The 2020 college football season looked different from previous seasons due to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Some teams played in the fall, while others played in the spring. Most teams played conference-only schedules and in front of fewer fans than standard, due to health restrictions.
Unless the current Delta variant spike causes changes—stay tuned—this new season could end up resembling, at least in part, football seasons of years past—with full stadiums and all teams opting into play.
If so, one of the biggest storylines to follow will be the focus on years two for three head coaches: Mike Leach at Mississippi State University, Lane Kiffin at the University of Mississippi and Deion Sanders at Jackson State University. The University of Southern Mississippi is starting over with a new head coach for 2021.
Be warned, though, that this season could be as unpredictable as 2020 became due to the continued, albeit lessened, coronavirus threat. Players could still miss games, while games themselves could still end up postponed or cancelled.
Here are some of my assessments and predictions for the upcoming season.
Jackson State University Tigers
Head coach: Deion Sanders (4-3 overall, 4-3 at JSU, entering 2nd season at JSU)
2020 record: 4-3 overall; 3-2 SWAC
Radio: 95.5 FM
Stadium: Veterans Memorial Stadium
Jackson State University made a major splash by hiring NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as head coach. Even though Sanders hadn’t been a head coach at the college level beforehand, his hire brought plenty of eyes outside of Mississippi to the program.
Due to COVID-19, the Jackson State program had games cancelled or postponed, something every team dealt with over the last season. The Tigers had a fast start in the spring. Winning the first three games in a row, JSU looked unstoppable early in the season.
Then, this trajectory abruptly shifted, as JSU lost its next three games. With the exception of a blowout by Southern University, though, the Tigers’ losses were close with a difference of seven and nine points.
A forfeit win over Alcorn State University gave JSU its last win of the season. In a bummer end to Sanders’ first season, the game against Prairie View A&M University ended up cancelled due to COVID-19.
Jackson State has plenty of talent for the upcoming season as Sanders has recruited well and gained plenty of transfers from other schools. This will be the first season that Sanders gets to coach the players he has brought to the program.
Expect the Tigers to improve on both sides of the ball as Sanders gets to play his recruits and mix in solid players who were already with the program. This season we will learn whether Sanders can be an effective head coach or if he was just a big name and not much else.
This team has a lot of unknowns with the transfers and recruiting class that is now on campus. The Tigers may take a game or two before everything begins to click into place, but once it does, this team could be a juggernaut. Be on the lookout and watch their progress.
Sanders will start his son Shedeur Sanders at quarterback after coaching him in high school. His play will go a long way to determining how successful the Tigers are this season.
The Tigers need to keep their 35.7 per game scoring average or improve on the scoring to keep pace with other high-scoring offenses. The defense must improve on its 26 points per game average.
JSU can improve on offense after previously finishing last in time of possession and protecting the quarterback and after giving up 14 sacks to finish next to last in sacks allowed. The defense gave up 378.2 yards per game and a SWAC-high 21 touchdowns, both of which must improve this season.
JSU adds Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman University to the schedule this year as both teams join the SWAC from the MEAC. Both schools will come in and compete right away as JSU plays Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, Fla., and Bethune-Cookman will come to Jackson.
Out-of-conference games against Tennessee State University, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Delta State University will be tough tests. Winning two of the three will be important for building the program.
This season will be a success if the Tigers enter their final game against Alcorn State University in contention for a SWAC East title. Sanders getting the most out of the current and influx of talent will show his growth as a head coach.
Another disappointing season will really take the shine off the Sanders hire. The JSU fan base expects to win right now due to the program’s rich history.
Sept. 5 Florida A&M (neutral site); Sept. 11 Tennessee State (neutral site); Sept. 18 @ Louisiana Monroe; Sept. 25 Delta State; Oct. 9 @ Alabama A&M; Oct. 16 Alabama State; Oct. 23 Bethune-Cookman; Oct. 30 @ Mississippi Valley State; Nov. 6 Texas Southern; Nov. 13 @ Southern; Nov. 20 Alcorn State
University of Mississippi Rebels
Head coach: Lane Kiffin (66-39 overall, 5-5 at UM entering 2nd season)
2020 record: 5-5 overall; 4-5 SEC
Radio: 97.3 FM
Stadium: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
University of Mississippi fans had an easy time jumping on the Lane Train. New head coach Lane Kiffin brought an explosive offense to the Rebels, and his team lit up the scoreboard.
The Rebels averaged 39.2 points per game, which was third best in the SEC behind the University of Alabama and the University of Florida. UM led the SEC with 555.5 yards per game.
While the offense put up these impressively high numbers, the defense did the same—but not in a desirable way. The Rebels’ defense finished last in the SEC in points per game at 38.3 and yards per game at 519.
Turnovers were another issue for the Rebels as the team finished minus-7 on the season. Those turnovers cost UM games against Louisiana State University, University of Arkansas and Auburn University.
The Rebels needed overtime to defeat the University of Kentucky and hung on to beat Mississippi State University.
The bright spot of the season for the University of Mississippi was the Outback Bowl win over the University of Indiana when the Rebels won the turnover battle for the 26-20 win.
Kiffin gets quarterback Matt Corral back for a second season. Corral took command of the offense last season and put up impressive numbers. He threw for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns with 14 interceptions.
The offense has to replace Conerly Trophy winner Elijah Moore who has moved on to the NFL. Kiffin will have plenty of players coached up and ready to replace the missing production. Offense and scoring won’t be a problem for the Rebels as they will light up the scoreboard again in 2021.
Hopefully, the defense can’t get any worse than it was last season. That will be the biggest indicator on whether or not this team takes the next step in the SEC West. The defense has nowhere to go but up, but if it manages to perform more poorly, major changes have to be made before 2022.
UM shouldn’t have a hard time getting off to a 3-0 start with a neutral site game against the University of Louisville and two home games against Austin Peay University and Tulane University.
A road trip to Alabama is a loss even if the defense is vastly improved. That brings up an important four-game stretch: a home game against the University of Arkansas, a road trip to the University of Tennessee, a home game against Louisiana State University and a trip to Auburn University.
The Rebels would be in great shape with a split and in wonderful shape if they win three of the four games. Afterward, the team has three straight home games with Liberty University, Texas A&M University and Vanderbilt University. Winning two of the three games should be in the cards with the Texas A&M game being the most questionable match-up.
Mississippi State University awaits UM at the end of the season. Seven wins are possible, and this team could get to eight. Anything less than six wins this year will be a disappointment.
Sept. 6 Louisville (neutral site); Sept. 11 Austin Peay; Sept. 18 Tulane; Oct. 2 @ Alabama; Oct. 9 Arkansas; Oct. 16 @ Tennessee; Oct. 23 LSU; Oct. 30 @ Auburn; Nov. 6 Liberty; Nov. 13 Texas A&M; Nov. 20 Vanderbilt; Nov. 25 Mississippi State
Mississippi State University Bulldogs
Head coach: Mike Leach (143-97 overall; 4-7 MSU entering 2nd year)
2020 record: 4-7 overall; 3-7 SEC
Radio: 105.9 FM
Stadium: Davis Wade Stadium
The Mike Leach era at Mississippi State seemed to get off to a high start. The Bulldogs opened the season by shocking defending national champions LSU in the opening game of the season.
That was before the season played out ,and everyone realized both LSU and MSU weren’t in top form in 2020. The Bulldogs struggled to get the new offense going, and turnovers didn’t help the team either.
MSU would go on to lose four straight games with a close loss to Arkansas being the only defeat by seven or fewer points. The losing streak included a 22-point loss to the University of Kentucky, a 14-point loss to Texas A&M and a 41-point loss to Alabama.
The Bulldogs earned a much-needed win over Vanderbilt before going on another losing streak. MSU played better with seven-point losses to Mississippi and the University of Georgia. A 14-point loss to Auburn was the worst of the three-game losing streak.
MSU ended the season on a high by winning two consecutive games against the University of Missouri and at the Armed Forces Bowl against the University of Tulsa. Only in 2020 would a 3-7 team earn a chance at a bowl game.
Finding a quarterback that fits the system will be the biggest obstacle to success for this season. The Bulldogs finished last in the SEC in turnover margin at minus-10, with the team’s biggest problem arguably being the 18 interceptions the quarterbacks allowed to happen.
MSU placed last in the SEC in yards, accruing only 360 years for the season. Part of this blow resulted from star running back Kylin Hill opting out of the season shortly after it started, while the team being down early in games played in as another factor.
Leach doesn’t get much from his running game, but he needs to get more out of the ground game to be successful in the SEC. Finding a quarterback and running the ball more will help MSU in 2021.
The defense wasn’t terrible last season—honestly it was pretty good, to be fair—but the offense’s weaknesses put the defense in a bad situation most of the season. MSU’s defense has only a little room to slip in 2021, and if the offense is better, the team will improve its record.
Leach will have to figure out if returning starter Will Rogers or University of Southern Mississippi transfer Jack Abraham will be the starting quarterback. No matter who takes up the position, though, he will have the top four receivers from last season. Four starters on the offense line return to help with protection.
That lineup should help the offense improve over 12th place out of the 14-team SEC from last season—that is, if Leach has his starting quarterback on the roster heading into the season.
MSU finished fifth in total defense last season and will need to be rebuilt at the defensive line, but the linebackers and secondary should be solid. A middle-of-the-road defense will keep this team in games if the offense gets better.
With an improved offense, the Bulldogs could see six wins on the schedule. Out of conference games against Louisiana Tech University, North Carolina State University, University of Memphis and Tennessee State should be wins.
A trip to Vanderbilt should get this team to five wins, and the three home games to follow could end up as wins. MSU hosts LSU, Kentucky and Mississippi and should win at least one of those match-ups.
Games against Alabama and Texas A&M likely will end in defeat. Road trips to Arkansas and Auburn, the latter of whom having a new coach, could yield possible wins as well.
This team should get to a bowl game with a .500 or better record. If not, MSU fans will wonder whether they made the wrong hire in Leach. The Egg Bowl will be important for Leach because going 0-2 against Kiffin won’t make the fan base happy.
Sept. 4 Louisiana Tech; Sept. 11 NC State; Sept. 18 @ Memphis; Sept. 25 LSU; Oct. 2 @Texas A&M; Oct. 16 Alabama; Oct. 23 @ Vanderbilt; Oct. 30 Kentucky; Nov. 6 @ Arkansas; Nov. 13 @ Auburn; Nov. 20 Tennessee State; Nov. 25 Mississippi
University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Head coach: Will Hall (56-21 overall record; 1st season at USM)
2020 record: 3-7 overall; 2-4 C-USA
Radio: 105.1 FM
Stadium: M. M. Roberts Stadium
USM had a tough season when it came to coaches in 2020. Head coach Jay Hopson resigned one game into the season, and interim head coach Scotty Walden left after three games to become head coach at Austin Peay.
The offense couldn’t stay on track with all the injuries and coaching changes. The defense, while okay, did not resemble its usual strength.
Southern Miss started out 0-3 and didn’t get a win in 2020 until October, after which they experienced another three-game losing streak. Southern Miss finally got its second win in early November before losing the following game.
Despite the losses, Southern Miss ended the season with a win in the season finale. The coaching changes, struggles on offense and defense, and the pandemic didn’t help this squad. In short, 2020 was not USM’s year.
Southern Miss hired Mississippi native and rising coaching star Will Hall. It is the kind of hire that should bring both excitement and stability to the program.
Hall comes into a good situation with eight starters returning on offense.
Running back Frank Gore Jr. was a bright spot for USM last season, but the open quarterback position is where Hall has to assess his options.
Jack Abraham left for Mississippi State, but returner Trey Lowe is back after getting playing time last season. Newly transferred Tee Webb may push Lowe out of the running, though. Hall has to determine who will be the guy under center.
USM returns 10 starters on defense, which should lead to experience on that side of the ball. If the defense improves over the offseason, it could be the strength of the team.
Gore will help whoever is quarterback settle in and help an offensive line that gave up 24 sacks last season. The bulk of the receiving group returns, which will help out the quarterback that wins the starting job.
The defense couldn’t get to the quarterback last season as it only managed 16 sacks and rarely got pressure. If USM doesn’t figure out a way to get to the quarterback on defense it’s going to be another long season on that end of play.
Without the head coaching upheaval, this team should settle in early. Between COVID-19 and the coaching turnover, the Golden Eagles experienced too much turmoil on the field. This season should feel more normal to the program.
If USM fixes many of the issues the team faced during 2020 or if both sides of the ball improve over last season, Southern Miss could make a comeback this year. The schedule does not look too difficult, except for a trip to Alabama that will likely be a loss.
USM gets an easy start with the University of South Alabama, Grambling State University and Troy University. That could be a 3-0 or 2-1 start for the Golden Eagles before the trip to Crimson Tide.
Southern Miss begins C-USA play with winnable games at Rice University and University of Texas at El Paso. A home game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham will go a long way to tell how good this team will be in 2021.
Middle Tennessee State University and the University of North Texas should serve as attainable wins. Back-to-back games against the University of Texas at San Antonio and Louisiana Tech will be tests for USM, though. The season finale against Florida International University should be a win.
This feels like a team that could surprise a few opponents on the schedule. An eight-win season wouldn’t be a shock after the horrible 2020 season. But, USM has a reputation for losing to a team it shouldn’t lose against.
Getting to six or seven wins, though, feels feasible. The Golden Eagles were sixth in total offense and eighth in total defense last season. Improvement on both sides of the ball should move the win total from three last year to six or better this season.
USM has reached a bowl game since 2019 but that should change this season. Hall might not be around at Southern Miss long if he can make a quick turnaround, as bigger programs will come calling, but he has a chance to fix this program before he goes.
Sept. 4 @ South Alabama; Sept. 11 Grambling State; Sept. 18 Troy; Sept. 25 @ Alabama; Oct. 2 @ Rice; Oct. 9 UTEP; Oct. 16 UAB; Oct. 30 @ Middle Tennessee; Nov. 6 North Texas; Nov. 13 UTSA; Nov. 19 Louisiana Tech; Nov. 27 FIU
Alcorn State University Braves
2020 Record: Opted out of 2020 season
Outlook and Prediction:
Alcorn State University opted out of the 2020 spring season, making the Braves the only SWAC team to sit out as the other members of the conference played last season.
Conference officials thereby forced ASU to forfeit every game last season. By not playing, the Braves broke its string of six-straight SWAC East titles.
Alcorn State moves from the East to the West as the conference adds two new teams in Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. Now, ASU will try to start a new winning streak in the West Division.
While members of the media picked The Braves to win the West, no ASU players were selected to either the first or second team Preseason All-SWAC. Alcorn State plays eight of its 11 games on the road or at a neutral site.
If ASU can handle being road warriors, this team has the talent to win the West. Four straight road games in October to early November could make or break this season.
Aug. 28 North Carolina Central (neutral site); Sept. 11 Northwestern State; Sept. 18 @ South Alabama; Sept. 23 @ Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Oct. 9 Grambling State; Oct. 16 @ Mississippi Valley State; Oct. 23 Texas Southern; Oct. 30 @ Southern; Nov. 6 Bethune-Cookman; Nov. 13 Prairie View A&M; Nov. 20 @ Jackson State
Mississippi Valley State University Delta Devils
2020 Record: 1-3 overall, 1-3 SWAC
Outlook and prediction:
Mississippi Valley State University won just one game last season. That win came against Alcorn State because the Braves opted out of the spring season. The rest of the schedule was lost due to COVID-19.
MVSU has had a tough time earning wins, even under near-optimal circumstances. Winning during a season bombarded by a pandemic has proven just about impossible. The closest the school came to victory this past season was their seven-point loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
While coaches and some members of the media have picked MVSU to finish last in the SWAC East next season, the Delta Devils will give their all on the field.
Coaches and media did name three MVSU players onto the Preseason All-SWAC team, though: cornerback Caleb Brunson in the First-Team All-SWAC and both running back Caleb Johnson and defensive lineman Jerry Gardner in Second-Team All-SWAC.
Winning one game would be a great sign for this program. A great season would be winning three or four games and getting football going in the right direction for the school.
Sept. 2 @ Murray State; Sept. 18 @ Stephen F. Austin; Sept. 26 Southern (in Jackson, MS); Oct. 2 North Carolina Central; Oct. 9 @ Bethune-Cookman; Oct. 16 Alcorn State; Oct. 23 Florida A&M; Oct. 30 Jackson State; Nov. 6 @ Alabama A&M Nov. 13 Alabama State; Nov. 27 Prairie View A&M
Delta State University Statesmen
2020 Record: 0-0 due to COVID-19
Outlook and prediction:
Last season, the Gulf South Conference cancelled the fall football season due ot COVID-19. A few conference teams played some spring games but the Statesmen chose not to play.
In 2019, DSU went 6-4 overall and 5-3 in the GSC, the season ending with a loss to Mississippi College. The Statesmen will have to deal with returning to football after a year away from playing.
Expect the Statesmen to be rusty to start. The good news for DSU is that the team gets to play its first two games of the season at home. One of the five road games is a trip to Jackson to play Jackson State University.
Delta State is nearly always a solid program year in and year out. It would be a shock for this program to come back and not compete in every game. Expect a winning season, but watch how the team responds to returning to the field.
Sept. 2 Bethel University; Sept. 11 McKendree University; Sept. 18 @ West Georgia; Sept. 25 @ Jackson State; Oct. 2 West Florida; Oct. 9 @ Valdosta State; Oct. 16 North Greenville; Oct. 23 @ West Alabama; Oct. 30 Shorter; Nov. 6 Mississippi College; Nov. 13 @ West Georgia
2020 record: 0-1 (played just a single game)
Outlook and prediction:
Mississippi College played just one game in the spring of 2021 against Tarleton State University. MC was blown out 39-14 in their lone game and now await a full season of play this fall.
In the last full season of 2019, MC went 5-5 overall—winning 5-0 at home but losing 0-5 on the road. If this year’s version of the team can hold their advantage at home and do better during away games, they could be in the title mix.
MC gets its first three games at home, and that should help as the team tries to shake off any accrued rust from not playing much during the last season. The team plays six of its 10 games at home this year but end the season with two road games.
If MC can go undefeated at home again it will finish with a winning record. Winning a couple of road games will show this team has improved and upgraded its talent after moving from Division III to Division II.
Sept. 2 Albany State Sept. 18 Fort Lauderdale; Sept. 25 West Alabama; Oct. 2 @ North Greenville; Oct. 9 West Georgia; Oct. 16 @ Shorter; Oct. 23 Valdosta State; Oct. 30 West Florida; Nov. 6 @ Delta State: Nov. @ West Alabama
Belhaven University Blazers
2020 record: 3-2 overall; 2-2 ASC
Outlook and prediction:
Belhaven University experienced a slow start to the spring 2021 season. The Blazers began with an 0-2 record after blowout losses to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and East Texas Baptist University.
However, Belhaven bounced back, winning three straight wins over Louisiana College, Southwestern University and Howard Payne University to end the season, securing the Blazers their first winning season since 2012.
Head coach Blaine McCorkle earned the American Southwest Conference Coach of the Year title for his efforts. The three straight wins also marked the longest winning streak Belhaven has held since 2012. McCorkle will try to lead the team into a second consecutive winning season in his fourth year with the university.
Belhaven plays the first two games at home, with a two-game road trip at the end of October that could determine the outcome of McCorkle’s efforts.
Sept. 2 Millsaps College; Sept. 11 Southwestern University; Sept. 18 @ Hardin-Simmons; Sept. 25 Austin College; Oct. 2 @ Texas Lutheran; Oct. 16 Sul Ross State; Oct. 23 @ Howard Payne; Oct. 30 @ Mary Hardin-Baylor; Nov. 6 McMurry; Nov. 13 @ East Texas Baptist
Millsaps College Majors
2020 record: 1-3 overall; 0-3 SAA
Outlook and prediction:
Millsaps College started the short spring season 0-3 with each loss coming by 10 points or more. The Majors gave up an average of 28.5 points per game and were outscored 74-34 in the only two home games of the season.
The February weather more than likely did not make the games easy to play. Fortunately, Millsaps gets to return to the normal fall conditions in which players are accustomed to playing.
Millsaps get to play five of their 10 games at home with a short trip to play Belhaven as its one road game. The
Majors need to play better at home where they went 0-2 last season.
After a rough spring season, it would be nice for the Majors to rebound and go .500 with a 5-5 record. Winning three to four games should lay the groundwork for better seasons to come.
Sept. 2 @ Belhaven; Sept. 18 @ Southwest Assemblies of God University; Sept. 25 Olivet College; Oct. 2 @ Rhodes College; Oct. 9 Berry College; Oct. 16 @ Trinity University; Oct.23 Centre College; Oct. 30 Swanee; Nov. 6 @ Hendrix College; Nov. 13 Birmingham-Southern College
Hinds Community College Eagles
2020 Record: 3-1 overall, 3-1 MACCC
Outlook and prediction:
Hinds Community College played just a four-game season last fall. The Eagles won a perfect 3-0 at home with the lone loss coming on the road after when the competing teams went into overtime.
Expect the Eagles to be strong this season. Playing a full schedule with a slight trajectory toward normalcy should help players in practice and games.
Hinds should be in the mix for a title all season. But the junior colleges in our state are some of the best in the country and staying undefeated is a hard task.
Sept. 2 @ Coahoma; Sept. 9 Holmes; Sept. 16 @ Northeast Mississippi; Sept. 23 Mississippi Gulf Coast; Sept. 30 @ Jones; Oct. 7 Copiah-Lincoln; Oct. 14 @ Southwest Mississippi; Oct. 21 East Central; Oct. 28 @ Pearl River
Holmes Community College Bulldogs
2020 Record: 0-5 overall; 0-5 MACCC
Outlook and prediction:
The 2020 season hit Holmes Community College hard. The Bulldogs had games moved and cancelled just like every other team. Some teams were able to handle the constant changes better than others.
With conditions more closely resembling pre-pandemic levels than last year’s season, the Bulldogs should respond better. That doesn’t mean the team will go undefeated, but it should win some games this season.
Holmes should earn four or five wins but could find itself overachieving by winning six or more games if the wind blows in their favor.
Sept. 2 Mississippi Gulf Coast; Sept. 9 @ Hinds; Sept. 16 Northwest Mississippi; Sept. 23 @ East Mississippi; Sept. 30 Coahoma; Oct. 7 @ Pearl River; Oct. 14 @ Itawamba; Oct. 21 Mississippi Delta; Oct. 21 @ Northeast Mississippi