We can only hope that 2021 brings back some degree of normalcy to all walks of life, including college football. In any year, predicting what will occur 6-7 months in advance of the season is tough duty. With the backdrop of the current pandemic, the senior return rules from 2020, coaching changes, and the transfer portal, predicting 2021 is even more daunting. Many seniors are still making up their minds on whether to return for the 2021 season so these predictions may change as we get more clarity.
But we here at G5 Gurus don’t back away from a challenge. With that in mind, we present our “Way to Early” G5 Top 10 for 2021. Note: for projected returning starters, we are only including offense and defense, not specialists (i.e. 22 maximum returning starters).
2020 Record: 9-1 (6-0 AAC)
Projected Returning Starters: 16
The Bearcats came within a whisper of finishing undefeated in 2020. They flirted with consideration for the College Football Playoff and return the core of their offense and defense for 2021. Without doubt, the Bearcats will miss Marcus Freeman, their Defensive Coordinator who left for Notre Dame. The new DC’s main priority will be the defensive backfield where the Bearcats lose both starting safeties.
With Desmond Ridder, three offensive linemen, and all of the primary receivers returning, Cincinnati’s offense should be even more potent than 2020. The Bearcats will also be aided by the top recruiting class in the G5. They do face a tough non-conference schedule with visits to Notre Dame and Indiana on tap. If they can navigate those games and a tough AAC schedule, look for Cincinnati to be in the discussion for the CFP once again.
2020 Record: 10-1 (7-1 SBC)
Projected Returning Starters: 19
Louisiana completed their second consecutive double digit win season with a win in the First Responder Bowl. Many seniors on the Rajin’ Cajuns opted to return for 2021, but no return was more important than coach Bill Napier. Napier turned down offers from P5 schools to return for a fourth season in Lafayette. The Cajuns will lose their top two running backs but bring virtually every other starter.
The Cajuns open the season at Texas, a tough opening act. However, don’t forget the Cajuns beat Iowa State by 17 early in 2020, so they are more than capable of springing the upset. A tough road game at Liberty and a home date with Appalachian State pose the biggest additional threats to the Cajun’s victory total.
2020 Record: 10-1
Projected Returning Starters: 20
One of the shocks of the 2020 off-season was Hugh Freeze staying in Lynchburg after a sterling 10-1 campaign. Liberty was one of the great stories of 2020. They scrambled to assemble a schedule after COVID-19 wrecked their original plans. They played 3 ACC teams, winning two games and narrowly losing the third. They easily defeated the two FCS teams on their schedule and destroyed UMass. In the Cure Bowl, they ended Coastal Carolina’s undefeated season in overtime.
Liberty’s success begins with Freeze but was enabled through the dynamic play of Auburn transfer Malik Willis. Willis threw for over 2200 yards, logged a passer efficiency rating of 155.8 and led the team in rushing with 944 yards. Willis returns for the 2021 season and that alone makes Liberty dangerous. Further strengthening the Flames is the return of top receivers D.J. Stubbs, Demario Douglas, and Kevin Shaa. Top RB Joshua Mack and almost all of the offensive line returns for another round in 2021. Almost all of the key players also return on defense as well.
Two P5 road games at Syracuse and Ole Miss and a mix of games between CUSA and SBC opponents will test the Flames in 2021. However, after watching what Hugh Freeze has built, no one should be sleeping on Liberty.
(4) Appalachian State
2020 Record: 9-3 (6-2 SBC)
Returning Starters: 18
Appalachian stumbled a bit by their standards in 2020. Although, by finishing with 9 wins, they join Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma as the only FBS teams to achieve that win level every year since 2015. The issue in 2020 was mistakes. The Mountaineers were the most penalized team in the G5 and had the sixth most turnovers in 2020.
The Mountaineers welcome back top receiver Corey Sutton who missed the 2020 season. They also return all their top receivers and running backs from the 2020 campaign. The key will be replacing departing 3-year starting QB Zac Thomas. Duke transfer Chase Brice and others will compete for the job. The defense will lose All-American corner Shemar Jean-Charles but return everyone else. A tough non-conference schedule awaits, with a trip to Miami, a neutral site tussle against in-state rival East Carolina, and a visit from old rival Marshall. If the Mountaineers clean up the mistakes, they could easily return to the top of the Sunbelt and might even be in the conversation for the NY6.
2020 Record: 7-2 (6-2 MWC)
Projected Returning Starters: 18
The Wolfpack closed out its abbreviated 2020 season with a win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Nevada returns almost its entire offensive unit including QB Carson Strong who threw for 27 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions in 9 games, while averaging over 300 yards per game. Toa Taua who led the MWC in rushing also returns, along with the MWC’s leading receiver Romeo Doubs. They will be further bolstered by the return of star WR Elijah Cooks who was injured in the first game of the 2020 season. There is no doubt, the Wolfpack offense will be ready for all comers.
The defense will be aided by the return of six seniors. The 2020 defense was fifth in the MWC, allowing 23 points per game. On the plus side, the defense only surrendered 30 points or more twice (win over Wyoming, loss to San Jose State). Tough road games at Cal, Kansas State, Boise State, and San Diego State face the Wolfpack in 2021. With their offense, all of those games are winnable, but they will need to clean up the penalties (almost 70 penalty yards per game in 2020) and get some defensive stops.
(6) Coastal Carolina
2020 Record: 11-1 (8-0 SBC)
Projected Returning Starters: 19
Coastal Carolina literally came out of nowhere in 2020 to become one of the most talked about stories of the year. When we say, “out of nowhere”, we are referring to the Chanticleers having never had a winning season in FBS play and being picked to finish last in the tough SBC East. They responded by being the first SBC team to finish the regular season undefeated and achieved the highest ever ranking for a SBC team at #9.
Can they repeat this in 2020? Absolutely! So, why do we have them ranked below two other SBC teams? Essentially, we just need to see them do it again. It is important to note, that a lot of things went right for the Chanticleers in 2020. Their +13 turnover margin was the best in the G5. Their 36 yards of penalties per game was the third lowest for teams with 10 or more games in the G5. Grayson McCall returns for his second season as starter. His first was nothing short of spectacular with one of the top 16 passer efficiencies EVER recorded in FBS at 184.3, and a touchdown to interception mark of 26-3. The Chanticleers lose their top running back in CJ Marable. They also lose top defensive performer Tarron Jackson. Aside from that, it will be the same senior-led squad as we saw in 2020. They have two tough road games at Buffalo and at App State. If they can compete in the same efficient manner as they displayed in 2020, the Chanticleers could be dancing back into NY6 consideration.
(7) Boise State
2020 Record: 5-2 (5-0 MWC)
Projected returning starters: 17
When we think of perennial G5 leaders, Boise State is at or near the top of the list. The Broncos have a culture of winning that is hard to match. However, due to all that winning, inevitably, the P5 schools are always looking to lure coaches away. That happened at the end of 2020 when coach Bryan Harsin was hired by Auburn. Harsin was 69-19 at Boise State, an impressive 78% winning percentage.
However, the cupboard is not dry for incoming coach Andy Avalos. Avalos, a former Bronco linebacker had been serving as defensive coordinator for Oregon. This will be his first heading coaching assignment. He inherits an offense that returns its top rusher and receivers. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier who led the Broncos to a 4-1 in the five games he played will be back as will his two primary backups. The defense is a bit more of a question mark as a number of the top senior players have not yet announced intentions of returning for 2021.
As usual, Boise has a tough non-conference schedule with an opening game at UCF, a home visit from Oklahoma State, and another tough road trip to rival BYU. It will be a challenging season for Coach Avalos. No doubt, he will focus a lot of his attention on shoring up the Boise defense. If he gets a few more seniors to return and can get production from his offense, it could be another good year for Boise State.
(8) Central Florida (UCF)
2020 Record: 6-4 (5-3 AAC)
Projected Returning Starters: 17
After three consecutive seasons of double-digit wins, UCF struggled to a 6-4 record in 2020. The issue was not the high-powered offense. UCF averaged over 42 points a game and was only held under 30 points in two games. They return Dillon Gabriel who threw for nearly 3600 yards in only 10 games, with an astounding 32 TDs to 4 interceptions. However, the Knights lose their top two running backs and two of their top 3 receivers. In addition, after the season, Athletic Director Danny White and head coach Josh Heupel left for Tennessee.
The defense needed a lot of help in 2020 as they surrendered over 33 points per game. The majority of the defense returns, though they lose first team all AAC performer Richie Grant.
A defense heavy recruiting class will help, but the Knights won’t have a lot of time to bring players along as they start with Boise State and Louisville. Tough conference road trips to Cincinnati and SMU also await. Replacing the coach, key skill positions, and bolstering the defense is a tall order for the off-season. If rumors of Gus Malzahn coming to UCF materialize, the Knights offense will keep them in most games. If they can solve the defensive equation, they could be very hard to beat.
(9) Alabama-Birmingham (UAB)
2020 Record: 6-3 (4-1 CUSA)
Projected Returning Starters: 17
The Blazers didn’t get a chance to play in the post season when the Birmingham Bowl was cancelled due to COVID-19. The Blazers rebounded from back-to-back losses to defeat Rice and then Marshall in the CUSA championship game to close their season.
The defending CUSA champions return their top two quarterbacks, and most of their starting offensive line. They will have to replace all-time leading rusher Spencer Brown and two of their top receivers. On defense, they will have to replace Jordan Smith, a first team all CUSA performer who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Otherwise, 9 starters return on defense for the Blazers.
The Blazers have to run the gauntlet to begin the 2021 season with matchups at Georgia, at Tulane, and home against Liberty. If the Blazers can come out of those games with a winning record and key players healthy, they should be well positioned for another run at the CUSA crown.
2020 Record: 4-2 (4-2 MAC)
Projected Returning Starters: 19
Toledo, like much of the MAC, played an abbreviated season in 2020. The late start to the regular season, and cancellations resulted in the Rockets only playing 6 games. In those six games, the Rockets displayed the potential that could move them into MAC lead in 2021. Toledo dropped two 3 point decisions. The loss to Western Michigan occurred when the Rockets gave up 13 points in the final 45 seconds. The other loss was to MAC champion Ball State.
The Rockets return 19 starters from a team that had the third highest scoring offense and fourth best scoring defense in the MAC. This unit is bolstered by the top recruiting class in the MAC, that was rated the best in the Group of Five outside of the AAC. Two early tough non-conference matchups against Notre Dame and Colorado State will test the Rockets. However, if they can get production from the incoming freshmen, the Rockets will be a tough out in the MAC.
(10) San Jose State
2020 Record: 7-1 (6-0 MWC)
Projected Returning Starters: 16
San Jose State, like Coastal Carolina, was one of the most unexpected stories in the G5 in 2020. Picked by most to be near the bottom of the MWC Western division, the Spartans ran the table in the Mountain West, beating Boise State in the MWC Championship game. Their undefeated season ended with a loss to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, a game where a number of their key starters were ruled out.
The Spartans return quarterback Nick Starkel and many of the key parts on both sides of the call that won every game by double digits until the loss to Ball State. However, there are some key losses. Star defensive lineman Cade Hall and dynamic wide receiver Try Walker both opted for the NFL. A number of other seniors are still undecided as of this writing, including top running back Tyler Nevens.
The 2021 schedule is not as brutal as some in the past. The Spartans open against Southern Utah before road trips to Southern California and Western Michigan. They miss Boise in the regular season but do have to visit Nevada. With a few more seniors returning, San Jose State could make another run at the MWC championship and contend for even bigger stakes in the bowl season.