20 biggest storylines entering the 2021 college football season

·15 min read

The college football season is finally here.

After a news-filled offseason, we've finally arrives at the first handful of real games with Week 0 kicking off today.

But before the action on the field gets underway, let's dive in on the biggest storylines entering the 2021 season.  

1. COVID-19 is still here

Let’s get the big-picture stuff out of the way first. At this time last year, we had no idea whether there would actually be a season. And if there was some semblance of a season, we didn’t know which conferences would be playing and which would sit out amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, nearly every FBS program participated in one way or another, but the 2020 season was unlike any we’ve ever seen.

The 2021 season will return to some level of normalcy, but likely not quite to the level we expected a few months ago. The Delta variant is spreading across many states, especially in the SEC footprint where vaccination rates are lacking compared to the rest of the country.

There will undoubtedly be far more fans in the stands than last year, creating much more of a homefield advantage and bringing back the environments that make college football so special. At the same time, we’re not out of the woods yet with the pandemic. The virus will certainly make its presence known to some extent as the season progresses.

2. Realignment

There are a few other storylines that will be prevalent throughout the season. Realignment, of course, will lead the charge.

We already know Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. For now, that change becomes official in 2025 when the Big 12’s media rights deal expires. It’d be surprising if the Longhorns and Sooners actually play out four more seasons in the Big 12. They will be members in 2021, though, and that will potentially create awkwardness, especially for a middling Texas program with another new coaching staff.

Beyond UT and OU, what will be the next domino to fall? The Pac-12 announced it won't seek to expand at this time, yet it has formed a somewhat vague scheduling alliance with the Big Ten and ACC. So where does that leave the remaining eight teams in the Big 12? Will they try to add some teams from some Group of Five conferences? There is a lot to ponder as we enter the dawn of another new era in college football.

AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 29: A Texas Longhorns spirit member runs with a flag during game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on November 29, 2019 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Along with Oklahoma, Texas is leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

3. College Football Playoff expansion

The news of realignment quickly jumped to the front of the headlines, but it was only two months ago that the College Football Playoff management committee officially proposed expanding the format from four to 12 teams. The four-team playoff has undoubtedly been a success, but the clamors for a larger field have only gotten louder as the CFP era has continued.

Before Texas and Oklahoma’s defection to the SEC took the industry by storm, expanding the playoff seemed like an inevitability by 2023. Is that still the case? Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel wrote about the issue a few weeks ago, and some prominent officials think the pause button should be hit on expansion.

“We need to evaluate the landscape and what it’s going to look like,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Yahoo Sports. “We still need to evaluate the 12-team playoff. We don’t need to rush into that when there’s legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.”

4. The NIL era

The NCAA’s stronghold on the world of college athletics is weakening. One of the latest cracks in the foundation is the ability for athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. The NCAA’s amateurism rules always prohibited that from being the case, but legal challenges from states across the country caused the NCAA to relent.

Since the change on July 1, dozens of college football players have taken advantage, with some reportedly earning significant amounts of money in the process. Now that the season is here, now will NIL affect teams?

Some have wondered if a star player receiving a ton of endorsement money could cause fracturing in a locker room. My prediction? It won’t. And all of the other armageddon scenarios amateurism-crazy administrators have worried about for years will prove to be nonsensical, just like they did when the dreaded cost-of-attendance payments went into place back in 2015.

5. Welcome back, super seniors!

OK, let’s get to the on-the-field stuff now.

Because the NCAA rightly decided to award an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 season, there is a ton of returning experience in college football. You’ll hear the term “super senior” a lot this year in reference to players in their fifth or even sixth year of ball.

The usual suspects at the top of the rankings may be similar, but this season has the potential for plenty of upsets because of the breadth of experienced players returning, as Yahoo Sports detailed earlier this month.

6. Who are the top CFP contenders?

This will feel repetitive, and that’s because it is.

The Associated Press Top 25 features mainstays Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State at the top of the rankings. Predictably, those teams are four of the five the betting favorites to win the national title in 2021 at BetMGM.

In 2020, Alabama went undefeated and won its sixth national title under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide have reached the CFP in six of the seven years the format has existed, winning three titles. Clemson has made it six times as well, winning twice. Ohio State and Oklahoma both have four appearances.

The lack of parity at the top of the sport is why so many want to see the playoff field expanded beyond just four teams.

7. Can Georgia get over the hump?

Entering 2021, Georgia is tied for the third-best national title odds with Ohio State at BetMGM. Both teams are listed at +600, behind Alabama (+260) and Clemson (+450). Georgia has one of the most talented rosters in the nation. Some could even argue it’s the most talented, but talent has never been Georgia’s issue.

The Bulldogs have been near the top of the sport under Kirby Smart, but have just one CFP appearance to show for it. UGA won the SEC but ultimately lost in the CFP title game to Alabama in 2017. Since then, Georgia has been scratching and clawing to get back to the CFP. The emergence of JT Daniels at quarterback leading a more modern offensive attack could be the difference. Daniels, a USC transfer, played very well late in 2020 after returning from a knee injury.

ATHENS, GA - APRIL 17: Quarterback JT Daniels #18 of the Georgia Bulldogs warms up prior to the G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium on April 17, 2021 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Can quarterback JT Daniels help Georgia get over the hump? (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

8. Will Texas A&M live to the hype?

Texas A&M gave Jimbo Fisher a 10-year, $75 million contract to win national titles. His first two years in College Station were solid — 9-4 and 8-5. In Year 3, the Aggies broke through and finished 9-1 and No. 5 in the CFP rankings.

Entering 2021, the Aggies look like the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. The defense is stacked and there’s a ton of talent at the skill positions on offense, especially running back. But the most prominent question mark is at the most important position: quarterback.

Kellen Mond wasn’t spectacular, but he played his best football as a senior and finished his career as A&M’s all-time leading passer. The contenders to replace him are Haynes King and Zach Calzada. The two have 28 combined passing attempts.

9. What about Iowa State?

On the heels of its biggest bowl appearance in program history, Iowa State has its sights set higher in 2021. The Cyclones lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game last year, but ended up beating Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off one of their best seasons ever.

Matt Campbell has done an unbelievable job at ISU, a program that had been a perennial Big 12 bottom-feeder. This is a legitimate top 10 team entering 2021 with one of the most-experienced rosters in the country. Oklahoma is the Big 12 favorite again, but Iowa State is going to have something to say about this conference title race.

10. Can North Carolina or Miami catch Clemson in the ACC?

To put it bluntly, it’d be shocking if a team other than Clemson won the ACC in 2021. 

The Tigers have won the league title six straight years. Some of the big names from recent teams have moved on to the NFL, but the talent is still there. The defensive line especially has the chance to be one of the best units — at any position — in the country. And D.J. Uiagelelei, the replacement for Trevor Lawrence, is a Heisman favorite, though there is a startling lack of depth behind him at QB.

The gap between Clemson and the rest of the ACC Atlantic is massive, but Coastal Division members North Carolina and Miami are doing their best to catch up. Under Mack Brown, North Carolina’s level of talent has ascended rapidly with QB Sam Howell leading the way. Miami, meanwhile, made the shrewd addition of D’Eriq King out of the transfer portal to help transform its offense under coordinator Rhett Lashlee.

Whoever emerges from the Coastal should at least give Clemson a game this time around.

11. Can the Pac-12 end its CFP drought?

The CFP era has not been kind to the Pac-12. The conference has not had a member reach the playoff since 2016, when Washington was the No. 4 seed and got dominated by Alabama.

Will that drought end in 2021? History shows that an undefeated or one-loss conference champion will have the best chance to do so. And according to the oddsmakers at BetMGM, there is not an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12. Oregon, at +250, is the betting favorite, but Washington (+350), USC (+400) and Arizona State (+400) are all well within striking distance.

Oregon has one college football’s most talented players in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who could end up as the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, and an early season showdown with Ohio State. Washington also has an early chance to make a statement on the road against Michigan. USC is full of talent but has consistently underachieved under Clay Helton. Arizona State should be one of the better teams in the Pac-12 South, but has an NCAA case hanging over its head. Utah (+600) should also compete for the South.

That’s a lot of competition, but the lack of a true alpha could prove a detriment to the Pac-12’s CFP status yet again.

Los Angeles, CA - December 18:  Cornerback Mykael Wright #2 of the Oregon Ducks knocks away a pass intended for wide receiver Tyler Vaughns #21 of the USC Trojans in the third quarter of the PAC 12 Championship football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday, December 18, 2020 in Los Angeles on Friday, December 18, 2020. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Oregon and USC enter the 2021 season as two of the favorites to win the Pac-12. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

12. Who will be this year’s G5 Cinderella?

We all know the current CFP format isn’t set up for the Group of Five conferences. Cincinnati went undefeated in the regular season last year and was excluded from the CFP field. And the biggest issue isn’t that Cincinnati didn’t crack the top four, it’s that it was all the way down at No. 8 behind two-loss Oklahoma and three-loss Florida. That’s preposterous.

With road games against Indiana and Notre Dame, Cincinnati has the potential for a much stronger resume this year. The Bearcats should be one of the best G5 teams in the country yet again, but who will be the out-of-nowhere surprise this time around? Last year it was Coastal Carolina that took the country by storm, especially with its win over BYU.

13. New QBs at top schools

The three teams with the best national championship betting odds at BetMGM all will have a new starting quarterback in 2021.

At Alabama (+260), it’s Bryce Young. Young was ranked as the second-best recruit in the class of 2020 by Rivals.com. He served as Mac Jones’ backup last year and is now ready to take the reins for the mighty Crimson Tide.

At Clemson, D.J. Uiagelelei will take over for Trevor Lawrence. Uiagelelei made two starts last year and looked quite comfortable, including throwing for 439 yards on the road against Notre Dame.

For Ohio State (+600), redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud won the starting job in a high-profile battle to replace Justin FIelds, who also departed for the NFL.

14. Who are college football's top QB draft prospects?

Earlier in the offseason, Yahoo Sports NFL draft writer Eric Edholm broke down the college quarterbacks who are most on the radar for next year’s draft.

Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell led the way with Georgia’s JT Daniels, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder also worth keeping a close eye on.

Other QBs on Edholm’s radar include Carson Strong (Nevada), Matt Corral (Ole Miss), Phil Jurkovec (Boston College), Kedon Slovis (USC) and Jayden Daniels (Arizona State).

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) passes in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas State Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki).
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) passes in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas State Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki).

15. Who are the transfers you should know?

The one-time transfer rule is now in play, and there are a bevy of notable players who will suit up for new teams this fall.

Let’s start with a few quarterbacks. McKenzie Milton was a star at UCF until he suffered a horrific leg injury. Two years later, he is competing to start at Florida State. FSU’s Week 1 opponent, Notre Dame, will have Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan as its opening day starter. Another QB with a ton of experience, Charlie Brewer, is competing for the top job at Utah after playing in 44 games with Baylor.

What about the non-quarterbacks? Yahoo Sports’ Nick Bromberg has an extensive list of players who could make a big impact this season

16. Which big-name programs will bounce back?

Some of the bigger name programs in the country really struggled last year.

LSU, fresh off a national title, went 5-5. Penn State, winners of double-digit games in three of the previous four seasons, started 0-5 and finished 4-5. Michigan was even worse at 2-4.

Will they be able to bounce back? LSU and Penn State both have their preseason win totals set at 8.5 at BetMGM. Michigan is at 7.5.

17. Coaching carousel recap

Lose track of last season’s coaching carousel? Here’s a quick refresher on the most notable coach movement.

Arizona

Old coach: Kevin Sumlin (fired), New coach: Jedd Fisch (New England Patriots assistant)

Auburn

Old coach: Gus Malzahn (fired), New coach: Bryan Harsin (Boise State head coach)

Boise State

Old coach: Bryan Harsin, New coach: Andy Avalos (Oregon assistant)

Illinois

Old coach: Lovie Smith (fired), New coach: Bret Bielema (former Wisconsin, Arkansas head coach)

Kansas

Old coach: Les Miles (fired), New coach: Lance Leipold (Buffalo head coach)

Marshall

Old coach: Doc Holliday (fired), New coach: Charles Huff (Alabama assistant)

South Carolina

Old coach: Will Muschamp (fired), New coach: Shane Beamer (Oklahoma assistant)

Tennessee

Old coach: Jeremy Pruitt (fired), New coach: Josh Heupel (UCF head coach)

Texas

Old coach: Tom Herman (fired), New coach: Steve Sarkisian (Alabama OC, HC at USC, Washington)

UCF

Old coach: Josh Heupel, New coach: Gus Malzahn (Auburn head coach)

Vanderbilt

Old coach: Derek Mason (fired) New coach: Clark Lea (Notre Dame DC)

18. Who’s on the hot seat?

Speaking of coaches, who enters the 2021 season on the hot seat?

After last year’s disaster in Ann Arbor, there will be an even brighter spotlight on Jim Harbaugh as the gap between Michigan and rival Ohio State further widens.

Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech is a name to keep an eye on as the Hokies are coming off a second losing record in a three-year span. Before Fuente arrived in Blacksburg, the Hokies had 23 consecutive winning seasons under Frank Beamer, who retired in 2015.

Clay Helton is always the subject of USC fans’ ire as the Trojans compete for conference titles but underachieve on a national level. Helton has a 45-23 record, three division titles and one Pac-12 title in six seasons.

Scott Frost was supposed to rescue Nebraska from its long run of mediocrity. At this point, mediocrity would be an improvement. Frost has a 12-20 record in three seasons, including a 9-17 mark in Big Ten play.

Others to watch: Matt Wells (Texas Tech), Chip Kelly (UCLA), Ed Orgeron (LSU), Dino Babers (Syracuse)

19. Who are the top Heisman Trophy candidates?

The Heisman is typically a quarterback award, but last year it went to Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith. Entering 2021, the top 10 players in the Heisman betting odds at BetMGM are quarterbacks.

  • Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma (+800)

  • Bryce Young, Alabama (+1000)

  • D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson (+1100)

  • JT Daniels, Georgia (+1200)

  • Sam Howell, North Carolina (+1600)

  • CJ Stroud, Ohio State (+1600)

  • D’Eriq King, Miami (+2000)

  • Matt Corral, Ole Miss (+2500)

  • Kedon Slovis, USC (+2800)

  • Jayden Daniels, Arizona State (+3000)

20. Loaded non-conference schedule 

If you weren't already excited for the season, here are some of the top early season non-conference games you should have circled on the schedule. 

  • Boise State at UCF (Sept. 2)

  • Georgia vs. Clemson (Sept. 4 - Charlotte)

  • Alabama vs. Miami (Sept. 4 - Atlanta)

  • LSU at UCLA (Sept. 4)

  • Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11)

  • Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11)

  • Auburn at Penn State (Sept. 18)

  • Cincinnati at Indiana (Sept. 18)

  • Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 25 - Chicago)

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