Previewing 2021 College Football Season
Conference Finish Predictions, Top Storylines and Hottest Seats - Part 1 (AAC, ACC & Big Ten)
Over the next week I’ll be rolling out predictions for the 2021 College Football Season. Blessedly, we are getting very close to actual action ofn the field rather than in the boardroom/Zoom conferences that have dominated the last few weeks. I’ll predict the finish in each conference (please do not base any wagers on my advice!), lay out the dominant storylines for each conference – mostly ON the field – and rate the coach on the hottest seat in each conference.
As always – feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments or on Twitter at @ReadyCFB – here we go!
American Athletic Conference:
1. Can Cincinnati keep their run going and get back to a NY6 bowl OR perhaps the impossible dream of a playoff appearance? Tough out of conference schedule with Notre Dame (who hired away Cincy’s DC) and Indiana. Win both of those and the Bearcats start to have a playoff argument – but would still need help. Even losing one of those doesn’t keep them out of NY6 consideration.
2. Gus Malzahn’s arrival at UCF when he could have sat out and had other P5 opportunities the next year – following Dana Holgorsen and Sonny Dykes coming a few years ago from Power 5 schools, of their own volition, shows that the AAC is really considered to be on the cusp of being a true power conference. It’s certainly full of jobs that are viewed as potentially long-term destination jobs for coaches. Add in Luke Fickell basically turning down everyone to stay at Cincinnati and you get a league that is competitive week-in and week-out. Should be fun to watch – and who is the first of these to go “back” to the Power 5?
3. Realignment (I know I said I’d try to stay focused on the field) could be really negative OR really positive for AAC. They could be players in adding from Big 12 and other conferences to take a shot at getting into “Power 5” status (but adding Kansas State and Baylor ain’t going to do it) or they could be on the menu for a Big 12 desperate to survive and birth a new direction. News breaking during the season seems more likely than not – will definitely be interesting.
Order of Finish:
1. Cincinnati – likely to continue their dominance for another year with most everybody back. However, there are a ton of worthy challengers in this conference.
2. UCF – Let’s see if the Gus Bus can kindle some magic in his first season post-Auburn. His single wing/trick ‘em up offense is always good for some big surprises and, with lesser talented defenses to go against in the AAC as opposed to SEC, I am expecting a big jump for the Golden Knights to 9-10 wins at least.
3. Memphis – Staying steady with Silverman. Tough out of conference schedule though.
4. Navy – I’m expecting bounce-back year for the Mids after a tough COVID-affected year with inexperienced QB play in 2020.
5. Houston – Holgorsen needs to show real progress this year. The Cougars brass has fired two previous coaches after 8 win seasons – Dana has yet to do THAT well.
6. SMU – really feel like 5-8 on this list could be in any particular order. Hard to get a feel – but Sonny Dykes is one of the best coaches in the G5 – so I’d bet this is a scary-but-still-7 win team.
7. Tulsa – Can they build on last year’s surprise success? Or will Phil Montgomery and the Hurricanes revert to the mean?
8. Tulane - consistently competitive under Willie Fritz, but institutional limitations keep them hovering around .500.
9. East Carolina – a real struggle to climb back to where they were even a few years ago when they foolishly fired Ruffin McNeil. ECU used to be a mid-major power because they had the Carolinas to themselves as far as Division 1/non-ACC/non-SEC talent goes. Now there’s Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, and Charlotte that eat into that.
10. South Florida – a smidge of improvement is, you would think, likely but still a year out from being even competitive in the AAC for Jeff Scott and Co.
11. Temple – it’s looking like a tough road for the Owls. They’ve had a lot of difficulties since Geoff Collins left for Atlanta.
Coach on Hottest Seat:
Dana Holgorsen – Houston. 7-13 is not what the big boosters at Houston had in mind when they backed up the Brinks truck for Holgo to leave West Virginia following the 2018 season. He’s got a large, guaranteed contract but if it goes South this year with all the conference uncertainty, I think the trigger finger will be quick.
Atlantic Coast Conference:
1. Can Clemson continue their brilliance now that Trevor Lawrence is off to the NFL? They return a great core, and D.J. Uiagalelei looks like the real deal at QB but there will still be growing pains and struggles. However, it doesn’t look like there’s anyone well-positioned to challenge them…this year.
2. Is North Carolina for real? They are a trendy pick to challenge Clemson – and certainly they are favorites to win the Coastal Division by prognosticators. They have likely the best QB in the conference in Sam Howell but have lost their top 2 RBs, key WRs and have an unproven offensive line…with additional defensive questions. Mack Brown has recruited well…we’ll see!
3. Which Florida school will take bigger steps back to greatness/competitiveness – Miami or Florida State? Miami certainly has the better team on paper but disappointing ending to 2020 (and an opening game against Alabama with a tough schedule in general) and D’Eriq King coming back from injury have a lot of people wondering
4. Is this the year that N.C. State breaks through to a more consistent 9 win plateau? What about the Georgia Tech and Boston College rebuilds? So many understated pivotal moments ahead in the ACC!
Order of Finish:
1. Clemson – Still the one. And the Atlantic is the weakest of the two divisions in the ACC right now overall
2. Boston College – They have their QB and their defense looks to be good. I think the timing is right for them to surge up and surprise a few people. They even had Clemson on the ropes – on the road - for awhile last year when Lawrence was out.
3. N.C. State – I was torn between them and BC but I just think last year may have been an “up” year that will be followed by more average. I actually hope not because it would be great to see the Wolfpack really give Clemson and their in-state rivals a run. Is 7-5/8-4 good enough in Raleigh? Doeren was brought in to help them take a step but it’s kind of been more of the same.
4. Wake Forest – Consistently doing more with less, Dave Clawson probably should get some calls from bigger programs. He’s made the Deacons a consistently competitive bowl team which – even in the Grobe years – was tough to imagine. I was tempted to put them higher in this division but I think their depth is a little suspect. However, I wouldn’t be stunned if they did better than 4th.
5. Florida State – It’s never NOT shocking to think about the Seminoles being so far down but in this case, this *should* be a big improvement over the last couple of years but just coming up short enough times in conference to end up 6-6/7-5. 2022 is the year that ‘Noles fans should look towards.
6. Louisville – There’s not necessarily fire around Scott Satterfield heading into year 3 at Louisville but there does seem to be a lot of smoke. A rough 2020 (following a good start to his tenure in 2019 with 8 wins and a bowl victory) as well as a well-publicized dalliance with South Carolina has taken the bloom off this rose.
7. Syracuse – It looks pretty grim for the Orangemen right now. The 2018 10 win seasons is starting to look more and more like a mirage for Dino Babers – who is well-respected and liked in the coaching profession it’s just…hard to run the Briles/Air Raid system with the talent you can recruit in Upstate New York against teams with more speed and talent.
Coastal Division –
1. Miami – I’m going with the Canes. I’m believing that D’Eriq King will be healthy, defense has to be improved from last year, especially with head coach Manny Diaz calling the signals, and they’ve added speed on the outside on offense through the transfer portal. Most people are taking North Carolina to win the Coastal – I’m going Miami.
2. North Carolina – I meant no disrespect to the Heels who’ve come a long way in just two years under Mack Brown and have the best QB in the conference in Sam Howell. To me, however, they have big questions on defense still (although I expect them to improve) and they are replacing way too many offensive starters – see “Storylines” above. I’m picking them 2nd.
3. Virginia – Consistently solid is how I would characterize the Cavaliers since Bronco Mendenhall got them turned around. I think they will be in a lot of tight games, win some and lose some. Not high-powered enough to compete for division title but 8 wins is definitely possible.
4. Virginia Tech – Will 7-5 be good enough to keep Justin Fuente in Blacksburg? I think we’re about to find out. Opening game of the season is on a Friday night against North Carolina at home. It’s the kind of game Virginia Tech used to expect to win under Frank Beamer and even the earlier days of Fuente. A bad loss could portend a lot of trouble while a close game or especially win could give Hokies and their fans more hope for a return to glory. I’m not expecting Virginia Tech to be in Charlotte as Coastal champion however.
5. Georgia Tech – Three years removed from being a fully triple option team, is this the year that Tech starts to break out of it’s shell? I think there will be some improvement but it’s hard to see them getting beyond 6 wins or so. A bowl game would be a big step forward as Geoff Collins tries to take full advantage of being Atlanta’s only Power 5 football team but so far he hasn’t beaten Georgia for a single player. This season being “successful” in the sense of having 6-7 wins is pretty critical in that regard for proof of concept.
6. Pittsburgh – The Panthers just seem…blah…no real identity on offense and defensively it seems likely they’ll take a step back. Can they get to 6 wins? Is Narduzzi ever going to break them out of the “Michigan State” mold of pro-style offense, solid defense and minor bowl appearances? No one questions Narduzzi’s football IQ but Pitt seems stuck
7. Duke – This looks like the last ride for David Cutcliffe who did a tremendous job resurrecting an awful Blue Devil program and turning them into – for awhile – a consistent bowl team, including a 10 win season in 2013. Unfortunately it does seem the die has been cast as they have a lot of attrition on their roster. I’m not expecting good things for Duke.
Conference winner - Clemson
Coach on the Hottest Seat:
Tie between Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech and Scott Satterfield at Louisville. Both need big seasons to turn the trajectory around. It’s likely that this is Cutcliffe’s last year at Duke and perhaps Dino Babers will be done at Syracuse – although his large buyout makes that less likely.
Big Ten Conference:
1. Michigan and Penn State – can they return to more of a semblance of glory. Harbaugh’s magic, such as it was, seems to have completely gone as it relates to QBs and offenses. Under Franklin, Penn State is recruiting like crazy but 2020 was a bizarre and really bad year that ended with the firing of their OC. They both have early tests in the season and not-easy schedules. It will be interesting to watch.
2. Is Indiana for real? Do we need to get used to #9Windiana or better? With starting quarterback and much of their team back, Tom Allen and the Hoosiers are looking to make more of a permanent “level up” for their perennially downtrodden program. Who will they take down this year or will it revert more to the mean?
3. Nebraska – Scott Frost’s last stand with new AD Trev Alberts coming in? If the Huskers don’t at least go to a bowl game with a 7-win type season, it’s hard to see how Frost comes back and if he didn’t work, where does Nebraska go from here?
Order of Finish:
1. Ohio State – still clearly the class of the entire league even with breaking in a new QB in Fall competition. The Buckeyes have the best WR room in the country and a defense that should actually be improved, particularly in the area of pass rush, over last years National runner-up.
2. Penn State – I believe they will right the ship – not good enough to beat Ohio State but will rebound to a strong 9-10 regular season
3. Indiana – another solid-to-really good season of 8-9 wins is what I’m calling.
4. Michigan – this is probably going to be Harbaugh’s last stand. I anticipate a 7-8 win season. We shall see.
5. Maryland – for the Terps, they are grouped with Michigan but a 7 win season – which I think is possible – is a tremendous step up and would signal that Mike Locksley’s plan of recruiting the best talent possible and plugging them in is starting to work.
6. Rutgers – last year’s glimmer of hope won’t be entirely extinguished but they won’t surprise anyone this year. Schiano needs another year or two of strong recruiting to get into bowl contention territory.
7. Michigan State – this is not an indictment of Mel Tucker in any way – I believe the Spartans WILL turn around but this was a full on demolition job to rebuild this program after major stagnation in the final years of Mark Dantonio. This could be a really rough year.
West Division –
1. Wisconsin – Hard to pick against the Badgers who may have won the West last year if not for a series of COVID-related problems. They *seem* to have a really good QB set up now and I would expect them to end up in Indianapolis representing the West
2. Minnesota – those who read me know I am high on P.J. Fleck. I am believing this will be a bounce-back year – not to the 11 win extent of 2019 but I think an 8-9 win season is very much in play. I do not see a win over Wisky though.
3. Iowa – Solid if not spectacular, this should be another classic Iowa 8-4 type year
4. Northwestern – a tougher schedule and some key graduations make it hard to see the Wildcats getting close to their 8-2 breakthrough last year but I do expect another winning season and bowl appearance.
5. Nebraska – See storylines above – this is kind of it for Scott Frost. A really tough schedule, including Oklahoma out of conference, makes 7-8 wins hard to see. Would a 6-6 bowl season be enough “progress” for Frost to be kept around? I bet yes – but 7 wins would be better
6. Purdue – the bloom seems to really be off the rose for Jeff Brohm. I do think they could be a marginal bowl team even at this level but…it’s not what they were hoping for when they signed him to a $5 million a year extension after 2018.
7. Illinois – I am not among those who hated the Bret Bielema hire. I think he will “work” at Illinois – if by work you mean get them to 5-7 win status most years – but it’s going to take a little while.
Conference Champion – Ohio State
Coach on Hottest Seat:
It’s a tie between Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Scott Frost at Nebraska. Both need “good” seasons and in both cases they also need it to be a season that establishes, or re-establishes, their program’s identity offensively and defensively. Tall order in the tough Big 10.
Check back Wednesday for the Big 12, CUSA, Independents, MAC & MWC!