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NCAA Football Teams Most Likely to Decline in 2021
College football should be back better than ever this season, but some teams that thrived in 2020 could be in for a disappointment.
Expectations from these fanbases often make the season worth watching. Many teams exceed expectations and reach new heights. Others have misfortune with injuries and players underperforming.
College football programs have lofty expectations, and many fail to live up to them. Many teams find preseason hype due to prior accomplishments. Winning bowl games and returning key starters often dictate where teams get picked to finish the following season.
I strictly look at the overall rosters with those returning starters and dissect it further. Studying schedules is a component of making predictions. Comparing them to preseason magazines and publications gives you a clearer picture, too.
With all of that in mind, here are my top 10 college football teams that will be on the decline in 2021.
10. Florida Gators (8-4 Last Season, Finished #13)
The Gators were in the top 10 nearly the entire regular season in 2020. The offense was unstoppable, and many in Gainesville thought they had what it took to capture the College Football Playoff.
Kyle Trask was spinning the magic bean to Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts. The trio looked like they could have found success in the NFL last season.
They came close to dethroning the eventual national champions. Their 52-46 loss to Alabama was one of the best games of the season.
The contest turned out to be a video game, but the season did not end there.
Many folks were excited for Florida’s Cotton Bowl meeting with Oklahoma. The game turned out to be an ugly scene from the opening possession.
The Sooners handled business and dominated en route to a 55-20 victory.
The Gators had many of their previous stars sit out in preparation for the NFL Draft. Trask started the game but was helpless. He was throwing to receivers that had hardly seen the field for the majority of the season.
Dan Mullen has finished his three seasons at Gainesville, ranked in the top 13. All three seasons had the Gators in the top 10 of the AP Poll at some point. The expectations for Florida are not going to change. The program expects to contend for an East division crown with Georgia, where the Gators have played in two of the past five SEC championships.
Three straight New Year’s Six bowls are the longest streak since Steve Spurrier led the Gators to four straight major bowls from 1993-96 (Three Sugar Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl). Those expectations are not going to plummet just because some stars have moved on for greener pastures in the NFL. Elite programs reload, and the Gators have done an impressive job overall.
The schedule in 2021 does not look too daunting on paper, either. Many have Florida returning to a premier bowl and reaching double-digit wins after a potential bowl win. Most college football betting sites have Florida slated for nine regular-season wins. That also does not include an SEC title or postseason victory.
That’s just one team to think about in the SEC, though. Check out the following post for advice on how to bet on 2021 SEC win totals.
The defense of the Gators will keep them in many games this season, but the offense will be far more reliant on the rushing attack. That could spell doom with a trio of teams that could stifle them on defense.
Georgia and Alabama are among the best defensive squads in college football this season. Throw in LSU, and we have three teams with some of the best rosters in the nation.
The oddsmakers have the Gators as two-touchdown underdogs to Alabama and a touchdown underdog to Georgia. They are barely underdogs to LSU due to being on the road. If the oddsmakers are correct and Florida loses those games, they will need to run the table on the rest of the schedule to hit their over.
Even in the SEC East, that will be a tall task.
Excluding their 2020 high-powered offense, the program has had issues with Kentucky the past few seasons (2017-19). Kentucky snapped their 31-game losing streak to Florida in 2018 at the Swamp of all places. Going to Lexington will not be easy for a program that has been on the rise under Mark Stoops.
Missouri and Florida State could give them issues, but the Gators still have an edge in talent. Kentucky is a tough team due to their ability to dominate in the trenches. I will call for the Wildcats to pull off a slight upset over the Gators.
The success of Dan Mullen should stay consistent, but they may not match the previous three marvelous seasons that the Gators have had. Finishing No. 7, No. 6, and No. 13 has many believing the Florida program is the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC.
I am fading the Gators from coming close to what they accomplished these past three seasons.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys (8-3 Last Season, Finished #20)
The Big 12 has a pair of teams that make my list due to lofty expectations that could be tough to achieve. Winning is a dangerous game. Once it happens, fans expect it to continue with more consistency.
The Cowboys ended their season on a high note as they knocked off Miami in the Camping World Bowl. The game featured a ton of fireworks with plenty of points. Defense and tackling were missing in the game on some possessions.
Despite the conference improving on that side of the ball, the lack of NFL players has been a glaring weakness. Power conferences that crave success need better defenses. Oklahoma has been a constant national powerhouse, and now Iowa State has been a nationally relevant program. Texas has been inconsistent, and Oklahoma State is similar.
Points are being put on the board these days, but the defenses have adjusted to Mike Gundy.
There is reason to be concerned about these losses despite the bowl performance over Miami.
The conference is improving, and the offensive line has not been dominant enough to allow Spencer Sanders to sit comfortably in the pocket to dissect opposing defenses. Sanders put together a handful of solid games, but the inconsistencies as a passer are still there.
His accuracy has been a problem. The lack of weapons will make it tougher to become an All-Big 12 quarterback. He does have wheels to help escape trouble, but LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson may not be dominant enough on the ground for this offense to excel.
I am also fading the Cowboys due to a grueling schedule. Getting to 7-5 is manageable, but many expect this program to compete for a conference title and a Top 25 finish.
The offensive pieces should keep them in the running, but this defense has never been one of a championship-caliber team. They will not carry the offense if they have an off game.
Losses to Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas, TCU, and West Virginia are all possible. A game against Boise State on the Smurf Turf could be a loss. Hosting the likes of Baylor and Kansas State won’t be easy, either.
I will give them those three, but this is not one of your better Gundy squads. He is entering his 17th season, but he has lost three-plus games in nine straight seasons. He has lost five-plus games on four separate occasions in that period, and we could see another five-plus loss season in 2021.
Fade the Cowboys and be wary of their October and November schedules.
8. Auburn Tigers (6-5 Last Season)
Bryan Harsin takes over for Guz Malzahn, and the expectations for the Tigers are always high. There may not be a more inconsistent program in the last decade-plus than Auburn.
We saw Cam Newton and Gene Chizik capture a title in 2010. They ran into a buzzsaw in 2013 against Florida State, or else they nearly would have had a second championship. Gus Malzahn had a few dominant teams. 2017 finished as a top 10 team despite tough losses at the end of the season to Georgia and UCF (Peach Bowl).
The expectations were too lofty, and that is due to playing in the SEC West. It was outrageous to think they beat Nick Saban and Alabama more than any other program in the Malzahn timeframe.
Here’s a quick look at how that face-off has gone since Malzahn took over in 2013.
- 2013: Auburn 34, Alabama 28
- 2014: Alabama 55, Auburn 44
- 2015: Alabama 29, Auburn 13
- 2016: Alabama 30, Auburn 12
- 2017: Auburn 26, Alabama 14
- 2018: Alabama 52, Auburn 21
- 2019: Auburn 48, Alabama 45
- 2020: Alabama 42, Auburn 13
Going 3-5 against Saban was impressive, especially when you consider Alabama was atop the polls in two of those victories.
Harsin comes over from Boise State and Arkansas State, where he had success at both schools. The Broncos had four top 25 squads under Harsin. Five double-digit victory seasons were tough to achieve. Yet, it is always the goal for the Broncos.
Harsin took them back to familiar territory. It was his first season in which the team won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 16 in the AP Poll. The hope on the Plains is for Auburn to have several seasons at or above that ranking.
Bo Nix is a quarterback that has been all over the map for the program. He has gone through several coaching changes and different coordinators with players coming and leaving the program. The best friend of a quarterback is always a strong rushing attack.
Tank Bigsby was a stud for Auburn last season.
He averaged six yards a carry and nearly reached 1,000 yards. Had he played in the bowl game against Northwestern, the century mark would have been an achievable goal. All bruising backs take a licking in the SEC, so keeping Bigsby healthy for all the premier matchups is mandatory.
The young receivers need to develop with Nix, or else similar results from last season will continue. The offense sputtered towards a No. 77 ranking in yards per game (382.8). The offense failed to put points on the board as well, finishing No. 89 in the FBS while averaging a pedestrian 25.1 points per game.
The schedule is the toughest in America over Arkansas, in my opinion. While that is debatable, there is no arguing that the Tigers need to win more games. 6-5 last season is not good enough for a program such as Auburn. Going on the road to Happy Valley and then to Death Valley two weeks later will not be a joy ride.
The schedule never lets up. After potentially starting 3-2, the Tigers then host Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. They then go on the road to face Arkansas in a game that the Razorbacks will be out for blood after a narrow and unfortunate loss last season.
After a bye week, it only gets harder. Here’s a rundown of their schedule to close out 2021.
- VS. Ole Miss
- @ Texas A&M
- VS. Miss State
- @ South Carolina
- VS. Alabama
Following that break, they host a top 25 squad in Ole Miss before traveling to College Station.
The Aggies could be the loudest road environment they see all season. That includes road games at Penn State and LSU. All three stadiums rank among the worst places to play in the country. It is tough to hear yourself think in those stadiums and running audibles is a chore when the play-clock ticks down.
The season winds down with Mississippi State at home before traveling to South Carolina. Columbia gets rocking when they blast ‘’Sandstorm’’ in their pre-game festivities. All these SEC electric environments will be tough to encounter if you are an Auburn supporter.
Ending the season at home against Alabama in the Iron Bowl could be a fourth or fifth loss. If things get unfortunate, the Tigers may need to upset the Crimson Tide to ensure a non-losing season.
They drew Georgia and South Carolina from the East, with Penn State in the non-conference. The Gamecocks won’t likely go bowling, but nearly everybody else in the conference schedule will be.
While some will be picking Auburn to have a Top 25 season and garner national attention, I would hold off on that for at least a season or two. The Harsin era will have its challenges in year one.
7. Buffalo Bulls (6-1 Last Season)
The MAC was a ton of fun last season. MACtion ended up featuring two Top 25 squads in 2020.
Ball State was an explosive offense that blew out San Jose State in their bowl game. Buffalo was able to win their matchup in the postseason, and thus, they finished in the final AP Top 25.
Despite losing to Ball State in the MAC title as two-touchdown favorites, the Bulls won the Camellia Bowl over Marshall on Christmas Day.
Jaret Patterson was a superstar running back who ended up rushing for over 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in just a handful of games.
He was an All-American candidate and was a juggernaut against the MAC. He had a memorable performance against Kent State. Toting the rock 36 times for 409 yards with eight rushing touchdowns was a virtuoso performance. It was one of the best performances in the history of college football.
Buffalo won that game 70-41, and it helped make their case of cracking the final Top 25 polls.
Lance Leipold left for the head coaching job at Kansas. Over half of the starters did not return, so a tough season ahead is likely to occur with the brand new coaching staff. They say it often takes a season or two to pick up a new system and win without superior talent.
The conference slate will be tough on the Bulls. Western Michigan, Kent State, Ohio, and Ball State will be vying for the MAC conference title. Throw in games against Nebraska in the non-conference and Miami (Ohio), and the wins will be tough to find.
The Bulls are due for regression after losing their star coach and some of the better players the program has seen in recent memory. Look elsewhere for your top MAC teams and expect the program to be a lock to return to the postseason in another season or two.
6. Texas Longhorns (7-3 Last Season, Finished #19)
Steve Sarkisian is a fine coach, and the Longhorns are hopeful this is finally the season they are officially back. Don’t let any star players or fans tell you otherwise.
The Top 10 finish they pulled off in 2018 was remarkable, but it was astonishing to see them fall back down to earth the following two seasons. They barely cracked the final Top 25 polls, going 15-8 in the process. A few tough conference losses will do that, but the defense has not been championship-worthy.
It has been what has cost them multiple games over the years. The back seven has been getting exposed in pass coverage. A plethora of injuries has not helped either. The Longhorns, once upon a time, under Mack Brown, had among the best defenses in the entire country. They would love to become a top-three defense in the Big 12 nowadays.
D’Shawn Jamison is a stud corner that will look to elevate the play of his teammates.
There have been far too many times that Sam Ehlinger had to bail the team out in the fourth quarter. It often worked, but not with enough consistency to challenge for the Big 12 and national title.
The lack of a pure pass rusher is another concern. The expectations are high, and many want double-digit victories every year. DraftKings only has them slated at eight wins, which is about right. Yet, many people are still picking this program to win nine or ten games and challenge Oklahoma for the conference crown.
Iowa State has knocked Texas out of the conference title race each of the last two seasons. Both games were nearly identical scores (23-20 was last season, 2019 was 23-21). Until the defense shows improvements with actual results, it is tough to feast on Texas heading into the season.
The good news is that the offense should be relevant.
Hudson Card will battle it out with Casey Thompson for the starting quarterback position. Assuming Thompson wins the job, he’ll instantly be among the top sleeper picks to win the 2021 Heisman Trophy.
The team has a star-studded and capable back in Bijan Robinson. Many believe he could be a future star in Austin thanks to his size, speed, and vision.
The experience at wide receiver is exceptional. Joshua Moore and tight-end Cade Brewer are two players that should play at the next level. Throw in Jake Smith, Jordan Whittingham, along with other youngsters, and this offense will be tough to limit. The offensive line even returns four starters from a unit that made strides to end the season. This offense will never be out of a game in the Big 12.
The defense still needs to avoid being a joke, especially in competitive games. There will be plenty of premier games, and we could see a potential upset early in the season. Arkansas hosts Texas in Week 2, and I have my calendars circled for that matchup. Three weeks later, there is a trip to Fort Worth. That could be two losses before Texas has their annual battle with Oklahoma. A home date with Oklahoma State and a road affair with Baylor will not be easy victories either.
We could see three losses on the belt of Texas before Halloween comes calling. Road trips to Ames and Morgantown will likely be at least one more loss as well.
An 8-4 regular season at best is not exactly what many are looking for from Steve Sarkisian. While it is just his first season, and the future looks bright, the Burnt Orange will take a few on the chin in the early going of his tenure.
5. Tulane Green Wave (6-6 Overall Last Season)
Willie Fritz enters his sixth season at Tulane, and the Green Wave will be looking for a fourth straight bowl appearance. Most of the seasons have hovered around the .500 benchmark, which is not easy to accomplish in the American Athletic Conference.
Controlling the line of scrimmage is one thing. Being able to run the ball at will has been their identity on offense. Heavy offensive production returns to the squad, so many are hopeful of similar production despite the gauntlet.
To have a non-conference feature Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and UAB could all be double-digit losses. The Sooners and Rebels should hang a 50-burger on the poor Green Wave.
Michael Pratt, Tyjae Spears, and Cameron Carroll will need to shine for the Tulane offense. The passing attack was inconsistent for most of the season, and it was a struggle when the opposition limited the ground attack. Starting 1-3 is tough on a team to overcome.
The schedule does not get much easier from there.
SMU, Cincinnati, UCF, Tulsa, and Memphis could all be favored. Tulane has a rough look ahead in conference play. There is a chance the Green Wave finishes at least a game away from a bowl berth, perhaps more. The defense should be solid up front, but they have had issues defending the pass. Nevada was some of the better competition they saw down the stretch in their bowl game, and they failed to get the stops needed to succeed.
All these upcoming challenges on the schedule are going to feature solid signal-callers. The best non-power five conferences have improved after each season, and this season should be no different.
Bank on several losses for Tulane and for them to have their first losing season since 2017.
4. Indiana Hoosiers (6-2 Last Season, Finished #12)
Tom Allen was the Big Ten coach of the year and was worthy of winning the national coach of the year after finishing the season No. 12 in the country. That was with a loss to end the season in the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss.
Losing star quarterback Michael Pennix could have cost the Hoosiers several games, but the team stepped up and carried one another through the adversity.
The season has so many ups and downs. The game-winning touchdown in overtime against Penn State for Michael Pennix was Michael Jordan-like in that 36-35 victory. A loss there really could have changed the entire year for the Hoosiers, but they kept showing perseverance as the games picked up in relevance.
The returning starters are almost all back, so there should be another bowl appearance.
They will be looking to win their first bowl since 1991, and I do like their chances at that. They are coming off consecutive winning seasons in the Big Ten for the first time since 1987-88. The Hoosiers also knocked off three ranked teams in the same season for the first time since 1945 and cracked the top 10 for the first time since 1969. It was arguably the best season ever for the Hoosiers, so there is a lot to be thrilled about in Bloomington.
The schedule is far from easy. A few games are easier than others, but there are challenges. Indiana won’t struggle to get to a bowl as the talent level is very good. Winning three-fourths of their games like last season will be a tough chore. That would require a 9-3 regular-season finish, and I will gladly take the under on that. The win total is at eight wins, which is also a bit too much.
A trip to Kinnick Stadium will be a great ball game that likely comes down to the wire, but Iowa’s defense has been phenomenal at home. After a likely loss there, it gets even tougher two weeks later. Hosting Cincinnati is a near pick-um game per the experts, but the Bearcats have one of the more experienced players in the country. Desmond Ridder is a fine quarterback that could carve up the Hoosiers with both his arm and legs.
Throw in road trips to Penn State and Michigan, and this schedule is downright unfair.
They also get to host Ohio State, which should be an albatross. The East is arguably the toughest division in all of college football. Penn State and Michigan have Top 25 talent, but drawing Iowa out of the West and Cincinnati in the non-conference is impossible for success.
The opportunities will at least be there for another banner season, but just posting a winning season is worthy of a celebration this season. Fade the Hoosiers in 2021 after a storybook 2020 season.
3. Colorado Buffaloes (4-2 Overall Last Season)
I have missed Ralphie and the Buffaloes on the national landscape. The 1990s were all about Colorado’s dominance. Winning a split national title in 1990 was high for the program, but Boulder enjoyed eight straight top 20 finishes with five top 10 finishes.
They have not finished a season ranked in the Top 25 in two decades.
They nearly pulled it off last season had it not been for their bowl game. The Alamo Bowl against Texas was a demolition. That could be a sign for things to come. If you are new to teams falling apart a year later, look no further than the schedule.
I am a fan of studying schedules and am in disbelief when many still say all scheduling was created equal in college sports. Those people have not put down the drink, and the Buffaloes have one of the worst schedules in America.
A tough stretch of games highlights the Colorado Buffaloes football schedule in 2021. https://t.co/m6VWXdq6ib— CBS Local Sports (@CBSLocalSports) March 2, 2021
The non-conference with Texas A&M and Minnesota is not fun.
The Aggies will be inside the top 10 and potentially limit the Buffs offense to single-digit points. Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA, Washington, and Utah will be five grueling Pac-12 games.
Colorado has a stud running back in Jarek Broussard, but the Buffs need more in the arsenal to compete with the upper-echelon of the Pac-12.
If you believe Colorado will easily exceed their wins from last season, then take the over on their 4.5-win total in the majority of your sportsbooks. Most college football sportsbooks have their win total at 4.5, which is a bit rich for my blood.
Colorado will be a sizable underdog in seven games this season. Barring Colorado runs the table in the other five, there is no shot for a five-win season. They have two games that won’t be easy despite one of them being in Boulder. Minnesota at home and on the road against Cal are games that could go either way.
Many have Cal and Colorado both projected for fifth in their division. Minnesota is right around the same spot in the Big Ten West, depending on the improvement from Purdue and Nebraska.
Losses will pile up, and I am not a backer of Karl Dorrell putting together another magical season. He is entering his second season and caught plenty of breaks last season. He now has an abysmal upcoming schedule in 2021.
I foresee several losses, but it needs to be said, I still love Ralphie.
2. Stanford Cardinal (4-2 Last Season)
The drop off a cliff for the Stanford Cardinal is tough to summarize. It wasn’t long ago they were the Wisconsin, Iowa State, and Notre Dame programs that garnered national attention despite the lack of sexy offensive playmakers.
They were the definition of big boy football and would suffocate teams while playing defense. They were a consistent Top 10 program for nearly a decade.
They had among the best linebacker units in the country. That has disappeared lately. Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan were two of their more successful pocket passers, and that too has vanished.
Stanford lacks the impact players you need to jump-start a struggling offense. Usually, an athletic quarterback or home-run hitting running back can move you up a few pegs. Instead, Stanford has not been able to find either on their roster.
Last season was respectable at 4-2, but the year prior was a struggling 4-8 campaign.
David Shaw was a popular choice as a top 10 coach, and he surpassed Pop Warner as the winningest coach in Stanford history. The offensive line returns most of their starters, and the wide receivers should help either Tanner McKee or Jack West under center.
The non-conference slate features Notre Dame, Kansas State, and Vanderbilt. The Irish are 11-point favorites at the moment, but that isn’t the only challenging game for the Cardinal.
Stanford is a touchdown underdog at home against UCLA. They are two-touchdown underdogs to USC in Week 2. They will find it challenging to stay close with Oregon and Arizona State within six days of each other in early October.
The schedule spices up with Washington and Utah six days apart from each other as well. To play against four of the best Pac-12 teams, all without much time to prepare does not send good vibes. They could lose all four of those games by multiple scores.
Throw in Notre Dame, and those five home games stack up well with any other program in America in terms of difficulty. Those five teams are all Top 25 squads that could challenge to win nine-plus games (UCLA the least likely among those five).
Stanford is a program that has been on the decline, and their schedule will not allow them to exceed last season’s win total of four.
1. BYU Cougars (11-1 Last Season, Finished #11)
Zach Wilson went number two overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the Cougars are coming off a magical 2020 campaign. It was a thrilling season that BYU fans could remember for a long while.
Nearly finishing in the top 10 of the AP Poll and almost making it to the New Year’s Six would have given them the most accomplishing season in program history.
Without Wilson, the offense won’t be nearly explosive, and teams will be obliged to load the box up to stop their power-rushing attack. Jacob Conover expects to take over, and the coaches love him.
Here’s what former BYU OC Jeff Grimes had to say about him previously.
That said, it won’t be the same.
Wilson was dropping the ball in a bucket with consistency last season. It did not matter who his target was. Wilson found them with such ease.
The schedule matched up perfectly last season since all the non-conference games (against the big boys) did not happen for BYU. Seven of those matchups return, and BYU may not be up for the challenge.
A few will be against the Top 25 competition. Utah and USC will be licking their chops against the BYU offense. An explosive unit last season will be much less electric in 2021.
Tyler Allgeier ran for over 1,110 yards with 13 touchdowns. The experienced running back will be expected to carry this offense on his shoulders. The offensive line should be respectable, but they will drop a tad in that unit. With the fewest number of starters returning in that unit, the production is due to decrease.
Excluding Wilson, another loss on the offensive end has to be their star wide receiver, Dax Milne.
Milne hauled in 70 catches for nearly 1,200 yards to go along with eight scores. Tight end Isaac Rex hauled in 12 receiving touchdowns, and he will look to carry a great BYU tradition of successful tight ends finding success.
Out of their seven games against Power Five competition, getting two wins might be too much to ask. Going on the road to Waco and Pullman are 50-50 games that the Cougars will need to win if they want to have any prayer of reaching double-digit victories.
Opening against Arizona should be a win, but it gets difficult shortly after. Hosting Utah and Arizona State in consecutive weeks will tell us how far this team can go. The Utes and Sun Devils will have more talented rosters with more experienced offenses.
Quarterback play will be crucial, and players such as Jaydon Daniels and Charlie Brewer are more experienced than whoever goes under center for the Cougars. There is no comparison. That is a disadvantage the Cougars run into for most of the season.
I foresee a handful of losses with no shot of ranking anywhere close to a No. 11 finish in the AP Poll. Starting 4-5 is possible for BYU. Making a bowl game does not even seem like a mortal lock if they falter down the stretch as well.
The folks in Provo enjoy their football, and they will understand that it is not realistic to match their 2020 epic season.
Betting on College Football in 2021
As you prepare to bet on college football this season, one of the big things you need to consider is teams taking a step backward.
That’s the whole point of pointing out the top 10 college football teams due to regress in 2021, so you can save yourself in numerous spots.
One such area is win totals betting, but you can also potentially prevent individual game traps, along with other bets.
Instead, I’d keep my focus on the best college football teams for 2021. Those are the teams with the best chances of winning 10+ games and/or getting to the College Football Playoff.