B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for 2021 Season
Believe it or not, the 2021 college football season begins Saturday. Whether any of the 10 teams participating in "Week 0" will win enough games to qualify for bowl season remains to be seen, but sweet sassy molassy, college football is back, baby!
To celebrate its return, Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—joined forces for the first of many weekly panels designed to help you figure out what to expect.
Normally, these will be focused solely on the week ahead. But we've got to start things out with a full-season slate of burning questions, such as:
- Which Week 1 game will matter the most at the end of the year?
- Which Preseason AP Top 25 team is the highest-ranked fraud?
- Will there be a noticeable in-season impact of these new NIL deals?
- Which head coach on the hot seat gets the first pink slip?
- And, of course, who makes (and wins) the College Football Playoff?
Our experts are on the case.
And if you want a chance to have your question featured in a future installment of this piece, slide on into my DMs (@KerranceJames) on the B/R app and we'll see what we can do for you.
Which Week 1 Game Will Mean the Most Come December?
I'm going to have to go Georgia vs. Clemson here.
Yes, I realize that may seem like an easy answer because it's obviously the biggest matchup of Week 1, but this one has huge College Football Playoff implications. The way I see it, whoever loses this game essentially has to run the table and win their conference to make it into the playoff.
In the seven years since the CFP began, a two-loss team has never made it into the playoff. So, even if the loser ends up winning their conference but drops a game somewhere else in the regular season, that's going to be a tall task if you have, say, a one-loss Notre Dame or another one-loss Power Five conference champion awaiting a bid.
The road to the playoff is difficult for any team, but who is more likely to win out after this trip to Charlotte? I'm going to have to go with Clemson, even with Trevor Lawrence now in the NFL. The Tigers have won the last six ACC championships, and making it there again shouldn't be an issue. Georgia, however, has to play Auburn on Oct. 9, as well as the always-important Florida-Georgia game a few weeks later.
I've got to agree with Morgan that the obvious answer is Georgia-Clemson, in large part because after this, they play a combined total of one game against a preseason AP Top 25 opponent: Georgia's Oct. 30 showdown with No. 13 Florida.
Because of that not-so-minor detail, even if Clemson loses this opener and then turns around and wins its next 12 games, there's a very real possibility the Tigers get left out of the College Football Playoff. Clemson's scoring margins will dictate how real that possibility is, as will the number of losses the other Power Five champions suffer. But at the risk of putting the cart before the horse, it's worth noting that this looks like Clemson's only regular-season opportunity for a marquee win.
The slightly less obvious answer is Penn State vs. Wisconsin, which is likely a game with Rose Bowl—if not College Football Playoff—implications. That's especially true if the Badgers get the W, as it would put them in fantastic early shape to win the Big Ten West.
Which Preseason AP Top 25 Team Will Tumble Furthest?
No. 9 Notre Dame.
There's no question the Fighting Irish deserve the benefit of the doubt in the rankings after making the College Football Playoff in two of the past three years, even if they were far from the strongest participant. But Brian Kelly must replace one of the best, grittiest leaders in the program's rich history in quarterback Ian Book, who improved every year he was in South Bend.
Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan stepped into the job and won the role pretty handily. But is that really a good thing considering he left because he wasn't guaranteed the Badgers' job? He doesn't have the supporting cast around him, either, with the Irish having to break in a bunch of young receivers and fill plenty of uncertainty along the offensive line. And not having Book's freelancing ability will be glaring this season with all the question marks up front.
Defensively, the Irish should be just fine under first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman, but replacing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah won't be easy. The Irish are rebuilding in a big way through quality recruiting, but 2021 feels like a "bridge" year to better days. This team will lose three or four games.
My semi-copout answer is whoever loses when No. 10 North Carolina plays at No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 30.
Last preseason, I was one of the primary national media folks driving the UNC bandwagon. I didn't quite have the guts to pick the Tar Heels to reach the playoff, but they were on the list of teams I thought had a chance at going undefeated.
Just wanted to point that out before y'all call me a UNC hater now that I think they're among the most likely underachievers in 2021. I love me some Sam Howell, but I just think it's going to be really tough to replace Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome all at once, particularly for a team that doesn't exactly have a stout defense to lean on if the offense has an off night.
On the Notre Dame side, it's a combination of significant personnel changes and a relatively relentless schedule. Per ESPN's FPI, Notre Dame doesn't play any top-10 teams, but it does play 11 of its 12 games against teams in the 13-61 range. If the Irish lose that game to UNC, they may well be 4-4 and unranked after that.
Which Unranked Team Deserves More Attention?
Don't sleep on the Rebels this season, folks. It's Year No. 2 for the Lane Train in Oxford, and Ole Miss is returning a ton of talent on the offensive side of the ball. They get four starting offensive linemen back, plus leading rusher Jerrion Ealy and quarterback Matt Corral, who finished fifth in the nation in passing yards per game last year (333.7). Corral was also third in passing yards in the SEC behind Heisman finalists Mac Jones and Kyle Trask.
Yes, Ole Miss finished 5-5 last season, but don't forget this team hung with Alabama for all four quarters. In fact, Ole Miss' 647 yards of offense against the Tide in the 63-48 loss was the most yards given up by a Bama defense ever.
I wouldn't be surprised if Ole Miss causes some major chaos in the SEC West in 2021.
The Michigan Wolverines.
I'm not saying they're going to compete for a national championship or even make a serious push to win the Big Ten, but I also find it hard to believe this team isn't even ranked.
Yes, 2020 was an abject horror of a football season for Jim Harbaugh and Co., and I was beyond surprised that he didn't get the boot for that mess. But the Wolverines had finished four of the previous five seasons ranked in the AP Top 20 and had not previously posted a record worse than 8-5 under his leadership.
They have a lot of returning talent and, if anything, too many quality options at quarterback with Cade McNamara back, Alan Bowman added via the transfer portal and J.J. McCarthy joining the fray as a 5-star freshman. Provided they're able to get that important position settled, I see this team going 9-3 with losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State. Considering two of those games come in the final three weeks of the regular season, Michigan might spend some time in the AP Top 10.
Who Will Be the Newcomer of the Year (True Freshman or Transfer)?
This answer would have been simple a few months ago: Arik Gilbert.
The former LSU tight end transferred to Georgia, and the Bulldogs moved him to wide receiver. However, Gilbert is currently away from the team, as far as we know, dealing with a personal matter. Beyond his incredible ability, I just hope everything is OK. He is an immensely talented player.
With that unknown, give me Ohio State true freshman Jack Sawyer. The defensive end grew up mere miles away from Ohio Stadium, and his commitment to the program from a young age was almost a given. Still, despite entering a position group that is absurdly loaded, Sawyer has the makings of a future star.
And I don't think we'll have to wait long. He dazzled in the spring game—spring game, I know—and will likely get reps very early on. To me, this is all about chances. If he gets enough of them, he will deliver.
Yet another dazzling defensive end for the Buckeyes to work with.
I'll do one of each, and for true freshman, give me Miami defensive tackle Leonard Taylor.
After losing edge-rushers Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche (not to mention Gregory Rousseau, who opted out of the 2020 season) to the NFL, opportunity abounds for defensive linemen on this roster. Case in point, after five years of playing linebacker for the 'Canes, Zach McCloud has transitioned to defensive end because that's where they need him the most.
Taylor probably isn't going to be a starter initially, but he's going to have plenty of chances to showcase his talent. And it doesn't hurt his national marketability that people will inevitably refer to him as "LT" once he starts making an impact.
For transfer, I'm torn between three quarterbacks: Will Levis at Kentucky, Tyler Shough at Texas Tech and McKenzie Milton at Florida State. While I suspect Shough might throw for more yards than both Levis and Milton combined, Milton's comeback story is going to generate so much buzz that we're going to be #TalkinBoutTheNoles on a weekly basis, even as they sputter to a 5-7 record. That makes him my pick.
Who Will Be the 1st Head Coach Fired (and When Does It Happen)?
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, USC's Clay Helton and Nebraska's Scott Frost are among the big-name coaches on sizzling hot seats. However, those programs will probably wait as long as possible to make a decision.
The more likely answer is a smaller school ushers in the coaching carousel, like Southern Miss did by parting ways with Jay Hopson one game into the 2020 season.
To that end, not only does New Mexico State coach Doug Martin have a 23-64 record in eight seasons, but he's also entering the final year of his contract. Since the Aggies have idle weekends on Oct. 16 and 30, there's a pretty natural separation point following the Oct. 9 clash with Nevada. If NMSU starts the season 2-5 or worse—and, honestly, 2-5 feels like a best-case scenario here—a coaching change may soon follow.
I'm only mostly joking when I say Nebraska might fire Scott Frost if he loses to Illinois in "Week Zero." Frost was already on the hot seat before the recent revelation of NCAA violations stemming from the improper use of analysts and consultants.
However, his buyout is somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million, so I really can't see that happening unless those violations turn into a reason they could fire him with cause and void that buyout.
More realistically, I believe Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente is in the most danger of reaching the chopping block in the middle of this season.
The Hokies have gone just 19-18 over the past three seasons, and expectations aren't much better for 2021. They open with a likely loss to North Carolina, have a challenging road game against West Virginia two weeks after that and will play Notre Dame in early October. If they're 2-3 at that point and proceed to lose the home game to Pittsburgh the following week, that would likely be the final straw.
What Will Be the Biggest In-Season Impact of the New NIL Rules?
More money for the players. Plain and simple. While the stars of the sport have already been rewarded throughout the lead-in to the football season, this theme will likely carry forward.
As a recent example, look at Joe Burrow. He entered 2019 as a nice player with some potential, playing at a school with incredible reach and passionate fans. He ended it as a Heisman trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick.
Just imagine just how many deals Burrow could have struck as his stardom took off. The quick risers—and yes, probably the quarterbacks—will have a chance at striking some lucrative deals over time.
This will be a fascinating trend to watch. NIL has just barely scratched the surface on what it will become. Will players be firing off branded tweets after huge games? Just how will this evolve?
What won't change, however, is the way the game is played. NIL won't ruin college football. The players will still compete. They'll probably still opt out come bowl season, too. The sport will be imperfect, beautiful and wildly entertaining.
The players just get more money now, thank goodness.
Truthfully, I have no idea, but there are three things I'll be curious enough to monitor.
First and foremost is the "quick risers" as Adam just called them. There's always a Chuba Hubbard or a Kyle Pitts who skyrockets into the Heisman mix out of nowhere, and it will be intriguing to watch how the market responds to their sudden fame.
No. 2 on my list is postgame interviews. I won't even pretend to understand the ins and outs of NIL verbiage, but I do know from a recent ESPN's Outside the Lines segment that Pitt's Kenny Pickett—not exactly a marquee national name, mind you—is getting paid for weekly radio and podcast appearances. Might there be deals in which guys get a few hundred extra bucks if they can manage to work a product placement into postgame interviews? If you've ever seen a NASCAR post-race interview, I have to assume you agree that would not be fun for any of us.
And the third thing I'll be looking for is whether it has any noticeable impact on the team dynamic. Will the guys who aren't getting any slice of the NIL pie show visible frustration when Johnny Car Dealership Money drops a pass or when Bobby Free Steakhouse Meals misses a tackle?
Regardless, I will echo Adam's "thank goodness" sentiment. I've long been a campaigner for letting the free market decide what college athletes are worth. How it actually plays out over the course of a season, though, we'll just have to wait and see.
Which Group of Five Team(s) Play in a New Year’s Six Bowl?
Entering the regular season, the most likely candidates for a New Year's Six bowl are Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and Liberty.
Others of note include Boise State, Nevada, UCF and perhaps Appalachian State or Ball State. It's a respectable group, but projecting two NY6 berths feels awfully bold. It hasn't happened in seven years of the College Football Playoff-era bowl format.
The AAC champion has been the recipient of this NY6 spot in five of the past seven seasons, and I'm going with Cincinnati to outlast UCF. While history favors the American anyway, the Bearcats have a built-in advantage of being a Top 10 preseason team. Ending the regular season 10-2 should be good enough for Cincinnati to lead G5 teams in the CFP rankings. And if the Bearcats snatch a road win at Indiana or Notre Dame, that'll only improve their case.
Cincinnati is going to play in the Peach Bowl for a second consecutive year.
The Bearcats bring back 16 starters from a team that came oh so close to beating Georgia for what would have been the final piece of a perfect 10-0 season. They absolutely drilled the first seven opponents they faced in the process of becoming the best all-around Group of Five team since the College Football Playoff's inception.
They probably won't run the table again, as they have road games against both Indiana and Notre Dame. However, I do suspect they'll go undefeated in AAC play, and they'll be competitive enough against the Hoosiers and Fighting Irish to comfortably finish the season as the highest-ranked Group of Five team.
That said, I fully expect the Sun Belt champion to make a spirited push for a spot in the top 12 of the final rankings for a second straight year. Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and Appalachian State all have a ton of returning talent from teams who went a combined 27-2 in games not played against each other. But I think that TBD champion will fall just shy of the New Year's Six.
Who Will Win the Heisman Trophy?
Sometimes, the boring pick is still the right one. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler wasn't quite ready for the spotlight early last season, and he eventually had to go to the sideline to get things turned around. Once he did, though, the Sooners' redshirt freshman was unstoppable.
All coach Lincoln Riley has done this offseason is surround his signal-caller with even more weapons, which is hard to believe considering just how loaded OU always seems to be on offense. This truly looks like a national champion contender.
The emergence of Tennessee transfer running back Eric Gray gives the Sooners a one-two punch at RB alongside Kennedy Brooks, which is going to keep defenses honest. The OU offensive line should be fortified as one of the nation's best, too, bolstered by another Vols transfer, Wanya Morris.
When you throw in all the receiving talent surrounding Rattler, it's just tough to envision anything other than a dynamic, stat-padding season, littered with scoring tosses to Marvin Mims, a finally-healthy Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, Arkansas transfer Michael Woods II and true freshman/budding star Mario Williams.
Riding with Rattler is the right call.
I totally agree on that rationale for picking Rattler. It's the reason he's the favorite to win.
But the preseason favorite never wins the Heisman.
That's why I'm going with Ohio State's C.J. Stroud.
Oh, how I wish I had actually found someone to take my bet back in January when I pointed out that Stroud inexplicably wasn't even listed as a Heisman candidate. Now that it sounds like he's going to be the starting quarterback, though, the world is his Buckeye.
Stroud gets to throw passes to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, merely two of the best wide receivers in the country. And unlike Rattler, Stroud will get the inherent Heisman voting benefit of being a new starter. By that, I mean Rattler has to be outlandishly good in order to actually exceed expectations and impress enough to win the Heisman since he already had a 3,000-yard season with a 4-to-1 TD-INT ratio, whereas Stroud could pretty much replicate Rattler's 2020 stats and just about run away with the trophy.
And with all the weapons Stroud has in that offense, that isn't asking too much.
Who Makes It to the College Football Playoff, and Who Wins It All?
Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State. Boring picks all around, yeah, but I'm not convinced the balance of power is going to shift in 2021. I can't get behind Texas A&M, Iowa State, Notre Dame or Oregon to finish better than 10-2. Cincinnati would need to be undefeated to have a remote chance, and I'm not expecting that, either. In my opinion, Georgia is the only other CFP-caliber team—and the unproven group of receivers is concerning to me.
We can laugh about how incorrect I am in a couple months!
Overall, I'm on the Clemson train in 2021. I fully anticipate the Tigers having one of the nation's most disruptive defenses and cruising through the ACC. Justyn Ross' return is a huge boost for the offense, and I was already sold on quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei anyway. Dabo Swinney gets championship No. 3.
Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Clemson will make the playoff. It is incredibly chalky, and I am sorry it is as boring as it is. It just feels like a season with a handful of elite teams that are positioned to thrive. And yes, it does feel strange leaving Alabama out. I just think the roster losses will be more significant than expected.
As for a national champion, give me Georgia. I love the talent, quarterback and makeup of this group. If not now, when?
Here's where I hedge on my "C.J. Stroud to win the Heisman" prediction. It's going to be No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Wisconsin. But while my picks for the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are a bit unorthodox, I will boringly go all chalk from there with Alabama defeating Oklahoma in the national championship.
I loathe making predictions like this before games have even started, but here we go. For my College Football Playoff, I'm going with Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
As far as who wins it all, I'm going to have to go with Clemson here. Don't get me wrong; it's hard to pick against Alabama to repeat. But replacing Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and leading receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle is a tall task, even for Nick Saban. Let me be clear, though: I am rooting for complete chaos this season, so I kind of hope these predictions don't come true.
Alabama is the chalk choice, but I'm sick of picking the Tide. They don't need my vote to be awesome, so let's roll with Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State and North Carolina.
Starting with more surprising picks first, it's fun going with an underdog, and Sam Howell should get to toss it around in his final year in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels lost some offensive firepower, but the defense will be much better. As for the Dawgs, JT Daniels playing a full season in Athens is going to be exciting to watch.
Still, this is Spencer Rattler's year, and Lincoln Riley will get his first national title.