Most college football fans probably can’t help but feel a little cheated after the 2020 campaign. There was a distinct lack of non-conference games, plenty of teams didn’t play a full schedule, and multiple marquee players chose to sit out the season.
However, there’s always a chance that the 2021 season will make up for it. Granted, the world is far from back to normal as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. But the college football season will hopefully be as normal as possible, with fans in stadiums and everything.
As we gear up for the start of a new season, let’s check out some of the top college football storylines to follow during the 2021 season.
As mentioned, we didn’t get a full slate of non-conference games last season, depriving us of some heavyweight matchups. Thankfully, we will get plenty of those games in 2021, some of which could have massive implications in the College Football Playoff scenario early in the season.
It’ll begin with Clemson playing Georgia during the opening weekend of the season. That same weekend, Miami will battle the reigning national champ Alabama. The following week, Pac-12 favorite Oregon will play Big Ten favorite Ohio State in a game that we didn’t get to see during the regular season last year. Another must-watch game is a showdown between Nebraska and Oklahoma in a non-conference game between former conference rivals.
Get ready for some major shakeups early in the season thanks to these joyous events.
Rise of the Mid-Majors
One of the biggest stories of the 2020 season was the play of mid-majors and their ability to take down power-conference opponents. That storyline will continue into 2021, as we’ll see if some of those same mid-majors can show staying power. Specifically, Cincinnati is the team to watch most closely because the Bearcats might actually have a chance to crash the CFP if they run the table, including a game against Notre Dame.
Louisiana and Coastal Carolina out of the Sun Belt are also teams to watch closely. Then there are independent programs like Liberty and BYU, which are both coming off strong seasons but need to prove they have staying power.
Powerhouses Bouncing Back
While mid-majors made a lot of noise in 2020, there were some traditional powerhouses that had a forgettable year. The likes of Michigan, Penn State, and LSU, in particular, will be worth watching closely to see if they can bounce back.
At Michigan, it seems like Jim Harbaugh is at a crossroads with the Wolverines and needs to put together a top-10 caliber season. The situation isn’t as dire for James Franklin at Penn State, although the folks in Happy Valley won’t tolerate a second straight down season. The situation is similar for Ed Orgeron at LSU. Just one year removed from a national championship, there is pressure on Orgeron to bring the Bayou Bengals back to the top of the SEC West.
Replacing Trevor Lawrence
One of the biggest names to watch this season is Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. For starters, fans will need to devote a little time to learn how to both pronounce and spell his name.
Uiagalelei has the burden of replacing Trevor Lawrence, who was selected first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. On top of that, he’ll be in his first year as the starting quarterback at Clemson, which is a program that expects to compete for national championships. That’s a lot of pressure for a young player who flashed promise and poise last year but will be facing a new set of challenges as the starter for Clemson this season.
The Greatest Comeback Story Ever?
If it’s not Uiagalelei, the most compelling player in the country this year might be Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Most people will know Milton’s story from his brilliant career at Central Florida to his crushing injury to his improbable return to the field and transfer to FSU. Milton returning to the field is the equivalent of Alex Smith coming back to lead Washington to the playoffs last season. Nearly three years after suffering the injury, there’s no way to know what Milton is capable of doing when he steps back on the field. But the fact that he can still play at all is inspiring.
If Milton is somehow able to help the Seminoles rebound three straight losing seasons, he may have written the greatest comeback story in college football history.
The Independent Irish
Notre Dame was forced to experiment with being in a conference last season, spending one season in the ACC and reaching the conference championship game. But it’s back to being an independent for the Irish in 2021.
Of course, the Irish will head into the season expecting to run the table and compete for a spot in the CFP. As usual, Brian Kelly’s team has one of the most exciting schedules in the country, including some familiar names. The Fighting Irish will open the season at Florida State and end September with a date against Wisconsin at Soldier Field. They also have a fascinating home matchup with Cincinnati, as well as showdowns with USC and North Carolina. Those are all teams that could trip up the Irish, although going undefeated is a realistic possibility for Notre Dame in 2021.
Expansion on the Way?
Even if it doesn’t impact the season itself, the possibility of the College Football Playoff expanding is a storyline to follow closely. The four-team playoff has certainly worked out nicely, although there is momentum toward expanding the playoff since there is usually one or two teams left out of the party that perhaps deserve a chance.
The chances are good that it’s too late to expand beyond four teams for this season. But will this be the last year the CFP is limited to four teams? Perhaps more importantly, will an expanded playoff change the bowl system for the rest of college football?
Old Names in New Places
As usual, the end result of the coaching carousel will be one of the top storylines to watch this season. It likely starts with Steve Sarkisian and the massive expectations he’ll face right away at Texas. Bryan Harsin leaving Boise State for life in the SEC at Auburn will also be interesting to watch.
Then there’s Bret Bielema returning to the Big Ten with a chance to make Illinois a wild card in the West Division. Plus, don’t forget about Shane Beamer, the son of the legendary Frank Beamer, getting his first job as a head coach in the rough and tumble SEC West at Mississippi State.
There’s one thing that will undoubtedly be different during the 2021 season, and that’s Name, Image, and Likeness. We are truly in uncharted waters with players finally being able to make money off of their NIL.
How will players adjust to this new element of freedom and money? Will it prove to be a distraction? Only time will tell, but it’ll be fascinating to watch play out.
Big 12 Swan Song?
It’s official, Oklahoma and Texas are on their way to the SEC. The tectonic plates in college athletics have once again shifted with two of the biggest programs in the country joining the best football conference, one that was already overflowing with top-tier programs. The thing we don’t know right now is whether Oklahoma and Texas will work out a way to join the SEC in 2022 or if they’ll need to wait a few years.
That leaves open the possibility that this year could be the end of the Big 12 as we know it. That should add an interesting dynamic to the league, as the Longhorns try to work their way back to the top while the Sooners try to win their seventh straight conference title with Iowa State nipping at their heels.
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