There are two things each offseason that I look forward almost as much as spring practice reports and fall camp, and they both happened in the last few days. The first item is the ACC released the league schedules for the 2021 season, giving us both the ability to plan and dream as much as we want for the next eight months.
Before we move on, I do have a small gripe that it appears we’re resuming the traditional six divisional, two crossover opponents schedule instead of a vastly superior, round robbin-schedule similar to the one we saw this past season. But that is a conversation for another day and for much nerdier people to argue about. All I’m saying is playing Virginia Tech, our closest ACC foe, once every seven years is extremely stupid. Hopefully there are some new changes with the new commissioner.
As for my second favorite off season rite of passage, former SBNation and current ESPN writer Bill Connelly released his returning production rankings for the 2021 season. This, aside from Connelly’s SP+ rating system, is one of the most impressive things he puts together. Instead of just taking the number of returning starters versus starters lost and then saying, “bam, rankings” Connelly takes the entire practice miles further by using a returning production formula that “looks at the most predictive key personnel stats — the numbers that have the most impact on improvement or regression from season to season.”
This year’s edition of these rankings is behind ESPN+ paywall, so in the spirit of not getting sued I’m going to omit sharing Bill’s formula for this year here. Just know it’s brilliant and it weighs certain position groups more heavily than others (i.e. o-line > running backs). An easy way to understand how this works is if you imagine that in 2017 UofL returned 10 of its 11 starters from the 2016 offense. Sounds great right? Well what if the starter that doesn’t return is Lamar Jackson. You get the idea.
To further illustrate the importance of returning production, take for example the 2016 UofL Cardinals. Heading into the 2016 season Louisville ranked 1st in Connelly’s returning production rankings. Guess what? That team was extremely good (until everything blew up in our faces and got ruined). And in 2019, although UofL was coming off a disastrous 2-10 season, the Cardinals ranked 24th in returning production. And what happened? Good things happened.
(Don’t ask me what our ranking was heading into 2020 because it’s only going to piss me off more. You can look yourself here at your own risk).
So, you get the idea: returning production is extremely important and is usually a great indicator of how an upcoming season is going to go.
Now let’s combine these two fun things and take an early gander at what we might expect from our 2021 foes based on their returning production rankings. Again, this article is behind a paywall, so if you want to see the other 115 teams Connelly ranked you’re going to have to shell out $6. I mean, if you haven’t already done so, how else are you watching Bellarmine and the international hand ball tournament?
Let’s start with the good guys. The 2021 Louisville Cardinals rank 93rd overall in returning production with 61% of the team’s 2020 production returning. The offense checks in at 61st with 73% of its production returning, and the defense 114th with 50% returning.
God bless you, Bryan Brown.
As for the bad guys…
Week 1: September 6th, Ole Miss – #22 overall returning production (81%), Offense #44 (78%), Defense #20 (83%)
This is game in Atlanta on Labor Day is going to be an interesting one. Ole Miss had an okay first season with Lane Kiffin at the helm as they went 5-5 and were the only team in the country that played Alabama remotely close. Following up a decent season with coaching continuity and a team that ranks in the Top 25 in returning production is good news for Rebel Land Shark Bear fans. What’s more is that the offense was more than fine last season, and it’s the defense that needs work. Luckily for them the defense has a good foundation to build on with 83% of its production coming back.
Week 2: September 11th, EKU – N/A
Week 3: September 17th, UCF – #74 Overall (68%), Offense #59 (74%), Defense #91 (62%)
Can someone remind me why we scheduled this team? I’m not looking forward it, especially when it’ll be our third game in 11 days. I guess if there’s any good news about this awful idea is that UCF just lost their head coach to Tennessee and their returning production numbers aren’t out of this world. But still. Not a fan.
Week 4: September 25th, @FSU – #53 Overall (73%), Offense #25 (84%), Defense #90 (62%)
FSU had a hell of a 2020 season, and not in a good way. They didn’t even get to start the season before there were issues within the program, and the on-field results weren’t any better. They return a good amount from their pretty bad offense, but they return on 62% from their defense that finished #85 in SP+. Good luck, ‘Noles.
Week 5: October 2nd, @ Wake Forest – #18 Overall (81%), Offense #8 (88%), Defense #54 (74%)
Wake’s 4-5 campaign in 2020 was certainly a disappointing one following the success of 2019. And beating them handily was a great way to cap off UofL’s season and send the seniors out on a good note. But the Demon Deacon’s have some great numbers going for them in terms of what they return, especially on offense. Looking forward to them being a pain in the ass once again.
Week 6: October 9th, Virginia – #77 Overall (66%), Offense #63 (72%), Defense #95 (61%)
Virginia was a very weird team to try and figure out last year and their returning numbers don’t really help either. They ranked #55 and #57 in SP+ offense and defense, respectively, and they don’t bring back a heck of a whole lot from either unit. Looks like Bronco may need another year to rebuild before they can get back to where they were in 2019. Who knows, though?
Week 8: October 23rd, Boston College – #47 Overall (75%), Offense #22 (84%), Defense #79 (66%)
Jeff Hafley had a fantastic first season in Chestnut Hill last year and based on what they return the program should continue to rise. The high flying offense was the big story for BC last year, finishing #48 in SP+. With so much returning, it’s hard to imagine BC not taking another step forward. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles make some noise this year and Hafley gets some serious buzz.
Week 9: October 30th, @NC State – #44 Overall (76%), Offense #83 (63%), Defense #6 (90%)
NCST quietly had a solid 8-4 season last year that likely saved Dave Doeren’s job. Neither unit was particularly outstanding last year, with both finishing in the 60s and 50s, but it seems like the program has some good momentum going and with the insane amount they return on defense they should be just fine.
Week 10: November 6th, Clemson – #65 Overall (69%), Offense #118 (46%), Defense #3 (92%)
Clemson’s returning virtually nothing on offense. Doesn’t matter. Also, don’t look at their defense’s numbers.
Week 11: November 13th, Syracuse – #26 Overall (80%), Offense #26 (83%), Defense #45 (76%)
The Orange had an abysmal 2020 season and it’s unfortunately placed Dino Babers firmly on the hot seat. Hopefully with what they have coming back Dino can keep his job, but still suck enough for Louisville to beat them at home for the third season in a row.
Week 12: November 20th, @Duke – #104 Overall (56%), Offense #110 (51%), Defense #92 (62%)
Duke was very bad in 2020, and I’m afraid it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better. We may be in the early stages of Duke returning to the mid-2000s Blue Devils no one deserves to watch. There are seriously rumors that the only reason Cutcliffe hasn’t been asked to retire at this point is because there’s the smallest chance that he can pull Eli Manning’s son, Arch Manning, to Raleigh in 2023. It’s not going to happen, but Duke is going to let the program crater again as long as there is a chance.
Week 13: November 27th, Kentucky – #98 Overall (60%), Offense #87 (60%), Defense #97 (60%)
Everything was doom and gloom in Lexington until Kentucky went bowling with a losing record and beat NCST in the Gator Bowl. Ever since the Kentucky football hype train has been as loud as we’re used to hearing it during any offseason for the last 30 years. But I’ll give the Cats credit, there is certainly some good reasons to be optimistic. Eddie Gran is gone, and they’ve replaced him with what looks to be a solid hire in the LA Rams’ QB coach, Liam Coen. Couple that with pulling Wan’Dale Robinson back from Nebraska and a decent recruiting class, and BBN has some things to get their hopes up about. But where I would pump the brakes is with those numbers listed above. Kentucky’s offense was nonexistent last season, and the only reason they didn’t lose more games was because of the way their defense stepped up, especially towards the end of the season. With so much gone from that unit, I’m having a hard time seeing Kentucky get to 8-9 wins like their fans are expecting. The only way I see UK getting anywhere close to that kind of season is if Coen is able to find a QB and get the offense humming. Asking an that barely showed any signs of life last season to carry the entire team is going to be a tall task.
Looking at all these numbers, UofL’s schedule shakes out decently. Six teams rank worse than 50th in the country, with five ranking better than 50th. Doesn’t get much more balanced than that, and luckily the teams that rank in the Top 50 aren’t the most daunting.
Should be a doozy.