The 2021 college football season will have no shortage of storylines. All four of last year's College Football Playoff teams are replacing their starting quarterbacks, which gives hope to a new group of teams (like Iowa State, North Carolina, and Texas A&M) that they have a shot to find a way into the final four.
Talks of expanding the Playoff will continue during this season. Speaking of "talks of expanding", Oklahoma's and Texas' defection from the Big 12 to the SEC has set college athletics ablaze with rumors of a massive realignment of some leagues and the folding of others. The NCAA is even signaling that their time as the complete umbrella of college sports is coming to an end. The name and image likeness rules get their first real test with the upcoming football season while transfer rules and the extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic season add extra intrigue to what should be an exciting ... and somewhat normal ... college football season.
But that's the storylines of the sport as a whole. Each team enters the season with their own questions and concerns; dreams and goals. So here are the key storylines for every top 25 team.
Can Nick Saban win his 8th national championship?
A lot of teams have the question of "how do you replace this guy" or depth problems or inexperience or whatever. Alabama has those issues too but we've moved past that. They've won championships with different kinds of quarterbacks. They've stocked the NFL with first-round picks and are the epitome of next man up. Heisman Trophy winners have come and gone. Alabama has all of those issues to deal with in 2021 but they're back as the title favorites yet again. You don't question how Nick Saban will manage as much as you just believe he will. The man has won seven national championships -- six of them at Alabama in the last twelve years. His legacy is cemented, as we are at the point of him just piling on the superlatives. The question really isn't "can Nick Saban win his 8th national championship" as much as "who is gonna stop him".
Moving on from the Trevor Lawrence-Travis Etienne era.
Clemson was 39-3 during the Trevor Lawrence era in Clemson, which included three ACC titles and a national championship. It also included two blowout losses in the College Football Playoff that have abruptly ended the Tigers' last two seasons. Lawrence is gone, as is the ACC's all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne. Clemson has two guys they feel are capable of keeping the ball rolling in D.J. Uiagalelei and Lyn-J Dixon, but it is a major reload to deal with as teams like Miami and North Carolina feel as if they have a shot at taking down the six-time conference champions.
Will Spencer Rattler be the next Sooner Heisman winner?
The biggest story around the Oklahoma program this year will likely be the school's move to the SEC in a few years, but on the field, it will be about quarterback Spencer Rattler. As a freshman in 2020, he threw for 3.031 yards, 28 TDs, and just 7 interceptions despite not having a normal offseason program. He followed Jalen Hurts (national champion), Kyler Murray (Heisman winner; No. 1 overall draft pick), and Baker Mayfield (Heisman winner; No. 1 overall draft pick). The four playoff teams from a year ago will be replacing their quarterbacks, giving Oklahoma a distinct advantage heading into the season.
Who is the quarterback?
Like the other three schools who were in last year's College Football Playoff, Ohio State will be replacing their quarterback. The big difference in Columbus is that they aren't exactly sure who the new guy will be. Signs point to freshman C.J. Stroud as the favorite to start when the season begins, but fellow freshmen Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III will be chomping at the bit to step in. Stroud and Miller played sparingly during garbage time last season as backups to Justin Fields, but McCord is the higher-rated recruit who may eventually secure the job. Add to the mix Quinn Ewers, who in early August decided to skip his senior season of high school and enroll at Ohio State early. It is doubtful he could win the starting job, but he may end up being the best of the bunch. In any event, someone needs to take the reins if the Buckeyes are to get back to the national championship game.
Is it finally Georgia's time?
Kirby Smart is 44-9 over his last four seasons in Athens, winning 28 of 33 SEC games, three bowl wins, and an SEC championship. They've finished either first or second in the East division every year and played for the 2017-2018 national championship with a freshman quarterback. The program is ready to enter that elite level that has eluded them for far too long. The offense is stacked with an experienced quarterback (JT Daniels), a talented running attack (led by Zamir White), and a group of skilled receivers ready to break out. The key will be a very young defensive secondary who will need to grow up quickly for the Dawgs title dreams to be realized.
Who is replacing Kellen Mond?
Kellen Mond, who it seems as if was at Texas A&M for a decade, is now in the NFL and head coach Jimbo Fisher must find someone to replace him. The candidates are both really good and really diverse. Zach Calzada has the big arm who can stretch defenses and opens up the playbook. Haynes King is more athletic and spent last season as Mond's backup on the depth chart. King's speed and ability to move around may be more valuable as the Aggies are rebuilding their offensive line. The good news is that A&M's first five games allow them to learn on the fly before their big showdown with Alabama at Kyle Field in mid-October.
Can the Cyclones cash in on the perfect storm?
Everyone should be rooting for Iowa State. They are the little guy trying to punch their way up to the big time. They've got a Heisman candidate quarterback in Brock Purdy, who may be the best QB in program history. They've got another Heisman candidate in running back Breece Hall, who was a first-team All-American last year. The entire starting offensive line is back as well as much of the defense, led by linebacker Mike Rose. Don't forget that Iowa State won the Big 12 regular season by two games in 2020, before losing to Oklahoma in a thrilling Big 12 title game. Head coach Matt Campbell is on nearly every NFL GM's list to call when they have an opening. Add in the current turmoil in the Big 12 which will lead to an anti-Oklahoma and Texas sentiment and it creates a perfect storm for Iowa State to strike for a conference title and more in 2021. Purdy, Hall, much of the defense, and Campbell could all be gone after the season. Make this season count.
Is rebuilding an offense around two really good backs the right move?
Notre Dame could be due for a bit of a drop-off in 2021. Most of the offense from last year turned over (nine starters gone), Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan takes over for Ian Book at quarterback, and are rebuilding their offensive line. So backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree will be the focal points of the offense as everyone else get comfortable in their roles. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees loves a solid running attack and will need to get that going in a hurry as the Irish have a difficult schedule to navigate. Notre Dame has four straight 10+ win seasons coming into the year, but with games on tap against Florida State, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, USC, and North Carolina, that streak could be in jeopardy if the offense struggles.
Fixing a defense that collapsed last year.
Of the top nine schools on this list, only Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Georgia aren't breaking in new starting quarterbacks (the Gators will be replacing Kyle Trask with Emory Jones), but that's not where the questions lie. What's up with the defense? Florida was on the cusp of gaining a College Football Playoff berth when their defense just fell apart. A stunning home loss to a bad LSU team in the regular-season finale (37-34) began the puzzling trend. Then came a loss to Alabama in the SEC championship, which was competitive but saw Florida give out 52 points to the Tide. Finally comes a 55-20 spanking at the hands of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and fans are upset at high-priced defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. There is talent all over that defense but stunning breakdowns keep happening. Corner Kalir Elam, DL Zachary Carter, and rusher Brenton Cox Jr. are great pieces to build around with the hope that a second-year under Grantham's scheme will net better results.
Can the Bearcats do it again?
In 2020, Cincinnati went 8-0 in the regular season, beat Tulsa in the AAC title game and pushed Georgia to the brink before losing in the closing seconds of the Peach Bowl. One of the best seasons in Bearcats football but one that felt unfulfilled. Fans felt that they were not only robbed of a spot in the College Football Playoff but disrespected after ranking just 8th in the final poll. So can the Bearcats pull it off again? After all, quarterback and AAC Offensive Player of the Year Desmond Ridder returns and is a darkhorse Heisman candidate in 2021. Also back is that punishing defense, who held 7 of 10 opponents to 20 points or less and only one opponent, UCF, to score more than 24 points. Head coach Luke Fickell has also beefed up the schedule with road trips to Indiana and Notre Dame, so an undefeated record against an admittedly soft AAC schedule this year will look better if they can beat the Hoosiers and Irish.
Will Oregon's defense carry them into the playoff?
The Ducks' 2020 season was a bit rocky. Justin Herbert was tearing it up in the NFL and not in Eugene anymore, the season was initially canceled before being thrown back together at the last minute, and several high-profile players opted out of the season. Despite all of that, Oregon did win the Pac-12 championship (head nod to Washington) and looks to pull off a third straight title. This defense is stout. End Kayvon Thibodeaux may be the best defensive player in the country, linebacker Noah Sewell had a fantastic freshman season and the secondary is filled with playmakers. Sure, defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos is now the head coach at Boise State, but new DC Tim DeRuyter wants his troops to be aggressive creating turnovers. With yet another new quarterback this fall, the defense may need to carry the load -- especially in Week 2 when the Ducks waddle to Columbus to face Ohio State.
Can Sam Howell offset losing a lot of offensive power?
Sam Howell is a Heisman candidate in what likely will be his final season before becoming one of the top picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. He's clutch has swagger and has all the tools to be a star. What he doesn't have are all those skill guys that had big seasons in 2021. Michael Carter and Javnonte Williams were the best running back duo in the nation last year and he won't have Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome to throw to anymore. Mack Brown has done an exceptional job recruiting in his second stint in Chapel Hill, and those guys stepping in must produce if the Tar Heels are going to take the next step towards a conference title.
Can Clay Helton save his job by getting USC back to where they belong?
You know how you view Alabama right now? That's how we used to feel about USC in the 2000s. Now we view USC a bit like Alabama in the 2000s -- during the Dennis Franchione/Mike Shula era. Last year was a start in the right direction as the Trojans went 5-0 in league play before getting dumped by a 3-2 Oregon team in the Pac-12 title game. Needless to say, Clay Helton didn't cool off his hot seat very much as he enters 2021 as one of the top names on the pre-season chopping blocks. This Trojans team is good, as Kedon Slovis has a chance to be one of the best QBs in the country and this defense can be one of the best in the conference. If USC doesn't contend for a league title, another coaching change is likely.
What was the fluke: 2019 or 2020?
LSU followed up one of the most magical and dominating seasons in college football history with one of the most puzzling and uneven years a defending champion has gone through. Yes, LSU filled the 2020 NFL Draft with a lot of talent that was going to be next to impossible to replace. Sure, Ed Orgeron's assistants used the success of their national championship in 2019 to move up the coaching ladder, and the replacements didn't fill their shoes very well. So Orgeron has hired two new coordinators to right the ship. On offense, Jake Peetz's job will be to figure out who their starting quarterback is: Senior Myles Brennan (who missed most of the season with an abdominal tear), Max Johnson, or TJ Finley ... sophomores who took over when Brennan went down. On defense, Daronte Jones is tasked with fixing the worst passing defense in the nation last year (and that was with Derek Stingley Jr. in the secondary). The Tigers have a lot of talent coming back, but can this coaching staff capture just a little bit of that '19 magic to calm down a notoriously fickle fan base?
Can Michael Penix Jr. stay healthy?
Indiana had an inspiring season in 2020. From their opening week victory over Penn State (in exciting fashion) to a big win over Wisconsin in their regular-season finale, the Hoosiers had one of their most memorable football seasons in decades. As mentioned, it started with Penix's amazing dive for a two-point conversion against Penn State, putting the junior from Tampa on the map. One issue is his durability, as Penix has failed to finish any of his three seasons in Bloomington. He suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Penn State in 2018, a season-ending chest injury against Northwestern in 2019, and a season-ending ACL injury against Maryland last year. With Indiana's suspect offensive line, will Penix hold up against a tough schedule in 2020?
Can D'Eriq King's knee hold up?
There aren't many teams that rely on one guy as Miami relies on quarterback D'Eriq King. He is a perfect fit for their spread offense -- he is an efficient passer who is very mobile and has the ability to break off some big runs. The last time we saw King, however, was tearing his ACL early in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State, so his recovery and subsequent confidence in his knee will determine how far the Hurricanes can go in 2021. This can be an ACC Coastal Division champion squad. If King isn't right, though, it could be a long year in Coral Gables.
Sarkisian and Texas both trying to rebuild their reputations.
Steve Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns seem to be a match made in heaven. Texas has been getting a beating on and off the field of late. They've been to one major bowl game (Cotton, 2018) in the last decade, they haven't won the Big 12 championship since 2009 and their covert mission to bolt for the SEC has made the Horns one of the most hated programs in the country. Enter Sarkisian, who lost his last head coaching job due to several occasions where he was intoxicated at team events while at USC. Since that firing, he has rebuilt his career with two stints with Nick Saban at Alabama and one with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. This is a big job for him, as he takes over one of the nation's top-scoring offenses from a year ago that lost its quarterback to the NFL. Tom Herman was fired despite going 32-18 in Austin, so Sark knows he needs to put trophies in the case if he's going to be coach leading the Horns into the Southeastern Conference in a few years.
Is Brennan Presley the next great Cowboys receiver?
Tylan Wallace is in the NFL, following names like James Washington, Justin Blackmon, and Dez Bryant as great Oklahoma State receivers, meaning there is an opening for the next great playmaker. There are a couple of candidates, but Brennan Presley could be it. Presley's stats as a true freshman don't grab you -- just one reception during the regular season for 7 yards and one 9-yard rushing attempt that did go for a touchdown -- but it is what he did in the Cowboys' bowl game that turned heads. In the Cheez-It Bowl against Miami, Presley caught six passes for 118 yards and three TDs in the win over the Hurricanes. The 5'8 speedster could step in and be Spencer Sanders' favorite target.
Tyler Goodson, Breakout Star?
Goodson finished third in the Big Ten in rushing, becoming an All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore. He finished with 762 yards and 7 TDs in eight games, highlighted by a 142-yard effort in a blowout win over Minnesota. With a solid offensive line, led by center Tyler Linderbaum, Goodson could be a breakout candidate nationally. As quarterback Spencer Petras sorts out a new stable of receivers, look for Kirk Ferentz ... who loves to pound the ball .. to lean on Goodson right out of the gate. The Hawkeyes open the season against Indiana and at Iowa State.
How good is Graham Mertz?
Simply put, Graham Mertz's development will be the difference between a Wisconsin team contending for a Big Ten title or another blown season. Mertz, one of the highest-ranked recruits in program history, had a rocky freshman season in Madison. He was inconsistent, struggling with his completion percentage during the middle of the season to go along with 9 TDs and 5 interceptions on the season. He sat due to COVID protocol as well, stunting his development even further and leading the Badgers to an ugly 4-3 record. With a full offseason and the clear favorite to be the starter, Mertz should come into 2021 much more prepared and should break out as a star. If not, Wisconsin's hold on this division may be over.
Lane Kiffin is set to unleash an offensive power on the SEC.
Lane Kiffin isn't bashful in expressing his confidence and expects to see the Rebels let it loose some more this year after averaging 39.2 ppg in 2020. Quarterback Matt Corral looks like a perfect fit for Kiffin's style and running back Jerrion Ealy is a dual-threat as a rusher and receiver. The offensive line is intact and while the receiving corps lost Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah, their replacements are mainly upperclassmen who have earned their opportunity. Expect a lot of no-huddle as the offense will have to score a lot to make up for defensive deficiencies. Rebels games will certainly be exciting.
Herm Edwards is ready to have the last laugh.
When Herm Edwards was hired by Arizona State four years ago, it seemed like nothing more than an unfortunate stunt. A former NFL head coach and ESPN talking head coming out of retirement to run a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 program was fodder for talk radio and message boards. While Edwards' Sun Devils haven't exactly become a Pac-12 power, they haven't been a joke. The Devils run the ball better than anyone in the conference and Antonio Pierce's defense led the league in points allowed. The next step will be quarterback Jayden Daniels' grasp of the offense, with a season and a full offseason behind him -- also behind him are running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum. Their 70-7 win over rival Arizona was the spark that ignited the potential of this offense and could be the catalyst for a run at the Pac-12 South title.
How high can Coastal Carolina go?
Coastal Carolina was one of several great stories in college football last year, and their win over BYU late in the season may have been the best game of the season. They went 11-0 and earned a top ten ranking before losing to Liberty in the Cure Bowl, which has the Chanticleers chomping at the bit for more. Grayson McCall is so fun to watch, running that triple-option spread offense (you read that right) that makes for exciting games and fun play-calls. Nearly all of the band is back (only three starters are gone) making Coastal Carolina a good, experienced team. It is a shame that they don't have fellow Sun Belt darling Louisiana on the schedule.
Defense leads a team filled with mystery.
How weird was Washington's 2020 season? They played just four games, all at home in Seattle, won the Pac-12 North but had to sit out the conference championship game due to COVID. Who is this team? Who is the quarterback: returning starter Dylan Morris or legacy freshman Sam Huard? Who will step up at running back? Or receiver, for that matter? Two things are certain: a massive offensive line and a commitment to defense. Head coach and former defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake still favors that side of the ball and will employ a physical style of offense and defense as the skill players find their way. With apologies to Oregon-Ohio State, the Huskies road trip to Michigan on September 11th may be the biggest game for the Pac-12 conference. A loss could damage the league's reputation and keep them shut out of the Playoff once again.
Can "Linebacker U" overcome having a weak linebacking corps?
Penn State has long been known as "Linebacker U", but this year's crop of linebackers may be the team's weak spot. The Nittany Lions' defense got off to a rough start last season (0-5 start) before reeling it in over the final month of the season (4-0), albeit against easier competition. The backers weren't physical enough to stuff the run and not quick enough to help in pass coverage. Freshman Curtis Jacobs can be that guy. He's athletic enough to stretch the line of scrimmage and stick with some receivers and who is physical enough to be a stopper defending the run. The defense was solid at times, but couldn't make big plays or force enough turnovers (one of the worst turnover margins in FBS).