- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Just two weeks remain in the 2021 regular season, and all we’re certain of is that Georgia looks awfully good. Beyond that, nearly everything seems debatable, and Week 11 proved particularly adept at illustrating just how foolish many of our assumptions have been.
Oh, sure, there were the truly hilarious twists of fate. Six weeks ago, Florida came within a two-point try of toppling Alabama, and on Saturday, the Gators coughed up 52 points to an FCS team. A month ago, Texas had a massive lead over Oklahoma at the half, and on Saturday it served up the most embarrassing result of the season, a 57-56 loss at home to lowly Kansas.
Indeed, the point-and-laugh response to seeing two of college football’s blue bloods puke on their own shoes will be the main takeaway from Saturday’s festivities.
But we already knew Florida and Texas weren’t sniffing the College Football Playoff. The more important news from Week 11 is the teams still in the hunt who proved they deserve a much longer look than we’d previously afforded them.
Oklahoma’s playoff hopes took a big hit with a 27-14 loss to Baylor, but its rival Oklahoma State that should be the top story in the Big 12. Mike Gundy had survived this season with a dominant defense, but Saturday was the complete package. The defense held a TCU team that had exploded for 562 yards in a win over Baylor last week to just 242 on Saturday. The offense, meanwhile, rushed for 295 yards on the night Oklahoma State retired Barry Sanders’ jersey. It was all business on defense, and a coming-out party on offense — or, in Gundy parlance, a mullet of a game.
Ohio State finally delivered a truly dominant performance against a good team with a 59-31 win over giant-killer Purdue, but that shouldn’t overshadow another gritty win from Michigan in the Big Ten. The Wolverines’ 21-17 win over Penn State was reminiscent of nearly everything they’ve done this year — ugly, physical, strangely thrilling — anchored, once again, by the two most dominant defensive forces in the conference. Yes, Ohio State deserves to be a front-runner for a playoff berth, but if ever there was a year when Michigan had a real shot to finally thwart the big, bad Buckeyes, it’s this one. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo (five combined sacks vs. Penn State) are the ultimate equalizers against an Ohio State O-line that has been inconsistent for most of the year.
Alabama won again. The Tide were 50-point favorites against New Mexico State, which normally would mean the win didn’t amount to much. But after seeing Florida and Texas, well, we probably shouldn’t take anything for granted. Still, it was the team the Tide defeated in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal that proved even more impressive Saturday. Notre Dame’s defense gave up virtually nothing to high flying Virginia, and the run game, once again, looked sharp, racking up 249 yards in a 28-3 win. The Irish are 9-1 and look good — not just “boost Cincinnati’s profile” good, but real, actual ability good. With just woeful Georgia Tech and Stanford awaiting, an 11-1 finish looks all but inevitable, and if enough chaos happens around them, the Irish have a real shot to return to the playoff.
Cincinnati remains the upstart underdog hoping to crash the blue-blood party, and the Bearcats’ 17-point win over USF on Friday served as a perfect middle ground in the “they don’t belong” narrative. It was just impressive enough to eschew further criticism, but hardly good enough to woo any of their critics. But what if it was Wake Forest that was the Cinderella story of this season? After last week’s collapse against North Carolina, the Deacons’ playoff hopes appeared dead, but Saturday, they toppled No. 16 NC State 45-42 and took a huge step toward securing the ACC Atlantic. Clemson awaits, and Wake has a real shot to finish 12-1 with a Power 5 conference title. Could that be good enough to sneak into the playoff? Thanks to Oklahoma’s loss, the winners of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 won’t be any better.
If the playoff had already expanded, Oklahoma State and Michigan and Notre Dame and Wake Forest would be firmly entrenched as the “teams no one wants to play in the first round” — talented, hungry, peaking at the right time.
Of course, only four invites will go out at year’s end. After Georgia’s defense dominated in its biggest test to date and Oregon survived another game against Washington State, and Alabama and Ohio State both cruised to easy wins, they’ll remain the most viable candidates, with Cincinnati waiting in the wings. Heck, even Oklahoma still has a shot. After all, in keeping with tradition, the committee will want to evaluate the Sooners with fresh eyes after Caleb Williams re-replaced Spencer Rattler late in Saturday’s game.
But after Saturday’s latest round of chaos (or near-chaos), it’s probably worth remembering that there’s a wide path between what we expect to happen and what actually does. It’s a path the Irish or the Wolverines, the Deacons or the Cowboys could travel, and end up in a place none of us might have imagined just a few weeks ago.
Rock, chalk, horns down
It would be nearly impossible to fully comprehend the sheer embarrassment of Texas’ 57-56 loss to Kansas on Saturday, but we’ll try.
Let’s get some of the basics out of the way first.
Kansas has the same number of wins over Texas since 2016 (2) as it does against every other Big 12 team combined.
It was Kansas’ first road win in Big 12 play since George W. Bush was president. The Jayhawks had dropped 56 straight true road games in conference, but Saturday was different.
Texas has now lost five straight games, something it hadn’t done since 1956.
It was the second time in three years Kansas scored 48 or more against Texas. In the past decade, the Jayhawks had only hit that mark on three other occasions.
Kansas was a 31-point underdog in this game. Since the FBS/FCS split in 1978, the Jayhawks were 0-100 in games when the opponent was favored by at least 24.
A monkey belonging to a Texas assistant coach’s girlfriend allegedly attacked a Halloween trick-or-treater, and now that’s not even the most ridiculous thing to come out of this season for the Longhorns.
Steve Sarkisian promised an all-gas, no-brakes philosophy this season, and in fairness to him, he did not ever suggest he wasn’t talking about driving the Longhorns into the side of a 7-11.
In the aftermath of the stunning Kansas victory, we received this transcript of a call to Big 12 headquarters leaked by a source we’ll identify only as “B. Bowlsby.” Ah, that’s too obvious. Let’s say, “Bob B.”
Caller 1: Thank you for calling Big 12 customer service. How may I direct your call?
Caller 2: Um, returns, I guess.
Caller 1: Hold please.
“Dust in the Wind” by Kansas plays.
Caller 3: Big 12 returns and exchanges. May I ask who’s calling?
Caller 2: Yes, this is Greg Sankey.
Caller 3: How can we help you, Mr. Sankey?
Caller 2: I have two football teams I’d like to return.
Caller 3: I see. Was there a problem with your purchase?
Caller 2: Yes. I think they may be defective.
Caller 3: OK, sir. Do you have a receipt?
Caller 2: Well, no, but Texas A&M did leak the news of our purchase to its local newspaper. Will that suffice?
Caller 3: I’m sorry, sir. We require a receipt to process any returns.
Caller 2: I see. Well, what about store credit? We could be interested in possibly picking up a Cincinnati in a year or two.
Caller 3: Again, I’m sorry. Cincinnati is on back order currently.
Caller 2: Ah, OK. Well this is certainly disappointing.
Caller 3: Is there anything more I can do for you, sir?
Caller 2: One last question. I notice you’re adding UCF. I’m wondering if you might be interested in having a local rival for them? We’ve got some Florida baggage we’re looking to unload at a very affordable price.
Caller 2: Hello?
Caller 2: We can throw in the Texas monkey, too. Hello?
*end of transcript*
Kansas has now scored 80 points against soon-to-be SEC members Texas and Oklahoma this season. Against the other seven FBS teams it has played, it’s scored just 96.
It’s nice Vanderbilt has something to look forward to.
It’s a great day for the Gators
After Florida’s 70-52 win over Stanford — wait, no, we’re being told it was actually against Samford, but that can’t be right, can it? — coach Dan Mullen took umbrage with anyone who dared question the legitimacy of this very important win.
“Calling a win disappointing is disrespectful to the game,” Mullen said without commenting on how disrespectful it might be to surrender 52 points at home to an FCS opponent with a losing record.
Well, never let it be said we’re disrespectful to the game here, so let’s start from the top.
Saturday marked a critical turning point for plucky upstart Florida. Losers of four straight (very unfair) games, the Gators were at a significant disadvantage because of all the booing from the (home) fans but still managed to beat a national championship-winning coach (Samford’s Chris Hatcher, who won the Division II title in 2004). Hatcher also once employed Kirby Smart on his staff at Valdosta State, so technically, this also was like getting a win over Georgia. And Florida’s performance made history by allowing the most points in the first half in program history. Remember, all records are, by definition, difficult to accomplish. And what’s more, Florida did this despite firing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last week. It’s even tougher to be really bad on defense without Grantham. Finally, let’s not forget that, as Florida mounted its heroic comeback against mighty Samford, Oklahoma was busy losing to Baylor. So, you know, go be mad at Lincoln Riley. Have you seen how he’s handled his QBs? What a mess! Nothing to see here, though, so just move along.
FSU gets signature win
As rivalries go, Florida State and Miami has lost a good bit of its shine, and this year’s installment was a bit like the new “Ghostbusters” movie. Did we need it? No. Have the past couple installments been disappointing? You bet. But hey, Paul Rudd and Jordan Travis are both likable, so we’ll watch anyway.
The result: It wasn’t good football, but Travis certainly delivered.
FSU jumped out to a 17-0 lead, thanks to three Miami turnovers and eight Canes penalties in the first quarter alone. Only one other team (2020 North Texas vs. MTSU) had as many turnovers and flags in a single quarter in the past decade. And yet, Miami still had a shot to win.
Tyler Van Dyke continued his strong play, leading Miami on touchdown drives of 66, 38, 97 and 73 yards to go up 28-20 midway through the fourth quarter. That’s when Travis took over.
Travis accounted for 115 yards on FSU’s final two drives, including a 59-yard completion to Ja’Khi Douglas and a 24-yarder to Andrew Parchment on fourth-and-14 before scoring the go-ahead TD on a 1-yard rush with 26 seconds to play.
For FSU, it was a signature moment in the Mike Norvell era. The win was Norvell’s first over one of FSU’s primary rivals, and it keeps the Seminoles’ bowl hopes alive. As a nice bonus, vilified former FSU coach Willie Taggart and his FAU team lost 30-16 to Old Dominion, coughing up three safeties in the process.
For Miami, however, the loss undermines all the progress from a three-game winning streak and likely reignites the hot-seat talk for head coach Manny Diaz. The Canes’ D was undisciplined throughout, the O-line was dominated by FSU star edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II, and Miami finished with 14 penalties for 105 yards. On the plus side for Diaz, if Miami does make a change, the Temple job might be open again soon.
Shirts vs. skins
After a Cinderella season in 2020, Indiana’s follow-up campaign has been less fairy tale and more M. Night Shyamalan movie (i.e. both filled with horror and painfully embarrassing). The Hoosiers were ranked No. 16 to open the season, but have been blown out by Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan to start 2-7. Saturday represented a new low, a 38-3 home loss to Rutgers.
But while the Hoosiers were brutal on the field, the fans in the stands finally found meaning in the 2021 campaign.
It started subtly enough, as a few dudes found a home in the upper deck and, in perhaps a nod to the great shirtless FSU fan from 2018, decided to watch the game topless.
From there, the idea began to catch on among the remaining fans. It was like wearing jorts. At first it seemed like a silly bit of irony, then suddenly, everyone was doing it.
At last, the joke became a true movement, and woeful Indiana had joined the ranks of the Miami cat, the Tennessee golf ball and the Texas monkey attack as one of the season’s truly great stories.
And so it’s been decided: The only way for the Hoosiers to salvage their season is to play the remainder of the season without jerseys. They owe it to their fans.
Week 11 stock watch
Sell: The Atlanta curse
Auburn’s campus is a mere 100 miles from Atlanta, a fact that might have seemed relevant to the superstitious football fans among us. Atlanta fans may recall a game when the Falcons held a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 lead that ended poorly. Auburn reenacted that collapse Saturday, blowing a 28-3 lead to Mississippi State, ultimately falling 43-34. So, blame the proximity to Atlanta? No way. The Braves have ended any talk of curses, and Georgia certainly seems to be doing just fine, too. Oh, Georgia Tech was up 21-7 against BC but lost 41-30, you say? Well, that’s just Georgia Tech football. No need for curses there.
Buy: Bailey Zappe in a bowl game
Western Kentucky routed Rice 42-21 to take another step toward the Conference USA championship game (which, despite the recent exodus from the league, still will include two teams) and secured bowl eligibility. In the process, Zappe had another ridiculous stat line: 34 of 42 passing for 482 yards and five TDs. It’s Zappe’s fifth 400-yard passing game and his sixth with at least four TD passes. For the year, Zappe now leads the nation in total offense (4,165) and total TDs (45). The only other QBs since 2004 with 45 or more TDs through 10 games: Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes, all-time TD leader Colt Brennan and D’Eriq King. So, come on MAC, doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to add to your league?
Sell: Jimmy Lake’s future at Washington
Let’s recap the 2021 season for Lake: Lose to an FCS team when ranked No. 20 to open the season, fail to top 30 points in eight of your first 10 games, insult Oregon’s academics, rough up a player on the sideline during a loss to the Ducks, get suspended for a game, then watch from home as his offense turns in another abysmal offensive performance (266 yards) while the Huskies blow a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and lose for the sixth time, 35-30 to Arizona State. On the other hand, while he was off this week, Lake finally was able to catch up on all those episodes of “Young Sheldon” he’s had on his DVR.
Buy: College kickers
Oh, we know the story. Never trust a college kicker. In terms of reliability, they’re somewhere between casting Nic Cage in a movie and a Bill Belichick injury report. But every once in a while, a kicker comes along who does something so wondrous, so miraculous, so unbelievable that it redeems the world’s faith in the entire profession. Enter Texas Tech’s Jonathan Garibay. The Red Raiders’ kicker set a school record by booting a 62-yard field goal with no time remaining to topple Iowa State 41-38. It was the longest game-winner as time expired in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the third-longest at any point in that span. It also gets Texas Tech to six wins for the season.
Buy: Rutgers’ bowl hopes
Remember when Tennessee was going to hire Greg Schiano, but then the fans got mad and nixed the deal on Twitter somehow? Rutgers might want to send Vol Nation a thank-you note (or tweet). Schiano has completely rejuvenated the Scarlet Knights, who after a dominant win over Indiana, are now just one win away from making a bowl for the first time since 2014. They’ll need to knock off either Penn State (loser of four of its past five) or Maryland (lost five of past six). A win in both would give Schiano seven conference wins in his first two years — or the same total that Rutgers had in its entire Big Ten history previously.
Sell: New England football
UMass lost to an FCS team for the second straight week, 35-10 to Maine. The Minutemen have now beaten New England rival UConn, but lost to Boston College, Rhode Island and Maine. UConn has a win over Yale, but lost to Holy Cross. So, updating your New England college football power rankings: 1.) Boston College, 2.) Hey, have you seen how well the Pats are playing lately? 3.) Yankees suck.
Hold: Lane Kiffin’s fourth-down calls
We love Kiffin’s embrace of analytics. (Note to all football announcers: There is more to analytics than just fourth-down calls, but that’s another conversation.) Kiffin has gone for it on fourth down 72 times since the start of last season — 18 more than any other Power 5 team and 27 more times than any other SEC team. The only problem is — it’s very stressful for Rebels fans. On Saturday, Ole Miss turned the ball over on downs twice deep in Texas A&M territory — two of five different drives past midfield that failed to end in points — which kept the Aggies in the game, despite a huge yardage advantage for the Rebels. A&M trailed by just two and had the ball midway through the fourth quarter, but an interception from Ashanti Cistrunk ultimately swung the game, and Ole Miss prevailed 29-19. So, no, Kiffin shouldn’t change his approach, but for Ole Miss fans, it’s probably worth making sure you’ve got a low deductible on your health insurance.
Jordan Davis and the Georgia defense were exceptional again. Kenneth Walker III had another 100-yard game and scored twice. Desmond Ridder led Cincinnati to another win. None cracked our top five this week, and it’s safe to say we can also drop Caleb Williams off the list for the remainder of the year.
1. Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
Asking the New Mexico State offensive line to slow down Anderson was like blocking a tidal wave with an umbrella. The good news for the Aggies is they fell behind by such a wide margin so early, they didn’t have to see much of Anderson after the first drive of the second half. It was a smart game plan. Anderson still finished with two sacks, giving him 12.5 for the year, and bringing his season total for TFL to 23. That’s the most by an SEC player since Jarvis Jones and Jadeveon Clowney each finished 2012 with 23.5. Anderson has at least three more games remaining to add to his total.
2. Alabama QB Bryce Young
Young had five TD passes and two incompletions against New Mexico State. They say that would be hard to do vs. air, but at least air has a shot at blowing a few of his throws off target. The Aggies provided no such defense. For what it’s worth, Young now has 35 TDs, three interceptions and is completing 71% of his throws. Through 10 games last season, Mac Jones had 28 TDs, three INTs and was completing 76% of his throws.
3. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
Stroud threw his fourth TD pass of the game on Ohio State’s first possession of the second half, giving the Buckeyes 52 for the game — or a full Samford, as it is now called in Florida. Regardless, it was another terrific performance from Stroud, who now has 29 TD passes this year. It was a dominant win for the Buckeyes, too, against a team that already had two wins over top-five teams this season. It’s nice to know the playoff committee will have at least one team from Ohio to move up the rankings this week.
4. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
Pickett has the Panthers on the brink of an ACC Coastal Division crown after he braved the weather and toppled North Carolina in overtime on Thursday. Pickett’s stat line now: 3,517 passing yards, 231 rushing yards, 36 TDs and four interceptions. In the past 15 years, only four other Power 5/BCS QBs posted a 3,500/35 line with less than five picks through 10 games. All four finished in the top four in Heisman voting, and two won it.
5. Mississippi State QB Will Rogers
Rogers’ dominant second half led the Bulldogs to a massive come-from-behind win over No. 17 Auburn. Rogers finished 44 of 55 for 415 yards with six TDs (five of which came in the second half) and in his past four games has completed 79% of his passes with 15 TD throws. Rogers has now topped 300 passing yards in eight straight games. In the playoff era, only four other Power 5 QBs have done that — three Mike Leach protégés (Gardner Minshew II, Luke Falk and Anthony Gordon) and Heisman winner Joe Burrow.
Under-the-radar game of the week
It’s been a brutal season of near-misses for Memphis. The Tigers already had three-point losses to UTSA and Temple and a six-point loss to Tulsa, but Saturday’s 39-29 overtime loss to ECU might have been the toughest blow yet. In a game that featured five lead changes and three ties, the Tigers booted a 24-yard field goal on the final play of regulation to send it to overtime. ECU scored on its first possession. Memphis responded with a TD of its own, but went for two, and the play never had a real chance at success.
For ECU, which has had its own share of close losses to South Carolina, UCF and Houston, the win was huge. The Pirates are now 6-4 and bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014. At 5-5, Memphis needs a win against either Houston or Tulane in its final two games to get bowl eligible, too.
Under-the-radar play of the week
South Dakota State nearly ran out the clock, but it turned the ball over on downs at the South Dakota 43 with one tick remaining, up 20-17. It should have been a win, right?
Well, as they say in South Dakota, when these two teams get together, you can throw the records out the window (into nine feet of snow) and anything is possible, don-cha-know.
Coyotes QB Carson Camp took the snap, rolled out to his right, narrowly avoided the pressure, and hurled a pass 55 yards downfield, where it bounded through a sea of hands before finally being corralled in the end zone by Caleb Vander Esch.
Final score: South Dakota 23, South Dakota State 20. It’s going to be a long year for any Jackrabbits fans who have to hear from their Coyote fan neighbors about the big win. On the upside, no two people live within 12 miles of each other in South Dakota, so they won’t actually hear that much.
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