College Football’s 10 teams on the rise in 2021
Recruiting, schedules and the transfer portal has fans believing their teams can win big this fall.
When everything is trending in the right direction, expectations arise and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Although these 10 teams have generated some buzz during the offseason, they still have to deliver on the hype. And there’s a thin line between playing up to one’s potential and overachieving.
Right now every FBS team is undefeated and anticipation is high with the season being two months away. These 10 programs have every reason to feel optimistic about the upcoming season after a promising 2020 campaign and the wait is almost over.
Arkansas: It only took one season for Sam Pittman to lay down his foundation with the program. The team never gave up and the Razorbacks should’ve won three additional games. Now the players believe they can win. Quarterback KJ Jefferson showed his potential when he threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns at Missouri. Running back Trelon Smith rushed for 118 yards against Florida, and a career-high, 172 against Missouri. Treylon Burks is a productive machine and arguably the best returning wide receiver in the SEC. Tight end Blake Kern caught a touchdown against Tennessee and Missouri. Arkansas’ entire offensive line returns, including Brady Latham, who earned Freshman All-SEC honors last year. The Razorbacks return several starters on defense, including linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool, who combined for a jaw-dropping, 212 tackles. The schedule will be brutal, but Razorbacks look ready.
Boston College: Jeff Haley led the Eagles to a winning campaign during his first season with the program. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec flourished in his system, plus he threw for 2,558 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns. Boston College averaged 284.2 yards per game through the air, which ranked third in the ACC and 24th in the FBS. Those numbers are expected to improve with receivers Zay Flowers, Jaelen Gill and CJ Lewis returning to the lineup. The trio combined for 113 receptions, 1,787 receiving yards and 15 touchdown catches. Not to mention the Eagles will be fielding the league’s best offensive line, with studs like Alec Lindstrom and Ben Petrula, who both earned All-ACC honors last season. On defense Boston College needs to make the most improvement. Although the unit finished in the middle of the pack statistical wise, a plethora of starters return and leadership should excel.
West Virginia: Neal Brown made big improvements from year one to year two, and led the Mountaineers to their first bowl win since 2015. West Virginia will boast one of the best backfields in the conference this fall, with signal-caller Jarret Doege and running back Leddie Brown. Doege had four 300-yard passing performances last season and he only threw one interception over West Virginia’s final six games. Brown went over the century mark in rushing against Eastern Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State and TCU. Brown also became the Mountaineers first 1,000-yard rusher since 2017. West Virginia finished first in the Big 12 in scoring, passing, plus total defense, which solidifies Brown’s presence and influence. Key pieces return from every level of the unit, including All-Big 12 defensive lineman Akheem Meisdor and safety Alonzo Addae. Brown appears to have adapted to the Big 12’s style, which should be beneficial.
Rutgers: Greg Schiano made an immediate impact with the program last season. The Scarlet Knights’ offense took a big leap forward in his first year back, averaged 21 more points and 130.2 more yards per game. The unit carried that momentum into the spring and looked impressive throughout training. Last year’s starting quarterback Noah Vedral didn’t participate and is still recovering from an ankle injury. However, rusher Aaron Young looked explosive and strong. The receivers are experienced. Isaiah Washington snagged a one-handed, 65-yard touchdown reception in the game. The defense must make drastic improvements if Rutgers hope to secure a winning campaign for the first time since 2014. Linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg are tackling machines and combined for 170 stops last season. Not to mention safety Christian Izien snagged three of his four interceptions over Rutgers’ final two games.
Oregon State: Jonathan Smith is approaching his fourth year with his alma mater and everything appears to be trending up. On paper Oregon State has only won two games in two of the past three seasons. However, the Beavers’ quarterback situation has become a hot topic after the arrival of Colorado transfer Sam Noyer, who earned All-Pac-12 honors in 2020. Last year’s starter Tristan Gebbia is still recovering from hamstring surgery and didn’t participate in spring ball. Still, the Beavers have two capable starters and both have experience in conference play. Oregon State’s entire offensive line returns, including last season’s All-Pac-12 performers Nathan Eldridge and Joshua Gray. In order for the Beavers to reach a bowl game game this fall, Smith needs his defense to make tremendous strides. Linebacker Avery Roberts is the enforcer, who led the league in tackles last year. If Oregon State can stop the run, lookout.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers followed up an 11-win campaign in 2019 with three victories last season. P.J. Fleck’s team underachieved and lost three of their first four games. Rather it was injuries or pandemic complications, Minnesota failed to maintain any consistency. However, several pieces from the jigsaw puzzle return on offense, which should look more like the unit from two years ago. Although quarterback Tanner Morgan’s production slipped, he looked like his old self in the Golden Gophers’ spring game, when he threw for 148 yards and a touchdown. Mohamed Ibrahim is the only Power Five running back with two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. He was also named the Big Ten’s Running Back of the Year. Tackle Blaise Andries earned All-Big Ten honors last year and will be anchoring the big boys up front. The defensive secondary will again be a team strength. Still, Minnesota’s road slate is brutal.
Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin’s offensive prowess was instantly felt with the Rebels last season. Ole Miss led the SEC in rushing and total yards per game. Quarterback Matt Corral skills also flourished under Kiffin’s watch, and he led the entire FBS in total offense. Jerrion Ealy was one of two running backs to rush over 100 yards against Alabama and he earned All-SEC honors. Although the Rebels shined on offense in 2020, their defense was downright awful. Ole Miss finished last in the league in scoring, rushing and total defense. It didn’t help the unit’s cause after losing leading tackler Jacquez Jones to the transfer portal earlier this month. However, the ‘Land Sharks’ can’t get any worse statistical wise. If no progress is made, more shootouts will be on the horizon with Kiffin’s team. Regardless, the Rebels will be expected to score at will on any opponent on their schedule.
UCLA: It’s year four for Chip Kelly and he appears to be fielding his most talented team yet. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has fully grasped Kelly’s offense after three years of experience and is ready to take flight. He has thrown for 5,132 yards, 40 touchdowns and 20 interceptions during Kelly’s tenure. Not to mention UCLA scored 34 or more points in five of its’ seven games in 2020. Running back Brittain Brown proved his value when he steamrolled for 219 yards in the season finale against Stanford. Brown also averaged 6.6 yards on 82 carries last season. Greg Dulcich went from being a former walk-on to arguably one of the best tight ends in the country. He had over 100 yards receiving in two different games and caught at least one touchdown against four different conference foes. Not to mention the Bruins entire offensive line returns and several defensive starters.
TCU: Last year the Horned Frogs got stronger as the season progressed and won five of the their final six games. Now Gary Patterson’s team is riding a big wave of momentum and carrying a three-game winning streak into the fall. Quarterback Max Duggan is arguably the most underrated player in the Big 12. TCU put up 50-plus points in two of its’ last three games and Duggan scored nine total touchdowns during that span. He’ll also have a plethora of experienced pass catchers to spread the ball around to. Patterson’s defense should be vastly improved, especially along the front seven. TCU will boast one of the best secondaries in the conference, with the return of cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who finished with second-team AP All-America honors. Field position will be a strength for the Horned Frogs with the return of punter Jordy Sandy, who earned second-team All-Big 12 in 2020.
Washington: The Huskies could very well take over the North this fall with all the right pieces in place. Everything starts at the quarterback position and Dylan Morris led Washington to three-straight victories to open 2020. He completed 18 of his 28 passes for 125 yards in the Huskies’ spring game, and likely the favorite to start in the season opener. Regardless of who takes the reigns of Washington’s offense, they’ll be operating behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. Center Luke Wattenberg and tackle Jaxson Kirkland have combined for a jaw-dropping, 65 starts. Tight end Cade Otton caught 18 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns through four games, plus he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. The Huskies have a stud at every level of their defense, including linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who led the league in sacks last season and cornerback Trent McDuffie, who earned second-team All-Pac-12.