Predicting every college football Power 5 conference for the 2021 season


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The highlights that make UNC's Sam Howell a Heisman candidate (1:55)

Take a look at highlights from North Carolina QB Sam Howell ahead of his junior season in Chapel Hill. (1:55)

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After a 2020 season and then an offseason like no other, college football is finally back.

As much as things might have changed off the field with name, image and likeness, talk of an expanded College Football Playoff (we think), and Oklahoma and Texas jumping from the Big 12 to the SEC sometime in the near future, not a lot should change on the field. Once again, there's still plenty of distance between the haves and have-nots in the upper echelon of the FBS.

Defending national champion Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma will be right back in the CFP mix, with Georgia, Texas A&M, Oregon and others trying to chase them down.

Here are my predictions for each of the Power 5 leagues:

ACC

Atlantic

Clemson 11-1, 8-0

Boston College 8-4, 5-3

Louisville 7-5, 4-4

NC State 7-5, 4-4

Wake Forest 7-5, 4-4

Florida State 6-6, 4-4

Syracuse 2-10, 0-8

Coastal

North Carolina 10-2, 7-1

Miami 9-3, 6-2

Virginia Tech 6-6, 4-4

Virginia 6-6, 4-4

Pittsburgh 7-5, 3-5

Georgia Tech 4-8, 2-6

Duke 4-8, 1-7

ACC champion: Clemson
Offensive player of the year: Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Defensive player of the year: Bryan Bresee, DL, Clemson
Freshman of the year: Will Shipley, RB, Clemson
Impact transfer: Charleston Rambo, WR, Miami
Coach of the year: Jeff Hafley, Boston College
Coach on the hot seat: Dino Babers, Syracuse
Coordinator that will be a head coach: Tony Elliott, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Nonconference game of the year: Clemson vs. Georgia, Sept. 4
Conference game of the year: Miami at North Carolina, Oct. 16
Upset of the year: Florida State over Miami, Nov. 13

Three bold predictions for the ACC

Clemson wins the ACC (again) but misses the CFP: If the Tigers don't beat Georgia in Saturday night's opener in Charlotte, they still have a great chance of running the table in the ACC, which they've done three times in the previous six seasons. But because of the Tigers' remaining nonconference schedule (FCS program South Carolina State, UConn and South Carolina) and the fact they don't play North Carolina, Notre Dame or Miami during the regular season, they might not reach the CFP for a seventh straight season, especially if teams like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma finish unbeaten or with only one loss.

Miami loses to Alabama and falls off a cliff: The Crimson Tide have not only beaten ACC teams badly in neutral-site openers since 2013, they've sucked the life out of them for the rest of the season. In four such openers against Virginia Tech (2013), Florida State (2017), Louisville (2018) and Duke (2019), the Tide won by an average of 29.5 points. The Seminoles were the only team that stayed within three touchdowns, losing 24-7 in Atlanta. Each of those four ACC teams went on to lose at least five games. With tricky nonconference games against Appalachian State and Michigan State coming next, the Hurricanes better not let the opener get out of hand.

Mike Norvell takes Florida State bowling again: After three straight losing seasons, including a 3-6 record in Novell's first campaign, the Seminoles should be much improved in Year 2. FSU might open the season playing two quarterbacks (UCF transfer McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis), but Norvell figures to settle on one of them before too long. FSU went into the transfer portal often to shore up a defense that surrendered 36 points and 456.3 yards per game in 2020. Former Georgia linebacker Jermaine Johnson and South Carolina defensive lineman Keir Thomas should provide immediate help. The slate is difficult with nonconference games against Notre Dame and Florida and ACC crossover games against Miami and North Carolina. Legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden liked where the program was headed under Norvell, and that should be good enough for all of us to believe.

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Check out highlights from Texas RB Bijan Robinson as he looks to have a strong sophomore campaign with the Longhorns.

Big 12

Oklahoma 12-0, 9-0

Iowa State 10-2, 7-2

Texas 9-3, 6-3

Oklahoma State 8-4, 5-4

TCU 8-4, 5-4

Kansas State 7-5, 5-4

West Virginia 7-5, 4-5

Texas Tech 5-7, 2-7

Baylor 4-8, 2-7

Kansas 1-11, 0-9

Big 12 champion: Oklahoma
Offensive player of the year: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Defensive player of the year: Mike Rose, LB, Iowa State
Freshman of the year: Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas
Impact transfer: Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma
Coach of the year: Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Coach on the hot seat: Matt Wells, Texas Tech
Coordinator that will be a head coach: Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma
Nonconference game of the year: Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 11
Conference game of the year: Iowa State at Oklahoma, Nov. 20
Upset of the year: West Virginia over Iowa State, Oct. 30

Three bold predictions for the Big 12

This will be the last Big 12 season for Oklahoma and Texas: It's going to get downright uncomfortable for the Longhorns and Sooners on the road during Big 12 play this season. The Longhorns' road trips to TCU and Baylor could be very unpleasant, as well as the Sooners' short ride to Oklahoma State for the Bedlam game on Nov. 27. I'm sure the Pokes would like nothing more than to knock the Sooners out of the CFP hunt. Even the Rice Owl Band must be licking its chops for a Sept. 18 game in Austin. Although administrators from both OU and Texas have said they intend to honor their commitment to the Big 12 through May 2025, I'm betting they both end up in the SEC sooner than that for everyone's sake.

Oklahoma makes the CFP but loses again: The Sooners have reached the CFP four times, losing once under Bob Stoops and three times under Lincoln Riley. OU came close to winning a semifinal game after the 2017 regular season, when Georgia came from behind to win 54-48 in two overtimes at the Rose Bowl. Of course, there's no shame in losing to No. 1 seed Clemson in 2015, No. 1 seed Alabama in 2018 and No. 1 seed LSU in 2019, but those games weren't very competitive. Oklahoma is getting closer and closer to narrowing the gap in terms of defensive talent, but they'll come up short again in the semifinals this season.

Two Big 12 players will be invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony: Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler is widely considered the Heisman favorite heading into the season, after passing for 3,031 yards with 34 total touchdowns in 11 games as a first-time starter in 2021. He'll undoubtedly put up eye-popping numbers again. But Robinson, the ultra-talented Texas running back, might end up being the most valuable offensive player in the league. Last season, he averaged 8.2 yards per carry, a Texas single-season record. Unfortunately, Tom Herman committed coaching malpractice by limiting Robinson to only 86 carries -- 27 fewer than quarterback Sam Ehlinger and six more than Roschon Johnson. Robinson had 355 rushing yards with six total scores in the last two games of 2020.

Big Ten

East

Ohio State 11-1, 8-1

Penn State 9-3, 6-3

Indiana 8-4, 6-3

Michigan 7-5, 5-4

Maryland 6-6, 4-5

Michigan State 5-7, 3-6

Rutgers 4-8, 1-8

West

Wisconsin 10-2, 8-1

Iowa 9-3, 7-2

Northwestern 7-5, 4-5

Minnesota 7-5, 4-5

Nebraska 5-7, 3-6

Purdue 4-8, 2-7

Illinois 4-8, 2-7

Big Ten champion: Ohio State
Offensive player of the year: Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Defensive player of the year: Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern
Freshman of the year: Jack Sawyer, DE, Ohio State
Impact transfer: Stephen Carr, RB, Indiana
Coach of the year: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Coach on the hot seat: Scott Frost, Nebraska
Coordinator that will be a head coach: Jim Leonhard, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin
Nonconference game of the year: Ohio State vs. Oregon, Sept. 11
Conference game of the year: Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 30
Upset of the year: Northwestern over Wisconsin, Nov. 13

Three bold predictions for the Big Ten

Jim Harbaugh saves his job: The Wolverines won't beat Ohio State (again), but they'll do enough to ensure that Harbaugh returns for an eighth season in 2022, which will be widely celebrated in the rest of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes will defeat the team from up north for a ninth straight time, which will equal the longest winning streak in the series (the Wolverines also won nine in a row from 1901-09). Michigan's last victory over OSU was a 40-34 win on Nov. 26, 2011 -- only 3,567 days ago if anyone is counting.

Nebraska won't go bowling: Scott Frost knows his homecoming at Nebraska hasn't gone as expected. The Cornhuskers under Frost are 12-21 after Saturday's loss to Illinois, haven't had more than a two-game winning streak and haven't gone bowling in four years -- their longest such streak in six decades. He told Nebraska fans this summer, "Starting to feel like The Charlie Daniels Band -- used to be really big, now he just plays county fairs and stuff like that." Actually, Scott, Charlie Daniels hasn't played in quite a while (check the internet). Last month, new athletics director Trev Alberts didn't look happy about an NCAA investigation into improper workouts during the COVID-19 shutdown (especially when the Cornhuskers didn't seem to get any better). Sounds like Frost was in a bind because he was way behind so he was willing to make a deal. Frost even tried to dodge a game against Oklahoma. He's certainly not upholding the spirit of the '71 Huskers, aka the best there's ever been.

Wisconsin will be a serious CFP contender: Few teams were as hampered by COVID-19 as the Badgers last season, and people might be sleeping on their CFP chances this season. Wisconsin's Big Ten schedule is very favorable; it plays Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern at home, and Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers and Minnesota on the road. Plus, it doesn't play Indiana or Ohio State during the regular season. Wisconsin's offense has to be better after averaging its fewest yards and points in 17 years last season. If quarterback Graham Mertz stays healthy, and tailback Jalen Berger is as good as he looked in spurts last season, the Badgers are going to be difficult to beat.

Pac-12

North

Oregon 10-2, 8-1

Washington 9-3, 6-3

Stanford 7-5, 5-4

California 6-6, 4-5

Oregon State 4-8, 2-7

Washington State 3-9, 1-8

South

USC 10-2, 7-2

Utah 9-3, 7-2

Arizona State 8-4, 5-4

UCLA 8-4, 5-4

Colorado 4-8, 3-6

Arizona 2-10, 1-8

Pac-12 champion: Oregon
Offensive player of the year: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Defensive player of the year: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
Freshman of the year: Korey Foreman, DE, USC
Impact transfer: Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah
Coach of the year: Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Coach on the hot seat: Clay Helton, USC
Coordinator that will be a head coach: Graham Harrell, offensive coordinator, USC
Nonconference game of the year: Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Conference game of the year: Oregon at Washington, Nov. 6
Upset of the year: Colorado over Washington, Nov. 20

Three bold predictions for the Pac-12

A Pac-12 team makes the CFP: Pac-12 teams have grabbed only two of the 28 spots that were available in the first seven editions of the CFP. A Pac-12 team hasn't been selected to compete in the CFP since Washington was trounced by Alabama 24-7 in a semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in 2016. Pac-12 football, which seemed to be on life support at times the past few years, finally gets a much-needed jolt this season. Any one of five Pac-12 teams -- Arizona State, Oregon, USC, Utah or Washington -- will catch lightning in a bottle, finish 12-1 and be the No. 4 seed, after a few of the CFP favorites lose a couple of times.

Hey, remember Chip Kelly: It has been 11 years since Kelly guided Oregon and its high-flying offense to the national championship game, where the Ducks lost to Auburn 22-19 on Wes Bynum's 19-yard field goal as time expired. Kelly spent two more seasons at Oregon, bolted for the NFL and then came back to the league at UCLA in 2018. So far, we hardly knew he was there. The Bruins went a combined 10-21 in his first three seasons, 10-15 in the Pac-12. In Kelly's defense, he inherited a mess of a roster from Jim Mora Jr., but the 2021 team is loaded with super seniors and more talented players. If the Bruins get more consistent quarterback play, they could be a legitimate sleeper. They'll give the Pac-12 a jolt of much-needed credibility when they stun LSU at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.

Arizona State falls apart: The Sun Devils have been largely mediocre in Herm Edwards' tenure so far. It's hard to take away much from last season's 2-2 record because the season was derailed by COVID-19. Arizona State has been a popular choice to be the league's breakout team in 2021, but it's difficult to imagine that actually happening with a looming NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations hanging over the program. Three of the team's top recruiters -- defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins, wide receivers coach Prentice Gill and tight ends coach Adam Breneman -- are on administrative leave. Edwards compared the situation to his inability to hit curveballs as a kid. This time, it must feel like Sandy Koufax is throwing them.

play

Check out highlights from Georgia QB JT Daniels ahead of his second season with the Bulldogs.

SEC

East

Georgia 12-0, 8-0

Florida 9-3, 5-3

Kentucky 8-4, 4-4

Missouri 7-5, 3-5

Tennessee 6-6, 3-5

South Carolina 5-7, 2-6

Vanderbilt 2-10, 0-8

West

Alabama 11-1, 7-1

Texas A&M 10-2, 6-2

LSU 8-4, 5-3

Ole Miss 8-4, 4-4

Arkansas 6-6, 3-5

Auburn 6-6, 3-5

Mississippi State 6-6, 3-5

SEC champion: Alabama
Offensive player of the year: Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss
Defensive player of the year: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Freshman of the year: JoJo Earle, WR, Alabama
Impact transfer: Henry To'oTo'o, LB, Alabama
Coach of the year: Kirby Smart, Georgia
Coach on the hot seat: Ed Orgeron, LSU
Coordinator that will be a head coach: Bill O'Brien, offensive coordinator, Alabama
Nonconference game of the year: Clemson vs. Georgia, Sept. 4
Conference game of the year: Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 9
Upset of the year: UCLA over LSU, Sept. 4

Three bold predictions for the SEC

Alabama and Georgia play twice: If the Bulldogs defeat Clemson on Saturday night, they'll have a great chance to run the table -- until they face nemesis Alabama in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide will win that game, but the Bulldogs will get their rematch in the CFP national championship. If quarterback JT Daniels plays well against stiffer competition, and the offensive line holds up, Georgia's offense should be potent, especially once it gets back tight end Darnell Washington. The Bulldogs' front seven on defense is as talented and deep as any in the FBS. Sooner or later, the football gods have to shine on Georgia, right? Or maybe not ...

Nick Saban will lose to a former assistant coach: It's no secret that Saban's teams have rolled opponents coached by his former assistant coaches. He is a perfect 23-0 against his proteges, including a 4-0 mark last season. In fact, he's 11-0 against them in the previous three seasons combined. All streaks must come to an end, I think, and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher will take down his mentor for the first time in five tries in College Station, Texas, on Oct. 9.

Liberty wins the Freeze Bowl: Hugh Freeze turned the Rebels into an SEC West juggernaut in five seasons there from 2012-16, taking them to major bowl games and beating Alabama in consecutive seasons. But then, of course, it came crashing down amid allegations of recruiting violations and an escort scandal, which led to his resignation. Last year, the Flames beat two ACC opponents on the road, and only a one-point loss to a third (15-14 at NC State) prevented them from going unbeaten. Freeze returns to Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 6, and the battle between Corral and Liberty's Malik Willis will be one of the best quarterback matchups of the season. Ole Miss will struggle once again on defense, and Liberty will escape with a 42-39 victory. The Flames will celebrate by carrying Freeze through the Square.