2021-08-26 12:09

It's end of August 2021 and College Football is planned to start again the upcoming weekend, with the so-called WEEK ZERO.

COVID-19 did change the landscape last year, some teams did not play, some did join a conference, all did play less games.
This season it's back to normal, except the usual changes happening from season to season, because some teams decide to switch conference or to downgrade or upgrade inside the NCAA structure.

One major announcement came a few weeks ago, which will change the FBS landscape likely quite heavily.
Texas and Oklahoma did basically say 'we are out of this conference' for 2025 to the BIG 12 and were accepted to join latest 2025 the SEC.
So the SEC will get 2 more major programs and will expand to 16 teams, while the BIG 12 will shrink to 8 teams playing football, losing the 2 most heavy teams they had so far.
It's hard to tell, what this will mean, but right now, my opinion is, the SEC will produce a stronger product to sell, while the BIG 12, at least in football, is demoted to a group of 5 (well, then it would be group of 6) conference, no longer having the power to DO something. Or it falls apart completely.
As you all know, football is just a part of the whole NCAA structure, so this might be not as bad as it seems.
Still with 8 teams the BIG 12 is on the brink of extinction and will likely look for some sort of addition or fusion. Or some teams will look for switch to a different power 5 conference.
I don't see any teams from Power 5 Conferences joining, since the BIG 12 does not look right now like an upgrade.
That leave Group of 5 teams for joining and honestly, right now this might become more a fusion, than an addition.
But ... there are discussion that some conferences in Power 5 level are discussing partnerships, so maybe that will save the BIG 12 or it will destroy it, with all other conference inviting the teams they would like to add and leave the rest ... who knows.
Still, a devasting development for the BIG 12.

There is another discussion going, not gonna happening in the next few seasons, but likely to happen.
That is the expansion of the playoff format, up to 12 teams.
That would solve some major problems with the Group of 5 teams and with right now 5 major conference playing for 4 spots (+ Notre Dame).
With 12 teams there are enough spots to put in at least 1 Group of 5 team and having at least all Power 5 Conference champs in it, plus some more teams, likely competitive.
This will change likely the scheduling system of the regular season, likely will decrease the schedule by at least 1 game.

Now, what is the status of the conference and their teams?

I will give you a short overview starting with the (likely) worst conference in the Group of 5, then Independents and then Power 5 Conferences.
This will take some time and at week zero there are not many high-class games, so I will do a part of that this week and a part next week.

Let's start with the Group of 5 and the weakest conference and then forward.

Conference USA
It's hard to predict how the conference will play internally and inter-conference.

The East Division will be likely decided by Marshall, FAU or WKU.
Marshall has a new HC, Charles Huff, last season RB coach of Alabama and labeled Assistant HC. It's his 1st stint as HC, so this can go every way. Last season the went to the conference final but lost to UAB and decided to let their HC go.
FAU has Willie Taggert as HC in his 2nd year and if he can transform the team back to success, this team can become quite scary. But he failed on the success side since his stint at South Florida and Oregon and Florida State were not great under his management.
WKU under Tyson Helton did have a down season last year, after a good season in his 1st season and now in his 3rd it will be interesting to see, whether we will see a rebound or eventually a new HC next season.
Same is right for Will Healy, HC of Charlotte, who did fall big in the 2nd season of the HC, after a Bowl season his 1st. They got a lot of transfers into an already experienced roster, so likely they will get back into contention, but this all could also fall apart.
Now we get to the teams who will eventually battle it out at the bottom, starting with Middle Tennessee and Rick Stockstill, in his 16th season with the team. He was quite successful in those seasons, except the last 2 seasons. Will he rebound? Or fall again? Tough call.
Butch Davis leads FIU into his 5th season with the team and he also was very successful, but last season it did stop hard. Also, here the question marks are big, whether they will rebound.
And Old Dominion did not play at all last season, which will likely limit them the most this season. Ricky Rahne took over the team last season as former OC of Penn State, but had no season to play. So, this will be his HC season premiere.

The West Division is likely UABs to lose, but UTSA is close.
UAB under 6th season coach Bill Clark, won last season the conference, again after 2018, and they do look like they will run the table again. Quite tough schedule, honestly.
As said, UTSA is just a step behind UAB and 2nd year Jeff Traylor did almost win last season and might have the benefit of building a team up, which usually gives more energy than sustaining a team, and a quite soft schedule.
Skip Holtz is in his 9th season with Louisiana Tech and he was successful with LT, just not THAT successful. He won the division, several time, but never the conference. And he went to a lot of bowls and won them, most of the time. Still the team misses something for the final step. Maybe this season.
A new HC is Will Hall, former OC of several programs, last at Tulane. He is bound to turn Southern Miss around again, but this will tough. But he was already quite successful as HC, so maybe we will see a quick fix.
The bottom feeders start with North Texas, Seth Littrell in his 6th season, having 2 good season a few year ago, but the last 2 years were bad. If this season there is no improvement, we might see some changes. North Texas is too big to be satisfied with this kind of performance.
Next is Rice, which did look like they would improve slowly under Mike Bloomgren, but in his 3rd season under COVID-conditions was a set back from my point of view. They might play much better this season, but they will have to show that, before I believe it.
Last team is UTEP. They are in the 4th year of Dana Dimels reign as HC and did improve from 1 win to now 3 wins last season. They also might get much better this season, still they are UTEP and need to show it.

Overall, the Conference USA will likely be the worst conference this season, again. It will be interesting to see, whether they can produce a ranked team.
Last season they got some votes for UAB in the beginning, but that stopped after week 3 and that's that.

Mid American Conference
A tough flip of a coin to rate this conference 2nd worst conference against the Sun Belt.
The reason to put them here is that the Sun Belt has likely 1 to 2 teams who will get ranking recognition, while the MAC has none.
Right now. Last season they had also 2 teams in the top 25, but lower ranked than the 2 Sun Belt teams.

The East Division is quite open on paper with a lot of uncertain factors. Top 3 teams might be Ohio, Miami (Ohio) and Buffalo (who won the division last season), but all teams have some downer.
Ohio lost their HC Frank Solich to retirement and promoted longtime assistant Tim Albin to HC. So, this might become a seamless transition or a setback. I guess it will be seamless, but you never know.
Miami (Ohio) under 8th season Chuck Martin did peak in 2019 with a conference championship but failed last season to repeat. It's open whether they need another season for reloading / rebuilding, or they will compete from day 1 onward.
And then there is Buffalo, winning the division last season looked likely having a bright future under a Lance Leipold, but ... he decided to quit and left for Kansas (which might backfire as career step, or he will be a hero). So Buffalo has a new HC, Maurice Linguist, a former position coach for several teams in the past, so no HC experience. Repeating under such conditions will be tough.
Kent State might play spoiler for all of the above teams, but they are hard to predict. Sean Lewis has them on the rise, but COVID-19-Season was OK, but that's it, so whether they will top the Ohio Teams and Buffalo is open.
Akron Zips will likely play for the 5th spot, in the 3rd season of Tom Arth. The Zips were quite OK some seasons ago but went to old weakness after coaching changes and still look for recovery / regain of strength. It's unlikely they will compete this season, but also unlikely they will be worse than Bowling Green.
Which leaves Bowling Green as 6th team in the division with a devasting bad team in the past season with zero wins under then 2nd year Scot Loeffler. Now they will look for a rebound, which I doubt will happen, at least in a big leap.

The West Division is likely decided between Ball State, last season’s conference champ, and Toledo.
There is no reason to believe Ball State cannot repeat under Mike Neu in his 6th season. A major part of the team is intact, and Toledo has the find a QB, which makes Ball State the favorite.
Toledo is likely a QB away to compete under 6th season coach Jason Candle, which team did peak last time in 2017 winning the conference. Since then they are rebuilding and this season, they might get it done, pending a QB.
The next 3 spots will be decided between the 3 Michigan teams. You could easily flip a coin which one will win the internal competition, I expect Central Michigan to gain some steam and finish ahead of the Michigans under 3rd year Jim McElwain. It will be a make or break season for him and the team.
Western Michigan under 5th season Tim Lester has likely the best reputation to throw into the mix but they did lack the punch last year. They might push big time this season, I just expect CMU to push a little more.
Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton did do marvels in his past 8 season, since EMU was basically the worst team in football before him and he went with the team to bowl games. Now, I hope he can win a bit more, but competition is hard.
Once a power horse inside the MAC is now Northern Illinois the worst team in the west and Thomas Hammock is fighting for his job in his 3rd season. We might see improvements, but I guess not enough to rise in the ranks.

Overall, the MAC looks like they have a decent strength, but not if you look over the conferences in total.
Some teams have the potential to get ranking recognition, whether they can live up to that is open.

Sun Belt
The Sun Belt did get some recognition nationwide with great plays by Louisiana and especially Coastal Carolina.
Both teams did play very good season and were meant to clash for the final championship game, but thanks to COVID-19, the game was canceled and both teams were name Co-Champs.
In the final AP polls they did finish at 14 and 15, which is pretty good for Sun Belt teams.

No wonder the East division is again Coastal Carolinas to lose. They are Jamey Chadwells 3rd season and it wouldn't surprise me to see him go for a bigger program after the season. His team is quite intact so, all other teams inside the division will have a hard time to beat them.
Second in line is Shawn Clark in his 2nd season at Appalachian State. They might have the energy and the power to top Coastal Carolina, but we will have to see, whether they can do it. Overall, I always see this team the most fit to switch conference and get the next step, but that's just my impression.
Shawn Elliotts Georgia State rebounded last season and went to a bowl, but a year before they did fall from the sky. Likely they will stay in the winning area, but with CCU and App State they will have a hard time getting higher than 3rd.
This season Troy might make a jump, and get into the .500+ area, in Chip Lindseys 3rd season with the program. But with a quite tough schedule they need to make a quality jump to do so.
Hmmm. Everyone is improving, so who will suffer? Chad Lunsford is in his 5th season with Georgia Southern and the team might get a big setback. They need to find a QB and some defense starters. If they can, they might get much higher than 3rd, but otherwise they will battle it out for 3rd to 5th.

And the West division is all Louisiana. Billy Napier is in his 4th season and did lead the team into winning seasons since the start, but last season, even without the championship game, was special. Inside the division, it's hard to see a different contender. But they have a challenging schedule.
Arkansas State could eventually challenge Louisiana, but likely not with a new HC to work with. Butch Jones got in the program after their last HC went to Utah State. Jones will look for a quick rebound to get back into the bigger coaching ranks, but we will see, whether he can do that.
It's close, whether Texas State or South Alabama will get the 3rd spot, but I take Texas State. They have a stable HC situation and great potential. Jake Spavital is in his 3rd season and we will likely see more wins than last season (2), but if it is not much, it's hard to say, what will happen after the season.
South Alabama goes therefore 4th and that's because they have a new HC, Kane Wommack, who was position coach at Indiana the past few seasons and DC. Can he lift the Jaguars back to higher regions? We will see, but I doubt a big 1st season impact.
And as last team I have Louisiana-Monroe, being the most interesting team on the list. Why? Because they hired longtime Akron Zips HC Terry Bowden who was able to higher Rich Rodriguez as OC. Now that's an odd combination, but with a lot of potential. The hires will be judged after a few seasons, but right now it looks like ULM means business and we might see them rise soon.

The Sun Belt has some tough inter-conference games and those will decide the fate of the teams nationally with no doubt. Every upset will help. Every loss will push them a bit deeper into the mud.
There is potential, but I doubt many teams will earn a TOP25 ranking.

Mountain West Conference
Next in line is likely the MWC.
They have some teams cracking the TO25 regularly and spoiling the fun for some contenders out of the Power 5, regularly too.

The Mountain Division is Boise State to lose, but they could fall short, thanks to a new HC and the transition phase bound to that. Wyoming might top them then.
But I give Boise State the nod for winning the division, since they have a former Bronco as new HC, Andy Avalos, who had some seasons with the team and with Oregon as DC. The Broncos were very successful with transitions, so I expect (or hope) them to succeed again. They did play for the championship last season but lost.
Wyoming is a bit more solid to win the division this season, but had problems last season. Craig Bohl in this 8th season made Wyoming a winning team and I expect them to compete, I just respect Boise a bit more. But everything is possible for Wyoming this season.
Air Force is maybe coming back from a so-so season in 20, and with Troy Calhoun in his 15th season it's for sure they will give their best. But last season was tough and there are some question marks, so I doubt a repeat of 2019 where they had 11 wins. Still, they are in the mix.
Steve Addazio took over Colorado State last season and had a rough season of cause. This year the team will likely suffer a bit from the missing games of 2020 and it's hard to foresee which way the program will take. I think they will not make the TOP 3 inside the division.
At New Mexico, Danny Gonzales is also in his 2nd season and it's hard to predict the path the team will take. They won 2 games last season, the last 2, against quite competitive teams, so we might see a surprise here this season.
And as 6th team I did put Utah State, who have former Arkansas State HC Blake Anderson as new HC. He inherits a quite torn down Aggies team, likely a few seasons away from former glory.

The West Division is a big wide open one for me. I think only UNLV is not in shape and will finish last, but the rest ... I give it a try.
Some see Nevada as best bet on the division title, but its hard to ignore that San Jose State, the reigning champion, has kept the team quite intact, including their QB. Brent Brennan, the HC, is in his 5th season and might lead the team to repeat.
So, I put Nevada as 2nd here, with Jay Norvell in his 5th season bringing them eventually into the championship game. They schedule has some tough cookie from the other division in it, so IF they make it to the top, they will have earned it.
The 3rd in line is for me San Diego State under 2nd season coach Brady Hoke, who did in the past field some really tough teams, and I expect them to grow stronger.
But there is Fresno State right behind them with also 2nd season Kalen DeBoer as HC, who might make even a bigger jump in terms of progress. But they have a very tough schedule.
And as 5th team I have Hawaii. Todd Graham is also in his 2nd season and the former Sun Devils HC can make the team with his terrific home advantage a winner instantly. A quite soft schedule might help, but they have again 13 games! All of the top 5 have a say in the competition for the division crown!
At last I have UNLV, which needs a real rebuild or reconstruction. Marcus Arroyo is in his 2nd season and his team did win last season not a single game. This season all would like to see improvements, of cause, but that won't be enough to compete.

As conclusion I think fans of the Mountain West will see a great season in 2021. Right now, it looks like the teams are competitive and it will be fun to see, who will win at the end of the season. The only negative might be that they conference will eventually not produce a high ranked team, if all do lose a game or two thanks to the internal competition. That would mean no big bowl for the conference.

American Athletic Conference
The AAC had some really good teams in the past few seasons and right now they do look like either they will lose several teams to the BIG 12, if the BIG 12 tries to scoop some up to fill their ranks, or they will actually jump the BIG 12 in the long run, or more the BIG 12 will drop to Group of 5 (then 6) and the AAC will be stronger and more competitive.
That’s speculation or my opinion, right now, nothing is known.
We know that in the past some teams of the past did try or were speculated to join the BIG 12, but that was the old one. In 2025 latest the BIG 12 will be less attractive as it seems.
The AAC might dream of replacing the BIG 12 in the Power 5, but I doubt it will happen.
More likely the playoff format will be adjusted, and the 'lesser' conferences will get 1 to 3 spots guaranteed, including the remains of the BIG 12.

Anyway, this season the American is still at 11 teams strength and last season’s championship team Cincinnati is again the favorite to win it all.
There are some other teams, who will challenge the team for the crown and likely almost half of the conference can do that.
The 1st and 2nd place team will battle it out for the championship.

As said, Cincinnati is right now the top leading team in expectations inside the conference. Their preseason rank is at #8, while no other team did make the ranks. Luke Fickell has build a winning team and in his 5th season we might see him repeating, which might lead him to get a power 5 job somewhere. But that would have to be a big one. Their schedule is moderate, but they play UCF, luckily at home.
Next in line for me is Dana Holgorsen’s 3rd year Houston team. The reason for that is, they will improve and likely the next in line, UCF, will have a transition with a new HC. So, Houston might jump in, avoiding some big teams in the schedule and get into the championship game.
UCF is 3rd on my list and with Gus Mahlzahn as new HC will likely become a powerhouse again, but I expect some transition pains. Combined with a tough schedule I see them falling short to get into the big game.
Then Sonny Dykes in his 4th year at SMU might have a say about how competes and the team might rebound back to the results they had in 2019 with 10 wins. Some questions are there, therefore I kept them a bit lower, but they might surprise all.
Already at 5th position and we still have at least 1 team left who might run the table. Tulsa, last season’s conference championship game losing team under now Philip Montgomery is not shy the competition, but they have a brutal schedule, so either they will be on top or in mid field, I guess.
Now at 6th place I see Tulane. The team did improve over the seasons, and the former laughingstock of the conference is a better team now. Willie Fritz is in his 6th season and it looks like he will not go away soon, so the team can play and do things right, which they did so far. I doubt the team will challenge the favorites constantly, but they might play spoiler.
Memphis could have been higher ranked on my list, if they wouldn't have to replace a lot of key players. 2nd season HC Ryan Silverfield will likely need a season or 2 to get the team in the top mix again. Still Memphis has great potential and they might come out better than expected.
Tough to name the next one, Navy and East Caroline are likely here to find, with the competition inside the conference. I don't see Navy falling behind East Carolina this season, so I put Navy here. Ken Niumatalolo is in his 14th season and will likely get the team improved to last season. How much is a mystery. Navy has ALL the potential and could even win this conference, but more realistic is they will finish mid field.
That leaves East Carolina here. Mike Houston has to prove he did improve the Pirates, so far he failed to do that in 2 seasons. In his 3rd he will likely succeed and get some more wins, but that open. But signes are good.
Jeff Scott did take over South Florida last season and had of cause a tough one to tackle. Likely the missing games and experience will limit the team also this season.
And at last place I have Temple under Rod Carey in his 3rd season. His team had a lot of wins in 2019, but won only 1 game last season with a difficult COVID-19 season. That will likely have a big impact also here in 2021.

In total the conference is quite good suited and some non-conference games are really challenging. Those teams will not win all of those, but maybe we will see some upsets and the conference gets some respect.
It's up to the teams and their coaches and players to get the conference in wider conversation.
Remember that UCF a couple of seasons ago was spoiled to play for a national championship even without a single loss.
I doubt any team will repeat that accomplishment of an unbeaten season this year, but if they beat some power 5 teams, the conference will get bonus together.

Notre Dame is of cause again leading the group of the independent teams and they are back after a COVID-19-only joining of the ACC. They are not expected to be in the TOP 4 team mix again, thanks to a soft schedule. Even if they win all games, I think some 1-loss team will jump them, if it lost to a high-level team. Brian Kelly is in his 12th season and granted he did make a good job keeping Notre Dame constantly in the TOP25, but honestly, he doesn't look like a National Championship coach. But Notre Dame seems to be happy.
Next in relevance and attention is BYU, but the team under 6th season coach Kalani Sitake has a mixed schedule, which will likely give them a bowl spot, but I doubt a 10+ win season, which might bring them into bigger conversations. IF they win all games, it depends on the results of their opponents, but they might get a push for TOP 4. I doubt it, but if all teams on the list perform good or great, they have a case.
I go Army next, they are in national conversation since a few season with Jeff Monken in his 8th season having them winning a lot of games lately. A quite soft schedule will boost that, but overall it will be interesting to see, how they play against Wisconsin, Navy and Air Force.
Liberty was all the chatter last season, Hugh Freeze, now in his 3rd season, did win 10 games last year, including win over Syracuse and Coastal Carolina. Not bad for a team which did join FBS not so long ago. I doubt a repeat of those 10 wins, but we will see. They play Ole Miss in November, Freeze old team, so that will be special.
Doug Martin, 9th season, did survive so many bad seasons at New Mexico State that it seems the program likes his style and accepts the few wins dropping out of this. I see potential for 2-4 wins, but you never know with the team.
UMass decided to play football in FBS a few seasons ago and is still searching for a fitting conference. Walt Bell is in his 3rd season and won so far 1 game. Not that much. They have 2 FCS team on the schedule, so we might see some more wins but not much.
And as last team we have UConn, who decided to become independent when they joined the Big East again in all other sports, which does not support football. Last season they skipped the whole season, so now they have Randy Edsall in his 4th season, but is on the team for his 5th and who was already a UConn HC in the past. There he needed 2 to 3 seasons to make the Huskies a winner, but so far he failed to repeat that success. Granted the Huskies are a mess, which might need more time. Don't expect them to go bowling.

That's it for the 1st part of the conference previews.

Let's have a look at the games coming up in weeks zero.


Sat. Aug 28
Nebraska @ Illinois
This seems to be the biggest 'clash' of the weekend, if you think that the next one is not that high values, since Hawai'i is not a power 5 team.
Well, on the other hand, this game here is just a matchup between 2 not so successful BIG 10 teams (in the past few seasons) from the same division.
Nebraska’s Scott Frost came in 2018 to rebuild the Cornhuskers, almost with more hope attached to him than any leader ever had.
After 3 seasons he has 12 wins and 20 losses. Not the kind of success the Huskers-Fans wanted.
But, I think there are more things to do at Nebraska than just coaching the players.
But whether Frost will have the time to change culture and process to get better player and to coach them in a more professional way is open.
Not sure he will survive another bad season, my feeling is yes, but coaching expectations and changes did escalate the past 5-10 years.
His team will face the Illinois Illini, who did hire Bret Bielema, former Wisconsin and Arkansas HC.
I think the Illini did hire a solid coach, but that was also the case with his predecessor, and he lasted 5 seasons and was unable to make the Illini a winner again.
So, 2 struggling teams with a lot of hope attached to their coaches meet here for the 1st game of the season and I think Nebraska is clearly favored to win this.
Illinois will have a transition phase and only can lean on their home field advantage.
But given the 1st game of the season ... I think that will be less worth.
Vegas sees Nebraska as 7.0 point favorite, which fits quite well, only my gut says it will be even a higher point difference in that Nebraska win.
I hope the game will have a lot of points, both teams should be capable to light up the scoreboard.
And I hope it will be close.
Cornhuskers win.

Hawai'i @ UCLA
For me this game is the most interesting game.
Here we have 2 former PAC-12 (and one is on a new PAC-12 team) coaches clashing.
Todd Graham is in his 2nd season and I think he can guide teams to a solid level.
He did that in the past with Arizona State, but lost against Chip Kelly, the HC of UCLA now, when Kelly was in his last season at Oregon.
So Graham will have some work to do, it's just his 2nd season, but he did turn Arizona State into a 10 win team in his 2nd season.
UCLA has Kelly in his 4th season and his team was not able to become such a team Oregon was with Kelly at the helm up to 2012.
The Bruins win not more than 4 games, but to be fair, Kelly had some success in single games, winning unexpected but also lost unexpected.
His offense style needs special player and after 3 seasons, we might see him shaping the team into his demand.
Remember, you cannot change the players like a pro team, you need to recruit them and if you change the playing style, this takes time.
With the home field bonus, UCLA is expected to win by 17.5 points.
My feeling is, they will either win with much more, or we will see a much more open game.
I think the latter one is more likely, since it's the 1st game of the season, after the COVID-19-Season and Grahams defense might be more destructive than Kelly might anticipate.
I don't expect an upset, just a more open game.
Bruins win.

Other (or better all remaining) interesting (or not so interesting) games:

Sat. Aug 28
UConn @ Fresno State
UConn did not play in 2020, so this will be a bigger start of the season for them, than for Fresno, with all the pros and cons.
But UConn was almost the worst team in football before that, so no wonder the betting line is 27.5 in favor of Fresno State.
Bulldogs win.

UTEP @ New Mexico State
A bad Conference USA team will play a very bad independent New Mexico State team. Hmmm.
Vegas has -10.0 for UTEP, which might be OK. I think everything is possible here, still I lean in favor of the favorite. The Aggies were just awful the past few seasons, while UTEP did show signs of improvements.
Miners win.

Southern Utah @ San José State
This is a pushover game. Southern Utah is not a good FCS team and SJSU is the reigning Mountain West Champ. Do the math by yourself. IF the Thunderbirds do upset the Spartans, this would be a BIG upset.
Spartans win.

'Til next time

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