Predicting the 2021 college football season with award watch lists

NC State and Wake are poised for big years

Coach Shawn Clark and the Mountaineers are again loaded with talent that should help them return to double-digit wins in 2021. (Richard Shiro / AP Photo)

Last season was a bizarre one in college football, with the pandemic wreaking havoc on virtually every aspect of the season.

Schedules were scrambled both before and during the season, players were quarantined and stadiums were empty.

Despite all the turmoil, one thing remained constant with previous years: If you want to know which team is going to win a given game, check the preseason award watch lists.

Each July, the organizations that vote on college football’s end-of-season awards — honoring everything from top defensive player to best punter — release lists of several dozen players to watch. Taken as a whole, the 16 lists of more than 300 total players represent a fairly accurate preseason picture of which schools have the most talent on their rosters.

This year, for instance, Clemson and Alabama each had 23 players on preseason watch lists. Duke had six. Elon had none.

Obviously, saying that Alabama should be better than Elon this year doesn’t make this method infallible, but the model has been fairly accurate over time. Last year, even with schedules shifting constantly, it was fairly accurate for several teams around the state.

The model also accurately predicted a Notre Dame-Clemson ACC Championship Game, had Clemson’s league record at 10-0 (actually 8-1) and Notre Dame’s at 9-1 (9-0) and also hit on UNC, Wake, Louisville, BC and Syracuse.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect, and when it missed, it missed big last season.

In the ACC, it overestimated Virginia Tech and Florida State while shortchanging Miami and Virginia.

So what’s in store for the 2021 season? We pored through the watch lists and came up with four teams in North Carolina that should make bowl plans and another team on the cusp.

It will be a long season for the state’s other two FBS teams:

Looking at the ACC, there are a few surprises in the number of watch-listers on each team, including an NC State roster that is packed with talent, a strong Wake Forest squad and a wide-open Coastal, as usual.

Despite dreary preseason predictions, Duke appears to be on a tier above the worst teams in the Coastal — Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, Florida State and Louisville are expected to continue to struggle in the Atlantic.

Duke also caught a break on the schedule. The Blue Devils face fewer watch-listed players than any other ACC team:

The Yellow Jackets face Georgia and Notre Dame in nonconference games and have a crossover game against Clemson, which explains their dire schedule strength. In addition to having the most talent in the conference, Clemson has one of the lightest schedules, which should help the Tigers continue their dominance.

The non-ACC programs in the state have an easier road than any of the ACC squads

So, using a comparison of each team’s watch-listed players to determine who will win each matchup, here’s how the ACC season shakes out.

The big surprise in the Coastal is that Miami takes the divisional title ahead of preseason poll winner North Carolina. Despite the Tar Heels falling short in the Coastal race, it appears to be an up year for in-state programs, with NC State and Wake both putting together elite seasons and Duke, once again, flirting with a bowl bid until late in the season.

Of course, they play the game on the field, not on spreadsheets filled with watch-list comparisons. So anything could happen.