College Football's 2021 Final Four Dark Horses

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2021

College Football's 2021 Final Four Dark Horses

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    If you're picking Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma in your College Football Playoff predictions for 2021, guess what: You're boring.

    You're probably right, but boring nonetheless.

    The following teams have plenty of talent but would need everything to come together perfectly to make a huge leap forward this coming season.

    These don't include trendy playoff picks like Georgia or Iowa State, Power Five conference favorites such as Oregon or a team that finished just on the cusp in '20 like Texas A&M or Florida. Notre Dame wouldn't be a stunner, either, considering the Irish were one of the final four last season.

    Most of the teams on this list will be met with a shrug or a resounding "whatever," but nobody was picking the LSU Tigers a couple of years ago, either, and look what happened. Here are some programs that could accomplish the same this coming season. 

Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    They're thirsty for a title in the desert, and while the Arizona State Sun Devils have to be considered a (way) outside shot at making next year's College Football Playoff, you can't discount them.

    COVID-19 messed with a lot of programs a season ago, and the Sun Devils disappointed with a 2-2 record in a sample set hardly large enough to draw any major conclusions. Plenty of weapons return on both sides of the ball for a team that won't even be favored in its division but could surprise a lot of people.

    Quarterback Jayden Daniels could take the next step in his progression with weapons around him. The Sun Devils have a deep, talented running back pool that features size, speed and home run hitters in the trio of Rachaad White, Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata.

    Talented pass-catchers flank Daniels, and, on the other side of the ball, Arizona State remarkably brings back its top 16 tacklers. The offensive line is experienced and could be an asset, too. 

    Few expect the Sun Devils to go from Pac-12 South also-ran to title contender, but if they can navigate the conference, watch out. Their out-of-conference slate shouldn't be that tough (including a post-Zach Wilson BYU).

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Regardless of respect, the Cincinnati Bearcats deserve your attention. They also deserve the ear of the College Football Playoff committee, especially if their resume doesn't include a loss at the end of the season.

    A spotless slate would mean coach Luke Fickell's Bearcats ousted Indiana and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks early in the season, so there is a major opportunity for the AAC powerhouse to win one for all the Little Brothers out there next year.

    That would be almost impossible for the committee to dismiss.

    With an intriguing schedule and loads of talent back on both sides of the ball, including future NFL quarterback Desmond Ridder and former Alabama running back Jerome Ford, Cincinnati has a lot to like.

    The defense lost stars in linebacker Jarell White, safeties Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins and defensive lineman Elijah Ponder, and there are major question marks on the offensive front. But Fickell has recruited well on both sides of the ball, and there's a solid nucleus back.

    Losing dynamo defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame will be an adjustment, too, but the Bearcats have a lot of pieces to the puzzle.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    When it comes to long shots, there wouldn't be a much bigger one on this list than Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes. 

    Nobody thinks too much about the Big Ten West division program, mainly because it has won just one New Year's Six bowl game in the Ferentz era. Though it is a quality, steady team, there's nothing flashy.

    In Ferentz's 22 years, the Hawkeyes average 7.6 wins per season. Take away the four wins in his first two years, and that average climbs to 8.2. He's won two Big Ten titles, but none since 2004. But with Ohio State facing a lot of questions and breaking in a new quarterback, the conference is wide open.

    Iowa has enough talent to surprise.

    Quarterback Spencer Petras needs to play better in his second full year as a starter, but running back Tyler Goodson can carry the load at running back. Tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. will anchor the passing game.

    Yes, there are a lot of losses on defense, but the Hawkeyes always play a rugged brand of football on that side of the ball. And they are welcoming in their best recruiting class in a long time, so some young talent will outfit the roster. 

    It would be a nice little career resurgence for Ferentz in his 23rd year in Iowa City.

LSU Tigers

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    Brett Duke/Associated Press

    After all the whines and whispers about LSU during a difficult follow-up performance to its national championship run, how sweet would it be for coach Ed Orgeron to put his doubters to sleep with another run to the playoff?

    No, Joe Burrow isn't walking through that door, and with Alabama and Texas A&M flexing plenty of muscle in the SEC West, the best the Bayou Bengals would be ranked entering the season would likely be third—in their own division.

    Don't sleep on the talent stockpiled in Baton Rouge, though.

    Quarterback Myles Brennan will be back to battle for the job with two players in TJ Finley and Max Johnson who looked as talented as unready a season ago as true freshmen. Elite skill-position players still grace a green offense, led by receiver Kayshon Boutte.

    The defense has to take a major leap forward after replacing Bo Pelini with Daronte Jones, and the nation's third-ranked recruiting class is loaded with players who could have an instant impact.

    LSU may not even be ranked in the preseason polls. But Orgeron has found the right concoction before, and it wasn't that long ago. The Tigers aren't completely flipping the roster like they were a year ago.

    They probably aren't ready to make this kind of noise yet, but if a young team starts believing in itself early, anything can happen.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    On one hand, a North Carolina program that has been one of the best turnaround stories of the past couple of seasons has lost enough offensive firepower to make anybody nervous about 2021.

    On the other, though, the Tar Heels still have Sam Howell at quarterback, and he may just wind up being the Heisman Trophy favorite by midseason if he plays up to his stat-padding potential.

    It's going to be difficult replacing running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who combined for 2,385 rushing yards, and electric receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, who are going to make NFL teams happy.

    But the cupboard isn't bare. Coach Mack Brown has recruited well on both sides of the ball, and while the offense may take a minor step back, the defense that improved as the season progressed last year should thrive. It's young and full of potential playmakers like Tony Grimes.

    The Orange Bowl performance of receivers Khafre Brown and Josh Downs show the promise of the group, and running back Ty Chandler, who transferred from Tennessee, should carry the load with some talented youngsters behind him.

    Howell is capable of doing the majority of the heavy lifting. He's a savvy veteran who doesn't mind putting the ball up for grabs and is a fierce competitor who is at his best in the clutch.

Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Plenty of holes need to be filled in Austin before anybody can look at the Texas Longhorns and think, "That's a legitimate national championship contender."

    But it's not out of the realm of possibility for everything to fall into place for the Horns in 2021.

    What if everything just clicks for first-year Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian? Things weren't always rosy during former coach Tom Herman's tenure, and there was a lot of jerking around with coordinator changes the past couple of seasons.

    Some continuity may be just what Texas needs. 

    If the Alamo Bowl is any indication, Sarkisian has a promising signal-caller in Casey Thompson, who looked at least as effective as Sam Ehlinger in limited action. Sure, it was just a tiny sample set, but Thompson made some great throws.

    Running back Bijan Robinson is a legitimate superstar waiting to happen who could have a monster sophomore season. 

    Though Herman was fired a season ago, there was massive progression in 2020. The Horns went 7-3 and didn't lose a game by more than eight points. The defense showed glimmers of hope, too, and though it has to replace Joseph Ossai, Herman recruited well all over the field. Sark didn't inherit a mess at all.

USC Trojans

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    There have been few bigger underachievers in the past few years than the USC Trojans. Even after a thrilling, cardiac-jolting start to the abbreviated 2020 season, they fizzled.

    Instead of completing an undefeated season with a Pac-12 Championship Game win, coach Clay Helton's team dropped the title game to an Oregon team that wasn't even supposed to be there, as it replaced Washington (COVID-19 issues).

    USC didn't play in a bowl game, so that was the lasting image of a 5-1 season.

    Still, Helton pieced together his best recruiting class since taking over in L.A., and it's rife with defensive playmakers for coordinator Todd Orlando. Though the Trojans lost star pass-catchers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, there are playmakers all over the field on that side of the ball.

    With Kedon Slovis perhaps a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, there are a lot of reasons to like USC as a sleeper pick to win the Pac-12.

    Helton needs it, the program needs it, and if they do it, recruiting could continue to surge, and they could battle the Ducks for conference supremacy the next few years. 

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    A 4-3 record is not going to lead to a lot of shivers from Big Ten opponents entering the 2021 season, but this is a new year. While Wisconsin did nothing to invoke excitement a season ago, there are still some reasons to hope for big things.

    Offensive inconsistency must be fixed, but a big reason for the struggles at times last year was youth and inexperience. Quarterback Graham Mertz had flashes of brilliance but also looked overmatched at times and failed to consistently take care of the ball.

    Entering his third year in coach Paul Chryst's system, Mertz must take a massive step forward, but he's capable of it and is one of the most talented signal-callers in the conference.

    Leaning on sophomore running back Jalen Berger is a necessity, too. Berger leads a talented backfield, and the Badgers also could have the best offensive line in the league.

    Defense carried the program a year ago, and with linebackers Nick Herbig, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal back along with some talented defensive backs, Wisconsin can depend on that group again this year.

    It's also beneficial that the bulk of the Badgers' difficult schedule comes at Camp Randall, where they will host Penn State, Michigan, Army, Northwestern and Iowa. They also play Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago, which is going to be an important matchup.

    COVID-19 and injuries seemingly affected Wisconsin more than most in 2020. Chryst's team should have a big bounce-back season this year. Can it be special? There's at least an outside possibility.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.