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Forde-Yard Dash: The Winds of Change Are Blowing in College Football

From the ACC to the Heisman race to the Big Ten West, the sport's status quo continues to crumble in 2021.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Bud Lights sold separately for thirsty offensive linemen in West Lafayette):

MORE DASH: SEC Debacles | LSU or USC Job? | Wazzu Blame

THIRD QUARTER: EMBRACE CHANGE

The Dash has devoted plenty of words to the tumultuous events of this 2021 season, as the sport’s recent status quo has been crumpled and reshaped into something fresh and different. But the alterations keep coming, leaving us with some interesting potential story lines to monitor in the second half of the season. Let’s get to the list:

• A new Atlantic Coast Conference overlord. The conference has been dominated by Clemson and Florida State for the past decade, with the Tigers winning seven championships and the Seminoles three. With Clemson having failed to score 20 points in regulation against FBS competition thus far, and Florida State mired in a four-year malaise, the door to the throne room is wide open. The top candidates to walk through it:

Wake Forest (21). Last ACC title: 2006. The Demon Deacons are the last undefeated team in the league, and already 4–0 in conference play. They step out of conference to play Army Saturday, then have a soft re-entry at home against Duke Oct. 30. November will be crunch time, with three out of four on the road (North Carolina Nov. 6, Clemson Nov. 13 and Boston College Nov. 27), plus a home game against North Carolina State. Dave Clawson has done great work at Wake, but it’s hard to see a team that’s giving up 5.61 yards per play and 411 yards per game winning its division.

North Carolina State (22). Last ACC title: 1979. The Wolfpack own the most valuable thing in the Atlantic Division—a head-to-head victory over Clemson and the potential tiebreaker if those two both finish 7–1. State was impressive on the road against Boston College Saturday, and the remaining schedule is navigable. The Nov. 13 game at Wake Forest could decide the division, if both take care of business otherwise. NC State has a history of finding painful ways to sabotage itself, but for now this is the team to beat in the Atlantic.

Pitt wide receiver Taysir Mack (11) and quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) talk

Pittsburgh (23). Last ACC title: Never. Last conference title of any kind: 2010 Big East co-champs. The Panthers have the best offense in the conference, led by the best quarterback in Kenny Pickett, who is starting to gain some Heisman traction. If they hadn’t inexplicably blown a game against Western Michigan, they’d be ranked in the top 15 and maybe the top 10. Pitt has only played two ACC games thus far, but they were both road victories by wide margins. If the Panthers get past Clemson Saturday—and it says here they will—they could coast to the Coastal Division crown.

Dash pick for the ACC champion: Pittsburgh.

• A mold-breaking Heisman Trophy winner (24). In a year when the usual suspects playing glam positions at glam programs are more scarce, why not look for something completely different? Like a defensive lineman? There are a couple of interesting options.

The best player on the best team is probably Georgia interior lineman Jordan Davis, a 6' 6", 340-pound man-mountain who keys the disruption up front. “When you see somebody like JD, how can he not be up for the Heisman?,” asked his linebacker teammate, Adam Anderson.

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Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart described Davis Saturday as “Godzilla-like. He’s the immovable object.” Smart also said that prior to this season he would have considered it “impossible” for a defensive player to win the Heisman, and he was surprised when a wide receiver (DeVonta Smith of Alabama) got it last year. “I thought it was a quarterback’s world.”

The problem, in a quarterback’s world, is quantifying the impact of a run-stuffing interior lineman. Davis’s tackle statistics are relatively unspectacular (18 total tackles on the season), but the team stats are incredible. The Bulldogs lead the nation in fewest points allowed (6.6, which if it holds up would be the lowest since Oklahoma in 1986); total defense (207.1 yards per game); yards per play (3.55); and fewest scrimmage plays of 20-plus yards allowed (14, including zero for Kentucky Saturday).

Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan is another defensive lineman to monitor. The 6' 6", 265-pound specimen isn’t putting up Chase Young 2019 sack/tackle for loss numbers yet (5 1/2 sacks, six TFLs), but he’s averaging more tackles per game (four) than Young did when he was a Heisman finalist (3.8). He’s expected to be one of the first defensive players taken in the 2022 NFL draft, and he has some huge showcase games coming up.

If you insist on a skill-position player winning the Heisman, how about one from a school that has never won it? Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III remains the nation’s leading rusher, powering the 7–0 Spartans. Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral had his worst statistical game passing at Tennessee, but erupted for 195 rushing yards on 30 iron-willed carries. He’s third nationally in total offense, averaging eight yards per play. And The Dash will continue to stand on the table for Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall, who merely has the following on his résumé: a 16–1 record as a starter; 79.8% accuracy, on pace to break the FBS record; 13.6 yards per attempt, on pace to break the FBS record; and a 234.28 efficiency rating, on pace to slaughter the FBS record. (Pickett is a worthy candidate as well, but Pitt has had a Heisman winner in Tony Dorsett.)

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• A freshman who didn’t start until the sixth game of the season possibly winding up being the best quarterback in the land. Hello, Caleb Williams (25), you may be exactly what Oklahoma needs to compete for a national title. In the seven quarters since Williams entered the game against Texas, he’s led the Sooners to exactly 100 points. He’s passed or run for eight touchdowns and produced 661 yards total offense. He’s led 24 drives, and Oklahoma has scored on 17 of them and punted just five times. Big things were expected, but he’s delivering ahed of schedule.

• The unexpected emergence of two in-state rivalry games (26) as pivotal in terms of deciding league championships. Not many people were hyping the Michigan–Michigan State game of Oct. 30 as a major matchup, but the Mitten power duo is one Wolverines home win over Northwestern away from delivering its first meeting of these two as top-10 programs since 1961. That’s 60 years ago, if you aren’t into arithmetic. Winner gets a leg up in the four-team, Big Ten East sumo match that will run from Oct. 30–Nov. 27. And then there is Bedlam to end the regular season, the annual Oklahoma-Oklahoma State tussle that continues to trend toward being a showdown of undefeated teams. (Iowa State, which was expected to be the Sooners’ prime competition, has a chance to blow that up by beating one or both schools from Oklahoma. The Cowboys visit Ames Saturday.)

Cincinnati's mascot holds up a sign saying the Bearcats want in the College Football Playoff

• A Group of 5 school in the playoff (27). Things continue to break Cincinnati’s way, with the Bearcats taking care of business is authoritative fashion and pretenders falling by the wayside around them. Purdue helped things by exposing Iowa for what it is, allowing Cincy to move up to No. 2 in the rankings. The Sagarin Ratings say the Bearcats’ strength of schedule to date is the weakest among any serious playoff contenders, and that isn’t going to change over the next month playing Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and South Florida. But there is a potential high-profile game against SMU Nov. 20, and potentially an American Athletic Conference championship game of worth as well. Cincy needs Notre Dame to stay strong and Indiana to win some games, but mostly it needs to keep winning and dare the College Football Playoff selection committee to snub it again. (With the understanding that it might choose to do exactly that.)

• Abbreviated Texas schools making power moves in Conference USA. Make way in the West Division for UTSA (28) and UTEP (29), two programs that have combined to win very little in their history. The Roadrunners have only been playing football since 2011 and have been fairly fast learners, including a 7–5 record last year, but at 7–0 they are one of the revelations of 2021. The Miners are a bigger shock, starting 5–1 after going 5–39 the previous four seasons. UTEP has won two conference championships in its tattered history, the WAC in 2000 and the Border Conference in 1956. Both still have UAB to deal with in the division, but their Nov. 6 meeting in El Paso is of interest, improbably enough.

• Unlikely ownership situations in the Big Ten West (30). Purdue has won 16 Big Ten games since Jeff Brohm took over, and 25% of them have come against Iowa. Jeff Brohm is 3–1 against Big Ten dean Kirk Ferentz, and his younger brother Brian is 1–0 after coaching the Boilermakers in last year’s opener while Jeff was out with COVID-19. Meanwhile, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is now 3–1 against Nebraska, doing as much damage as anyone to Scott Frost’s job security.

MORE DASH: SEC Debacles | LSU or USC Job? | Wazzu Blame

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