College football super seniors could change fortunes in 2021

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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Bret Bielema saw a unique opportunity to accelerate a turnaround at Illinois when he returned to college football as head coach of the Illini in December.

The NCAA’s decision to grant every fall sport athlete who played through the pandemic an extra season of eligibility meant Illinois could bring back a large group experienced players to be the foundation of Bielema’s first team in Champaign.

Schools are not obligated to bring back those players and give them scholarships, but Bielema said he made it clear at his first team meeting that all were welcome.

“And I wasn’t going to do it based on watching a bunch of film and deciding who I thought could or couldn’t play or who should or shouldn’t have an opportunity,” Bielema said. “If you’re in that room you’re part of the Illini family and we’re in this together.”

As major college football returns to normal in 2021, one of the lingering effects of the pandemic season will be the return of hundreds of extra, older players who choose to stick around for another year. With spring practice approaching, more than 1,000 scholarship players are expected to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility mulligan, according to an Associated Press review of rosters provided by 129 schools.

The number of these super seniors on each team is subject to change and likely to go down as players continue to assess the value of an playing extra year of college football, but their presence is likely to have a major impact on the 2021 season.

ESPN’s SP+ power rankings use returning production (everything from yards and points scored to tackles and interceptions) to project how teams will do in the coming season. Bill Connelly, who created SP+, said there will be more returning production across college football in 2021 than in any year since he started tracking it in 2014.

Connelly said on The AP Top 25 College Football Podcast the typical national average for returning production among FBS teams is about 62% per team. As rosters continue to come together, with transfers still finding homes for next season, the national average for returning production has already topped 70% per team.

“Everybody’s like eight to 10 (percentage points) higher because they’re returning more seniors, because all the seniors got a chance at an extra year of eligibility,” Connelly said.

Normally, the top teams in returning production will be around 87%, Connelly said. Currently, three teams are expected to have more than 90% of their production from 2020 back in 2021.

Leading the way was Louisiana-Lafayette at 96%. UCLA and Miami were both at 91%. Lafayette (Levi Lewis) and Miami (D’Eriq King) each has a quarterback who will be a super senior.

As of this past weekend, Illinois expects to have 17 scholarship super seniors, the most of any Power Five school.

“What I wouldn’t give to be able to play another season in Memorial Stadium, packed to the brim with 60,000 Fighting Illini. That’s all I want right now,” said tackle Alex Palczewski, one of three returning starters along the offensive line for the Illini who will be super seniors.

For a program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2011 and has reached the postseason just twice in that time, the hope is that Palczewski, fellow linemen Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe and the super senior class will power a long awaited breakthrough in Champaign.

Athletic director Josh Whitman said bringing back the super seniors will cost Illinois about $500,000 on top of typical football expenses, mostly in additional financial aid. The Illini expect to have about 92 scholarship players this season.

“As we looked at it, the chance to capitalize on their return and really continue our progress on the football field was really a cost well worth it given what we think the upside of that will be,” Whitman said.

The NCAA ruled super seniors will not count next season toward the Bowl Subdivision cap of 85 scholarship players per team. As of now, athletes using their COVID-19 year of eligibility after 2021-22 will count toward scholarship and roster limits in all NCAA sports.

At New Mexico, 14 super seniors will keep the Lobos from being well under the scholarship limit in coach Danny Gonzales’ second season.

Gonzales inherited a lopsided roster in 2020, heavy with upperclassmen and junior college transfers and thin on freshmen (four) and sophomores (nine) on scholarship. If not for the super seniors, the Lobos might have barely cracked 70 scholarship players in 2021.

“I was really worried about the second year when I first took the job … but this will definitely will help to us be more competitive than we would have been,” said Gonzales, whose team won its final two games of 2020 to finish 2-5 in the Mountain West.

Texas Tech coach Matt Wells said his plan for success in Lubbock has been “get old and stay old.”

Wells is looking to his super seniors to play a major part in turnaround season after the Red Raiders went 8-14 his first two years in the Big 12.

Texas Tech has seven returning starters among 10 super seniors, including defensive back Eric Monroe and linebacker Colin Schooler. Those two arrived in Lubbock as transfers late last summer and were thrown into action with little time to get acclimated.

“The super seniors coming back are absolutely part of that formula for building this program where we are at right now,” Well said. “That leadership, maturity and experience, it’s hard to gain through a young player.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.