College football season is a month away, and with it, the beginning of the 2021 season. All 130 FBS teams have announced their schedules for the upcoming campaign, and that means it’s time to… well… preview the season.
A new season of college football is right around the corner, and with it come the annual preseason Power Rankings that are released before the first snap is ever thrown. As always they’re filled with all the usual suspects and the occasional new addition, but it seems like every year there are a few teams that everyone seems to forget about.
The 2020 season is right around the corner, and while the season we are about to kick off is far from the most important in the game, it will undoubtedly carry a ton of weight on the field. After all, it is the first season with the new College Football Playoff system in place, and the first season that will feature the new 130-team format for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The college football season will begin in a little more than two weeks. Bill Connelly has provided ESPN+ previews of every division in every FBS league, from the Sun Belt to the SEC, during the offseason.
This is your opportunity to catch up if you haven’t been following along. In all, there are detailed analyses of all 130 teams, including predicted win totals and game-by-game win probability for 2021, as well as a look back at what we learned about each club in 2020 and the history of each team in one convenient graphic.
So, no matter which side you support, there’s something here to get you ready for the games on August 28.
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Atlantic Coast Conference
After going 59-for-85 for 781 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions in two starts last year at Clemson, DJ Uiagalelei seems poised to take over for Trevor Lawrence. But what about secondary education? Last year’s run defense was outstanding, but the pass defense was just adequate (18th in passing success rate, 35th in passer rating allowed) and was thrashed by Ohio State in the College Football Playoff.
Aside from Georgia, it’s unclear whether anybody on this schedule can really put the secondary to the test. In the Atlantic, there are lots of good passing games, but only BC caused any real harm. However, whomever the Tigers face in the CFP will be a tough opponent.
Want to learn more about Clemson’s championship aspirations, Florida State’s reconstruction, NC State’s potential, and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Bill Connelly’s complete team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the ACC Atlantic can be seen here.
It was symmetrical to a tee. Following a seven-year stretch in which each of the ACC Coastal’s seven schools won a division title, Notre Dame joined a divisionless ACC for the 2020 season and won the league championship on its first attempt. In a sense, that’s like a seven-team division producing eight winners in eight years. (The Fighting Irish even followed Coastal tradition by losing to Clemson in the championship game.)
Unless there is a sudden and unforeseen growth or the elimination of divisions entirely, the Coastal will have a repeat winner this year. And, based on last year’s output and this year’s expected output, Miami and North Carolina have the greatest chances of succeeding. Can any of these schools compete at the top-10 levels expected of them in this bastion of extreme parity, and maybe even challenge Clemson in the league championship game? Is Virginia Tech capable of reversing its poor luck from last season and making a run? Is it possible for Pitt or Virginia to derail everyone else’s plans?
This division has more potential than we’ve seen in a long time, but concerns remain.
Bill Connelly’s complete team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the ACC Coastal can be seen here.
Since we last published this, a couple things have occurred in the Big 12. While the league’s existence is currently in question as a result of Oklahoma and Texas’ defections to the SEC, it will have little effect on the next season, except for some intriguing road audiences for the Sooners and Longhorns.
Oklahoma has won six consecutive conference championships and is a strong chance to make it seven in 2021. Texas just signed 2020’s finest playcaller (former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) as its new head coach, and Iowa State has the tools to put together another top-10 season. Will the Sooners be able to make it through a lengthy Big 12 season with their national championship aspirations intact? Is there anything else ISU has? Will the Big 12 be recognized for how powerful and balanced it has become?
Teams in the Big 12’s bottom half may rise and fall fast. Baylor won the Big 12 Championship in 2019 only two years after being 1-11, and the Bears dropped to 2-7 the following year. Two years after finishing 5-7, Texas was the runner-up in 2018. TCU reached the national championship game in 2017, a year after finishing 6-7, and has gone 18-17 since then.
Here’s Bill Connelly’s ESPN+ preview of the Big 12’s predicted bottom half, team by club. The top half of the league is shown below.
Jim Harbaugh discusses his objectives for the 2021 season, which include beating Ohio State for the first time in his Michigan career.
East of the Big Ten
When you live in a division with a college football juggernaut, how do you measure your own success? In the late 2010s, Penn State and Michigan both developed into top-10 programs, Indiana recently fielded its greatest team in 30 years, and Michigan State isn’t far off from its best run of success since the 1960s. They’ve all contributed to the Big Ten East being the second-best division in college football on average.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have gone undefeated versus the East since Penn State’s White-Out victory in 2016. There have been a few scares (42-35 against Indiana in 2020, 52-51 against Maryland in 2018, 39-38 and 27-26 against Penn State in 2017-18), but the Buckeyes have dominated a strong division for years. They’re at their greatest long-term level of quality ever, even as a college football powerhouse. And, given how they’ve continued to recruit under Ryan Day — their 2021 class was their third top-two class in five years — there’s no reason to believe a downturn is imminent.
However, studs Justin Fields and Trey Sermon are no longer with the team, as are seven defensive starters. The skill level is undeniable, but if they aren’t as consistent in 2021, any number of teams — hungry Penn State and Michigan programs seeking for rebounds, an experienced and smart Indiana wanting to complete the job after coming so close last year — may benefit. We know who the favorite is in this matchup, but it’s not as easy as Ohio State has made it seem in previous years.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Big Ten East, click here.
West Division of the Big Ten
It’s all or nothing, as they say. Last season, the Badgers averaged 39 points per game in four victories, and quarterback Graham Mertz, now a redshirt freshman, had a raw QBR of 79.6. In his debut against Illinois, he completed 20 of 21 passes.
The Badgers, on the other hand, averaged 6.7 points in their three defeats. QBR of Mertz: 24.6. Is it possible for the Badgers to get more consistency out of the former blue-chipper?
Iowa, the division’s other favorite, finished second in defensive SP+ last season and may be even better this season. But, considering that the Big Ten West is notoriously unpredictable, what can we anticipate from Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois this season?
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Big Ten West, click here.
Heather Dinich examines the Pac-12 and if it can break its postseason streak.
North of the Pac-12
The Pac-12 occasionally gets a poor rap. Because it hasn’t produced a College Football Playoff member since 2016, the league is often considered as the weakest of the major conferences, although judging a conference simply on how many losses its top team has is a faulty method.
The Pac-12 can be counted on to at least match or surpass the ACC’s average output.
2018-20 average SP+ rating:
• Pac-12 +6.1, ACC +5.3 in 2018. • Pac-12 +5.3, ACC +3.0 in 2019. • Pac-12 +5.9, ACC +5.2 in 2020
The only reason the ACC is seen more favorably is because of Clemson. Is it possible for a Pac-12 club to break through and threaten a berth to the College Football Playoff?
The two most probable possibilities are located in the northern hemisphere. Oregon has been recruiting like a playoff contender under Mario Cristobal for a few years, while Washington has top-10 potential and plenty of experience. However, they both have offensive questions to answer and schedules to manage.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Pac-12 North, click here.
South Division of the Pac-12
When you just played a few games last year, how valuable is returning production? The response will influence the Pac-12’s strength in 2021. In February’s returning production rankings, the conference had eight of the top 15 clubs, indicating a significant improvement in the near future. However, Arizona State’s 11th-ranked output came from a four-game schedule, while Utah’s eighth-ranked output came from a five-game schedule.
Soon enough, we’ll find out how excellent the Pac-12 South is in particular, but one thing seems certain: the Pac-12 South race will be great. USC, the defending champion, has a fantastic new talent corps, a solid defense, and a manageable schedule. Arizona State and Utah, however, have no guaranteed defeats and plenty of reasons to be optimistic (at least until the NCAA squashes ASU’s). On offense, UCLA looked really dynamic and might be a big wild card. Colorado finished 4-2 last season, putting up a fight against their opponents. Five of the six clubs believe they have a chance to win the division in 2021, and although only three to four of them are correct, this fight may be a lot of fun.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Pac-12 South, click here.
A single Nick Saban statement characterized the 2020 season: “It used to be that if you played excellent defense, no one would score. You were always going to be a part of the action. That’s what I’m saying. That’s no longer the case.”
Georgia backed up his claim. They were first in defensive SP+, and they won eight of their nine games by an average of 34-14. However, in their two defeats, they surrendered 891 passing yards and 85 points to top Alabama and Florida teams. In response, they were only able to score 52 points. You must have a large amount of raw attacking firepower.
In late November, Smart determined that quarterback J.T. Daniels was finally ready for the lineup after a long knee recovery, and he was rewarded. Georgia improved from 29 to 38 points per game, and Daniels’ Total QBR of 89.1 would have placed fourth for the season.
Will the Dawgs be able to keep this up for the whole season? Will Florida be able to replace a lot of offensive firepower while while improving on defense? What does the future hold for Tennessee, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt’s new coaches?
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the SEC East, click here.
Since 2009, the SEC West has won eight national championships, while the rest of the FBS has won four.
Alabama, of course, has the most championships in that time, with six, and Nick Saban’s team shows no signs of slowing down. The Tide boast blue-chip talent all over the field, despite having eight players selected in the top 40 selections in the 2021 draft. Alabama returns eight starters on defense from a unit that was sixth in SP+ last season. Christian Harris and Will Anderson Jr. are excellent blitzers (as is Tennessee linebacker transfer Henry To’o To’o), and cornerback Josh Jobe only allowed a 16.3 QBR in coverage. Bryce Young, a former top prospect, should keep the offense moving as quarterback.
Is Bama ready to roll to another crown? Can Texas A&M find a QB to match the rest of its talent? Can Ole Miss stop anybody? And will some new hires help recapture LSU’s 2019 magic?
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the SEC West, click here.
The seven independent FBS teams have always had radically different fortunes, but the year of the coronavirus produced a set of outcomes that couldn’t have been more diverse.
Two independents (New Mexico State and UConn) skipped the autumn season entirely, while a third skipped it at first before succumbing to a couple blowout defeats (UMass). The most famous independent of them (Notre Dame) entered the ACC for a year, almost won it, then returned to non-conference status, while two others had near-unprecedented success: BYU and Liberty went a combined 21-2 with AP rankings of 11th and 17th, respectively, at year’s conclusion. While everything was going on, Army continued to advance under Jeff Monken as if nothing had changed in the outside world.
In 2021, Notre Dame and BYU will be without important players, Liberty will be led by a possible first-round quarterback, Army will have more returning output than usual, and the bottom three will remain the bottom three.
Click here for ESPN+ previews of Notre Dame, Liberty, BYU, Army, UConn, UMass, and New Mexico State, as well as team-by-team ESPN+ previews of the FBS’ seven independent clubs.
The American Athletic Conference (AAC) is a professional sports
If the College Football Playoff committee is going to place a Group of 5 team in the top four (and I’m not sure they will), it’ll obviously follow this formula:
Enjoy a successful season and get popular acclaim.
For the next season, I’ve booked a handful of important, big opponents.
Next season, go unbeaten.
Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats ticked box No. 1 in 2020, going undefeated in the regular season, putting together a strong playoff case, ending 9-1 with a last-second loss to Georgia, and placing in the top-10 for the second time in school history. They’ll also be able to check off box No. 2 thanks to a schedule that includes ideally scheduled road trips to Indiana (Sept. 18) and Notre Dame (Sept. 19). (Oct. 2).
They must also withstand the AAC once more. It helps that UCF, Tulsa, and SMU all play at Nippert Stadium (and Memphis isn’t on the regular-season schedule), but the competition among these teams is intense — Tulsa on defense, SMU and Memphis on offense, and UCF in top-to-bottom skill. Last season, even this fantastic Cincinnati squad came up short against UCF and Tulsa. The AAC’s elite should provide plenty of resistance once again.
For team-by-team ESPN+ previews of the AAC’s projected bottom half, click here. And now for the second half.
East Coast Conference in the United States
Conference USA kicks off our college football preview series for 2021. In 2020, the East division struggled, with lots of good teams but, apart from early-season Marshall, no teams who had their acts together on both sides of the ball.
With the Thundering Herd’s new head coach and most clubs retaining significant parts of their depth charts from last season, it’s conceivable that the division’s lack of potential may be compensated for by its experience and competition. SP+ predicts that each of the seven clubs will win three to five conference games on average, with the defending champion starting at the top.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of CUSA East, click here.
West Coast Conference in the United States
The Conference USA West championship has raced through Birmingham, Alabama, since UAB’s return from a self-imposed death sentence, with Bill Clark’s Blazers winning three in a row. Will anything change now that the majority of the contributors from last year have returned?
Hope, like the Alamo and the Pearl Brewery, might be found in San Antonio. In Jeff Traylor’s debut season, UTSA made strides, and SP+ predictions indicate that UAB’s visit to the AlamoDome on Nov. 20 may decide the division champion.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of CUSA West, click here.
East of the United States of America
Two programs are stuck in a rut, while four others are vying for a division championship. If Kent State makes a few more stops, Miami overcomes a tough road schedule, and Ohio is as good as last season’s small sample indicated, the MAC East championship battle may be one of the most interesting in FBS.
There’s also the possibility that Buffalo is just too excellent to play on the field. Lance Leipold’s Bulls won the East in 2018 and 2020, and came within four points of winning it again in 2019; SP+ rates them as favorites once again. Nonetheless, more than half of this divide is on the rise.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Mid-American East, click here.
West of the United States of America
The MAC West made every effort to cram a full season’s worth of MACtion and nail-biting endings into a half-season. Ball State’s six regular-season games were all decided by a single score, while CMU, WMU, and EMU each had four.
BSU earned a division title and, rightfully, a chance to shock Buffalo in the MAC championship game by winning four of its five tight games. However, with the majority of the division’s top players returning, we may witness a repetition of the drama. And what more could we possibly want from life?
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Mid-American West, click here.
Mountaineering World Championships
On paper, the Mountain West Conference Mountain Football Championship should be won by Boise State, as it has been in previous years. The Broncos have won four straight championships and five of the last seven, and SP+ has them far ahead of the competition.
However, there has been just enough alteration to make you question. For the second time in 15 years, BSU is changing coaches, and the two teams predicted to finish second and third, Craig Bohl’s Wyoming and Troy Calhoun’s Air Force, have a lot more experience than normal to give. Can the Falcons and Pokes make a run at the title? Is it possible for new head coaches in other divisions to have an immediate impact?
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the MWC Mountain Division, click here.
San Jose State’s comeback victory over Nevada at “home” (in Las Vegas, on a field with New Mexico’s home markings) to clinch the MWC West continued one of college football’s most compelling 2020 stories, one that would be completed a week later when the Spartans defeated Boise State to win their first MWC title.
The Spartans return nearly everyone from last year’s championship squad, but the most interesting MWC story of 2021 may be how close the West race becomes. The top four teams in the division, Nevada, Fresno State, SJSU, and SDSU, are all projected to be within ten places of each other in the overall standings, according to SP+. Last year, these four clubs played four games against each other, with a total of 29 points separating them. Things may be much tighter this year.
By the way, here’s a reminder about the predicted records you’ll see below: They are based on the likelihood of winning. A 50 percent chance of winning is 0.5. When you see that each of the top four teams is predicted to finish 5-3 in conference, it’s because they have a lot of tight games coming up. That’s not good for the west’s anxiety levels, but it’s fantastic for us.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the MWC West Division, click here.
East of the Sun Belt
According to SP+, Georgia Southern, the poorest team in the Sun Belt East, would be the second-best team in the West. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the present power dynamics in #FunBelt nation.
The East ranks as the strongest division in the Group of Five going into 2021, thanks to the top-20 potential of Coastal Carolina and App State, as well as the top-75 or so potential of everyone else. App State has been in the top 30 of the SP+ rankings for three years in a row, but Coastal Carolina overtook the Mountaineers last season with a thrilling comeback. Almost everyone returns for both teams, as do the three other clubs in the division. There are no vacation weeks here.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Sun Belt East, click here.
West of the Sun Belt
Prior to 2018, no Sun Belt team had ever finished in the top 35 of the SP+ rankings, but six have done so in the last three seasons. Appalachian State had led the way for three years in a row, but Louisiana, led by Billy Napier, has done it twice in a run and currently leads the nation in returning output.
This year, we’ll learn a lot about what experience can do for a team and its benefits. If all of this consistency creates another gear, the Ragin’ Cajuns have a shot to become the greatest SBC team of all time this autumn.
We’ll also find out whether anybody in the West division is capable of posing a serious challenge to the three-time reigning division champions. No, according to the signs.
For a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Sun Belt West, click here.
The College Football Playoff era was supposed to be a thing of the past, with the season’s premier eight teams all considered “unbeatable” and “invincible”. Since that’s not how things went down, the four-team conference model was supposed to be the best way to go, but things got messy. And now, it’s time for some changes.. Read more about bill connelly espn bio and let us know what you think.
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