In what feels like the blink of an eye, we’re already through week 8 of the 2021 college football season. It has certainly been a fun season, of course, but it’s more than halfway done.
While this weekend wasn’t viewed as a great slate of games (that’s next weekend), there were actually quite a few exciting matchups and a few big-time upsets to boot. There probably should have been even more upsets, with Oklahoma and Oregon barely escaping with road wins.
7 of the top 25 teams were on bye this week, and we still got to see 5 of the 18 ranked teams in action lose.
Undoubtedly the play of the week was this by Caleb Williams:
I have never seen anything like this before. You see the Kansas defender right after just staring in disbelief, like WTF just happened? The refs had to review it to make sure it was legal, and I’m sure they were just as shocked by the play as everybody else was.
We’re talking about a 4th & 1 play from OU’s own 46. The run got blown up. Kansas stopped it. They had him. It was going to be Kansas ball with a chance to take the lead with 3:20 to play in the game. And Williams literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat here. Now I thought the refs should maybe have blown the play dead before Williams was even able to take the ball away, because the runner’s forward progress had stopped, but then again, Williams went in there and got the ball real quickly. It was an extremely heads-up play to say the least. This dude Caleb Williams is a special player, I have to give it to him. Spencer Rattler is growing more irrelevant by the week.
Now, on to the action:
- Georgia: bye week.
- ✅ Cincinnati, W, 27-20 at Navy: It was a close one–Navy got an onside kick with under a minute to go with a chance to tie the game, but Cincy picked off the ball and that was the ballgame. The Bearcats (what is a bearcat by the way?) were favored by 28 points in this game. Cincy cannot afford to have close games like this because they’ll get punished for it. Cincy will not get the benefit of the doubt from the pollsters and the committee, and I could even see them falling the AP Poll after this. All that really matters for Cincy is winning out and winning big in the process. The official CFP rankings will come out in the next couple weeks and we’ll finally be able to see what the committee thinks of Cincy.
- ✅ Oklahoma, W, 35-23 at Kansas: Oklahoma is starting to get annoying. They are not good. They should have like 4 losses right now. College football is not like the NFL where all that matters is getting the win, no matter how close or how ugly. If you win ugly in college football, it means you’re not that good. Oklahoma was losing this game 10-0 at halftime. Kansas is one of the worst teams in the Power Five, and possibly even the worst team. Kansas was 1-5 coming into the game with their only win being a close 17-14 win week 1 over South Dakota. They went 0-9 last year, 3-9 in 2019, 3-9 in 2018, and 1-11 in 2017. 8-44 since the start of the 2017 season. They haven’t played in a bowl game since 2008. I don’t care how disinterested Oklahoma was in the game, they should have been able to sleepwalk through this game, and instead they had to fight for their life in it. If not for that insane play where Caleb Williams ripped the ball out of his running back’s hands to run for a first down on 4th down, Kansas might have actually won that game. It was 4th down at the OU 46! Kansas had the running back wrapped up and it was going to be a turnover. Somebody is going to expose this Oklahoma team. I’ve been saying it for weeks now but it is going to happen. They are asking for it.
- ✅ Alabama, 52-31, vs. Tennessee: This one was a little more interesting than I thought it would be. Bama was leading 21-14 at halftime, and Tennessee was kind of moving the ball pretty well in the first half. It was even 24-17 going into the 4th quarter before Bama started piling it on like crazy. I know Tennessee is mainly known this year for their fans throwing shit at Lane Kiffin last week, but they’re not actually that bad of a team. They had a chance to beat Ole Miss last week, and their other losses are to Pitt (41-34) and Florida, (38-14). Tennessee has some played a tough schedule. By no means am I saying Tennessee is good or anything but they’re not a doormat. Bama has no more margin for error this season; they have to win the rest of their games in order to make it to the playoff, and fortunately for them they have reeling LSU, then New Mexico State the next two weeks. But then they host Arkansas and travel to Auburn. They should win those games, but it’s going to be a cakewalk by any stretch.
- ✅ Ohio State, W, 54-7 at Indiana: They should have just called this game at halftime. It was 44-7 and there was a torrential downpour happening. Even when Ohio State pulled their starters, their second-stringers were still better than Indiana. It’s kinda crazy to think this Indiana team, which is now 2-5, was ranked to start the season. First time since 1969 Indiana has been ranked in the preseason. Clearly that was wrong, although they have had to deal with a lot of injuries this year. And they did give Cincinnati some trouble last month. Now comes the real portion of the schedule for Ohio State. Penn State in Columbus is next week, although Penn State looks a lot less scary after losing to Illinois at home today. Then you have two of what I consider to be the biggest trap games on Ohio State’s schedule: at Nebraska, and then hosting Purdue. We already saw what Purdue did to Iowa, although that was on the road and Purdue just got smoked this week by Wisco. I think Ohio State should be kind of worried about Nebraska, though. Nebraska is starving for a big upset signature win of the Scott Frost era. Desperate for it. They almost beat Oklahoma earlier this year, they almost beat Michigan, they almost beat Michigan State. Yes, they’re 3-5, but all 5 losses were one-possession final scores. I think Ohio State is just way too much for them, but that is a serious trap game. Ohio State has looked like the best offense in the nation, even though their schedule has been weak. I give them the benefit of the doubt because I know they’re loaded talent-wise. CJ Stroud missed a few throws in the game, but the monsoon-level rain probably had a lot to do with that. He also had some really pretty throws as well. I’m not saying Stroud is better than Justin Fields, but the Ohio State offense looks even better than it did last year. They still need to prove it against quality competition, however.
- ✅ Michigan, W, 33-7 vs. Northwestern: This game was just 10-7 at halftime, but Michigan really poured it on in the second half. Northwestern has regressed quite a bit this year after making it to the Big Ten Championship last year and playing Ohio State pretty tough, and they even have a 56-7 loss to Nebraska on their resume right now, so this isn’t that big a win for Michigan. But what’s encouraging for the Wolverines is that it looks like they finally have some explosiveness on offense: their running backs combined for 294 yards on 54 carries, or 5.4ypc–plus 4 TDs on the ground. Michigan has their chance at a signature win next week in their trip to East Lansing to take on Sparty. I can’t find any opening lines on that game right now, but I’d guess Michigan would be a slight favorite even on the road. ESPN FPI says Michigan has a 53.4% chance to win. I would’ve said around 60-65%, because I think Michigan State is a fraud. But it is a big rivalry game so I guess anything can happen. Overall, I think based on what I’ve seen that Michigan is the clear-cut second best team in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. I know Michigan always fools us and then gets exposed late in the season, but this feels like the best team Michigan has had since 2018.
- ❌ Penn State, L, 20-18 vs. Illinois (9OT): Okay, it was technically “9OT,” but they don’t do overtime like they used to. After 2OT it’s just alternating 2-point conversion attempts. The ball only starts at the 25 for the first two OT periods. Still, it was a pretty wild game. Illinois literally cannot throw the ball (their QB was 8-19 for 38 yards), but they ran all over Penn State: 67 carries for 357 yards (5.3ypc), and had two running backs over 100 yards in the game: Chase Brown had 223 and Josh McCray had 142 (sacks count as negative rushing yards so that’s why 223 and 142 add up to higher than 357). 67 carries! Illinois held Penn State to 62 yards on 29 carries in the game, or 2.1ypc. Penn State is pretty much confirmed to be fraudulent at this point. They might be able to finish with a decent record and maybe score an upset over somebody remaining on their schedule, but we now know they were never a “real” top-10 team, and definitely not a top-5 team, which they were up until a few weeks ago. Illinois is not a good team, but they were still able to go into Happy Valley and get a win. Is there anything more Big Ten than a 9OT game that finishes with a final score of 20-18? They traded field goals in the first two OT periods, making the score 16-16 going into the third overtime, and then they were both so bad it took them 7 OT periods (meaning 7 tries for each team) to convert a combined total of 3 2-point conversions, 2 for Illinois and 1 for Penn State. I don’t know if it was the worst best game I’ve ever watched, or the best worst game I’ve ever watched. It was so Big Ten it’s not even funny.
- ❌ Oklahoma State, L, 24-21 at Iowa State: I guess there was a reason Oklahoma State was a touchdown dog in this game despite being ranked #8. A lot of people (including myself) gave up on Iowa State early in the year after they lost a couple games quickly, but they’re starting to come around. I don’t think anyone really thought Oklahoma State was a legit top-10 team this year, but they were undefeated and teams ahead of them kept losing, so they just inched higher in the polls every week. The Cowboys are still alive in the Big 12 title hunt, but really at this point they have zero shot of making the playoff and can only hope to play spoiler to Oklahoma in the final game of the season.
- Michigan State: bye week.
- ✅ Oregon, W, 34-31 at UCLA: After Oregon went down 14-0 early in this game, it looked like they were going to get blown off the field. But credit to them, they rallied back and re-took control of the game. This was a good win for Oregon because UCLA is a lot better this season, and Oregon was a slight dog coming into the game. My whole thing with Oregon is that we thought they were really good after they beat Ohio State in week 2, but maybe it was just that Ohio State was playing like shit back then and Oregon was never really that good to begin with. If the two teams played again today, would anyone pick Oregon? Ohio State looks significantly better than Oregon right now. I know the loss of CJ Verdell was huge for Oregon, but could it just be that they have never been as good as we thought they were this season? I mean they’re obviously good, but you look at their past three games, all against unranked opponents, and they’re all one-possession games including a 31-24 loss to Stanford and a 24-17 win over a Cal team that is currently 2-5. Again, I still think Oregon is a good team–a top-10 team–but we probably overrated them.
- Iowa: bye week.
- ✅ Ole Miss, W, 31-17 vs. LSU: It was Eli Manning day in Oxford. The former Ole Miss QB and NFL legend got his #10 uniform retired, so you knew Ole Miss was going to win this one. Also, Arch Manning was in the house, so there was that extra layer to the game. This game marked the last SEC meeting between Ed Orgeron and Lane Kiffin, who go way back to their days at USC in the early 2000s and remain close personal friends to this day. The interesting thing is that there’s even speculation Kiffin might be in the running to be Orgeron’s replacement at LSU. For now, though, it looks like Ole Miss will enter the top-10 when the new polls come out, because clearly Penn State is going to fall quite a bit, and Okie State will certainly drop below Ole Miss.
- ✅ Notre Dame, W, 31-16 vs. USC: Notre Dame dominated this game early, however at one point in the second half it was just 24-16 Notre Dame and it looked like USC could actually make things interesting. However, they’re not just good enough to hang with Notre Dame. USC has the interim head coach, the season is long since lost. Give Notre Dame credit, though, it was a dominating win. You look at the Notre Dame schedule right now and it certainly looks like they have a great shot at winning out. They host UNC next week, and while that game won’t be easy, Notre Dame should be favored in it. Then it’s Navy, UVA, Georgia Tech and Stanford. Notre Dame only has 1 win over a team that was ranked at the time (Wisconsin) and they lost pretty convincingly at home to the best team they played this year (Cincinnati), so it’s probably unlikely Notre Dame gets serious consideration for the playoff. But it looks like they’ll be an 11-1 team when all’s said and done this year. This is why we need a 12-team playoff. I don’t think Notre Dame is National Championship-caliber of course, but something about them having only 1 loss to a top-5 team and still being out of the playoff picture by late October doesn’t feel right to me. The playoff was supposed to make season more engaging because it gave more teams a shot at winning it all, but honestly right now it feels like most of the top-25 is irrelevant. More playoff spots will mean more meaningful games later into the regular season, and we need that.
- ❌ Coastal Carolina, L, 30-27 at Appalachian State (Wed.): After I saw the line for this game (I believe it was Coastal -5.5 by kickoff), I kind of had a feeling an upset was brewing given how much respect Vegas was giving App State. Plus, it was a Wednesday night game. Coastal tends to play a lot of Thursday/Friday night games, so it wasn’t as if they had just played on Saturday and had to turn around quickly for a Wednesday game, but Wednesday is a really weird day to play a football game. Plus, App State is just one of those teams that you always have to respect. They made their bones with that unforgettable win over Michigan in 2007 and have been a solid program ever since. I’d even go as far as saying App State is the type of program Coastal, who only started playing football in 2003, aspires to be. This game was App State letting Coastal know that although Coastal is a team on the rise, App State is still the big dog in that conference. I think Coastal is going to fall quite a bit after this loss, and obviously their already slim playoff hopes are now dead and buried, but I don’t think Coastal will fall all the way out of the top-25.
- Kentucky: bye week.
- ✅ Wake Forest, W, 70-56 at Army: Hope you bet the over in this one. Sheeeesh. Wake QB Sam Hartman had an incredible day passing the ball, going 23-29 for 458 yards and 5 TDs, plus a rushing TD. But Wake’s defense also allowed Army to rush for 416 yards and even pass for 179, which is a lot for an option team like Army. A buddy of mine who played college football said it’s just weird to play service academy teams like Army and Navy because of how they run the option; he said you basically have to forget everything you learned about football since like middle school. I’ve always known Army and Navy run the triple option–which I guess is technically called the “flexbone”–but I never knew why exactly, and my buddy said it’s because they don’t have typical-sized players on their team. They’re really under-sized up front compared to most other teams. Think about it: you can’t be 330lbs in the Army. The heaviest guy on the Army roster right now is a true freshman listed at 320, but he’s one of only 2 guys on the team over 300lbs. (For comparison, and it is an extreme comparison, Georgia has 14 guys over 315lb 😳). The option is really the only way the service academies can be competitive given the unique restrictions placed on their players. Anyway, back to the game. It was really more of a basketball game than a football game in terms of pace. The two teams were basically scoring every possession. Army was keeping pace until the third quarter, when they called a fake field goal pass play down 35-28 that turned into a pick-six. That was really the deciding play of the game. If Army would’ve gotten it to go for a TD (and their guy was open, the ball was just underthrown enabling the defender to get it) they may have been able to keep pace going forward. The wildest stat from this game is that Army won time of possession 43 minutes to Wake’s 17, and Wake was still able to score SEVENTY points. That’s about 4.1 points per minute. 4 of Hartman’s TD passes were deep bombs, which is basically the only way you can score 70 points in 17 minutes of possession.
- ✅ Texas A&M, W, 44-14 vs. South Carolina: It looks like A&M is really hitting their stride right now in the weeks following their signature win over Alabama. It’s just a shame that they had to lose two straight conference games before it, one to Arkansas and again the following week to Mississippi State. Those two losses really screwed their season, and it sucks because they look really dominant right now. Granted the past two wins have come over Mizzou and South Carolina, but A&M is now looking like the team pollsters thought they could be at the beginning of the season when they were ranked inside the top-10. We’re talking about a team here that has a top-10 roster in terms of talent. They’ve got a bye week coming up, but then after that it’s a home game against #19 Auburn and then a road trip to #12 Ole Miss. A&M still needs Bama to lose another conference game in order to have a chance at winning the SEC West.
- ❌ NC State, L, 31-30 at Miami: This was probably the most entertaining game of the night slate, and although Miami is not very good (3-4 after the win, just got their first conference win), they actually do have a lot of talent on the roster. But let’s be honest here: NC State was only in the rankings because they beat Clemson back in week 4 when Clemson was ranked #9 and only had the 10-3 loss to Georgia on their resume. People still thought Clemson was good back then.
- Auburn: bye week.
- Baylor: bye week.
- SMU: bye week.
- ✅ San Diego State, W, 20-14 at Air Force: That’s two close wins for SDSU in a row, with last week’s 2OT win coming over San Jose State. I didn’t watch this game at all, so I don’t really have much to say.
- ✅ Pitt, W, 27-17 vs. Clemson: For me, there are few things better in college football than watching Dabo lose. It’s the smugness, and the way he passive-aggressively talks shit and then denies it when he’s called out on it. Like when he ranked Ohio State 11th last year in the final coaches’ poll, then acted like it wasn’t a slight, and then got blown out by that same Ohio State team in the playoff. It’s the fake motivational quotes he’s always coining (“B.Y.O.G.: Bring your own guts!” “To be an over-achiever, you have to be an over-believer!”). The dude is a total cornball. Anytime they interview him postgame it’s like the most cringe shit ever. I’m just watching Dabo yammer on (and it seems like he loves nothing more than hearing himself talk), I’m just wondering “How is this guy even real?” It is always great to see this arrogant d-bag lose. Okay, enough about Dabo. This is where we have to give a lot of credit to my man Kenny Pickett and the Pitt Panthers. They’re 6-1 right now and Kenny Pickett is playing himself higher and higher into the first round with each passing week. Pitt should be getting a lot more attention right now. They’ve got a win over Tennessee, who gave Alabama some problems (in the first half) tonight. Their only loss is a 44-41 head-scratcher to Western Michigan in week 3, and Pitt had 3 turnovers in the game to WMU’s 0. If not for that game, Pitt is 7-0 right now and probably ranked in the top-10.
- ✅ UTSA, W, 45-16 at Louisiana Tech: Yeah, I’m not going to pretend I watched this game. I don’t know jack shit about UTSA or Louisiana Tech.
- ❌ Purdue, L, 30-13 at Wisconsin: Well, it was fun while it lasted, Purdue. This was the first time Purdue had been ranked since 2007, if you can believe that, but it will be a short stint. Grand opening, grand closing. Wisconsin’s defense was stifling in this game against a Purdue offense that torched Iowa just a week ago, so it does raise some questions about Iowa going into next week’s game against Wisco. However, Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz only attempted 8 passes in the game, going 5-8 for 52 yards. They’re very one-dimensional on offense, although their ground game was pretty damn good, going for 290 yards total on 51 carries.
I want to expand a little bit on what I was discussing with Oregon.
Right now the way it feels, if Oregon and Ohio State hypothetically played each other 10 times, Ohio State would win 9 times, but the actual game we got in real life, Oregon won. Maybe in reality it was a ~10%-likelihood outcome that just happened to come to fruition that week in a perfect storm, and we drew way too many conclusions from it about how good Oregon truly was.
This is probably one of the biggest issues when it comes to our perceptions of football teams: because we have such a small sample size to evaluate these teams, we can be heavily skewed by the fact that highly unlikely events can and do happen over the course of a season. If Bama and Texas A&M played 10 times, I’ll bet Bama would win at least 7 of the 10. But when they actually did play, A&M won. It doesn’t mean A&M is the better team, it just means they were better on that day they played.
Now, the results of these games can’t be completely discounted, because football is a one-and-done type of sport. Even if you’re the better team, your entire season can be blown to pieces in one day if you have a bad game. The postseason is literally one-and-done. So you do have to be at your best every week; it’s not like it doesn’t count if you lose a game that you didn’t play particularly well in.
But there just seems to be a problem of perverse incentives in college football. We reward the teams that go undefeated, and so teams will just try to go undefeated. Or, more accurately, avoid losses. That’s how you get your shot at the playoff: you don’t lose games because even one loss is a massive setback.
With the NFL, we understand that even the best teams lose games, sometimes even to terrible teams. On any given Sunday, any team can beat any team. We know this. So your entire season shouldn’t be based on what you do in any one week. Sometimes you have a bad week and lose. I’m not saying it’s fully excusable to lose a game and that we shouldn’t care about what a team does in a given week, but I’m saying we have a tendency to judge teams based off of what they did in one specific week rather than their full body of work.
And so the NFL gets it right by having a lot of playoff spots and automatic bids. You still have to earn your way in, and by no means is it easy to make the NFL playoffs. But the difference is that you’re not punished for losing one game because the understanding is that even great teams lose occasionally. Only one team in the past 50 years has ever gone undefeated in the NFL, and even that team, the 2007 Patriots, couldn’t seal the deal in the Super Bowl.
Last season, the Bucs went 11-5 in the regular season but still won the Super Bowl. What’s more, they lost to both the Saints (twice) and Chiefs in the regular season, but ultimately ended up beating both teams in the postseason. Imagine that: teams change throughout the season. You are not the same team every single week.
I think in college football we weight losses too much, and as I was saying earlier, it has made teams prioritize going undefeated over all else. They structure their schedules so that they have the best chance of going undefeated. It’s ridiculous when you really think about it. Teams should be actively seeking out strong competition because that’s what makes you better. Iron sharpens iron and all that. But instead they seek the path of least resistance.
I think about a team like Texas A&M. I personally consider them one of the 10 best teams in the country and if there were a 12-team playoff, they should absolutely get one of the spots. But they’re already essentially out of the playoff picture because they had two bad weeks in a row earlier in the year. That’s it. They’re judged based off of those two games. There’s nothing they can do to overcome those two weeks, including beating Alabama, which they did. A&M could end up being 10-2 this year with wins over Bama, Auburn and Ole Miss, and they still probably won’t even get to play in the playoff.
That is just wrong.
College football cannot become the sport of Super Conferences yet still be saying, “You need to go undefeated or else you can basically go fuck yourself.*” (*unless you’re Bama, Clemson Ohio State.)
I mean really? The SEC is about to become a conference with Bama, Georgia, A&M, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas, and people are still gonna try and say a 2-loss team isn’t good enough to make the playoff? Get out of here.
Back to the original point: we’re all familiar with the oddsmaking system and things like ESPN FPI which assign probabilities for each game. We know that a team that is a 3:1 favorite is three times more likely to win, and a team that is a 64% favorite in FPI should win 64 out of 100 hypothetical matchups.
But that still means the other team has a chance to win.
I feel like we often fail to understand that. We think that if the team that should have won ends up losing, it must be because they actually suck or they were frauds or something. We never think about it from the perspective of, if there were a rematch next week, would the results be the same or different?
Sometimes, good teams lose games to inferior opponents. It happens, especially in college football when you’re dealing with 18-22 year olds. It even happens in the pros.
Football is an inherently fluky game. Teams can score on big plays which were enabled by a busted coverage, for example. Fumbles, interceptions, dropped passes, tipped passes, penalties, punt blocks, kick return TDs–all of these types of things make football arguably the flukiest sport of them all.
Just think of that OU-Kansas game today: If Caleb Williams didn’t rip the ball out of his running back’s arms and run for the first down himself, Kansas gets the 4th down stop right there and gets the ball on the OU 46. Maybe Kansas goes down and scores to take the lead, and then goes on to win that game. OU then drops in the rankings and it alters the whole playoff picture. It’s not a stretch to say Caleb Williams’ heroic play altered (or preserved) the landscape of the entire college football season. This is what I mean about football being the flukiest/wonkiest sport. I mean, all sports are fluky to some degree, but in football it’s a bigger deal because of how much fewer games are played.
The point is, we shouldn’t put too much stock into what happens in any one week. Instead we should focus on what a team looks like over the course of the season–the larger sample size. This is why I base my statistical power rankings on season-long per-game game averages, and I don’t start them til week 5. My rankings still have Alabama at #1 even though they have a loss on their resume. It’s because a team shouldn’t be judged based on one game. It should be based on the full body of work.
Now, I will say I do believe the CFP committee usually gets it right in terms of their four picks at the end of the season. I really do believe that.
But we shouldn’t even have to worry about whether the committee will get it right or wrong. That should not even be a factor. My gripe is not with the committee but rather with the 4-team playoff model that severely punishes a team for even one slip-up. It’s inherent to the nature of a 4-team playoff. Notre Dame is probably going to go 11-1 and not make it in. That’s just wrong.
Again, the current system in college football rewards teams that go undefeated. That’s how you got Iowa ranked #2, Oklahoma State ranked #8, etc, even though nobody was buying those teams as being legitimate.
The point is, we shouldn’t simply assume that the winner of a given game is automatically and unquestionably the better team. Fluky/random outcomes happen all the time. Sometimes even a team that wins in a blowout did so in fluky fashion because mistakes have a tendency to snowball in football.
A team that only had a 10% chance to win the game can still win the game, but that doesn’t mean they’re the better team.