Previewing 2021 College Football Season, Part 2
Continuing - Big 12, CUSA, Independents, MAC & MWC
Welcome to Part 2 of my rollout as I’ll predict the finish in each conference (please do not base any wagers on my advice!), lay out the dominant storylines for each conference – mostly ON the field – and rate the coach on the hottest seat in each conference.
As always – feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments or on Twitter at @ReadyCFB –
Big 12 Conference:
1. Well…there’s the obvious one about the divorce between the two biggest brands (Oklahoma and Texas) from the rest of the Big 12. How that may play out on the field with how the teams are treated as they visit their opponents on the road – and perhaps how games appear to be officiated – will absolutely be a big storyline as will the specter of doom that now seems to hang over the conference as a whole.
2. On the field – can Iowa State have a second consecutive “best season in school history” and pay it off with a win in the Big 12 title game? Or will Oklahoma who comes in with an experienced, dynamic QB and *Sooner fans fingers crossed* an improved defense continue their run of conference titles.
3. Can Steve Sarkisian get the Longhorns firing more consistently on offense, overcome a tough schedule and get the Horns playing better defense so that Texas can finally meet its potential? Not sure it will happen in Year 1 but I’m betting there will be some surprises.
4. Can struggling TCU and Baylor find some of their recent past success again or will these programs’ declines continue at the worst possible time?
Order of Finish:
1. Oklahoma – see above
2. Iowa State – I think they will be very good again, but expect that they will lose an early game and come up short against Oklahoma twice.
3. Oklahoma State – staying solid, doubtful they can compete with Oklahoma on field but should be another 9-win type season for the Pokes.
4. Texas – see storylines above – I think Sark will get them going but this is likely a back-and-forth adjustment year
5. West Virginia – I could see the Mountaineers surprising. There’s not much difference in my mind between 3, 4 & 5 in these rankings.
6. Kansas State – COVID hurt K State as much as any program in the Big 12 last year. While they are in the 2nd Tier, I do believe they’ll be a 7 win type team and Klieman and his staff are making headway
7. TCU – Seems like we’re on the back end of Gary Patterson’s incredible run in Ft. Worth – but maybe the Horned Frogs will surprise?
8. Texas Tech – Matt Wells’ job seems to be very much on the line after just two seasons – but they were both 4 win campaigns, including blowing a 56-41 lead to Texas in the final two minutes last year. To turn it around, the Red Raiders need to win their close games and do well in non-conference. It’s a bad time to have no real identity in the Big 12 right now.
9. Baylor – Dave Aranda is an outstanding defensive mind. He had no real chance to acclimate to being a head coach due to no spring practice and assistants that were probably mismatched on offensive side of the ball. Now he’s brought in new leadership as OC but it feels like there’s not enough talent on offense to make much of a splash. This is a build, even though Baylor won 11 games in 2019 – it was always going to fall off and have to come back up.
10. Kansas – the Jayhawks made a very good hire in my book, tapping Lance Leipold to take over for the latest “big name coach” disaster with Les Miles (previous “big names” included Charlie Weis and Turner Gill) but Kansas is just…woof right now.
Coach on Hottest Seat:
It has to be Matt Wells at Texas Tech. His trajectory at Utah State before being hired wasn’t great but he had a 10 win season right before leaving. Seems that he and his staff are having trouble even reach where Kingsbury had the team in the 2010s. We’ll see if this year is better but he probably needs a 6-6 season at least to stay on the job.
1. Can the conference gain better visibility and become one that gets more attention? In recent years CUSA has dropped behind not just the Mountain West and AAC but also the Sun Belt and, arguably, the MAC as far as prestige. They have some proud programs but also some that are strangely situated. A better TV deal would help…or figuring out what they want to be.
2. Can Marshall continue to win but take the next step to be back in the circle of potential NY6 teams? That’s why they ran Doc Holliday off and hired a young Alabama assistant.
3. Defending Champion UAB loses a lot of experience and has a tougher schedule, can they continue to win at the level they have the past three seasons or is there going to be a newer bully on the block in the CUSA West?
Order of Finish:
East Division -
1. Marshall – yes they keep rolling although it may take a year to get really revved up.
2. Charlotte – some cool things happening with this program under Will Healy, this should be a breakout year.
3. FAU – Taggert has accomplished a lot at this level, expecting them to be solid this year
4. FIU – Can Butch Davis get things back on track – I say results will be mixed
5. Middle Tennessee – Possible coach firing alert here as the Blue Raiders have fallen way off
6. Western Kentucky – Seems to be trending way down
7. Old Dominion – Skipped last season due to COVID, you would have to think that (still new!) coach Ricky Rahne will need a pretty serious year of adjustment here.
West Division –
1. Louisiana Tech – a lot of uncertainty in the Western half of CUSA, I’m going with the established program and coach to outlast their rivals this season
2. UT-San Antonio – this program is primed to begin making real noise in the conference, I think this will be a “rise” year and 2022-2023 could be very very good.
3. UAB – will still have a solid season but too much working against the Blazers to win the conference
4. North Texas – will this quick rebuild yield dividends? They’ve struggled the last two years after Seth Littrell turned down other jobs to come back
5. Southern Miss – I believe they have made the right hire at head coach with Will Hall. It’s going to take a couple of years but the Golden Eagles have a proud tradition. This year won’t be great.
Conference Champion – Louisiana Tech
Coach on the Hottest Seat:
Rick Stockstill at Middle Tennessee should be the correct answer here, don’t know if he will be.
Not a conference so I’m not doing “order of finish”, but major storylines include Liberty having what looks like a great team – including a dark-horse Heisman candidate in Malik Willis and playing a pretty tough schedule that includes Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina and whether BYU will entertain offers to join a Big 12 or other conference, bringing lots of streaming eyeballs with them. These two independents plus Notre Dame were among the funnest things about 2020’s bizarre season, we’ll see if they continue to be. Army has also become a reliably solid team again but the rest of the independents (Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Mexico State) are pretty dreadful.
Coach on the Hottest Seat:
SHOULD be Randy Edsall of UConn if for nothing else than he has the worst/dumbest contract in major college football. Truthfully the answer to this question should always be Randy Edsall no matter what. New Mexico State and UMass will probably stay dreadful but have young coaches who were brought in with the understanding that…it’s going to take time.
1. The sudden exodus of Lance Leipold from Buffalo after spring practice to take the Kansas job, followed by several transfers and an entirely new coaching staff taking over has served to make once-favorite Buffalo look like they will be in a transition year. Who steps up in their place or can they accommodate to the changes and stay on track?
2. Frank Solich’s retirement from Ohio after over 15 years of sustained success – when factored into the Bobcats historic ineptitude – leaves a hole in the MAC as well as in Athens, OH. What will that do to the balance of power in the East Division?
3. Who is the next coach to move up to a Power 5 job? My money is on Sean Lewis of Kent State.
4. Can Ball State be great again with basically everyone back from perhaps their best team ever?
Order of Finish:
1. Kent State – this is the time for the Golden Flashes, a perennial also-ran in the MAC that has trended way up under Sean Lewis. Chaos is their friend with two main rivals in East undergoing coaching changes late.
2. Miami of Ohio – had a bizarre year last year and only played three games but won the East in 2019. Trajectory is up for this program, known as the “Cradle of Coaches” (Hayes, Schembechler, Randy Walker and others)
3. Ohio – Solich leaving will probably be enough of a challenge to keep them from winning the division – and the Bobcats have not won a MAC title since the 1960’s although they’ve been close recently. Not this year but a solid team.
4. Buffalo – too much turnover, but still enough talent to not fall off map
5. Akron – dreadful but trying to rebuild, may have some interesting moments this year
6. Bowling Green – just dreadful
1. Ball State – returns everyone from their MAC Championship team that thumped a very good San Jose State team in the Arizona Bowl for the Cardinals first bowl win ever. They are set up to do it again.
2. Central Michigan – they’ve gone from terrible to very solid under steady leadership from Jim McElwain. Is this the year they take the step into contention for the West?
3. Western Michigan – are the Broncos back on the upswing? A lot of returning talent and what seems to be a favorable schedule. It’s as good a time as any to return to the MAC Title game.
4. Eastern Michigan – one of the toughest places in the country for Division I football due to limits on available players, being in the shadow of Michigan and other challenges. EMU has really improved as a program in the past decade under Chris Creighton’s leadership but have they started to stagnate a bit? This is a big year for them.
5. Toledo – see above kind of (except for historically Toledo has been one of the better MAC programs). Jason Candle has gone from the next Matt Campbell to maybe being on a bit of a hot seat
6. Northern Illinois – the Huskies have really struggled in recent years, failing to capitalize on close proximity to Chicago (and the fact that Chicago may not be producing as much DI talent as it used to. They seem to be heading towards a bottoming out.
Conference Champion – Ball State
Coach on the Hottest Seat:
Scott Loeffler – Bowling Green – easily one of the worst programs in America right now, the Falcons were so disorganized and off last year that the staff admitted that they were waiting until the last minute to signal to their defensive players what the call was to try to “confuse the offense”. It was a recipe for what they got – a disaster. Unlike Akron where they may be some hope, Loeffler – who was always a curious hire considering his less than mediocre track record as an OC in the Power 5 at places like Auburn and Boston College – is absolutely on firing watch.
Mountain West Conference:
1. Big changes at Boise State after they lost to San Jose State for the Mountain West Championship. Boise has been just good not great the last couple of seasons. What will we get under new head coach Andy Avalos?
2. Is San Jose State a blip on the radar or are they here to stay? Their circumstances as more of a commuter school in a very non-high school football/college football area always make it tough for the Spartans to have sustained success. Brent Brennan seems like the man with the plan. Interested to watch this year.
3. Like so many of these other G5 conferences, the musical chairs game of who might jump to a Big 12 or join a super-conference will certainly be played the whole season although it’s likely we’ll have to wait until 2022 or later for real action. You’d think Boise as a brand would be attractive as would those with proximity to larger media markets like Colorado State/San Diego State.
Order of Finish:
1. Boise State – I believe the reinvigoration from Avalos – who played and coached there on the defensive side of the ball may be just what the doctor ordered. Boise played for the MWC title so it’s not like they fell off the map – but I think they get their edge back.
2. San Diego State – consistent year after year. If they can break through on offense in a more dynamic way, this could be their year.
3. San Jose State – even though they won’t sneak up on anyone and lost some production, the foundation really seems to be there to keep challenging for the conference title.
4. Nevada – poised to be really good this year with a great offense. Really this top 4 is what I would call the best in the league, there’s drop-off after that.
5. Wyoming – steady but dropping a bit.
6. Fresno State – may make a jump back this year
7. Hawaii – Todd Graham gets a full year to implement his scheme – I see likely 6-7 win type season.
8. Air Force – struggling of late by their standards, we’ll see if they can turn it around.
9. Utah State – still digging out from the Gary Andersen era. Next year is when I’d see them making a move.
10. Colorado State – not seeing it with Addazio and his ground and pound scheme
11. New Mexico – still in full-on rebuild for another year.
12. UNLV – still bad, trying to find some kind of rhythm and movement
Conference Champion – Boise State
Coach on the Hottest Seat:
A lot of the coaches in the MWC are in their first year or two. I think Addazio with another dud year could be on hot seat but he’s not getting fired after two years. Best nominee here is likely Troy Calhoun if Air Force falls way off. Calhoun has been pretty successful overall but the Falcons have been stuck in neutral for some time now.