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Everything we got right (not much) and wrong (too much) from the college football season

Our college football writer looks back at his 2021 predictions, from his correct national title prediction to all the teams he overrated.
The Florida Gators played much worse than our Matt Baker predicted, leading to Dan Mullen's firing (which seemed unfathomable to us in August).
The Florida Gators played much worse than our Matt Baker predicted, leading to Dan Mullen's firing (which seemed unfathomable to us in August). [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 13

Let’s put the 2021 college football season to rest by continuing my annual tradition of looking back at everything I got right (not much), wrong (too much) and which predictions deserved partial credit.

What I got right

Georgia won the national title this year, just as we predicted.
Georgia won the national title this year, just as we predicted. [ CURTIS COMPTON / CURTIS.COMPTON@AJC.COM | AP ]

I repeatedly picked Georgia to win the national championship, including in the preseason (when I was one of three AP top 25 voters to put the Bulldogs at No. 1). We’ll conveniently ignore the fact that I incorrectly predicted the Bulldogs would win the SEC and focus on the bigger title.

Related: Georgia’s national title shows what’s possible at Florida and Miami

USF fans were unhappy when I wrote that the Bulls’ football struggles might sideline them in conference realignment. The Big 12 passed on the Bulls for UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU — four schools with recent, high-level football success.

In July, I wrote that Auburn quarterback Bo Nix would take a step forward under coach Bryan Harsin. His completion percentage, passing efficiency and touchdown-interception ratio all improved.

I didn’t directly predict the Bucs would draft former Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, but I argued that the move would make sense. It was a rough season, so I’m counting this as a win, OK?

Partial credit

Florida State finished 5-7 this year under Mike Norvell, which wasn't far off from our preseason prediction.
Florida State finished 5-7 this year under Mike Norvell, which wasn't far off from our preseason prediction. [ MARY SCHWALM | AP (2021) ]

I began questioning Dan Mullen’s long-term UF future after the Kentucky loss and wrote after LSU that it was time to “start searching for the thermostat.” Though I never predicted his firing explicitly, I did acknowledge the possibility earlier than some of my colleagues. That said, I also didn’t think UF would fire him during the season, and I had zero indication in September that his tenure would end the way it did.

A headline from August: “Reasonable goals for FSU football? Growth and 6-6.” That was indeed a reasonable goal, though FSU fell a win short. My problem came at the end of the season when I suggested the Seminoles were “the steadiest — and perhaps best — program in the state.” FSU lost that weekend at Florida, which lost its bowl game to UCF.

I was somewhat skeptical on Miami and said Appalachian State was “good enough to scare, if not upset” the Hurricanes. Miami won by two. At midseason, I also wrote that a likely scenario was a “low-level bowl that forces administrators to decide whether to give (Manny) Diaz a fourth season.” That’s exactly what happened. But I also foolishly ranked the ‘Canes 11th on my preseason ballot and thought their game against North Carolina could be a top-10 showdown. They entered a combined 5-6.

I was down and a little harsh on former UCF coach Josh Heupel at Tennessee. I’m not ready to admit defeat because the Volunteers went 7-6, but he outperformed my expectations.

After Cincinnati beat USF in Tampa, I wrote that the Bearcats didn’t look like a playoff team. I don’t think that was wrong; Cincinnati earned its semifinal berth by improving afterward. But in retrospect, my analysis doesn’t look great, and I underestimated the absence of star running back Jerome Ford in that game.

Related: What USF football can learn from Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff run

What I got wrong

The Florida Gators did not live up to our preseason expectations.
The Florida Gators did not live up to our preseason expectations. [ L.G. PATTERSON | AP ]

Make yourself comfortable. This will take a bit.

I had the Gators 13th on my preseason ballot and pegged them to finish second in the SEC East. After the Kentucky loss, I still wrote that Florida could win nine games. UF went 6-7.

I don’t use my preseason ballot as a true predictor of the final rankings, but they should be much closer than how they ended up this year. Only four of my preseason top 10 teams finished in the top 10. Three of them (Iowa State, Texas A&M and North Carolina) didn’t finish ranked at all, though I put the Aggies on my final ballot. None of the teams I had 15-19 (Washington, USC, LSU, Indiana and Penn State) finished ranked, either, and three of them fired their coaches. In all, only 11 teams in my preseason top 25 had a spot in the final poll. Not great.

I ranked UCF 25th on my preseason ballot “ahead of Mississippi, Michigan, Oklahoma State and Arizona State.” Three of those just-missed teams finished in the top 11. My bad.

I said Michigan State “won’t be better than mediocre.” The Spartans finished 11-2 and ninth in the country — slightly better than mediocre, I suppose.

Outside of picking Georgia and Alabama to win their divisions and Vanderbilt to be awful, my SEC predictions were a mess. I underrated Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi State while overrating LSU, UF and Texas A&M. I also wrote that the Aggies were “good enough to finish in the top 10.” They went 8-4.

I, like Jimbo Fisher, will try to do better next season.

• • •

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