What are the biggest storylines surrounding college football for the 2021 college football season? Matt Hinton examines the usual suspects for the College Football Playoff, Michigan and Penn State getting back on track, Heisman favorites and more:
15 Things to Watch in the 2021 College Football Season
1. The Usual Suspects
The College Football Playoff was a long-anticipated, hard-won development, and entering its eighth year of existence, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the sport who doesn’t consider the bracket a great leap forward over what came before it. At the same time, as expansion fever reached critical mass last winter, it was harder than ever to deny that the four-team format was already beginning to feel a bit stale. And it’s no wonder why: Year in, year out, it continues to be monopolized by the same four teams.
Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have thoroughly dominated the Playoff era, accounting for a combined 22 conference championships since 2014, 20 of the 28 available CFP slots and 17 of 21 CFP victories. Since 2015, some combination of the Crimson Tide, Tigers, Buckeyes and/or Sooners has made up three-fourths of the Playoff field in six consecutive seasons, while only one other team in that span (Notre Dame in 2018 and ’20) has managed to crack the field more than once. The only Playoff game to date that hasn’t featured at least one of the Big Four was the very first one, a Jan. 1, 2015, match between Oregon and Florida State that’s bordering on ancient history.
Not to spoil the suspense or anything, but surprise: Bama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State look like the obvious front-runners again in 2021. Nor is there any end to their reign in sight — if anything, the tendency of top recruits to flock to the increasingly exclusive club of national contenders is only widening the gap. According to 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings, the top five incoming classes in both 2020 and ’21 coincided exactly with the five programs with at least one Playoff win in the past four years (Bama, Clemson, OSU, Georgia and LSU). Until that changes, everyone else is relegated to dark-horse status at best while waiting for the field to expand.
2. Great Expectations
It used to be that breaking in a new starting quarterback was an automatic red flag for any team with serious championship ambitions, even more so when the outgoing starter was a proven, highly decorated winner on the level of Alabama’s Mac Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Not anymore. In an era defined by prolific, QB-friendly spread offenses across all levels of the sport, the learning curve for young signal-callers has never been shorter, and rising blue-chip talents like Bama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Clemson’s D.J. Uiagelelei — all second-year players moving into featured roles for contenders with no patience for “rebuilding” — have never been better prepared to rise to the occasion.
Young, Stroud and Uiagalelei share hype and geography, having emerged as top prospects while playing within an hour’s drive of one another in Southern California, but little else. At 6'4", 250 pounds, Uiagalelei is a massive presence in the pocket with an arm to match; Clemson fans got a preview of his potential last year when he threw for a combined 781 yards and four touchdowns with no picks in a pair of mid-season starts vs. Boston College and Notre Dame. The 6'0", 194-pound Young is on the opposite end of the spectrum, earning mandatory comparisons to Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray; his contributions to Bama’s championship run as a freshman were limited to flashes in garbage time. Stroud (6'3", 215) falls somewhere in between and has yet to give a glimpse of his skills; he spent the spring splitting reps with redshirt freshman Jack Miller III and five-star signee Kyle McCord. Freshman Quinn Ewers reclassified to join the '21 class with McCord but faces an uphill battle to win the job for the opener versus Minnesota.
All three are legitimate Heisman candidates with the luxury of operating behind veteran offensive lines and throwing to receivers bound for the next level. With that, though, comes very little margin for error, or time to grow into the position: Early non-conference dates with Georgia, Miami and Oregon, respectively, are significant tests for Uiagalelei, Young and Stroud with very significant implications on how the playoff race will unfold.
3. Georgia: Can JT Daniels Deliver?
No position in college football has been more heavily scrutinized over the past few years than Georgia’s starting quarterback, and at no point has the situation looked as bleak as it did last year following season-defining losses to Alabama and Florida. Enter JT Daniels, and cue the choir. After sitting out the first six games with a lingering knee injury, the former USC transfer lived up to his five-star billing and then some down the stretch, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt with 10 TDs, two INTs and a stellar 178.5 passer rating in his four starts. The bowl game, a dramatic, come-from-behind win over unbeaten Cincinnati, capped a four-game winning streak to close the year and reset expectations for 2021 to Georgia’s default setting: Playoff or bust.
Like Alabama’s, Georgia’s roster is one of the few with the baseline talent level to compete for championships on an annual basis, regardless of turnover. Unlike Bama, almost all of Georgia’s key personnel on offense are back, including second-year coordinator Todd Monken and virtually everyone who touched the ball. Monken was hired to breathe life into a stagnant downfield passing game, and with Daniels’ arm, he’ll have all the firepower he needs to make good on that mission — last year’s top four targets (George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton and Darnell Washington) were all freshmen and sophomores who collectively averaged 16.1 yards on 54 catches in Daniels’ starts. Over a full season, they have as much raw big-play potential as any receiving corps in the country (although Pickens’ status is in serious doubt after a spring ACL tear).
It won’t take long to find out how well that potential translates into reality: Georgia opens against another mainstay in the Playoff race, Clemson, which faces plenty of question marks of its own coming off a semifinal beatdown at the hands of Ohio State. The anticipation for that one, and the long-term impact, will be dialed up to eleven.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2021
4. The Fifth Wheel
Among the Power 5 conferences, the push to expand the Playoff field has come most urgently from the Pac-12, for obvious reasons. The league was largely out of sight, out of mind in 2020, primarily due to a chaotic, COVID-shortened schedule that delayed the start of the season into November and limited teams to as few as four games. (The eventual champion, Oregon, only qualified for the conference title game as a replacement for the actual North Division champion, Washington, after the Huskies were DQ’d by coronavirus protocols. It was that kind of year.) Predictably, the West Coast was excluded from the Playoff conversation altogether. But it hasn’t fared much better in the national pecking order in more normal times, either. The Pac-12 champ has managed to crack the Playoff just once in the last six years — Washington in 2016 — and every year the drought wears on seems to set the “Conference of Champions” a little further behind its peers in both reputation and revenue.
A big part of that is the absence of a single dominant team that lords over the rest of the league with anywhere near the consistency that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have over theirs. Parity has its benefits, but promoting a powerhouse team to the sport’s biggest stage is rarely one of them. There are candidates: In the North, Oregon is knocking on the door of national relevance under fourth-year head coach Mario Cristobal — junior DE Kayvon Thibodeaux might be the best player in college football in 2021 — and Washington’s not going anywhere under second-year head coach Jimmy Lake. In the South, as ever, USC’s talent base guarantees that the Trojans are never more than a year away. Behind junior QB Kedon Slovis, an aspiring NFL first-rounder, this could be the year.
Without a breakthrough in the non-conference slate, though (see Oregon’s and USC’s trips to Ohio State and Notre Dame, respectively), even a competitive, compelling conference race is unlikely to command much attention east of the Rockies. With longtime Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott on his way out this summer, changing that dynamic will be his successor’s (George Kliavkoff) first priority.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021
5. Cincinnati: Too Good To Ignore?
Outside of the Power 5 conferences, the reigning powerhouse resides in Cincinnati. Fifth-year head coach Luke Fickell, an Ohio lifer, has built the Bearcats in the defensively minded mold of an old-school Big Ten team, racking up a 31–6 record over the past three seasons and, in 2020, an American Athletic Conference championship. Abbreviated schedule or not, that outfit had an argument as the best in school history, starting 9–0 with three wins over opponents that were ranked at kickoff (Army, SMU and Tulsa) before taking Georgia to the wire in a last-second loss in the Peach Bowl. And the 2021 edition has a chance to be better: Besides Fickell — who remains a go-to candidate for any big vacancy — holdovers from last year’s run include the AAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, senior QB Desmond Ridder, along with five of his top six targets and defensive headliners Myjai Sanders, Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant.
If only winning over the Playoff Committee were as easy as winning games. Despite its perfect record, Cincinnati peaked at No. 8 last year in the committee’s weekly Top 25, matching the high-water mark by any Group of Five team in the Playoff era (undefeated UCF also landed at No. 8 in 2018) but coming nowhere near cracking the top four itself, even coming in behind three-loss Florida in the final ledger. The message was loud and clear: Short of expansion, or at least an eye-opening non-conference upset, teams outside of the major leagues are doomed to irrelevance in the national race.
Unlike last year, the Bearcats have some opportunities to tick the upset box this time around. Cincinnati has back-to-back non-conference games at Indiana and Notre Dame, two teams that finished in the top 15 last season. Pull those off, take care of business in the AAC and by December a known contender boasting an undefeated résumé with two big road wins would pose the strongest challenge to the committee’s Group of Five skepticism to date. If that’s not enough to break through, it might be time to concede that nothing ever will be.
6. Notre Dame: So Close, So Far Away
Strictly in terms of longevity, Brian Kelly has carved out a lasting place in Notre Dame history. Now in his 12th year in South Bend, he’s been on the sideline for more games (141) than any other Fighting Irish head coach, in a tenure that has already spanned more seasons than any of his predecessors except Knute Rockne. Barring disaster this fall, Kelly will add the four wins he needs to surpass Rockne at the top of the school’s career wins list by mid-October at the latest. And after three decades of volatility, he’s delivered a taste of sustained success: The winning percentage over the last four seasons (.843) marks easily the best four-year run at ND since the Lou Holtz-era heyday from 1988-91, with two Playoff appearances to show for it.
Without a championship to his credit, however, Kelly is also at that point in his tenure where the wins often seem to pale in comparison to what he hasn’t won. Last year’s 31–14 semifinal loss to Alabama (along with the ACC Championship Game wipeout vs. Clemson that preceded it) reinforced Notre Dame’s reputation as an also-ran among the sport’s real elite, dropping its record in major bowl games to 0–8 since the turn of the century, none of them close.
Is last season as good as it gets?
The foundation may be solid enough at this point to rack up another 10-win season even in a rebuilding year, a testament to how far the Irish have come on Kelly’s watch. Beyond that, the ceiling looks as fixed as ever.
7: Penn State: Back on Course?
Penn State’s hopes for a Big Ten championship in 2020 started springing leaks before the season even began. All-America LB Micah Parsons opted out in August. Their most promising young talent on offense, RB Journey Brown, was forced to retire due to a heart condition. His backup, Noah Cain, suffered a season-ending injury on the first series of the season. The Lions limped to the first 0–5 start in school history.
The operation looked sea-worthy again down the stretch, closing on a four-game winning streak vs. the weaker half of the schedule. While the finish silenced murmurs about head coach James Franklin’s job security — for the time being, anyway — it couldn’t erase the bad taste of PSU’s first losing record since 2004. Franklin opted to reset the offense under a new coordinator, Mike Yurcich, whose reputation as a quarterback guru is backed up by his work with Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and most recently Texas’ Sam Ehlinger. Sean Clifford, a fifth-year senior with 20 career starts, has a long way to go to join their success stories. But he did solidify his role during the turnaround. The back seven on defense, a liability for much of last year, now looks like a strength with the entire two-deep returning behind a rebuilding D-line.
Even if challenging Ohio State’s death grip on the Big Ten East isn’t on the radar, returning to a New Year’s Six bowl might very well be.
8. Michigan: Harbaugh's Last Stand?
Throughout his first five seasons at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh’s tenure was defined by one big, insurmountable mandate: beating Ohio State. In Year Six, however, the Buckeyes were the least of his problems. Just about everything that could have gone wrong in the abbreviated 2020 campaign did — key injuries, widespread attrition, instability at quarterback, weekly breakdowns on defense, all culminating in a 2–4 slog that very nearly cost Harbaugh his job. The only silver lining, ironically, was that at least Michigan didn’t have to suffer through yet another loss vs. OSU — the rivalry game was mercifully called off due to the virus.
Rumors swirled that a mutual split between Harbaugh and his alma mater was imminent, and although they ultimately decided to stick it out for another year, there’s no hiding now that the marriage is on the rocks. The bid for a resurgence rests largely on a new, as-yet-undetermined quarterback and a first-time defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, who spent the last six years working under Harbaugh’s brother, John, with the Baltimore Ravens. Macdonald will inherit proven commodities in DE Aidan Hutchinson (a 2020 injury casualty) and DB Daxton Hill; otherwise, almost every other position is up for grabs.
Ohio State notwithstanding, every other game on the schedule is winnable, including a tone-setter vs. Washington. If the defense reverts to form, the Wolverines could be a stable QB away from a dark-horse run in the Big Ten East. But the line between landing in a major bowl game in December and launching a coaching search is as thin as it can be.
Related: 2021 Preseason All-America Team
9. Texas Turns the Page (Again)
Did Tom Herman stand a chance at Texas? Despite some initial signs of life — and despite a 32–18 record over four years — the Herman era never lived up to the hype, stalling out after a 10-win season in 2018 and failing to capitalize on three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. For a fan base with infamously high expectations, there was something for everyone to dislike: an empty trophy case, red flags on the recruiting trail, a high-profile rift over players’ protest of the school fight song. By January, the collective angst culminated in Herman’s exit.
His successor, Steve Sarkisian, comes with baggage of his own from his last stint as a head coach, at USC, which ended abruptly midway through the 2015 season. In the meantime, though, Sark thrived in his comeback role as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, earning a national championship ring in 2020 as architect of the highest-scoring offense in SEC history. His immediate concerns: one, settling on a new quarterback to replace four-year starter Sam Ehlinger, engine of an attack that averaged 42.7 points per game; and two, shoring up a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 in both total and scoring D each of the past two years.
Longer term, the top priority remains re-establishing Texas as the dominant year-in, year-out recruiting power in the most talent-rich state in the country — the phase where Herman’s momentum most obviously seemed to have run out. But as UT’s third new coach in eight years, Sarkisian shouldn’t be under any illusions that time is on his side.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2021
10. LSU: Cure for a Hangover?
No one in their right mind last year expected anything like a rerun of LSU’s stunning, prolific 2019 championship run. But the hangover, predictable as it was, often felt more like a coma: Through eight games, the Tigers stood at 3–5 with historically lopsided losses against Auburn and Alabama already in the books and close to half the roster on the shelf due to injuries, COVID-19 and self-preservation ahead of the NFL Draft.
But rather than packing it in for the year, the Tigers posted back-to-back wins over Florida and Ole Miss that evened the record at 5–5 and offered a light at the end of the tunnel. After a turbulent season behind center, true freshman QB Max Johnson emerged as a steady hand, and fellow freshman Kayshon Boutte as a full-blown star at wide receiver. Defensive end Ali Gaye, a first-year junior-college transfer, and freshman cornerback Eli Ricks cemented their status as rising stars. After a muted campaign that had featured a single home victory prior to the season finale, the energy in reduced-capacity Tiger Stadium for the shootout win over Ole Miss felt almost … normal.
There’s a lot to look forward to; the Tigers will have as much front-line star power as any team in the SEC. They’ll have new coordinators on both sides of the ball as well. That may not be enough to lift them back into the Playoff conversation in the same division with Alabama and Texas A&M. But for now, reverting to a standard-issue LSU team is a step in the right direction.
11. Iowa State: Aiming Higher in Ames
Any way you slice it, 2020 was a banner year for Iowa State football. The Cyclones tied a school record for wins (nine) and posted the best conference record (8–2) in the 123-year history of the program. They played in their first Big 12 Championship Game (a close loss to Oklahoma) and their first major bowl game (a win over Oregon in the Fiesta). They spent three weeks inside the AP top 10, more than all previous ISU teams combined, and earned their highest poll finish by far — ninth, 10 spots better than the previous high in 1976. Head coach Matt Campbell ended his fifth season with the best overall winning percentage (.556) of anyone who’s held the job.
It’s more than blue-sky preseason patter when we tell you that their best may be ahead of them. Almost everyone who mattered last year is back, beginning with Campbell, who spurned the NFL in favor of a contract extension, as well as longtime coordinators Tom Manning (offense) and Jon Heacock (defense). The lineup is essentially intact, including nine players who were voted first-team All-Big 12 by league coaches representing every position group on both sides of the ball. Among them: The most decorated quarterback in ISU history (senior Brock Purdy), the nation’s leading rusher (All-American Breece Hall) and the conference leaders in receptions (WR Xavier Hutchinson), tackles (LB Mike Rose) and sacks (DE Will McDonald IV). For the first time since … well, ever, the Cyclones must be taken seriously as Big 12 contenders.
Will it be the last time? Another big season will send Campbell’s stock into the stratosphere, and the exodus of core talent at year’s end could be the perfect moment to declare “mission accomplished” and make the leap, whether it’s to the next level or to a more traditional power with a fresh vacancy. (Michigan on line 2.) If he’s in it for the long haul at Iowa State, Campbell can’t count on having another team that checks as many boxes as this one again anytime soon. Either way, at a place that hasn’t claimed so much as a share of a conference title since 1912, the window to win big right now is much too rare to take for granted.
12. North Carolina: Howell for Heisman?
In just two years on campus, Sam Howell has already carved his name at or near the top of the North Carolina record book in almost every major passing category: first in career efficiency, first in yards per attempt, tied for first in touchdown passes, fifth in passing yards. (Assuming good health, the last one will likely fall around midseason.) As a sophomore in 2020, Howell joined Jameis Winston in his 2013 Heisman campaign as the only ACC quarterbacks ever to average more than 10.0 yards per attempt or post an efficiency rating above 175.0 over a full season. In the process, he led a previously stagnant program to the Orange Bowl and played his way into a lucrative NFL future.
Is that enough to make him a legitimate Heisman candidate? For all his success on paper, in many ways Howell has remained a regional star, overshadowed by Trevor Lawrence as the ACC’s standard-bearer at the position. The Tar Heels’ most visible game of 2020, a 31–17 loss to Notre Dame the day after Thanksgiving, was arguably his most pedestrian outing of the season, effectively killing whatever chance he had of playing his way into the Heisman conversation. In a race that prioritizes big-game heroics and championship credentials above raw stats, Howell’s name barely made a ripple.
This year, his bid will hinge largely on his team’s success. The schedule is friendly enough, offering up another high-profile shot at Notre Dame and a relatively straight path to the top of the ACC Coastal; Clemson is notably absent from the cross-division draw, setting up a potential showdown with the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game. The supporting cast? To be determined: Outgoing starters at wide receiver (Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome) and running back (Michael Carter, Javonte Williams) accounted for more than 70 percent of the Heels’ scrimmage yards each of the past two years. If the offense continues to average north of 500 yards and 40 points per game in their absence, Howell will have earned all the credit that comes his way.
13. Florida State: The Milton Miracle
If McKenzie Milton takes a live rep this fall, it will be a miracle. The last time he was on the field, in November 2018, Milton — then a 21-year-old junior at UCF — suffered a catastrophic knee injury that put his career on indefinite hiatus. Most of the subsequent updates on his recovery over the next two years implied he was unlikely to play again. But here he is: Now a 23-year-old, sixth-year senior at Florida State, Milton was fully cleared to participate in spring practice, went through non-contact drills without a hitch and has a very real shot at starting the Seminoles’ season opener vs. Notre Dame.
If he looks anything like his old self in his new colors, it will be more than a miracle — it stands to reverse the recent trajectory of FSU football. The Noles’ struggles behind center are well documented, with the revolving door at the position serving as a focal point for the program’s broader descent into mediocrity. Nothing about last year’s dismal 3–6 finish under first-year coach Mike Norvell suggested that the arrow was pointing up. In Milton, however, they landed a bona fide star who was 24–0 as a starter in 2017-18 and finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting both years.
A return to anywhere near that level will go a long way toward reversing four years of steadily diminishing returns in Tallahassee, and quite possibly make Milton’s long-shot NFL ambitions a reality. No matter how it turns out, just absorbing the first hit will be a triumph in itself.
14. BYU: Capitalize or Crash?
The most remarkable thing about BYU’s breakthrough 2020 campaign might be that there even was a 2020 campaign: Without a conference slate to fall back on, the Cougars watched helplessly last summer as COVID-19 wiped out essentially their entire schedule, including all six dates vs. Power 5 opponents. The result was an experiment in improvised, on-the-fly scheduling that at times gave the team as little as a few days to prepare for the next game. If the players ever felt disoriented, though, it never showed on the field. Behind prolific QB Zach Wilson, the Cougars won 11 of 12, averaged 43.5 points and turned in BYU’s highest finish in the AP poll (11th) since 1996.
Resetting expectations for 2021 is a different challenge. Wilson is off to the NFL, leaving a huge void behind center, along with his top receiver (Dax Milne) and O-lineman (All-American Brady Christensen). But the cupboard is hardly bare — the five returning starters at the skill positions combined to account for nearly 4,000 yards and 39 touchdowns. Besides the new quarterback, the bigger concerns are the defense, which lost six of its top eight players in terms of snap counts, and a full-strength schedule with seven games vs. Power 5 opponents. Then again, only one of them (USC) finished ranked in 2020, and all seven are potentially beatable. Returning to earth from the heights of a historic season may be a given; a crash landing is not.
15. Kansas: From Bad to Worse
Even by Kansas standards, 2020 was a disaster: The Jayhawks limped to an 0–9 record in Les Miles’ second season as head coach with seven losses by 21 points or more. Against all odds, the offseason has been worse. In March, Miles was fired over reports of misconduct during his tenure at LSU, a controversy that also claimed the job of his boss, athletic director Jeff Long. The team went through spring drills under interim coach Emmett Jones, but Lance Leipold was hired from Buffalo prior to the spring game.
Leipold inherits one of the most difficult situations of any Power 5 program. The Jayhawks are more than a decade removed from their last winning season, in 2008, in which time they’ve hired and (inevitably) fired four different head coaches without making so much as a dent in the pattern of futility. Miles, whose stature was supposed to lend some semblance of stability, somehow managed to leave a deeper hole than he found.
For the right coach, the nowhere-to-go-but-up outlook might have a certain appeal. Kansas hasn’t always been a doormat and won’t be one forever. Eventually, the Jayhawks will crawl their way back to respectability. But for 2021, they’re every bit as entrenched on the bottom as Alabama and Clemson are at the top.
— Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports' 2021 National College Football Magazine.
Podcast: Best Non-Conference Games + Preseason Practice Updates