Back in the saddle after a lengthy hiatus – I am excited to dive back in to college football now that spring camps have concluded and all the coaching changes are finally cemented (looking at you Kansas).
While spring practices and spring games were hit-and-miss as far as consistency across college football with the tail end of the COVID19-induced protocols being more restrictive in some places than others, it looks very much like 2021 will be back to a “normal” season. Thank goodness for that.
Several programs had surprisingly good…or surprisingly bad seasons in 2020. All the hurdles caused by pandemic restrictions could be alternatively blamed and given credit. I am going to identify the 2-3 teams in each Power 5 conference that face a pivotal year in 2021.
In one corner are teams that have either been moving up into a new and more permanent height in their conference and/or nationally. These teams seem poised to build on a breakout year or consecutive better-than-usual seasons to reach a higher-status.
In the other corner, we have teams who seemed to have slipped a bit and, with another subpar year could find themselves in a more permanent decline. Is your team on this list? It’s not about coaches on hot seat (necessarily) – it’s about program trajectory. As the Joker said in The Dark Knight… “Here we go”:
N.C. State – often ignored and overshadowed by rival North Carolina – who has had a lot of highs and lows in last two decades – the N.C. State Wolfpack have consistently been average to above average for a long time. Heading into 2020, many thought head coach Dave Doeren might be on the hot seat and they started with a bad loss to an undermanned Virginia Tech but rebounded to finish 8-3. A somewhat listless bowl game loss to Kentucky dampened some of the hype that may have surrounded this team but with a young quarterback returning and a number of other starters – this could be the year to really rise up and challenge to be the main team opposite Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. Or, a finish at 7-5 could mean that the Pack is staying right in their normal lane. Less than 6-6 could lead to change at the top.
Miami – We are all desperate for the Hurricanes to become their 1983-2002 selves again. Seemingly every other year, the Canes start out hot – often with a weakish schedule – and then hit trouble with a blowout to Clemson, North Carolina etc. Miami had a solid season but lost big to the best two teams on its schedule – Clemson and North Carolina – and then their bowl game against Oklahoma State, admittedly hurt by QB D’Eriq King going down in the 2nd quarter. If King is fully healthy – a big if coming off an ACL tear – Miami’s offense should be improved and they’ve recruited well on defense. Schedule is brutal to start, opening with Alabama, then Appalachian State, Michigan State and Virginia in 3 of the next 4 weeks – although all but Bama are at home. Is this the year we see Miami make the leap from Coastal also-ran back to real contender? If not, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll ever get over that competitive hump.
Georgia Tech – When Geoff Collins took over for Paul Johnson two seasons ago, everyone understood that it would take some time to move away from the flexbone, triple option offense with smaller lineman and even a defense calibrated to being counterparts to that side of the ball. Collins has brought a brash recruiting persona and a focus on reestablishing Georgia Tech as Atlanta’s team. However, last season didn’t show a ton of improvement in the standings – although the Jackets were certainly more competitive. As Tech enthusiast Matt Thompson – a great follow on Twitter - https://twitter.com/MattThompson87 notes, it’s understandable that the wins and losses wouldn’t be great in year two but the team seemed undisciplined and lacking in basics like executing punt coverage and field goals. So this is the year for Geoff Collins and Tech to move – not into Coastal contention necessarily – but into bowl eligibility and not just barely. With an exciting sophomore quarterback in Jeff Simms and other pieces from improved recruiting, 7-8 wins is not unreasonable. Anything short of that, especially less than 6 wins, and it’s fair to call this program stalled.
Michigan – Much ink has been spilled about the struggles of Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines to live up to the insane hype that accompanied his arrival in Ann Arbor and the early success he had. However, consistent late November and January bowl failures, an inability to even compete with Ohio State for a half on the field the last three years and last year’s 2-4 debacle where one of those wins was in overtime against RUTGERS – has led many to believe Harbaugh is stuck in neutral. Michigan reworked his deal this offseason to give him less money while technically extending him – a sign that they won’t be sorry to see him go back to the NFL if the opportunity presents itself. QB development, thought to be a Harbaugh specialty, has been sorely lacking and recruiting had grown oddly spastic – getting players from New England but few from Michigan, Chicago, or Ohio. Some of that may be turning around but this year is critical. Michigan needs to return to at least 8-9 wins and, realistically needs to be challenging for 10 wins or it’s going to feel like we are back in the early 2010s.
Penn State – See Michigan as far as bizarrely bad 2020 but without the longer term negative trajectory. However, a 7-8 win year in 2021 and a change at USC (see later) could put James Franklin on the move for a change of scenery.
Indiana – Now this one is a positive – the Hoosiers are coming off the best two consecutive years for their program in decades – (#9Windiana). Head coach Tom Allen seems to have really found the secret sauce to building a consistently competitive, winning program in Bloomington – no easy task at all considering their history and lack of overall high school Division I football talent in Indiana. However, the Big 10 East has been down the past two years (see above with Michigan, Penn State last year, and Michigan State steadily declining for several years). Can Indiana repeat or come close to repeating 8-9 wins in years where Michigan and Penn State are desperate to return to winning ways – and Rutgers and Maryland should be improved? If they can, Allen probably has the Hoosiers at this new “very good” tier to stay for awhile.
Iowa State- these are heady days for the Cyclones, a perennial doormat in the old Big 8 and Big 12 that has found something special in head coach Matt Campbell and an outstanding culture of physicality and hard work. They were 40 yards away from beating Oklahoma a second time in the same year and winning the Big 12 title – and finished off the year with a dominant Fiesta Bowl win, the first NY6 bowl win ever for the program. Campbell spurned some other offers and stayed. Most of the team’s starters return from an outstanding offense and defense. Can they avoid early season stumbles like have happened in previous years where they had pre-season hype? Can they beat Iowa as their in-state rivalry resumes after a one year hiatus? Expectations are sky high – another 9-10 win season would really solidify the Cyclones in the top tier of the Big 12, unthinkable just a few seasons ago.
TCU – The 8 years of 2009-2017 was possibly the greatest stretch in the Horned Frogs history. A 2010 Rose Bowl victory and undefeated season, moving back into the Power 5 as a member of the Big 12 in 2013 and a 2014 Peach Bowl win (despite the playoff snub) plus a 32 point comeback in the 2015 Alamo Bowl and an excellent 2017 season had Gary Patterson in the top 5-7 of most any coaching list and a feeling that TCU was here to stay. The last three years have been less kind. Two losing seasons and then a small bounce-back to 6-4 in 2020 have people wondering if the program has plateaued for good or can the Frogs get back to contention in the Big 12. For a long time they were the 2nd to 3rd best team in the conference. This year will go a long way to see if Patterson can rebound one more time, like he did after a little bump in 2013.
Arizona State – The Sun Devils are rising. Herm Edwards’ hiring was widely lampooned by the college football smartguys (if I had been ranking coaching hires it would have been a C so I’m not casting aspersions). However, whatever he’s been doing has largely worked to resolidify ASU as a solid if not spectacular 7-8 win team who can surprise a better program. So – can Edwards and the Devils take the next step to challenge and win the South? Arizona as a state is exploding with growth, one would have to believe high school talent will be improving in the coming years. A surge this year that solidifies ASU as a perennial contender could position them to stay that way for a long time. A 6-6 campaign with a minor bowl would leave the college football world saying “Same old Sun Devils”…which was what got Todd Graham fired.
UCLA – Chip Kelly’s arrival over three years ago seemed to herald a new beginning to the cross-town USC-UCLA rivalry and signal that the Bruins were serious about winning big after parting ways with modestly successful (but cranky) Jim Mora Jr. However, the last three years have been…disjointed to say the least. The Bruins did show signs of life last year but choked away what would have been a signature win against USC in the final regular season game and then declined a bowl birth. 2021 seems like it will be a dividing line showing whether real improvement has been made to put UCLA in firm contention in the PAC 12 South or if Chip’s old magic just can’t seem to catch on. The difference between 7 and 9 wins is huge for the program’s perception moving forward.
USC – It has been the Trojans for the past three years since their last PAC 12 title and underwhelming Cotton Bowl loss following the 2017 season – a year that they disappointed even in winning the conference. After a losing season in 2018 and subpar (for USC standards) 2019, people assumed Clay Helton would be fired. He hung on through an Athletic Director change and then, weirdly, finished 5-0 in the COVID-shortened (and PAC12 incompetence-shortened) 2020 season then promptly lost the PAC 12 Championship game. Unlike every other team on this list, I have USC on here because if the Trojans do another 7-8 win season it will be clear to everyone that Helton (a nice guy that is well-liked by the university community) has to go. USC should be competing with Oregon and Washington for the PAC-12 Championship and be near the top 5. Another lackluster 2021 versus winning big will define the direction of the program for several years.
Georgia – Unlike any other program in this article, this is not about Georgia’s place as one of the 3-4 elite programs in the SEC. This year – with the QB position and WR room figured out to go with an always-great defense – will be about whether Georgia can get back to the Playoff. It’s hard to believe but it’s been three years since the Dawgs lost on 2nd & 26 to Tua and the Tide in overtime. They’ve not been back to the playoff despite two appearances in the SEC Championship game. Losses to lesser opponents earlier in the 2018 and 2019 season meant no margin for error to lose in the title game and still get in. 2020 featured shuffling of QBs due to COVID opt-outs and injuries. Now that J.T. Daniels is firmly entrenched, that problem seems to be gone. However, anything less than a playoff appearance – and frankly an SEC Championship in a year where Alabama, Florida and LSU are all reloading/rebuilding, means Georgia stays stuck in “Really Really Good” territory as it relates to the national championship picture.
LSU – It’s only been one subpar year since perhaps the greatest single season ever put together by a team in 2019. But what a year! The Tigers started the year getting torched by Mississippi State and Missouri, seemed to come close to righting the ship in the middle of the season but were then destroyed by Alabama. However, they closed with an out-of-nowhere win over Florida in the Swamp and a win over Ole Miss. They declined to go bowling with their 5-5 record. It was an all-over-the-place train wreck punctuated with occasional memorable performances. They seemed to have found their QB in Max Johnson and Ed Orgeron cut loose some assistant hires that didn’t work out – primarily one year DC Bo Pelini. Was this just a one year hiccup replacing so much talent and dealing with National Championship hangover, staff attrition and COVID? Or does it portend something more ominous for the future? I’m inclined to think this will be a better but still rebuilding year but what will it say if LSU struggles to, say, an 8-4 record with no big wins or even 7-5? There’s probably too much talent for that but this IS the SEC. My money is on Orgeron getting LSU’s players to figure it out and be closer to 9-3 by the end of the year…but we shall see!
Texas A&M – Always a program thought to have everything it needs to be elite (funding, rich recruiting territory, football-crazy fanbase and tradition), the Aggies finally seemed to breakthrough in 2020, finishing in the Top 5 and arguably more deserving of the fourth playoff spot than Notre Dame – though it’s hard to argue that they were necessarily better or would’ve been more competitive with Alabama in that semifinal. Still – this is the moment that A&M fans have been waiting for – LSU is down, Auburn is likely rebuilding and Alabama will be breaking in a lot of new starters and coming to College Station. If A&M reverts to 8-4 or 9-3 then that’s likely about the level they are going to stay at and 2020 will be looked at as a bit of an odd fluke. However, if they can get to 10-11 wins and either win the West or even be a clear, close second to Alabama, they start to become the real #2 in that division and one of the 4 best SEC teams.
One final note, what the pandemic-shortened college football season did for us is allow for some programs to stockpile returning starters and talent with the extra year of eligibility provided to players. Experience is usually a blessing but a fan base’s excitement should be tempered by the fact that most every mid-to-low level Power 5 program will be returning more starters than normal. It’s going to be fascinating. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter @ReadyCFB.