We’ve been accustomed to the college football world having a small handful of programs that exist in a different orbit. The planet that has shined brightest the past decade, of course, has been Alabama. The Crimson Tide have been closely tracked by Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma, with occasional interlopes from schools like Georgia and Notre Dame.
On Saturday, the grand equalizers of college football in 2021 – a true home-field advantage, the presence of super seniors and the consistent three-and-done talent drain from top programs – emerged as a reminder that this season may not end up as predictable as we have feared.
Nothing about No. 1 Alabama’s 31-29 victory at No. 11 Florida dims the Tide’s role as the prohibitive favorite to win the national title this year. But it does diminish the aura of immortality that the Tide carried with them after the season-opening victory over Miami.
In a hostile and volatile environment, the Tide jumped out to a 21-3 lead and then got generally outplayed for three quarters. Florida hung around and had a shot to tie the game, but butchered a two-point conversion attempt and came up achingly short.
After an offseason of rat poison and the Tide’s domination becoming the overreaction expectation of the early season, Florida’s second-half performance at least put forth the notion of the Tide as fallible.
“What concerned me most was that we could not sustain our intensity, especially on defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We had a lot of mental errors.”
Clemson sputtered through another dismal game on offense against Georgia Tech, 14-8, needing a late goal-line stand in the final minute to hang on. Oklahoma looked pedestrian in beating Nebraska, 23-16, with the Huskers even having a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
No. 9 Ohio State made a defensive play caller change against Tulsa on Saturday in a 41-20 win. The Buckeyes led by just a touchdown for a majority of the fourth quarter.
Ryan Day said after that game that secondary coach Matt Barnes called the defensive plays against Tulsa. He was down on the field to call the game and Kerry Coombs, the defensive coordinator and former play caller, was up in the booth.
The Buckeyes didn’t get a particular jolt from the move, as they yielded 501 yards and 428 passing yards. The Buckeyes will have one more game against Akron next week to fine tune the changes before continuing Big Ten play with a trip to Rutgers on Oct. 2.
So what does this tell us for the future? Don’t be surprised if No. 4 Oregon struggles at Stanford on Oct. 2. Same with No. 5 Iowa when they play at Maryland on Oct. 1. Georgia has a powderpuff schedule the rest of the regular season, as only Florida and Auburn may be ranked. But the Bulldogs’ lack of explosion on offense will come into play in the SEC, as J.T. Daniels’ three touchdown passes in the 40-13 win over South Carolina didn’t end their search for explosive plays.
Saturday offered a reminder of all the equalizers that this season offers. And while it wasn’t a day of chaos, the confluence of close games dimmed the inevitability of established favorites.
Notre Dame handled Purdue today in a closer-than-the-final 27-13 victory in South Bend.
If the No. 12 Irish want to announce themselves as a College Football Playoff contender, they have a three-game stretch that could propel them into that conversation with elite teams – Notre Dame plays No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field, No. 8 Cincinnati at home and at No. 15 Virginia Tech. So far, there’s been nothing in particular about Notre Dame that’s been elite, it's just been good enough.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has a chance to break Knute Rockne’s record for all-time wins as a Notre Dame head coach next week in Chicago. What’s still in flux is just how good this Notre Dame team is. Both of the teams Notre Dame squeezed past to start the season – Florida State in OT and Toledo via fourth-quarter comeback – have since sputtered. To put it politely.
So who are these Irish? It’s still hard to say. Star receiver Kevin Austin finished with no catches on eight targets. Star tight end Michael Mayer caught just one ball. Notre Dame averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and gave up four sacks. They also completed just 15 passes.
The Irish have gone 36-5 since the start off 2018, but it’s unclear if this team has the chops to match the past few editions.
The limitations are certainly there for quarterback Jack Coan and a still-gelling offensive line. The best news for the Irish is the defense put in its best effort in Marcus Freeman’s tenure as coordinator, holding Purdue to 57 rushing yards and 348 total yards of offenses.
But whether the Irish can enter the highest-end conversations will be revealed these next three weeks.
Big Ten challengers
With Ohio State registering another shaky performance and its defense still in flux, there’s vulnerability at the top of the Big Ten. Who could fill it?
Penn State made the biggest statement on Saturday night, holding off Auburn amid the din of the White Out at Beaver Stadium. The No. 10 Nittany Lions beat the No. 22 Tigers, 28-20, boosting them to a 3-0 start and likely boosting them to the Big Ten East’s highest-ranked team.
No. 5 Iowa, the only undefeated team in the Big Ten West, had a workman-like victory over Kent State, 30-7. They shut down an offense that led the country in scoring last season. The Hawkeyes still may not have the offensive firepower to hang with top teams, but they are rugged up front and won’t beat themselves.
The other team that’s off to an intriguing start is Michigan. So far, anyway.
Michigan (3-0) has addressed its defensive scheme issues and finally looks like a team befitting of its logo. Michigan has thumped Western Michigan, Washington and now Northern Illinois.
And while it’s too early to say that the Wolverines have established themselves in the league race or can topple Ohio State, they are energized, sound and have answers on the defensive side.
Michigan quarterbacks have attempted just 49 passes through three games, which is a variable that needs to be answered if they are to contend for the league title.
USC lost one mainstay last week with the firing of Clay Helton. Another USC staple should be looking over his shoulder.
Kedon Slovis, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy contender, left USC’s game at Washington State after getting injured on the first series.
USC freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart came off the bench to lead USC to a resounding 45-14 victory. Dart is considered the most talented of USC’s quarterbacks, and finished 30-for-46 for four touchdowns and 391 yards. He threw two interceptions, but overall dazzled.
Slovis, of course, took over the job the same way from J.T. Daniels, who is now the quarterback at Georgia. While Slovis has long been a favorite of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, Dart’s performance is both a positive long-term development and a potential short-term conversation that few could have imagined in August.
There’s an eternal allure to MAC quarterbacks, as the league has given us everyone from Ben Roethilsberger to Chad Pennington to Julian Edelman.
On Saturday, Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby put forth the type of performance that could thrust him into the conversation of high-end MAC quarterbacks. He diced up Pittsburgh for 337 yards and three touchdowns on 23-for-35 passing.
“Of all the quarterbacks I’ve coached, he has such a knack of explosiveness and touch,” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. “I haven’t had many like it. He can drive a ball and drop one in. It’s special.”
Lester told Yahoo Sports that Eleby, who is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, overcame a rare finger cramp. Lester said the pointer finger on his right hand was clinched, so Lester grabbed it and attempted to pull it straight.
“That’s the most important finger, the one that spirals the ball,” Lester said with a laugh. “It was crazy. We have to work on his hydration plan.”
Eleby actually missed the first series of the second half because he was getting in IV in the locker room. Backup Jack Salopek went 3-for-3 in his reserve role.
Western Michigan took the lead late in the first quarter and didn’t trail the rest of the game. Lester and play caller Eric Evans were able to stay ahead of Pat Narduzzi, as WMU didn’t turn the ball over and finished with 517 yards. They were able to bleed out the game’s final 3:48, including a third-and-7 where Eleby hit Corey Crooms (8 catches, 161 yards) on a slant while getting hit by a free blitzer.
It’s the type of play, and the type of performance, that should help Eleby become a household name.
Times have changed when both Miami and Florida State get blown out by unranked opponents and no one bats an eyelash.
Wake Forest’s three-touchdown blowout of FSU, 35-14, was actually expected. The Demon Deacons were favored going into the game and improved to 3-0.
Dave Clawson’s team may end up as one of the poster children for super seniors. They have nine super seniors, 94 scholarship players and the type of depth that a program like Wake Forest usually doesn’t have.
“We may not have a first-round pick this year,” Clawson said. “But in the first two games we had more than 50 guys play 25 snaps or more.”
Quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns against FSU and Wake Forest ran for 225 yards. The defense forced six turnovers and held FSU to 317 total yards.
So how did they celebrate? The Deacons staff spent Saturday night breaking down the Florida State film. With Wake traveling to Virginia on a short week for a Friday game, Clawson wanted to get ahead on preparation.
“I really don’t know,” Clawson said when asked about his team. “We’re good enough to be 3-0 right now. Look at every game on our schedule. They’ll all be tough games. Every one of these games were predicted to be one-score games before the season.”