Michigan, Baylor and Utah State went a combined 5-16 in the abbreviated 2020 college football season. Predictably, this knocked all three programs off of the radar screen entering the 2021 season. Embattled head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan picked up a smattering of preseason AP Top 25 votes but were picked fourth in the Big Ten East. Baylor was voted eighth in the Big 12, closer to last-place Kansas than the top half of the conference. Utah State, under new head coach Blake Anderson, was voted fifth in the Mountain West's Mountain Division, far closer to last-place New Mexico than the rest of the pack.
All three won their respective conferences in 2021, going a combined 35-7 overall.
Michigan and Baylor both finished in the AP top 5 -- UM's first in 22 years, BU's first ever -- while Utah State finished ranked for just the fourth time in school history. And after improving from four to seven wins in 2020, Texas-San Antonio not only sustained its gains in Jeff Traylor's second season in charge, the Roadrunners surged again, leaping to 12-2 and a Conference USA title.
These teams were all among the most pleasant surprises of the 2021 season. But if you looked at the right numbers beforehand, you wouldn't have been completely surprised.
Each year, I take a look at the teams most likely to rebound from frustrating seasons and the teams most likely to sustain growth from a positive season. Michigan, Baylor and Utah State all appeared on the former list in 2021, while UTSA appeared on the latter. Who qualifies for this year's lists? Let's find out!