Every college athlete should be proud of how they handled the challenges of the 2020-21 sports season. Some seasons were cancelled. Some seasons were cancelled and then un-cancelled. Some games were cancelled, some were re-scheduled & some were scheduled from scratch in a very short time frame. There was no ‘one size fits all’ experience in the 2020 college football season. The school’s location, the circumstances in their state & region, and their conference affiliation greatly influenced the impact on their season. When the dust settled on the 2020 campaign, it was clear the experience wore on some more than others.
That leaves us with a difficult question to answer: what teams & players performed below expectations in 2020 because of COVID? Which teams might bounce back in 2021, when (we assume) the worst impactors from 2020 will be gone, and they will get back closer to a normal operating procedure? Which teams would have had a dip in their performance even if COVID never reared its ugly head?
Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the 2021 season draws close.
The northeast had a major problem with COVID through the spring and summer, and things only mildly improved as football players began fall practices. Metro areas, like Boston, were particularly hard hit. The Eagles didn’t just have to worry about the protocols put in place by the ACC – they had state and local regulations to observe. On top of all this, they had a new coach in Jeff Hafley, a new staff, and new quarterback Phil Jurkovec who had just transferred from Notre Dame.
Boston College launched out of the gates fast, starting 3-1 and showing off a new look offense with Jurkovec behind the helm. BC had Clemson – who was #1 at the time – down at halftime before the Tigers came back in the 2nd half. The Eagles first four loses all came to teams that were ranked when they played them. Their only loss to an unranked team came in their final regular season game at Virginia, but nonetheless finished 6-5 and were poised to get a bowl bid.
Then, in what was a shock to many, Boston College announced that they were not going to accept a bowl bid. Declining a bowl bid had been mostly relegated to teams facing NCAA sanctions, but COVID changed the landscape. BC followed every protocol, no matter how restrictive, and had a solid track record of avoiding positive COVID cases. They played in a lot of empty stadiums. They only played one game in front of more than 1,000 spectators. By the end, the Eagles were exhausted. They had shown an amazing amount of heart through a difficult season, but they were ready for it to be over.
BC was picked #13th out of 15 teams by the ACC writers in the pre-season vote. The Eagles beat those expectations by finishing tied for sixth with Pitt & Virginia Tech. We can only wonder what they may have accomplished if COVID hadn’t impacted them. The 2021 squad returns Jurkovec and wide receiver Zay Flowers, who formed a potent combo in 2020, impressive for a team that was known for being challenged to move the ball through the air under BC’s previous coaching staff. Additionally, their schedule is favorable: outside of travelling to Clemson for the 3rd year in a row, BC host their most difficult opponents at home. They do travel to Louisville, but in the big picture, the schedule has cycled into the Eagles favor. The fact that BC was only 6-5 in a COVID plagued season means the Eagles are still flying under the radar to many nationally, which helps keep the pressure off. BC is poised to continue the improvements in 2021.
The Balance of the Big Ten
All the teams of the Big Ten had the same curveball thrown at them: the season was cancelled, and then it was revived at the last minute. Start, stop, start again. In hindsight, there were only two Big Ten programs that overachieved in 2020: Indiana & Northwestern. Many simply met expectations – Ohio State was expected to challenge for the national title. The two that clearly underachieved are the traditional powers from the East, Michigan and Penn State. Both teams dealt with unexpected opt-outs that likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for COVID. It is hard to know exactly how stressful the protocols were on these programs internally – like most programs, they kept a lot of their situation private. Over the last decade, both programs have been criticized for always being good enough to knock on the door of elite status, and then falling just short. It is hard to believe that both blue blood programs suddenly dipped at the same time for reasons completely independent of COVID. Did Sean Clifford play poorly because of the circumstances of the 2021 season, because he lost his running back to non-COVID reasons, or was 2020 more indicative of who he is as a player? Were Michigan’s line issues due to youth & inexperience alone, or did protocols prevent a group of young players from reaching their potential, a potential that might be recognized after a closer to normal 2021 offseason with spring practice and a full pre-season practice schedule?
Looking ahead, they both face tough schedules on their road to redemption. Both teams cross over to the West Division to visit the House of Pain in Wisconsin. The Badgers are a bit of a question mark as well, since we couldn’t get a great read on Graham Mertz’s capabilities, but Wiscy is usually a tough out, particularly at Camp Randall. Both teams have early season out of conference challenges: the Nittany Lions host Auburn and the Wolverines host Washington. As usual, they play all their East Division opponents, which includes the Buckeyes, but also a 2020 darling – Tom Allen and the Hoosiers. Quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. returns for Indiana. Were the Hoosiers really that good? Or were they simply the beneficiary of Penn State and Michigan teams that weren’t at their best because of the restrictions of the pandemic?
Of the two, the Nittany Lions might have the better shot to get back to the 10-win mark. Penn State plays at the Horseshoe, but neither they nor Michigan would be favored against OSU, regardless of where they play, so that’s kind of a wash. Auburn finished 2020 with a coaching change, which means big turnover on the staff, and new systems to install, while Washington won the PAC-12 North Division in 2020, and their coach & staff are going into Year 2 with more stability. Lastly, Penn State hosts Michigan. If they can hold serve at home against the Wolverines, get two wins against Auburn, Wisconsin and Indiana, and avoid the random upset, Penn State has a chance to get back to a double digit win total in the regular season.
It seemed like nothing was going to go right for the Houston Cougars when the 2020 season finally did kickoff. Memphis was unable to play, so the game was delayed. Houston improvised and quickly arranged for a game with Baylor, which was then cancelled at the last minute. Then North Texas had to cancel. Finally, on October 8, the Cougars kicked off what would end up being a 3-4 regular season. Houston was able to play a bowl game, but it was a loss to Hawai’i in the New Mexico Bowl.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Houston Cougars were mentioned in the same breath with Boise State and UCF as Group of Five teams poised to crash the Power Five New Year’s Day party, maybe even be a candidate to join a P5 conference. Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman had such great success at Houston that each was hired by a big-time program. After a brief dip under Major Applewhite, Houston opened the checkbook to make a splash hire by luring Dana Holgorsen away from his P5 perch in West Virginia, a hire they thought would keep Houston’s visibility high and restore them to G5 dominance.
Since then, Holgorsen’s first two campaigns ended with losing seasons. The 2019 season was turned on its ear when star quarterback D’Eriq King abruptly announced he was redshirting. While the move was marketed by Holgorsen and Houston as a unique strategy to maximize Houston’s opportunities, King eventually announced he was leaving the program. Then came 2020, where most of the obstacles for Houston were with their opponents and beyond their control. Two losing seasons, both with built in excuses.
There isn’t any immediate reason on paper to believe Houston is going to make a huge jump in 2021. It would appear Holgorsen’s best hope is that a decent offseason, with as normal a schedule as possible, will allow him to finally put his best foot forward at Houston. He better. They hired him to bring back the success they had with Sumlin & Herman. It will be tough to explain to the fans why a 3rd losing season couldn’t be helped.
When the Big Ten announced that they were cancelling their season, it was a media firestorm. When the PAC-12 announced they were cancelling their season, everyone understood. There were some who dismissed them as being irrelevant to the national picture in the first place, but most understood that the schools of the PAC-12 were going to find it challenging to have a Fall season. When the Big Ten announced their return, it put the PAC-12 in a tough spot – should they attempt a comeback? Or just lick their wounds and play football in the spring, like most high schools out west? Or just come back in 2021?
As we know, they did their best to play, but ultimately most teams got half a regular season at most. Then the North Division champ, Washington, had to bow out of the conference championship game because of protocols, and their replacement, Oregon, upset USC and stole the conference’s automatic bid to the New Year’s Six. Football lovers love football, and were glad they played, but we all know we didn’t see the PAC-12’s best in 2020, nor did we see any single program’s best, because it was impossible to be at their best under the circumstances.
It seems that the 2020 hangover is most likely to be felt longest in the PAC-12. They are essentially rebuilding an entire conference, starting with a new commissioner, but there are some bright spots. Starting quarterback Kedon Slovis is back for USC, and while they did lose a few starters to the NFL, overall they are bringing back a lot of starters, and appear to have the most stability in the South. Washington looks to keep their positive momentum under Jimmy Lake in the North. Kyle Whittingham has maintained a good program at Utah, and this season they welcome transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer from Baylor.
On the other side, Oregon’s starting quarterback left the program, and the Ducks will have former BC quarterback Anthony Brown behind center. Brown was not known for his passing prowess in Chestnut Hill, so it is a challenge to imagine the Oregon offense not taking a step back. Arizona State looked poised to make some noise in the South in 2021, but now a scandal involving recruiting violations during the long dead period of 2020-21 has created a lot of uncertainty around the program. The shine has come off David Shaw at Stanford. Oregon State, Washington State, Colorado & California appear stuck in Pacific Time Zone purgatory, and Arizona has a long, long way to go.
The dark horse for the PAC-12 might be UCLA. Chip Kelly has been quietly building a program in LA. They finished 3-4 in 2020, but lost those four games by 6 points, 3 points, 5 points, and then by 1 point in double overtime. They were competitive every time they took the field. Their schedule isn’t the easiest, with LSU at the Rose Bowl and road games against USC, Washington and Utah, so time will tell if they can surprise someone.
We shouldn’t be shocked if COVID hasn’t created its last headline in college sports. The recent dismissal of the NC State baseball team from the College World Series reminds us that COVID protocols are still likely to exist in some shape or form in 2021, and unless coaches and players prioritize vaccinations, we are likely to see more players not dressing for games at the last minute, and maybe even a postponement or cancellation. COVID is not gone, but for the most part, we should see a product much closer to what we have come to expect, with full stands, cheerleaders & marching bands. Hopefully, we will see the teams bring their best to the field too.