CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The college football offseason typically falls into a familiar rhythm. Teams with returning stars or swaths of returning starters gather buzz. As the digital predictions and podcast hosannas pile up, projections fossilize to expectations.
Eventually, the subjective cements to reality. Inevitably, we’re shocked that a team like Arkansas (2012) tailspins to infamy, Texas isn’t back (too many years to count) or USC fails to match its brand (ditto). That’s the circle of offseason life, where projection becomes a perceived reality that’s often imploded before midnight of the season’s first Saturday.
The safest place for the prediction business in 2021 is embracing the unknown, in part because so much is known. The chaos that came to college football in 2020 arrived mostly off the field. A blur of canceled games, persistent disruption and shotgun scheduling defined much of the season. As for actual drama at the top of the sport, little arrived for the College Football Playoff. The sport’s three best programs – Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State – all took playoff spots that have become perceptional birthrights. Not surprisingly, playoff expansion plans followed.
One of the unintended legacies of the 2020 season may be that it ends up prompting a different kind of chaos. As 2021 approaches, a unique confluence of circumstances make it ripe for a year of on-field chaos.
The extra seasons of eligibility the NCAA gave to Division I football players mean that Group of Five teams should be stronger than ever, sprinkling the early season with potential upsets. Also, perennial middle-class teams in Power Five leagues generally have stronger rosters, big chunks of returning production and the type of quality experience and depth that bolsters optimism.
“I think that will be one of the storylines of the 2021 season because so many people return so much experience,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “At the end of the day, does it really cancel out?”
According to ESPN statistics compiled by Bill Connelly, teams on average are returning 14 percent more production – 76.7 percent – than a normal season. Does that increase the chances of unfamiliar faces moonlighting at the highest levels? Or maybe give a veteran program a better shot at an epic upset on a fortuitous Saturday?
The powerhouses have churned their normal bushel of stars to the NFL, which means talented but inexperienced rosters will face veteran, rugged rosters. It’s the collision that could define the season, especially if age truly resonates as a distinct edge.
There’s new starting quarterbacks at the three powerhouses – Bryce Young (Alabama), D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson) and a starter-to-be named later at Ohio State. Does that crack open a door of vulnerability at the top of the sport that invites in a fortified middle class?
Predicting imminent doom for superpowers could be foolhardy. But the general notion of better play at lower levels of power leagues and veteran rosters at Group of Five schools have to reverberate through the sport in some tangible way.
Consider Pittsburgh, who has 128 players on the roster, 98 on scholarship and will start six super seniors. Quarterback Kenny Pickett, 23, returns for his super senior season to headline the starting group.
The Panthers, coming off a 6-5 season, should be favored in their first six games before heading to Clemson in late October. And while depth is often a topic that veers into yawn-inducing coach speak, coach Pat Narduzzi also told Yahoo Sports that five additional super seniors will play more than 25 snaps a game. That matters.
“The quality will be much higher this year compared to last year, for sure,” Narduzzi said. “And the depth will be the critical part of it, because when someone gets hurt, you’re not putting a guy out there that looks like [our sports information director] who can’t play.”
Will there be more upsets? Consider the perpetual and delightful blender of unpredictability that is the ACC Coastal division, long considered the league’s bridesmaid to the Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic. No ACC Coastal team has won the league since 2010 (Virginia Tech), and Notre Dame denied the Coastal its annual rite to lose to Clemson in the title game in 2020.
But the Coastal percolates with quintessential 2021 optimism that comes with SuperSeniors, as it has more starters than an O’Reilly warehouse. Consider that North Carolina (18), Miami (19) and Pitt (14) will be among the more experienced teams in the league.
“There’s going be a bunch of rosters that essentially have a small group of guys that are really good college players that maybe aren’t big-time NFL players,” said Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, “but are surrounded by other NFL player that can enhance the level of play right out of the gate.”
Below Clemson in the Atlantic, similar numbers pop out. Diaz went out of his way to point out that N.C. State is underrated, as the Wolfpack return 19 starters. As Florida State rebuilds from its 3-6 debut under Mike Norvell, it returns 17 starters. Boston College also returns 17, including 125 starts on the offensive line. Wake Forest has 20 returning starters and nine super seniors on the roster. Syracuse is coming off a woeful 1-10 season, but has 19 starters back.
“We hope it gives us an opportunity to close the gap for the next three or four years,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said of the extra year available because of the COVID-19 season. “For us, buying time has always been our strategy to close the gap.”
An early litmus of the collision of experience and talent will come when Miami plays Alabama in Week 1. The Hurricanes’ 19 returning starters will include 24-year-old starting quarterback (D’Eriq King), and they face a team that lost six NFL first-round draft picks and eight new offensive starters. (Diaz also points out, less gleefully, that Week 2 opponent Appalachian State has 17 returning starters.)
The lack of experience at quarterback and relative inexperience at the country’s top three programs — Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State – in theory makes the notion of unpredictability in 2021 somewhat predictable. It’ll be harder than any recent season to just assume Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson will Storm Trooper to inevitable playoff glory, especially if their boldfaced name attrition is magnified by all the old heads returning.