At this time last year, trying to make predictions about college football started with guessing whether the season would actually reach a conclusion.
Only 60% of FBS conferences kicked off in September — which explains picking UCF to make the College Football Playoff in 2020.
Does it explain picking Texas? There are only so many things one can blame on the pandemic. (It should be noted that the if-in-doubt-pick-Alabama strategy worked out great).
College football is trending back toward business as usual in 2021. Fingers crossed. That should make projecting who disappoints, overachieves, reaches the playoff and wins the national championship much easier.
Three teams that will start the season unranked, but will finished ranked:
TCU ( 40 points in the preseason poll ): Coach Gary Patterson seems due to have a surprise Big 12 contender with breakout candidates at running back (Zachary Evans) and receiver (Quentin Johnson). Beware five Big 12 road games.
Houston (five points). The American Athletic Conference is usually good for at least one surprising team per season (see: Tulsa in 2020, Navy in 2019). The Cougars look the part in Year 3 under Dana Holgorsen.
Kentucky (zero points). The Wildcats are a college football hipster pick to finish second in the SEC East, with a viral video quarterback in Penn State transfer Will Levis.
Three teams that will start the season ranked, but finish unranked:
No. 13 Florida. The Gators lost a lot of firepower and need a big step forward from a defense that was a mess last season. Oh, look, Alabama's on the schedule, too.
No. 17 Indiana. The Hoosiers' rise has been a great story under coach Tom Allen, but last season's milestone wins against Michigan and Penn State will be tough to repeat on the road.
No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette. A small step back after consecutive seasons of double-digits victories for coach Billy Napier's team is probably enough to relegate the Ragin' Cajuns to unranked. If they start a second consecutive season with a victory at a Big 12 opponent — this time vs. No. 21 Texas —- this pick goes out the window.
Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson over North Carolina. The Tigers take home a seventh straight ACC title with a new star quarterback in D.J. Uiagalelei and a defensive line that brings back memories of the Christian Wilkins-led Power Rangers that won a national title in 2018.
American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati over Houston. The Bearcats make it two straight AAC titles behind QB Desmond Ridder and put together a serious case to be included in the College Football Playoff.
Big 12: Oklahoma over TCU. The Sooners make it seven straight league title against the surprising Horned Frogs. How long can a team be an outgoing member of a conference?
Big Ten: Wisconsin over Ohio State. The Buckeyes have yet to lose a Big Ten game under third-year coach Ryan Day. Has to happen at some point, right? A more explosive Badgers' offense with QB Graham Mertz breaks the Ohio State grip on the Big Ten after four straight titles.
Conference USA: Western Kentucky over UTSA. On the strength of a revamped offense — the Hilltoppers imported a quarterback, two receivers and offensive coordinator from FCS Houston Baptist —- WKU wins its first C-USA title since 2016.
Mid-American Conference: Western Michigan over Kent State. The MAC is all about parity. In the last five seasons, nine different teams have reached the championship game. The Broncos have been close the last two seasons.
Mountain West: Nevada over Boise State. Coach Jay Norvell might have the Wolf Pack's best team since Colin Kaepernick was tearing it up in Reno. Behind NFL prospects QB Carson Strong and WR Romeo Doubs, Nevada wins its first Mountain West title.
Pac-12: Oregon over Utah. The Ducks make it three straight Pac-12 titles, with offense-wrecking pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux leading the way. But do can they do enough to get the Pac-12 back in the CFP?
Southeastern Conference: Georgia over Alabama. JT Daniels gives the Bulldogs the type of dynamic offense they need to break through against the Crimson Tide after three crushing losses in the last four seasons.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State over Louisiana-Lafayette. App State had won or shared the previous four Sun Belt titles before getting nudged from the top of the mountain last season by Coastal Carolina and ULL. The Mountaineers push back this season.
The Southern California and Michigan jobs both come open, with the blue bloods each targeting Iowa State's Matt Campbell. With NFL options, too, Campbell picks USC.
NEW YEAR'S SIX
Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Oregon.
Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. TCU.
Fiesta Bowl —- Texas A&M vs. Cincinnati.
Peach Bowl —- North Carolina vs. LSU.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Wait! A playoff without Alabama and Ohio State?
Orange Bowl semifinal — No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Wisconsin.
Cotton Bowl semifinal — No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Oklahoma.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Georgia vs. Oklahoma. The Bulldogs win that elusive first national championship since 1980.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/
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