Photo courtesy of Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Every year people complain that the same teams get into the College Football Playoff at the end of the year. In a world in which only a small handful of teams get a shot at the sport’s biggest prize, there has been a lot of controversy and arguing over whether or not to let more teams into the dance. Every year there are at least one or two teams with a legitimate gripe at being left on the outside looking in; for instance Texas A&M in 2020. So heading into 2021, let’s take a look at the teams that have the best chances to crash the big dance come January.
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-1 in 2020)
2021 is shaping up perfectly for Cincy fans as the Bearcats return a number of starters on both offense and defense. QB Desmond Ridder had a solid year last year and will look to lead the Bearcats offense to even higher highs. Cincinnati also adds former Alabama running back Jerome Ford to the mix. On the other side of the ball, the Bearcats stingy defense returns several key guys including Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant and defensive end Myjai Sanders. All of these guys look to put Cincinnati in a position that no other Group of 5 team has ever accomplished, a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The path, however, is not an easy one for Cincy. The Bearcats have two daunting road trips to the state of Indiana in 2021, facing the Hoosiers and the Irish on the road. If they could somehow pull off wins there, they would be sitting pretty heading into AAC play. In conference, the Bearcats have road games at Tulane, Navy and Tulsa. Then huge matchups with SMU and UCF at home. If Cincy can find itself undefeated or with one loss heading into November, they might just find themselves ranked in the Top 4.
Iowa State Cyclones (9-3 in 2020)
What’s not to love about this Iowa State team heading into 2020? The Cyclones get key offensive weapons in QB Brock Purdy, TE Charlie Kolar and All-American RB Breece Hall back this season. Not to mention that ISU has one of the hottest coaching names in all of college football in Matt Campbell. All Campbell has done in his five seasons in Ames is take a struggling 3-9 program to new heights and a Big 12 Championship game appearance in 2020.
The first big hurdle standing in the Cyclones way this season is a September 11th match-up with in state rival Iowa (we’ll talk about them later). Get by them and Cyclones are in prime position to make another run through the Big 12. Unfortunately, the conference schedule did not fall into Iowa State’s favor as the Cyclones have to make road trips to Waco, Manatthan, Morgantown and Norman, some of the most difficult places to play in the Big 12. At least they drew Texas and Ok State at home. I don’t believe that Iowa State has to be perfect, but anything more than two losses and no Big 12 title will surely dash any hopes at a playoff bid. However, even a one loss, conference champion Iowa State team will definitely have an argument come December.
Texas A&M Aggies (9-1 in 2020)
“Hullabaloo Caneck! Caneck!” The Aggies are ready for war in 2021 after a strong season a year ago. Many around College Station thought 2020 was going to be the year for the Aggies (that was back before COVID). Unfortunately, the global pandemic stopped that from happening, even though the Aggies were right on the cusp of a playoff birth. This year the Aggies will need to replace QB Kellen Mond and several pieces on the offensive line. The good news for Aggie fans is the return of weapons Isaiah Spiller, Devon Archane & Ainias Smith. On defense, the Aggies look strong at several key positions up front and at linebacker. The key concern for A&M will be the play of their defensive backs.
The 2020 season may not have worked out like the Aggies wanted, however 2021 is shaping up to be even better. A rather lackluster non-conference slate that includes Colorado, Kent State, New Mexico and Prairie View A&M, is backed up by that daunting SEC West schedule. The good news for the Aggies, no Georgia or Florida from the East, and they get the fortune of hosting Alabama and Auburn at home. Texas A&M also gets a full month to work out the kinks before that October 9th match-up with the Crimson Tide. Watch out for the “Noble Men of Kyle Field”.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (11-1 in 2020)
Living here in the Palmetto State, its easy to say that the one thing we South Carolinians all agreed on in 2020 was that we were all Coastal Carolina fans. The Chanticleers were the darlings of college football a year ago. A program that came out of nowhere to end up with an 11-1 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship. The mullets were in full force a season ago and I predict they make another appearance in Conway this season. QB Grayson McCall was fantastic in his first year leading the Chants offense, and although leading rusher CJ Marable is gone, that’s all the Chants lost on offense this offseason. On defense, the Chants also return Seniors Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher, who combined for over 150 tackles last year. Coastal also gets All-Sun Belt DB D’Jordan Strong back. The Chants offense may get all the love, but it’s the defense that really shines.
The schedule may not be the greatest or the flashiest, but don’t be fooled or judge a book by its cover. The Chants have a couple of really challenging games on the road this year, including a non-conference game at Buffalo on Sept. 18 and road Sun Belt games at Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and App State. No Marshall or BYU this year, so the biggest threat standing in Coastal’s way will be that game up in Boone. Head Coach Jamey Chadwell is building something special down in Conway and the Chanticleers are in prime position to continue their success from 2021. They may not get the love of the Playoff committee, but they definitely get the love of college football fans around the nation.
Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2 in 2020)
The Hawkeyes may have only gone 6-2 in a shortened, COVID stricken 2020 campaign, but the future is bright in Iowa City. Kirk Ferentz keeps doing what he’s always done in his tenure at Iowa, and that is field a highly competitive, tough football team. The Hawkeyes get a ton of guys back on offense including signal caller Spencer Petras and Running Back Tyler Goodson. However, the player to watch for the Hawkeyes is on the defensive side of the ball, Senior DL Zach VanValkenburg. In eight games for Iowa last year, VanValkenburg ended up with 30 tkls, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 4 fumble recoveries. The big guy up front will be the leader of a defense that was second in the BIG 10 overall a year ago.
Iowa’s road to a potential playoff birth starts with a home contest against Indiana and then they hit to road to face in state rival Iowa State, who I mentioned earlier as a team to watch in 2021. Get off to a 2-0 start, then its Kent State and Colorado State before getting into the meat of their conference schedule. Good news Hawkeye faithful, Iowa misses Ohio State and Michigan in the regular season. The biggest hurdle they may face will be a Halloween eve meeting with Wisconsin up in Madison. Looking at the Hawkeye’s schedule, it is entirely plausible they could be 11-1 or even 12-0 and heading to Indy for the BIG 10 Championship Game.
UCF Knights (6-4 in 2020)
You may ask “Really? You think a 6-4 UCF team can make a potential playoff push in 2021?” Crazy, right? Not really. Central Florida fans are going to have a lot to look forward too in 2021. UCF made one of the biggest coaching hires in the offense going after former Auburn HC Gus Malzahn. The “Gus Bus” has arrived in Orlando and is ready to make a splash. QB Dillion Gabriel returns for UCF after throwing for over 3,500 yards and 32 touchdowns in just 10 games last year. The Knights offensive attack looks unstoppable heading into the fall, but the biggest improvement will be on defense. UCF was embarrassing on defense last year giving up over 500 ypg and over 30 ppg. However, the transfer portal has been kind to the Knights as former Auburn DL Big Kat Bryant and former WKU DL Ricky Barber look to solidify the Knight’s defensive front.
Looking at UCF’s schedule should also have fans excited. Unlike Cincinnati, the Knights don’t have to worry about big non-conference road games like Indiana and Notre Dame. The Knight’s toughest non-conference game will probably be their opener at home against Boise State. This first game should tell us a lot about where the Knights will be in 2021. Although this is a tasty match-up early in the season, the game circled on every UCF fan’s calendar is on October 16th when the Knights head to Cincinnati. That could be the first of a potential two meetings between the Knights and Bearcats and may determine if a Group of 5 team finally gets their shot in the College Football Playoff.
We’re just a few weeks away from the start of the 2021 college football season. I’d love to hear your take on who you think is the most interesting team to watch outside of the typical contenders.