one year away. Chip Kelly turned Oregon into the current power they are and he’s doing it in the Rose Bowl. Another successful program in the state of California that is looking to return to past glory is Stanford. They are extremely well coached and I think they will cause problems this fall and achieve 8-9 wins. One school that is trying to become a power player is Arizona State. Herm Edwards is a great coach and better person, he has assembled a staff of former NFL players and is looking to develop his players into winners. This year is a big measuring stick to see if his plan can produce victories. Utah and Washington are both ranked to kickoff the year and have been very involved in the landscape of the conference the past few seasons. The Utes lost a lot of solid players after 2019 and the Huskies haven’t been able to capture the magic of 2016. COVID prevented them from playing for a conference title even though they won the north with a 3-1 record. Both are capable of big things, but I have questions about their offense, especially replacing Jacob Eason. When the dust settles, the league will be very competitive, packed with a ton of exciting games and nobody will finish undefeated. I think Oregon and Arizona State will meet for the Title and the Ducks will take home the trophy.
Outside of the power 5 conferences, there is a lot of talented teams across the country. Cincinnati is the premier team of these squads and I think they will make the playoff committee really think about them as a viable option. Other teams in the mix are Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, San Jose State, UCF, Houston, and Boise State. There is great football in these conferences and I highly recommend tuning into the AAC, MAC, Sun Belt, And Mountain West this season.
This will be a fantastic football season filled with chaos. Enjoy every game and hold onto your beverage of choice because things like quadruple Overtime’s are great for the game. College football is a gift to all of us, so treasure every game and I hope your tailgate parties are even better. When the dust settles, the College Football Playoff will be Oklahoma, Georgia, Clemson and Penn State.