Complete Guide to 2021 College Football Offseason
Following a dominant win over Ohio State in the national championship, Alabama once again stands atop the college football universe.
And now, we relax. Sort of.
After months of opt-outs, opt-ins, cancellations, postponements, restarts, positive tests, false positives, rule changes and a near-endless stream of rumors, it's the offseason.
That, however, doesn't mean the sport will be any less chaotic.
More than a dozen programs have already made coaching changes. As activity on the transfer portal heats up, February brings the late national signing day. Spring practice begins in March, and the summer is certain to feature more discussions about the timeline for College Football Playoff expansion. And the list goes on.
Perhaps you need to decompress from the season. Rest assured, though, that B/R will have coverage on all those topics throughout a busy spring and summer.
Led by Steve Sarkisian at Texas and Bryan Harsin at Auburn, the 2021 offseason will include no fewer than 13 coaching changes in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
While those are the marquee jobs, several familiar names—Bret Bielema (Illinois), Butch Jones (Arkansas State) and Terry Bowden (Louisiana-Monroe)—are leading a program again. Notable first-time head coaches are Clark Lea (Vanderbilt), Shane Beamer (South Carolina) and Andy Avalos (Boise State), among others.
As of this writing, Marshall is the only vacant position. We can never be certain another job won't open given rumors of possible NFL interest or perhaps a negative issue that emerges.
Nevertheless, the 13-plus new coaches will be monitored closely as they enter a (hopefully) more typical offseason.
The Return of Super-Seniors
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA determined 2020 would not count as a year of eligibility. As a result, current seniors can return in 2021 for a final season.
While most top players will head to the NFL, some valuable pieces are sticking around. That includes Clemson linebacker James Skalski, Iowa State safety Greg Eisworth II, Miami quarterback D'Eriq King and receiver Mike Harley, Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson, Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan and many, many others.
Coastal Carolina and Virginia should have several key seniors back. Fresno State is expected to return a handful of starters. The list goes on, but you get the point.
Though it's unfair to say super-seniors will have an enormous impact, it certainly won't be a small one.
NIL and One-Time Transfer Rules
The day of the national championship, the NCAA announced it tabled a pair of significant votes. One dealt with name, image and likeness (NIL) rights for athletes. The other focused on allowing a one-time exception to transfer rules that currently require all players to sit out a year unless they receive a waiver.
While the NIL debate is necessary and likely to change in the future, the transfer rule is likely to pass before the 2021 season. (If not, players currently in the transfer portal can apply for a waiver, per Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.)
When exactly the votes for NIL reform and one-time transfers will take place is unknown, but expect to hear a lot about them.
National Signing Day
Despite it being an unusual recruiting cycle, the usual suspects are leading the charge. The current top five in the 247Sports composite rankings features Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson and LSU.
Because of the early signing period in December, the traditional signing day—the first Wednesday of February—is more about wrapping up some final spots than piecing together a class.
Still, several marquee prospects remain on the board.
While defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau (No. 3 overall) is the only 5-star with no current destination, dozens of 4-stars are uncommitted or unsigned. In other words, they could flip a pledge (spatula season!) to a different team.
Signing day is Feb. 3.
Eyes on the Transfer Portal
In anticipation of the one-time transfer rule, the portal has become overcrowded. That's the simple truth of the situation since there are more players looking to transfer than scholarships available. And for some players, this decision may backfire.
That unfortunate part must be remembered, especially when juxtaposed with the prized players who are on the move.
Other former top prospects in the portal are USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, Oklahoma running back T.J. Pledger, Georgia cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, Florida State safety Jaiden Lars-Woodbey (to Boston College), Michigan State offensive lineman Devontae Dobbs (to Memphis) and cornerback Julian Barnett (also to Memphis).
And, as usual, many quarterbacks are packing up.
McKenzie Milton has recovered from a devastating leg injury and bolted UCF for Florida State. More to know are Jack Coan (Wisconsin to Notre Dame), Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech to Tennessee) and Chandler Morris (Oklahoma to TCU), along with uncommitted Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina), N'Kosi Perry (Miami) and others.
Many of the hundreds in the transfer portal will be disappointed. Some, though, will be key players elsewhere in 2021.
No, the Playoff Won't Expand, But...
Seven seasons into the College Football Playoff, the system has mostly done its job. It's allowed for an excellent third or fourth qualifier each season, and every champion has fully deserved its title shot.
Expansion is highly unlikely to happen until the current TV deal expires after 2025, but the format is worth another look.
Concerns over Ohio State making the CFP at 6-0 are limited to 2020. It's not like a conference will suddenly slash its schedule in half and willingly lose more revenue or publicity.
Access, however, is guaranteed to control some portion of the headlines. No matter what the selection committee says, it does not legitimately consider Group of Five teams.
Would Cincinnati have been a better playoff team than Ohio State? Probably not. But if 8-0 Cincinnati never climbed within three spots of 4-0 Ohio State this season—the outlier of all outliers—it's clear 12-0 Cincinnati has absolutely no realistic chance of catching 12-0 Ohio State in the future.
Additionally, the CFP has dramatically lowered the perceived value of bowl season. Players routinely elect not to play in bowls, but nobody in seven years has decided to skip a semifinal or title game.
More than anything, money will drive expansion.
But half the FBS cannot make the playoff, and top talents see little reason to play another game because of this CFP-or-bust mentality. Neither one is good for college football.
Most Influential Returning Players
The next Heisman Trophy presentation is 11 months away, and no January list can perfectly capture what to expect in 2021. But the initial odds from DraftKings double as a quality starting point for players who are likely to shape the 2021 season.
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (+300) headlines the group after leading the Sooners to a sixth straight Big 12 crown.
Bryce Young (+400) and D.J. Uiagalelei (650), who are likely to replace quarterbacks Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence at Alabama and Clemson, respectively, follow Rattler. Next up are North Carolina signal-caller Sam Howell (+800) and Miami star D'Eriq King (+1200), though King will be recovering from a torn right ACL.
The next tier features three more quarterbacks: Georgia's JT Daniels (+1800), Arizona State's Jayden Daniels (+2000) and USC's Kedon Slovis (+2000).
Again, that's not a comprehensive list of the nation's top players. Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, Iowa State running back Breece Hall, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and others are in that discussion, just to name a few.
But looking ahead to the 2021 season, any conversations about title contenders will include some of those players.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
One important story to follow is Tennessee's investigation into potential recruiting violations. But if Jeremy Pruitt returns in 2021, he'll be one of two coaches on the warmest seats in the country.
The other one, without question, is at Michigan with Jim Harbaugh. Although the Wolverines consistently won between eight and 10 games in his previous five seasons, they finished 2-4 in 2020. And overall, his teams have stumbled on the road against top competition, failed to beat Ohio State and merely split the rivalry with Michigan State. He recently signed an extension, but the buyout is very inexpensive.
USC's Clay Helton quieted some critics with a 5-1 year, though a poor showing in the Pac-12 Championship Game ensured he wouldn't escape hot-seat talk in the offseason.
Nebraska's Scott Frost, Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente and Texas Tech's Matt Wells are probably not feeling secure, either. Kansas' Les Miles could use a stronger year, along with Mississippi State's Mike Leach and Syracuse's Dino Babers.
By about mid-October, some of these programs will make any offseason hot-seat conversations seem foolish.
However, a few coaches probably won't be so lucky.
Early 2021 Favorites
This will not surprise you, but Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are positioned well to compete for another trip to the College Football Playoff in 2021. They'll each have a new quarterback, but their rosters are always bursting with talent.
The latter also applies to Georgia and Oklahoma, which have recent CFP appearances. Perhaps the more interesting discussion, though, surrounds the teams looking for that first CFP berth.
After finishing in the Top 10 this season, Texas A&M and Iowa State return a majority of their starters. Cincinnati, despite its uphill battle against the committee, will enter 2021 with more respect—and has a prove-it game against Notre Dame, which recently swiped Cincy's defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman.
From there, it's a conversation of reloads (Notre Dame and Florida), bounce-back candidates (LSU, Penn State and Michigan) and others hoping to make the final ascent (USC, Texas, Indiana, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon and Miami).
Looking at the handful of teams at the top, it's likely two or three will reach the CFP. Then, using returning starters, transfers, key freshmen, upcoming schedules and other factors, we'll focus on a couple of other options to crash the CFP party.
Remember when we said to relax? Well, that research and preparation start now. Hope you enjoyed that break because college football never ends.