Actual college football can't get here fast enough. Breaking news almost broke our wills during the offseason. If it wasn't the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a docile NCAA. If it wasn't name, image and likeness, it was lame, [Mark] Emmert and sadness.
Quarterbacks who have never started are stacking Benjamins. Job-hopping coaches making millions keep preaching loyalty. Oh, the hypocrisy. In the end, more has happened in the last three months to impact college football than the last 30 years.
Thank goodness, the game has always sustained us. You can almost touch it. The season, that is. There will be college football this month. Hopefully, it won't be impacted by COVID-19.
Hopefully, that will result in a full season, the first in two years. The return of Week Zero after last year's season was nearly a big zero. We're talking full schedules and perhaps even tailgating. The lack of the pregame rituals changed the experience in 2020. You haven't lived until someone has offered you andouille chased with Tito's in a red solo cup. Thank you, LSU fans.
The adults in the room continue to feud and fight while trying to figure out what's next. A Power Five that couldn't agree on COVID-19 protocols is now bitching about how to move forward with College Football Playoff expansion. There was little honorable about the SEC's ruthless snatching of Texas and Oklahoma, including how Texas and Oklahoma conducted themselves.
The Big 12 begins its 26th season on life support. It may be around in 2022; it may not.
But at this time last year, there was much doubt whether the season would even be played. It took until September for the Big Ten and Pac-12 to finally decide to participate amid the constant threat of COVID-19.
Now we can count our blessings and look ahead. The game always seems to survive, and we're thrilled to be back with 21 things to watch during college football's 2021 season.
1. Normality … or something close to it: 2021 promises to be one, big welcome back for college football. Some percentage of fans will be allowed back in stadiums after the vagaries of COVID-19. Several schools have already promised full-capacity stadiums this fall. A complete 12-game season looks likely. For the most part, COVID-19 will be dealt with this way in '21: Get enough players vaccinated or deal with the consequences (potential forfeits, competitive disadvantages). While vaccine contemplation and the Delta variant still linger, it's going to be good to get back to some kind of normal.
2. Parity? What parity? Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have occupied 16 of the 28 available spots in the CFP era. They've won five of the seven national championships. That's one reason why expansion has become such a hot topic. Those three powerhouses need to share the ball. Fans are bored. CFP ratings are down. But the monopoly won't be broken up anytime soon. For now, the three continue to have the best coaches, best budgets, best recruiting and best prospects. Your best prospect for 2021 might be figuring out the fourth playoff team.
Alabama will start No. 1 or No. 2. The greatest team coach ever this side of Bill Belichick enters his eighth decade on Halloween going after his eighth national championship. This challenge to repeat might be his biggest for Nick Saban at age 70. The Crimson Tide lost six first-round NFL Draft picks including every major national award winner you can remember. Saban also lost four assistants, including his offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian). I can't believe I'm saying this: Don't sleep on Bama. Saban is 63-8 with the Tide in seasons after a national championship with three title game berths (one win). Saban signed an offseason extension that will take him to age 77. For perspective, consider Bear Bryant coached his last game at age 69.
Clemson will be in the top three. Following one of the greatest runs in program history, don't look for the Tigers to slow down. During Trevor Lawrence's three seasons, Clemson went 39-3, winning one national championship and playing for another. D.J. Uiagalelei takes over with go-to receiver Justyn Ross returning from spine surgery. As of early August, Ross has still not been cleared. Nevertheless, the Tigers are loaded on defense and in line for a seventh consecutive ACC title.
Horror of horrors, Ohio State might actually start out of the top four! Last season, it wasn't defeated until being outclassed by Alabama in the national title game. Post-Justin Fields, a new era dawns under Ryan Day. None of the players competing for the starting quarterback job have thrown a college pass. Whoever wins the gig, he'll have plenty of help with rumbling tailback Master Teague III and receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. The Buckeyes should win the Big Ten going away. The question is whether that will be good enough for a return trip to the CFP.
3. Which way will you go, Coach O? LSU could be the second-best team in the SEC … or Ed Orgeron could be fired by the end of September. Both are possible following an offseason that threatened to swallow the LSU program. The school faces a $50 million Title IX lawsuit amid a sexual assault that allegedly went on during both Les Miles' and Orgeron's time in charge. LSU is extremely talented. However, Orgeron did himself no favors in 2020 failing to interview both his coordinator hires. (Both Bo Pelini and Scott Linehan eventually parted ways with the program.) The Tigers needed to win their final two games to finish .500, then they turned down a bowl bid. Oh, and now quarterback Myles Brennan is out indefinitely with a severe arm injury.
4. Pac-12 pressure: Things have gotten so bad, it's time to ask if Pac-12 football can live up to Pac-12 basketball. The league had a wonderful NCAA Tournament, winning 13 games (tying a Pac-12 record) and getting UCLA into the Final Four. Meanwhile, the conference hasn't won a football national championship since 2004 and has only participated in the CFP twice in seven years. The pressure on the league means the pressure is on Oregon, the Pac-12's most talented team. Win at Ohio State on Sept. 11, and the Ducks may provide a season-long dialogue by the conference that's positive for once.
5. Everybody's back: The NCAA's decision to award an extra year of eligibility during COVID-19 resulted in some weird roster wrangling. The term "super senior" surfaced as every 2020 player got an extra year of eligibility -- if they wanted one. That has led to some inspiring stories. Kansas State tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe is in his seventh year at his fourth Power Five school. Clemson sixth-year senior James Skalski has played in five ACC Championship Games and eight playoff games. The All-ACC linebacker could have taken his chances in the NFL. So it's time to realize when a team "has everyone back," that's not a big deal this season. It's a new reality.
6. The Stack: The 4-2-5 alignment has become the go-to defense to combat the spread/Air Raid offense. It involves stopping the run with as few players as possible, then assembling a hybrid back seven (or eight) that can both run and tackle. With so many receivers out on routes, The Stack makes it less necessary to cover receivers one on one allowing defenders more freedom. The most important player in The Stack is said to be the free safety. That means watching the likes of West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith at Georgia, Kyle Hamilton at Notre Dame and Brandon Joseph at Northwestern may be poised for standout seasons.
7. The Million Dollar Band: That's not a reference Alabama's musical pep group, it's a nickname for the fraternity involved in this blooming name, image and likeness era. Surprise, but less than five weeks into NIL benefits, the world hasn't spun off its axis. Saban enters the season with a quarterback (Bryce Young) who he says is already worth close to $1 million. A few other athletes have big-money endorsements, but most of the deals involve modest social media agreements. There is no evidence to date that locker rooms are melting down out of jealousy. This is tailgate capitalism. Remember when the starting quarterback getting a car was going to upset the delicate balance of amateurism? Brennan got a pickup from a local dealer. Unfortunately, he probably won't be able to drive it until that shoulder heals.
8. Realignment: While there won't be any movement in 2021, the prospect of realignment will hover of the game for the near (and far) future. It's all about access to the expanded playoff and the money produced by it. Go ahead and assume a doubling of that CFP money whenever expansion hits. That means the FBS will split at least $1 billion per year on its playoff, equal to the revenue produced by the NCAA Tournament. Take one good, long, hard look in 2021 because it may be the last time you see this current alignment of conferences. Speaking of …
9. Texas and Oklahoma head for the hills (of money): It took exactly nine days from the time the story broke that Texas and Oklahoma had reached out to the SEC for the union to become official. The question: Do the two programs know what they're getting into? OU is aiming for a seventh consecutive Big 12 title. It is a near certainty a run like that will never happen in the SEC. Texas hasn't been relevant in more than a decade. There's a good chance that streak continues in the SEC. The best place for each to succeed is in the Big 12, but when did that ever matter in realignment? There are still rumblings Texas and Oklahoma could be in the SEC by 2022. If so, the Big 12 has to move quickly to shore itself up. Otherwise, it could be an ugly, rancorous goodbye. You can bet Big 12 fans won't be supportive when UT and OU come to town.
10. Back on the sideline: Speaking of Texas, Sarkisian -- the new coach -- had one of the best play-calling seasons in history as Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2020. As the most recent high-profile Saban staffer to get a head coaching job, Sark has earned his third shot. (He previously coached at Washington and USC.) But can he be the one to turn it around at Texas? It's going on 13 years since the Longhorns mattered in the national picture. Texas the program got a boost headed to the SEC, but in what shape will it be when it arrives? There is talk AD Chris Del Conte wanted to replace Tom Herman with SMU's Sonny Dykes. He was overruled by a powerful regent who favored Sark. The latest UT soap opera may be just starting.
11. The new Gus: When Gus Malzahn was fired at Auburn, it was more a liberation than a letdown for the 55-year-old play-calling savant. Malzahn had lost his fastball as a quarterback developer. There were so many Auburn boosters looking over his shoulder, Gus needed rotator cuff surgery. But after a winning season and three wins over Saban, Auburn cut ties with Malzahn. He waited exactly 64 days before taking over at UCF where it appears Malzahn has rediscovered himself. Football is fun again. UCF has gone all on in on the soft-spoken coach who they are calling "The Future of College Football." Gus is smiling again, which was rare at Auburn. He has a trigger man in Dillon Gabriel. UCF could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of playoff expansion. The 55-year-old Gus has the look of the 35-year-old Gus who revolutionized offensive football while at Springdale High School in Arkansas.
12. On the hot seat: Seldom do coaches get contract extensions and actually lose job security. That might be the case for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. After tying for the worst winning percentage of his career (2-4, .333), Harbaugh signed an incentive-laden extension that included a lower base salary. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel didn't have to say it, but it's sort of win or else for his football coach, if for no other reason it's suddenly cheaper to fire Harbaugh. Success starts with beating Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and challenging in the Big Ten East. Ohio State's eight-game winning streak over Michigan is the longest in the series since 1909.
13. Cyclones blowing out on the plains: Take a good look. This might be the best Iowa State team in the 124-year history of the program. Coach Matt Campbell is so hot he turned down NFL interest in the offseason. After beating Oklahoma in Ames, Iowa, and battling the Sooners down to the wire in the Big 12 Championship Game, the Cyclones are primed take the next step. Campbell might have the game's best tight end (Charlie Kolar) and best tackler (Mike Rose). Quarterback Brock Purdy already is the program's best ever at the position, owning or sharing 25 records. All-American running back Breece Hall led the country in rushing and is a legit Heisman Trophy contender. The season might come down to the final three the championship game. Iowa State opens at No. 6 in the Preseason CBS Sports 130.
14. Fighting for the Irish: Brian Kelly starts his 12th season having developed Notre Dame into an annual playoff contender. The Fighting Irish have made the Football Four two of the last three seasons. They are one of the most physical programs in the country. In 2020, they reached No. 2, played in the ACC and beat Clemson. While there is a revamping of the lineup this season, the transfer portal has gifted Kelly former Wisconsin starter Jack Coan at quarterback. All-American safety Kyle Hamilton returns. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman replaces Clark Lea (now at Vanderbilt). What's next? Ending a national championship drought that is 32 years old. Meanwhile, only Knute Rockne (13 years) has coached Notre Dame longer than Kelly.
15. Texas A&M turnaround? It has happened without many of us even knowing it. Jimbo Fisher going 9-1 in his third season began to show Aggies everywhere that the $75 million investment was worth it. Texas A&M will take a step back this season without career leading passer Kellen Mond. But watch for a defense that will approach Wrecking Crew standards. The offense is diverse with 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith backing him up. Spiller got $10,000 just for an interview in the new age of NIL. Smith might be the most valuable back in the SEC considering he was also second on the team in receptions. The season centers around Oct. 9. Alabama comes to town. Just don't ask when Texas gets back on the schedule.
16. Transferpalooza: The transfer portal is a couple of years old. In the offseason, we got the implementation of the one-time transfer rule: go wherever you want -- once -- without sitting out a season. That unprecedented freedom will change the game forever. South Carolina saw 10 players leave when new coach Shane Beamer was hired. The Gamecocks ultimately picked up 10 transfers themselves. Georgia snagged LSU tight end Arik Gilbert, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2020. Florida hopes Clemson running back transfer Demarkcus Bowman will help remake its offense under Emory Jones. Oklahoma got three potential starters from Tennessee players who had entered the portal after a coaching change. Between that change and an existing NCAA investigation, Tennessee has lost almost 30 players to the portal.
Rosters are going to change quickly and significantly in the offseason. "People say it's like NFL free agency. You hear that all the time," said a former Power Five assistant. "No, it's not. The NFL has a cap and they can pay money. Teams can outbid somebody. We've just got to out-bullshit somebody."
17. The game of the year might not even be on the schedule: That would be Alabama-Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The two powerhouses begin the season the top five. Each should be there on Dec. 4 for a meeting in Atlanta. The question at that point becomes whether the favorite can afford to lose as the SEC looks to have two teams in the championship postseason for the third time since 2011. Oh by the way, Georgia will be favored by many to win the SEC before the season begins. If you insist on a regular-season game of the year, look no further than the Clemson-Georgia game on Sept 4. The winner has an immediate leg up in the playoff. The loser isn't necessarily out of it in Week 1.
18. Breakthrough encores? Coastal Carolina and BYU -- both 11-1 -- were the off-the-radar darlings of 2020, each finishing in the top 15. Their arranged-marriage meeting on Dec. 5 was one of the best games of the season. So with those two having established their credentials, who's next second-tier team to emerge? Try Louisiana. Billy Napier has all but one starter back from a 10-1 team. Shifty quarterback Levi Lewis has already won at Iowa State. Napier himself is one of the hottest coaches around having already turned down bigger jobs to complete the job in Lafayette, Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns are 21-4 over the last two seasons.
19. Clemson's biggest threat: It might be North Carolina where 69-year-old Mack Brown has turned into the veteran voice of college football. Oh, he can coach a little bit, too. Sam Howell led the ACC in touchdown passes (30, yup, more than Lawrence) and is poised for a Heisman run. The Tar Heels are going to have to be a bit more balanced with the loss of 109 combined receptions (Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome) and almost 2,400 rushing yards (Michael Carter, Javonte Williams). Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler brings 2,000 career rushing to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels gave up at least 31 points in six of their 12 games. That's will have to improve with Florida State, Notre Dame and Miami on the schedule. And even if everything works out, there will still be a meeting with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
20. Bear-ing down: If the 12-team playoff was in place last season, Cincinnati would have made it (along with Coastal Carolina). The Bearcats tied 2018 UCF for highest CFP ranking ever by a Group of Five team (No. 8). Cincinnati should finish higher this season and get a look at the top four. Luke Fickell has established himself as one of the best coaches in the country with a physical team that resembles his alma mater (Ohio State). In fact, Cincinnati is basically the Group of Five equivalent of Ohio State: head and shoulders above everyone else in their conference. It's not a question of whether it will win the league but how high the Bearcats can get ranked. The season comes down to a two-game stretch where Cincinnati visits Indiana and Notre Dame. Win those and we may be talking the Bearcats flirting with a playoff berth.
21. Heisman Watch
- Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma: After a shaky start, Rattler led the Sooners to a sixth straight Big 12 title. With an improving defense, this might be Lincoln Riley's best OU team.
- D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson: If he wasn't an elite quarterback, D.J. would be a Rob Gronkowski-like tight end or a dominating defensive end or … let's just enjoy him as the second-year star who already went toe-to-toe with Notre Dame in his first career start and has a chance to be better than Lawrence. Yup, I said it.
- J.T. Daniels, QB, Georgia: Returning from a knee injury late in 2020, Daniels was remarkable throwing for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Daniels hasn't played a full season since 2018 but is loaded with weapons.
- Kayvon Thibodeaux, OLB, Oregon: This pleasantly self-aware All-American talent already is the frontrunner for defensive player of the year. If Oregon wins at Ohio State early in the season, watch for his campaign to take off.
- Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: After leading the country in rushing and rushing touchdowns, Hall will be relied upon heavily once again as the Cyclones remain Big 12 contenders.
Just for good measure ... New Year's Six projection
- Cotton Bowl semifinal: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
- Orange Bowl semifinal: Alabama vs. Georgia
- Sugar Bowl: Iowa State vs. Texas A&M
- Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Ohio State
- Peach Bowl: Florida vs. Notre Dame
- Fiesta Bowl: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina