Welcome back to the second edition of The Walk-On Redshirts Round Robin! This time we are adding in Intern Gibble to get his thoughts. We have five questions about college football heading into 2021!
Josh Heupel took the Tennessee job after Jeremy Pruitt was fired. He has seen numerous players transfer and some released from their letter of intent. What are the realistic expectations for Tennessee this year?
Jake: If we are being 100% honest, the goal is to make it through the season. This off season has been a mess for Tennessee. If Heupel can manage to make it to a bowl game, you have to consider it a successful season. He was hired later in the process than almost any coach in recent history. I think there are six winable games on the schedule, but obviously that does not mean they will win all of them.
Cole: The last 20 years for the University of Tennessee football program have been… less than spectacular overall. While there are seven 9+ win seasons in there, the Volunteers also eight campaigns that ended in 5 or less wins, including this past 2020 season. Truthfully, Tennessee has many of the pieces needed to create a program that competes year in and year out for titles, but their toxic administration prevents them from achieving those heights. Unfortunately for Volunteer fans, I don’t think that changes with the hiring of Josh Heupel. A new coaching staff and the loss of some really important players (i.e. Henry To’o To’o) makes this a very difficult rebuild. Realistically, I see a 5-7 record for ole Rocky Top in 2021.
Sean: I think Tennessee just needs to build some momentum. They are a train wreck right now. As my collogues stated, a .500 record seems like a stretch goal at this point. Heupel needs to establish a culture and just get his team back on track. If they can be competitive and maybe pull off an upset, I would consider it a positive year. My expectations are for a building block type year, find out who your leaders are and play a lot of young guys and find who your core starters will be for the future.
Intern Gibble: For anyone who’s expecting a winning record in Knoxville, I’m here to bring you back to Earth. Josh Heupel might bring a strong resume with him from UCF, but that’s not going to bring immediate results to a team that’s in major disarray. They lose their former starting quarterback to the transfer portal with Guarantano leaving for Wazzu, but do bring in Hendon Hooker from Virginia Tech. He might not even start either, which could see them turn to J.T. Shrout or incoming 4-star freshman Kaidon Salter if things continue to be rocky in the QB room(pun intended). There are just so many different things going on that I don’t see them fixing all of their problems right away here. Their out of conference schedule is pretty favorable, but I don’t see Volunteers getting more than 2 conference wins. 5-7 is more than likely where I see them at, which is respectable for them with all things considered here.
In 2019 Joe Burrow burst onto the scene and had one of the best seasons in college football history. Last year Zach Wilson came out of nowhere to lead BYU to an excellent season. Who is a player we could see rise to stardom in 2021?
Jake: Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec is who I am taking here. He transferred from Notre Dame and did not get spring practice last year. In Burrow’s first season at LSU, he threw 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. In Jurkovec’s first season at Boston College he threw 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Burrow threw for 2,894 yards while Jurkovec threw for 2,558. Burrow had better offensive weapons and for sure benefited from that. Jurkovec may not win the Heisman, but look for him to seperate himself this fall and not only be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC but all of college football.
Cole: I’m going to keep my eyes on the small stage (like with Wilson at BYU) and pick Carson Strong from Nevada. The Wolfpack’s gunslinger had one of the more impressive seasons in 2020, throwing for 2,858 yards and 27 touchdowns (as compared to only 4 INTs) on a 70.1% completion percentage in nine games. The 2021 season provides a very reasonable conference slate but more importantly some very winnable matchups against Cal and Kansas State that would springboard him in to the national spotlight with some big performances.
Sean: If you read our first Round Table I am taking the guy I picked to win the Heisman Trophy.. Bryce Young. Although, he is not really a break out player to die hard college football fans, he has only attempted 22 passes in his career so he fits the criteria in my mind. They are replacing two of the best receivers in the country and have a new play caller in Bill O’Brien but Alabama never has a lack of talent at the skill positions. Bryce Young has the keys to a Ferrari and he has the talent to put up Heisman type stats.
Intern Gibble: This pick is either going to go really well or be a fantastic bust, but we’re gonna pick Bo Nix anyway. Nix has had some big moments where he showed out and looked like a stud of a quarterback and a Heisman caliber player and others where he looks like he has no idea how to football. New head coach Brian Harsin brings a lot of experience with him and as a former QB himself, should have the knowledge to help Nix reach his potential. He didn’t really improve much from year one to year two with the Tigers, but with the potential to leave early for the draft after this season I can see him bringing it together for a big year. A week 3 trip up north to Happy Valley is a great stage for Bo Nix to show improvement and lead his team to a top tier win early in the year.
Cincinnati played Georgia in the Peach Bowl and nearly won this past bowl season. Looking into 2021, which school other than Cincinnati has the best chance at a New Years Six bowl game?
Jake: I think Billy Napier and Louisiana have the best chance after Cincinnati. With games against Texas and Liberty, they have a chance to make a statement early to help their rankings. Napier returns a strong core of his team including quaterback Levi Lewis. Coastal Carolina is an interesting case but their schedule is weak so they could get passed up even with an undefeated schedule. Louisiana has a chance to make a statement and could easily make a New Years Six bowl game with one loss.
Cole: You can find me right next to Jake in Ragin’ Cajun’s bandwagon on this one. While there are definitely some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, most notably Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell in the backfield, the foundation Coach Napier has built will prevent a major drop off. Returning Levi Lewis, most of their WR and OL will allow them to stay in games as their defense finds their footing early on. While the Texas game is what draws your eye initially, avoiding Coastal Carolina in the regular season is extremely beneficial. If Louisiana can get it rolling and come bounding down the stretch, a possible win over the Chanticleers (what an awesome mascot) could put them in the conversation for a NY6 bowl game, even with an early loss to Texas.
Sean: I am going with Liberty. Hugh Freeze lead the Flames to a 10-1 record in 2020 and brings back quarterback Malik Willis. If it weren’t for a heart breaking loss to NC State, they could have had some real consideration for the CFP. They do have two road tests in 2021. They travel to the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse seems to always have one upset per season, and they travel to Oxford, Mississippi for the Hugh Freeze revenge game with Ole Miss. Coming off the hype of last year, even a close loss to Ole Miss should still get them in consideration for a NY6 game.
Intern Gibble: Coastal Carolina should have little issue repeating the success they had in the 2020 season. They take on Kansas again along with UMass(not a real football team) and have basically everyone returning this year. Grayson McCall is back to lead the Chanticleers at QB and was absolutely electric last year. With all the experience they retain their team expectation has to be a repeat. The problem is, with such a weak out of conference schedule they have virtually no room for a slip up in the season.
Some of the biggest named quarterbacks are off to the NFL so we will see a lot of new faces. Which first year quarterback has the highest expectations heading into 2021?
Jake: The first year quarterback that I believe will get the most hype is D.J. Uiagalelei. He started two games for Trevor Lawrence in 2020 and showed what he is capable. Dabo Swinney has been hyping him up since he stepped on campus. The former five star quarterback will start this fall and will have Heisman expectations out of the gates. Switching gears, I think you can look at Michigan with Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy as well. Jim Harbaugh has to find a quarterback and he is running out of chances. Harbaugh cannot let the competition continue into the fall. Figuring out who will be the starter early in camp should be a priority. The spotlight continues to follow Harbaugh around which means his quarterbacks will also have the lights on them.
Cole: Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, and Sam Huard are all guys who I expect to start from day one at their respective programs. Each of those programs comes with immense pressure but it is Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei who I believe has the highest expectations. Now I know, he did start two games this past year (out of necessity) but with Trevor Lawrence turning pro, it’s DJ’s show in 2021. It’s actually those two games against Boston College and Notre Dame that I believe are the reason the expectations are so high. While he went 1-1 in those two starts, he played masterfully; throwing for a combined 59-85 (69.4%), 781 yards and four TDs. He also added another two scores on the ground. Clemson has surrounded Uiagalelei with a multitude of talent but still needs him to play well to utilize it to it’s fullest extent.
Sean: I am going to sound repetitive but I am going with Bryce Young (again). Alabama is about to have consecutive quarterbacks taken in the first round and they are coming off a national title in 2020. Add on the fact Young was the top duel threat QB in his class coming out of high school and the expectations are set pretty high. He does have to overcome a new OC and play caller in Bill O’Brien but before that mess he created in Houston he was considered a QB whisper. I think he is back where he belongs in the college ranks and will prove it this season.
Intern Gibble: Is there more pressure on someone than taking the reins from one of the two best quarterbacks heading to the NFL draft? I’d say taking over for the quarterback of a team who might just be one of the most elite, talent ridden, and dominant teams we’ve ever seen just might be. Being the QB at Alabama is easily one of the highest pressure situations possible and Bryce Young has been given that opportunity. The sophomore came to Bama has the number 5 overall prospect in the 2020 class and was beaten out of the job by the experience of Mac Jones when most though he could be starting as a freshman. With the talent Young has and the level of experience Bama brought in with the hiring of Bill O’Brien, fans will expect another Heisman caliber campaign from their quarterback. He has the tools and the talent around him to excel. It’s just a matter of Bryce Young handling that pressure.
Ohio State is expected to be the favorite in the Big Ten once again this fall. Other than Ohio State, which school has the best chance to win the Big Ten?
Jake: Obviously Ohio State and Ryan Day will be the favorites to win the Big Ten once again this fall. If Ohio State does not win the conference, I think it is because they lose in the Big Ten championship game. While a school like Indiana or Penn State could have a chance to knock off Ohio State, I think both of them lose additional games on the schedule to put them behind the Buckeyes. Northwestern and Iowa are the programs I like in 2021. Both return a solid portion of their team. Northwestern will most likely be starting former South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hillinski this fall which should give them their best quarterback in some time. I think Pat Fitzgerald is a better coach so we will go with Northwestern.
Cole: Can I still choose Ohio State? In all seriousness, as the Buckeyes vie for their fourth straight Big Ten title and 40th overall, there is one team that comes to mind that as a legitimate contender, the Northwestern Wildcats. While they may not have as much talent as a Wisconsin, they utilize what they have to its fullest extent. Pat Fitzgerald has been slowly building NW into a consistent over-achiever and I don’t see that stopping in 2021.
The loss of defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz will put a strain on the defense. However, with the addition of transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski the offense should get a much needed boost and take some of that weight off of the defense’s shoulders. The Wildcats were able to take the Buckeyes down to wire last year and, with an improved offense, could take the proverbial crown right off the Champ’s head.
Sean: I will take Indiana. Northwestern makes a great case but when in doubt I always lean toward the better QB. Early reports say Michel Penix should be good to go for the season opener in 2021 and he had the Hoosiers rolling before he went down late in the season with a torn ACL. Tom Allen has that team believing and they gave the Buckeyes a scare late in their game last season. Penix heath will be the biggest factor but the Hoosiers were a really exciting team last year and I see them continuing that momentum into 2021.
Intern Gibble: This could very well be the easy answer to this question, but I don’t much care. I fully expect Wisconsin to be back to their normal quality this season and take back the West from Northwestern. The Badgers severely underachieved last season with a big break early on due to Covid and really just never got rolling. They walloped Illinois and Michigan and then their offense just became completely inept until the Mayo Bowl. Their biggest positional loss is on the offensive line in the form of Cole Van Lanen heading to the NFL, but we all know they have another tree sized human waiting to fill that spot. It’s not going to be a cake walk for them with how strong Northwestern and Iowa will continue to be next season, but I don’t see them being down as bad as they were two seasons straight.
In the East, I don’t see a team that’s right on the heels of Ohio State at the moment who’s ready to take their mantle this year. Indiana would be the closest if you really want me to pick, but Penn State needs to show a ton of improvement to be back in that conversation.
We’ll check back on these predictions in January 2022 to see how epically, hilariously wrong we were.