Why Penn State, Kansas State, Ole Miss and six other rebound college football teams could be for real

The unprecedented challenges of the 2020 college football season hit some teams harder than others.

Last fall, Penn State started 0-5 for the first time in team history. Michigan State beat its archrival and a division winner, but was outscored 202-70 in its other five games. Teams, such as Kansas State, went through waves of COVID-19 outbreaks and other personnel challenges.

The circumstances in 2020 made 2021 even harder to predict. But several teams that struggled through some or all of last fall are surging to begin the season.

To be clear, three weeks of college football isn't enough to make declarative statements about anything. There's still plenty of time for 3-0 teams to crater.

"You don't know what anything means right now, it doesn't really mean s---," a coordinator from a team that now sits at 3-0 told me last week. "But sometimes you look back and say it meant a lot, too, so you just never know. It's a crazy part of the season."

This is what we know: Several 3-0 teams that struggled last year seem poised to sustain. Some might challenge for conference titles and the College Football Playoff. Others should be tough to beat the rest of the season.

After watching one of those teams live Saturday night in Happy Valley, and surveying coaches about the others, here's a look at the potential breakthrough teams of 2021 and why they can continue to win.