As we surpass the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the country, it's amazing to think that a college football season was even played at all. It's not that wins and losses didn't matter -- don't tell Alabama their national championship deserved an asterisk or Tom Herman that he was safe at Texas -- but there was context. Players and coaches missed games constantly due to COVID-19 protocols. Results among a lot of teams were varied.
It wasn't entirely a wipe the slate clean-type of year, but it was close. And some teams had a harder time with the obstacles than others. Whether star players opted out or games were postponed or canceled, there were a number of disruptions that made life difficult. But that doesn't mean they can't bounce back.
Below is a list of teams that had a particularly hard time in 2020, but whose 2021 seasons can be better -- maybe even a lot better. In fact, these are teams I believe will be better. It won't be without adjustments, however. These bounce-back teams still have work to do, so let's get to the checklists of what needs to happen between now and the beginning of the season.
No team took a bigger step back from 2019 to 2020 than LSU. From national champions to allowing an SEC-record 623 yards passing to Mississippi State, the Tigers went from embarrassing defenses to being a defensive embarrassment. The writing was certainly on the walls with 14 players from the '19 team taken in the NFL draft, five in the first round alone, tying a NCAA record. Couple in 18 more scholarship players opting out or otherwise leaving the program, and a collapse was bound to happen. Coach Ed Orgeron has already overhauled his staff heading into 2021. Here's what else he is focusing on:
- Patching up the defense: Firing defensive coordinator Bo Pelini and other members of the defensive staff was a start. What kind of improvements can new DC Daronte Jones make right away? The pass defense can't get any worse after finishing dead last in the FBS. Pinpointing exactly what went wrong isn't black and white. The switch from Dave Aranda's 3-4 to 4-3 hurt the linebackers more than any other group, but coverages and safety play weren't great, either. The failure to adapt by the coaching staff and sub-par performances all played a role. Even the team's best defender, Derek Stingley, had a setback with an illness and injuries. He and Elias Ricks looked lost more often than they should have been. To Orgeron's credit, he's bolstered the DB room with blue-chip safeties Sage Ryan and Derrick Davis. The defensive front should be the strength of the unit as well. How much of a step forward the defense takes in 2020 will depend on Jones, but it's hard to imagine it staying this bad.
- Pick a quarterback: Myles Brennan was perfectly fine in three starts before a shoulder injury cost him the rest of the season. Freshman Max Johnson raised some eyebrows at the end of the year, particularly in a December win over Florida. Neither has a huge sample size to give them an edge, but both seem good enough to start and win in the SEC. It's a good problem for Orgeron, who will have one of college football's low-key more intriguing quarterback battles this offseason.
- Develop offensive playmakers: One of the results of all the opt outs and NFL draft declarations was that LSU leaned heavily on young skill talent in 2020. That could bode well for 2021. Receiver Kayshon Boutte looks like a star, but who steps up around him? Blue-chip tight end Arik Gilbert has transferred out of the program. At running back, John Emery and Tyrion-Davis Price lead a capable group that's looking for a true RB1. There's never a shortage of skill at LSU, but returning to something resembling 2019's offensive production is paramount.
By winning its final four games, Penn State's 2020 season wasn't as disastrous as it could have been. But, lord, that 0-5 start stunk of a team hit hard by opt outs and turnover, a new offensive coordinator (Kirk Ciarrocca) who lasted just one season and practically no offseason to tie anything together. It fell victim to some bad luck, too; the overtime loss to Indiana, for example, was controversial and set the tone for the rest of the year. The Nittany Lions had their flaws, to be sure, but part of their setback was circumstantial. They were the poster team for weird 2020 college football. Still, coach James Franklin has work to do to get this year's team back on track. Here's what's on the list:
- Quarterback development under Mike Yurcich: Replacing Ciarrocca is Yurcich, a well-traveled offensive mind most recently at Texas and Ohio State who is now on his third stop in as many years. His primary job outside of running the offense will be Sean Clifford's development at quarterback. To say that Clifford took a step back and made questionable choices last year -- he had 12 turnovers in nine games -- would be putting it politely. But he's the assumed starter for next season, and it's up to Yurcich to get him back to 2019 form.
- Return of the ground game: Injuries crushed Penn State's running back room. Journey Brown is done with football and Noah Cain missed most of the season with a leg injury. By the end of last season, freshman Keyvone Lee was shouldering the carries. Having a loaded running back room can be a good thing, but a more consistent and healthy ground attack will be necessary in 2021. Baylor transfer John Lovett joins the fold to add some depth, too.
- Bolster the D-line: Franklin addressed this via the transfer portal by bringing in Arnold Ebiketie from Temple and Derrick Tangelo from Duke. Freshmen Rodney McGraw and Davon Townley may be asked to step in as well. Penn State's D-line was a bright spot in 2020 with Antonio Shelton and All-Big Ten selections Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney, but all are gone for 2021.
Of the teams listed, UCF is the only one that finished above .500 in 2020. So what's the problem? Let's just put it this way: how many Knights fans were disappointed when coach Josh Heupel left for Tennessee? Going 6-4 in a pandemic year isn't the end of the world, but it's harder to swallow when you won 35 games in the three seasons prior. Notably, UCF's defense took a big step back, and there were stretches of games in which the Knights failed to put opponents away. With the arrival of new coach Gus Malzahn, here's how UCF can get back into the New Year's Six conversation in 2021:
- Find RB1: Malzahn's offenses run at their best when they have a 1,000-yard workhorse. The Tre Masons, Cameron Artis-Paynes and Kerryon Johnsons of the world make those offenses hum. UCF hasn't had that type of productive back in years outside of Greg McCrae. What's more is that McCrae and Otis Anderson, the top two backs from last year, are gone. Who steps in? Bentavious Thompson is the most experienced, but the RB1 job is up for grabs.
- Overhaul the defense: This was a talking point of Malzahn's at his introductory press conference, and it's not hard to figure out why. After fielding some of the AAC's better defenses over the past few years, the Knights took a massive step back on that side of the ball in 2020, allowing 33 points per game and 6.2 yards per play. They were also one of the worst teams in the conference at giving up big plays of 20 yards or more. New defensive coordinator Travis Williams comes as a highly-respected recruiter and talent developer. The latter may be more important in the immediate future with some notable transfers like Big Kat Bryant coming in from Auburn to help the pass rush.
Can you have a bounce-back year when you haven't posted a winning season since 2017 or won more than seven games since 2016? Florida State aims to find out! There's more optimism about the overall health of the program than there's been in some time, hence its place on the list. But really, this is more like Year 1 than Year 2 for coach Mike Norvell. As he looks to rebuild the Seminoles into an ACC power again, here's what's on his checklist:
- Plug-and-play transfers: Ex-UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton is the obvious name here. One of the most productive QBs in college football in 2017, Milton has been slowly working his way back since a 2018 knee injury almost cut his career off for good. He figures to be the frontrunner to start, and could be the instant upgrade the Noles need at that position. But Norvell is also bringing in notable transfers at other spots, including Andrew Parchment from Kansas at wide receiver, defensive lineman Keir Thomas from South Carolina and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson from Georgia. Last year's defensive line was a disappointment, so it'll be interesting to see how these transfers factor in.
- Offensive line development: The root of Florida State's struggles over the past few years has been the underwhelming performances by various position groups. None have gained more attention than the offensive line. To credit the Noles where it's due, the O-line was better in 2020. Not great, but better. There are a lot of returning players in the trenches. Hopefully, without COVID-19-related disruptions this year, the offense will start to click more consistently. That all starts with continuity up front.
- Hiding problems at linebacker: This position group was a liability in 2020, and part of the reason why the Noles had their worst run defense since 2009. A more nickel-based defensive scheme in 2021 may mask some of those deficiencies. The better depth for this defense is in the secondary anyway, but redshirt senior Emmett Rice should be a bright spot for the linebacker group.
Jim Harbaugh is back after a lousy 2-4 season, though with a new contract that reportedly significantly reduces his pay. Similar to Penn State, 2020 hit Michigan hard. The Wolverines lost to Michigan State (woof) and needed three overtimes to beat Rutgers (double woof). Somehow, not playing Ohio State ended up being the best part. Inexperience at several positions played a role, but sometimes that trial by fire can be a good thing in the long run. Harbaugh is banking on wholesale changes to turn things around in 2021. Here's what else he's looking at:
- Staff chemistry: Primarily, this has been a discussion of on-field personnel. But there's something to be said for Michigan's coaching staff heading into next season. Namely, Harbaugh's staff has five new assistants, and some of them are coaching college football for the first time. This is a young staff, too, and the pressure couldn't be higher. Yes, Harbaugh just agreed to a new deal, but it's school-friendly and incentive-laden. I don't think it's off the table that another bad year could send Harbaugh out the door. His new staff needs to gel quickly, and there's no time to waste on maxing out the players on the roster.
- Addressing the pass defense: When Michigan State wide receiver Ricky White torched the Wolverines secondary to the beat of 196 yards and a touchdown, I remember thinking, "yeah, this might be a problem." Sure enough, Indiana's far superior wideouts went beast mode in Michigan's next game with Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor combining for 18 catches. Yes, Don Brown's defenses were trending in the wrong direction, and his tendency to put his corners on an island didn't bode well for an unproven group. With new co-DC and defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist on the staff, we might find out how much of Michigan's defensive woes were schematic and how much were a lack of talent and/or experience. But we know this much: the Wolverines don't have the bodies in the secondary to simply man up and win.
- Finding a QB to win now: By now, you're probably noticing a trend. It's alarming that, after six years, Harbaugh hasn't groomed a truly competent quarterback. I'll admit: I bought into Joe Milton too soon. Cade McNamara is the safe bet to start in Week 1 against Western Michigan with Milton hitting the transfer portal. Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman is in the discussion, too. But rest assured every fan is anxious to see when five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy takes the field. At some point, Harbaugh has to show he can develop a blue-chip high school prospect into a winner. And there's no time like the present.
Just one year removed from playing in the Big 12 Championship Game, Baylor took a nose dive in Dave Aranda's first season. I'd argue that, other than Houston, no team was harder impacted on the field by the fallout of the pandemic than the Bears. They were introducing a completely new staff with no real offseason to get acquainted. Then, COVID-19 spread rapidly throughout the Baylor program during the season, especially early on. Now that Aranda will have a Year 0 and a full offseason under his belt, here's what to expect from his team in 2021:
- Replace Charlie Brewer: I don't blame Brewer's regression in 2020 on him entirely. Again, this was a hard situation and he was perfectly competent in his two-and-a-half years as a starter. But he's off to Utah, and now the Bears need to find a successor. Jacob Zeno seems like the natural pick, but it's anyone's guess. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes will have to find some answers after the Bears finished with one of the least effective passing games in the Big 12.
- Improve the running game: The quarterback, whoever it is, can't do it alone. The reality is that as bad as Baylor was through the air, it was even worse on the ground. Only Kansas at 2.67 yards per carry was worse on the ground -- but the Jayhawks had nine rushing touchdowns. Baylor had eight. You get the point. And while John Lovett (mentioned above at Penn State) wasn't a huge factor last year, he was the team's leading rusher in his first three years. If Sqwirl Williams can stay healthy, he's electric enough to pick up chunk yards.
- And the pass rush: It wasn't a big secret that Baylor was going to take a step back along the D-line with the departures of James Lynch, James Lockhart and Bravvion Roy. Together, they made up the Big 12's best D-line in 2019. But a step back, it most definitely took. William Bradley King was an impact transfer from Arkansas State, but he's gone. Terrel Bernard is back after an injury cut his season short, and he's one of the better linebackers in the conference, but he'll need help.