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The game changed, and it changed quickly.
College football players can get paid now. Well, allow me to rephrase. College football players can now be paid out in open. What would once get you suspended can now earn you a nice little living.
Oh, and the College Football Playoff is expanding. Not now and probably not next year, but a bigger bracket is imminent. More meaningful games to wager on. More meaningful matchups between programs that rarely cross paths. More of everything.
For as much as college football is changing, the biggest change 2021 will welcome should be familiar. Fans. Full stadiums. Live mascots. Pageantry. Traditions. Elements that make college football the greatest sport on the planet — to watch and to wager on — are back.
With that, let us preview this glorious season.
Five Biggest Storylines Entering the Season
1. Home-field advantage is back
Let’s build off the theme above for a moment. Gambling on college football games in largely or completely empty stadiums took some getting used to.
Let me be more direct: I hated it, and I am sure you did too.
It did, however, allow underdogs to have their moments. It made a road trip, in many instances, far less daunting. Playing in an empty Happy Valley last year wasn’t kind to Penn State. The same can be said for a team like Wisconsin in Madison and Ohio State in Columbus. In a limited season, none of the three was over .500 ATS at home.
Barring the unforeseen, college football will completely welcome back fans and home-field advantages in 2021.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a story. You handicap matchups with the environment accounted for. This year, those environments will almost certainly be more amped than usual.
2. Welcoming a new crop of gifted QBs
Consider just how much star power college football lost this offseason. Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Mac Jones are gone, and yet Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama will all be ranked in the top five when the season begins.
We have an idea who some of the next stars will be. D.J. Uiagalelei showed us glimpses last year for Clemson. Spencer Rattler showcased even more for Oklahoma. Sam Howell for North Carolina posted video-game numbers at times, and he likely will again. All three will be among the most popular wagers to win the Heisman, with Rattler and Uiagalelei two of the chalks to win the award.
But there will be fresh faces in meaningful games — faces we learn early on.
Who will be the next Zach Wilson or Joe Burrow? If you have an idea, don’t wait long to pounce. There will be money to be made early before the rest catch on.
3. Can a non-quarterback win the Heisman again?
On the topic of QBs, perhaps we will once again see a non-QB win the most prestigious award in sports.
Although if I am being completely honest, it seems likely that DeVonta Smith’s magnificent triumph will likely be an outlier. That said, we know now a wide receiver is still capable of winning the Heisman.
As for who I like to win this year, I wrote the Heisman extensively. My picks, from chalk to long shots, are here.
4. Alabama is good again, huh?
In a word, probably, though this one is a bit more complicated than usual.
In four years, Alabama has lost four games. And despite being dealt lofty point spreads every week, the Crimson Tide has still covered 30 of 55 games in that time.
I don’t need to tell you about how good Nick Saban is. You know this by now.
But there is reason to question just how dominant Alabama will be. The team loses seven starters on offense. Those losses include the starting quarterback, the Heisman winner, another dynamic wide receiver, one of the greatest running backs to ever play at the school and meaningful pieces on an offensive line that made it the best unit in America.
Still, sophomore quarterback Bryce Young (+ 600 to win the Heisman) could find immediate stardom. The sophomore, while small, is incredibly gifted and seemingly perfect for the opportunity. How he meshes with new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will be fascinating to watch.
The defense should once again be a strength. While it also lost pieces to the draft, a youthful group should be much improved. Last year this unit was up and down by Alabama’s ridiculous historical standards. While the offense will likely still be what makes this program go in this post-Lane Kiffin world, an improved defense could go a long way.
Another element of concern? The schedule. Alabama travels to Texas A&M, Florida and Auburn. It also plays Ole Miss, which was a nightmare matchup last year, Miami, LSU and maybe Georgia in the SEC championship game.
Alabama is Alabama. Nothing should surprise. But I don’t love this team at -170 to win the conference and am staying clear of national championship futures as well.
5. Is this finally Georgia’s year?
In a word, maybe.
Over the last five years, Georgia has Alabama-ified its roster with five-star recruits. And this fall it welcomes back 20 returning starters.
The offensive line could be the best in the country. The quarterback, JT Daniels, should rapidly develop. The defense should be excellent — perhaps even better than it was a season ago — headlined by a superb line.
Everything is in place for this to finally be the year, including Alabama having to replace so many important pieces at once. But we’ve had this conversation before. Georgia fans know it all too well.
At -425, there isn’t much value in betting the team to win the SEC East. But I like Georgia to win the SEC at + 225.
This, to me, is the most gifted and complete football team in the country.
The 10 Games You Need to See This Year
We’re going to disagree on what we deem to be the must-watch games of 2021. That’s perfectly fine.
I would, however, like to highlight that meaningful out-of-conference games always get the nod, and that I would like to see more of them. To take that further, let’s continue to play these games on college campuses.
Mini-rant over. Here is my Top 10.
1. Clemson vs. Georgia (Sept. 4)
The game of the year comes in Week 1. Clemson has been labeled a four-point favorite, which is certainly noteworthy. I would like to point out that I can still see both teams making the playoff. Both rosters are stockpiled with five-stars. Both quarterbacks have Heisman aspirations. So much to love about this one. This is why we watch college football.
2. Alabama at Texas A&M (Oct. 9)
Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban have plenty of history. In fact, Fisher has made it clear he’s gunning for the throne as recently as last year. At home with one of the best crowds in football — with a roster that has certainly closed the talent gap in recent years — feels like a good place to try and take it. Currently A&M is a double-digit underdog. I expect that number to go down significantly. This could be a great deal of fun.
3. Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11)
We were deprived of this matchup last year, which is a shame. We get it this year (and next), and it will be played on campuses with fabulous college environments. Can Oregon slow Ohio State’s ridiculous crop of wideouts? How will the Ducks manage what should be an overwhelming crowd? The 10-point spread is lofty for a game as anticipated as this one, but I cannot wait to see how it plays out. (Also, very tempted to lay those points.)
4. Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 25)
Soldier Field in Chicago will play host to a delightful Midwest tussle. Wisconsin is a small favorite, although this line has ample time to move. Notre Dame will look to replace its starting quarterback, while the Badgers will try to find their rhythm after a lost season. I am curious to see if Wisconsin’s defense will be as good as advertised. Notre Dame likely is as well.
5. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Oct. 9)
I’m intrigued. Yes, Oklahoma has largely dominated the rivalry and the conference. But Steve Sarkisian was a bold hire, one I really liked. Beyond the fried food at the State Fair of Texas and the homegrown hatred between these two, watching perhaps the two best play-callers in the sport go toe to toe is something you should line up to see. At the moment, the Sooners are nearly double-digit chalk. That feels like too much to me, but recent history says I might be very wrong.
6. Miami vs. Alabama (Sept. 4)
It might not be close. Let’s start there. History says Alabama should dominate, and the 18-point spread certainly amplifies that possible theme. Still, the return of Miami QB D’Eriq King is huge, and he has the skill set that has tortured Nick Saban defenses in the past. The problem? Miami also lost some really good players, and Alabama’s roster is still light-years better in so many areas.
7. Auburn at Penn State (Sept. 18)
What a spectacular, odd, lovely out-of-conference game between two historic programs that have rarely played. And the fact that this game will take place in Happy Valley is a) superb for all of us and b) a big reason he spread is currently north of a touchdown. For teams with mixed expectations heading into the year, this is a massive tussle.
8. Florida at LSU (Oct. 16)
Remember this game last season? The outcome was decided when a player threw a shoe, which resulted in a penalty. Although it feels like a dream, it was very real. The series is unpredictable, the teams are somewhat difficult to handicap and the stakes will be enormous per usual. The game is nearly pick-’em at the moment, which feels right. We should learn a lot about both before they meet in the middle of the year.
9. Cincinnati at Notre Dame (Oct. 2)
If Cincinnati is to make a run at the College Football Playoff — and that is an enormous “if” — the Bearcats must win this game. Coming off a one-loss season with their starting quarterback returning, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Notre Dame has been pegged as a small home favorite, which is not surprising. But I’m inclined to take the points.
10. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 23)
The Irish have been penciled as a field-goal favorite, which feels about right. But the glimpses we saw last year indicated that perhaps the Trojans are close to being finally free of Pac-12 mediocrity. There is a lot to like about starting QB Kedon Slovis, who could become a star this year. As for the game, the importance plus the rivalry makes this a doozy.
Six Win Totals I Like in 2021
Texas A&M Over 9.5 (+ 105)
Kramer: Maybe I am sipping too much of the Jimbo Fisher Kool-Aid, but outside of a home game against Alabama (and maybe a final game at LSU), the schedule looks somewhat manageable.
While the offense will need to be reworked, the defense returns nine starters and should be one of the best in the country. Despite the loss of Kellen Mond at QB, this is an offense
that should have plenty of meaningful pieces thanks to recent recruiting. According to 247Sports, A&M’s classes have ranked nationally as follows: No. 8 in 2021, No. 6 in 2020 and No. 4 in 2019.
It would be a shock if the Aggies are not unbeaten entering the Oct. 9 game against Alabama. After that? Missouri, South Carolina, Auburn, Ole Miss, Prairie View A&M and LSU.
Wisconsin Under 9.5 (-115)
Kramer: This team wasn’t great last year (4-3 overall and 3-4 ATS). Granted, it was a bit of a broken season, but I think a 10-win rebound is asking a lot. And the season begins with three very losable games in the first five weeks with a bye wedged in between.
Let’s start with the schedule. The Badgers play Notre Dame and Army, which won’t be easy. They also open with Penn State, play Michigan after the Irish and have Iowa and a handful of other losable tussles on deck.
They return 15 starters and should have one of the better defenses in the conference, but my concern lies on the offensive side. If this group is not considerably more explosive, the Badgers are likely to top out at eight or nine wins.
USC Over 8.5 (-120)
Kramer: It wouldn’t shock me if the Trojans flirt with a chance to make the College Football Playoff. Lost in the COVID-19 season was a rather impressive -- albeit abbreviated -- performance by USC. While a perfect year was undone by Oregon in the final week, there are reasons to finally be optimistic.
We’ve said this before, of course, and it hasn’t gone well. But the schedule really does set up nicely.
A road game in South Bend will not be easy, but games at Washington State, Colorado, Arizona State and Cal should be wins. USC also draws BYU in the final game, although that team will likely look very different without Zach Wilson.
A total of 16 starters are back. Also, the return of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell could be enormous on an offense poised to make another leap forward.
West Virginia Over 7 (+ 105)
Kramer: So, the Oklahoma game might not go great. Iowa State could get ugly as well. Let us address the two box scores from last season that might not be easy on the eyes. (The Oklahoma matchup in 2020 was ultimately canceled, although the Mountaineers were crushed by Iowa State 42-6.)
West Virginia will welcome back 16 starters from a team that showed flashes outside of those two games. I like the renovation that head coach Neal Brown has done -- providing balance to both sides, particularly a defense that certainly needed it.
The opening game at Maryland is crucial for this over to hit. Week 3 against Virginia Tech will
also be huge for this total. Down the slate a bit, I believe WVU will win enough swing games (Texas Tech, at Baylor and OK State) to eclipse seven wins.
Indiana Under 8 (-130)
Kramer: By Big Ten standards, the schedule is pretty ugly. In fact, by national standards, it is ranked as one of the top 20 hardest schedules on the docket.
Road games at Iowa, Penn State and Michigan won’t be easy. Home games against Ohio State and Cincinnati are brutal, too. There are very few gimmies on tap for a team attempting to validate a 2020 season that was magical in nature: The Hoosiers finished the year 6-2 overall and 7-1 ATS.
The good news? Indiana welcomes back 17 starters, headlined by wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. He was truly exceptional. This roster certainly has talent. I’m just unsure about carrying this momentum forward, and I believe many of the teams Indiana beat last season should be improved.
Great story in 2020. I just see regression.
Texas Over 8 (+ 105)
Kramer: I’m buying into the Steve Sarkisian hype. While he was blessed with historic talent at Alabama, his evolution as an offensive guru has been striking. Perhaps lost in the discussion is the fact that he inherits a decent roster. It’s not like the one he just left, but there is talent.
Getting a win against a quality Louisiana team out of the gate is pivotal. Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry and Iowa State on the road are tricky but both winnable. The rest of the schedule is ripe with opportunities.
Texas returns eight starters on offense, has one of the nation’s most dynamic running backs and has viable options at QB. The results might not be instant, but they are coming.
And I think they’ll start to show sooner than many think.
Five Names to Know in 2021
1. Justyn Ross (Clemson, WR)
Before he missed last season with what sounded like a potential career-ending injury, Justyn Ross was a monster in the making. As a true frosh, Ross delivered a 1,000-yard season and majestic highlight reel. He followed that up with an impressive encore in 2019 before missing all of 2020.
While not fully cleared yet, Clemson seems optimistic about his future and his potential impact. And if the junior is truly healthy once again, the 6-foot-4 target could once again become one of the most difficult matchups in the country.
2. C.J. Stroud (Ohio State, QB)
A player many casual fans don’t know is also + 800 to win the Heisman. Such is the life of a quarterback at Ohio State under Ryan Day.
While the Buckeyes will have a competition leading up to the year, Stroud is considered the favorite to win the job. He’s been on campus, played behind Justin Fields and has received positive reviews. While Ohio State is loaded at QB, he’ll get every chance to win this job.
Regardless of who wins, they will be throwing to the best 1-2 punch in the country. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are both special. Stroud, assuming he wins the job, has a chance to become a star -- and fast.
3. Jack Sawyer (Ohio State, DE)
I’m doubling up on Ohio State, although I am doing so for good reason.
In my opinion, this is the best true freshman in the country. Yes, it’ll be tough for Sawyer to get an abundance of playing time with so many good pass-rushers on the roster. But the five-star recruit is so good -- also a homegrown talent from Columbus -- that he will find his way onto the field.
While I don’t want to overreact to a spring game performance, Sawyer’s four-sack day was a sign of things to come. He looks like a future top-five pick already, and he has yet to play a down in an actual game.
4. Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert (Georgia)
OK, I cheated. But here’s why.
Georgia has two of the most unique offensive weapons on its roster, and both could explode in 2021.
Washington, just a sophomore, is a 6-7 tight end and one of the most unique athletes to ever play the position. That is not hyperbole. I covered him in high school, and I have never seen anyone quite like him. He flashed some as a frosh, although I expect that to become the norm now.
Gilbert, considered one of the highest-rated tight end recruits ever, originally played at LSU only to transfer to Georgia in the offseason. He was electric in small doses last year, and Georgia says he will be eligible to play now. It sounds like Gilbert will be featured at wide receiver and tight end.
While their numbers might not be huge, both will likely be nightmare matchups and huge contributors.
5. Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina, Coach)
Let’s change it up.
Chadwell was fabulous in 2020, turning Coastal Carolina into one of the season’s best stories. At just 44 years old, I don’t think it’s long before Chadwell becomes one of the most coveted young coaches in the sport. Heck, he’s probably already there.
Last year, Chadwell led his team to a record of 11-1 (8-3 ATS). They’ll welcome back 19 starters, and it’s reasonable to expect a worthy follow-up. If that’s the case, it’ll be hard for the program to hang onto him as the interest is likely to become overwhelming.
If you are a fan of a Power 5 program with a coach on the hot seat, make sure to tune in. He’s a name you should know.