Storied College Football Programs That Will Struggle in 2021

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 28, 2021

Storied College Football Programs That Will Struggle in 2021

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    Tennessee RB Eric Gray
    Tennessee RB Eric GrayButch Dill/Associated Press

    Most of college football's storied programs are in good-to-great shape heading into the 2021 offseason, but there are a few who seem destined to disappoint in the fall.

    Your first question is probably: How, exactly, did you define a "storied" college football program for this exercise?

    There are 19 active FBS programs with at least 700 all-time wins. There's nothing magical about that 700 number, but it's a pretty good cut line. All 19 of those teams were candidates for this list.

    However, that approach does exclude some quality late arrivers, such as Florida State and Miami, who didn't join the FBS ranks until 1954 and 1936, respectively.

    In order to catch those stragglers, I also looked at a 247Sports ranking of the top 25 greatest programs from this past summer, as well as a similar exercise conducted by ESPN in August 2019. ESPN's list includes a few now-defunct programs, but any school in both the 247Sports Top 25 and ESPN Top 30 was deemed a "storied" program. In addition to Florida State and Miami, that added Michigan State and Washington to the list, bringing the total to 23.

    From there, I looked at a semi-consensus way-too-early Top 25 compiled by USA Today. Fifteen of the 23 teams appeared in that ranking and were thus removed as candidates for this list.

    What remains are the eight teams most likely to leave their fans longing for the days of yore.    

Auburn Tigers

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    Auburn RB Tank Bigsby
    Auburn RB Tank BigsbyRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    Fresh off its worst offensive season since the 3-9 disaster in 2012 that got Gene Chizik fired, Auburn has to replace basically its entire receiving corps.

    Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove are all gone, leaving the Tigers without a single player who had 100 receiving yards in 2020. They did sign a bunch of 4-star WR recruits from the 2020 class, but there is little experience in that room.

    And it's not like Bo Nix was thriving when he had well-established targets running routes.

    Even though new head coach Bryan Harsin has a lot of experience with quarterbacks, Auburn will likely have a passing game that ranks, at best, in the middle of the pack in the SEC.

    Auburn's defense was also considerably worse than usual in 2020, and it now has to deal with several significant departures between the secondary and the defensive line.


    Reason to Believe

    Tank Bigsby was arguably the best true freshman running back in the countryand, no, I haven't forgotten about Texas' Bijan Robinson. The Longhorn was sensational in Texas' final two games, but Bigsby averaged 122.4 all-purpose yards per game, including four instances of at least 110 rushing yards. Bigsby's entire offensive line should be intact as well, which makes for one heck of a building block.

    The Tigers are also loaded at linebacker. Not only are Zakoby McClain, Owen Pappoe and Derick Hall all expected back, but they will also be reintroducing Chandler Wooten to the mix after he opted out of the 2020 season. Again, that's quite the building block.


    In Conclusion: If the passing game comes along much quicker than expected, Auburn could be right back in the Nos. 10-25 range of the AP poll in which it finished four of the last seven seasons. Conversely, if Bigsby has a sophomore slump or suffers even a minor injury, Auburn's 2021 season could implode in a hurry.

Florida State Seminoles

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    Florida State LB Amari Gainer
    Florida State LB Amari GainerGary McCullough/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    Florida State had a winning record in every single year from 1977 to 2017, but it has now suffered through three consecutive losing seasons.

    And it's not like 2020 provided much hope for the future. The Seminoles went 3-6 and were just plain awful on defense. In one of their wins, they had to come from behind against Jacksonville State. In another, they gave up 35 points to a dreadful Duke team. FSU's win over North Carolina was quite possibly the most inexplicable result in the country.

    As bad as the defense was, it might get even worse with Asante Samuel Jr., Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh all en route to the NFL draft. Maybe things will be more cohesive in year No. 2 of Adam Fuller's reign as defensive coordinator, but Samuel in particular will be difficult to replace.


    Reason to Believe

    UCF transfer McKenzie Milton just might be the long-awaited savior at quarterback.

    The 'Noles have been flailing at QB ever since Deondre Francois suffered a torn ACL in the 2017 season opener against Alabama. But if Milton is healthy and even 75 percent of the player he was before his devastating leg injury in 2018, that is a massive, instant boost for this offense.

    Former transfer Jashaun Corbin (Texas A&M) also finished strong, averaging better than five yards per carry in his final four games while scoring four touchdowns. Corbin was doing some injury recovery of his own following a hamstring injury that ended his 2019 campaign in just the second game, but he looked like a legitimate bright spot moving forward.


    In Conclusion: Florida State could have a bit of a 2020 Ole Miss vibe going oncapable of putting up 40 in any game but also liable to allow 40 in any game. If Milton is good to go, I do think Florida State will end its streak of losing seasons. But the seemingly inevitable 56-21 sort of loss to Clemson will be a stark reminder of how much work is yet to be done.  

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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    Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs
    Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr GibbsMichael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    When Paul Johnson retired after the 2018 season and Geoff Collins came in and abandoned the triple-option for a more conventional offense, we assumed it would take a couple of years for the offense to recover.

    What we didn't expect was for the defense to completely deteriorate overnight.

    After allowing 29.3 points and 369.6 total yards per game in 2018, those numbers ballooned to 32.4 and 423.3, respectively, in 2019, and further to 36.8 and 459.3 in 2020. Among ACC teams, only 2-9 Duke allowed more points per game (38.1), and only 1-10 Syracuse allowed more yards (464.0).

    Maybe the incoming transfers will help matters. Georgia Tech got Kevin Harris from Alabama and Kenyatta Watson II from Texas, neither of whom have done much of anything in college but were highly touted out of high school. The Yellow Jackets also picked up Keion White from Old Dominion, who had 19 tackles for loss in 2019. But they need a ton of help on that side of the ball.


    Reason to Believe

    Georgia Tech has a tantalizing young nucleus on offense.

    Quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs were the team's two biggest stars as true freshmen in 2020.

    The former needs to improve his efficiency considering he only completed 54.9 percent of his pass attempts and threw 13 interceptions, but he's clearly a dual-threat quarterback who needs to be taken seriously moving forward. The latter only managed to play in seven games, but he averaged 138.3 all-purpose yards, delivering on his immense potential coming out of high school.

    And Collins is clearly intent on supplementing those young stars with veterans. Georgia Tech has already added nine transfers this offseason, seven of them from other Power Five programs. Most of them are coming in hopes of bolstering the woeful defense, but Northwestern transfer Kyric McGowan could be huge for the offense. Over just eight games in 2020, he had 34 receptions and 24 carries for a combined 507 yards from scrimmage. That's more than every other Yellow Jacket not named Gibbs.


    In Conclusion: Georgia Tech should start to make its climb out of the ACC cellar, but it won't be an overnight transformation. From 2015 to 2016, the Yellow Jackets went from 3-9 to 9-4, and I just don't see that happening here. However, it could be a situation in which they go 6-6 and then enter the 2022 season ready to make the leap.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan WR Ronnie Bell
    Michigan WR Ronnie BellFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    While it would be fair to hand out mulligans to anyone who struggled during a global pandemic, the fact remains that Michigan just went through one of its worst seasons in program history. That 2-4 record was just the second time in the past half-century that Michigan won 40 percent of its games or fewer, and the last time it happeneda 3-9 record in 2008the Wolverines struggled for another two years before finally putting together a successful season.

    That was a different time with a different coach and so on and so forth, but Michigan was a train wreck this past fall, outside of its season opener against Minnesota.

    We still have no clue who the quarterback will be with Joe Milton, Cade McNamara and 5-star recruit J.J. McCarthy all in the conversation. The depth chart at running back is taking a major hit with Chris Evans going pro and Zach Charbonnet in the transfer portal. Michigan also needs to replace several key offensive linemen.

    The real problem is on defense, though. Jim Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Don Brown after a most unusual 34.5 points allowed per game. (Michigan hadn't allowed even 21 PPG since 2014.) Michigan is now putting its faith in new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who spent the past three seasons as the linebackers coach of the Baltimore Ravens—notably working under Jim's brother, John Harbaugh. He'll inherit a group losing linebacker Cam McGrone and defensive lineman Kwity Paye.


    Reason to Believe

    The defense was a disaster, but there's a lot of untapped potential. Michigan signed nine defensive players who ranked in the top 300 overall of the 2020 recruiting class, and they got almost no playing time as true freshmen. Given how awful the secondary was in 2020, I would at least expect to see more of defensive backs Makari Paige and Andre Seldon next fall. Aidan Hutchinson returning from injury should also help the defensive line.

    And though the quarterback situation will linger as a gigantic question mark for the next seven months, at least the receiving corps is well-preserved. Tight end Nick Eubanks figures to be the only departure as Ronnie Bell, Giles Jackson and Cornelius Johnson are each expected back for whoever ends up throwing the passes.


    In Conclusion: Harbaugh had an overall record of 47-18 in his first five seasons with Michigan, and it's plenty reasonable to expect something back in that 8-5 or 9-4 range in 2021. But that would not be deemed sufficient for a program that ranks first in all-time wins and is desperate to finally play in a Big Ten championship game after missing out on the first 10.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Michigan State WR Jalen Nailor
    Michigan State WR Jalen NailorCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    It feels like a lifetime ago that Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford paced Michigan State to 43.0 points per game and 11 wins.

    In reality, that was only seven years ago, but the offense has been so anemic lately that it feels much longer. Dating back to the start of the 2018 season, the Spartans have managed just 20.0 points per game. In 2020, they had one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation and scored just 13 offensive touchdowns while committing 20 turnoversrepeatedly putting the defense in a tough spot.

    But let's not pretend challenging field position was the only reason this defense gave up points. The Spartans were mediocre at best on defense, allowing almost 400 total yards per game. Making matters worse, they're losing leading tackler Antjuan Simmons, key defensive lineman Naquan Jones and defensive back Shakur Brown, who was responsible for all five of the team's interceptions this past fall.


    Reason to Believe

    At the very least, Michigan State's schedule will get easier.

    The Spartans play in arguably the second-toughest division (behind the SEC West) in college football, and then they drew Iowa and Northwestern in the cross-divisional games. One of the few winnable games on their schedule (Maryland) got canceled. Factor in playing at Penn State at the end of the regular season when the Nittany Lions were thriving and this had to have been one of the five toughest schedules in the country.

    Not only will the schedule relent a bit in 2021, but Temple transfer Anthony Russo should be an improvement at quarterback. Just probably not a huge improvement considering he had a career 127.4 PER over the past three seasons in the American.

    But Michigan State's quarterback situation has been so awful lately that his experience could prove invaluable. He'll have a solid group of receivers with Jalen Nailor, Jayden Reed and Ricky White all expected to return.


    In Conclusion: Michigan State allowed nearly twice as many points as it scored in Mel Tucker's first season as head coach, and it's hard to see that ratio getting much better in 2021. The Spartans should win the nonconference games against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Maybe they could mess around and become bowl-eligible by also beating Nebraska, Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers. But Michigan State is a far cry from the team that played in three Big Ten championships from 2011-15.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez
    Nebraska QB Adrian MartinezMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    Nebraska has endured four consecutive losing seasons, and now it needs to replace its two most reliable assets from what was a painfully unreliable offense.

    Wan'Dale Robinson (46 carries for 240 yards; 51 receptions for 461 yards) transferred to Kentucky, and Dedrick Mills (84 carries for 396 yards; 12 receptions for 85 yards) opted to decline his bonus year of eligibility. Backup quarterback Luke McCaffrey is also in the transfer portal, which means the only returning player who scored multiple touchdowns during a 3-5 season is quarterback Adrian Martinez.

    Martinez was viewed by many as a Heisman candidate heading into his sophomore season in 2019, but he has battled both injury and ineffectiveness over the past two years. He kept getting chances, though, because McCaffrey had six interceptions and just one passing touchdown while spending most of his time on the field scrambling this past season.


    Reason to Believe

    The Cornhuskers bring back the vast majority of a defense that was semi-respectable. They allowed at least 21 points in all eight games, but they also held six of their last seven opponents to 27 points or fewer. Getting most of those defenders back doesn't guarantee improvement, but it is likely.

    And while losing Robinson and Mills will be tough, at least they're adding a potential impact receiver in Samori Toure. He made 87 receptions for 1,495 yards with Montana in 2019. Big Ten defenses will provide more resistance than Big Sky defenses did, but that's an intriguing acquisition all the same.

    Nebraska also signed the No. 2 tight end in the 2021 class (Thomas Fidone), so at least there will be some weapons on offense.


    In Conclusion: I might be delusional, but I still have high hopes for Adrian Martinez. He did complete 71.5 percent of his passes in 2020, and there's no question he's a major factor with his legs, boasting 1,776 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in his career. If he stays healthy and the defense makes reasonable improvements, winning eight games is well within the realm of possibility.

    Of course, Nebraska fired Bo Pelini because it was sick of going 9-4 every year, so eight wins would hardly be cause for celebration.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Tennessee QB Harrison Bailey
    Tennessee QB Harrison BaileyWade Payne/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    Tennessee lost seven of its final eight games in 2020, each one by double digits.

    The Volunteers entered that skid on an eight-game winning streak dating back to October 2019, but their fall from grace was a precipitous one. Against opponents with an even moderately competent quarterback, Tennessee's defense was awful. And an offense that scored more than 30 points in each of its first two games was held to 18.6 points the rest of the way, scoring more than 21 only once.

    And though the recruiting classes have been solid lately, a mass exodus began when Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt. Running back Ty Chandler had already transferred to North Carolina, but backfield mate Eric Gray joined him in the transfer portal last week. So did linebackers Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch.

    The Vols were already facing an uphill battle heading into the offseason, but this could be a full-fledged disaster if all those key players actually leave.


    Reason to Believe

    Whether Harrison Bailey or Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker wins the quarterback battle, Tennessee could have one of the five best quarterbacks in the SEC next fall.

    If Gray does leave, Hooker might have an edge in that race because his mobility would be that much more important. He rushed for 620 yards and nine touchdowns this past season with the Hokies, and he has been impressively efficient (career PER of 159.8) for a guy who likes to run.


    In Conclusion: Things may well get worse in Knoxville before they get better. Tennessee has had 13 consecutive seasons with a winning percentage between .300-.700, and if that streak is going to end, it would likely be because of a 3-9 mess rather than a 9-3 success. We'll see what happens with the transfer portal over the coming weeks, but Tennessee is looking like the 13th-best team in a 14-team league.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Virginia Tech WR Tayvion Robinson
    Virginia Tech WR Tayvion RobinsonKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Reason to Worry

    Three years ago, Virginia Tech went 6-7 before bouncing back a bit for an 8-5 record the following season. But the team that went 6-7 was forced to break in an almost entirely new starting defense from the previous year and had to deal with losing its starting quarterback to a broken leg in the third game of the season.

    This time around, the 5-6 Hokies might get even worse because they need to replace critical players all over the field.

    Quarterback Hendon Hooker transferred to Tennessee. Star running back Khalil Herbert, offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw, defensive linemen Justus Reed and Jarrod Hewitt, linebacker Rayshard Ashby and safety Divine Deablo all declared for the NFL draft. (As did cornerback Caleb Farley, who opted out of the 2020 season.)

    Really, the only position group in good shape is wide receiver/tight end, but is Braxton Burmeisterhe of the career 107.7 PER—good enough to properly utilize Tayvion Robinson, Tre Turner and James Mitchell?


    Reason to Believe

    Despite the departures mentioned above, the defense should improve in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton. Just about every team with a new defensive coordinator struggled in 2020, which was bound to happen during a pandemic. And Hamilton was thrown an additional curveball when Farley opted out a little over a month before the scheduled start of the season.

    The Hokies lost at least one key player at all three levels, but they also have several noteworthy returnees. Amare Barno racked up 16 tackles for loss in 2020 and deserves some All-ACC preseason team consideration. Alan Tisdale and Dax Hollifield will anchor the linebacking corps, and leading tackler Chamarri Conner will lead the secondary.

    Expecting drastic improvement might be a bit too optimistic, but the Hokies should at least trim down their bloated figures of 32.1 points and 447.5 total yards allowed per game.


    In Conclusion: There's a "top" tier of coaches on the hot seat consisting of Jim Harbaugh, Clay Helton and Scott Frost, but Justin Fuente is most likely done in Blacksburg unless the Hokies turn this thing around. And I don't see that happening. They should at least go 7-5 against a rather forgiving schedule, but it's probably going to be a fourth consecutive season finishing outside the AP Top 25.