Chaos has been the common theme throughout the 2021 college football season.
Two more undefeated teams lost (sorry, Michigan State and Wake Forest). A few other College Football Playoff contenders survived after being taken to the brink. And no one has run away with the Heisman yet.
Our reporters put Week 10 into perspective.
It’s time to acknowledge Alabama’s flaws
Six rushing yards. Repeat: 6 rushing yards. That’s what the No. 2 team in the country had on Saturday night — at home — against a now 4-5 LSU team.
Even coach Nick Saban knows the Tide have to be better than that. Alabama won’t win the SEC, let alone the College Football Playoff, if it has to rely on its defense as heavily as it did against LSU.
“I think there are a lot of the things in the game that we probably didn’t do well,” Saban said. “We didn’t block them up front really well. We didn’t run the ball very well on offense. We couldn’t run it at the end of the game when we needed to. We weren’t as effective on third down. We had some protection issues. A lot of things that we can fix, and I think we need to fix them so we can be a little more consistent.”
All of those things could add up to the Tide dropping to No. 3 or No. 4 in Tuesday’s ranking. Fans already think Alabama gets the benefit of the doubt in the selection committee meeting room, and if the Tide don’t drop a spot or two this week, they’ll have more ammunition to their claim. While Oregon’s win at Ohio State trumps anything the Tide have on their résumé, it’s getting more difficult each week to identify Alabama’s best win. Ole Miss is a two-loss team. Mississippi State, which the committee deemed a top-25 team in its first ranking, now has four losses. Five-loss Florida has embarrassed itself
So what is it? Four-loss Miami? Mercer?? Southern Miss? Tennessee?
It’s certainly not LSU. — Heather Dinich
No one is safe in the Big Ten
After Michigan State’s loss this weekend, there are no remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten. The Spartans were ranked No. 3 overall in the first CFP rankings, but with the loss are likely to tumble out of the top four.
“We didn’t play well enough to win the game, but we have a lot of football ahead of us and all our goals are still ahead of us,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said after the game. “And so what needs to be done? What’s next? That’s what’s most important. What’s next? We have to get on the film, get the courage to understand why. We need to get those things fixed, and then we need to get ready for Maryland. And that’s the only thing there is to do.”
One loss is not the end of the world, as both Michigan and Ohio State each have a loss as well, but the remaining schedule is what makes it interesting for the conference.
Michigan State finishes its season with Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State, while the Buckeyes also have to play Michigan, and the Wolverines have Penn State next. That means that at a minimum, among Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, at least two teams will have one more loss this season.
If Ohio State finishes the next three games unscathed, that means the Spartans and Wolverines will each have at least two total losses, which would push them out of playoff contention. The Buckeyes aren’t safe, either, after their performance against Nebraska.
Ohio State beat the Cornhuskers 26-17, but it wasn’t a convincing win without errors. Quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 405 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had two interceptions. Running back TreVeyon Henderson was held to 97 yards and no touchdowns on the ground.
“On offense, we did some good things again, but too many penalties, didn’t finish out drives,” coach Ryan Day said after the game. “So, again, to continually win like this is not easy, especially in November with a young team. But, there are so many things to clean up. We’re going to get back to the film to get back to work.”
On top of all of that, Ohio State now has to play Purdue, which just upset Michigan State. The three remaining games in this conference might have the most intrigue of any conference in college football. — Tom VanHaaren
When there’s a Will, Bama has a way
It’s time to start thinking about a different Heisman Trophy contender this season. Not another quarterback, because there are enough of those, but the guy who has proven to be the best at chasing them.
Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. has played well enough to merit consideration for the sport’s most prestigious award, and that’s even accounting for the anti-defense bias.
Watching him on Saturday against LSU and all season long, it’s clear he’s the best player on the field by a wide margin. He’s powerful. His first step is unfairly quick. And more important than any of that, he has an absolute motor.
Alabama struggled against LSU, winning 20-14 against a team it was favored to beat by 28 points. The offensive line was bad, the running game never got going, and sometimes the energy from the players just wasn’t there. But that was never the case with Anderson, who was as effective in the fourth quarter as he was in the first, leading the team with 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss.
Anderson’s 40 pressures this season rank first nationally in the FBS, as do his 21 tackles for loss. His 10 sacks rank third, but he’s only one sack behind the leader, Kansas State’s Felix Anudike, who has 26 fewer total tackles than Anderson.
Asked about his Heisman candidacy after the game, Anderson smiled.
“I’m just focused on helping the team get to another natty,” he said. “That’s all I’m worried about, getting to a natty.” — Alex Scarborough
Can Clemson salvage its season?
Believe it or not, the most disappointing team in the country still has a chance to win its conference.
Clemson kept its flickering hopes alive with a second-half comeback to beat Louisville on Saturday, the latest in a string of near misses (Florida State, Syracuse, Boston College, Georgia Tech). If Wake Forest can topple NC State next week, and Clemson beats Wake in Week 12, the ACC Atlantic, for the seventh straight year, will belong to the Tigers.
It’s unlikely, sure, but let’s take a moment to appreciate how far Clemson has come while the overriding narrative surrounding the team hasn’t changed much at all.
The Tigers are 5-3, and while four of those wins came by the narrowest of margins, they are but a victory over woeful UConn away from bowl eligibility.
Those three losses, by a combined 23 points that included a defensive score and an overtime game, all came to ranked teams.
Clemson remains the only team to give Georgia a run for its money this season.
The Tigers have endured myriad injuries, transfers and COVID-19 setbacks, and yet they’re still here, with a shot to win the league again.
Doesn’t that say something about just how good this team really is?
To be sure, this year’s Tigers aren’t ever going to resemble the team we all thought they would be back in August. D.J. Uiagalelei isn’t a Heisman contender, Justyn Ross isn’t dominating the league, and the weekly blowouts that had become de rigueur for Clemson in the ACC simply aren’t going to happen in 2021. And that’s OK.
Clemson easily could have lost Saturday, too. Had Malik Cunningham not left the game with a bum ankle in the third quarter, nursing a seven-point lead, Louisville probably would have won. But had any handful of small things gone differently this year, the Tigers could be 1-8 or 9-0. The margins have been that slim.
But we also saw Clemson’s defense continue to fight, as it has all season, in spite of injuries and an offense that has offered little to no support. We saw freshman receiver Beaux Collins blossom in the slot — six catches, 104 yards and a TD — allowing Ross to move to the outside, where he’s a far greater threat. We saw a run game that continues to evolve behind three young backs — Will Shipley, Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah — in spite of an offensive line desperately in need of an upgrade. We saw a five-star QB who might’ve given up on his season a dozen times by now let out a sigh of relief after the game, saying, “I’m just so tired of losing.” Uiagalelei played with a sprained knee, and he turned in his best performance of the year.
Clemson’s playoff hopes likely died after Week 1, and its national prestige disappeared a few weeks later with the overtime loss to NC State. But the team has kept fighting, even when the light at the other end of the tunnel was little more than a flicker.
There’s still a chance 2021 ends with an ACC championship, but that’s not the biggest takeaway. The real lesson of this season is that, with a few tweaks and a small influx of new talent, the 2022 Tigers already look like they’ll be title contenders once again. — David Hale
Malik Willis shows flashes, but the inconsistencies remain
A game that many NFL evaluators had circled on their calendars coming into the season was the Week 10 showdown between Liberty quarterback Malik Willis and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral. Fast forward to this weekend, and the date was finally here. In front of scouts from 16 NFL teams, two of the top signal-callers in the 2022 draft showcased their abilities.
For Willis, this game was reminiscent of Josh Allen’s 2017 contest against Iowa. Like Allen at Wyoming, Willis doesn’t have a ton of NFL talent around him. And while one game shouldn’t overshadow an entire body of work, this was Willis’ chance to face off against an SEC opponent and an NFL-equivalent defense.
Willis, a fourth-year junior and Auburn transfer, finished 16-of-23 passing for 173 yards and three interceptions. He had 27 touches on the ground for 71 yards and a touchdown, and he was sacked nine times.
An impressive aspect about Willis’ performance was his ability to battle through plenty of in-game adversity. Suffering through seven of those sacks in the first half, he continued to battle and played much better in the second half. His natural ability as a runner shined, but his tendency to keep his cape on as a superhero was a gift and a curse. Willis is a gifted runner, but his competitive nature and will as a runner doesn’t have an on/off switch.
Talking to three scouts following the game, three different names were shared when asking for an NFL comparison for Willis: Donovan McNabb, Tarvaris Jackson and Justin Fields.
Possessing loads of arm talent, Willis has the ability to play with touch, timing and anticipation to all three levels of the field, but he’s still inconsistent from snap to snap. He needs to improve his pre-snap recognition skills, including identifying the placement of safeties in coverage
Even after suffering a 27-14 defeat, Willis flashed his potential, and it’s easy to see why there is excitement about his NFL projection. — Jordan Reid
Aggressive offense fuels the Spoilermakers
Jeff Brohm is three games under .500 at Purdue (25-28) and four games under .500 in Big Ten games (17-21). He’s paid very well and has facilities and job security that previous Boilermakers coaches could only dream about. Purdue is still waiting for its first Big Ten championship game appearance and, barring a Wisconsin collapse, won’t be making the short trip down Interstate 65 early next month. Still, the Boilers are bowl eligible for the first time since 2018.
What Brohm has delivered at Purdue are big moments and exciting offense, and sometimes that’s plenty. He has continued the incredible Spoiler Boiler tradition of beating top-five opponents as an unranked team, as Purdue beat No. 2 Iowa on Oct. 16 and No. 3 Michigan State on Saturday. Brohm stacked the Iowa and MSU wins on a profile that includes a 2018 upset of Ohio State, which kept the Buckeyes out of the CFP.
Purdue on Saturday became the first unranked team to beat two AP top-five opponents by double figures in the same season. The Boilers had not taken down two top-five foes in the same season since 1960, but they now own 17 wins as an unranked team over top-5 opponents, six more than any other program during the AP poll era.
Why are Brohm’s Boilers so good at beating top-five teams? Brohm is one of the nation’s most innovative and aggressive play-callers, which is the right approach when facing more talented opponents. He takes chances and instills confidence in his quarterbacks and pass-catchers, who always know the next call could result in a touchdown.
Brohm has brought in two transcendent wide receivers, Rondale Moore and David Bell. While injuries derailed Moore’s Purdue career, Bell has continued to shine, tormenting Iowa and Michigan State for a combined 22 receptions, 457 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Aidan O’Connell had a career performance against MSU (40 completions, 536 pass yards, three touchdowns).
“We run about every route concept there is, and our players do a great job of studying that,” Brohm said. “We were able to spread them out and get completions.”
Purdue doesn’t have to wait long to face its Goliath, as it visits Ohio State this week. The Boilers nearly entered the polls Sunday, and likely will be ranked by the CFP selection committee on Tuesday.
They certainly will go into Ohio Stadium with confidence, thanks to their coach.
“Another tremendous opponent, but that’s what’s great about this conference and playing at Purdue,” Brohm said. “You get to play great football teams every week, but you know what? You have a chance to win ’em.
“The history and tradition of Purdue is loving the underdog role.” — Adam Rittenberg
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