Way-too-early 2021 college football storylines to follow

The 2020 college football season, as crazy as it was, has concluded. A victory for all associated. While we don’t know what the landscape of the 2021 season will look like, we’re already focused on looking forward.

Here are some of the storylines to keep in mind ahead of the 2021 college football campaign.


1 of 20

The era of COVID-19

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The biggest question facing the 2021 college football season is simple: What will that look like? Will all conferences be back in action? If so, will teams be able to complete a full schedule as planned, and can stadiums once again be packed? The easy answer at the moment is: We don’t know. Vaccines, positivity rates, contract tracing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking, but it’s also not wise to deny reality.


2 of 20

Keep the caution coming

Keep the caution coming

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Regardless of what the college football season looks like in 2021, expect mitigations and policies put in place to tackle the coronavirus in 2020 to remain in place for years to come. Any sense of normalcy might still be a year or so away — depending on which medical expert we’re also talking about. Also, there’s a new President of the United States and an administration that is most likely to follow the science. Perhaps more masks and even various lockdowns? Remember it’s all fluid.


Who's No. 1?

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OK, now that we’ve talked a bit about the coronavirus and the continued role it’s playing in college football, let’s shift to what’s happening on the field. That starts with trying to figure out the best team in the land for 2021. Obviously, it’s easy to start with reigning national champion Alabama. It should be Bryce Young‘s team to lead and the Crimson Tide will certainly reload instead of rebuilding, as always is the case. Meanwhile, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Notre Dame all expect to challenge for a national title. Nothing new there.


4 of 20

Tide on the roll again

Tide on the roll again

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No program has repeated as national champion since Alabama during the 2011 and ’12 seasons. So, can the Crimson Tide do it again after going 13-0 to win their sixth national championship since 2009? Considering teams like Clemson and Ohio State also have some deep holes to fill, Alabama might be in a better position than others to move forward as favorites for the 2021 title with quarterback Bryce Young leading the way.


5 of 20

Looking for that darkest horse

Looking for that darkest horse

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So, it seems the usual names and traditional powers are likely to again be in the hunt for a national title to conclude the 2021 campaign. But, what about those darkhorse national championship contenders? The obvious choice might be Cincinnati. The Bearcats went 9-1 and earned a New Year’s Six Bowl berth in 2020. Quarterback Desmond Ridder returns, and Cincinnati’s defense could be just as stout in 2021 as the one that allowed an average of just 16.8 points in 2020. Others to watch: Iowa State, maybe? What about Texas and its new leadership?


More the merrier

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We’ve already brought up potential participants in next season’s College Football Playoff. The question, however, is will there be more than four teams involved? Expansion of the CFP is a hot topic, especially after this topsy-turvy season. Will expanding the CFP happen for the 2021 season? The safe bet seems to be “no.” That said, talks will surely continue, rumors will fly and options are likely to remain open that this will grow beyond just four teams.


Bowl picture

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COVID-19 made a mess of the 2020 bowl season. Many were canceled and some might not surprise going forward. Something to certainly keep an eye on in 2021. Add that into the conversation regarding any conversations about the expansion of the College Football Playoff, and the future of “Bowl Season” as we’ve come to know over the years could look different — perhaps as early as later this year. 


Rising stock

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Now, just because a program does not reach the CFP doesn’t mean its season is any less successful if their record is good. In 2020, schools likes San Jose State, Coastal Carolina, Ball State, and Liberty all enjoyed some historical level of success. While we expect Coastal, Ball State, and Liberty to remain on the rise in 2021, one team to keep an eye on more than others is Indiana. Yes, the Hoosiers, who went 6-2 and nearly took down Ohio State this past season. Under the guidance of coach Tom Allen, Indiana will worth watching to see if it can be even better in 2021.


9 of 20

Time to bounce back

Time to bounce back

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It would be easy to give some perennial national college football powers a pass for struggling in 2020. That said if so, it’s also imperative that those teams show they can bounce back in 2021. Most notably, Penn State, which opened with five straight defeats for the first time in the storied history of the program. The Nittany Lions, however, manage to win their final four games and build some confidence for 2021. And, LSU, which struggled defensively and was inconsistent on offense, but did beat then-No. 6 Florida and finished 5-5. Other programs poised to rebound from sub-par or underachieving seasons in 2020 include Wisconsin (4-3 in 2020), Minnesota (3-4), and Arizona State (2-2).


10 of 20

Heading in the wrong direction

Heading in the wrong direction

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When it comes to programs on the decline, we’ll stay in the Big Ten to see if Michigan can bounce back from its horrendous 2-4 abbreviated 2020 season. There’s also no sign that 2021 will be much better for the Wolverines, who were held to 21 or fewer points three times in 2020. And yet, coach Jim Harbaugh will be back on the sidelines. Now, Michigan is not alone when it comes to prominent programs potentially headed for a decline. Virginia Tech (5-5 in 2020), Kansas State (4-6), Northern Illinois (0-6), Arizona (0-5), and Mississippi State (4-7) all have something to prove in 2021.


11 of 20

Change of address

Change of address

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Speaking of Notre Dame, that leads to some transfer talk. With Ian Book gone, the Irish appear to enter the 2021 season with former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan under the center. Coan, who threw for more than 3,200 yards in three seasons with the Badgers, missed 2020 with an injury and now expects to highlight the transfer class of 2021. It will be interesting to watch when Notre Dame takes on Wisconsin in Chicago on Sept. 25. Other expected transfers of note: Quarterback McKenzie Milton going from UCF to Florida State and Baylor’s Charlie Brewer moving to Utah.


12 of 20

Irish on their own again

Irish on their own again

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Notre Dame enjoyed a strong 2020 season, reaching the CFP while playing in the ACC on a temporary basis. The Irish might not have as easy a time in 2021 when they go back to an independent slate. Notre Dame will still play five teams from the ACC — Florida State, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. However, USC, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Stanford are on the schedule. 


Heisman talk

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Trying to follow up DeVonta Smith’s act from 2020 will be a tough one. But someone has to be awarded the Heisman Trophy for the 2021 season. So, who should be on the preseason Heisman shortlist? How about North Carolina’s Sam Howell, who has thrown for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns in his first two seasons? Or, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, who completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,031 and 28 TDs in 2020. Continuing with the quarterback theme, Alabama’s Bryce Young, Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, USC’s Kedon Slovis and perhaps Miami’s D’Eriq King are also worth watching. Topping the non-quarterback list, Iowa State’s Breece Hall, should he return, after rushing for 1,572 yards and 21 TDs.


14 of 20

Young and hungry

Young and hungry


Is there a future Heisman winner among those true freshmen hoping to make an immediate impact in 2021? Perhaps. Although, the country’s best true freshman might set up shop on the defensive side of the ball this coming season. Defensive end Korey Foreman, who is headed to USC, is regarded as the No. 1 incoming recruit in the country. It’s worth also keeping an eye on another defensive end in Ohio State’s Jack Sawyer. 


15 of 20

Riding the coaching carousel

Riding the coaching carousel

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All eyes will be on former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as Texas head coach. Sarkisian went 46-35 during head-coaching stints at Washington and USC and now will try to elevate the Longhorns to national title contenders. Other coaches in new spots to keep an eye on Bryan Harsin (formerly of Boise State) at Auburn, Bret Bielema back in the Big Ten with Illinois, and Shane Beamer now coaching Mississippi State.


16 of 20

That seat’s getting hotter

That seat's getting hotter

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While we’ll keep our eyes on those coaches in new places, what about those in danger of losing their jobs in or after the 2021 season? Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is an easy hot-seat coaching target, but he received a contract extension . That said, Harbaugh’s Big Ten-buddy Scott Frost at Nebraska might not be so fortunate with plenty of pressure to record his first winning campaign entering his fourth season with the Cornhuskers. Others like Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and even USC’s Clay Helton continue to feel the heat.


17 of 20

Appointment viewing

Appointment viewing

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While we’re uncertain how many people will be allowed to attend college football games in 2021, that won’t diminish the interest in some of the bigger non-conference contests scheduled for next season. Among the marquee matchups: Reigning national champion Alabama faces Miami, FL, and Clemson takes on Georgia — both Sept. 4. The next week, Oregon will visit Ohio State (Sept. 11). Though it might not be a competitive contest, Nebraska and Oklahoma will hook up on Sept. 18, to celebrate the famed 1971 “Game of the Century” between these former Big 8 rivals. Finally, on Oct. 8, CFP-buster Cincinnati will visit Notre Dame.


18 of 20

The Sun (Belt) is rising

The Sun (Belt) is rising

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The Power Five get all the attention, but when it comes to the Group of Five, the Sun Belt might become a major player regardless of league status. At one point this past season, three schools from the Sun Belt were ranked, and Coastal Carolina and Louisiana finished 2020 in The Associated Press Top 25 with a combined 21-2 mark. Appalachian State (9-3 in 2020) is also among the top Group of Five teams in the country. leaving the Sun Belt as a conference to be reckoned with again in 2021 and perhaps beyond.


19 of 20

Don’t forget about the FCS

Don't forget about the FCS

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While we tend to focus on the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) is still planning on going ahead with its “2020” season come spring. The 2020-21 FCS season is slated to begin in February and conclude with the national championship game on May 16, in Frisco, Texas. Things will look different, obviously, most notably that the FCS playoffs will be trimmed from 24 teams to 16. It’s also safe to say that eight-time FCS champion North Dakota State will be favored to win a fourth consecutive title.


Pay to play

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The NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) legislation that could compensate college athletes for their celebrity status might not be on the radars of many casual football fans, but it’s worth keeping an eye on throughout 2021. It’s unsure, at the moment, when any of this will be resolved or a decision will come to the forefront since the NCAA is poised to delay the vote on the matter. Still, the vote has potentially historic ramifications for the future landscape of college athletics, especially football and basketball.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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