Top 10 Questions Facing College Football This Year
College football will look and feel a little different this year. After a year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in nearly all intra-conference schedules, college football returns to a sense of normalcy in 2021. Still, brand new evolutions are on the way, with NIL restrictions being lifted, the dominance of the transfer portal and a looming College Football Playoff expansion.
With a season set to reinvigorate the nation's most passionate sports fans, new storylines will unfold, presenting the most pressing questions as we inch closer to the kickoff of the 2021 college football season. Here are Tide 100.9's biggest questions heading into the new season.
Question 1: Who is the star of college football in 2021?
With names like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and DeVonta Smith in the NFL, it feels like there's a lack of true superstardom in the college football world this season. Sure, there's Heisman trophy front-runner Spencer Rattler quarterbacking the Oklahoma Sooners, or even Sam Howell with the underdog North Carolina Tar Heels.
A star could be born on the defensive side this season with a lack of big names at quarterback. Maybe those putting the most pressure on the passers such as Alabama's Will Anderson or Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux?
The best bet may be between two 5-star quarterbacks from the 2020 recruiting class: Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei or Alabama's Bryce Young. Both look to take over for the congruent dynasties of the sport and both have the skill to lead their respective programs to the promised land.
Whoever that star may be, the entire nation's pool of college football players must realize a chance to captivate the national audience is at hand.
Question 2: Can Kayvon Thibodeaux become the first true defensive Heisman Trophy winner? If not him then who?
Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux has set some major goals for himself this season which even include the Heisman. In the past, the Heisman Trophy has been given to nearly exclusively offensive players. The only defense payer to win this award was Charles Woodson in 1997, but also played offense and special teams for Michigan.
In years past, we've seen the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Chase Young take the stage as finalists. Thibodeaux comes into the 2021 season with 12 career sacks, nine of which he secured as a freshman. If he can eclipse 16.5 posted by Young in 2019 or the monstrous effort by Suh in 2009, he could very well find himself on the stage with the emerging stars of college football. If Thibodeaux falls short, the task may fall to LSU cornerback Derek Stingley.
Question 3: Which SEC West Team will truly challenge Alabama?
Texas A&M? LSU? Ole Miss? Hell, Arkansas?
Someone in the SEC West has to step up and give Alabama a challenge now that the Crimson Tide has to replace eight offensive starters, including five first-rounders and three of the top five Heisman Trophy vote receivers.
Under Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies from College Station may have the most experience and size to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama, but the history isn't pretty. Alabama has hung at least 40 points in all but two of the last seven meetings while TAMU hasn't managed to score 30. Add to the fact that offense is the question for Fisher as he breaks in a new quarterback, it may not yet be the Aggies turn.
LSU is dealing with a lot of outside noise, but in a pure football conversation, the Tigers still have a road to recovery from the mass exodus it faced after winning the 2019 CFP national championship. With question marks littered throughout the program, it may still be a few years yet before the Bayou Bengals return to national relevance.
It all comes down to Ole Miss. Last season, the Rebels gave the Crimson Tide its toughest fight through 14 games, falling 63-48. Still Ole Miss returns quarterback Matt Corrall and the offensive mastermind Lane Kiffin is still pulling the strings. This game may be in Tuscaloosa, but it could very well prove to be the Crimson Tide's biggest SEC West test of the year.
Question 4: Can an experienced D’Eriq King and Miami Hurricanes upset an inexperienced Bryce Young-led Alabama Crimson Tide in Week 1?
After spending three seasons at the University of Houston, D’Eriq King took his talents to South Beach and joined the Miami Hurricanes in 2020. Now with a year under his belt in Manny Diaz's offense, King is considered one of college football’s best dual-threat quarterbacks.
In Week 1 of the season, he and the Hurricanes take on their toughest opponents yet, the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, led by first-year quarterback Bryce Young. Despite comparisons to Bama great Tua Tagovailoa and taking the reigns as a 5-star prospect, Young is wildly inexperienced compared to King, having yet to see significant action. King and the Hurricanes finished the 2020 campaign strong and if The U can take full advantage of the sophomore’s potential mistakes and, the green and orange could leave Atlanta with the upset victory.
Question 5: Is Georgia a contender or a pretender?
The Georgia Bulldogs have had a mostly positive offseason, but not without having to clear a few hurdles. The Dawgs utilized the transfer portal to bring in two of college football’s best athletes in defensive back Derion Kendrick and tight end Arik Gilbert. While Georgia appears set at the quarterback position with incumbent JT Daniels, star receiver George Pickens will likely miss the entire 2020 season with a torn ACL.
Head Coach Kirby Smart is wily, and his Bulldogs are enamored by high expectations that should place the squad in the SEC Championship once again. But UGA hasn't been a program keen on exceeding its expectations in recent years. Georgia may have the run on the SEC East, but its place in the national picture still leaves a massive question mark to be answered.
Question 6: Did Chris Olave make a mistake by coming back to Ohio State for an extra season?
Many viewed WR Chris Olave as a surefire first-round pick in a talented 2021 NFL Draft class, but Olave didn’t think the timing was right and decided to return to Ohio State. Still, his decision has been called into question because the 2022 receiver class is just as good with names such as Georgia’s George Pickens, Clemson’s Justyn Ross, and Alabama’s John Metchie headlining the class.
The competition doesn't end there, as his spot as the true number one in Colombus isn't secured with Garrett Wilson catching the nation's attention. Moreover, there's still a question as to who the starting quarterback will be. CJ Stroud is expected to win the job, but can he produce for Olave just as Justin Fields did the past two seasons?
His talent alone, as well as some luck in the health department, should keep him in the conversation to be the top wide receiver drafted. Until the Buckeyes take the field in 2021, however, Olave's status as a premier target is a question anyone with their eye on the national pulse should keep in mind.
Question 7: Is Liberty QB Malik Willis the real deal?
After backing up Bo Nix a couple of seasons ago at Auburn, quarterback Malik Willis transferred to Liberty University. During his first season at Liberty in 2020, Willis and the Flames took college football by storm, finishing 10-1 under head coach Hugh Freeze losing by a single point to NC State. Liberty finished the season ranked No. 17.
Last season Willis had 2,260 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns to just 6 interceptions, nearly 1,000 yards rushing, and 14 touchdowns on the ground. If he can build on last season’s success and prove he can play at a high level against college football’s best, he’s a surefire first-rounder as most project him to be. Just as well, he could have the Flames in the conversation for the College Football Playoff.
Question 8: Which Group of 5 programs has the best chance to push into the CFP?
Speaking of a Group of 5 program making a CFP push, it seems hard-pressed to think anyone will replicate the best chance this half of college football had last year when Cincinnati finished undefeated and No. 6 in the final CFP rankings.
The best bet may be the Bearcats once again. Cincy will play Indiana and Notre Dame this season, and both should be ranked for the meeting. An undefeated season may mean something for once for Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford and the second school in Ohio.
Whether it's Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Louisiana or the Bearcats once again though, it seems likely that the best programs from the Group of 5 will have to continue to wait for the expansion. After all, neither Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson or Oklahoma have particularly difficult schedules. The Group of 5 needs chaos more than skill in 2021.
Question 9: Which mid-tier Power 5 school has the best shot of derailing Ohio State, Clemson or Oklahoma?
But what is a college football season without a bit of chaos?
Alabama hasn't lost to an unranked team since 2007. For Oklahoma and Clemson, it was 2017. Ohio State was the most recent in 2018. The four horsemen of the college football scene are not equal in this regard, but after a season where these teams were able to trudge through conference schedules and decimated programs, it may be time to update those record books.
Oklahoma has the easiest road of the three in question to escape its unranked foes. The team has a two-game losing streak to Kansas State, but that streak should end in 2021. The Sooners will host Nebraska, and though the Huskers have been down-trodden for years, it may be the best chance for unranked mayhem to befall OU.
Ohio State plays this game quite often, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against unranked opponents on a yearly basis. The Buckeyes could be in for a tough ride in its first two weeks with Minnesota and Oregon, but Ohio State is known for starting strong and these programs are not. No, the Buckeyes trip in the middle of the season inexplicably. Enter Taulia Tagovailoa and the Maryland Terrapins. Sure, the odds of Tua's little brother stealing a W in The Horseshoe are slim, but they ain't zero.
As for the Clemson Tigers, good luck. The ACC is terrible. The Florida State Seminoles may be the best chance as this game is pinned between road trips to Pittsburgh and Louisville, two trouble makers that can sneak up on unsuspecting teams. The Seminoles are the depths of a rebuild desperate for momentum. If FUS builds some early behind McKenzie Milton at quarterback, this may be the best chance to derail Dabo Swinney's South Carolina juggernaut.
Question 10: Is anyone ready to carry the PAC-12 back into the CFP?
If the PAC-12 hasn't made the CFP in five years, shouldn't the conferences be divided as the Power 4 and Group of 6? Well, no, because the PAC-12 does play exciting football.
Hey, PAC-12 After Dark returns this year in full force!
The problem the West Coast faces is that no one stands above the rest. Sure the ACC is terrible, but Clemson dominates and is competitive on the national scene. If any team survives the PAC-12, the chance to succeed in the postseason is null.
Truthfully, the best bets are Oregon and USC. The Trojans bring the quarterback experience in Kedon Slovis, while the Ducks return a formidable defense. If either wants to make noise on the national scene, one of them must take the reigns in the conference and establish dominance now. Otherwise, when expansion does come to the playoffs, the PAC-12 could manage to still find itself on the outside looking in.