College football 2021 season previews — Everything you need to know about all 130 FBS teams

The start of the college football season is just a little more than two weeks away. All offseason, Bill Connelly has been providing ESPN+ previews of every division in every FBS conference, from the Sun Belt to the SEC.

If you haven’t been following along, here’s your chance to catch up. In total, there are comprehensive breakdowns of all 130 teams — 2021 projected win totals and game-by-game win probabilities; a look back at what we did and didn’t learn about each team in 2020; plus, the history of each team in one handy chart.

So whatever team you’re a fan of, there’s something here to get you ready for when the games kick off on Aug. 28.

Jump to a conference: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Independents | American | Conference USA | Mid-American | Mountain West | Sun Belt


ACC Atlantic

At Clemson, DJ Uiagalelei certainly seems ready to step in for Trevor Lawrence after going 59-for-85 for 781 yards, four TDs and no INTs in two starts last year. But what about the secondary? Last year’s run defense was fantastic, but the pass defense was merely good (18th in passing success rate, 35th in passer rating allowed) and got torched by Ohio State in the CFP.

Georgia aside, it’s not clear if anyone on this schedule can totally test said secondary. There are plenty of solid passing games in the Atlantic, but only BC did any semblance of damage. Whomever the Tigers might play in the CFP will, though.

Want to know more about Clemson’s title hopes, Florida State’s rebuild, NC State’s upside and everyone else in the ACC Atlantic?

Click here for Bill Connelly’s full team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the ACC Atlantic.


ACC Coastal

It was perfect symmetry. After each of the ACC Coastal’s seven teams won a division title over the course of seven years, Notre Dame joined a divisionless ACC for the 2020 season and made the conference championship in its only try. In a way, that’s like eight champions in eight years for a seven-team division. (The Fighting Irish even followed Coastal customs by getting stomped by Clemson in the title game.)

Barring sudden and unexpected expansion, or the ditching of divisions altogether, we will actually see a repeat champion in the Coastal this year. And based on last year’s levels and this year’s returning production, Miami and North Carolina have the best odds of getting it done. In this bastion of extreme parity, can either of these programs play at the top-10 levels projected of them and maybe actually challenge Clemson in the conference title game for once? Can Virginia Tech reverse last year’s bad luck and make a run? Can Pitt or Virginia wreck everyone else’s plans?

There’s more upside in this division than we’ve seen in a while, but questions linger.

Click here for Bill Connelly’s full team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the ACC Coastal.


Big 12

Well, a few things have happened in the Big 12 since we originally wrote this. But while the future of the league is now in doubt following the defections of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, that won’t affect the upcoming season — outside of some interesting road crowds for the Sooners and Longhorns.

Oklahoma has won six straight conference titles and is a solid favorite to stretch that streak to seven in 2021. But Iowa State has the pieces to put together another top-10 campaign, Texas just hired 2020’s best playcaller (former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) as its new head coach. Can the Sooners survive a long Big 12 grind with national title hopes intact? Does ISU have one more gear? Will people realize how strong and balanced the Big 12 has become?

For the bottom half of the Big 12, teams can rise and fall quickly. Baylor reached the 2019 Big 12 Championship just two years after going 1-11, and the Bears plummeted to 2-7 the year after. Texas was the 2018 runner-up two years after going 5-7. TCU advanced to the title game in 2017, a year after going 6-7, and has gone 18-17 since.

Here’s Bill Connelly’s team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the projected bottom half of the Big 12. And here’s the top half of the league.


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Jim Harbaugh goes through the goals of the 2021 season, including taking down Ohio State for the first time in his tenure at Michigan.

Big Ten East

How do you gauge your own success when you’re living in a division with a college football monolith? Penn State and Michigan both built themselves into top-10 level programs in the late stages of the 2010s, Indiana just fielded its best team in 30 years, and Michigan State isn’t that far removed from its best run of success since the 1960s. They have all helped to turn the Big Ten East into the second-best division, on average, in college football.

Since Penn State’s White-Out win over Ohio State in 2016, however, the Buckeyes are unbeaten against the East. There are occasional scares here and there (42-35 vs. Indiana in 2020, 52-51 vs. Maryland in 2018, 39-38 and 27-26 against Penn State in 2017-18), but on average, the Buckeyes have dominated a very good division for years. Even as a college football blue blood, they’re enjoying their highest long-term level of quality ever. And with the way they have continued to recruit under Ryan Day — their 2021 haul was their third top-two class in five years — there’s no reason to assume a downfall is coming anytime soon.

But stars Justin Fields and Trey Sermon are gone, not to mention seven regulars on defense. The talent level isn’t in question, but if they are a little less consistently elite in 2021, any number of teams — hungry Penn State and Michigan programs looking for rebounds, an experienced and savvy Indiana looking to finish the job after coming so close last year — could take advantage. We know who the favorite is here, but running the table is harder than Ohio State has made it seem in recent years.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Big Ten East.


Big Ten West

Talk about all or nothing. In four wins last season, the Badgers averaged 39 points per game, and QB Graham Mertz, now a redshirt freshman, produced a raw QBR of 79.6. He completed 20 of 21 passes in his debut against Illinois.

In three losses, however, the Badgers averaged 6.7 points. Mertz’s QBR: 24.6. Can the Badgers get more consistency from the former blue-chipper?

The division’s other favorite is Iowa, which last year ranked No. 2 in defensive SP+, and could be even better this season. But given that this is the unpredictable Big Ten West, where preseason predictions often look foolish, what can we expect from Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois?

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Big Ten West.


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Heather Dinich takes a look at the Pac-12 and whether the conference can end its playoff drought.

Pac-12 North

The Pac-12 gets a bad rap sometimes. The conference is generally regarded as the worst of the power conferences thanks to the fact that it hasn’t produced a College Football Playoff participant since 2016, but evaluating a conference solely by how many losses its best team has is a pretty flawed approach.

On average, the Pac-12 can be trusted to at least exceed the average production of the ACC.

Average SP+ rating, 2018-20:

• 2018: Pac-12 +6.1, ACC +5.3
• 2019: Pac-12 +5.3, ACC +3.0
• 2020: Pac-12 +5.9, ACC +5.2

The only reason the ACC is generally held in higher regard is that it has Clemson. Can a Pac-12 team break through and threaten a CFP bid?

The two most likely candidates are in the North. Mario Cristobal’s Oregon has recruited like a playoff contender for a few years now, and Washington has top-10 potential and loads of experience. But they both have questions to answer on offense and tricky schedules to navigate.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Pac-12 North.


Pac-12 South

How much is returning production worth when you only played a few games last year? The answer will determine how good the Pac-12 is in 2021. In February’s returning production rankings, the conference boasted eight of the top 15 teams, which would generally hint at massive forthcoming improvement. But Arizona State’s 11th-ranked production came from a four-game slate, and Utah’s eighth-ranked production came from five.

We’ll find out how good the Pac-12 South in particular is soon enough, but one thing appears likely: the Pac-12 South race should be fantastic. Defending champion USC has a dynamite new skill corps, an improving defense and a workable schedule. Arizona State and Utah also have no guaranteed losses and plenty of reasons for optimism (at least if the NCAA doesn’t soon vanquish ASU’s optimism). UCLA looked genuinely exciting on offense and could be a major wild card. Colorado went 4-2 last year taking the fight to opponents. Five of six teams head into 2021 thinking they’ve got a shot at the division, and while only three to four of them are right, this battle could be a lot of fun.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Pac-12 South.


SEC East

The 2020 season was defined by a single Nick Saban quote: “It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”

Georgia proved his point. They ranked first in defensive SP+, and in their eight wins, they beat opponents by an average score of 34-14. But in their two losses, against elite Alabama and Florida offenses, they allowed 891 passing yards and 85 points. They could score only 52 points in return. You’ve got to have loads of raw offensive firepower.

Smart decided QB J.T. Daniels was finally ready for the lineup in late November — the blue-chip USC transfer was dealing with a lengthy knee rehabilitation — and was rewarded. Georgia went from averaging 29 points per game to 38, and Daniels’ Total QBR of 89.1 would have ranked fourth for the entire season.

Can the Dawgs keep that up for a full season? Can Florida replace a ton of offensive firepower and improve on defense? What’s in store for new coaches at Tennessee, South Carolina and Vanderbilt?

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the SEC East.


SEC West

National titles since 2009: SEC West 8, everyone else in FBS 4.

Alabama, obviously, leads the way with six titles in that span, and Nick Saban’s crew shows no sign of slowing down. Despite seeing eight players drafted in the first 40 picks of the 2021 draft, the Tide have blue-chip talent all over the field. On defense, Alabama returns eight starters from a defense that ranked sixth in SP+ last year. Christian Harris and Will Anderson Jr. are elite blitzers (Tennessee linebacker transfer Henry To’o To’o is pretty good at it, too), while corner Josh Jobe allowed just a 16.3 QBR in coverage. And former top recruit Bryce Young should keep the offense rolling at QB.

Is Bama ready to roll to another crown? Can Texas A&M find a QB to match the rest of its talent? Can Ole Miss stop anybody? And will some new hires help recapture LSU’s 2019 magic?

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the SEC West.


Independents

Fortunes have always varied wildly for the seven independent FBS teams, but the year of the coronavirus created a set of fates that couldn’t possibly have been more varied.

Two indies opted out of the fall season altogether (New Mexico State and UConn), while a third initially opted out before taking on a few blowout losses instead (UMass). The most storied indie of all (Notre Dame) joined the ACC for a year, nearly won it, then reverted to conference-less status, while two others enjoyed nearly unprecedented success: BYU and Liberty went a combined 21-2 with year-end AP rankings of 11th and 17th, respectively. All the while, Army continued its progress under Jeff Monken as though the outside world hadn’t changed at all.

In 2021, Notre Dame and BYU have key pieces to replace, Liberty’s got a potential first-round quarterback leading the way, Army’s got more returning production than normal and, well, the bottom three remain the bottom three.

Click here for team-by-team ESPN+ previews of the FBS’ seven independent teams — Notre Dame, Liberty, BYU, Army, UConn, UMass and New Mexico State.


American Athletic Conference

If the College Football Playoff committee is going to put a Group of 5 team in the top four (I remain unconvinced that they ever will), it’s clearly going to follow a recipe like this:

Enjoy a huge season and earn mainstream respect.

Happen to have scheduled a couple of key, major opponents for the next season.

Go undefeated that next season.

In 2020, Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats resoundingly checked box No. 1, going unbeaten in the regular season, putting together a legitimate playoff case, finishing 9-1 with a last-second loss to Georgia and enjoying their second top-10 finish in program history. They get to check box No. 2, as well, with a schedule that features perfectly-timed road trips to Indiana (Sept. 18) and Notre Dame (Oct. 2).

They also have to survive the AAC again. It helps that UCF, Tulsa and SMU all visit Nippert Stadium (and Memphis isn’t on the regular-season slate), but the upside among these teams — Tulsa on defense, SMU and Memphis on offense, UCF in top-to-bottom talent — is fierce. Even this awesome Cincy team barely got by UCF and Tulsa late last season. The top of the AAC should offer plenty of resistance once more.

Click here for team-by-team ESPN+ previews of the projected bottom half of the AAC. And here for the top half.


Conference USA East

Our 2021 college football preview series begins in Conference USA. The East division struggled in 2020, fielding plenty of decent units but, aside from early-season Marshall, not really featuring any teams that had their acts together on both sides of the ball.

With the Thundering Herd changing head coaches, and with most teams returning large portions of last year’s depth charts, it’s possible that what the division lacks in upside it makes up for in experience and competitiveness. SP+ projects all seven teams to win between three and five conference games on average, though last year’s champion starts out atop the pack.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of CUSA East.


Conference USA West

Since UAB’s return from a self-imposed death penalty, the Conference USA West title has run through Birmingham, Alabama, with Bill Clark’s Blazers winning three titles in a row. Will anything change now that they return most of last year’s contributors?

Like the Alamo or Pearl Brewery, hope might live in San Antonio. UTSA took a healthy step forward in Jeff Traylor’s first season, and SP+ projections suggest UAB’s Nov. 20 trip to the AlamoDome could determine the division champ.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of CUSA West.


Mid-American East

Two stagnant programs, four with division title aspirations. The MAC East title race could be one of FBS’ more intriguing if: Kent State makes a few more stops, Miami overcomes a brutal road slate and Ohio is as strong as last season’s tiny sample suggested.

There’s also a chance that Buffalo is just too good for the field. Lance Leipold’s Bulls won the East in 2018 and 2020 and were four points shy of the division title in 2019 as well; SP+ deems them favorites once again. Still, more than half of this division is on a strong trajectory.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Mid-American East.


Mid-American West

The MAC West did its best to pack a full season’s worth of MACtion and tight finishes into an abbreviated half-season. Five of Ball State’s six regular-season games were decided by one score, and CMU, WMU and EMU each played four such games.

BSU won four of its five close games and earned a division title — and an opportunity to upset Buffalo in the MAC championship, deservedly so. But with most of the division’s best players coming back, we could see a repeat in the drama department. And what more could we ask for in life?

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Mid-American West.


MWC Mountain

On paper, the MWC Mountain football race should play out as it has in recent years: with Boise State the victor. The Broncos have won four titles in a row and five of the past seven, and SP+ projects them far ahead of the field.

There’s been just enough change to make you wonder, though. BSU is making a coaching change for just the second time in 15 years, and the two teams projected next best — Craig Bohl’s Wyoming and Troy Calhoun’s Air Force — have quite a bit more than usual to offer from an experience standpoint. Can the Pokes and Falcons take a run at the champs? And can new head coaches elsewhere in the division make an early stir?

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the MWC Mountain Division.


MWC West

When San Jose State came back to defeat Nevada at “home” (in Las Vegas, on a field with New Mexico’s home markings) and clinch the MWC West, it continued one of college football’s most stirring 2020 stories, one that would continue a week later when the Spartans knocked off Boise State to win their first MWC title.

The Spartans return almost everyone from that title team, but the most noteworthy MWC story of 2021 could end up being just how ridiculously competitive the West race ends up becoming. SP+ projects the top four teams in the division — Nevada, Fresno State, SJSU and SDSU — all within 10 spots of each other in the overall rankings. These four teams played four games against each other last year, and they were decided by a total of 29 points. This year, things could be even closer.

A reminder, by the way, about the projected records you see below: They are based on win probabilities. A 50% probability equals 0.5 wins. So when you see that each of the top four teams are projected to go 5-3 in conference, it’s because there are so many close games in their future. That’s not good for anxiety levels out west, but it’s great for us.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the MWC West Division.


Sun Belt East

According to SP+, the worst team in the Sun Belt East — in this case, Georgia Southern — would be the second-best team in the West. That tells you most of what you need to know about the current balance of power in #FunBelt country.

Thanks both to the top-20 potential of Coastal Carolina and App State and the top-75 or so potential of everyone else, the East grades out as the single best division in the Group of Five heading into 2021. App State has finished in the SP+ top 30 for three straight seasons, and Coastal Carolina surpassed the Mountaineers with a rousing breakthrough last season. Both teams bring back almost everyone … as do the three other teams in the division. No off weeks here.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Sun Belt East.


Sun Belt West

Before 2018, no Sun Belt team had ever finished in the SP+ top 35, but we’ve seen six do so in just the past three seasons. Appalachian State leads the way, having done so for three straight years, but Billy Napier’s Louisiana has done so twice in a row and now leads the country in returning production.

We’re going to learn a lot about what experience can do for a team and its upside this year. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a chance to become the best SBC team of all time this fall if all this continuity produces another gear.

We’re also going to learn if anyone in the West division can even come close to threatening the three-time defending division champs. Signs point to no.

Click here for a team-by-team ESPN+ preview of the Sun Belt West.