College football fans around the country should rejoice after Week 3, as once again parity reigns. After a decade dominated by Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, all three of those teams showed chinks in the armor this weekend in victories. At this point, there is not a team clearly head and shoulders above the rest – even Alabama – and it should make for a wild College Football Playoff race.
#1 ALABAMA AT #11 FLORIDA
In the marquee game of the day, Alabama visited Florida at The Swamp for the first time in ten years. Alabama looked unstoppable while racing out to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter, but the Gator defense settled in and much-maligned QB Emory Jones mounted a comeback that fell just short when the Tide stopped Florida’s two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter to preserve the 31-29 victory. Florida was forced to go for the two-point conversion after missing an extra point earlier in the day.
There are a lot of positives to take away from the win for Alabama, as it is always tough to win in Gainesville and QB Bryce Young played another strong game with 240 yards passing, 3 TDs, and no turnovers. That being said, the Tide no longer feel quite as invincible. First, the opening win against Miami doesn’t look quite as strong, given the Canes got whipped by Michigan State in South Florida this weekend. But more importantly, Florida gave the nation a blueprint for hanging with Alabama – pound the football, control the clock, and use the quarterback run game to make the aggressive Tide defense read and react, rather than attack. The Gators ran 43 times for 245 yards and 4 TDs, won the time of possession battle, and outgained the Tide by over 100 yards. However, they were not able to overcome falling behind by 18 points, throwing a costly interception, and missing an extra point.
#22 AUBURN AT #10 PENN STATE
The famous Penn State “White Out” provided an incredible setting for Auburn’s first road game at a Big Ten opponent in nine decades and reminded us what we missed in 2020. In a back-and-forth game in which each team scored in every quarter, the difference in the 28-20 Penn State victory was the fact that Auburn had to settle for two field goals.
Though Penn State QB Sean Clifford was brilliant, completing 28-32 passes for 280 yards and 2 TDs, it was the clutch Nittany Lion defense that again came through with big red zone stops like it had in Week 1 at Wisconsin. Penn State forced a turnover on downs with 3:08 left in the 4th quarter, and then batted down Auburn QB Bo Nix’s last-ditch pass as time expired after Auburn had driven to the 26-yard line. Through 3 weeks, the Nittany Lions have 2 wins over ranked opponents and are one of the favorites in a wide-open Big Ten.
#8 CINCINNATI at INDIANA
Though some of the luster faded from the Hoosiers after they lost 34-6 to Iowa in Week 1, a road trip to Memorial Stadium still presented a major opportunity for an ascendent Cincinnati program looking to crash the College Football Playoff. You wouldn’t have known that based on how the Bearcats opened the game, though. Cincinnati looked lifeless and disinterested for much of the first half, had only 1 first down in the first quarter, committed multiple turnovers, and was flagged for numerous drive-killing penalties as Indiana raced out to a 14-0 lead. However, with 4:04 remaining in the second quarter when it looked like Cincinnati would again go three-and-out, star Indiana LB Micah McFadden was flagged for a questionable targeting call while pressuring Cincinnati QB Desmond Ritter. With the drive extended and the Hoosiers missing arguably their best defensive player, the Bearcats drove down the field for a touchdown and would run away with the game in the second half.
Prior to the targeting penalty, Cincinnati’s 6 drives had resulted in 4 punts and 2 turnovers. They would only punt once more in the game on their 9 remaining drives.
The Bearcats have a week off before traveling to South Bend to play Notre Dame in what will be the biggest game in program history. There is plenty to clean up though, and despite the final score, this was easily a game Cincinnati could have lost. Indiana turned the ball over 3 times inside the 5-yard line, and in addition to the slow start, Cincinnati missed a field goal and extra point, ran for only 3.3 YPC, converted only 4-14 third downs, and was flagged for 11 penalties. QB Desmond Ridder is a talented player, but he will also be going against Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who coached at Cincinnati and knows Ridder’s weaknesses.
- The enforcement of the targeting rule is becoming a problem. Though the targeting rule is likely making the game safer, there needs to be multiple tiers, with the lower tier carrying a 15-yard penalty and the upper tier a 15-yard penalty plus ejection. The ejection of Indiana LB Micah McFadden after being called for targeting was the single most important play of the Cincinnati-Indiana game. In the 26 minutes prior to the call, Cincinnati had 0 points. In the 34 minutes without McFadden, Cincinnati scored 31 points on offense. McFadden’s targeting call was not an egregious or malicious play, yet he was ejected and the Hoosier defense fell apart.
- One of the costs of independence for Notre Dame is that the Irish have no control over how their opponents set their schedules. ND has no conference to ensure competitive schedule balancing. Need proof? Here’s what the 2021 Irish opponents are doing the week before playing Notre Dame – 6 of the next 7 opponents will be coming off a bye week. Brian Kelly better have the Irish ready to play each game.
- Florida State – bye (first game of season)
- Toledo – FCS Norfolk State
- Purdue – UConn (probably the worst FBS program in history)
- Wisconsin – bye
- Cincinnati – bye
- Virginia Tech – bye
- USC – bye
- North Carolina – bye
- Navy – Tulsa
- Virginia – bye
- Georgia Tech – Boston College
- Stanford – California
- One of the most interesting stories of the weekend was Ohio State head coach Ryan Day’s admission that he had stripped defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs of play calling duties after the loss to Oregon. Great coaches do not tolerate mediocrity and take bold action to give their teams the best chance to win. Though Ohio State’s defense played much better against the run against Tulsa this weekend, they still struggled mightily to stop the pass, as QB Davis Brin threw for 428 yards in a game the Buckeyes only led 27-20 late in the 4th quarter. Given Day’s willingness to make changes, maybe QB CJ Stroud should be nervous too. Stroud was again inefficient, averaging only 7.4 yards per attempt, threw an interception, and struggled to get the ball to the Buckeye playmakers – WR Chris Olave did not even have a catch. Freshman RB TreVeyon Henderson saved the Buckeyes, rushing for 277 yards and 3 TDs.
- Has Florida State or Miami had the rougher start to the 2021 season? The Hurricanes at least have a 25-23 home victory over Appalachian State to hang their hat on while the Seminoles have started 0-3 for the first time since 1976, but Miami had higher expectations entering the season. This weekend, Miami was physically dominated by Michigan State in a 38-17 loss, while Florida State never even led in a 35-14 loss to Wake Forest following last weekend’s loss to Jacksonville State. It’s hard to believe how far these two proud programs have fallen, and the seat temperature of both Manny Diaz at Miami and Mike Norvell at Florida State has gotten even hotter. If the on-field performance doesn’t improve, the only thing that could save the jobs of both coaches is finances – after the financial carnage of the pandemic, can either school afford the buyout? This is especially an issue at Florida State as the university is still paying Willie Taggart not to coach.
- At the quarter mark of the season for most teams, let’s check in on how each conference is shaking out:
- Team to Beat: Alabama
- Other Contenders: Georgia, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Florida
- Biggest Surprise: Arkansas
- Top Storyline: Can anyone dethrone Alabama? Georgia has the defense, but I think the blueprint to beat Alabama requires a mobile quarterback and JT Daniels is a pure pocket passer. Maybe the best bet is on Nick Saban’s former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin? Who else can’t wait for Ole Miss to visit Tuscaloosa on October 2nd?
- BIG TEN
- Team to Beat: Ohio State
- Other Contenders: Iowa, Penn State, Michigan
- Biggest Surprise: Michigan State
- Top Storyline: Ohio State is more vulnerable than expected, but are Iowa, Penn State, or Michigan explosive enough on offense to outscore the Buckeyes? Penn State and Michigan get their shots in the regular season, whereas the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes would only meet in the Big Ten title game.
- Team to Beat: Clemson
- Other Contenders: North Carolina, Boston College
- Biggest Surprise: Clemson’s offensive struggles
- Top Storyline: Does the ACC get a playoff berth? The only undefeated teams are Boston College and Wake Forest, and the conference only has 2 ranked teams. Clemson is still the ACC’s best shot, but with limited opportunities to impress the committee, it feels like the Tigers need some chaos.
- PAC 12
- Team to Beat: Oregon
- Other Contenders: USC, UCLA, Arizona State
- Biggest Surprise: Washington was ranked to start the season but went 20 straight drives without a point in losses to FCS Montana and Michigan
- Top Storylines: Can Oregon end the Pac 12’s playoff drought? The Ducks own the best victory of the season at Ohio State, but they are the only undefeated team in the conference through 3 weeks. Win out and they’re in, but there is no margin for error.
- BIG 12
- Team to Beat: Oklahoma
- Other Contenders: Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State
- Biggest Surprise: Oklahoma’s close wins against Tulane and Nebraska
- Top Storylines: Bedlam is always a fierce rivalry, but the upcoming departure of Oklahoma to the SEC will ratchet up the intensity even more. Oklahoma State showed a physicality in a win over Boise State this weekend that has been missing from past Cowboy teams, and the Sooners just struggled to pull away from a physical Nebraska team this week.
BIGGEST WINNERS OF THE WEEKEND
- The state of Michigan: Michigan ran for 370 yards while demolishing Northern Illinois 63-10. Michigan State dominated Miami 38-17 in South Florida, and Western Michigan scored one of the biggest upsets of the day over Pitt. Eastern Michigan beat UMass too! Only Central Michigan missed out on the action, losing 49-21 at LSU.
- Oklahoma State: The Cowboys demonstrated a physical running game and punishing defense in a 21-20 victory over Boise State on the blue turf – always a difficult thing to do. RB Jaylen Warren ran for 218 yards and 2 TDs while the defense pitched a second half shutout. Is this new formula the necessary ingredient to take down Oklahoma?
- BYU: The Cougars avoided a letdown against #19 Arizona State after an emotional win over Utah last week. BYU moved to 3-0 against the Pac-12 this season and has a great shot to be undefeated heading into their November 27th matchup at USC in the last week of the season.
- Penn State: The Nittany Lions knocked off their second ranked team of the season, beating Auburn in front of a raucous crowd. Penn State hosts Villanova and Indiana before heading to Iowa City on October 9th for a massive game against the Hawkeyes.
BIGGEST LOSERS OF THE WEEKEND
- UCLA: The magic came to an end against a gritty, underrated Fresno State team that pushed Oregon to the wire in Week 1. This is not a terrible loss, but the key will be how Chip Kelly’s team responds – do they fold or use this as a learning experience? A tricky visit to Stanford awaits next week.
- Indiana: The Hoosiers snuck up on everyone last season but haven’t lived up to expectations this season. QB Michael Penix Jr. doesn’t look fully healed from a torn ACL that ended his 2020 season, and Indiana turned the ball over 3 times inside the 5-yard line (4 overall) in a loss to Cincinnati.
- The state of Florida: Florida came up just short against Alabama, Miami got worn down by Michigan State, and Florida State was boat-raced by Wake Forest en route to their first 0-3 start since the Jimmy Carter administration. Oh, and UCF lost 42-35 on a last-second pick-six against Louisville and lost QB Dillon Gabriel to a broken clavicle. Even South Florida’s win came at the expense of another Florida team, Florida A&M.
- Clemson: The Tigers needed a last-minute goal-line stand to hold off Georgia Tech 14-8 in a game in which they only threw for 126 yards in sloppy weather. This offense is struggling right now and with limited opportunities for ranked wins in a terrible ACC, Clemson needs to pass the eye test to get into the CFP discussion, which they are also not doing.
BEST GAMES OF WEEK 4
- #12 Notre Dame at #18 Wisconsin (neutral site), 12 PM ET, FOX
- #7 Texas A&M at #16 Arkansas, 3:30 PM ET, CBS
- #9 Clemson at NC State, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN
- Tennessee at #11 Florida, 7 PM ET, ESPN
- West Virginia at #4 Oklahoma, 7:30 PM ET, ABC
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