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College football winners, losers of 2021 season: Michigan trusts Jim Harbaugh, Clemson back to drawing board

The regular season is over and the College Football Playoff field is set, so it’s time to look back at what will go down as one of the most exciting seasons in the history of the sport. 

The 2021 season brought us incredible moments. Texas A&M became the first unranked team to beat No. 1 since 2008 as Jimbo Fisher made history in becoming the first former Nick Saban assistant to beat the godfather. Twelve FCS teams beat FBS opponents, the most since the 2013 season. And, most surprising of all, three programs without national championships this millennium have joined the CFP field along with the defending national champion Crimson Tide. 

But the stories don’t stop there. Several of college football‘s consensus blue-bloods — LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and USC among them — had job openings at the same time, an anomaly in the modern era. Clemson, one of two teams with multiple national titles in the playoff era, has soul-searching to do after its infrastructure was demolished. And with realignment hanging over the sport, many key stakeholders are left shuffling deck chairs in anticipation of the inevitable. 

Here are the biggest winners and losers of the 2021 college football season. 


Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: In a sport where coaching turnover has become the norm, a story of trusting the process stands out. Michigan brass opted to restructure Jim Harbaugh’s contract to give him another crack at national competitiveness after a shocking 2-4, pandemic-shortened campaign. He responded by beating Ohio State for the first time, leading the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title since 2004 and earning the school’s first trip to the playoff. Who’s got it better than Harbaugh? Nobody, it seems. 

Michigan State: Calling your shot on Sparty ahead of schedule is underselling the story dramatically. While the Big Ten does not put out a formal preseason poll, an informal poll of Big Ten writers had Michigan State projected to finish last in the Big Ten East. Instead, dynamic running back Kenneth Walker III and a wave of transfers quickly helped turn the tide in East Lansing, transforming the Spartans into a Big Ten contender under second-year head coach Mel Tucker. Now, MSU is rewarded with a trip to the New Year’s Six for the first time since 2015. It was unclear what the future of this program would be in the post-Mark Dantonio era, but 2021 proved the Spartans aren’t going anywhere. Most importantly, Michigan State locked down Tucker to a monster 10-year contract extension. 

The state of Utah: Perhaps the most overlooked story from this season was the incredible rise of football in Utah. Both No. 11 Utah and Utah State won their respective conference championships, and the Aggies’ turnaround was so dramatic that first-year coach Blake Anderson should get Coach of the Year consideration. No. 13 BYU blew through its schedule, winning all four of its games against Pac-12 opponents. The three teams in the state of Utah combined to win 30 games. For comparison, the seven FBS teams in the state of Florida combined for 34 wins. Utah might have one of the best collection of coaches out of any state. 

Cincinnati: Heading into 2021, no Group of Five team had ever finished higher than No. 7 in the final CFP rankings. But months after accepting an invite to the Big 12, the Bearcats broke through to become the first Group of Five team in the field. Fittingly, the “We Want Bama” crowd will finally get its wish as Cincy plays the Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. Regardless of what happens, earning a trip to the sport’s biggest stage portends big things as the Bearcats enter the Big 12 in the near future. With No. 13 BYU and No. 20 Houston having big seasons, too, the new Big 12 in general appears to be a big winner. 

Pitt QB Kenny Pickett: As a fifth-year senior, Pickett began 2021 as a solid yet unspectacular signal-caller. He responded with one of the greatest individual seasons by a Pitt quarterback in history — a history that includes one Dan Marino. Pickett threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns to lead the Panthers to their first conference championship since joining the ACC. 

Baylor: In 2020, the Bears cobbled together one of the worst offenses in program history during a disappointing 2-7 campaign. But then coach Dave Aranda hired Jeff Grimes to run the offense and the results spoke for themselves. The Bears beat three ranked opponents and won their first Big 12 Championship Game. Aranda’s rise from 2-7 to 11-2 in one season is significant in its own right, but the timing couldn’t be better as the Big 12 experiences a period of great transition. If Aranda sticks around, Baylor can cement itself right at the top. 


Clemson: The Tigers entered 2021 as an early favorite for the national championship behind lofty expectations placed upon former No. 1 quarterback recruit D.J. Uiagalelei. Instead, Uiagalelei ranked last in the ACC in passer rating, defensive coordinator Brent Venables left to coach Oklahoma and now offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is reportedly in the mix at Virginia. Losing Trevor Lawrence was always going to set off a new era, but coach Dabo Swinney almost has to start from the ground floor with so much uncertainty around the organization. The Clemson superpower has been continuity. With that gone, Swinney has to redefine the program over the offseason. 

Texas A&M: If you told the Aggies before the season that they would beat Alabama on Oct. 9, every one would have expected that meant they would win the SEC West and, at worst, be in the New Year’s Six. Instead, the program finished 4-4 in the SEC for the sixth time in nine seasons and followed up an Orange Bowl campaign with a trip to the Gator Bowl. The one piece of good news is that Texas A&M is within striking distance of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, a huge step for Jimbo Fisher’s program. But until those players perform at the highest level, Texas A&M will continue to wander through the wilderness for its first 10-win season since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season. 

Coach firing crew: Amazingly, there was a lot of turnover at premier jobs within a matter of months. USC and LSU pulled the rip cord early in the season on Clay Helton and Ed Orgeron, respectively. Florida waited until things completely fell apart before cutting Dan Mullen loose, while Miami fired Manny Diaz in a bizarre situation at the end of the year as it courted Oregon’s Mario Cristobal. All four programs have an opportunity to right the ship quickly after landing prioritized choices, but having so many storied programs all open in one cycle is bizarre to say the least. 

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian: Sark was hired off the national championship-winning staff at Alabama for one reason: to take a good team to championship levels. Instead, the Longhorns put together one of their most embarrassing seasons in decades and seemingly fast forwarded through the entire Charlie Strong and Tom Herman eras in just 12 games. Texas lost to Kansas, posted its first six-game losing streak since 1956 and missed a bowl game after four consecutive postseason wins. Recruiting and the transfer portal will give the Longhorns a chance to rebound quickly, but it’s hard to imagine a worse start to Sark’s coaching tenure in Austin. In fact, his debut was the worst by a new coach at Texas since Dana X. Bible in 1937. This is not what Texas had in mind as it enters its new era in the SEC. 

Indiana: Hoosiers coach Tom Allen quickly became one of the stars of the sport after leading his team to a 6-2 record and a No. 12 ranking in 2020. That success appears to have been a pandemic-related blip as the Hoosiers imploded in a shocking 2-10 campaign in 2021. The only wins came against FCS Idaho and a Western Kentucky squad that could beat the Hoosiers if they played again today. Injuries helped derail the season, but that’s still no excuse for losing to Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue by a combined 117-24. Indiana might be the single most disappointing team in college football. 

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