The 2021 college football season is near and even before the first pass is thrown, we should have a good idea of who will stand out above the rest -- or at least win a conference championship. Here are our predictions for each FBS conference -- division winners, with (**) denoting the overall league champion.
The Bearcats are once again the best among Group of Five teams. At least to begin the season. The program has won 31 games over the last three seasons and nearly beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Quarterback Desmond Ridder (6,905 career passing yards, 57 touchdowns, 20 interceptions; 1,825 rushing yards, 22 TDs in three seasons) is back to run an offense that averaged 37.5 points in 2020. However, it might all come down to a defense that returns seven starters from a squad that allowed 16.8 points per contest.
The Tar Heels lost a bunch on offense from last season, but quarterback Sam Howell (7,227 passing yards, 68 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in two seasons) is back as a Heisman Trophy candidate. North Carolina also returns all but one starter from a defense that would seem experienced enough to improve after allowing an average of 29.4 points in 2020. Their opening game at Virginia Tech, a potential Coastal-title contender, could be an earlier indicator of what to expect from the Tar Heels.
Even without Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Clemson is going to score points. D.J. Uiagalelei (914 yards, 5 touchdowns in 2020) was a solid fill-in for Lawrence at times last season and receiver Justyn Ross (112 receptions, 1,865 yards, 17 TDs in two seasons) is healthy again. But, the talking point of the 2021 Tigers could be their defense, which returns star linemen, Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, leading tackler Baylon Spector (65 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks), and star defensive back Nolan Turner (54 tackles, three interceptions).
After three straight appearances in the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma missed out after starting 1-2 in 2020. However, the Sooners found their form and will take an eight-game winning streak into this season. Quarterback Spencer Rattler (3,031 passing yards, 28 TDs in 2020) is a Heisman Trophy favorite and a defense that held five teams to 14 or fewer points returns talented linemen Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas, and linebacker Nik Bonitto. Oh yeah, Oklahoma gets fellow Big 12-frontrunner Iowa State at home on Nov. 20.
If the Badgers can get a full season from quarterback Graham Mertz (1,238 passing yards in seven 2020 games), and receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor then the Badgers will again seriously challenge for a 2021 division title and overall Big Ten championship. Meanwhile, eight starters return from a defense that allowed an average of 17.4 points last season. Plus, Wisconsin gets Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, and Northwestern at home.
Like Alabama, Ohio State has the capability of reloading, rather than rebuilding, on an annual basis. However, this season the Buckeyes still have the overall talent that stands out among the rest of the league, even though they will be inexperienced at the quarterback position. Regardless, if it's CJ Stroud, Jack Miller, or Kyle McCord, any will have stellar receiving targets in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (combined 93 receptions, 13 touchdowns in 2020). Defensive end Zach Harrison and defensive back Sevyn Banks are two of the best defenders in the Big Ten.
Florida Atlantic should have a say in the East Division title, but Western Kentucky returns 10 starters from last season when it made a bowl appearance amid the craziness as a 5-6 team. It also has a rather favorable league schedule, which includes a late home date with FAU. Also, Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe (10,0004 passing yards, 78 TDs, 39 INTs) might be the best quarterback in the conference.
The reigning C-USA champs should be in a good position for a chance to repeat. If that happens, it might be due to a defense that brings back all but two starters from a unit that held five teams to 16 or fewer points in 2020. Linebackers Kristopher Moll and Noah Wilder combined for 109 tackles last season and might be the best duo at that position among all Group of Five teams.
The MAC is never easy to predict. Ball State was a rather surprise winner last season and it could be in the hunt, along with Western Michigan, to win the West this year. However, perennial league power Toledo has plenty of talent back from last season's 4-2 squad that scored 210 points in those six contests. Running back Bryant Koback (522 rushing yards in 2020) could be in for a breakout season while receiver Isaiah Winstead is coming off a team-high 25-campaign. The Rockets also host Western Michigan.
Miami played a whole three games last season -- all in November. It won two of them. Now, prepared and amped for a full season, the RedHawks return 19 starters, including quarterback Brett Gabbert (2,795 passing yards 15 touchdowns in 16 career games). With the East essentially up for grabs since Buffalo could take a step back with coach Lance Leipold now at Kansas, don't be surprised if Miami tops the group -- and even goes one better.
Carson Strong and Nevada should also be considered a favorite in the West Division, but a healthy Greg Bell (637 rushing yards in seven 2020 games) for San Diego State would be a huge boost. Not to mention, the Aztecs also return eight starters, including stars Caden McDonald (4 1/2 sacks) and Cameron Thomas (four sacks), from a defensive unit that yielded an average of 20.3 points in 2020. SDSU hosts Nevada on Nov. 13.
Whichever team wins the MWC West Division will likely have a tough time taking down Boise State in the league title game. First-year coach Andy Avalos takes over a team that lost to San Jose State on the conference championship game but allowed 30 or more points in four of the seven games played. Obviously, the Broncos need to see improvement on that side of the ball and quarterback Hank Bachmeier (3,029 passing yards two seasons) must grow beyond the game-manager phase. However, they get key division foes Wyoming and Air Force at home.
Washington is also a worthy pick to win the North, and the Huskies do host Oregon this season. Yet, the reigning Pac-12 champion Ducks return 16 starters with a little more punch than Washington's overall experience. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown (4,902 career passing yards) appears set to start the season under center, CJ Verdell's rushed for 21 touchdowns in three seasons and Johnny Johnson III has 14 career TD catches. Meanwhile, defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux (12 sacks in two seasons) is a top-five draft pick and anchors a defense that must be better than the one that allowed an average of 28.3 points in 2020.
Now, Utah is a darkhorse South favorite, but entering the season USC is the team beat in the division. Mainly, because quarterback Kedon Slovis (5,423 passing yards, 47 TDs in two seasons) and receiver Drake London (72 receptions, 1,069 in two seasons) might be the two best offensive players in the Pac-12. The Trojans allowed at least 30 points three times over six games in 2020, but eight starters return with experience and more time to prepare.
Reigning East-champion Florida will be in the mix for a division title, but it would be a shock if the Bulldogs don't run the table on this side of the SEC. Georgia has its quarterback in JT Daniels (1,231 passing yards, 10 TDs in 2020) while running back Zamir White (779 rushing yards, 11 TDs in 2020) and receiver Kearis Jackson (36 receptions, 5 14 yards) lead a strong supporting offensive cast. The Bulldogs allowed 85 points in their only 2020 losses to Alabama and Florida, and 115 to the other eight opponents. Five starters return from that unit.
For those keeping score at home, Alabama has won six national titles over the last 12 seasons. The Crimson Tide are again a favorite (last repeated in 2011 and '12) to win it all this season. It's Bryce Young's turn to run the offense, which should reload after averaging 48.5 points in 2020. Alabama's defense, which held eight opponents to 19 or fewer points last season, brings back talented linebackers Will Anderson (52 tackles, seven sacks in 2020) and Christian Harris (79 tackles), and defensive back Josh Jobe (55 tackles). Road games versus Florida, Texas A&M, and Auburn could make things somewhat interesting for Alabama in 2021.
Coastal is looking to build on last season's historic 10-1 season. Behind quarterback Grayson McCall (2,488 passing yards, 26 TDs, three INTs; 569 rushing yards in 2020), the Chanticleers won at Kansas and beat ranked teams in Louisiana and BYU. They also took down perennial Sun Belt power Appalachian State, which will also contend for the East Division crown. Coastal returns 19 starters, but the season could come down to that Oct. 20 meeting at App State.
The Ragin' Cajuns have won 21 games over the past two seasons. Last season, they won 10 of those contests, highlighted by an opening win at Iowa State. Louisiana has all but two starters back on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Levi Lewis (6,286 passing yards, 54 TDs, 14 INTs; nine rushing TDs in four seasons) leads an offense that averaged 33.6 points in 2020. The Ragin' Cajuns open at Texas -- can they pull off another upset?
Ian Book is gone, one of nine Notre Dame players drafted off the 2020 team (tied for third-most). Is ex-Wisconsin signal-caller Jack Coan the answer? We'll see, but running back Kyren Williams (1,125 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns in 2020) and safety Kyle Hamilton (team-leading 63 tackles in '20) are two of the best in the college game. Home games against Cincinnati, USC, and North Carolina also make it possible for the Irish to seriously contend for a second straight CFB berth.
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.