After an unpredictable 2020, the NSJ sports staff is still going to take a swing at what will happen in 2021. Sports editor Cory Lavalette and staff writers Brett Friedlander and Shawn Krest try and predict what the big stories of the next year will be.
ACC scraps divisional format
The coronavirus pandemic brought about numerous changes in sports in 2020. Some, most notably the NCAA waiver that eliminated the minimum-win requirement for bowl eligibility, will soon be forgotten. Others, however, worked so well that they’ll become permanent. Among them is the ACC’s move to eliminate the divisional format it has used since 2005. Ditching the Atlantic and Coastal divisions ensured that the league’s two best teams would be matched against one another in its championship game, stimulating greater interest, higher television ratings and increased revenue. Not only will the ACC go division-less in 2021, but it will also increase its conference schedule from eight to nine games to provide its television network with more content. The Notre Dame experiment will also eventually become permanent, especially now that Jim Phillips — with his ties to the Irish — has become commissioner. But that won’t happen for at least another couple of years.
Final Four for Wolfpack women
NC State’s women’s basketball team was riding high with momentum after winning its first ACC Tournament championship in 29 years last March. But coach Wes Moore’s Wolfpack was deprived of a chance to add to its resume when the NCAA Tournament was shelved because of COVID-19. With most of its important pieces back, including national Player of the Year candidate Elissa Cunane, and soaring confidence after an early-season upset of then-No. 1 South Carolina, State is poised to make up for its lost opportunity by joining the nation’s elite and advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 1988 and only the second time in school history.
Gwiazdowski will qualify for Olympics, win a medal
This is a repeat of last year’s prediction but because the Olympics were postponed until next summer, it still stands: A two-time NCAA champion at NC State, Nick Gwiazdowski is one of the nation’s premier freestyle wrestlers at 125 kilograms (275 pounds). Since his graduation, the former Wolfpack star has twice made the U.S. National Team that competed in the World Championships and both times, in 2017 and ’18, he has come home with a bronze medal. His next step is to represent his country next summer at the Olympics in Tokyo. And when he does, he’ll bring home the hardware from there, too.
Another challenge for Coach K
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will be moving on to his next challenge. The Hall of Fame Duke coach announces that 2023 will be his last season on the Duke bench and he’ll then move on to the newly created role of College Basketball Czar. After years of criticizing the NCAA for not having one person to speak for the sport, Coach K becomes the first person to assume the job, which will be a liaison with coaches, players and administration.
Quarterback plans for Panthers
The Panthers stick with Teddy Bridgewater to try to make a run at a playoff berth in 2021, but the team uses a fifth-round draft pick to take Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond in the spring as the quarterback of the future. As Carolina struggles to hold onto one of the final wild card spots, the team’s management will be called into question over deciding to contend instead of a tank job to “Play foul for Sam Howell” in the 2022 draft.
New-look minor leagues
With budgets tight already following a canceled 2020 season, North Carolina’s remaining minor league teams will face even more financial pressure when the season starts late and crowd capacity is still heavily limited. Fans looking for a fun, cheap family night at the ballpark will be outraged as teams announce steep hikes in ticket prices and concessions. Faced with the possibility of closing up shop, more than one franchise in the state will be put up for sale. One possible bright side of the industry’s struggles to survive will be a renewed push for an MLB expansion team in the state.
Everyone’s chasing Elliott
Chase Elliott will strengthen his grip on being the face of auto racing by winning a second straight NASCAR Cup Series title. With more road courses — where Elliott dominates — on the 2021 schedule, the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 will lead the series in wins with 11 — including a staggering five on road courses — heading into the playoffs. From there, he will outlast a rejuvenated Kyle Busch to become the 11th driver to win back-to-back championships and the first since Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10. Elliott will also be named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the fourth straight year.
Hurricanes win Central Division
The NHL had to reconfigure its divisions for its upcoming 56-game season, putting all seven Canadian teams together due to travel restrictions in and out of the country. While the Hurricanes did not have any Canadian teams with them in the Metropolitan Division, the shuffling means they will play frequently against teams they don’t see often in a normal season in a new-fangled Central Division. That includes both Stanley Cup Final teams from the 2019-20 season: Tampa Bay and Dallas. It won’t matter. The Stars and Lightning both stumble in the early going with injury issues and Carolina capitalizes, building an early lead by faring well against the two powers of the division and feasting on the also-rans to win the Central. The Hurricanes, however, get bounced by the Lightning in the playoffs, falling just short of reaching the final four.
Big turnover among college coaches
With fans finally returning to the stands, college athletic departments decide to loosen their purse strings in 2021 — and a lot of coaches move on from North Carolina. NC Central’s LeVelle Moton, UNCG’s Wes Miller and Western Carolina’s Mark Prosser all leave their respective basketball programs for greener pastures, while NC State’s Dave Doeren and Charlotte’s Will Healy will both land in the SEC after nine-win seasons. Doeren will become the latest coach to try and revive Tennessee, while Healy takes over at Arkansas after Sam Pittman is let go after just two seasons.