Texas is going to the SEC (but when?). The College Football Playoff may or may not be expanding to twelve teams. And the age of “name, image, and likeness” has already made UT Heisman Trophy candidate Bijan Robinson a #CaniacAmbassador, and should-have-been–Southlake Carroll–senior-quarterback Quinn Ewers a millionaire (eventually).
And now we finally get to watch some games. The 2021 season actually started in August, a.k.a. Week Zero, with UTEP’s win over New Mexico State. And Thursday night, defending FCS champion Sam Houston State finished college football’s shortest off-season, beating Northern Arizona a mere 110 days after the title game in Frisco.
Remember last year’s COVID-scrambled first few weeks, when the “I-35 Rivalry”—that would be UTSA–Texas State—got a prime afternoon slot on ESPN2, SMU-Houston got canceled (twice!), and Houston Baptist’s near-upset of Texas Tech was the best game of the season? This weekend, we get a matchup of Associated Press Top 25 teams right out of the gate in Austin, with number-21 Texas hosting number-23 Louisiana. There’s also a prime—and prime-time—in-state, non-conference, somewhat neutral-site matchup between Texas Tech and Houston, which, given all the Texans’ issues in the NFL, might also be the best football game played at NRG Stadium this season. (If the Cougars win, they should immediately gain admittance to the Big 12.) And in College Station, Texas A&M hosts Kent State, which is not as bad as it sounds—MACtion!—though most Aggies will also be keeping a close eye on Alabama-Miami and Georgia-Clemson, since they fancy joining—or supplanting—at least one of those teams in the College Football Playoff.
From A&M’s ambitions to UT’s foibles to TCU’s dark-horse chances, here are fifteen questions previewing the 2021 college football season.
1. Will the University of Texas start the season 0–1?
No, they aren’t playing Maryland, which beat the Longhorns in both the 2017 and 2018 openers. And Tom Herman is gone. But when you’re a team breaking in a new head coach (Steve Sarkisian) and a redshirt freshman quarterback (Hudson Card), you might like an easier first game than Louisiana. The football team formerly known as Louisiana-Lafayette went 10–1 last year, including an early win over eventual Big 12 runner-up Iowa State, and this season the Ragin’ Cajuns return most of that squad. By all rights, Louisiana should be ranked higher than the Longhorns, and certainly shouldn’t be an 8-point underdog (though at least that line has moved from 9.5).
The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel summed up the symbolic stakes perfectly: “The Ragin’ Cajuns starting in the Top 25 all but assures that a Texas victory will be seen as a sign of Sark’s impending greatness. The Ragin’ Cajuns being in the Sun Belt, though, all but assures that a Texas loss will be viewed as a sign that the ’Horns will go 4–8 every year in the SEC.”
Picking Texas to win has a real Lucy-with-the-football quality. Picking Texas to lose feels Pavlovian. At least we know Sarkisian’s team won’t be looking ahead to next week’s game with Arkansas.
2. Who’s the most overrated team in Texas?
Congratulations, Aggies. You just #BTHOtu without playing them!
People obviously aren’t falling for “Texas is back” any more—this year’s number-21 AP spot for the Horns, who began the 2019 season ranked tenth and last year fourteenth, is probably appropriate to both their talent level and Sarkisian’s coaching pedigree. It’s also close to number 19, where they finished at the end of 2020.
Last year, A&M was just ahead of the Longhorns, at thirteenth in the preseason AP poll, and they finished fourth. So this is meant to be a compliment: the Aggies are overrated only inasmuch as they are highly rated.
Are they one of the ten best teams in the country? Absolutely. Are they sixth or better? We’ll see. Heading into spring, the party line was that the loss of longtime starting quarterback Kellen Mond would mean a drop-off from last season. But head coach Jimbo Fisher—perhaps you’ve heard about his contract extension—and all of the returning guys on defense might be good enough to make a run.
Week Two presents an early, Power Five–conference road test against Colorado, by which time A&M might already be ranked in the top four (depending on what happens to the Clemson-Georgia loser). Bottom line, the Aggies will either beat Alabama for the first time since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season, in which case the sky’s the limit, or they won’t, and they’ll have to avoid a second loss to remain in the playoff conversation.
But we’ll get to that later.
3. Which coach has more to prove, Matt Wells or Dana Holgorsen?
Kliff Kingsbury went 6–7 and 5–7 in his last two seasons coaching Texas Tech. Since then, Matt Wells has gone 4–8 and 4–6.
Major Applewhite went 7–5 and and 8–5 in his two—and only—seasons coaching the University of Houston. Dana Holgorsen has gone 4–8 and 3–5 since then.
Wells, who had great success at Utah State, was supposed to make it harder for opposing teams to score in Lubbock. It has not exactly worked, and last season the Red Raiders also failed to score more than three touchdowns against Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas (though they still beat Baylor and Kansas).
Now, Wells has turned to the Mike Leach coaching tree to fix the offense, tapping former Tech QB Sonny Cumbie as offensive coordinator. Cumbie was an assistant at his alma mater under three different head coaches (Leach, Tommy Tuberville, and Kingsbury), then spent the last six years at TCU. Can he help Wells get the Red Raiders to seven wins? Kingsbury got six seasons, but Wells is not a Lubbock legend. And as the only public Texas university planning to remain in the Big 12, Tech would surely like to be the new “Joneses,” not just a team that plays at a stadium called Jones.
As for Holgorsen, his hiring by UH made a statement that they didn’t need to be in a Power Five conference to get a coach with Power Five pedigree, having plucked the offensive mastermind—and another chip off the Mike Leach block—from West Virginia. With a five-year, $20 million contract—making him the highest-paid “Group of Five” coach—Holgorsen is supposed to be the leader who doesn’t leave Houston for a better job or bigger money (see Tom Herman and Kevin Sumlin).
But his best player, Manvel native D’Eriq King, left Houston after the bizarre 2019 season (you can see him playing quarterback for Miami against Alabama on Saturday). The Cougars were also more affected than most teams by COVID cancellations last year, with no games until October 8. Holgorsen surely deserves at least four years to make UH his own. On the other hand, what better way for the Cougars to prove themselves the rightful heirs to UT’s perch in the Big 12 than to be impatient, replace Holgorsen with some hopefully splashy name, and then pay a giant coaching buyout?
4. Is this Max Duggan’s year at TCU?
That is certainly the hope at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Last season, then–sophomore quarterback Duggan was good enough to lead the defense-first Horned Frogs to a 3–0 record against in-state Big 12 rivals UT, Baylor, and Tech. Now that Duggan’s an upperclassman, TCU is a dark-horse challenger to Oklahoma for the conference title. That doesn’t mean they’ll win it, just that they could sneak past Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and (cough) Texas for a spot in the championship game.
5. Are you saying UT will lose to TCU for the eighth time in ten years?
Yes. And then TCU will upset Oklahoma. Bring it on, Freezing Cold Takes.
6. Who’s the most underrated team in Texas?
SMU. The Mustangs have been the answer to this question for the past three years. They just haven’t been able to reach the top of the American Athletic Conference, and they probably won’t catch Cincinnati this year, either. And since they’re in the AAC, that invariably leaves them in something like the Frisco Bowl (or not, as the game got canceled last year).
To make a national splash this season, SMU will also have to win the Iron Skillet against TCU (another game that wasn’t played last year). But SMU coach Sonny Dykes has built himself a program, and the Ponies shouldn’t miss a beat at quarterback, replacing Texas transfer Shane Buechele with Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai. They also still have game-changing wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr., if he can stay healthy. The Mustangs have gone 17–6 over the past two seasons, but they’re 12–0 with Roberson Jr. in the lineup. And yes, they should be in the Big 12 too.
7. Did UT do Texas A&M a favor by hiring Steve Sarkisian?
Alabama swaps assistant coaches even more often than UT changes all its coaches, and Nick Saban’s players barely seem to notice. That said, the Crimson Tide team that hammered A&M last year and won the national title had six NFL first-round draft picks, and Sarkisian brought three other ’Bama coaches with him to the Forty Acres. That leaves Alabama starting this season with the challenge of adjusting to a new quarterback, Bryce Young, and a new offensive coordinator, former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. Will that make a difference when the Tide pull into College Station on October 9? The Aggies hope so.
8. How can I watch the I-35 Rivalry?
After last year’s 51–48 UTSA win over Texas State in double overtime, you certainly don’t want to miss the next matchup between these schools, whether it’s on ESPN2, ESPN3, or ESPN+. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait two years. Bobcats-Roadrunners history is more about Southland Conference basketball—UTSA didn’t even have a football team until 2011, while Texas State was an FCS program for years. So with the Bobcats in the Sun Belt Conference and the Roadrunners in Conference USA, they don’t get to go up and down I-35 every year.
But second-year coach Jeff Traylor should have UTSA competing for a C-USA title, with Dave Campbell’s Texas Football college player of the year Sincere McCormick leading the way at running back. Meanwhile, in San Marcos, coach Jake Spavital hopes to get Texas State back on top—okay, they haven’t been on top since they were called Southwest Texas State—by building a team made up almost entirely of transfers. The program didn’t add a single high-school recruit last signing day.
Both teams have games worth watching this weekend—UTSA takes on Illinois, which beat Nebraska in Week Zero, while Texas State will host Baylor. Hey, Waco’s also on I-35. Let’s call that a “rivalry.”
9. Speaking of Baylor, have you heard what the Bears call their offense?
This was supposed to be the year that Baylor just plays football. For better or worse, the NCAA completed its investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations against Baylor football players. The school’s higher-ups are focused on the future of the Big 12 and how Baylor can weather the fallout from UT’s and Oklahoma’s eventual moves to the SEC. And although coach Dave Aranda went 2–7 in his first year as Matt Rhule’s replacement, expectations are much higher this season.
But maybe new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who left one religious school (Brigham Young) for another, should rethink his rubric for the Bears’ revamped offense: he calls it RVO, or “reliable violent offense.” Yeah, it’s a metaphor, and a pun on RPO (run-pass option). And football is a violent game. But in the legal system, RVO can stand for “repeat violent offender.”
10. Can A&M still make the playoff if they lose to Alabama?
Absolutely. Obviously! You lose a close one, win all your other games, and then hope that the SEC East winner gets hammered in the conference championship game. But if it’s a tight race—especially if Georgia has already beaten Clemson—that back door won’t be open. This also might not be a year in which two teams from one conference make the four-team playoff.
BTHO Alabama, on the other hand, and you could even lose another game and win the SEC, which virtually guarantees a berth in the CFP.
11. Can UTEP win more games this season than it has in the past three seasons combined?
Sam Khan Jr. of the Athletic thinks it could happen. The Miners have gone 1–11, 1–11, and 3–5 under long-ago University of Houston coach Dana Dimel. They’re already 1–0, and they play FCS Bethune-Cookman Saturday. Then they have winnable games against New Mexico (at the Sun Bowl) and Old Dominion (which didn’t play at all last year). To end up 6–6 they’ll have to do some damage within Texas: UTEP’s November schedule stacks UTSA, North Texas, and Rice all in a row.
12. What will the Rice MOB do for the University of Texas game on September 18?
It’s not certain that the MOB will be in Austin, as even before COVID, they didn’t get to every road game. But what’s the point of playing Rice without the state’s snarkiest band? (Oh, right, Texas plays Rice not because it is hard, but because it is easy.)
Assuming that the MOB does make it to Campbell-Williams Field at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, just imagine what kind of topical performance they might give in 2021. COVID? A callback to their 2011 “$EC” performance? Or perhaps something that could be even more controversial than their 2016 Baylor “Title IX” routine—a potential comment on or parody of “The Eyes of Texas.”
13. Will North Texas make a bowl game?
Thanks to COVID, the Mean Green played in the Myrtle Beach Bowl despite finishing last season with a 4–6 record. It’s hard to believe that just two years ago, head coach Seth Littrell was coming off a pair of nine-win seasons, and was assumed to be a candidate for bigger jobs (which led UNT to sign Littrell to two contract extensions).
So the only answer is, they’d better make a bowl game, since doing so would mean they managed to get through the season without a losing record. Especially now that UNT is a basketball school.
14. How many penalties will be called for “Horns Down”?
If the Big 12 coaches have a sense of humor, nine—one for every conference game.
15. Will anyone forfeit a game because of COVID?
That’s the rule this year in most, if not all, college football conferences, including the Big 12, SEC, and AAC. There will be no postponements or makeup games. It’s up to every team to enforce protocols, hopefully while its people are also vaccinated, and if one team falls short of the required players needed, it has to take the loss. With the Delta variant and breakthrough cases still an issue, the answer is that some program will probably forfeit a game—unless Greg Abbott calls a special session forcing teams to play.