NCAA Football Teams Most Likely to Improve in 2021

By Dan Vasta in College Football
| July 17, 2021 2:25 am PDT

Some college football teams come off struggling seasons in which they fail to live up to their expectations every year.

Others get fortunate breaks or start the season near the Top 10 and fail to finish the season ranked. Many redshirt sophomores or juniors end up coming back for another season in college.

That is how so many teams make great strides of improvement.

Coaching improvements at the coordinator positions are a bonus, but many forget that schedules change every season. Some programs cannot buy luck and always are on the road when they have their best squads. Others make their breaks and win in hostile environments. There are a ton of adjustments that go into which teams make improvements and which ones regress.

Now, a lot has to do with last season. Their record mixed in with expectations from most prognosticators entering the season impacts these rankings. Not many people have my top three teams below playing in a premier bowl game.

So, keep that in mind if you want to rank your teams. Some of these teams can go from Top 25 to Top 5-10.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 most improved college football teams to watch for in the 2021 season.

10. Michigan Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh enters 2021 among the top college football coaches on the hot seat, and he may as well be considered the most likely coach to lose his gig if another troubling season occurs.

How many wins will it take for Jimbo to keep his job?

Many expect double-digit wins, including a bowl game. That should be the number for Harbaugh to feel comfortable. I do not love their chances of reaching that mark this regular season, but there is enough talent at his disposal to make improvements from last season.

  • The offense ranked 78 in yards per game (381.8) in 2020
  • The team ranked 66 in points per game (28.3).

Those dreadful numbers need to change for Harbaugh to keep his job.

More importantly, Michigan football needs to get back on the map and become relevant on the national landscape. They still have a ton of talent in the trenches to help them stay in all their ball games this season. The part that could be difficult to endure is we will all know right away how prepared the Maize and Blue are for this season.

Washington comes to the Big House in front of a nationally televised audience. Everybody will be picking Michigan, and it may not end in a victory. Washington will be looking for strides as well, so Michigan could very well lose that game. Losing to the Pac-12 at home would be a bad look, even if Washington is impressive (more on that later).

The quarterback quandary that the program has not fixed has reared its ugly head yet again. Who is going to perform well enough for them to win games against the top competition? Alan Bowman out of Texas Tech will likely get first dibs. He was an underrated passer that looked great in the Red Raider system, but how will he flourish for Michigan?

The Wolverines need to be able to run the ball with ease in 2021.

Hassan Haskins is a heavy downhill back that can take a pounding and keep on ticking. Blake Corum provides decent depth behind him, but the passing attack must improve. The duo cannot be any worse than the backfield was last season. The offensive line struggled to provide any holes for even the best of running backs. The Wolverines were No. 95 averaging a pedestrian 131.5 yards per game. If those numbers do not improve, this team will find it tough to win six games.

I question the pieces that are on the field. Ronnie Bell will need to be a leader for this unit as other youngsters develop. Roman Wilson and Cornelious Johnson are two players that will need to be reliable for whoever is under center.

The strength of this team should be Aidan Hutchinson.

A tremendous pass-rusher with great size, Hutchinson will be the anchor on the Michigan defense. There is enough talent in the trenches to achieve success.

Both sides of the ball for Michigan should handle most of the opposing teams in the Big Ten. It will be a heavyweight battle against Washington and Wisconsin early in the season.

Northwestern, Penn State, and Ohio State all show up on the schedule in the final six games. Those will be the games that decide what bowl Michigan gets to play in and whether Harbaugh keeps his job.

It may not take much for that to occur, but Michigan should quadruple their win total from 2020. The Wolverines are at least an eight-win team with the chance for more against Penn State, Ohio State, and a bowl opponent.

While the Wolverines are among the few on this list that may not exceed their fanbase expectations, they downright stunk it up last season. They are worth mentioning since they will be much improved from last season with the upside to accomplish more.

9. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles have been abysmal, and there is no denying that. These past handfuls of years have been difficult in Tallahassee. They were one of the premier programs in the country and have fallen on hard times. They are currently 14-20 these past three seasons.

A rough 2020 season at 3-6 was tough to endure, and the hope is they will double their win total.

Mike Norvell is entering his second season and is going through a rebuilding process in Tallahassee. One of the improved offseason acquisitions was McKenzie Milton. The former UCF signal-caller went through a catastrophic knee injury that should have ended his playing career. Instead, Milton has persevered and should be the starting quarterback for the Seminoles.

They also added Kansas wideout Andrew Parchment, an All-Big 12 caliber of a receiver with plenty of experience. Parchment should help a position that has been an issue for Florida State.

Throw in running back Jashaun Corbin, and the offense is capable of improvement from the past few seasons.

The offensive line has been among the worst power five units in the nation, and injuries have not helped them. They have added several transfers that should put them back on the relevant radar. Milton is the perfect leader for the team to find improved success.

The main issue is a brutal schedule ahead.

Florida State opens their season at home against a likely Top 10 team in Notre Dame. Their next four games after that are favorable. Jacksonville State, Wake Forest, Louisville, Syracuse are all games on paper that Florida State should win. If success occurs in the games they are favored in, FSU should be worthy of watching again.

A nine-plus win team is not likely to occur with games against Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami, and Florida. They should be a bowl-eligible team with the opportunity to win six or seven games.

Doubling up the win total from a miserable 2020 season would show improvement, and a jump should occur for one of the mainstay ACC programs.

8. Arizona State Sun Devils

Herm Edwards enters his fourth season in Tempe, and the expectations have risen over the years. Coming off a shortened season, the Sun Devils are looking to take the nation by storm in 2021.

ASU was a program that only played in four games last season. It was tough to watch as fans, but it was better than nothing.

Jaydon Daniels is a star-studded quarterback that has shown great talent over the years. Daniels has lost players that will be tough to replace. Frank Darby and Brandon Aiyuk are both no longer in Tempe. Daniels spread the wealth last season and has a ton of size at his disposal.

The receivers could be one of their weaknesses this season, but the line of scrimmage should be one of the strengths. Factor in the defense returning every starter from last season, and this team has a ton of upside.

The schedule opens up with four games ASU will be favored.

  • Week 1 – Southern Utah
  • Week 2 – UNLV
  • Week 3 – BYU
  • Week 4 – Colorado

All of these teams will be underdogs to the Sun Devils.

Throw in home games against Stanford, Washington State, and Arizona. There are seven games that the Sun Devils will be solid favorites in, and an upset would be stunning.

They need to split those other games to get to nine wins. Those five are against UCLA, Utah, USC, Washington, and Oregon State. They should win at least two of those with the opportunity to win more. USC, Utah, and Washington should be among the top five teams in the conference, but the Sun Devils have a defense that can carry them in at least one of those games.

Linebacker Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle are two playmakers to keep an eye on. They will leave their mark and make an impact on all the conference games.

Defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce will rely heavily on their experience to turn their defense into one of the top three in the Pac-12.

If the offense can pick up momentum as the season progresses, this will be a dangerous team that puts up their highest win total since 2014 (10-3).

7. Penn State Nittany Lions

James Franklin enters his eighth season at Happy Valley, and the Nittany Lions will be looking to double their win total from last season. It was a rough 4-5 season that saw the offense sputter throughout the season.

They were No. 54 in scoring offense last season, averaging 29.8 points per game despite averaging 35.8 in the season prior (No. 15).

The backfield needs to bounce back and become one of the better units in the country. Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are an outstanding tandem that could combine to rush for 2,000 yards. Throw in Baylor transfer John Lovett and freshman Keyvone Lee, and the backfield has a bevy of talent to help whoever is under center.

Last season Sean Clifford struggled. We saw the Nittany Lion signal-caller struggle miserably to take care of the ball. He ended up throwing nine interceptions and could not eclipse 2,000 yards passing.

If the offense does not step up, they will have to step aside in the Big Ten.

Luckily, the schedule is favorable from an overall perspective.

The challenges come early in the season opener with a trip to Madison against Wisconsin. The Badgers are favored to win that game (-3.5), but the non-conference toughens up two weeks later. Penn State will host Auburn, a respectable SEC West foe. The Tigers will begin a new tenure under Bryan Harsin, so the team could struggle to jump out to a hot start.

They then follow that up with consecutive matchups against Indiana and Iowa. Going to Kinnick Stadium is always a tall task, and the Hawkeyes pack a punch in the trenches.

There will be a ton of defensive slugfests this season. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa will be three matchups that will be highly competitive. I foresee at least one win out of those three, and wins over Auburn and Indiana should allow them to reach eight-plus victories.

The overall talent will prevail for Franklin, and they should return to national relevancy.

6. LSU Tigers

Ed Orgeron enters his sixth season in Baton Rouge. He is hoping it is much closer to the 2019 season compared to last season. Those offensive weapons only come once in a lifetime, but there are enough pieces to win at least eight games this season.

A miserable 5-5 season last year is in the rearview mirror now.

Myles Brennan and Max Johnson will battle it out for the starting quarterback position. Both will rely on Kayshon Boutte.

Most will recall he went off in a game last year.

The star freshman from a season ago hauled in 45 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns. LSU has had dozens of NFL stud wideouts, and nothing has changed. Baton Rouge is a hotbed for star prospects, and the depth is solid at the skill positions.

Like the wide receiver depth, the secondary is always a strength for the Tigers.

Derek Stingley is arguably the best corner in the nation. His fluid hips allow him to accelerate when he is in coverage. He will take one side of the field away and likely will become a first-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Eli Ricks and Todd Harris should be solid ball-hawks as well.

The schedule is one of the tougher ones in the country and atop the SEC. The season opener could decide whether they start 6-0 against Florida and Ole Miss or not. The Bruins will be a much-improved team and should give the Tigers some issues. LSU is 4-0 all-time when opening up against Pac-12 schools, and that trend should continue.

The battle in the trenches may not be the strength for LSU, but they are still better than most Pac-12 teams.

LSU has a rough end of the season schedule, and that should ultimately determine whether or not they finish in the AP Top 10.

Many do not have numerous opportunities like LSU, but the losses could pile up if the offense cannot take care of the ball. They will need more from the run game, and John Emery looks like a potential breakout candidate.

How they finish against Ole Miss, Alabama, and Texas A&M will also determine whether they play in a New Year’s Six game or a bowl such as the Outback or Citrus.

This team could go from 5-5 last season to more than likely a 10-3 club after their bowl performance. Buy stock in the Bayou Bengals as they have still won eight or more games in 20 straight seasons (in which they have played at least a dozen games, excluding last season).

5. Utah Utes

Kyle Whittingham is always a coach to keep an eye out for due to player development. The Utah head coach has turned respectable players into all-conference performers.

The Utes bring back several returning starters, and there are a few transfers at critical positions.

Charlie Brewer was a former signal-caller for Baylor and played in the Sugar Bowl just two seasons ago. He can spin it and has a nose for the end zone as well. The experience that Brewer brings will allow the players around him to develop quicker.

Tight end Brant Kuithe runs routes like a wide receiver and can move the chains with the best of them. Britain Covey is a solid slot receiver that should help the Utes passing attack.

Utah has had downhill runners that can control the clock. Owning the time of possession is critical. They will be more balanced this season, and the ability to open the playbook up will allow for another double-digit win season.

The month of October will determine whether or not they can win the Pac-12 South division and become a dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff.

Going to USC after their bye week likely will decide their fate. A loss there will force them to run the table before and after their matchup with the Trojans. The schedule gods are on the side of the Utes. Hosting Arizona State, UCLA, and Oregon is an advantage. They should win at least one of those games, and they will be solid favorites in their other eight games not mentioned.

I am buying stock in the Utes. Coming off a modest 3-2 season, this team has a ton of success lying ahead. It was tough to judge so many during the shortened COVID season, but many brought back a ton of talent. Utah is one of those few fortunate, and they will reap the benefits.

4. USC Trojans

The Pac-12 is dominating this list, and it should not take a rocket scientist to understand why. The expectations are low on this conference due to a ton of disappointment over the years. The Pac-12 has just reached the College Football Playoff twice over its seven-year history.

Clay Helton is another coach that remains near the top of the list for coaches on the hot seat. Helton has a dream schedule to make a run at the Pac-12 title and perhaps more. The first five games will see the Trojans favored by double-digits.

A trip to Boulder will not be a walk in the park, but there is no reason why the Trojans cannot start 5-0 before hosting Utah. The Utes will be ranked and be a formidable foe this season, but a 6-0 start is a strong possibility. The schedule heats up after a bye week as the Trojans then go to South Bend against a likely Top 10 Irish squad.

A win there to put USC potentially at 7-0 would almost certainly allow Helton to keep his job. Throw in an easier matchup with Arizona this season compared to last (won 34-30), and USC would be sitting pretty with an 8-0 record.

Suffice to say, this is one of the best Pac-12 win totals to target in 2021.

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A loss should occur on the regular-season schedule. A trip to Tempe spells doom, and there are tricky games that follow.

A road game at Cal follows up with UCLA and BYU at home. Those could be toss-up games to end the season, but the Trojan offense can outscore any opposing defense on the slate.

Kedon Slovis is a star quarterback that Graham Harrell has at his disposal. Slovis has tremendous pocket presence and the ability to carve the Pac-12 apart. He’s even among the top 2021 Heisman Trophy contenders.

Drake London, Bru McCoy, and KD Nixon should be among the better-receiving trios in America. Tailback Keontay Ingram comes over from Texas, and he should have room to maneuver through with improvement made in the trenches. The pass protection was an issue last season when they could not control the clock or the line of scrimmage.

The USC defense under Todd Orlando will be interesting.

A ton of experience is returning. Drake Jackson is a premier defensive end that should feast in Pac-12 backfields. True freshman Korey Foreman should be one of the most impressive freshmen in the country. Chris Steele is a tremendous corner that can force mistakes, and there is no doubt there is potential for a division title.

If they can win the South with double-digit victories, USC will be one of the better stories in college football.

I am not projecting them to win the conference, but there is a reason for optimism. The Trojans can do better, but playing in a solid mid-tier bowl (Holiday, Alamo) and finishing the season in the Top 15 is well within reach.

3. Ole Miss Rebels

Lane Kiffin went 5-5 last season, and the season was about as entertaining as we have ever seen in Oxford. The Grove is one of the better pre-game atmospheres, and Kiffin will only make it more exciting.

The fans will be bonkers, and there are a few home games to catch. Hosting Arkansas in their SEC home opener will be a fun one. The Razorbacks are an improved squad from the prior few seasons. Throw in home games LSU, Liberty, and Texas A&M. Vanderbilt will be their seventh and final home game of the season.

After a neutral-site game against Louisville in the opener, they will host Austin Peay and Tulane. The schedule will be one of the best selections of home games for the Rebels.

They will have a chance to win several of them, and it will determine if they can return to a premier bowl like last season. Despite going 5-5 last year, the bowl system was a bit messy due to all the opt-outs.

The road games are manageable with only four on the slate. The Egg Bowl in the season finale will be fun, but that will be a game that Ole Miss will be favored. Going to Tennessee against a rebuilding Volunteers program should be enjoyable. The trip to Tuscaloosa should be a loss like it will be for any program. The key matchup is at Auburn, especially since LSU and Liberty are between them. 

The one weakness preventing or holding this team back will be the defensive side of the ball.

They are much improved and are no longer a cakewalk. The downside is the number of plays that the rapid pace brings. The number of offensive plays can impact the ability of the defense.

If they can avoid a disastrous start against Louisville, the squad should be a factor in the SEC West. While they remain the only original SEC team to have never appeared in the SEC title (1963 was the last conference crown), the Rebels will be a relevant Top 25 squad.

The strength of this team will be a video game-like offense that runs more plays than any other SEC team. A solid offensive line led by premier offensive tackles will allow the ground game to feast. Matt Corral is one of the best signal-callers in the entire country, and he went off against Indiana in the Outback Bowl.

Jerrion Ealy did not even play in that game. Yet, the Rebels still paved their way to 147 yards on the ground. It helped they threaded the needle for 347 yards passing. Corral deserves a ton of love because he took it to the Hoosiers without Elijah Moore.

It does not matter which players run routes in Oxford, as long as Kiffin calls the plays with a star-studded quarterback. Corral was even threading the needle in the bowl game to John Rhys Plumlee. The speed on the field the Rebels possess is fantastic. Ole Miss ranks among the top 10-15 programs in the nation. That will keep them in a ton of games and could give them a shot at winning double-digit games. 

2. Washington Huskies

Jimmy Lake took over for Chris Petersen a few seasons ago, and many were hoping there would not be too much of a significant drop-off. Lake is a defensive guru, and the defensive back production has been outstanding.

The Huskies are a sleeping giant that could return to relevancy and return to the College Football Playoff.

The one key position to key on would be at quarterback. Dylan Morris is a redshirt sophomore that has a ton of talent at his disposal. The backfield has a capable trio of Richard Newton, Sean McGrew, and Cameron Davis.

They will be running downhill behind one of the premier offensive lines in the country. Jaxson Kirkland is a premier left tackle that will soon be playing in the NFL. Big boy football still wins in the sport. Having tremendous tight ends as well adds an extra dimension.

Cade Otton is an All-American caliber that should be a contender for the John Mackey Award. At 6’5 and 240-pounds, Otton is capable of carrying the passing attack.

Their early-season matchup against Michigan will be must-watch television. A win there will keep them in the race of the College Football Playoff. The conference schedule is favorable as all of the non-cupcakes are at home. Hosting UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona State are beneficial to the fans of Husky Stadium.

The strength of the team will be what head coach Jimmy Lake prides himself in, the secondary. Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon are two of the better defensive backs in the Pac-12. McDuffie might be the best of the bunch, and the Washington defense should be foaming at the mouth to face all the premier teams in 2021.

Their matchup at the Big House will be bonkers. Ann Arbor will be rocking that night, and it will be intriguing to see America take notice of Jimmy Lake and his Huskies. It looks like one of the better teams on paper. They will be a lock for double-digit victories if they upset Michigan on the road, as I forecast.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Paul Chryst is one of my favorite coaches in the FBS due to his ability to turn the talent at his disposal into something special. He became the fifth Big Ten coach two seasons ago to accumulate 40-plus wins in his first four years.

It was a down season in 2020 after going 4-3 and suffering a trio of brutal losses to Iowa, Northwestern, and Indiana. The offense failed to show up in any of those games. Taking care of the ball was also an issue.

Graham Mertz was a sensational quarterback before COVID took away most of his season.

That was an issue for the Badgers as well as so many other collegiate players.

The tremendous offensive line that Wisconsin constantly throws out on the gridiron will give them an advantage. The Badgers have a better backfield, offensive line, and quarterback play than arguably the entire Big Ten.

Jalen Berger had a solid freshman year and is poised to become the next superstar Badger back. The health of the wide receivers will determine how special of a season they have. Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and tight end Jake Ferguson are talented as a trio. They must stay healthy for this offense to reach its potential.

The schedule is going to allow Wisconsin to become a Top 10 squad this season.

The Big Ten West will be tough with Iowa and Northwestern, two Top 25 worthy programs. Opening at home against Penn State will be a defensive slugfest. I will gladly take Mertz and their passing game over the Nittany Lions’ offensive woes they suffered through last season.

Playing Notre Dame at Soldier Field will be crucial since the following week is against Michigan.

Last season, the Badgers gave the Wolverines a 28-0 halftime deficit, the largest in the history of the Big House. Wisconsin opened as 6-point favorites in that game and should be at least touchdown favorites in Madison this season.

Notre Dame is a current underdog in their neutral site against Wisconsin, and that should tell you how much Vegas loves the Badgers. The Badgers are favorites in all of their scheduled games, and they have everything set in front of them to have a banner 2021 campaign.

The Badgers defense will be among the best in America thanks to a loaded back seven. The linebackers are terrific, and Jack Sanborn might be the best in the entire conference. They are sound against the run, and that will allow their secondary to lick their chops.

The October slate should be enjoyable, with their homecoming coming against the Hawkeyes. A win there will allow them to remain undefeated before hosting Northwestern and Nebraska in November. They then end their season on the road against Minnesota.

That schedule looks favorable on paper for the Badgers to potentially run the table. Jim Leonhard is a premier defensive coordinator, and they will be right there in every regular-season game.

I am buying stock on the Badgers this season. The momentum and confidence are moving upward after a disappointing 2020 season. Wisconsin is locked to reach the New Year’s Six and is a live underdog to reach the College Football Playoff.

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Betting on NCAA Football in 2021

Part of betting on college football successfully is spotting teams on the rise. I recently broke down some 2021 college football teams that will regress, but eyeing the other side is just as important.

You don’t want to get trapped by those sliding teams, but you also don’t want to miss the boat on the next big thing.

It’s easy to just bet on Alabama or Clemson most years, but eventually, another program will come along and surprise. These are the ten most improved college football teams for 2021, and some of them have a real shot at the title.

Who that one team could be, nobody knows. All you can do is consider which teams are on the rise when you place your football bets. Hopefully, this breakdown helped you single out a few squads worth backing in 2021.

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