Looking back at my 2021 preseason predictions, here are 5 home runs and 5 absolute whiffs
I’m willing to admit that I don’t own a crystal ball.
If I did, I’d gamble my way into an offseason house in Rome, where I’d eat more prosciutto than any human should. That, however, is a fantasy. Reality is that I’ve got an educated guess as to how things will play out in a given season. I’d like to think that I hold myself accountable for those predictions.
That’s why we’re here today.
Well, that’s partially why. We’re also here because I’d like to convince you, reader of this column, that I might sort of know what I’m talking about when it comes to American football.
With an 8-month offseason, I’m on record for a whole lot of predictions. I mean, I literally do a Crystal Ball series wherein I predict every single game an SEC team will play. Of course “crystal ball” isn’t literal. Again, this isn’t being written from my house in Rome with half my brain debating if I want some Stracciatella gelato for dessert (of course I do).
So let’s go through my best and worst preseason predictions from the 2021 season:
Home run predictions
1. Cincinnati will become the first Group of 5 team to make the Playoff
Yes. I was on record over the summer with this one:
— Saturday Down South (@SatDownSouth) June 3, 2021
(Yes, we’ll get to one of those other teams in there a bit later.)
To be clear, I’m not that guy. You know. The “UCF was the real national champ in 2017” guy.
My Cincinnati love stemmed from what the Bearcats showed against a red hot Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. I bought into what Luke Fickell returned with the likes of Sauce Gardner, Myjai Sanders and Desmond Ridder. That was a preseason top-10 team that had a pair of nonconference road showdowns against preseason ranked teams (Indiana and Notre Dame). That’s why the path was finally there in a way that it wasn’t for UCF in 2017 or 2018.
And yes, even though Cincinnati didn’t make it a 60-minute game against Alabama, I’d argue that the Bearcats confirmed the belief that they belonged. We’ve seen teams get exposed much worse in Playoff semifinal games.
But Cincinnati was my best preseason call of 2021.
2. Jimbo Fisher will become the first Nick Saban disciple to take down the master*
I’ll get to the asterisk in a second. Why did I predict this in the first place? I loved what A&M returned defensively. Finally, I saw the Aggies having the front 7 needed to generate pressure against a new-look Alabama offensive line, and finally, the Aggies wouldn’t get totally gashed on the back end by those Alabama receivers.
Young took 4 sacks and played from a deficit for most of the night. An unbeaten Alabama team also lost to a non-top 15 team for the first time since the 2010 South Carolina team.
That leads me to the other part of this prediction … I backed off it the week of the game. In my defense, A&M was starting a backup quarterback having lost consecutive games to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Fisher’s offense appeared to be on life support. I definitely changed up my preseason call with those factors in mind.
So yes, there’s an asterisk there, but the preseason prediction still counts.
3. Arkansas will sweep the state of Texas
In hindsight, that doesn’t look so bold considering the fact that Sam Pittman’s squad had a better season than Texas A&M and Texas. But at the time, yes, predicting a 4-0 start that included 2 wins against Texas programs — and 3 when you include Rice — was indeed bold. Arkansas hadn’t beaten A&M in a decade.
I didn’t think a new-look Texas team would be ready for the road atmosphere they’d walk into. Sure enough, that was exactly what happened. The Hogs ran for roughly 6,834 yards that night en route to a blowout victory.
I also liked the possibility of Barry Odom’s extremely experienced defense facing a young, first-time starting quarterback in the A&M game. That played out exactly as predicted, though it was Montaric Brown who had the key interception and not Jalen Catalon as I predicted. Oh well.
HE LAID OUT FOR IT
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 25, 2021
I also tabbed Treylon Burks as the SEC’s best receiver pre-George Pickens injury and tabbed KJ Jefferson as the SEC’s breakout star. Not too shabby.
Go figure that I made that prediction and I actually ended up being a touch on the low end with Arkansas’ overall prediction. The Hogs rose above my 7-5 regular season projection and had their best season in a decade.
Looks like I’ve got to be a little higher on the Hogs these days.
4. Wan’Dale Robinson will be the most impactful non-quarterback transfer in America
In my opinion, Jameson Williams is the only other guy who has an argument here. But given what Robinson did back in his home state to revolutionize that offense while setting program records for receptions and receiving yards, I’d say he at least deserves a split of that award.
(Also in my defense, Williams was still at Ohio State at the time when I wrote this in January.)
In addition to rewriting the Kentucky record books, Robinson was the best player on a Kentucky team that finished in the top 1/3 in FBS in scoring after it failed to crack the top 100 in 2020. The Nebraska transfer needed a system like Liam Coen’s to truly take off. That, he did. Robinson was a walking highlight reel who earned the right to be considered one of the best players in program history. Not bad for a 1-year wonder.
5. Matt Corral needs to be getting first-round love in way-too-early mock drafts
I didn’t really think I’d have to go out on a limb and say last April that the Ole Miss quarterback was going to be worthy of first-round consideration, but hey, I gladly banged that drum. It was needed because Corral wasn’t listed in any of the 5 way-too-early mock drafts I broke down last year. That baffled me.
Then again, I figured too many people would diagnose him as the undersized guy who had multiple 5-interception games in 2020. It was strange to have to remind people that he was a 71% passer who averaged 10.2 yards per attempt in his first year working with Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby. Corral had already spoken candidly about his struggles against drop-8 coverage and how he had turned the corner.
It’s safe to say Corral was right. Now, it’s tough to find a mock draft without the Ole Miss signal-caller. He helped lead the program to its best regular-season win total in school history. That happened despite the fact that he was banged up the rest of the year following his 30-carry, 195-yard showing (!) in Kiffin’s return to Knoxville in mid-October.
Matt Corral shenanigans pic.twitter.com/X97yhEKBMy
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) October 17, 2021
Regardless of what happens at the next level, Corral was a fantastic college quarterback. Not many would’ve predicted that he’s now being projected to go ahead of Sam Howell while Spencer Rattler and JT Daniels both hit the transfer portal instead of entering the NFL Draft (ignore the fact that I actually wrote that I didn’t think Corral had the NFL upside of Rattler or Howell).
Still, I’ll take a little victory lap for that one.
1. Clemson will win the national championship … by beating Georgia twice
I told you I’d circle back to this one. I predicted that the Tigers would have a 2018-like defense — which sort of happened — and win it all by beating Georgia in the season opener and then again in the national championship.
Yeah, about that.
The Tigers had their worst season in 7 years. Hey, it was still a 10-3 year, but it’s never great when your preseason national champ ends its year in the Cheez-It Bowl (I’ve never woken up feeling cheesiest and quite frankly, I don’t want to meet someone who did.).
My biggest whiff was assuming that DJ Uiagalelei would follow in the footsteps of Trevor Lawrence. There was a stark difference between the 5-star signal-callers. I do wonder how much of Uiagalelei’s struggles were a byproduct of seeing that historically dominant Georgia defense in the opener. It was evident that night that as great as Georgia was, this was by no means going to be a vintage Clemson offense, especially not with that offensive line.
I knew after Week 1 that I was already probably going to look foolish for predicting a Clemson national title. If only I could’ve come to that realization a bit earlier.
2. Emory Jones is a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate
To be clear, I never predicted that Jones would win it. I don’t predict Heisman winners. I instead follow my “friends don’t let friends bet on preseason Heisman favorites” mantra (trademark pending) and pick candidates with fantastic odds.
Jones, I thought, was one of those guys. Here’s what I wrote about him ahead of his first season as a starter in Dan Mullen’s offense:
Nobody will make this comparison because their games are wildly different, but there could be a Mac Jones-type path to Emory Jones’ 2021 season. The guy did the atypical thing waited his turn for 3 years and gets some late-season experience. He got a chance to start in Year 4 with a superior offensive mind in his ear and because of how good his predecessor was, there’s a preseason expectation that the offense will take a step back.
“Did I just describe Mac Jones or Emory Jones?
Did you just squirm in your chair or was that just me? Yikes. The only thing Emory Jones and Mac Jones had in common was their last name. More than half of the Florida quarterback’s touchdowns came against Vandy and FCS Samford. He was tied for 3rd in the country in interceptions (13) and Florida’s passing offense took a significant step back in the first year of the post-Kyle Trask era.
To Jones’ credit, he handled his struggles as well as any human being could’ve in that spot. He was accountable, he supported Anthony Richardson and he never checked out when Florida’s SEC East title hopes went up in smoke. That’s worthy of praise.
Just not Heisman-level praise.
3. Tennessee will have the SEC’s worst defense
I stand by my logic here. It wasn’t as simple as the fact that Tennessee lost Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Key Lawrence, JJ Peterson, Deandre Johnson and Kivon Bennett. It also wasn’t the fact that Josh Heupel’s search to find his defensive coordinator took several weeks, and ultimately, it ended up with several public rejections.
The more pressing issue for Tennessee’s defense was that Heupel didn’t really care about complementary football. His offenses from 2015-20 never ranked higher than No. 87 with his 5 pre-Tennessee offenses never cracked the top 100 in time of possession. As a result, those defenses struggled. Like, they struggled to the point where UCF athletic director Terry Mojahir said he asked players what they wanted with Heupel’s replacement and they told him they wanted someone who coached “complementary football.”
But hand up. I was wrong. Thanks to guys like Matthew Campbell, Alontae Taylor and Tyler Baron, the Vols weren’t pushovers defensively. They finished in the top half of FBS in yards per play allowed (5.43) and rushing defense (148.5). Sure, they struggled against the pass and they only finished No. 12 in the SEC in scoring.
Still, I came away thinking Tim Banks exceeded some pedestrian expectations with a roster that was gutted by the transfer portal in the Jeremy Pruitt fallout. Life could’ve been much, much worse on Rocky Top.
4. Ed Orgeron and Dan Mullen are top-10 coaches in the sport
I decided to go with this preseason take instead of my prediction that LSU and Florida would each have 9-win seasons. In my preseason Top 25 ranking of coaches, I had Orgeron at No. 9 and Mullen at No. 8.
To be fair, I did at least acknowledge the pressure that both faced in 2021. And also in my defense, most coaches who start off at a place with 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowls are widely considered to be top-10 coaches, as do coaches just a year removed from winning a national title in historically dominant fashion.
Go figure that my coaches No. 6-9 are now in different roles. Brian Kelly (No. 7) is at LSU and Lincoln Riley (No. 6) is at USC. Granted, they got massive raises in the 9-figure range while Mullen and Orgeron got 8-figure buyouts to stop working after 6-6 seasons. I can see the difference there.
5. Will Anderson is only the No. 8 player in the SEC entering 2021
The craziest thing about this take is that at the time, I actually thought I was higher on Anderson than the consensus. This was what I wrote about Anderson in August:
I’m gonna be honest. Anderson was one of those guys who I thought was good during the season, but I didn’t really process just how good he was until the very end of the year and in the early part of the offseason. As a true freshman, Anderson was 3rd in the league in sacks and tackles for loss … He harassed SEC right tackles last year with his ability to get off the ball. He was also at his best against Florida, LSU and Texas A&M, and he was exceptional in the Playoff games, as well. For my money, he’s the best returning player on a defense which could be No. 1 in all of college football in 2021.
I was right that Anderson was the best returning defensive player for Alabama. I perhaps was not so right that the guy who set the FBS record for tackles for loss in a season had 7 SEC players who were better than him.
Who were those, you ask? Kenyon Green, Evan Neal, Darrian Kinnard, Treylon Burks, DeMarvin Leal, Tank Bigsby and Derek Stingley Jr. Perhaps I got a little too high on Bigsby and I underestimated the upside of Anderson compared to guys like Kinnard and Green, both of whom were fine offensive linemen, but clearly not on Anderson’s all-world level.
It was highway robbery that Anderson didn’t at least earn a trip to New York. Suffice to say, he got that yummy rat poison heading into his pre-draft season.