In the midst of the challenges that COVID-19 created for the 2020 college football season, some programs still had magical years. Here’s a look at three of those teams and why they might take a step back from last season’s level in ’21.
The Fighting Irish reached the College Football Playoff semifinals, only to fall to Alabama, 31–14. The score might be deceptive, though, as Notre Dame hung well enough with a dominant force. All in all, ’20 was a fantastic season in South Bend.
Losing Ian Book at quarterback certainly won’t help boost Brian Kelly’s chances of returning to the CFP. Jack Coan, Book's anticipated replacement, had a solid career at Wisconsin; he helped lead the Badgers to a Big Ten West championship and the Rose Bowl in ’19. However, Coan also had Jonathan Taylor running for nearly 150 yards per game in the backfield that year. Coan’s completion percentage was an admirable 69.6%, but having a running back like Taylor takes much of the pressure off the quarterback. It’s also important to note that Coan hasn’t played in a game since Jan. 1, 2020. There will naturally be some rust for him early on while he also works out the kinks of learning a new offense. Notre Dame’s leading rusher from last year, Kyren Williams, will be back, so that helps. Still, the Irish will miss the dual-threat ability of Book.
Notre Dame will also be replacing four of its five offensive linemen from last year, while the defense is in the hands of new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. The former Cincinnati coach has his work cut out for him with the Irish's losing three top playmakers from last year in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Shaun Crawford and Daelin Hayes. The good news for Freeman, though, is that he might have one of the best defensive backs in college football with Kyle Hamilton returning.
Overall, Notre Dame should definitely find itself in the AP top 25 come the end of the ’21 season. Just don’t expect to see the same level of magnificence from the blue and gold.
The Hoosiers were one of the great stories of the ’20 season. After an inspiring ’19 season that saw Indiana win eight games for the first time since 1993, coach Tom Allen had his program off and running last October, starting with a dramatic 36–35 overtime victory over Penn State. Against a Nittany Lions team ranked seventh in the AP poll at the time, this was the Hoosiers’ first win over a top-10 program since ’87.
Indiana also nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback against Ohio State (losing 42–35 after trailing 35–7) and cruised to victories over Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland. The big setback came in that Maryland game when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL—the second time he’s sustained that injury during his time in Bloomington. His health is one of the big questions entering ’21.
Penix’s skill set is undeniable. The lefthander can sling the ball all over the field while extending plays in the process. But he’s yet to stay healthy for a full season. He played only six games in ’19 while dealing with several injuries, sandwiched between those two ACL tears. Of course, it’s unfair to blame someone for getting hurt playing a sport, especially one as violent as football, but several questions surround Penix and the answers will have a major impact on Indiana’s overall success next season.
The uncertainty around Penix, in addition to losing Whop Philyor (second-leading receiver last year), makes the IU offense a bit of a question mark. However, last year’s top receiver, Ty Fryfogle, will return for a fifth season, and Indiana welcomes Rashawn Williams, a four-star receiver, and D.J. Matthews, a receiver who transferred from Florida State. Matthews was a dynamic punt returner in Tallahassee and the Seminoles’ second-leading receiver in ’18 and ’19, so that should help. The challenge will be integrating several new faces into the offense amidst uncertainty regarding Penix’s health, making it hard right now to feel super confident about the unit as a whole.
On the other side of the ball, Indiana’s defense (like Notre Dame’s) will have a new coordinator. Kane Wommack left to become South Alabama’s new head coach after leading the Hoosiers to a top-five defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) ranking. Now, Charlton Warren comes in from Georgia to try to maintain the continuity. With Allen's being a defensive-minded head coach, the overall structure of the defense likely won’t change much, so that shouldn’t be too much of a concern. But the question marks surrounding the offense, coupled with the fact that other Big Ten East teams like Penn State and Michigan should play better in ’21, will make it hard for Indiana to have a similar level of success as it had in ’20.
Having two first-round NFL draft picks is undoubtedly a good sign for a program. The challenge, of course, is replacing that talent. In ’20, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts (both first-rounders) accounted for nearly 40% of Florida’s receiving yards. Add Trevon Grimes to that total, and the Gators will lose over half of their receiving production. They also lose Kyle Trask, the quarterback who helped make the Florida offense so dynamic.
The Gators started ’20 strong, winning eight of their first nine games, before losing three in a row to close out the year. That included a 55–20 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. While the offense that season was top 10 nationally, the defense was middle-of-the-pack, metrics-wise. That could pose a bit of a challenge for Dan Mullen as he prepares for life without his key offensive contributors while also having several questions on the defensive side of the ball.
After the season, Florida fired its secondary coaches after the defense allowed 144 points over those final three games. Sure, two of those games came against top-five opponents, but in four matchups against ranked teams, the Gators allowed an average of 44 points. No one’s asking them to play defense like the ’85 Bears, but that’s an area to watch closely in ’21. More than likely, the offense won’t be able to mask the defensive inefficiencies, so if the defense doesn’t show some improvement, it could be a long year for Mullen & Co.
It helps that the program has quarterback Emory Jones ready to take over and also welcomes in another top 15 recruiting class (according to SI All-American), which includes five-star cornerback Jason Marshall and four-star safeties Corey Collier and Donovan McMillon on the defensive end to go along with four-star quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and four-star receiver Daejon Reynolds. There’s no question that this team will still have plenty of talent in ’21. It’s just unclear how raw that talent will be. That uncertainty makes it hard to imagine Florida finishing top 10 in college football again.
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