Can These Powerhouse Football Programs Bounce Back in 2021?

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In the midst of a chaotic 2020 college football season played during a global pandemic, several blueblood programs didn’t live up to their preseason hype. For some, it means restarting with a new head coach and new goals in ’21. For others, it means the upcoming season will display whether last year’s failures were a product of COVID-19 turmoil or a sign of larger program issues.

Here’s a look at the most underachieving teams in ’20, relative to preseason expectations, and what their outlooks are for ’21.

Oregon

Preseason AP ranking: 9
Final record: 4–3, lost to Iowa State 34–17 in the Fiesta Bowl

The Ducks never fully picked up the pieces after star tackle Penei Sewell’s stay in Eugene ended early when he opted out of the entire 2020 season. Three wins to start the year were promising, but a loss to Oregon State derailed the train in late November. A second loss to Cal in which Oregon didn’t score in the second half made the season look all but lost. Mario Cristobal’s squad still made (and won) the Pac-12 championship game after replacing a Washington team hit by COVID-19 because, well, the Pac-12 is weird. But the Ducks were thumped by Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl, and an inconsistent season marked by shaky quarterback play and an unopportunistic defense (minus-9 turnover margin) ended on a sour note.

The defensive issues were addressed in the offseason when the Ducks hired former Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter for that same role in Eugene. DeRuyter helped turn an abysmal Bears defense into a respectable group. He’ll have the talent to produce a similar turnaround at Oregon. All-America edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and freshman All-America linebacker Noah Sewell headline a group that underperformed at times a year ago.

Whoever starts at quarterback (it’s looking like it’ll be sixth-year senior Anthony Brown after spring ball) will have a host of weapons around him. Running back Travis Dye averaged 6.9 yards per carry a season ago and Oregon is returning most of its receiving production. Cristobal won at least nine games in each of his first two years in Eugene. Against a weakened Pac-12, look for the Ducks to approach that mark once again in a solid bounce-back season.

LSU WR Kayshon Boutte

LSU

Preseason AP ranking: 6 (and one first-place vote!)
Final record: 5–5

LSU’s ’20 season started with Ed Orgeron saying that “most” of his players had already had COVID-19, and it didn’t get any better from there. In the first month, the Tigers dropped games to Mississippi State and Missouri, two teams that spent a combined one week in the AP top 25. Save for a shocking upset win over Florida and a season-ending victory over a scrappy Ole Miss squad, the post–Joe Burrow (and Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire) era got off to a rocky start.

Question marks remain at the quarterback spot, where three passers filled in last year after Burrow’s departure. Myles Brennan has the most experience, but there’s no surefire choice behind center next season, although the return of the Tigers’ entire starting offensive line should help lighten the load of any new QB.

Defensively, LSU brings back a plethora of starters, including star corner Derek Stingley Jr. and safety Jay Ward. Combine that with a strong returning pass rush, and the Tigers may have the makings of one of the more experienced defenses in the SEC. They’ll have to replace the production of linebackers JaCoby Stevens and Jabril Cox, both selected in the draft. But now, without fired coordinator Bo Pelini and with plenty of returning talent, it looks like the LSU defense is due for a massive rebound.

While there’s no Burrow waiting in the wings, there might not need to be. All the pieces surrounding whoever ends up at quarterback could be enough. Expect the Tigers to hang around near the top 10 in ’21.

Wisconsin

Preseason AP ranking: 12
Final record: 4–3; defeated Wake Forest 42–28 in Duke’s Mayo Bowl

Wisconsin lit the Big Ten on fire to kick off the conference’s season in mid-October. Freshman Graham Mertz eased any apprehensions at quarterback with Jack Coan out, turning in a dazzling five-touchdown performance where he completed 20 of 21 pass attempts. After steamrollering Illinois 45–7, the Badgers looked like the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten West again.

Then, a COVID-19 outbreak forced their next two games to be postponed. Even still, following the two-week hiatus, Wisconsin demolished Michigan 49–11 in Ann Arbor. All would be fine in Madison, it seemed––until it wasn’t. Against Northwestern the following week, Mertz turned the ball over four times, including three interceptions. Over the course of Wisconsin’s final four Big Ten games, the Badgers scored a total of 40 points, 20 of which came against Minnesota during the league’s champions week.

In other words, Wisconsin started out ’20 looking like ’19 LSU and finished ’20 looking like a program with many questions to answer. So, where does that leave the Badgers entering ’21?

For starters, Wisconsin didn’t have Jonathan Taylor in the backfield anymore last season, so coach Paul Chryst had to work out his running game by committee. Heading into ’21, redshirt freshman Jalen Berger should be a lock to start after displaying impressive bursts of speed last year. Wisconsin’s already-thin receiving core was also banged up in ’20. With a healthy Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III to go along with younger receivers like Chimere Dike and Stephan Bracey, plus steady tight end play from Jake Ferguson, the offense might not average 47 points like it did through two games last year, but it will certainly be better than the offense that averaged 10 points down the stretch.

On the defensive side, Jim Leonard’s unit brings back Jack Sanborn to anchor the middle linebacker position and Leo Chenal to play alongside him. The Badgers also have experienced players in the secondary and on the defensive line. Leonard’s defenses have played consistently well over the years, and there’s no reason to expect that to change in ’21. As such, with a stronger offense, Wisconsin should once again be a favorite to win the West.

Texas

Preseason AP ranking: 14
Final record: 7–3, defeated Colorado 55–23 in the Alamo Bowl

Texas football and underachieving after a high preseason ranking go together like peanut butter and jelly. This time, it ended in the premature demise of the Tom Herman era despite a dominant bowl game performance. The Longhorns’ problems in ’20 were multiple. In the early goings of the season, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma took advantage of defensive miscues. In late November, Iowa State robbed a late comeback win after the Texas offense couldn’t put the game away. In the end, it meant Herman and his staff were out after four tumultuous years on the Forty Acres.

The obvious question mark is the replacement for four-year starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Casey Thompson looked up for the task with an electric Alamo Bowl performance (8 for 10, 170 yards and four touchdowns), and freshman Hudson Card will challenge him for the starting role throughout fall camp. Sophomore Bijan Robinson looks like a star in the making at running back. But the bigger point of contention will be defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense.

The Longhorns lost Joseph Ossai (team-leading 15.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks in ’20) and Caden Sterns (52 tackles) to the NFL draft, as well leading tackler Juwan Mitchell and others to the transfer portal. That’s not to say more talent isn’t incoming—Alabama linebacker Ben Davis announced his intention to transfer to Austin a couple of weeks ago and incoming five-star freshman Ja’Tavion Sanders will look to make an instant impact on the defensive front. But the revolving door of defensive pieces may make for some growing pains.

Steve Sarkisian has the talent he needs. For now, he’s got the backing of the program, too. Even still, it’s not often a first-year coach outperforms expectations. While Texas likely won’t play for a Big 12 title, expect a solid season that displays plenty of hope for ’22.

Penn State QB Sean Clifford

Penn State

Preseason AP ranking: 7
Final record: 4–5

Unlike several other teams on this list, COVID-19 didn’t disrupt the Nittany Lions’ schedule. Nevertheless, Penn State’s season began with an agonizing 36–35 overtime loss to Indiana, decided by the tip of the football grazing the pylon for a successful Hoosier two-point conversion. After the emotional letdown of losing to an unranked team, the Nittany Lions lost their next four games as well, including a 16-point loss to Maryland and a 20-point loss to Iowa.

To give James Franklin’s team credit, it rallied to close out the year, albeit against weaker opponents. Penn State took down Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois—the four worst teams in the Big Ten in ’20—to finish at a more respectable 4–5.

So what went wrong in State College? It certainly didn’t help that star running back Journey Brown had to medically retire from football, while linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season. Beyond that, though, QB Sean Clifford was solid but not significantly better than he was in ’19, and while the defense was generally serviceable, it forced only one takeaway per game. In Penn State’s 11–2 campaign in ’19, the defense averaged nearly 1.7 takeaways per game. That might not seem like a major difference, but in ’19, the Nittany Lions also had a 0.7 average turnover margin per game (20th in the nation), compared to its -0.9 that ranked 112 in college football last year. The lack of complementary football limited Penn State’s ability to string together consistent play.

Looking ahead to ’21, the program has the opportunity to feed off the momentum it closed out ’20 with. Franklin welcomes a top 25 recruiting class and brings back players like Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa and Jaquan Brisker on defense. Also look out for RB Keyvone Lee, who ran for 345 yards and four touchdowns across Penn State’s final four games last year.

Auburn

Preseason AP ranking: 11
Final record: 6–5, lost to Northwestern 35–19 in the Citrus Bowl

The Tigers were primed to take a leap last season with quarterback Bo Nix fresh off winning SEC Freshman of the Year. But Gus Malzahn’s squad was unconvincing from the start. A week two walloping by Georgia magnified potential issues, and Nix fell flat against the Bulldogs’ stout defense. After scraping past Arkansas, a loss to a South Carolina team in turmoil sent Auburn’s season into disarray.

While the Tigers beat up on several other disappointing SEC squads (such as LSU), Nix’s streaky nature didn’t fare well against top conference competition. In a crushing loss to rival Alabama, he threw two interceptions and didn’t record any yards rushing. Against Texas A&M, he threw for just 144 yards as the Tigers fell to 5–4. It was enough to run Malzahn out of town after eight years as coach. Auburn turned to longtime Boise State coach Bryan Harsin for Malzahn’s replacement.

Harsin has his work cut out for him in ’21. The good news: The Tigers will likely have a number of starters returning from a year ago, including a good portion of the offensive line and SEC leading tackler linebacker Zakoby McClain. The not-so-great news: Nix will be learning another offensive system as a junior after not really taking a step forward as a sophomore.

Harsin will have the pieces in place for a nice turnaround season that could see the Tigers approach nine wins. While it’s not novel to say a team’s season hinges on its quarterback play, if Auburn is to rebound with Harsin at the helm, it will be on Nix’s accord. Either way, it doesn’t appear that an SEC championship game appearance (or anything close) is in the cards.

Michigan

Preseason AP ranking: 16
Final record: 2–4

COVID-19 made the ’20 season particularly challenging for the Wolverines. Michigan played its first six games only to have its last three canceled because of a program outbreak. When it did play, though, Jim Harbaugh’s program left much to be desired.

The season started promising with a 49–24 win over a Minnesota program that entered ’20 with high hopes after narrowly missing out on a Big Ten West championship the year before. But after losing three in a row, including a home loss to an underwhelming Michigan State team, it became clear that Michigan had some issues. The quarterback play was unsteady at best—Joe Milton finished in the bottom 30 in college football in completion percentage while throwing four touchdowns and four interceptions. Cade McNamara displayed promise, particularly after he threw four touchdowns against Rutgers in late November, but he also failed to provide much of a spark otherwise.

We shouldn’t ignore how young this team was, though. Seventeen players made their first collegiate starts so while much of that lended itself to uneven play, that experience should only help the Wolverines entering ’21.

Particularly on defense, Michigan should see some improvements. In six games last year, the defense had only two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Forcing 0.5 turnovers per game simply isn’t enough. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has never held the position in his career, but the 33-year-old will have five four-star recruits coming in, plus Josh Ross, Daxton Hill and Michael Barrett—Michigan’s three leading tacklers last year—all returning as well.

The big question though remains at quarterback. Does McNamara have what it takes to lead the Michigan offense? Does five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy take the reins? Uncertainty under center is never an enviable position to be in, yet Harbaugh’s fate in ’21 might depend on how well he deals with that challenge.

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