10 school soccer groups on the rise and 10 on the decline in 2021
The 2021 college football season is fast approaching. There is a sense of normalcy to that, even though the coronavirus pandemic had not ended. Some teams have amped up their expectations for 2021, while others might be headed toward a regression — or continue to slide.
Here’s a look at 10 teams that could see improvement in 2021 and 10 who might falter — in some cases further — this season.
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After winning 11 games in 2019, Air Force was a .500 squad (3-3) during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. With a full season ahead, expect the Falcons to be more of a challenger to favorite Boise State in the Mountain West’s West Division. With its option attack, Air Force will again rate among the national leaders in rushing (fourth in FBS at 305.7 yards per game in 2020), but it might come down to how well it plays defense. A handful of starters return for a defensive unit that yielded more than 17 points just once last season. Linebacker Demonte Meeks and cornerback Milton Bugg are also back after missing 2020.
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Bryan Harsin had years of success at Boise State, but the SEC is a different animal. Not to mention the SEC West, where the Tigers won’t have an easy task under their first-year coach. Bo Nix has thrown for nearly 5,000 yards in his first two college seasons, but former LSU quarterback T.J. Finley is also in the mix. Issues on the offensive line remain, and Auburn allowed 30 or more points four times while going 6-5 during coach Gus Malzahn’s final season of 2020. The Tigers also play at Penn State, LSU, and Texas A&M this season.
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In 2019, LSU went 15-0 and won a national championship with one of the best teams in college football history. Last season, the Tigers went 5-5 and lost to Alabama and Auburn by a combined 75 points. However, the Tigers won their final two games over Florida and Mississippi. Only five starters returned in 2020, but 18 are back this season. Myles Brennan and Max Johnson are each worthy of starting under center while defensive back Derek Stingley is one of the nation’s top players.
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Dave Aranda’s first season at Waco was obviously disappointing at 2-7. So, things can only go up, right? Maybe, but it still might take some time. The Bears still need to fill the quarterback spot and improve a defense that allowed an average of 29.2 points in 2020. But, Trestan Ebner (891 rushing yards, 1,231 receiving yards in four seasons) is one of the most versatile athletes in the nation and the Bears get Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma at home. So, all hope might not be lost for ’21.
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Looking for a dark horse in the SEC West? The Rebels might be the team to surprise. Ole Miss returns 17 starters from last season’s 5-5 team that knocked off then-No. 7 Indiana in the Outback Bowl. Matt Corral (3,337 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in 2020)) might be the best quarterback in the SEC, Jerrion Ealy (1,467 rushing yards in 2019 and ’20) could be a 1,000-yard rusher and Dontario Drummond (25 receptions, seven TDs in 2020) is a receiver to watch.
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With coach Lance Leipold now at Kansas, a fourth straight winning season could still be in the cards for Buffalo. However, the Bulls also lost some significant talent to the transfer portal and are not favored to win the Mid-American Conference East Division. Especially with late-season road dates as Miami (Ohio) and Ball State. That said, running back Kevin Marks Jr. (2,621 career rushing yards, 28 touchdowns) might be the best player in the MAC.
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For the first time during Penn State’s storied football history, it opened a season with five consecutive losses. However, the Nittany Lions won their final four games of 2020, beginning with a 10-point triumph at the Big House. They’ll return 17 starters in 2021, and should be in the mix for second in the Big Ten East, behind Ohio State. Sean Clifford has thrown for 39 touchdowns over the last two years while receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington (combined 14 touchdowns last season) might be the league’s best receiving tandem. The defense, though, needs to improve after averaging 27.7 points in 2020.
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Decline: Florida State
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Three straight losing seasons is something not associated with Florida State football. That’s the case, however, and though the Seminoles should be more experienced and confident during Mike Norvell’s second season, a brutal schedule could prevent them from making a bowl game. Florida State hosts Notre Dame and Miami but travels to North Carolina, Clemson, Boston College, and Florida. That said, plenty of eyes will be on former UCF star quarterback McKenzie Milton and his return to the field.
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Rise: San Diego State
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Led by talented running back — and Nebraska transfer — Greg Bell, the Aztecs should be better than the 4-4 team they were in 2020. Bell rushed for 637 yards with six touchdowns in seven games last season. The key will be keeping him healthy, as SDSU, with its 17 returning starters, should challenge Nevada and San Jose State for the Mountain West’s West Division crown. Linebacker Caden McDonald and defensive end Cameron Thomas combined for 8 1/2 sacks last season.
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Decline: Kansas State
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Full disclosure: We could be on the fence some with the Wildcats, who won at Oklahoma but lost at home to Arkansas State last season. With a 4-6 2020, K-State has now suffered losing seasons two of the last three years. However, a healthy Skylar Thompson at quarterback could make the Wildcats more competitive in 2021. So should a defense that doesn’t allow more than 30 points in six games like last season. The Wildcats, who still have a good one in coach Chris Klieman, enter this season on a five-game losing streak.
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Following a 1-3 start, TCU won five of its final six games. The Horned Frogs also beat a pair of ranked teams in Texas and Oklahoma State. That’s plenty to build on this season. Quarterback Max Duggan has thrown for 3,872 yards and rushed for 1,081 in his two seasons at the helm of the TCU offense. Meanwhile, defensive ends Ochaun Mathis and Kahri Coleman (combined 12 sacks in 2020) are bookends that can cause plenty of havoc.
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In two of the last three years, Louisville has posted a losing record. The Cardinals have also lost six straight road games dating to 2019. Now, Scott Satterfield has an eight-win season (2019) under his belt, but the Cardinals were just too inconsistent while going 4-7 last season. There has to be some consistency if things are to improve in 2021. Non-conference matchups with Ole Miss and UCF, plus a challenging ACC slate, could make reaching a bowl tough once again.
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There will be plenty of eyes on Central Florida, where the aforementioned Gus Malzahn takes over a program that went 35-4 from 2017-’19 before going 6-4 and losing to BYU 49-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Cincinnati is still the class of the American Athletic Conference at the moment, but Malzahn’s experience and vision should have the Knights in a better spot this season — if they’re healthier than a season ago. Dillon Gabriel has thrown for 7,223 yards with 61 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his two collegiate seasons.
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Decline: Michigan State
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For the Spartans, it might be a case where things stay down before they head up. Coach Mel Tucker’s late signing didn’t offer much time for preparation and the Spartans went 2-5. However, those wins came over Michigan and Big Ten West winner Northwestern. The Spartans could benefit from a bevy of transfers (Ex-Temple QB Anthony Russo), but the offensive line and a running game that averaged 2.7 yards per carry need some major improvement.
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Perhaps no team had a stranger than strange 2020 season than Utah. The Utes played just five games and didn’t open the campaign until Nov. 21. Utah won its final three games after losing the first two. It returns 19 players from that group and hopes the potential 2021 normalcy will make for a more successful season. Receiver Britain Covey and his 132 career receptions return, as does linebacker Devin Lloyd (team-leading 48 tackles in 2020), from a defense that allowed more than 28 points one time last year.
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Decline: Northern Illinois
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From 2010-’18, the Huskies won at least eight games on nine occasions. They’ve won five the last two years, none of which came over their six games in 2020. In NIU’s defense, second-year coach Thomas Hammock, according to college football analyst Phil Steele, had 14 walk-ons see time in 2020. Though there is talent on offense, like all-purpose star Tyrice Richie (53 receptions), a defense that allowed an average of 38.7 points must improve for the Huskies to record more than a win or two in 2021.
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A full-season and healthy quarterback Graham Mertz might be what Wisconsin needs to bounce back from a 3-3 season and a third-place finish in the Big Ten West. Mertz (1,238 passing yards in 2020) threw five of his nine total touchdowns last season in the opener. His COVID issues and injuries to others on the Badgers’ offense hindered Mertz’s progression in 2020. It would also help if receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor can stay healthy. Of course, the Badgers defense, who held five teams to 17 or fewer points last season, should be among the best units in the country.
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COVID-19 really hindered the Owls last season. Rod Caray’s group didn’t start the season until Oct. 10, and their only victory in seven games came against USF. The quarterback position is an issue (Anthony Russo transferred to Michigan State), but Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis could prove to be an ideal replacement. The main area of concern remains on the defensive side of the ball, however, where Temple allowed an average of 37.1 points in 2020.
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Wyoming finished 2-4 in 2020, but three of those losses came by eight points or less. The Cowboys also return 21 starters, including linebacker Chad Muma, who recorded a team-high 72 tackles — plus three sacks — from a unit that held four opponents to 17 or fewer points. Running back Xazavian Valladay rushed for 1,265 yards in 2019 and 550 while averaging 5.6 per carry, through five games last season. Expect the Cowboys, along with Air Force, to challenge Boise State for the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title.
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Tennessee’s issues might go beyond the actual football field, but the 3-7 performance in 2020 (following an eight-win 2019) was a concerning regression. New coach Josh Heupel might be the right guy to get the Volunteers’ program back on track, but it could take some time. Nearly 30 players from last season’s group entered the transfer portal . Michigan transfer Joe Milton seems like a good fit at the quarterback position, but defense remains an issue. The Vols have allowed an average of 37.4 points during an eight-game losing streak against ranked SEC teams.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.