Is the 2021 college football season the one the prophecy foretold of? Is 2021 the season that will finally bring drama and intrigue to the College Football Playoff race all season long? It's certainly looking that way, isn't it?
Over the weekend, we saw No. 1 Alabama struggle to hold on against then-No. 11 Florida, winning by only two. For some reason, No. 3 Oklahoma decided to be the first good team in recent memory to look mediocre against Nebraska. No. 6 Clemson continued looking as flawed as ever in a strange -- and weather-delayed -- win over Georgia Tech. Then there was No. 9 Ohio State, which responded to its loss to Oregon by being in a one-score game against Tulsa at home in the fourth quarter.
The four programs that have dominated the CFP era of the sport -- they are responsible for 20 of the 28 playoff berths in the first seven seasons -- have never looked more vulnerable during it. Their struggles have led to a national narrative that the 2021 season could mark the first time since the first College Football Playoff in 2014 where the four-team field doesn't include at least three of these programs. Of course, we'll ignore the fact that if the season ended now, the field would still be Alabama, Oklahoma and two teams that have reached the playoff before in Georgia and Oregon, because that's not the point. College football's national title race has become so hopelessly predictable that even the idea of Georgia and Oregon being in the title race has a "Cinderella" feel to it.
Of course, there's a long way to go between now and the playoff. Our four struggling regulars are all going through an interesting phase that we shouldn't ignore. Due to COVID, players were all given a free year of eligibility, which led to many veteran rosters spread throughout the country. That's working out well for the non-elite tier early, but teams like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma send players to the NFL every season. While they've always been able to reload, reloading is a lot easier when every program in the country is forced to do it. In 2021, that's not the case, and I will not be surprised if those four become the powers once they settle in again.
Still, we can dream, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this season could be one of the more memorable when it comes to upsets overall. Through three weeks (plus Week Zero), we have already seen 11 teams ranked in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 lose a game. The most top 15 teams to lose during September in the CFP era has been 12 in 2016 and 2018. Taking it a step further, five of those 11 losses by top 15 teams have come against unranked teams, which ties both the 2016 and 2018 seasons as the most losses by top 15 teams against unranked opponents in September, and we still have another week to play in September 2021.
Here's a table for you visual learners. We'll leave 2020 out since there were ranked teams who didn't play in September, in case you needed another reminder of how stupid last season was.
|September||Top 15 Overall||Win Percentage||Top 15 vs Unranked||Win Percentage|
Again, it's still only September, and this could all change. In fact, you might even wonder if this is a result of more conference games played in September than ever before. September used to be a month of a few headline games between highly-ranked teams and a billion games between highly-ranked teams and schools just there to take a beating and go home with a check that would allow the school to have a volleyball program too. If only we had a table to compare such games for that too. Wait! We do!
Here's a table for September games involving the top 15 teams against conference opponents.
Sept. vs. Conference
Top 15 Overall
Top 15 vs Unranked
It appears that we might finally be approaching something resembling parity in the college football world. There's a long way to go in the season, and I have no doubt in my mind that, now that this has been pointed out, the top 15 teams will go 13-0 this weekend. For now, the hope remains.
The 2021 college football season could be the one we've all been waiting for.
Division of the Week
Along the same line of thought, the Big Ten East is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in college football this season. Ohio State has dominated the division and Big Ten recently, but after the Buckeyes struggled to get by Tulsa -- don't let the 41-20 score fool you, it was 27-20 Ohio State with three minutes to play, and there was a pick six in the final two minutes to ice the game -- you're almost left to wonder if the Buckeyes are genuinely the favorite to win the division.
A few hours after Ohio State's shaky win, No. 10 Penn State took down No. 22 Auburn at home 28-20. Earlier in the day, Michigan State remained perfect by beating No. 24 Miami 38-17 on the road. No. 25 Michigan ran all over Northern Illinois 63-10 a week after beating Washington by 21. Coming into the season, I was trying to figure out if any team in the division was capable of challenging the Buckeyes. It turns out there are three.
This is great news for the Big Ten in the long-term, even if it could put their 2021 playoff hopes in jeopardy.
Catch of the Week
I'm sure you've already seen the one-handed interception by Oklahoma's D.J. Graham against Nebraska, but one time isn't enough. Spend an hour here watching it repeatedly if you like. Nobody will judge you for it.
Cult Hero of the Week
In this day and age of social media and nearly every game being televised across the country, it's hard to feel like you've discovered a secret as a college football fan. Still, even if it isn't real, you get that feeling from time to time, and it's one of the best feelings a college football fan can have.
I felt it late Saturday night into early Sunday morning. Fresno State has already proven to be a pain in the butt this season, as the Bulldogs nearly went into Autzen Stadium and beat Oregon. On Saturday night, they went into the Rose Bowl and beat No. 13 UCLA 40-37 behind a performance from quarterback Jake Haener you typically only see in action movies.
Well after midnight on the east coast, on a network few people on the west coast have in their homes, Haener was treated like a crash-test dummy by the UCLA defense. But it didn't matter. The (generously listed) 6-foot-1, 195-pound Haener would take a hit, pick himself and any remaining body parts off the ground, pop limbs back into place, and then throw a strike to keep the drive alive. He did it repeatedly while most of college football Twitter scrambled to find a stream of the game so they could witness the heroics for themselves.
In the end, Haener -- a transfer from Washington -- found Jalen Cropper for a 13-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left to win the game for the Bulldogs. Haener finished with 455 yards passing, and possibly 13 contusions as the Bulldogs improved to 3-1 and cracked this week's AP Poll at No. 22. I'll always consider myself lucky to be one of the few to witness it.
Stock Advice of the Week
BUY -- Utah State: In college football, we spend too much time focusing on the Power Five conferences and the College Football Playoff. It becomes an arms race among the elite to acquire talent because it separates the best from the also-rans. But not everybody can acquire that talent, which brings me to Utah State.
Utah State is not what anybody would consider an exceptionally talented team. According to 247Sports Team Talent rankings, the Aggies rank 108th nationally and ninth in the Mountain West in overall team talent. But it hasn't mattered in 2021, as the Aggies are 3-0 and have won outright as underdogs twice. Why? Well, because the Aggies play their asses off. Blake Anderson's in his first year at the program, and he's got this team playing hard on every single snap, and it is paying dividends. It's hard to imagine the Aggies will win their division this season, but they've already matched their preseason win total projection of three.
HOLD -- Florida: We have a tendency in this sport to overrate teams after a loss when they play better than expected. Florida was a two-touchdown underdog to Alabama on Saturday, and it lost by two points. Any time somebody can make Alabama look mortal, it's only going to inflate their stock even further, and I know I'm feeling good about the Gators right now. It's not just that they kept it close; it's that they were whipping Alabama's butt in the trenches for most of the game too. We don't see a lot of that!
But I'm not going to buy a bunch of Florida stock just yet. It's clear the Gators were saving some stuff from their first two games against South Florida and FAU because they didn't want it on tape for Alabama. I want to see if the Gators can maintain that level of performance going forward before I fully buy-in.
SELL -- SEC Officials: Fans in every conference believe the officials that work their games are the worst in the country, but the SEC put a strong claim in for the worst officials over the weekend. The SEC crew that worked Mississippi State's loss to Memphis botched things so badly that it led to one of the most hilarious officiating statements I've ever had the pleasure to read before.
Then, as if making all those mistakes on one play wasn't bad enough, the SEC officials working Penn State and Auburn lost track of downs and forced Penn State to punt on a third down. After a terrible intentional grounding call on Penn State QB Sean Clifford, the officials mistakenly marked second down as a third down, and then after a five-yard pass, the Nittany Lions were told it was fourth-and-11 when it was really third-and-11. It was the worst of a series of bad calls by the officials, but thankfully it didn't impact the final result. Unlike in Memphis' victory over Mississippi State.
Eye Black of the Week
OK, maybe I'm an idiot, but USC QB Jaxson Dart's eye black has me convinced that USC is BACK.
College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
Until the next Monday After!