College football's 2021 season is slated to start in late August, but it's never too early to project where all 130 teams will finish at the end of the year. Athlon Sports released its top 25 in May and now it's time to project the rest of the teams 26-130. Alabama takes the top spot at No. 1, with Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State as the other projected playoff teams. Georgia, Texas A&M, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Oregon and North Carolina round out the top 10.
Cincinnati ranks as the projected top Group of 5 team this fall, with Louisiana and Coastal Carolina also in the top 25. Boise State, Nevada, UCF, San Jose State, UAB, Houston, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa, UTSA and Appalachian State headline the next tier of teams from the Group of 5 ranks. Toledo is ranked as the projected winner from the MAC, but Ball State isn’t far behind.
DISCLAIMER: This is not a preseason 130 ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
College Football Top 130 Team Rankings for 2021
130. New Mexico State
The Aggies went 2-10 in 2019 and only played a two-game slate in the spring for the ’20 season. Coach Doug Martin’s squad faces a tough schedule and returns only two starters for ’21. Wins could be tough to find for New Mexico State this fall.
Offensive Strength: The Aggies have a couple of promising running backs in Juwaun Price and Michigan transfer O’Maury Samuels. Receiver Robert Downs II is a proven target on the outside, and left tackle Sage Doxtater, along with Ole Miss transfer Eli Johnson, will anchor the trenches.
Offensive Concern: New Mexico State averaged only 21.7 points a game in 2019 and will have a lot of new faces seeing major snaps this fall. Quarterback Jonah Johnson is talented but lacks FBS experience.
Defensive Strength: Veteran play-caller Frank Spaziani can only improve this unit after giving up 41 points a game in 2019.
Defensive Concern: New faces with limited playing time are everywhere on this defense. Improving on the 2019 numbers might be tough.
UMass is 1-15 through coach Walt Bell’s first two years, but the Minutemen should show some improvement in 2021. A handful of transfers have improved the overall talent level, and the roster features 13 returning starters that gained valuable experience last fall.
Offensive Strength: Transfers in quarterback Tyler Lytle, receiver Rico Arnold and running back Kay’Ron Adams will boost an offense that scored only 12 points in four games in 2020. The Minutemen have a potential rising star at receiver in Jermaine Johnson Jr. (14 receptions). Three starters are back along the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: How big of a jump in production can Bell deliver with this group in 2021? Left tackle Larnel Coleman is a big loss in the trenches.
Defensive Strength: The trio of Bryce Watts, Bryson Richardson and Noah Boykin – three former Power 5 defensive backs – is a good way for the defense to build in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: UMass allowed 40.2 points a game and surrendered 6.9 yards per play last season. There are too many issues to address in one offseason.
128. Bowling Green
The Falcons went 0-5 and were outscored by opponents 225-57 last season. With young players seeing significant snaps on both sides of the ball and opting to not find a quick fix through the transfer ranks, coach Scot Loeffler’s rebuilding effort is going to take another year to show results.
Offensive Strength: Running back Terion Stewart (7.9 yards per carry) is a breakout candidate for 2021. Quarterback Matt McDonald should also benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller.
Offensive Concern: How big of a jump in production can the Falcons make after averaging 11.4 points a game last year? Improving the offensive line and developing playmakers for McDonald are an offseason priority. This unit has to do a better job at limiting turnovers in 2021.
Defensive Strength: Eric Lewis takes over as defensive coordinator, so a fresh approach for a group that struggled last season is never a bad thing. Linebacker Darren Anders should push for all-conference honors.
Defensive Concern: Bowling Green brings back six starters, but a couple of key contributors to last year’s group departed. After giving up 45 points a game and 6.7 yards per play last season, this group has a long road back to respectability.
New coach Terry Bowden has one of the toughest assignments for a first-year coach in 2021. ULM finished 0-10 and was outscored by a combined mark of 420-163 last season.
Offensive Strength: Rich Rodriguez was a strong hire as offensive coordinator. Also, Rich’s son – Rhett Rodriguez – transferred from Arizona to compete for the starting nod. ULM has some promising weapons at receiver.
Offensive Concern: How much can this unit improve in one offseason? ULM managed only 4.8 yards per play and 16.3 points a game last year. Finding a go-to running back and improving the offensive line are two priorities to watch this offseason.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Zac Alley returns seven starters and a significant amount of experience overall going into the 2021 season.
Defensive Concern: ULM gave up 42 points a game and 6.85 yards a play last season. This defense gave up nearly 250 rushing yards a contest and ranked last in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. The problems aren’t going to be solved in just one offseason.
The Huskies did not play a game in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns and quite a bit has changed since the end of the ’19 season. UConn is now a FBS Independent and plays a schedule featuring three Power 5 opponents and two FCS opponents this fall. There are opportunities for wins in ‘21, but the Huskies are in rebuild mode after going 2-10 as a member of the AAC in ’19.
Offensive Strength: Running back Kevin Mensah (1,013 yards in 2019) is underrated and should be the focal point of this offense. UConn brings back a couple of proven targets on the outside in Cameron Ross and Matt Drayton at receiver, along with tight end Jay Rose.
Offensive Concern: Restocking a line that has three new starters is a priority. Also, will the offense get consistent play out of quarterback Jack Zergiotis or Steven Krajewski?
Defensive Strength: Experience won’t be in short supply with eight starters back for 2021. Jackson Mitchell and D.J. Morgan are back to form a solid one-two punch at linebacker
Defensive Concern: UConn allowed 40.5 points a game and seven yards a play in 2019. Each level of the defense has experience but generating marked improvement seems unlikely.
With the program entering the third year under coach Tom Arth, the Zips hope to make a significant jump in wins after a 1-17 stretch over the last two seasons. Improvement should be attainable in 2021, but a winning record seems out of reach.
Offensive Strength: The Zips have a couple of options at quarterback with Kato Nelson (back from injury) joining Zach Gibson under center. The ground game should continue to improve if running back Teon Dollard (suspended due to off-field incident) plays in 2021. All five starters from last season are back in the trenches.
Offensive Concern: Offensive production hasn’t been a strength under Arth. Akron averaged 10.5 points a game in 2019 and 17.2 last fall. Can the Zips find a go-to receiver for Nelson? Will Dollard play in 2021? While all five starters are back up front, this unit allowed 26 sacks last year.
Defensive Strength: The unit’s top two players – linebacker Bubba Arslanian and defensive back A.J. Watts – return for 2021. Arslanian and Watts are two pieces for the defense to build around, and the bulk of last year’s two-deep is back.
Defensive Concern: Big improvement is needed. Akron gave up 41.3 points a game and 7.6 yards a play last season. The Zips also finished 10th in the MAC versus the run and last in pass efficiency defense.
124. Old Dominion
The Monarchs did not play due to COVID-19 last season, so the 2021 campaign marks the first official year for coach Ricky Rahne. The former Penn State offensive coordinator was a good hire for Old Dominion, but all signs point to a rebuilding project with just seven starters back after the program went 1-11 in ’19.
Offensive Strength: Rahne’s background on this side of the ball should pay dividends after Old Dominion averaged 16.3 points a game in 2019. A couple of transfers add talent and instant help at a couple of spots, including quarterback (D.J. Mack from UCF). Center Isaac Weaver is solid, and running back Elijah Davis is back after running for 337 yards in ’19.
Offensive Concern: How big of a jump in production can Rahne generate in his first year? The Monarchs need better play up front and have to settle the quarterback battle for the offense to take off in ’21.
Defensive Strength: Only three starters are back on this side of the ball, but linebacker Jordan Young and defensive backs Geronda Hall and Harrell Blackmon are a good starting point for coordinator Blake Seiler.
Defensive Concern: The Monarchs are thin on proven options up front from a defense that allowed 29.8 points a game in 2019. Overall depth on this side of the ball could be an issue.
Dana Dimel enters his fourth year in El Paso with a 5-27 record, but the Miners showed some on-field progress last season. Can that progression continue into 2021 with a winning record?
Offensive Strength: The Miners have the pieces to take a step forward on offense. Quarterback Gavin Hardison has room to improve but showed some promise at times last fall. UTEP is set at running back with Deion Hankins (592 yards) and Quardraiz Wadley leading the way. Receiver Jacob Cowing (41 catches) is one of Conference USA’s most underrated players. The Miners have a veteran line in place.
Offensive Concern: On paper, this unit appears poised for a jump in production. However, Dimel needs Hardison to take a big a step forward for the offense to improve. UTEP has to do a better job at generating big plays and limiting turnovers.
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, UTEP’s defense has some intriguing pieces to lean on for improvement. End Praise Amaewhule (seven sacks), linebacker Tyrice Knight, tackle Keenan Stewart, and safety Justin Prince give coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto talent to build around at every level. UTEP ranked third in Conference USA versus the run and ranked third in third-down defense.
Defensive Concern: How big of a jump can Peveto deliver in his first year as the play-caller after this group gave up 31 points a game in 2020? UTEP ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense last season. Generating more sacks (13 in ‘20) is a must.
122. Northern Illinois
Everything about the 2020 season was unusual, so it’s tough to read too much into Northern Illinois’ 0-6 record. However, the Huskies are going with a youth movement under coach Thomas Hammock. The experience gained from last fall could pay off in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi provides an experienced option under center. The backfield has a couple of promising options, including Harrison Waylee and Western Illinois transfer Clint Ratkovich. Tyrice Richie (53 catches) is one of the MAC’s top receivers. Four starters return along a promising offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Northern Illinois averaged only 4.99 yards per play and ranked 10th in the MAC in scoring (24.8 ppg). The offense lost too many turnovers, struggled on third downs and failed to generate many big plays. Is Lombardi the quarterback to spark the offense? Or will Hammock turn to promising freshman Ethan Hampton?
Defensive Strength: The youth movement on the roster was apparent on last year’s defense. Several freshmen gained valuable reps in 2020, which could translate into better production this fall. Cornerback Jordan Gandy is a playmaker (seven passes defended), and the linebacker unit is solid with the return of Lance Deveaux and Kyle Pugh.
Defensive Concern: How much improvement can this side of the ball generate? Northern Illinois gave up 38.7 points a game, ranked seventh in the MAC versus the run, 10th in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 6.63 yards per play in 2020.
The Panthers’ streak of three consecutive bowl appearances under Butch Davis was snapped due to an 0-5 mark last fall. COVID-19 disruptions hit FIU hard last year, so a normal offseason should help this program get back on track in 2021.
Offensive Strength: The Panthers have a talented collection of skill players. Running back D’vonte Price returns after rushing for 581 yards in the abbreviated season, while the receiving corps features a couple of options at tight end (Rivaldo Fairweather and Sterling Palmer) and receivers Bryce Singleton, Tyrese Chambers and Shemar Thornton (combined for 51 receptions in 2019).
Offensive Concern: FIU averaged only 22.4 points a game and 4.6 yards per play last fall. Everything on offense needs to show significant improvement for the Panthers to go bowling in 2021. New play-caller Andrew Breiner needs to find a quarterback and solidify the offensive line.
Defensive Strength: FIU should be one of the better secondary groups in Conference USA with the return of cornerbacks Josh Turner and Rishard Dames and safeties Dorian Hall and Richard Dames. Jamal Gates is back at linebacker, and the Panthers have plenty of experience returning among starters in the trenches.
Defensive Concern: The Panthers have to get better versus the run after giving up 235.6 yards a game last season. A better pass rush is also needed (10 sacks in 2020). FIU generated only three turnovers and allowed 32.4 points a contest last year.
UNLV is recruiting well under coach Marcus Arroyo, but the on-field product is going to take a couple of years to catch up. The Rebels finished 0-6 in Arroyo’s debut last season and was outscored by a combined mark of 228-104.
Offensive Strength: Charles Williams is one of the Mountain West’s top running backs and could be joined by Oregon transfer Jayvaun Wilson to form a standout duo in 2021. Receiver Kyle Williams had a strong freshman season in ‘20 by catching 35 passes in six games.
Offensive Concern: UNLV used four different quarterbacks last season and completed 58.7 percent of throws as a team in 2020. More consistency is desperately needed here, with Justin Rogers, Doug Brumfield and freshman Cameron Friel vying to start. The struggles under center were a big reason why the Rebels managed only 17.3 points a game last fall. The has to improve in pass protection (29 sacks allowed). More playmakers have to step up at receiver.
Defensive Strength: UNLV has a good bit of experience in the mix, as 10 starters are slated to return for 2021. Also, Arroyo added a couple of instant contributors in former Arizona linebacker Kylan Wilborn and USC lineman Connor Murphy through the transfer portal. Linebacker Jacoby Windmon (five sacks in ’20) is promising.
Defensive Concern: The 2007 season was the last time UNLV gave up less than 30 points a contest. The Rebels gave up 38 points a contest and 7.2 yards per snap last year – this is a heavy rebuilding effort for coordinator Peter Hansen.
119. South Alabama
South Alabama is a job with potential, and new coach Kane Wommack seems like the right fit to help this program grow over the next couple of seasons. If the Jaguars get consistent play from quarterback Jake Bentley and improve up front, this ranking might be too low.
Offensive Strength: Utah (and former South Carolina) quarterback Jake Bentley should provide stability and a needed spark under center in 2021. The senior will be throwing to a standout group of receivers, which includes one of the nation’s best in Jalen Tolbert.
Offensive Concern: For the offense to have any success this fall, better play up front is a priority after 40 sacks allowed last year. And this unit is an obvious area of focus for the new staff with five additions coming through the transfer portal. The Jaguars also need to spark the ground attack after managing only 2.9 yards per carry in 2020. This group averaged 19.9 points a game and 5.1 yards per play last fall – there’s plenty of room to improve.
Defensive Strength: Wommack’s background and track record on defense suggest this group could improve significantly in 2021. The cupboard also isn’t totally bare with nine returning starters. Safety Keith Gallmon is one of the top defensive backs in the Sun Belt.
Defensive Concern: South Alabama surrendered 27.3 points a game and 6.4 yards per snap last season. Wommack and new coordinator Corey Batoon should bring some improvement, but the personnel might not be there to make a significant jump. The Jaguars need to find a pass rush (just 13 sacks in 2020).
Unusual might be an understatement when reviewing Temple’s 2020 season. The Owls didn’t start until Oct. 10 and dealt with COVID-19 issues on and off all year. After winning at least six games for six consecutive seasons, last year’s 1-6 mark might be an aberration.
Offensive Strength: Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis is a big boost to an offense that lost starting quarterback Anthony Russo to Michigan State. Transfers at running back and receiver will help to fortify the skill positions, while Jadan Blue and Randle Jones are two proven options on the outside for Mathis. The line should be solid with four starters back.
Offensive Concern: The Owls need to find a spark on offense after averaging only 19.9 points a game and 4.65 yards a snap. Also, Temple needs to find a way to generate more big plays.
Defensive Strength: Temple allowed 25.9 points a game in 2019, so last year’s jump to 37.1 could be due in part to the unusual nature of the ’20 season. Every level of the defense returns some experience and help is coming through the transfer portal.
Defensive Concern: Everything. While last season’s dip in production could be due to the circumstances surrounding 2020, the Owls still ranked last in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and gave up 208.6 rushing yards a game. The pass rush was sluggish (13 sacks) and key contributors in end Arnold Ebiketie, linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley and tackle Khris Banks all transferred to Power 5 programs.
117. Middle Tennessee
After four consecutive years with bowl appearances and winning records (2015-18), coach Rick Stockstill’s team is only 7-14 over the last two seasons. The Blue Raiders need to show progress in ’21 for Stockstill to avoid hot seat talk.
Offensive Strength: NC State transfer Bailey Hockman should provide stability and a solid option under center. Most of the skill talent at running back and receiver is set to return for new coordinator Brent Dearmon this fall.
Offensive Concern: Big improvement is needed on this side of the ball. The Blue Raiders averaged only 5.2 yards per play and 22.9 points a game last season. Additionally, the ground game was sluggish (3.8 per play), and the line gave up 23 sacks in nine contests.
Defensive Strength: The news isn’t all bad for Middle Tennessee after giving up 6.1 yards per play and 35.4 points a game in 2020. Coordinator Scott Shafer brings back 10 starters and plenty of experience here, so improvement with a normal offseason seems within reach. The safety pairing of Gregory Grate and Reed Blankenship is one of the best at the Group of 5 level.
Defensive Concern: As mentioned above, last year’s numbers and overall performance – even with a ton of experience back – are a major concern going into 2021. Additionally, the Blue Raiders struggled mightily on third downs, gave up too many big plays, and had issues stopping the run (221.9 ypg allowed).
116. Utah State
Several factors contributed to Utah State’s 1-5 mark last season, but the 2021 campaign represents a fresh start for the program. New coach Blake Anderson is a strong hire and arrives in Logan with a track record of success from his last stint at Arkansas State. The Aggies weren’t as bad as last year’s record indicated. How far can they rebound?
Offensive Strength: Anderson’s work in the transfer portal brought a couple of impact players to provide instant help for an offense that averaged only 15.5 points a game and 4.6 yards per play. Quarterback Logan Bonner and receiver Brandon Bowling should be significant additions after playing key roles at Arkansas State in 2020. The backfield has talent with transfer Calvin Tyler joining Devonta’e Henry-Cole in the mix. The line should be solid.
Offensive Concern: Fitting all of the new pieces and adapting to a new scheme may take some time. How long will it take Anderson and coordinator Anthony Tucker to get this unit on track? The Aggies need to reduce their turnovers lost (10 in six games).
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, Utah State’s additions through the transfer portal will provide a lot of help right away. The line added bulk with three key transfers, including end Byron Vaughns to team with Nick Heninger on the edges. Linebacker Justin Rice should push for first-team All-Mountain West honors. Three returning starters will boost a secondary that finished 2020 ranked 11th in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: On paper, this group should be better than last year’s numbers (35.2 ppg and 6.6 per play). How big of a jump can new coordinator Ephraim Banda deliver in his first season?
Kansas is starting over once again, but the hire of Lance Leipold is a big step in the right direction. The Jayhawks haven’t recorded a winning season since 2008 and have only nine victories since ’15.
Offensive Strength: The Jayhawks have two interesting options – Jalon Daniels and North Texas transfer Jason Bean – to rely on at quarterback. The backfield features a couple of promising backs, while the addition of center Mike Novitsky is a huge boost to the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Kansas has not finished higher than eighth in the Big 12 in scoring since 2010. The Jayhawks averaged only 15.8 points a game and 3.7 yards a snap last year. The offensive line allowed a whopping 47 sacks in nine games in 2020. Can Daniels or Bean deliver consistent play under center? Also, the late arrival of the new staff adds to the difficulty of a transition period.
Defensive Strength: Gavin Potter and Kyron Johnson form a solid duo at linebacker, while safeties Kenny Logan and Ricky Thomas bring experience to the secondary. New coordinator Brian Borland had a good track record of success at Buffalo.
Defensive Concern: The Jayhawks allowed at least 38 points in eight of nine contests and finished the season giving up 46 points per game. This defense surrendered 6.6 yards per play in 2020 and has not allowed under the six-yard mark since ’13. Kansas also ranked last in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and versus the run, while also generating the fewest sacks (nine) of any team in the conference. Also, three key players – tackle DaJon Terry, end Marcus Harris and cornerback Karon Prunty – transferred this offseason.
114. Texas State
The Bobcats are only 5-19 under coach Jake Spavital, but of the program’s 10 losses last season, six came by 10 points or less. Texas State is showing signs of progress under Spavital, and an infusion of transfers should help this team take another step forward in 2021.
Offensive Strength: In 2019, Texas State averaged 18.4 points a game and 4.97 yards a play. Those numbers jumped to 27.7 a contest and 5.7 a snap last year. Quarterback Brady McBride is promising, and No. 1 receiver Marcell Barbee (10 TDs) is a big-time playmaker on the outside. The Bobcats are deep at running back and added help through the transfer portal to bolster the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Making another jump in production is a reasonable expectation for this group. But how far can Spavital take it in 2021? The offensive line needs to improve in pass protection, while more big plays are needed overall. McBride needs a couple of receivers to emerge after two key targets departed on the outside. Eliminating turnovers and performing better on third downs is a must.
Defensive Strength: Last year’s stat sheet didn’t provide much promise. However, Texas State returns eight starters, including one of the Sun Belt’s top cornerbacks (Jarron Morris) and added a handful of players to compete right away from the transfer portal.
Defensive Concern: The Bobcats have a lot of work to do here. The defense surrendered 38.2 points a game and finished ninth in the Sun Belt against the run. Also, Texas State gave up 6.3 yards a snap and ranked eighth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. An improved pass rush (12 sacks in 2020) is a must.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2021 Predictions
Coach Mike Bloomgren has Rice on the right path entering 2020. Even though the Owls played only five games last season, the program managed to build off a solid finish to the ’19 season. Rice went 2-3 during the abbreviated slate and lost its three games each by 10 points or less. Another step forward is likely in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Considering Bloomgren’s background at Stanford, it’s no surprise the offensive line has emerged as a strength. With four starters back, this could be one of the better groups in the conference. Receiver Bradley Rozner is back after opting out of 2020, and tight end Jordan Myers is a versatile all-around playmaker. The additions of transfer quarterbacks Luke McCaffrey and Jake Constantine are key for an offense that averaged only 23.4 points a game last year.
Offensive Concern: Quarterback play. Can the Owls find an answer out of McCaffrey, Constantine, JoVoni Johnson or Wiley Green? This offense needs to find some punch for the ground attack after managing only 2.8 yards per carry last fall.
Defensive Strength: Rice held its five opponents to just 18.8 points a game last season. With the bulk of the two-deep intact, coordinator Brian Smith has the players to develop this defense to another level in 2021. The Owls finished fifth in the conference in pass efficiency defense and fourth versus the run.
Defensive Concern: Last season was a step in the right direction – but will it hold over a full slate? The defense isn’t losing much, but the departure of linebacker Blaze Alldredge to Missouri is a big blow. Rice also has to generate more of a pass rush (just seven sacks in 2020).
112. North Texas
After winning 18 games from 2017-18, the Mean Green have slipped to an 8-14 record over the last two years. Scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Seth Littrell’s team in ’21. However, the defense has to show marked improvement to get back to a bowl.
Offensive Strength: The Mean Green led Conference USA in scoring (34.4 ppg), yards per play (6.6), and most gains of 40-plus yards (19) last season. Littrell has to sort out an intriguing quarterback battle between Austin Aune and former North Carolina signal-caller Jace Ruder, but this unit should be explosive once again. DeAndre Torrey and Oscar Adaway III lead a strong backfield, and four starters return from one of the top lines in the league. A healthy Jyaire Shorter at receiver will help replace the production left behind by Jaelon Darden.
Offensive Concern: Can Aune or Ruder claim the job and play with enough consistency to keep the offense on track all year? Shorter’s return is huge, but North Texas needs a couple of other playmakers to emerge at receiver. The offense has to do a better job at managing turnovers after losing 15 in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Littrell’s hire of veteran coordinator Phil Bennett was a strong move to get a struggling defense pointed in the right direction. Tackle Dion Novil and linebackers Tyreke Davis and KD Davis are three key players among nine returning defensive starters for North Texas in 2021.
Defensive Concern: This unit allowed a whopping 42.8 points a game and surrendered 6.94 yards per play last season. Even with a new play-caller and help through the transfer portal, major improvement might be a year away.
111. Eastern Michigan
This is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but Eastern Michigan has earned three bowl trips over the last five seasons. Coach Chris Creighton needs his defense to show marked improvement to contend in the West Division, but the offense should be good enough for the program to reach at least six wins.
Offensive Strength: The Eagles have a proven quarterback (Preston Hutchinson) and an intriguing transfer (Ben Bryant) vying for the starting job. Regardless of who starts in 2021, the offense is in good hands. Plenty of weapons return at receiver, and James Madison transfer Jawon Hamilton should provide a boost to a ground game that ranked 12th in the MAC last year. All five starters return to provide a solid foundation up front.
Offensive Concern: It’s tough to read a ton into last year’s abbreviated season, but Eastern Michigan finished seventh in the MAC in scoring, marking the fourth straight season the program finished sixth or worse in the conference in that category. There’s room to improve on a per-play basis (5.8) and in the turnover department after losing 12 last fall. The Eagles need to develop more balance on offense.
Defensive Strength: The main contributors on last year’s group are back, including linebacker Terry Myrick, defensive back Noski LaFleur and end Turan Rush. The Eagles led the MAC in scoring defense in 2018, so this unit isn’t far removed from productive play.
Defensive Concern: Coordinator Neal Neathery has to generate improvement out of this group this offseason. Eastern Michigan allowed 36 points a game and 6.4 yards per play last season. Also, this unit ranked ninth in the MAC versus the run and generated only nine sacks.
110. New Mexico
The 2020 season was an unusual year, but the Lobos seemed to get better as the year progressed. New coach Danny Gonzales guided the program to a 2-5 finish, with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State to close out his debut. A favorable schedule could allow New Mexico to contend for a bowl this fall.
Offensive Strength: The Lobos picked up a proven quarterback (Terry Wilson) in the transfer portal. A solid foundation returns up front with four returning starters, while running back Bobby Cole (548 yards) should push for all-conference honors.
Offensive Concern: Getting Wilson acclimated and up to speed is crucial to help New Mexico’s offense (23.9 ppg and 5.5 yards per play in 2020) take a step forward. The Lobos need a couple of playmakers to join Emmanuel Logan-Greene and Andrew Erickson at receiver.
Defensive Strength: Gonzales and coordinator Rocky Long are two of the top defensive minds in the Mountain West. The unusual nature of the 2020 season prevented both from a normal spring and fall practice to improve this group. With a full offseason to learn and develop under these two coaches, New Mexico’s defense should take a step forward in 2021. End Joey Noble and safety Jerrick Reed II are two proven standouts.
Defensive Concern: How much improvement can Long and Gonzales generate out of this group? New Mexico gave up 32.6 points a game, surrendered 6.8 yards per play, ranked eighth in the conference versus the run and last in the league in pass efficiency defense. There’s a long way to go here. The Lobos need to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and do a better job of limiting big plays.
109. Southern Miss
Southern Miss made one of the offseason’s top hires by landing Mississippi native Will Hall as the program’s new coach. Hall arrives after successful stints as a head coach at West Alabama and West Georgia, along with a strong two-year run at Tulane as offensive coordinator (2019-20). A quick fix could be in order for a program that went 3-7 in 2020.
Offensive Strength: Running back Frank Gore (708 yards in 2020) is one of the top offensive players in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles bring back three players that caught at least 23 passes last year and plenty of experience to deploy on the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Can Hall find a quarterback to direct his offense? Trey Lowe and Louisville transfer Tee Webb finished spring practice atop the depth chart, but freshman Ty Keyes is a name to watch. The Golden Eagles need more consistency from the line after allowing 24 sacks last year.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Austin Armstrong won’t lack for experience to form a two-deep this offseason. Southern Miss has good experience at all three levels, and this unit should benefit from having linebacker Racheem Boothe and cornerback Rachaun Mitchell back in the mix after missing 2020.
Defensive Concern: Will the experience translate into improvement? Southern Miss ranked near the bottom of the conference in pass efficiency defense and eighth versus the run. Also, this group gave up 5.8 yards a play and 32.3 points a game in 2020.
108. Arkansas State
Arkansas State’s run of nine consecutive seasons with a bowl bid ended last year. New coach Butch Jones has enough firepower on offense to get the Red Wolves back to the postseason, but this program needs to show big progress on defense to navigate a tough schedule.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Layne Hatcher is one of the Sun Belt’s top signal-callers after throwing for 2,058 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Dahu Green and Corey Rucker lead a promising group of receivers, and four starters are back up front. Arkansas State led all Sun Belt offenses by generating 22 plays of 40-plus yards in 2020.
Offensive Concern: Improving around the edges with pass protection (29 sacks allowed), better ball control (16 lost turnovers) and third-down offense (seventh in the Sun Belt) would help this offense even more on the scoreboard. Leading rusher Jamal Jones departed and more big plays are needed from the ground game after averaging only 3.6 yards per carry in 2020. Jarrett Horst leaves big shoes to fill at left tackle.
Defensive Strength: Arkansas State’s defense struggled mightily last year, but with a new coordinator and eight returning starters in place, this unit should show some improvement on the stat sheet. Also, help is coming through the transfer portal.
Defensive Concern: The stat sheet wasn’t pretty in 2020. The Red Wolves gave up 37.2 points a game, surrendered 6.3 yards per play and finished ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Also, this unit allowed too many big plays and struggled to generate a pass rush. Linebacker Justin Rice and tackle Forrest Merrill were the top players on this group and both departed after 2020.
107. Georgia Southern
It’s a close battle between Georgia State, Troy and Georgia Southern for the No. 3 spot behind Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State in the Sun Belt East Division. For the Eagles to push ahead and finish with their fourth consecutive winning mark, coach Chad Lunsford’s squad needs to find a quarterback and replace a couple of key cogs on defense.
Offensive Strength: The Eagles are loaded with depth and talent at running back. J.D. King, Logan Wright, Gerald Green and Tulane transfer Amare Jones provide coordinator Doug Ruse with plenty of options. A strong foundation also returns up front with four starters. Georgia Southern also ranked third in the most plays of 40-plus yards (18) in the Sun Belt last year.
Offensive Concern: Can Justin Tomlin or Georgia Tech transfer James Graham successfully replace Shai Werts at quarterback? The Eagles finished eighth in Sun Belt-only games by averaging 25.1 points a game. The offense lost too many turnovers (17) in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Georgia Southern had one of the Sun Belt’s top defenses last season. This unit held teams to 20.8 points a game, limited offenses to 5.1 yards per play and ranked first in the conference in rush defense. The Eagles allowed only eight plays of 40-plus yards and led the Sun Belt in third-down defense. Defensive back Derrick Canteen is one of the top returning defensive players in the conference.
Defensive Concern: Lineman Raymond Johnson III leaves a big void in the trenches, and two key cogs at linebacker – Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis – must be replaced. Maintaining the high number of forced turnovers (26 last year) will be difficult.
Troy’s record last year (5-6) was nearly identical to coach Chip Lindsey’s debut (5-7) in 2019, but the 2020 version represented a step in the right direction. Can the Trojans return to a bowl in ’21?
Offensive Strength: Lindsey’s offense brings back one of the top lines in the Sun Belt, which includes standout left tackle Austin Stidham. The top four rushers from last season are back, and Reggie Todd and Tray Eafford provide a couple of proven weapons on the outside.
Offensive Concern: Will Gunnar Watson hold off Taylor Powell in the quarterback battle? Last year’s No. 1 receiver Kaylon Geiger transferred to Texas Tech following spring ball. Troy needs more big plays (just nine of 40-plus yards in 2020) and has to perform better in the red zone (ninth in the Sun Belt). Also, the ground game managed only 3.1 yards per carry in conference action.
Defensive Strength: This side of the ball showed marked improvement in 2020. After giving up 34.8 points a game in ’19, the Trojans allowed 25.7 a contest. Also, Troy cut its per-play total to 5.5 – down from 6.2. With eight starters back, Lindsey should expect more improvement out of this group. Linebacker Carlton Martial is one of the top defensive players at the Group of 5 level.
Defensive Concern: The Trojans still have room to improve here. This group gave up nearly 167 yards a game and finished sixth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Also, losing cornerback Terence Dunlap after spring practice to transfer was a setback.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2021 Predictions
105. Central Michigan
The Chippewas claimed the MAC West title in 2019 but slipped to 3-3 in the abbreviated ’20 season. If coach Jim McElwain can find better play at quarterback, Central Michigan has a good shot to finish higher in the rankings.
Offensive Strength: The Chippewas return a strong duo at running back with Lew Nichols III and Kobe Lewis in the backfield for 2021. The top four wide receivers are back, including Kalil Pimpleton and Dallas Dixon. All five starters from the line return, and this unit should receive a boost from the return of Luke Goedeke from injury.
Offensive Concern: Finding consistent quarterback play is a must. Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon – a former four-star prospect – is the frontrunner to start. The offense averaged 31.3 points a game but finished near the bottom of the MAC in third-down performance and inside the red zone.
Defensive Strength: If the pieces fall into place, this should be one of the MAC’s top defenses. Central Michigan brings back 10 starters from a unit that limited offenses to 5.9 yards a snap in 2020. Linebacker Troy Brown and lineman Troy Hairston are first-team All-MAC selections by Athlon Sports for ’21. The secondary is in good hands with Devonni Reed and Willie Reid at safety, and Dishon McNary, Richard Bowens III and Brian Edwards anchoring the corner spots.
Defensive Concern: Overall performance (30.2 ppg allowed) has room to improve. Central Michigan struggled in situational spots (third downs and red zone) and finished seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense.
Similar to other C-USA programs, Charlotte never seemed to find its rhythm in the abbreviated season. After making a bowl in coach Will Healy’s debut (2019), the 49ers slipped to 2-4 last fall. With a handful of transfers joining an experienced roster, Charlotte should rebound back into postseason contention.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Chris Reynolds should push for all-conference honors, with Texas A&M transfer James Foster adding competition. Led by senior Victor Tucker, the 49ers should have one of the top receiving corps in the conference. Also, four starters are back in the trenches.
Offensive Concern: Top running backs Tre Harbison III and Aaron McAllister departed after 2020. Who steps up to handle the workload on the ground? Although the 49ers have four starters back in the trenches, improvement in pass protection is a must after giving up 16 sacks in six games.
Defensive Strength: Healy dipped into the transfer portal to provide instant help on a defense that allowed 32.5 points a game and surrendered 6.6 yards a snap last fall. A healthy season from end Markees Watts is a big deal to a pass rush that registered only five sacks in 2020.
Defensive Concern: The defensive line and secondary lost key pieces from last year’s unit. How fast can the defense blend the transfers with the returning pieces to generate improvement? Charlotte has to get tougher versus the run after allowing 214 yards a game last fall.
103. Colorado State
Steve Addazio’s team is one of the hardest teams to figure out in the Mountain West going into the 2021 season. The Rams only played four games in Addazio’s debut, finishing 1-3 in the abbreviated year.
Offensive Strength: New play-caller Jon Budmayr has plenty of experience to work with here. The Rams bring back all five starters along the offensive line and one of the top receiving corps in the Mountain West. Receiver Dante Wright and tight end Trey McBride are standouts in the passing game, while Boston College transfer David Bailey will add punch to a ground game that averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in 2020.
Offensive Concern: Colorado State averaged only 22.2 points a game and 4.8 yards per play last season. How much of a jump can this group make under a new coordinator and with a full offseason to work under the staff? Quarterback play is also a concern after Todd Centeio struggled in the limited 2020 run. Colorado State needs to generate more out of its running game and in producing big plays overall.
Defensive Strength: The Rams should have one of the top defensive fronts in the Mountain West. Ends Scott Patchan (5.5 sacks in 2020) and Toby McBride and tackle Manny Jones are back after leading a group that finished second in the conference against the run and generated 16 sacks in four games. Junior Dequan Jackson is back to anchor the linebacker unit. The small sample size is notable, but the Rams allowed only 4.82 yards per play last year.
Defensive Concern: The individual talent is there, but Colorado State gave up 35.8 points a game last season. The Rams also finished 10th in the conference in pass efficiency defense.
102. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs are on solid ground going into 2021. Coach Skip Holtz has guided the program to seven consecutive bowl trips and another is within reach. Louisiana Tech gave C-USA champion UAB its only loss in conference play last year, but Holtz’s team will need marked improvement on both sides of the ball to jump into title consideration.
Offensive Strength: The Bulldogs averaged only 26.7 points a game and 4.5 yards per snap last year, but the news isn’t all bad for Holtz here. Better depth up front should allow the line to stabilize, which will help running back Marcus Williams push for 1,000 yards after transferring in from Appalachian State. Smoke Harris, Griffin Hebert and Isaiah Graham provide a strong trio at receiver. Quarterback Luke Anthony suffered a serious leg injury in December but is on track to return for 2021.
Offensive Concern: Can Anthony return to full strength? Louisiana Tech needs marked improvement out of its line for the offense to take off this fall.
Defensive Strength: The Bulldogs return 10 starters, including 2020 breakout star linebacker Tyler Grubbs and safety BeeJay Williamson. Also, the return of end Willie Baker after missing last year due to injury will bolster the pass rush. Having an experienced group should allow Louisiana Tech to take a step forward on the stat sheet after allowing 34.7 points a game last fall.
Defensive Concern: Were last year’s struggles a sign of things to come or just a one-year blip? In 2019, Louisiana Tech held teams to 21.8 points a game. With 10 starters back, the expectation should be a performance similar to the ’19 level. However, after ranking near the bottom of the conference in rush and pass defense, the rebuilding effort might take a little longer.
First-year coaches had a difficult task in 2020 with the limited offseason and unusual week-to-week nature of the regular season. Now with a full offseason to work with the roster and develop schemes, USF should improve under second-year coach Jeff Scott.
Offensive Strength: The numbers weren’t pretty last year (23.1 ppg and 5.1 a play), but nearly everyone is back to provide optimism. Scott has a couple of promising quarterbacks in transfers Cade Fortin (North Carolina) and Jarren Williams (Miami). The backfield also has potential, while most of the receiving corps returns with added help through the transfer portal. All five starters return along the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Can the pieces fall into place for a jump on the scoreboard? Getting consistent play from Fortin or Williams would be a good first step. The line has to protect better (30 sacks allowed), while more punch (3.97 per carry) is needed from the ground game. USF also lost 17 turnovers in nine games last fall and ranked last in the AAC in third-down offense and inside the red zone.
Defensive Strength: After allowing 39.9 points a contest and 6.1 yards per play last season, USF can only go up in 2021. A normal offseason to jell under the new staff will help right away, and Scott added help through the transfer portal. The defense did a nice job of limiting big plays (nine of 40-plus yards) last year. The linebacker unit features a couple of all-conference candidates in Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles.
Defensive Concern: How far can USF’s defense improve in one offseason? The Bulls have to do a better job of getting stops on third downs and must generate a better pass rush after recording only seven sacks in 2020.
100. Kent State
Kent State is a program on the rise, and a high-powered offense should provide coach Sean Lewis’ team a chance to win the MAC East for the first time since 2012.
Offensive Strength: If you like high-powered offenses, then this will be the team to watch in 2021. In last year’s four-game slate, quarterback Dustin Crum powered Kent State’s offense to an average of 49.8 points a contest and 7.4 yards per play. Crum won’t lack for options, as the Golden Flashes have a couple of capable backs splitting time, and the receiving corps received a boost with Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson arriving to essentially replace Isaiah McKoy. Kent State also returns five starters along an improving offensive line.
Offensive Concern: It’s hard to find a weakness here.
Defensive Strength: Lewis and coordinator Tom Kaufman seem to be making some progress with personnel here, but the stat sheet shows a lot of work is still needed. Kent State brings back six starters for 2021 and adds a couple of players who should help right away. Also, the return of safety K.J. Sherald from injury will provide a boost.
Defensive Concern: Kent State ranked 11th in the MAC versus the run, surrendered 38 points a game and allowed 6.5 yards per snap. How much improvement can this group make in 2021? Improving against the run has to be a priority.
The Hilltoppers were one of college football’s most active programs in the transfer portal this offseason. If all of the talent falls into place right away, WKU can challenge Marshall and FAU for the C-USA East title.
Offensive Strength: An infusion of transfers and the arrival of new play-caller Zach Kittley provides a spark for an offense that averaged only 19 points a game and 4.6 yards per snap in 2020. Houston Baptist transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe posted huge numbers at the FCS level under Kittley and a couple of receivers followed him to Bowling Green. Also, the arrival of Boe Wilson and Cameron Stage should stabilize a line that lost three starters.
Offensive Concern: Blending the new system and transfers won’t be an easy task for Kittley. Can he get this offense up and running before conference play begins? The line allowed 28 sacks last year, so there’s room to improve in the trenches.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Maurice Crum inherits one of the top defensive lines in C-USA. End DeAngelo Malone is capable of wreaking havoc off the edge, while Juwuan Jones and Jeremy Darvin join the senior as returning starters on a defense that limited teams to 25.3 points a game in 2020. Antwon Kincade is one of the top returning defensive backs in Conference USA and anchors a secondary that finished third in pass efficiency defense last fall.
Defensive Concern: The transition from Clayton White to Crum as coordinator should be seamless, but any change among the coaching staff adds some uncertainty. The linebacker unit and secondary units need to be revamped. The defense has to get better versus the run after finishing seventh in the conference last year.
98. Georgia State
The Panthers finished 2020 by winning four out of their final five games and earned the program’s third bowl trip in four seasons under coach Shawn Elliott. The top of the Sun Belt East is loaded with Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State. However, Georgia State will be a tough out for the contenders.
Offensive Strength: The Panthers averaged 33.3 points a game behind the play of quarterback Cornelious Brown IV, a solid offensive line and a deep collection of skill players last season. All of the pieces instrumental to that success are back, which should allow for this offense to perform even better in ’21.
Offensive Concern: Georgia State needs to do a better job at limiting turnovers after losing 20 last year. Also, the ground game could use a few more big plays after averaging only 4.3 yards per carry.
Defensive Strength: The Panthers gave up 31.7 points a game in 2020, but the ’21 version should improve with nine starters back, including safety Antavious Lane, end Hardrick Willis, linebacker Blake Carroll and cornerback Quavian White. Georgia State led the Sun Belt in sacks (35) and finished second in the conference in third-down defense and against the run.
Defensive Concern: Linebackers Trajan Stephens-McQueen and Jordan Strachan (9.5 sacks in 2020) won’t be easy to replace. And after giving up 31.7 points a game and 5.6 yards a snap last season, Georgia State has plenty of work to do on this side of the ball. How far will this unit develop in ’21?
97. Florida Atlantic
The Owls finished 5-4 in coach Willie Taggart’s debut in Boca Raton last year. With the bulk of the two-deep on both sides of the ball returning for 2021, FAU should push Marshall for the C-USA East crown.
Offensive Strength: This unit wasn’t overly productive last season, but Taggart addressed the biggest need on offense by dipping into the transfer portal for quarterbacks N’Kosi Perry and Michael Johnson Jr. Better quarterback play should help this unit overall, especially with a deep stable of backs and a solid offensive line already in place. The Owls also don’t lack for talent at receiver.
Offensive Concern: FAU averaged only 18.9 points a game and 4.9 yards per play last season. Finding an answer at quarterback is a must for Taggart to help this offense take a big step forward on the stat sheet this fall.
Defensive Strength: FAU finished second in Conference USA in scoring defense (17.4 ppg) and fourth in yards per play allowed (5.1). New coordinator Mike Stoops won’t lack for experience or depth at all three levels, so improving on those totals (or maintaining) is within reach. The linebacker unit could get even deeper and better if Akileis Leroy returns after missing 2020.
Defensive Concern: FAU doesn’t have a ton of concerns on this side of the ball. A new coordinator always creates some transition or uncertainty, so Stoops has big shoes to fill in replacing Jim Leavitt. The only departure from the starting lineup was a big one in Leighton McCarthy (eight sacks).
The Rainbow Warriors capped coach Todd Graham’s first season with a win over Houston in the New Mexico Bowl to finish 5-4. A normal offseason should help Hawaii adapt to Graham’s scheme and coaching staff, but a challenging schedule won’t make for an easy path to bowl eligibility.
Offensive Strength: Chevan Cordeiro is one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks. All-purpose threat Calvin Turner is the main weapon for Cordeiro, but Jared Smart (36 catches) is also back on the outside. An experienced offensive line is also a big plus for Graham’s offense.
Offensive Concern: Last season, this offense ranked sixth in the conference in scoring and averaged 5.4 yards per play – a steep drop from the 6.7 mark in 2019. Will a normal offseason help this unit be more prolific on the stat sheet? Hawaii has options, but playmakers need to emerge around Turner and Smart at receiver. The line allowed 28 sacks last year.
Defensive Strength: The 2020 season was the first time Hawaii limited teams under 30 points a game since ’14. Also, after allowing 6.3 yards per snap in ’19, holding teams to 5.7 was a step in the right direction. The Rainbow Warriors should have one of the better pass defenses in the Mountain West. Linebacker Darius Muasau is one of the top returning defenders in the conference.
Defensive Concern: More improvement is needed overall, and Hawaii has to get tougher versus the run (211.7 ypg in 2020). This defense needs to get better in key situations (third downs and red zones). Additionally, generating more of a pass rush (19 sacks) and limiting big plays allowed would help the Rainbow Warriors improve on this side of the ball.
Duke is one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in college football, and David Cutcliffe’s overall record (74-88) probably doesn’t indicate just how successful his tenure has been in Durham. But after recording six bowls in seven years (2012-18), the Blue Devils are just 7-16 over the last two seasons.
Offensive Strength: Mataeo Durant (6.8 per carry) is one of the ACC’s top returning running backs. Duke returns four out of its top five statistical receiving options from 2020. The line is experienced and gets a boost at center with Jack Wohlabaugh returning from injury.
Offensive Concern: Duke averaged only 4.85 yards per play and 22 points a game in ACC contests last year. Quarterback play is a big concern with Chase Brice transferring to Appalachian State. The Blue Devils lost 39 turnovers and allowed 37 sacks in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Linebacker Shaka Heyward should push for All-ACC honors, and the Blue Devils return some experience in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: Everything. Duke gave up 38.1 points a game and 6.3 yards a snap last year. The run defense was gashed for 213.2 yards a contest, and the unit’s best players – Chris Rumph II, Marquis Waters, Michael Carter, Derrick Tangelo and Victor Dimukeje – have departed Durham.
Buffalo is one of the hardest teams to figure out this preseason. This program was slated to be the team to beat in the MAC prior to coach Lance Leipold’s decision to depart for Kansas. New coach Maurice Linguist is a solid hire, but a late transition and some roster departures have added uncertainty for 2021.
Offensive Strength: The Bulls averaged 43.2 points a game and 7.3 yards per play last season, and the cupboard isn’t bare for new play-caller Shane Montgomery. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease is steady and efficient, while running back Kevin Marks Jr. ran for 741 yards as the backup to Jaret Patterson last year. Jake Fuzak and Jack Klenk are a solid duo to build around up front.
Offensive Concern: Transitioning to a new play-caller after spring practice won’t be easy. The Bulls lack proven depth at receiver, and the departures of Jacob Gall and Mike Novitsky were a significant blow to the offensive line.
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, the cupboard isn’t bare here. Buffalo led the MAC in fewest yards per play in each of the last two years and held teams to 21.9 points a contest in 2020. End Taylor Riggins (8.5 sacks in 2019) is back from injury, and the Bulls should have one of the better linebacker and defensive back units in the MAC.
Defensive Concern: Even though Buffalo has been stingy on defense recently, there are a lot of unknowns with the late coaching change. The transfers of Eddie Wilson and Ronald McGee depleted the depth on the interior of the defensive line.
93. Western Michigan
The Broncos have finished .500 or better in each of coach Tim Lester’s first four years at his alma mater. Western Michigan has been on the doorstep of a division title under Lester and could break through in 2021 with one of the MAC’s top offenses.
Offensive Strength: Lighting up the scoreboard isn’t going to be a problem for Western Michigan in 2021. Quarterback Kaleb Eleby emerged as one of the top signal-callers at the Group of 5 level last season and four key receivers are set to return. The Broncos bring back their top three rushers and four starters along a line that was instrumental in the offense averaging 41.7 points a contest and 7.34 yards a snap.
Offensive Concern: Not much. It’s a minor concern, but the Broncos generated only one rush of 40-plus yards last season. Improving in the red zone should be a priority. Replacing No. 1 receiver D'Wayne Eskridge and left tackle Jaylon Moore won’t be easy.
Defensive Strength: The stat sheet shows this defense needs some work, but the returning personnel provides hope for improvement. Linemen Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley are back, while linebacker A.J. Thomas was a playmaker (nine TFL) last season. Four starters are back in the secondary, with Pitt transfer Therran Coleman ready to step in at cornerback after missing 2020. The Broncos finished second in the MAC with 19 sacks and allowed 5.6 yards per play – not far behind Buffalo at No. 1 with a 5.2 mark.
Defensive Concern: Small improvement here to go with an explosive offense could equal a division title for Western Michigan. This unit surrendered 34.2 points a game and allowed too many big plays. Tackling machine Treshaun Hayward will be missed after entering the transfer portal. The Broncos also struggled to get off the field on third downs and inside the red zone.
Related: MAC Football 2021 Predictions
92. Miami (Ohio)
The RedHawks only played three games last season, but coach Chuck Martin’s squad is just a year removed from winning the MAC. Little separates the top of the MAC East, so expect Miami (Ohio) to be in the mix to win the division once again.
Offensive Strength: The RedHawks increased their per-play average from 4.9 to 5.97 last season and return the necessary pieces to keep this offense performing at a high level. Quarterback Brett Gabbert should challenge for all-conference honors, and go-to receiver Jack Sorenson is back after averaging 19.7 yards per catch in 2020. The backfield will receive a boost with Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton returning from injury.
Offensive Concern: Martin and coordinator Eric Koehler have to retool a bit up front with two key starters – left tackle Tommy Doyle and center Danny Godlevske – departing the program. Miami (Ohio) generated only one play of 40-plus yards in 2020.
Defensive Strength: The defense took a small step back on the stat sheet last year, but it’s hard to read a ton into the three-game season. A rebound is likely to be in order, especially with nine returning starters in place for 2021. The RedHawks led the MAC in rush defense last season. The linebacker unit is one of the best in the conference, and end Kameron Butler (2.5 sacks) should create plenty of havoc in the trenches.
Defensive Concern: Miami (Ohio) doesn’t lose much from last year’s group but will have to replace cornerback Manny Rugamba. The sample size from 2020 was small, but the RedHawks need to improve at third-down defense.
New coach Jedd Fisch has a major rebuilding project ahead after inheriting a program on a 12-game losing streak. Fisch tapped the transfer portal for instant help, and his background on offense should play well in the Pac-12.
Offensive Strength: Fisch’s background on offense should instantly boost a group that averaged 17.4 points a game in 2020. The transfer portal provided two potential options to start at quarterback. Arizona has talent at receiver and brings back three starters up front. The backfield should be solid.
Offensive Concern: The Wildcats need to find a stable answer at quarterback. How far can Fisch improve this unit in one offseason? Arizona needs better play out of its returning pieces up front. Turnovers (12 lost) were a problem last fall.
Defensive Strength: Fisch hit a home run by hiring former Michigan coordinator Don Brown to call the defense. The veteran assistant should bring some improvement to this group right away. There are pieces and talent to build around up front and in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: Brown has a lot of work to do. Arizona managed only two sacks in five games, ranked last in the Pac-12 in points allowed, yards per play and rush defense. The linebacker unit is a concern.
New coach Clark Lea is a native of Nashville and a former Vanderbilt player, so he certainly knows the challenges at this program. After the Commodores finished 0-9 in 2020, Lea – one of the top hires of the offseason – faces an uphill battle in his debut.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Ken Seals is back after a solid freshman season, and the Commodores return four players who caught at least 25 passes in 2020, including All-SEC candidate Cam Johnson.
Offensive Concern: Protecting Seals is a priority, but Vanderbilt’s offensive line is a question mark. Also, there’s very little experience returning at running back.
Defensive Strength: There are personnel concerns everywhere on this group, but Lea’s track record provides some optimism for 2021.
Defensive Concern: Vanderbilt allowed 37.3 points a game and 7.3 yards per play last year. Everything is a concern for the new staff.
Losing seasons are rare for Navy under coach Ken Niumatalolo, which is why this program is poised to rebound after last year’s 3-7 mark. After a 3-10 record in ’18, the Midshipmen finished 11-2 the following year. In other words, don’t be surprised if this is one of the most improved teams at the Group of 5 level in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Track record. Even though Navy struggled on this side of the ball last year, coordinator Ivin Jasper should be able to get this unit back on track in 2021. Xavier Arline is the favorite to start under center, but Tai Lavatai also showed promise in the spring. Receiver Mychal Cooper is underrated.
Offensive Concern: After averaging 6.8 yards per play in 2019, the offense regressed to 4.5 a snap last fall. Also, the scoring average dipped from 37.2 to 16.6. Improvement is expected, but how big of a jump can this group deliver? Navy averaged only 3.9 yards per rush in league games last fall, and the top four rushers departed after Jamale Carothers was dismissed after spring ball. The line was a weak spot last year and returns just two starters.
Defensive Strength: The Midshipmen held each of their last three opponents to 19 points or less in 2020. With eight starters back, this group is expected to improve in ’21. Linebacker Diego Fagot is one of the top defenders in the AAC, and the secondary brings back three starters after finishing fifth in the conference in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: The Midshipmen need to get better versus the run after giving up 204.7 yards a contest last fall. Also, an improved pass rush is needed after generating just six sacks in 2020. Navy also gave up 10 plays of 40-plus yards and ranked last in the AAC in red-zone defense.
Related: AAC 2021 All-Conference Team
88. East Carolina
The Pirates have made small improvements under coach Mike Houston over the last two years and aim to breakthrough in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Holton Ahlers is one of the top returning signal-callers in the AAC, and the Pirates don’t lack for weapons on the outside with Tyler Snead, C.J. Johnson and Audie Omotosho in the mix for 2021. The Pirates also averaged 173.8 rushing yards – the highest for the program since ’07 – behind a pair of promising backs in Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell last fall.
Offensive Concern: The line has to play better for East Carolina’s offense to take the next step. The Pirates allowed 23 sacks over nine games and rushers managed only three runs of 40-plus yards. The depth and talent is improving up front, so more progression here should equal more points on the scoreboard. The offense has to do a better job of holding onto the ball after losing 21 turnovers in 2020.
Defensive Strength: East Carolina lowered its per-play average allowed from 7.3 in AAC games in 2019 to 6.2 last year. Also, after giving up 41.6 points in conference action in ’19, the Pirates cut that total to 33.8 last fall. With 10 starters back, more improvement should be a reasonable expectation. Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens headline one of the better linebacker units in the AAC, while cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian is a second-team all-conference selection for ’21 by Athlon Sports. Also, a full offseason to develop under coordinator Blake Harrell should help this group.
Defensive Concern: How far can the Pirates improve on this side of the ball in 2021? Improving against the run is a must after allowing 201.3 rushing yards a game last fall. Also, the defense has to find more of a pass rush (14 sacks in ’20).
The Bobcats have been one of the MAC’s most consistent programs, but there's change at the top after Frank Solich retired in July. Assistant Tim Albin was promoted to head coach and inherits a solid roster for his first year on the job. A wide-open East Division should provide this program with an opportunity to return to the conference title game for the first time since 2016.
Offensive Strength: The Bobcats return two intriguing quarterbacks in Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers. De’Montre Tuggle (403 yards in 2020) is one of the MAC’s top running backs, and Isiah Cox headlines a capable group of receivers. Three starters return up front, and Virginia Tech transfer T.J. Jackson should slide into the lineup at left tackle.
Offensive Concern: Ohio’s offense needs to generate more big plays next season, and there’s room to improve in situational offense (third downs and red zone). While Rourke and Rogers are both promising, neither has played for a full year of snaps with the Bobcats.
Defensive Strength: Ohio has finished inside of the top four of the MAC in scoring defense in each of the last seven years and paced the conference by limiting teams to 16.7 points a contest in 2020. The bulk of last year’s two-deep is back and plenty of experience is in place for coordinator Ron Collins to build on the ’20 performance.
Defensive Concern: Last season’s defensive numbers are promising, but the sample size wasn’t very large (three games). Ohio has to get better versus the run after finishing eighth in the conference last fall. Also, more pressure on opposing quarterbacks is needed (four sacks in 2020).
It’s a big year for coach Dino Babers after Syracuse went 1-10 last season. Outside of the team’s 10-3 mark in 2018, the Orange are only 14-33 in four years under Babers. Injuries and the unusual nature of last offseason hindered this team in 2020, but a normal spring and fall should help this program show some improvement.
Offensive Strength: Receiver Taj Harris quietly had a strong 2020 season (58 catches). The backfield is deep, and the offense has experience to lean on at quarterback and along the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Will Garrett Shrader or Tommy DeVito claim a clear hold on the starting job under center? Improved quarterback play is a must for Syracuse to challenge for a bowl trip. The offensive line has to play a lot better after giving up 88 sacks over the last two years. The Orange averaged only 4.5 yards per play and scored 17.8 points a game last season.
Defensive Strength: With 10 returning starters, and a full offseason to learn under second-year coordinator Tony White, there should be a jump in production for Syracuse’s defense. Linebacker Mikel Jones is underrated. While the line needs to play better, three seniors could start for this unit in 2021. The Orange allowed only nine plays of 40-plus yards last year and led the conference by forcing 24 turnovers. Also, this defense held ACC opponents to 5.7 yards per play – down from 6.5 in ’19.
Defensive Concern: How big of a jump can this defense make on the stat sheet in 2021? Syracuse ranked 14th in the ACC against the run, 11th in pass efficiency defense and ranked last in third-down defense. Three key players depart the secondary.
85. San Diego State
Brady Hoke’s returned to the sidelines at San Diego State and guided the program to a 4-4 mark last year. The top of the Mountain West’s West Division is loaded, but a bowl trip should be within reach in 2021. However, the difference between just making a bowl and contending for the division crown is going to rest on how far the offense improves this fall.
Offensive Strength: A strong ground game has been a staple of success for San Diego State in recent years. With Greg Bell, Chance Bell, Jordan Byrd and Kaegun Williams all returning, expect the Aztecs to rank among the best in rushing offense in the Mountain West once again. Despite losing two starters, the line should be in good shape, especially with Zachary Thomas anchoring the edge at left tackle. Daniel Bellinger is one of the top tight ends in the Mountain West.
Offensive Concern: San Diego State averaged only 24.6 points a game and 5.01 yards a snap last season. Improving the production out of this group is going to hinge on better quarterback play, which could come in the form of transfer Jalen Mayden.
Defensive Strength: The Aztecs should have one of the best defensive fronts in the Mountain West. End Cameron Thomas and linebacker Caden McDonald anchor a defense that limited teams to 17.8 points a game, ranked first in the conference in rush defense and held offenses to 4.4 yards per snap. While there are losses in the secondary, Hoke and coordinator Kurt Mattix can lean on cornerback Tayler Hawkins and safety Trenton Thompson to begin the rebuilding effort.
Defensive Concern: Replacing safeties Dwayne Johnson Jr. and Tariq Thompson and cornerback Darren Hall won’t be easy. All three players were key cogs in a secondary that finished 2020 ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense.
New coach Charles Huff steps into a good situation for 2021. Marshall finished 7-3 and earned a trip to the C-USA title game last fall and returns the best collection of talent in the East this season.
Offensive Strength: The quarterback position is unsettled across Conference USA this year, but there’s a good chance Marshall has the best one in Grant Wells. The West Virginia native had a strong debut last season but needs to rebound after an uneven close to 2020. Wells returns three out of his top five receivers, while three starters are back along the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Can Wells rebound after a disappointing close to the 2020 season? Standout guard Cain Madden transferred to Notre Dame this summer, leaving a significant void on the right side of the offensive line. Leading rusher Brenden Knox (887 yards in 2020) also must be replaced.
Defensive Strength: Marshall paced Conference USA by limiting teams to 13 points a game and just 4.4 yards per snap. New coordinator Lance Guidry won’t have linebacker Tavante Beckett or end Darius Hodge, but eight returning starters provide a strong foundation.
Defensive Concern: Beckett and Hodge were two of Conference USA’s top defenders last season. Their production and presence aren’t going to be easy to replace. Is there any drop-off due to the shift in coaching staff or scheme tweaks?
Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011, but the program hopes new coach Bret Bielema can transform the Fighting Illini into a consistent bowl team in the Big Ten West.
Offensive Strength: The offense averaged only 20.1 points a game last year, but new play-caller Tony Petersen isn’t inheriting an empty cupboard. The offensive line could be among the best in the Big Ten, and the Fighting Illini have a solid stable of backs in place. Quarterback Brandon Peters will be a three-year starter in 2021.
Offensive Concern: Illinois has finished eighth or worse in the Big Ten in offensive yards per play in seven straight years. Playmakers at receiver are a big need, although converted QB Isaiah Williams and Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong should help.
Defensive Strength: This unit struggled last season, but new coordinator Ryan Walters has experience to build on, including edge rusher Owen Carney, linebacker Jake Hansen and safety Tony Adams.
Defensive Concern: Walters is going to be busy this offseason. The Fighting Illini gave up 230.1 rushing yards a game last season, ranked last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 34.9 points a game. Improvement is needed everywhere.
82. Air Force
The Falcons finished 3-3 in 2020 after an 11-2 mark the previous year. However, due to the limited schedule and redshirt seasons to a couple of key defensive players, the record probably wasn’t indicative of where this program is going into ’21.
Offensive Strength: The Falcons have question marks here, but coordinator Mike Thiessen should find the right answers. Haaziq Daniels returns after directing the offense under center last year, and the backfield is anchored by tailback Brad Roberts (461 yards). Tight end Kyle Patterson is one of the best in the Mountain West, while receiver Brandon Lewis is a versatile threat on the ground and through the air.
Offensive Concern: Can Daniels settle in at quarterback? Or will the Falcons look to another option to push the junior at quarterback? More backs need to emerge to help Roberts on the ground. All five starters must be replaced up front. However, line coach Steed Lobotzke should find a way to have this unit performing at a high level.
Defensive Strength: Air Force led the Mountain West in scoring defense and limited teams to 5.1 yards per play. Only one opponent (Boise State) managed to score more than 17 points against this group. With a handful of players – cornerback Tre Bugg, defensive linemen Christopher Herrera and Jordan Jackson and linebackers Demonte Meeks and Lakota Wills – returning after missing 2020, the Falcons will once again have one of the top defenses in the conference.
Defensive Concern: The Falcons need to tighten up in the secondary after finishing seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Also, this group ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West in third-down defense and finished last in sacks.
An injury to starting quarterback Sean Chambers and a sluggish offense dropped Wyoming to 2-4 last year. But the Cowboys won’t be down for long, as coach Craig Bohl’s team is poised to rebound in 2021.
Offensive Strength: The strength of Wyoming’s offense is no secret. A backfield powered by Xazavian Valladay and Trey Smith is one of the best at the Group of 5 level. Also, an experienced offensive line should clear plenty of rushing lanes for the backs in 2021. New play-caller Tim Polasek needs to jumpstart the passing game, but Levi Williams and Chambers are two experienced quarterbacks to build around this fall.
Offensive Concern: The passing attack. Wyoming doesn’t need an elite passing attack to win the conference, but this team has ranked ninth or worse in the Mountain West in passing offense in each of the last four years. Three quarterbacks combined to complete 46.3 percent of their passes and just one touchdown for this offense last fall. More playmakers are needed at receiver.
Defensive Strength: This is one of the top defenses in the Mountain West. Wyoming brings back nine starters from a unit that held teams to 21 points a game and 4.9 yards per play. All three levels of this defense should rank among the best in the conference. The line will receive a boost with end Solomon Byrd (6.5 sacks in 2019) back in the mix after opting out of ’20.
Defensive Concern: Not a ton of concerns here for Bohl and coordinator Jay Sawvel. The Cowboys need to improve in pass efficiency defense (eighth last year) and could use a little more pass rush (17 sacks). However, this group is in great shape going into ’21.
Jeff Monken has guided Army to four bowl games and winning records over the last five years. A favorable schedule and experienced two-deep should allow the Black Knights to post another winning season in 2021.
Offensive Strength: It’s no secret what Monken’s approach will be on offense, and Army returns plenty of experienced options at quarterback and running back to keep the ground game firing on all cylinders. Slotback Tyrell Robinson (7.07 per carry in 2020) is a rising star to watch.
Offensive Concern: Army returns five quarterbacks who played last season. Will one claim the job outright? Four starters need to be replaced along the offensive line.
Defensive Strength: The Black Knights held teams to 14.8 points a game and allowed the fewest yards a contest (275.3) of any team in college football last season. Also, the defense ranked 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: Jon Rhattigan leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker.
79. Michigan State
Mel Tucker faced an uphill battle in his debut after a post-Signing Day arrival in East Lansing and a limited (and very unusual) offseason. Tucker did deliver wins against Michigan and Northwestern last year and tapped the transfer portal for instant help.
Offensive Strength: The Spartans have an underrated pair of receivers in Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, and Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III should provide a spark for the ground game. Quarterback play and the offensive line need to improve, but there’s experience to lean on.
Offensive Concern: The Spartans have ranked ninth or worse in the Big Ten in yards per play for four straight years. Also, last year’s scoring average (18 ppg) was last in the conference and the 20 lost turnovers were the most in the Big Ten. The offense needs better play up front and for Temple transfer Anthony Russo or Payton Thorne to stabilize the quarterback position.
Defensive Strength: Last season, Michigan State limited teams to 5.3 yards per play and finished sixth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Led by end Jacub Panasiuk, the line should be a strength. Tucker sought instant help through the transfer portal.
Defensive Concern: The Spartans did a fine job on a per-play basis last season but gave up 35.1 points a game (largely as a result of the turnovers on offense) and struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. How fast can Tucker blend the returning talent and transfers within the scheme to generate improvement?
Related: Big Ten Football 2021 Predictions
Rutgers showed marked improvement in Greg Schiano’s return to the sidelines last year. After winning just three conference games from 2016-19, the Scarlet Knights won three last season. Another step forward is within reach with nearly everyone back on the two-deep from 2020.
Offensive Strength: How big of an impact did new play-caller Sean Gleeson make on this offense last year? Rutgers averaged 26.7 points a game in 2020 – up from 5.7 in conference-only matchups in ’19. The Scarlet Knights should continue the improvement with quarterback Noah Vedral returning, along with running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton.
Offensive Concern: Better play is needed up front after allowing 21 sacks last season. Rutgers needs to convert more third downs, while Vedral has room to grow after averaging only 5.5 yards per attempt in 2020.
Defensive Strength: After giving up 6.5 yards per play in Big Ten games in 2019, Rutgers cut that total to 5.88 last fall. Olakunle Fatukasi leads an underrated linebacker unit, and the defense returns plenty of experience and depth up front and in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: The Scarlet Knights forced 19 turnovers last season. Can this defense replicate that total again? Eliminating big plays allowed and improving in red-zone defense are also a must. With the bulk of last year’s key players returning, how far can Schiano and coordinator Robb Smith improve a group that ranked 11th in the Big Ten versus the run and 13th in pass efficiency defense?
77. Georgia Tech
Geoff Collins inherited a major rebuilding project here in 2019, and while Georgia Tech has just six wins over the last two years, there are signs of progress going into ’21. However, a brutal schedule might prevent a run at bowl eligibility.
Offensive Strength: The Yellow Jackets increased their per-play average to 5.64 in 2020 – up from 4.8 the previous year. Quarterback Jeff Sims is promising and will only get better with more experience. The offensive line is deeper, which should clear plenty of running lanes for running backs Jordan Mason and Jahmyr Gibbs.
Offensive Concern: This unit is on the right track but still finished 14th in the ACC in scoring last year. The Yellow Jackets also lost 25 turnovers (14th in the ACC) in 2020.
Defensive Strength: After giving up 36.8 points a game and 5.86 yards per play, this unit can only improve in 2021. With six starters back, along with a few key additions through the transfer portal, a step forward on the stat sheet is likely this fall. Improved depth up front should bolster the run defense. Collins and his defensive staff have experience to lean on at linebacker and in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: Similar to the offense, Georgia Tech’s defense has a long ways to go on the stat sheet. More pass rush is needed after registering just 21 sacks last season.
76. South Carolina
New coach Shane Beamer is a popular hire, but the former South Carolina assistant inherits a lot of work after a 2-8 finish last year.
Offensive Strength: New play-caller Marcus Satterfield can build the offense around four returning starters up front, along with one of the best running back duos in the SEC with Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd.
Offensive Concern: The passing game. The Gamecocks tossed only eight passing scores last fall, have a thin group of receivers and a first-year starter (Luke Doty) under center.
Defensive Strength: South Carolina struggled to stop the run last year, but new play-caller Clayton White has plenty of talent to work with up front, including Zacch Pickens, Jordan Burch and Kingsley Enagbare.
Defensive Concern: The Gamecocks ranked 13th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and lost five key defensive backs – including first-round pick Jaycee Horn. Switching to a 4-2-5 won’t be easy in 2021.
75. Oregon State
Jonathan Smith is just 9-22 as the head coach at his alma mater, but the three-year mark isn’t a good indicator of program’s development. The Beavers defeated eventual Pac-12 champ Oregon last season and lost all five games by 13 points or less. This team will be a difficult out for the rest of the conference.
Offensive Strength: Oregon State’s offensive line returns all five starters and should rank as one of the top units in the Pac-12. There’s good experience and potential returning at receiver and tight end.
Offensive Concern: Running back Jermar Jefferson leaves big shoes to fill. Can the Beavers get consistent quarterback play from Tristan Gebbia or another option?
Defensive Strength: Avery Roberts, Omar Speights and Andrzej Hughes-Murray are back to form one of the top linebacker units in the Pac-12.
Defensive Concern: The Beavers have allowed over six yards a play in four consecutive years and finished eighth or worse in the conference in scoring defense every year since 2013. More takeaways are needed after generating just six, and this unit needs to do a better job of limiting big plays (12 of 40-plus last year). The run defense struggled last season and lost two potential contributors to transfer this offseason.
Ryan Silverfield had a solid debut last season by directing Memphis to an 8-3 record and the program’s seventh consecutive bowl trip. The Tigers have a few key losses to replace on offense this offseason and overall roster attrition is a concern going into 2021.
Offensive Strength: Receiver Calvin Austin III is one of the AAC’s top returning playmakers after catching 63 passes for 1,053 yards and 11 scores last year. The top four rushers are back, and the Tigers have a couple of intriguing candidates to replace Brady White at quarterback. Also, a solid foundation is in place up front and help is on the way from the transfer portal.
Offensive Concern: White won’t be easy to replace under center. Which quarterback claims the job? Memphis needs to do a better job at limiting turnovers (19 last season) and find more pop from the ground game (4.03 per carry). Also, the receiving corps needs more targets to emerge after Tahj Washington transferred to USC earlier this offseason.
Defensive Strength: Memphis ranked third in the AAC in fewest points allowed a game (27.9) and limited offenses to 5.7 yards a snap. The Tigers ranked fourth in the AAC against the run and third in pass efficiency defense. With nine starters back, this unit should be even better in 2021. Also, cornerback La’Andre Thomas is back after opting out of ’20, which adds to one of the top defensive backfields in the conference.
Defensive Concern: The Tigers didn’t lose much in the way of personnel on this side of the ball, but linemen Joseph Dorceus and O’Bryan Goodson leave big shoes to fill in the trenches. This unit also gave up 12 plays of 40-plus yards last season.
73. Texas Tech
The 2021 season might be a make-or-break year for coach Matt Wells. The Red Raiders are just 8-14 under Wells and another losing record might prompt a change in Lubbock. On the positive side, Texas Tech returns a veteran roster (15 starters) and has enough winnable games to get to a bowl.
Offensive Strength: Oregon transfer Tyler Shough is an intriguing addition at quarterback. As usual, the Red Raiders aren’t hurting for weapons at the skill positions with playmakers like running back SaRodorick Thompson and receivers Erik Ezukanma and Kaylon Geiger in the mix. The line returns four starters.
Offensive Concern: Last year’s scoring average (29.1) was the lowest over the last 12 years. How fast can new coordinator Sonny Cumbie and Shough get this offense on track? The Red Raiders lost the most turnovers (19) of any team in the Big 12 last year.
Defensive Strength: The Red Raiders showed some slight improvement on this side of the ball last year by lowering their per-play average from 6.6 (2019) to 5.7. Coordinator Keith Patterson has extra help on the way from the transfer portal, which adds to a defense that already returned eight starters. This is a veteran group that would appear to have the pieces in place to improve.
Defensive Concern: The per-play number was a little better last year, but that was the extent of the good news. Texas Tech generated only 17 sacks, ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rush defense, eighth in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 36.7 points a contest.
72. Ball State
The Cardinals claimed the program’s first MAC title since 1996 with a stunning 38-28 victory over Buffalo in the conference championship game last December and capped the year by beating San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. With 17 starters returning, Ball State has a great shot to repeat as the MAC champion.
Offensive Strength: The Cardinals can rely on the right arm of quarterback Drew Plitt, along with one of the MAC’s top duos at receiver Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler, to pilot an attack that averaged 34.2 points a game last season. All five starters return up front.
Offensive Concern: Pass protection (28 sacks allowed) has to improve, and the offense can be more explosive on a play-by-play basis (5.82 in 2020). The ground game averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Tyler Stockton has this defense on the right track after Ball State held teams to 25.8 points a game last year – down from 31.4 in 2019. This unit ranked fourth in the MAC versus the run and led the conference in takeaways (17). The Cardinals return the top linebacker unit in the conference.
Defensive Concern: Ball State cut its points allowed last year, but opposing offenses still averaged nearly six yards a snap (5.94) against this defense. The secondary was vulnerable to giving up a few big plays and top cornerback Antonio Phillips was one of the few players who departed after 2020.
It’s a close call between Toledo and Ball State for the top spot in the MAC West for 2021. Regardless of which team is the preseason favorite, the balance of power is clearly in this division. Assuming the Rockets find a new quarterback, coach Jason Candle’s squad can return to the top of the MAC for the first time since ’17.
Offensive Strength: This is one of the MAC’s top offenses after Toledo finished 2020 by averaging 35 points a game and 6.4 yards per snap. Running back Bryant Koback is a first-team All-MAC selection for ’21 by Athlon Sports, and the team is loaded with talent at receiver. All five starters are back up front, and Mitchell Berg is back from injury to provide the offense with another starting option.
Offensive Concern: Eli Peters was forced to retire due to injuries, leaving Carter Bradley, Tucker Gleason and Dequan Finn to battle for the starting nod under center. Bradley showed promise at the end of last season but needs to prove he can produce over a full year. Toledo’s offense has to cut down on the turnovers after losing 12 in six games last fall.
Defensive Strength: Marked improvement was noticeable out of this group last season. Toledo surrendered 6.62 yards per play in 2019 but cut that total to 5.4 last fall. Also, the Rockets limited teams to 24.3 points a game – down from 32.2 the previous year. All of the major contributors are back this fall, and with additional help through the transfer portal, this defense should continue to improve on the stat sheet.
Defensive Concern: Last year’s improvement on defense is sustainable, but a six-game season isn’t a great sample size. A full 12-game slate will truly indicate how far the defense has improved. The Rockets could use a few more takeaways and more stops in the red zone (eighth in the MAC last year).
Jeff Traylor nearly guided UTSA to a C-USA West Division title in his first year at the helm. And with the bulk of the roster back for 2021, the Roadrunners have a good shot to unseat UAB atop the division.
Offensive Strength: Sincere McCormick is one of the top running backs in college football. He’s supported by one of the best lines in the conference, and the Roadrunners return their top two receivers in Zakhari Franklin and Joshua Cephus. Quarterback Frank Harris seems poised to build off a solid 2020 season.
Offensive Concern: This group took a step forward on the stat sheet last year but more is needed. A healthy and complete season from Harris would certainly help, but the Roadrunners could use more consistency from the offense after averaging 5.6 yards per play against conference opponents last year.
Defensive Strength: UTSA improved on this side of the ball last year, holding teams to 5.6 yards a snap – down from 6.5 in 2019. Every major contributor is back for ’21, and the addition of a couple of players through the transfer portal only adds to the depth and talent Traylor can deploy this fall. This is one of the top defenses in C-USA.
Defensive Concern: There’s not a glaring issue with this defense, but UTSA can get better in all areas after ranking sixth in the league versus the run and allowing 25.7 points a contest in 2020.
69. Fresno State
Nevada and San Jose State appear to be the teams to beat in the Mountain West’s West Division, but don’t count out the Bulldogs from making a run. Coach Kalen DeBoer should have one of the league’s top offenses, and the defense looks poised to improve with nine starters back.
Offensive Strength: This group is on the verge of a big-time breakout in 2021. After finishing second in the conference by averaging 32.8 points a game last year, a normal offseason should help DeBoer deploy his full offense this fall. Ronnie Rivers is one of the best all-around running backs in college football, and quarterback Jake Haener will push for all-conference honors. The receiving corps is deep with intriguing options.
Offensive Concern: The only thing that could hold Fresno State’s offense back is the play up front. The Bulldogs return three starters but allowed 24 sacks in six contests last year.
Defensive Strength: The Bulldogs gave up 30 points a game and 6.14 yards per play last season, but nine returning starters provide optimism for improvement. This unit ranked second in the Mountain West with 25 sacks last year, with the key contributors for the pass rush returning in 2021. Having a full offseason to work under coordinator William Inge should be a huge plus, and DeBoer’s work in the transfer portal adds some instant help.
Defensive Concern: Improvement on this side of the ball is a must if Fresno State wants to push Nevada or San Jose State at the top of the division. This unit struggled mightily versus the run (212.3 ypg) and allowed too many big plays in 2020. Also, the Bulldogs need to get more situational stops after finishing last in the Mountain West in third-down defense.
68. Washington State
The Cougars were one of the teams hit the hardest by the unusual offseason leading up to 2020. New coach Nick Rolovich didn't have time to implement and develop his run-and-shoot scheme, but a normal spring and fall practice should help Washington State get on track in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Running back Max Borghi is primed for a full season of work after playing in just one contest last year. He’s one of the top all-around backs in the nation. The Cougars return two all-conference candidates at receiver in Travell Harris and Renard Bell. The line should also be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with tackle Abraham Lucas leading the way.
Offensive Concern: Will a quarterback emerge? Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano is competing with Jayden de Laura and Cammon Cooper for the starting nod. For this offense to take off, finding an answer here is a must.
Defensive Strength: The pieces are in place to improve with seven returning starters, which includes standout linebacker Jahad Woods. The pass defense should improve with more experience in 2021.
Defensive Concern: The sample size was small (four games), but Washington State gave up 6.69 yards a snap and 38.5 points a game last year. This group also ranked 11th in the conference in pass efficiency defense and registered only eight sacks.
The path to a Conference USA title in 2021 runs through Birmingham. Coach Bill Clark has guided UAB to two league championships over the last three years and has claimed the West Division title in three consecutive seasons.
Offensive Strength: The Blazers have some question marks here, but it’s safe to assume Clark will find the right answers. DeWayne McBride is poised for a huge year as Spencer Brown’s replacement at running back, while the line should be among the best in the conference. After dealing with a shoulder injury in 2020, a healthy Tyler Johnston III at quarterback should give the offense a boost through the air.
Offensive Concern: Who steps up at receiver? Austin Watkins and Myron Mitchell combined for 63 of the team’s 136 receptions last year but departed after 2020. The offense also needs more efficiency from Johnston III or backup Bryson Lucero. Decreasing turnovers lost (16 in 2020) is a must.
Defensive Strength: This group is consistently one of the top defenses at the Group of 5 level. Even with a few personnel losses, don’t expect a major drop in production in 2021. The line is deep and arguably the best in C-USA. Standout Kristopher Moll is sliding from linebacker to safety, but concerns about either unit are minimal.
Defensive Concern: It’s hard to find a major concern. Linebacker Jordan Smith and cornerback Brontae Harris are significant departures, but UAB has the personnel and talent to plug the gaps and maintain a high level of performance here.
Stanford won at least eight games every season from 2011-18. The Cardinal went 4-8 in ’19 but rebounded to 4-2 in the abbreviated six-game slate last fall. Coach David Shaw’s team has a tough battle ahead to get back to double-digit wins this season with a schedule featuring 12 Power 5 opponents, including Notre Dame in non-conference play and crossover games against the projected top four in the South.
Offensive Strength: The Cardinal enter 2021 with quarterback uncertainty, but running back Austin Jones is back after running for 550 yards last year, and Michael Wilson headlines a good group of receivers. Three starters form a good foundation up front.
Offensive Concern: Will Jack West or Tanner McKee emerge as the clear starter at quarterback? Can the Cardinal find a playmaker at tight end and successfully replace center Drew Dalman?
Defensive Strength: Depth is an issue up front, but end Thomas Booker and tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry is a foundation to lean on. With Ricky Miezan back in the mix from injury, the linebacker unit should improve in 2021. The secondary is a concern but is experienced.
Defensive Concern: This unit has regressed in recent years and surrendered 6.6 yards a play and 31.7 points a game last fall. The Cardinal ranked last in the Pac-12 in third-down defense, pass efficiency defense, struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks and gave up 222 rushing yards a game.
Defense and a timely offense led Tulsa to the AAC title game in 2020. Coach Philip Montgomery has to replace a couple of key cogs on defense, but the Golden Hurricane’s offense should be enough to keep this team in the mix for a repeat trip to the conference championship.
Offensive Strength: The Golden Hurricane have a deep stable of running backs, which includes Shamari Brooks after he missed 2020 due to a knee injury. Tulsa should have one of the top offensive lines in the AAC. The top five wide receivers are back, including all-conference candidates in Keylon Stokes, JuanCarlos Santana and Josh Johnson. New quarterback Davis Brin is promising.
Offensive Concern: Tulsa averaged just 27.1 points a game and 5.6 yards per play last year, so there’s room to improve. While Brin has showed plenty of promise, he has only 29 career pass attempts. The offense generated only seven plays of 40-plus yards in 2020. The Golden Hurricane have to cut down on the lost turnovers (18).
Defensive Strength: Tulsa had one of the AAC’s top defenses last year. This unit limited teams to 4.7 yards per play and 21.6 points a contest. Eight starters are back to form a strong foundation at every level.
Defensive Concern: The starters departing this defense were instrumental to its success. Linebacker Zaven Collins and cornerbacks Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans won’t be easy to replace.
The Green Wave set a school record with their third consecutive bowl trip last season, and coach Willie Fritz should have this program back in the postseason for 2021. The offense will rank among the best in the AAC, but Tulane has holes to fill if it wants to contend for a berth in the conference title game.
Offensive Strength: The Green Wave averaged 34.7 points a game last season, which was the highest mark under Fritz. New play-caller Chip Long inherits one of the AAC’s top quarterbacks in Michael Pratt, and a deep backfield featuring Cameron Carroll and Tyjae Spears, to build around in 2021. The offensive line is poised to take a step forward and nearly everyone who caught a pass in ’20 is back.
Offensive Concern: The Green Wave need to improve in pass protection after giving up 35 sacks last year. This offense can bump its per-play average a bit (5.7) and needs to be better on third downs (eighth in the AAC). The receiving corps could use more consistency.
Defensive Strength: New play-caller Chris Hampton can build his defense around one of the top linebacker units in the AAC, and cornerback Jaylon Monroe is back to anchor the secondary. Tulane needs to retool a bit up front, but this unit ranked second in the conference in rush defense last season and returns all-conference candidate Jeffery Johnson in the middle.
Defensive Concern: Tulane gave up nearly 30 points (29.9) in AAC games last year. The defense also gave up the most plays of 40-plus yards (19) in the conference. The Green Wave finished ninth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 30 passes of 30-plus yards. Replacing the production of Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample in the trenches isn’t going to be easy.
The Mustangs are 17-6 over the last two years under coach Sonny Dykes, and another bowl trip should be in the cards for 2021. However, SMU needs a quick transition under center to contend for a spot in the conference title game.
Offensive Strength: SMU doesn’t lack for skill talent. Receivers Reggie Roberson, Rashee Rice and Danny Gray are back, while transfer Grant Calcaterra should be an impact addition at tight end in the passing game. On the ground, Ulyssess Bentley IV headlines arguably the deepest backfield in the conference. All five starters return up front. Breaking in a new quarterback isn’t easy, but Dykes has two interesting options in Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai and freshman Preston Stone.
Offensive Concern: Can Mordecai or Stone quickly claim the job and play close to the level Buechele did to keep SMU’s offense firing on all cylinders (38.6 ppg in 2020)?
Defensive Strength: Jim Leavitt was a strong hire as defensive coordinator and has seven returning starters to deploy in 2021. The Mustangs did a good job at limiting big plays by opposing offenses, held teams to 5.64 yards a snap and finished fourth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: Leavitt has work to do after SMU gave up 30.9 points a game and finished sixth in the league in rush defense. Also, cornerback Brandon Stephens won’t be easy to replace. The Mustangs finished ninth in the AAC in third-down defense last season.
Related: AAC 2021 Football Predictions
Colorado surprised in coach Karl Dorrell’s first season by finishing 4-2 and earning a trip to the Alamo Bowl against Texas. The Buffaloes have reason for optimism after exceeding expectations last year, but after giving up 31.5 points a game and scoring 28.5 a contest, big question marks remain going into 2021.
Offensive Strength: The Buffaloes boast one of the Pac-12’s deepest backfields with Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot leading the way. The line is anchored by four returning starters, while Dimitri Stanley, La’Vontae Shenault and Brenden Rice form a solid trio at receiver.
Offensive Concern: Quarterback play. With Sam Noyer transferring, Brendon Lewis and Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout will compete for the job.
Defensive Strength: Assuming Nate Landman makes a full recovery from a torn Achilles, Colorado should have one of the better linebacker units in the Pac-12. New coordinator Chris Wilson inherits plenty of experience and in the secondary to improve a group that allowed 31.7 points a game in 2020.
Defensive Concern: The Buffaloes need overall improvement here. This group ranked eighth in the Pac-12 versus the run, surrendered over 30 points a game (31.7) and gave up too many big plays.
High expectations surrounded the Dana Holgorsen hire at Houston, but he’s just 7-13 through two seasons. The 2021 campaign is a good opportunity for Holgorsen to deliver a winning record, especially with the Cougars missing UCF and Cincinnati in conference action.
Offensive Strength: The Cougars have the pieces in place to improve on last year’s production (30 ppg and 5.5 yards per play). Quarterback Clayton Tune is back after throwing for 2,048 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall, and there are plenty of intriguing options at running back and receiver, including transfers Ta’Zhawn Henry (RB) and KeSean Carter (WR). Louisiana Tech transfer Kody Russey is a big boost to the line.
Offensive Concern: Overall improvement is needed, and Houston has to cut down on the turnovers (16). More big plays are needed after generating just three of 40-plus yards.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Doug Belk returns nine starters and added two key players through the transfer portal. Houston gave up 5.8 yards per play last season but that was an improvement off the 6.8 mark from 2019. A healthy Donavan Mutin will help the linebackers, while cornerback Marcus Jones is one of the top defensive players in the Group of 5 ranks.
Defensive Concern: Houston only forced six turnovers, ranked near the bottom of the AAC in red-zone defense and gave up too many big plays. The Cougars also allowed 32 points a game, ranked eighth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and surrendered nearly 170 rushing yards a contest. There’s a lot of work ahead for Belk this offseason.
The Boilermakers posted a winning record and bowl trip in coach Jeff Brohm’s debut but have since recorded three straight losing seasons. Can Purdue navigate a tough schedule to return to the postseason?
Offensive Strength: A full offseason for Brohm to gameplan should help a unit that averaged only 27.2 points a game in 2020. Skill talent isn’t a problem here, as receiver David Bell is back after catching 53 passes last year, and running back Zander Horvath anchors the ground attack. Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer provide experience at quarterback.
Offensive Concern: Will Plummer or O’Connell claim a clear hold on the starting QB job? Horvath’s return is big, but Purdue needs more punch (3.3 yards a carry) and better play up front. The offense also needs to generate more big plays.
Defensive Strength: Brad Lambert is a solid hire to improve a defense that has struggled in recent years and allowed 29.8 points a contest last year. A healthy George Karlaftis should make a big difference for the pass rush and the overall play up front. Cornerback Cory Trice is underrated.
Defensive Concern: How much improvement can Lambert generate out of this group in one year? The pass defense ranked 12th in the Big Ten last year, and the Boilermakers struggled to get off the field on third downs.
The Cavaliers are just a year removed (2019) from winning the Coastal Division. Injuries and personnel turnover on both sides of the ball were a problem last season, but coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team could surprise – provided it can navigate a difficult schedule in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Brennan Armstrong ranked third in the ACC by averaging 296.6 total yards a game last year. He should be even better in 2021. The offensive line should be solid with four returning starters, and Armstrong will have a couple of options on the outside with the return of Billy Kemp IV and the addition of Artie Henry via the transfer portal.
Offensive Concern: Armstrong tossed an interception in eight of Virginia’s 10 games last year. Cutting down on turnovers and finding more efficiency would be a plus for this group. The Cavaliers need more out of their ground game (4.5 ypc), and the offense as a whole must produce big plays. Losing receiver Lavel Davis Jr. to a torn ACL in the spring was a big loss.
Defensive Strength: Virginia’s defense regressed last year, but with better luck in the health department, this group can improve in 2021. Linebacker Nick Jackson is one of the best in the ACC, and an experienced group returns up front. The additions of Anthony Johnson and Josh Hayes help a thin secondary.
Defensive Concern: How big of a rebound can the Cavaliers make on this side of the ball? Virginia ranked last in the ACC against the pass, gave up too many big plays, finished 12th in the conference in third-down defense and surrendered the most yards per play (6.64) of any team in the league last year.
Baylor was one of the teams hit the hardest by the unusual offseason in 2020. A new staff, limited time to break in different schemes and roster turnover from ‘19 contributed to the 2-7 mark.
Offensive Strength: New play-caller Jeff Grimes is one of the top coordinator hires of the offseason. The Bears have weapons at receiver, including R.J. Sneed, Tyquan Thornton and Gavin Holmes. While the backfield wasn’t productive last season, there are options, including all-around threat Trestan Ebner. Transfers Grant Miller and Jacob Gall should provide help to a suspect offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Who steps up at quarterback? The Bears averaged only 4.4 yards per play and 23.3 points a game last season. Also, this unit had just three plays of 40-plus yards and ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in third-down offense.
Defensive Strength: Don’t be surprised if this group shows marked improvement in 2021. Coach Dave Aranda and coordinator Ron Roberts have a track record of success on this side of the ball from previous stops, and with nine starters back, along with the addition of Siaki Ika from the transfer portal, Baylor will take a step forward on this side of the ball. A healthy year from linebacker Terrel Bernard is a huge plus for a group that ranked eighth in the Big 12 versus the run last fall.
Defensive Concern: How big of a jump in production can Aranda get out of this group in one offseason? Baylor allowed 29.2 points a game last year, so a big step forward on the stat sheet is needed to reach six victories. Bolstering a pass rush that only recorded 19 sacks last season is a must.
The Terrapins played in only five games last year, but coach Mike Locksley’s team showed improvement and are poised to push for a bowl in 2021. Also, thanks to Locksley’s work on the recruiting trail, the program’s overall talent level is on the rise.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa could be one of the best in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins have one of the top receiving corps in the conference.
Offensive Concern: A new No. 1 running back must be found with Jake Funk leaving College Park. Three starters are back up front, but the offensive line must improve after giving up 16 sacks over five games.
Defensive Strength: New play-caller Brian Stewart inherits a group that improved slightly on the stat sheet last season but still has a ways to go. Promising talents in safety Nick Cross, cornerback Tarheeb Still, linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and edge rusher Durell Nchami are back.
Defensive Concern: How big of a step forward can this group take in 2021? Improving a rush defense that allowed 230 yards a game is a must. Maryland also needs more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and has to create more takeaways (just four last year).
New coach Josh Heupel hopes 2021 is the first step to getting Tennessee back on track. The Volunteers have depth concerns at a few positions but also enough talent to get to a bowl.
Offensive Strength: Heupel’s track record on this side of the ball should provide optimism after the Volunteers averaged only 21.5 points a game. There are options at quarterback and good skill players, along with two building blocks – Cade Mays and Darnell Wright – up front.
Offensive Concern: How fast can Tennessee adapt to the new system? Can a quarterback quickly emerge as the answer? The offensive line (29 sacks allowed in 2020) has to improve.
Defensive Strength: There may not be a dominant player up front, but the line has good depth and overall talent. The front-line starters are good in the secondary, and the transfer portal provided instant help.
Defensive Concern: Depth is a concern at linebacker and in the secondary. The overall performance has to improve after giving up 30.1 points a game and struggling versus the pass (11th in the SEC).
55. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have won at least nine games in every season since 2015. While coach Shawn Clark has a big void to fill at quarterback, contending for the Sun Belt title is once again in reach, especially with Coastal Carolina set to visit Boone in mid-October.
Offensive Strength: Frank Ponce is a solid coordinator hire and inherits a group returning eight starters, including arguably the No. 1 receiving corps in the Sun Belt and running back Camerun Peoples. Appalachian State’s offensive line should be solid despite losing three starters.
Offensive Concern: The biggest question surrounding the Mountaineers for 2021 rests under center. Zac Thomas will be missed, and Clark dipped into the portal for help, bringing former Clemson and Duke signal-caller Chase Brice to Boone. Brice is the frontrunner, but Jacob Huesman is also in the mix. Appalachian State has room to improve in the red zone after finishing eighth in the Sun Belt last year.
Defensive Strength: The unit has been an annual strength for Appalachian State and is strong once again with nine returning starters. Since joining the Sun Belt, the Mountaineers have not finished lower than third in the conference in yards per play allowed and fifth in scoring defense. End Demetrius Taylor is back up front, while D’Marco Jackson and Trey Cobb anchor the linebackers. Replacing cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles won’t be easy but three other starters – including standout corner Shaun Jolly – are back in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: As mentioned above, cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles leaves big shoes to fill on the edge. Appalachian State can do a better job at limiting big plays after giving up 15 of 40-plus yards last season.
After back-to-back winning seasons (2019-20), California finished 1-3 last year. Of course, the one-win mark is easily explained by the unusual nature of last season and the limited practice time prevented this team from adapting to a new play-caller on offense. The Golden Bears should rebound in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Chase Garbers has the potential to be one of the top signal-callers in the conference and having a full offseason to work with play-caller Bill Musgrave should help the offense improve in 2021. California brings back four starters up front, an experienced running back unit and the bulk of its receiving corps.
Offensive Concern: California has ranked last in the Pac-12 in yards per play in four consecutive seasons. This unit managed only 20.2 points a game last year, gave up 15 sacks, ranked 11th in the conference in third-down offense and struggled to generate big plays. How fast can Musgrave and Garbers get on the same page?
Defensive Strength: Wilcox is one of the Pac-12’s top defensive coaches, and even if there was a slight regression on the stat sheet last year, it’s hard to doubt this defense. Linebackers Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng are two of the best in the conference, and the secondary should be solid once again.
Defensive Concern: California is thin along the defensive line and could be vulnerable against the run. More pass rush is needed, and cornerback Cam Bynum won’t be easy to replace.
53. Kansas State
An upset over Oklahoma on Sept. 26 spurred a 4-1start, but the Wildcats collapsed down the stretch to a 4-6 finish. Assuming there’s a little better luck in the health department, along with improvement on defense, coach Chris Klieman’s squad should return to a bowl in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Getting quarterback Skylar Thompson back in the lineup from injury is certainly a huge boost to an offense that averaged only 26.6 points a game last year. Running back Deuce Vaughn is one of the top playmakers in the Big 12. The Wildcats return all five starters along a solid offensive line.
Offensive Concern: The Wildcats averaged just 5.6 yards a snap over nine conference games last fall. Tight end Briley Moore will be missed, but Illinois transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe should provide help right away. More help or playmakers need to emerge at receiver.
Defensive Strength: The Wildcats return five starters and added potential help at every level through the transfer portal. Simply, the pieces are in place to improve after giving up 32.2 points a game.
Defensive Concern: Injuries and COVID-19 absences hurt this group last year. A rebound should be in order, but K-State is losing a couple of key pieces, including end Wyatt Hubert, linebackers Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan and defensive back AJ Parker. This unit also finished seventh in the Big 12 versus the run and ninth in pass efficiency defense. How far can the Wildcats improve in 2021?
52. San Jose State
The Spartans had a breakout year in 2020, as coach Brent Brennan guided the program to a 7-1 record and a Mountain West title. A couple of key players departed, but San Jose State returns the necessary pieces to win the conference once again in ’21.
Offensive Strength: Super senior Nick Starkel is back at quarterback, the backfield is set with Tyler Nevens and Kairee Robinson in place, and the Spartans return all five starters from a standout line. Those aspects should maintain the offensive pace that helped San Jose State lead the Mountain West in yards per play (6.58) in 2020. Receiver Isaiah Hamilton and tight end Derrick Deese Jr. are poised to assume a larger role in the passing attack.
Offensive Concern: Receivers Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker leave big shoes to fill on the outside after combining for 86 catches and eight touchdown receptions last year. The Spartans ranked eighth in the Mountain West in red zone offense and third-down conversions.
Defensive Strength: The Spartans have made significant progress under coordinator Derrick Odum. After giving up 36.6 points a contest in 2018, this unit limited teams to 19.9 a game last fall. Also, the defense held offenses to 4.95 yards a snap – down from 5.8 in 2019. Ends Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall combined for 16 sacks last season and should create plenty of havoc once again in ’21. Overall, with 10 starters back, this unit could be better than the version from last year.
Defensive Concern: Safety Tre Webb’s decision to transfer was a blow to a secondary projected to rank among the best in the conference this year. The list of concerns for this group is small.
Matching last year’s 11-1 record and No. 11 finish in the final Associated Press poll will be tough for BYU to replicate in 2021. The Cougars play seven Power 5 opponents, along with Boise State and Utah State from the Group of 5 ranks. Finding a new quarterback to replace Zach Wilson is the top priority this offseason for coach Kalani Sitake.
Offensive Strength: Running back Tyler Allgeier (1,130 yards in 2020) is back after a breakout season. Receiver Dax Milne will be missed, but BYU returns three players with at least 37 receptions, including receiver Gunner Romney (39 catches). Left tackle Brady Christensen will be missed up front. However, the Cougars still have a solid foundation in the trenches.
Offensive Concern: Who replaces Zach Wilson under center? Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall are experienced and capable options to keep the offense performing at a high level. However, there will be some drop in production with Wilson in the NFL. The line may need time to mesh after the departure of Christensen and Chandon Herring.
Defensive Strength: A favorable schedule was certainly a factor, but BYU limited opponents to just 15.3 points a game in 2020. The Cougars return a strong linebacker unit with Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Max Tooley.
Defensive Concern: Sitake and coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki have to retool a line that lost three key contributors, including Khyiris Tonga. A better pass rush is needed after generating 26 sacks (2.2 a game). The development of the secondary is also worth monitoring this offseason.
50. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs started fast with a win over LSU in the opener, but struggled in the middle portion of the season, before winning their last two games to finish 3-7.
Offensive Strength: A normal offseason should help the development of Mississippi State’s offense under coach Mike Leach and the Air Raid scheme. Quarterback Will Rogers – assuming he wins the job – is capable of elevating this offense, receiver Jaden Walley is a rising star, and three starters return up front.
Offensive Concern: How much improvement can Leach get out of this group in one offseason? Can Rogers take the next step in his development? Or will Jack Abraham push him for the starting nod?
Defensive Strength: The Bulldogs quietly ranked fourth in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.48) last year. This unit should be solid once again with eight starters back, including a standout pair of corners in Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes.
Defensive Concern: Depth overall is an issue, and this defense has to do a better job of limiting big plays allowed.
The Cornhuskers hope for a breakthrough in coach Scott Frost’s fourth year at the helm. Nebraska doesn’t have a bowl appearance under Frost, but an experienced roster provides optimism for reaching six wins in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Adrian Martinez hasn’t quite played up to his freshman level over the last two years. However, he’s entering his fourth year as the starter and key transfer portal additions at running back and receiver should help the offense get back on track. There’s also potential for an improved offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Nebraska’s scoring average has decreased from 30 points a game in Frost’s first year (2018) to 23.1 last year. Can Martinez get back on track? And how fast can the transfer additions turn the skill positions into a strength? The Cornhuskers have to do a better job at limiting turnovers (18 lost in ’20).
Defensive Strength: Nebraska’s defense is on the right track going into 2021. After allowing 5.96 yards a play in 2019 (Big Ten-only games), this unit cut that total to 5.46 in ’20.
Defensive Concern: The Cornhuskers need to continue last year’s improvement in a big way for this program to reach a bowl. This defense also needs to do a better job at limiting big plays and creating more pressure (13 sacks last year) on opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Will Honas is out indefinitely after a spring knee injury.
48. Wake Forest
Picking Wake Forest to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal is probably too low. The Demon Deacons should earn their sixth consecutive bowl trip in 2021 and could finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division if the defense improves.
Offensive Strength: This is one of the best offenses in the ACC. Quarterback Sam Hartman is back and Jaquarii Roberson leads one of the top receiving corps in the conference. All five starters are slated to return up front, and running back Christian Beal-Smith ran for 732 yards last fall.
Offensive Concern: Pass protection has to improve after Wake Forest gave up 27 sacks over nine games last year. The offense could use more punch out of the ground game (3.86 per carry) and big runs after generating just four of 30-plus yards.
Defensive Strength: Experience. Eight starters are back for 2021, and tackle Miles Fox returns after registering 10.5 tackles for a loss last season. The Demon Deacons gave up the fewest plays of 40-plus yards (eight) in the conference and forced 17 takeaways. The pieces are in place for the secondary to take a step forward this fall.
Defensive Concern: Overall production has to improve. Wake Forest has ranked eighth or worse in yards per play allowed in the ACC for seven straight years. This unit surrendered 32.8 points a game last season and generated only 17 sacks. End Carlos Basham will be missed.
The Cardinals slipped to 4-7 in coach Scott Satterfield’s second year, but a look at the numbers shows this team was hit by some bad fortune. Louisville ranked 14th in the ACC with an unlucky minus-12 turnover margin, struggled with field position and lost four games by seven points or less.
Offensive Strength: The Cardinals ranked fourth in the ACC with an average of 6.65 yards per play last year. If quarterback Malik Cunningham can return to his 2019 form, this offense should easily improve on the scoreboard (29.5 ppg). The offensive line is promising, and tight end Marshon Ford should be a preseason All-ACC pick.
Offensive Concern: Cunningham’s numbers regressed and his interceptions increased last year. Getting the junior back on track is a must. How will Satterfield replace two key receivers – Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick – and running back Javian Hawkins?
Defensive Strength: Louisville’s defense was trending in the right direction in the second half of last season. After giving up 6.5 yards per play against ACC opponents in 2019, this defense cut that total to 5.9 last fall. Each level of the defense returns solid pieces to build around in ’21. Cornerback Kei’Trel Clark is underrated.
Defensive Concern: Can coordinator Bryan Brown continue to bring improvement to this group in 2021? Improving against the run (179.9 ypg allowed last year) is a must. Louisville also needs to generate more of a pass rush.
Related: ACC Football 2021 Predictions
After winning only four SEC games from 2016-19, the Razorbacks won three in coach Sam Pittman’s first year. The Razorbacks arguably overachieved last season and should be better in ’21.
Offensive Strength: In conference-only games, Arkansas upped its scoring average to 25.7 last year from 17.4 in 2019. Receiver Treylon Burks is one of the best in the nation, quarterback KJ Jefferson is promising and all five starters are back up front.
Offensive Concern: The Razorbacks lost their No. 2 receiver Mike Woods to a transfer after spring ball and need to improve up front (34 sacks allowed). Jefferson has completed only 47.2 percent of his throws in two years in Fayetteville.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Barry Odom brought much-needed improvement to this group last year. After allowing 6.95 yards a play in SEC games in 2019, Arkansas cut that total to 5.65 in 2020. Nine starters return, so more improvement should be expected. Also, the defensive line added needed depth via the transfer portal.
Defensive Concern: This group still has room to improve on the stat sheet after giving up 34.9 points a game in 2020. More pass rush is needed after generating only 14 sacks last year. Jonathan Marshall will be missed at defensive tackle.
45. Florida State
The Seminoles are only 21-26 over the last four years. Can coach Mike Norvell get this team on track in his second season? A normal offseason should help the staff get both sides of the ball on track. However, a brutal schedule doesn’t leave much room for error to get to a bowl.
Offensive Strength: If UCF transfer McKenzie Milton is back to full strength from a serious leg injury suffered in the 2018, it’s a huge boost to the quarterback room for Florida State. The backfield looks solid with Jashaun Corbin and Lawrance Toafili competing for carries. The offensive line isn’t where it needs to be but is on the right track going into ’21.
Offensive Concern: Improving along the offensive line and getting better quarterback play would be huge for Florida State. Can Norvell get a big jump out of both positions in 2021? The Seminoles are thin on proven options at receiver.
Defensive Strength: The transfer portal will provide instant help. Linemen Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas, along with defensive backs Brandon Moore and Jammie Robinson, will help a unit that surrendered 36 points a game and 6.5 yards per play last season.
Defensive Concern: As mentioned above, this group struggled mightily last season. How much improvement can coordinator Adam Fuller generate in one year? The pass rush also needs a spark (just 10 sacks in 2020), while the secondary ranked 14th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense.
The Panthers are coming off their third consecutive season of a .500 or better record under coach Pat Narduzzi. Contending for the Coastal Division title is likely out of reach this year, but with an improved offense, Pitt could push for eight wins this fall.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Kenny Pickett will be a rare fifth-year starter and will be throwing to a group of receivers that includes Jordan Addison, Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis. Israel Abanikanda could give the ground game a needed spark in 2021. Three starters return up front.
Offensive Concern: The Panthers have ranked near the bottom of the ACC in yards per play in each of the last two seasons and finished 10th in scoring (29.0) last fall. The offense generated only one run of 40-plus yards and averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in 2020. Center Jimmy Morrissey will be missed.
Defensive Strength: Pitt paced the ACC by limiting offenses to 4.88 yards per play in 2020. Also, the Panthers held teams to 24.5 points a game, led the conference in rush defense and generated 46 sacks. Narduzzi and coordinator Randy Bates have some retooling to do, but this unit should remain one of the better groups in the ACC. A healthy return from cornerback Damarri Mathis is a boost to the secondary. The linebacker unit could be among the best in the conference.
Defensive Concern: A few key cogs in last year’s group – ends Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones and safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford – have departed. The Panthers also need to cut down on the big plays allowed (13 of 40-plus yards).
The Wildcats have won two out of the last three Big Ten West Division titles. Even with only seven returning starters for 2021, expect coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team to be in the mix for the division crown once again.
Offensive Strength: The Wildcats return a solid foundation up front, which includes rising star left tackle Peter Skoronski. Running back Cam Porter should push for All-Big Ten honors. Transfer quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Ryan Hilinski were both top-100 recruits out of high school.
Offensive Concern: After averaging only 3.9 yards a play in Big Ten games in 2019, Northwestern upped that mark to 4.7 last fall. Is there more improvement on the way for ’21? More big plays are needed after recording only two of 40-plus last year. Will Johnson or Hilinski provide steady play under center? Also, no returning Northwestern receiver or tight end caught more than seven passes last season.
Defensive Strength: Track record. Even with new play-caller Jim O’Neil replacing Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern has a track record of producing standout defenses under Fitzgerald. Several key players are gone, but there’s a good foundation in place, which includes safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker Chris Bergin.
Defensive Concern: Matching last year’s yards per play allowed (4.86) might be tough with all of the new faces in starting roles. Can O’Neil provide a seamless transition from Hankwitz?
42. Boston College
The Eagles exceeded expectations in coach Jeff Hafley’s first year with a 6-5 mark. Now with an experienced roster and one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in place, a favorable schedule should allow Boston College to push for eight wins. Winnable matchups in crossover play (Virginia Tech and at Georgia Tech) and home dates against NC State, Wake Forest and Florida State dot the slate for 2021.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Phil Jurkovec returns after a strong debut in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles return all five starters up front to form one of the top offensive lines in the ACC. Tight end Hunter Long will be missed, but Jurkovec won’t lack for targets with Kobay White, Zay Flowers and Jaelen Gill on the outside.
Offensive Concern: Who steps up at tight end? Boston College needs to run the ball a lot better after posting just 3.1 yards per carry in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Hafley’s background on defense, combined with nine returning starters, should help Boston College take a step forward on this side of the ball in 2021. This defense successfully limited big plays and forced 21 takeaways last year.
Defensive Concern: The Eagles have room to improve here after giving up 28.4 points a game, finishing sixth in the ACC against the run and surrendering 6.1 yards per play. Two key linebackers – Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie – departed after 2020.
41. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech went 19-8 in coach Justin Fuente’s first two years but is only 19-18 over the last three seasons. The Coastal Division is always unpredictable, so an experienced team like the Hokies could surprise if the pieces fall into place.
Offensive Strength: The Hokies have a strong trio of options in the passing game for quarterback Braxton Burmeister with receivers Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and tight end James Mitchell. The offensive line should be solid thanks to three returning starters. Burmeister has also played well in limited time in Blacksburg.
Offensive Concern: Can Burmeister translate his solid play overall full season? Which running back steps up to replace Khalil Herbert? The Hokies need to develop more depth along the offensive line.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Justin Hamilton should benefit from a full offseason to work with the defense. The return of a healthy Jermaine Waller at cornerback is a big boost to the pass defense. End Amare Barno (6.5 sacks) is likely to rank among the ACC’s top pass rushers. Clemson transfer Jordan Williams is a key pickup for the trenches.
Defensive Concern: Virginia Tech has work to do on this side of the ball after giving up 32.1 points and just over 180 rushing yards a contest last year. Also, the Hokies allowed 6.2 yards a play – up from 5.23 in 2019.
40. NC State
The Wolfpack rebounded in a big way last season. After a 4-8 finish in 2020, NC State went 8-4 and lost two of those games by three points or less. The schedule features a tough crossover (Miami and North Carolina), along with a road trip to Mississippi State in non-conference play this year.
Offensive Strength: NC State returns one of the ACC’s top backfields and receiving corps. Quarterback Devin Leary is back after missing the last seven games due to injury. The pieces are also in place to have one of the conference’s top offensive lines, especially with left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and center Grant Gibson anchoring the group.
Offensive Concern: The offense improved under new play-caller Tim Beck last year but more is needed. NC State averaged 5.5 yards a play in 2020 – up from 5.18 in ’19. Also, the scoring average jumped to 30.2 – up from 22.1. The Wolfpack need to produce more big plays and could use more consistency from the ground game (3.4 ypc). The offense also lost 19 turnovers last year.
Defensive Strength: The Wolfpack improved on defense last season, and nine returning starters provide a foundation to take another step forward in ’21. The linebacker unit is strong thanks to the return of Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas.
Defensive Concern: The departure of lineman Alim McNeil leaves a void up front, especially after NC State ranked seventh in the ACC versus the run last year. This unit has room to improve after allowing 31.3 points in ACC matchups in 2020.
Related: ACC Football 2021 Predictions
The Bruins are just 10-21 under Chip Kelly, but a breakthrough season could be coming in 2021. All four losses in ’20 came by six points or less, and the defense showed signs of improvement to go with an offense that averaged 35.4 points a game. The schedule is tough, but a bowl game should be attainable.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson averaged 285.2 total yards a game last season and took a step forward in his overall development. UCLA’s offensive line has been a source of concern in recent years but should be a strength in 2021. Brittain Brown and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet are an effective one-two punch at running back.
Offensive Concern: Can Thompson-Robinson build on last year’s progress with his best all-around season for the Bruins? Although the Charbonnet-Brown combo is solid, running back Demetric Felton will be missed. UCLA needs more big plays out of the passing game and must be better at not giving the ball away (13 lost turnovers last year).
Defensive Strength: Improvement and 10 returning starters. After allowing 6.7 yards per play and 34.8 points a game in 2020, the Bruins cut those totals to 5.4 a snap and 30.7 a contest. This defense finished second in the Pac-12 versus the run and paced the conference in sacks.
Defensive Concern: UCLA still needs more overall improvement out of unit. Also, situational stops – third downs and inside the red zone – have to get better. End Osa Odighizuwa leaves big shoes to fill. The Bruins finished sixth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last year.
The Golden Gophers were unable to build off their 11-2 record from 2019 last fall with a 3-4 mark in seven contests. However, with normalcy returning this offseason, Minnesota hopes to rebound in a big way for 2021.
Offensive Strength: Mike Sanford Jr. took over the play-calling duties last year, but the unusual offseason limited his ability to develop this group. A normal spring and fall practice should help Minnesota’s offense get back on track after averaging 5.7 yards per play in 2020. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, a strong offensive line and running back Mohamed Ibrahim are back in ’21.
Offensive Concern: Can Sanford get Minnesota back to its 2020 production (34.6 ppg)? Who steps up to replace first-round pick Rashod Bateman at receiver? Also, the Golden Gophers need to find an answer at kicker.
Defensive Strength: The Golden Gophers struggled on this side of the ball last year but held Big Ten opponents to 20.1 points a game in 2019. Was the unusual nature of the ’20 season to blame for the dip in production? Each level of the defense features an All-Big Ten candidate – DL Boye Mafe, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and cornerback Coney Durr. Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney should provide a boost to a struggling run defense.
Defensive Concern: The numbers weren’t pretty for this group in 2020. Minnesota allowed 30.1 points a game, ranked 12th in the Big Ten versus the run, generated only eight sacks and gave up too many big plays.
Jay Norvell has guided Nevada to three consecutive winning seasons and bowl appearances, but the 2021 squad should be the best of his tenure in Reno. The Wolf Pack won’t lack for firepower on offense behind quarterback Carson Strong and a deep group of receivers on the outside. A road trip to Boise State looms large in early October, but San Jose State visits Nevada in November.
Offensive Strength: Nevada has some serious firepower on this side of the ball. Quarterback Carson Strong (27 TDs in 2020) is among the top 25 signal-callers in the nation, and the junior won’t lack for receiving options thanks to the return of receivers Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks and Melquan Stovall and tight end Cole Turner. Running back Toa Taua is also back after running for 675 yards in 2020.
Offensive Concern: The Wolf Pack don’t have a ton of glaring issues on this side of the ball. However, the offensive line allowed 20 sacks last year and could stand to improve in pass protection and clearing lanes for runners.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Brian Ward brought improvement to this group last season, as Nevada limited teams to 23.3 points a game (down from 31.9) and offenses to 5.4 yards a snap (down from 6.1). A healthy Dom Peterson should make a difference up front, and the Wolf Pack are set at linebacker with the return of Lawson Hall in the middle. The transfer portal brought instant help to a secondary in need of improvement.
Defensive Concern: Last season was a step in the right direction, but Nevada needs more out of its defense to push for a finish in the top 25. Creating more takeaways (nine last year) is a must in 2021. The Wolf Pack also need to cut down on the big plays allowed (nine of 40-plus yards last season).
With 20 returning starters, including a handful of key offensive weapons from a unit that averaged 38.2 points a game last season, Liberty should push for another finish in the top 25. The Flames went 10-1 last fall, with the only defeat coming at NC State (15-14).
Offensive Strength: Scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Hugh Freeze’s offense in 2021. Quarterback Malik Willis is among the best in college football, and the Flames return nearly every major contributor at running back and receiver. All five starters are back along an offensive line that allowed 22 sacks in 11 contests.
Offensive Concern: Any concerns are minimal here. Liberty could do a better job at limiting turnovers after losing 16 in 2020. Also, this unit ranked 101st nationally in red zone offense last fall.
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, returning experience is a big reason to believe this group will be just as strong as it was in 2020. The Flames return 10 starters here, including ends TreShaun Clark (5.5 sacks) and Durrell Johnson (8.5) and safety Javon Scruggs (69 tackles). A couple of transfers – Duron Lowe (CB), Skyler Thomas (S) and Rashaad Harding (LB) – will provide more depth or the ability to push for starting jobs.
Defensive Concern: Linebacker Anthony Butler (67 tackles in 2020) will be difficult to replace.
Mark Stoops has guided Kentucky to at least four SEC wins in four out of the last five years. If the offense takes a step forward, the Wildcats can push for eight or nine victories in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Linemen Drake Jackson and Landon Young leave big shoes to fill, but the foundation is still strong up front. Running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. is primed for a huge season, and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson is a needed playmaker on the outside.
Offensive Concern: New play-caller Liam Coen is tasked with improving an offense that has finished last in the SEC in passing for three straight years and averaged only 21.8 points a game in 2020. How quickly can Kentucky make a successful transition on offense? Also, Coen needs to identify an answer at quarterback (likely Penn State transfer Will Levis).
Defensive Strength: The Wildcats have finished in the top five in the SEC in scoring defense for three straight years. This unit returns only four starters but a good foundation is in place. End Josh Paschal, linebacker DeAndre Square and safety Yusuf Corker are All-SEC candidates.
Defensive Concern: Both starting cornerbacks from 2020 have departed and more pressure on opposing quarterbacks (15 sacks last year) is needed. How fast will the new pieces fall into place?
Related: SEC Football 2021 Predictions
A 5-5 record with a limited offseason and first-year coach was a good result for Missouri in 2020. With the transition season under their belts, the Tigers should be better in ’21.
Offensive Strength: The Tigers upped their per-play average (SEC-only games) from 4.7 in 2020 to 5.6 last fall. The entire unit should benefit from a full offseason to work under Drinkwitz, and quarterback Connor Bazelak is back after a promising freshman year.
Offensive Concern: Top running back Larry Rountree has departed, but Tyler Badie should be an effective replacement. The Tigers need more playmakers to step up at receiver, while top tackle Larry Borom departed to the NFL.
Defensive Strength: New play-caller (and former NFL coach) Steve Wilks inherits pieces to work with up front, including edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat (six sacks) and linebackers Devin Nicholson and Blaze Alldredge.
Defensive Concern: Missouri allowed 6.1 yards per play and 32.3 points a game last fall, so Wilks has a lot of work to do. Also, the secondary ranked eighth in the SEC versus the pass last year and is thin on depth at safety.
33. West Virginia
Last year’s 6-4 mark showed the Mountaineers are headed in the right direction under coach Neal Brown. Contending for a spot in the Big 12 title game will hinge on how well the defense can replace a couple of key cogs and how far the quarterback position develops.
Offensive Strength: West Virginia increased its scoring average to 26.5 (up from 20.6) and its per-play production to 5.4 (up from 4.9) last season. The offensive line look a step forward last season and should continue to progress in 2021. Running back Leddie Brown returns after rushing for 1,010 yards last fall. More consistency is needed at receiver, but Brown won’t lack for options.
Offensive Concern: The Mountaineers’ hopes of finishing in the top 25 and inside the top four of the Big 12 standings hinge on the play of quarterback Jarret Doege. The Texas native tossed 14 touchdowns to only four picks but was benched in the bowl game due to inconsistent play. Doege has to be better in 2021. The offense has to find a way to generate more big plays after recording only four of 40-plus yards last fall.
Defensive Strength: This side of the ball was the strength of West Virginia’s 2020 team. The Mountaineers topped the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed (4.65) and scoring defense (20.5). Also, this unit finished second in the conference in pass efficiency defense
Defensive Concern: West Virginia still has a good foundation here, but linebacker Tony Fields, safety Tykee Smith, cornerback Dreshun Miller and defensive linemen Darius Stills and Jeffery Pooler will be missed. The Mountaineers need to improve on their third-down package (seventh in the conference) and generate more of a pass rush (22 sacks last year). With five key players departing, can West Virginia maintain its 2020 production?
Jim Harbaugh hit the reset button after a disappointing 2-4 season in 2020. A revamped staff should help Michigan get back on track and improve its fortunes on the recruiting trail. An early test versus Washington will provide plenty of evidence for how far this program has improved since last fall.
Offensive Strength: Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and true freshman Donovan Edwards anchor a strong backfield. Receiver Ronnie Bell leads the way on the outside, and Harbaugh has a couple of intriguing quarterbacks to develop.
Offensive Concern: Can coordinator Josh Gattis and Harbaugh get this group on track? Who wins the quarterback battle? Also, the offensive line has to improve and more receivers need to step up to help take some pressure off of Bell.
Defensive Strength: The Wolverines allowed 34.5 points a game and 5.5 yards a play last year, but this group has the talent to rebound under new play-caller Mike Macdonald in 2021. The return of end Aidan Hutchinson from injury is a huge boost to the run defense and pass rush. Safety Dax Hill is primed for a breakout year.
Defensive Concern: Macdonald – a former Ravens assistant – is a first-time play-caller. Can he get a talented roster to reach its potential? The Wolverines have to stop the run better after ranking 10th in the conference last year. Also, the secondary struggled and gave up too many big plays.
31. Boise State
Andy Avalos takes over at his alma mater following a stint at Oregon as the program’s defensive coordinator. While Avalos is a first-year coach, the expectations for Boise State in 2021 are still very high. The Broncos are Athlon’s pick to win the Mountain West, but a tough non-conference schedule – at UCF, Oklahoma State and at BYU - will be tough to navigate.
Offensive Strength: New play-caller Tim Plough inherits a group that led the Mountain West in scoring (33.9) last season. The Broncos have two quarterbacks they can win with in Jack Sears and Hank Bachmeier, and the receiving corps is loaded with the return of Khalil Shakir, CT Thomas and Octavius Evans. A healthy George Holani should improve a ground attack that ranked last in the conference last fall. All five starters are back up front.
Offensive Concern: Although Boise State led the conference in scoring, the offense generated only 5.4 yards per play. While every starter returns up front, this unit struggled last season and contributed to the lackluster ground attack. How fast can the Broncos transition to Plough’s scheme?
Defensive Strength: Avalos’ background on defense is a big boost to a Boise State group that slipped on the stat sheet last year. The Broncos allowed 27.1 points a game in 2020 – the highest mark for the program since joining the Mountain West. The good news for Avalos: Nearly everyone from last year’s two-deep is back. Edge rusher Demetri Washington will boost the pass rush if he's back at full strength from a season-ending knee injury.
Defensive Concern: Even though the defense slipped a bit last year Avalos should be able to get this unit back on track. However, if there’s a concern, it’s in the secondary with both starting cornerbacks needing to be replaced. More turnovers are also needed after Boise State forced just three in seven games last fall.
Gus Malzahn’s arrival at UCF has added another layer of intrigue to one of the top Group of 5 programs in college football. Malzahn plans to keep the Knights’ high-powered offense on track, while bringing needed improvement to a defense that struggled in 2020. UCF will have plenty of fireworks to begin the Malzahn era with Boise State coming to Orlando in the opener.
Offensive Strength: UCF has ranked first or second in the AAC in most yards per play in four consecutive years. Also, the Knights averaged at least 40 points a game every season from 2017-20. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is among the best in the nation and will be supported by an experienced line. Malzahn’s work in the transfer portal bolstered the skill positions, which already included big-play threat Jaylon Robinson at receiver.
Offensive Concern: How will Malzahn’s offense and Gabriel’s talent mesh in 2021? UCF has room to improve up front in pass protection.
Defensive Strength: UCF gave up 33.2 points a game last season but has the pieces in place to turn things around in 2021. The line received a boost from the addition of transfers Big Kat Bryant and Ricky Barber, and the secondary should improve with an offseason to gain experience. The Knights allowed only five plays of 40-plus yards in ’20.
Defensive Concern: The unusual nature of the 2020 season likely hurt the development of this defense, so some improvement should be anticipated. However, how far can coordinator Travis Williams take it one offseason? Both the rush and pass defense need to show marked development.
It’s a new era on the Plains, as Bryan Harsin begins his first trek through the SEC in 2021. Auburn has the necessary talent to finish higher than the projected fifth-place mark here, but Harsin’s first team has a tough slate in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Harsin’s work with quarterbacks at Boise State should give Auburn optimism he can develop Bo Nix or LSU transfer T.J. Finley. Running back Tank Bigsby is poised for a huge sophomore year.
Offensive Concern: The offensive line is a concern once again, and the top three wide receivers from 2020 have departed. Getting more consistent (and better) quarterback play from Nix or Finley is a must.
Defensive Strength: Derek Mason is one of the top coordinator hires of the 2020-21 cycle, and seven starters are back from a unit that limited opponents to 24.7 points a game. Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are two of the SEC’s top linebackers, and the secondary ranks among the best in the conference.
Defensive Concern: The Tigers have to adjust to a new scheme. Also, the run defense needs to improve after finishing eighth in the SEC last fall.
28. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys finished 8-3 last season but was just a few plays away from double-digit victories with losses to Texas (overtime) and TCU coming each by a touchdown.
Offensive Strength: Scoring points usually isn’t a problem in Stillwater, and the pieces are in place for another standout offense in 2021. Quarterback Spencer Sanders enters his third year as the starter and better depth and health should translate into improved play in the trenches. New faces need to emerge at receiver, but Oklahoma State usually does a good job of finding the next standouts. Dezmon Jackson, LD Brown and Dominic Richardson are a strong trio at running back.
Offensive Concern: Last season’s scoring average (30.2) was the lowest by Oklahoma State since the offense averaged 27.6 in 2014. Also, the per-play average dipped from 6.4 in ’19 to 5.5 last year. Injuries and attrition had an impact on pass protection (26 sacks allowed), and the offense lost 16 turnovers. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has to play with more consistency and cut down on the interceptions for Oklahoma State’s offense to improve. The Cowboys need a couple of receivers to step up.
Defensive Strength: After giving up 6.04 yards per play in 2018, Oklahoma State cut that total to 5.3 last season. Coordinator Jim Knowles has made a significant impact on this unit, helping the Cowboys hold opponents to 23.5 points a game in ’20. This group could be even better in ’21, especially if end Trace Ford recovers from a knee injury suffered late last year. Linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and four starters return in the secondary.
Defensive Concern: This group gave up too many big plays and finished sixth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Cornerback Rodarius Williams will be tough to replace.
Related: Big 12 Football 2021 Predictions
27. Ole Miss
With a high-powered offense, Ole Miss has the necessary firepower to finish in the top 25. However, after struggling last year, the defense enters 2021 with big concerns in coach Lane Kiffin’s second season.
Offensive Strength: Scoring points won’t be a problem. Quarterback Matt Corral led the nation in total offense per game (384.3 yards) and is supported by one of the SEC’s top lines and backfields. Receiver Elijah Moore will be missed, but the Rebels have options.
Offensive Concern: The Rebels lost too many turnovers (18) and need to improve in the red zone after finishing 11th in the SEC last fall.
Defensive Strength: A full offseason and help through the 2021 signing class should help Ole Miss improve a defense that allowed 38.3 points a game and 6.7 yards a play last year.
Defensive Concern: The stats mentioned above. The Rebels ranked last in the SEC versus the run and nearly gave up 40 points a matchup. How far can this group progress with six returning starters?
The Utes are projected third in Athlon’s predictions for the Pac-12 South but little separates Arizona State and USC with the Utes. If quarterback Charlie Brewer provides steady play, don’t be surprised if Utah ends up hoisting the conference title at the end of the year.
Offensive Strength: Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer should stabilize the quarterback position. The Utes may not have a defined No. 1 running back, but there’s plenty of depth and options here, including a couple of transfers. Tight end Brant Kuithe is underrated, and receiver Britain Covey is one of the Pac-12’s top all-purpose players. The offensive line should rank among the best in the conference.
Offensive Concern: The Utes fortified their receiver depth with a couple of transfer additions, but they have to produce to take some of the pressure off of Covey and Kuithe. Can Brewer deliver as expected? Utah needs to generate more big plays and produce in key situations (third downs and red zone) after struggling last year.
Defensive Strength: Despite replacing several key players from its 2019 defense, Utah held teams to 26 points a game and 5.5 yards per play. Look for this unit to take a big step forward on the stat sheet with eight returning starters, including linebacker Devin Lloyd and a group of defensive linemen that ranks among the best in the Pac-12.
Defensive Concern: With Utah’s track record under coach Kyle Whittingham here, it’s hard to doubt this group. There are some concerns about the secondary after giving up five pass plays of 40-plus yards last year. Safety is a mild issue after RJ Hubert reinjured his knee in the spring.
The Horned Frogs finished 2020 on a high note by winning five out of their last six contests. Coach Gary Patterson’s team hopes to carry that momentum into ’21 and record the program’s first top-25 finish since ’17.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Max Duggan is primed for a breakout year. The Horned Frogs should have one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12, and an improving group of receivers – led by rising star Quentin Johnston – is back on the outside. The addition of Memphis transfer Obinna Eze should help an offensive line that allowed 23 sacks last year.
Offensive Concern: How far will Duggan progress in 2021? The offensive line also has room to improve.
Defensive Strength: A standout defense is usually one of the hallmarks of TCU under Patterson. While a few key players must be replaced, it’s hard to see this defense (24.2 ppg allowed) taking a big step back. The line ranks among the best in the conference, and the Horned Frogs return a standout cornerback tandem in Noah Daniels and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
Defensive Concern: Replacing linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington isn’t going to be easy. TCU also allowed 19 plays of 40-plus yards last season.
24. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers were the breakout star of the 2020 college football season. And with a veteran roster in place, coach Jamey Chadwell’s squad has a chance to run the table and finish ’21 as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team for a spot in the New Year’s Six.
Offensive Strength: Coastal Carolina averaged 5.5 yards per play and 30.3 points a game in 2019. Those totals jumped to 6.7 a snap and 37.2 a contest in ’20, largely due to the emergence of quarterback Grayson McCall. In his first season as the starter, McCall accounted for 33 overall scores and tossed just three picks. He should be even better as a sophomore. McCall’s supporting cast is strong with all five starters back up front and Jaivon Heiligh (receiver) and Isaiah Likely (tight end) back on the outside. Reese White and Shermari Jones should replace the production lost by CJ Marable’s departure at running back.
Offensive Concern: It’s hard to find anything of note here. Marable will be missed, and Coastal Carolina could use another receiver or two to emerge, but both are minor issues for a loaded offense.
Defensive Strength: This unit showed marked improvement last year by limiting teams to 5.5 yards per snap and 20.2 points a game (down from 30.5 in 2019). The Chanticleers return one of the top lines, linebacker units and defensive backfields in the Sun Belt. Simply, a standout defense is going to be as good (or better) than it was in ’20.
Defensive Concern: End Tarron Jackson is the only major personnel loss on this defense, but he was a big piece of last year’s group with 8.5 sacks. There’s room to improve in red zone defense after finishing ninth in the conference last year.
The goal for coach Billy Napier’s team in 2021 is clear. After winning three consecutive Sun Belt West Division titles, the biggest hurdle left to cross is a conference championship. If Louisiana can win the Sun Belt outright, and upset Texas in Week 1, a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl is a realistic possibility.
Offensive Strength: This was one of the top offenses in the Sun Belt last season and there’s little reason to doubt this group in 2021. Quarterback Levi Lewis returns as a super senior, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have one of the top offensive lines in the conference. The receiving corps may not have a clear No. 1 threat, but depth and talent isn’t an issue.
Offensive Concern: Replacing two standout backs in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas won’t be easy. Louisiana has talent and options here, but will the new backs be as productive? The offense has room to improve on third downs and inside the red zone. Finding a consistent kicker is a must.
Defensive Strength: Louisiana allowed only 22 points a game and led the Sun Belt by holding teams to 4.92 yards a snap last season. With 10 starters back, along with depth and talent at every level, this unit should be one of the top defenses at the Group of 5 level. The secondary allowed only 10 passing scores over 11 games and finished first in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: The pass rush could use a spark after generating just 19 sacks in 2020, and the Ragin’ Cajuns could be better on third downs (eighth in the Sun Belt). There’s also room to improve against the run (184.7 yards a game allowed last year).
Related: Sun Belt Football 2021 Predictions
The Huskies are somewhat of a mystery going into coach Jimmy Lake’s first full year as head coach. After a 3-1 stint and a Pac-12 North title last year, Washington possesses one of the league’s better defenses and a favorable schedule. However, question marks remain on offense.
Offensive Strength: Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland leads a strong offensive line, with Sean McGrew and Richard Newton forming a solid duo at running back. Quarterback Dylan Morris showed promise in the four-game stint in 2020. Tight end Cade Otton is among the best in college football.
Offensive Concern: Will Dylan Morris take a step forward under center? Or will touted freshman Sam Huard eventually push for the job? The Huskies need more consistency and big plays at receiver. The sample size was small last year, but Washington’s offense was statistically better than the previous season. This unit needs to continue to progress, however. How much improvement will coordinator John Donovan generate in ’21?
Defensive Strength: Since 2014, Washington has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. Lake and new play-caller Bob Gregory should have another strong group once again thanks to the return of linebackers Ryan Bowman and Edefuan Ulofoshio and cornerback Trent McDuffie.
Defensive Concern: The Huskies need to get better versus the run (161.2 ypg allowed). Edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui (seven sacks last year) will be missed after an Achilles tear in spring practice. Sorting out the starting safeties and replacing cornerback Elijah Molden top the list of priorities in the secondary.
The Hoosiers were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season and will aim for back-to-back top-25 finishes for the first time since 1945-46.
Offensive Strength: Assuming quarterback Michael Penix makes a full return from an ACL tear, the Hoosiers should be dynamic on offense. Receiver Ty Fryfogle is an All-America candidate, the line brings back four starters, and USC transfer Stephen Carr will provide a boost to the ground game.
Offensive Concern: Can Penix stay healthy? He’s coming off his third season-ending injury at Indiana. The offense averaged 5.1 yards per play, so more down-to-down consistency is needed. Also, will the offense have help in the form of 20 forced turnovers again?
Defensive Strength: Indiana limited teams to 20.2 points a game last year and brings back nine starters, including linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen. A couple of transfers will bolster the line.
Defensive Concern: A new coordinator (Charlton Warren) is calling the shots with coach Tom Allen. Safety Jamar Johnson will be missed. Can the defense lead the Big Ten in takeaways once again?
It’s a new era in Austin. Tom Herman was dismissed after a 32-18 record from 2017-20, with former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepping into the top spot. Sarkisian is one of the top offensive minds in college football, but he will have to do a better job of recruiting and maximizing talent than the previous staff did in order to close the gap to Oklahoma.
Offensive Strength: The strength of Sarkisian’s first team should be the backfield. Bijan Robinson is primed for a monster year after running for 355 yards over Texas’ last two games of 2020. Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson and Roschon Johnson provide depth. The two quarterbacks – Casey Thompson and Hudson Card – vying for the starting job are talented. The Longhorns return four starters up front. Texas averaged 42.7 points a game and 6.65 yards per play last season. This isn’t a rebuilding effort for Sarkisian.
Offensive Concern: The offensive line has room to improve and will miss standout left tackle Sam Cosmi. How fast can Sarkisian settle the quarterback battle? Texas needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver. Troy Omeire is one name to watch there.
Defensive Strength: Sarkisian’s hire of Pete Kwiatkowski to coordinate the defense was one of the best moves of the offseason. Texas isn’t hurting for talent on this side of the ball, while the transfer portal added needed depth and talent to the linebacker room. The line should rank among the best in the Big 12. Cornerback D’Shawn Jamison is one of the top defensive backs in the conference.
Defensive Concern: This unit has room to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play and 32.4 points a game (conference-only games) last year. Losing linebacker Joseph Ossai (five sacks) is a big blow to a pass rush that managed only 17 sacks in 2020.
19. Penn State
Things went awry for Penn State last year, but prior to the 4-5 mark in 2020, coach James Franklin’s program won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions open at Wisconsin and catch Auburn in non-conference play.
Offensive Strength: The backfield is deep, and quarterback Sean Clifford has a strong one-two punch at receiver with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington on the outside. Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda and Caedan Wallace form a good foundation up front. New coordinator Mike Yurcich is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason.
Offensive Concern: Penn State regressed on the stat sheet last season and 17 lost turnovers certainly didn’t help. Yurcich has to get Clifford back on track after an uneven 2020 campaign.
Defensive Strength: This unit slipped on the stat sheet a bit last year but still held teams to 5.1 yards per play. Provided the new faces step up in the trenches, Penn State should rebound. The linebacker unit needs to play better, but there’s talent here. Also, the secondary is among the best in the Big Ten.
Defensive Concern: The trenches. The Nittany Lions lost four key linemen from last year’s unit and dipped into the portal for help. Eliminating big plays allowed (eight of 40-plus yards) is a must.
USC returned to the top of the South Division last season but lost to Oregon 31-24 in the conference title game. Coach Clay Helton is under pressure going into 2021, as the Trojans have all of the pieces to contend for the conference championship and a top-10 ranking. Can USC put everything together?
Offensive Strength: Kedon Slovis is Athlon’s first-team all-conference quarterback, and the junior won’t be hurting for talent on the outside with one of the top receiving corps in college football at his disposal. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is a key addition to help spark the ground game.
Offensive Concern: The offensive line. This unit is likely to make-or-break USC’s Pac-12 title hopes. The Trojans have to run the ball more effectively (just 3.2 yards per carry in 2020) and protect Slovis better after giving up 15 sacks in six games.
Defensive Strength: Talent isn’t an issue here, and USC showed some small signs of progress under new coordinator Todd Orlando last year. Edge rusher Drake Jackson is one of the conference’s top defensive players, and end Korey Foreman was a key addition in the 2021 recruiting class.
Defensive Concern: The defense has to do a better job in the red zone and continue to build on last season’s progression. The secondary ranked seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Depth is an issue at linebacker and up front.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021
The Tigers hope to rebound after a disappointing 5-5 season, which came one year after winning the national championship. Coach Ed Orgeron hopes two new coordinators and other staff changes help the team return to the top of the SEC.
Offensive Strength: Whether it’s Myles Brennan or Max Johnson under center, LSU should feel confident in its quarterback play. The Tigers should improve up front with all five starters returning along the offensive line. Talent isn’t an issue at receiver, and Kayshon Boutte is poised for an All-America-caliber season.
Offensive Concern: The Tigers averaged 7.9 yards per play in 2019 but regressed to 5.5 last year. Can new play-caller Jake Peetz get this group back to its ’19 level? The ground game needs more punch after averaging only 3.3 yards per carry last fall.
Defensive Strength: The talent is in place for this defense to rank among the best in the SEC. The cornerback duo of Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks is arguably the No. 1 tandem in college football. A deep rotation returns up front.
Defensive Concern: The Tigers allowed 7.3 yards per play and 34.9 points a game last season. Is new coordinator Daronte Jones capable of fixing all of the issues in one year? Linebacker depth is a small concern, but Clemson transfer Mike Jones was a key addition.
The Hawkeyes finished 2020 on a six-game winning streak after an 0-2 start. The ’21 schedule features an opener versus Indiana, a road trek to Iowa State in Week 2 and a showdown in Madison against Wisconsin in late October.
Offensive Strength: Running back Tyler Goodson is poised to push for All-America honors. Iowa has holes to fill along the offensive line, but this program generally does a good job of filling the voids up front – and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have All-America center Tyler Linderbaum leading the way. Tight end Sam LaPorta is primed for a big year, and the receiving corps still has options for quarterback Spencer Petras despite the departure of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith.
Offensive Concern: Petras had an up-and-down debut last year. Can he take a step forward in 2021? The line may need a few games to mesh. The Hawkeyes finished 13th in the Big Ten in third-down offense in 2020.
Defensive Strength: Iowa is usually strong on this side of the ball, so even with concerns up front, it’s hard to doubt coach Kirk Ferentz’s defense. The linebacker unit should rank among the best in the conference, and the secondary should as well after finishing 2020 ranked second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense.
Defensive Concern: Reloading in the trenches. Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin leave big shoes to fill on a defense that led the conference in fewest yards per play (4.3) in 2020.
15. Arizona State*
All of the pieces are in place for Herm Edwards’ team to win the Pac-12 in 2021. The Sun Devils return nearly everyone off last year’s squad, including quarterback Jayden Daniels and running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum. A crossover game at Washington is tough, and Arizona State travels to Utah, but USC visits Tempe on Nov. 6.
Offensive Strength: This offense is primed for takeoff after leading the Pac-12 in scoring and yards per play last season. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is due for a breakout year, the backfield is among the deepest in college football, and there’s no shortage of intriguing weapons at receiver. The offensive line – an issue the last few years – should take a big step forward with four starters back.
Offensive Concern: Not much. Will the young receivers develop as expected? Arizona State can improve its red-zone offense after finishing seventh in the Pac-12 last year.
Defensive Strength: The Sun Devils paced the Pac-12 in scoring defense and ranked third in yards per play allowed (5.4). With the bulk of the two-deep returning, this unit is among the best in the conference once again. Lineman Jermayne Lole is disruptive, and the secondary features two standout cornerbacks in Jack Jones and Chase Lucas.
Defensive Concern: Coordinator Antonio Pierce has a strong defense in place, but this unit needs to get better versus the run (183.2 ypg allowed).
* Arizona State's ranking was determined prior to announcement of NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations. This post will be updated pending outcome of investigation.
The Hurricanes were a much-improved team in coach Manny Diaz’s second year at the helm. Quarterback D’Eriq King gives this team a chance to earn a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl, but the defense has to reload in order to defeat North Carolina at the top of the division.
Offensive Strength: King is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State, but all signs point to a full recovery. The Houston transfer is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation. An improving offensive line is in place, and the receiving corps is deeper with the addition of Charleston Rambo. The ‘Canes also have a couple of options at running back.
Offensive Concern: Getting King back to full strength is a must if Miami wants to win the Coastal Division. The line still has room to improve in pass protection (30 sacks allowed), and the ground game needs to take a step forward after generating just 4.2 yards per carry in 2020.
Defensive Strength: After Miami’s defense gave up 27 points a game and 5.8 yards per play last season, Diaz hopes to improve this unit by taking over the play-calling duties. The line has potential with Nesta Jade Silvera leading the way up front, and the secondary gets a boost at cornerback with the arrival of Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson.
Defensive Concern: How much improvement can Diaz get out of this group in one offseason? Miami struggled versus the run (174.5 ypg allowed) and forced only 16 turnovers last year. The ‘Canes need better linebacker play, and ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche (12.5 sacks) must be replaced.
The Badgers – like most of the Big Ten – had an unusual 2020 season. But with a full offseason to develop quarterback Graham Mertz and get healthy at receiver, Wisconsin should use a favorable schedule to return to the top of the Big Ten West Division.
Offensive Strength: Mertz is primed for a breakout year, and a healthy season from Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor should make a big difference in the sophomore quarterback’s development. As usual, Wisconsin should have one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, and running back Jalen Berger is ready to lead the way on the ground.
Offensive Concern: The Badgers need to generate more big plays (only three of 40-plus yards last year). Depth is needed at running back and receiver.
Defensive Strength: Under Jim Leonhard’s watch, Wisconsin limited teams to 17.4 points a game and 5.01 yards per play last fall. With eight starters back, including one of the Big Ten’s best linebacker and secondary units, the Badgers will be near the top of the conference once again.
Defensive Concern: More pressure on opposing quarterbacks is needed after generating only 11 sacks last year. The line must replace the steady play of Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk.
12. Notre Dame
A repeat trip to the CFB Playoff will be a tough assignment for coach Brian Kelly’s team in 2021. Two areas of strength from last season – offensive line and quarterback – are a question mark going into the fall. Also, the defense has to find a replacement for linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Offensive Strength: The Fighting Irish should have one of the top backfields in college football with the return of Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister. Tight end Michael Mayer is poised to push for All-America honors. The arrival of Marshall transfer Cain Madden is a boost to the offensive line.
Offensive Concern: Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is the favorite to start, but can he match Book’s steady play? If not, can freshman Tyler Buchner take over at some point during the 2021 season? Having Madden and Jarrett Patterson is a good start in the trenches, but Notre Dame’s line was one of the best in college football last year. Replacing four starters won’t be a seamless transition.
Defensive Strength: New coordinator Marcus Freeman is one of the offseason’s top hires and inherits a group that returns six starters after holding teams to 19.7 points a game last fall. Safety Kyle Hamilton is one of the top defensive players in college football. The Fighting Irish have a few holes to fill up front, but the line shouldn’t be a weakness.
Defensive Concern: Owusu-Koramoah’s all-around ability is a big loss to the defense. Freeman also needs to find a corner to play opposite of Clarence Lewis this fall.
The Gators won the SEC East for the first time under coach Dan Mullen last year and should remain one of the top 10-15 teams in 2021. However, Florida lost key pieces on offense and must improve significantly on defense.
Offensive Strength: Even though quarterback Kyle Trask, receiver Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Pitts are gone, Mullen will find ways for this offense to score points. Quarterback Emory Jones is a breakout candidate, and the Gators have good skill talent on the outside and a deep backfield to build around this fall.
Offensive Concern: Three starters are back, but the offensive line has room to improve.
Defensive Strength: The concerns about this unit are warranted. However, Florida allowed only 15.5 points a game in 2019. There’s talent to work with, including end Zachary Carter, linebackers Brenton Cox Jr. and Ventrell Miller and cornerback Kaiir Elam. Can the returning talent get this group back to its '19 level?
Defensive Concern: Florida had an uncharacteristic season on defense in 2020, giving up 30.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. Can this group get back on track? Safety play is also under the spotlight.
10. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have made significant strides in just two years under coach Mack Brown. With quarterback Sam Howell returning, this program should take another step forward this fall, as North Carolina is Athlon’s pick to win the Coastal Division in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Howell is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and guided the offense to an average of 41.7 points a game last year. The Tar Heels have an improving starting group in the trenches. While the turnover at the skill spots is a concern, this unit doesn’t lack for talent.
Offensive Concern: Not much. The new faces at receiver and running back are worth monitoring early in the year.
Defensive Strength: The overall trajectory of this group is in good shape. The Tar Heels generated 36 sacks and finished sixth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Brown’s work on the recruiting trail has added talent to the two-deep and eight returning starters provide a good foundation. Cornerbacks Storm Duck and Tony Grimes are one of the best duos in the ACC.
Defensive Concern: Cutting down on the big plays allowed (18 of 40-plus yards) is a must. Linebacker Chazz Surratt leaves big shoes to fill. North Carolina allowed 5.8 yards per play and 29.4 points a game in 2020. There’s room to improve here.
Coach Mario Cristobal has Oregon primed to win its third Pac-12 title in a row in 2021. An early trek to Ohio State is a huge barometer test, and while road trips to Utah and Washington aren’t easy, the Ducks return the best all-around roster in the conference.
Offensive Strength: Trust in coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Ducks have one of the top play-callers in college football, and even with an unsettled quarterback situation, the offense should be prolific. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye form a potent one-two punch at running back, all five starters are back up front, and there’s plenty of talent at receiver.
Offensive Concern: Anthony Brown is favored to win the quarterback battle, and the Boston College transfer played well in limited time last year. He will be tested right away with a trip to Ohio State in Week 2. The Ducks lost the most turnovers (16) of any team in the Pac-12 last year.
Defensive Strength: Veteran play-caller Tim DeRuyter is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason after Andy Avalos left Eugene to be the head coach at Boise State. Oregon’s defense was hit hard by opt outs at the start of 2020, but seven starters are back for ’21 and this should be one of the top defensive units in the Pac-12. End Kayvon Thibodeaux is a first-team All-American, and linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell are rising stars.
Defensive Concern: How much will the Ducks improve in one offseason after allowing 28.3 points a game – up from 16.5 in 2019? More turnovers are needed (just seven forced last year).
Related: Pac-12 Football 2021 Predictions
The Bearcats are the top Group of 5 team once again, but coach Luke Fickell’s program has its sights set on something bigger – the CFB Playoff. With a veteran and loaded roster, along with road games versus top-25 teams in Indiana and Notre Dame, Cincinnati will have a chance to state its case for the four-team playoff.
Offensive Strength: An offense that averaged 37.5 points a game and led the AAC in yards per play (6.7) should be strong once again. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is primed for a huge senior year, and Jerome Ford will easily fill the void left behind by Gerrid Doaks at running back. Tight end Josh Whyle is a rising star.
Offensive Concern: How well Cincinnati replaces tackles James Hudson and Darius Harper is the biggest question mark surrounding this team for 2021. The Bearcats could also improve in the red zone after finishing eighth in the AAC.
Defensive Strength: Everything. This is one of the top defenses in college football. Cincinnati limited teams to 16.8 points a game and finished first in the AAC versus the run, fewest yards per play allowed (4.6) and in pass efficiency defense. The cornerback tandem of Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant is one of the best in the nation.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Cincinnati gave up a few big plays (10 of 40-plus) and lost both starting safeties. Neither are huge concerns, however.
7. Iowa State
The Cyclones are coming off arguably the best season in school history. Coach Matt Campbell’s team finished No. 9 in the final ranking – the highest ever by the program – and won more than eight games for just the third time in the Iowa State history. A run at the CFB Playoff is within reach for 2021.
Offensive Strength: Nearly everyone from last year’s group that averaged 32.9 points a game is back, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and receiver Xavier Hutchinson. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. A healthy Tarique Milton at receiver adds another weapon for Purdy on the outside. In conference-only games, Iowa State led the Big 12 by averaging 6.8 yards per snap.
Offensive Concern: Not much. The Cyclones could use a few more big plays this year. Purdy’s yards per attempt declined to 7.5 last fall after finishing at 10.2 in 2018. The offense needs a backup to emerge to help take some of the workload off Hall.
Defensive Strength: Similar to the offense, Iowa State’s defense is loaded with talent, depth and experience. Linebacker Mike Rose should rank among the top defensive players in college football, while end Will McDonald (10.5 sacks) is an emerging star off the edge. Having a proven trio of cornerbacks like Anthony Johnson, Datrone Young and Tayvonn Kyle is a big plus in the offensive-minded Big 12. Iowa State limited teams to just 21.4 points a game last fall.
Defensive Concern: Safety Lawrence White and end JaQuan Bailey are key losses for coordinator Jon Heacock. The Cyclones could do a better job at limiting big plays after allowing nine completions of 40-plus yards in 2020.
6. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies came within one spot of making the CFB Playoff last season and enter 2021 clearly trending in the right direction.
Offensive Strength: The Aggies boast one of the deepest backfields in college football. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer should push for All-America honors. While a new signal-caller must be found, coach Jimbo Fisher has a solid track record at developing quarterbacks.
Offensive Concern: Fisher has two talented players – Zach Calzada and Haynes King – vying to start. Will this battle get settled in fall practice? Texas A&M must replace four starters from a dominant offensive line and get better play out of the wide receivers.
Defensive Strength: This is one of the top defenses in the nation. Lineman DeMarvin Leal is primed for a big year, and the secondary returns intact after allowing only two opponents to exceed more than 240 passing yards in 2020.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Leading tackler Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Bobby Brown III are gone, but the Aggies have talent waiting in the wings.
The Bulldogs had their three-year run atop the East end last year, but coach Kirby Smart’s team is primed for a return to Atlanta – and potentially bigger things in 2021.
Offensive Strength: Georgia’s offense averaged 8.3 points a game more with quarterback JT Daniels in the lineup, and the USC transfer should benefit from a full offseason to work under coordinator Todd Monken. The Bulldogs are loaded at running back, and even with George Pickens sidelined indefinitely, there’s a promising group of receivers.
Offensive Concern: It’s hard to find anything to fit here. The Bulldogs need to sort out an offensive line that returns three starters, but talent isn’t an issue.
Defensive Strength: Georgia should have one of the nation’s top defensive fronts. Lineman Jordan Davis is an All-America candidate, and linebackers Adam Anderson and Nakobe Dean form a strong second level. Also, there’s a deep group of safeties in place with Tykee Smith, Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine in the lineup.
Defensive Concern: The Bulldogs return very little experience at cornerback, but the addition of Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick eases concerns here.
Related: SEC Football 2021 Predictions
4. Ohio State
Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in the Big Ten once again. Coach Ryan Day has yet to lose a regular season game in two years in Columbus, and if a new quarterback quickly emerges, along with improvement on defense, the Buckeyes can make another run at a trip to the national title game.
Offensive Strength: The Buckeyes have arguably the best offensive line and receiving corps in college football. Trey Sermon departed to the NFL, but talent is plentiful at running back. All three players competing to start at quarterback are capable of directing this offense at a high level.
Offensive Concern: Not much. A new quarterback always creates some uncertainty, but Ohio State will be fine under center.
Defensive Strength: Anchored by tackle Haskell Garrett and end Zach Harrison, the Buckeyes should have one of the top defensive lines in college football. There are holes to fill at linebacker and defensive back, but Ohio State has plenty of talent waiting to emerge.
Defensive Concern: Can Kerry Coombs get the defense back on track in his second year as coordinator? Ohio State ranked 11th in pass efficiency defense, allowed too many big plays through the air, surrendered 25.8 points a game and 5.95 yards a play – the highest mark in school history – last season.
The Sooners have claimed six Big 12 titles in a row, and coach Lincoln Riley’s team is a heavy favorite to win the league crown once again in 2021. Oklahoma is led by an explosive offense but an improving defense gives the program a better chance to win a playoff game – or perhaps something bigger – this postseason.
Offensive Strength: The Sooners have averaged over 40 points a game for six consecutive years and will once again have one of the nation’s top offenses with quarterback Spencer Rattler directing the attack. Transfers Eric Gray (RB) and Mike Woods (WR), along with the return of running back Kennedy Brooks, adds to a deep collection of talent at the skill positions.
Offensive Concern: You have to squint to find a major concern here. Oklahoma does have an unsettled offensive line, but it’s also hard to doubt assistant Bill Bedenbaugh. Center Creed Humphrey will be missed.
Defensive Strength: Coordinator Alex Grinch has brought marked improvement to this group over the last two seasons. After Oklahoma gave up 6.1 yards per play in 2018, the Sooners held teams to 5.19 a snap in ’20. Also, this defense limited offenses to 21.7 points a game last year – down from 33.3 in ’18. All three levels of this group are in good shape, including a defensive line that ranks among the best in college football. Linebacker Nik Bonitto should push for double-digit sacks.
Defensive Concern: Will the improvement trend carry into 2021? The depth chart is deeper than in recent years, and there’s little reason to doubt Grinch after his work the last two seasons. It’s a small concern, but in four games against ranked teams, Oklahoma’s per-play average allowed dipped to 6.04.
Clemson is once again the overwhelming favorite in the ACC this season. The Tigers have won six league titles in a row and all of the pieces are in place to contend for the national title.
Offensive Strength: Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is primed for a breakout season. Travis Etienne is gone, but the running back depth is in good shape and receiver Justyn Ross is on track to return after missing 2020 due to injury. Clemson has led the ACC in scoring for three consecutive years and all of the pieces are in place to own one of the nation’s top offenses once again.
Offensive Concern: Depth behind Uiagalelei is a concern after Taisun Phommachanh suffered an Achilles injury in the spring. The offensive line has room to improve after rushers averaged 4.5 yards per carry last fall.
Defensive Strength: Clemson’s defensive line is arguably the best in college football. There’s depth and talent off the edge and on the interior. James Skalski passed on the NFL to anchor the linebacker unit, while rising star Trenton Simpson is poised to add to the depth and talent of this group. Despite losing cornerback Derion Kendrick, the Tigers will be tough against the pass.
Defensive Concern: Not much. Clemson has ranked in the top four of the ACC in fewest yards per play allowed for eight straight years and will continue that run into 2021. After giving up 385 passing yards to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, the secondary has to play better in big games.
Related: ACC 2021 Football Predictions
The Crimson Tide aim to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since this program reached that goal in 2011-12.
Offensive Strength: Talent. New quarterback Bryce Young is a rising star, the backfield is loaded, and there's no shortage of options to restock the receiving corps and offensive line.
Offensive Concern: The new faces may take some time to blend. How fast can new play-caller Bill O’Brien get this unit performing at a level similar to 2020?
Defensive Strength: Alabama led the SEC in scoring defense and is loaded at all three levels. This should be one of the top defenses in college football.
Defensive Concern: Cornerback Patrick Surtain, linebacker Dylan Moses and lineman Christian Barmore leave big shoes to fill. Alabama’s defense needs to do a better job at limiting big plays and getting stops on third downs.