One of college football's greatest strengths is its unpredictability. Even now, in an era that has seen a small number of elite programs grab nearly all the attention, there are surprises around every corner. While we all have a strong sense of how most seasons will end before they begin, the journey in between takes us to all sorts of places we never expected to go. This is why it was somewhat easy to dismiss the idea that parity could come to the sport back in September, but it has.
Following a strange weekend of games in which there weren't any upsets, I still felt the 2021 season could be the one the prophecy foretold -- one that would bring actual drama, intrigue and surprise to the College Football Playoff race:
Over the weekend, we saw No. 1 Alabama struggle to hold on against No. 11 Florida, winning by only two. For some reason, No. 3 Oklahoma decided to be the first good team in recent memory to look mediocre against Nebraska. No. 6 Clemson continued looking as flawed as ever in a strange -- and weather-delayed -- win over Georgia Tech. Then there was No. 9 Ohio State, which responded to its loss to Oregon by being in a one-score game against Tulsa at home in the fourth quarter.
The four programs that have dominated the CFP era of the sport -- they are responsible for 20 of the 28 playoff berths in the first seven seasons -- have never looked more vulnerable during it. Their struggles have led to a national narrative that the 2021 season could mark the first time since the first College Football Playoff in 2014, where the four-team field doesn't include at least three of these programs. Of course, we'll ignore the fact that if the season ended now, the field would still be Alabama, Oklahoma and two teams that have reached the playoff before in Georgia and Oregon because that's not the point. College football's national title race has become so hopelessly predictable that even the idea of Georgia and Oregon being in the title race has a "Cinderella" feel to it.
Then the strangest thing happened: it came true. Even when I wrote those words, I'm not sure I believed them. While predictability is one of the sport's strengths, the greatest strength of the playoff has been to fill me with cynicism about the entire process we've designed for ourselves. Hell, it's so deeply entrenched in my psyche that I'm still a little concerned the selection committee will choose a two-loss Ohio State over an undefeated Cincinnati, be it willfully or just out of habit. But I'll worry about that next week. For now, I just want to enjoy some of the fresh faces around here.
Not only did we get to enjoy a memorable weekend of games over Thanksgiving, but the results shook the landscape of the sport. Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State have earned 14 of the 28 playoff berths over its first seven seasons. At least one has been in the playoff every season, with at least two in every iteration but the first, and all three in 2019. Now, it'll be the shock of a lifetime to see any of them reach it this season.
None of the three even get to compete for a conference title this weekend. Ohio State is missing out on the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time since 2016. Clemson's run of six straight ACC titles is over. The last time Oklahoma didn't appear in the Big 12 Championship Game was 2009 -- there was no conference title game from 2011 to 2016 -- meaning its streak of five straight appearances and six straight conference titles is coming to an end.
Then there's Alabama. The Crimson Tide managed to win the SEC West and will face Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, but it's been a long time since I've seen an Alabama team look so vulnerable. The same team that struggled to get by Florida in September still has issues. While their lone loss came to Texas A&M, the Tide only beat an LSU team that had already fired its coach 20-14. Similarly, they couldn't put Arkansas away and just managed to escape in a 42-35 shootout. It was a game so unexpectedly tense that it sent Nick Saban into full rant mode. Then came the Iron Bowl. That rivalry tends to get weird, so nobody should judge Alabama too harshly for its performance ... but maybe we kind of should? I mean, mighty Alabama needed four overtimes to get past a 6-5 Auburn team on its backup quarterback.
Maybe the fans were right, Nick.
Suppose things play out as expected this weekend with all of the favorites winning their games (ha!). In that case, the playoff will include four of these five teams: Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. Of those five, Notre Dame has the most appearances with two, but it's the least likely to get in. Georgia has one appearance, while the other three would be making their maiden playoff voyages. Cincinnati would be the first Group of Five team ever chosen.
And it's not a fantasy. It's the most likely outcome. For this one season at least, parity has come to college football.
Ironic Reactions of the Week
The incredible weekend didn't end Saturday night. The surprises and upsets continued on Sunday when Lincoln Riley surprised the world by leaving Oklahoma for USC. During his postgame press conference following Oklahoma's 37-33 loss to Oklahoma State, Riley was asked specifically about the rumors he was leaving for the LSU job. He flatly denied them by saying he wouldn't be the next coach at LSU.
He didn't lie. Still, the denial probably caused Oklahoma fans who were mildly concerned he'd be leaving for LSU to relax a bit, meaning they were genuinely stunned when the USC news broke fewer than 24 hours later. As you'd expect, not only were fans surprised, but many weren't taking it very well.
In fact, according to some people I've talked to, it's not just the fans who were caught by surprise, but many people within the school's athletic department and administration. Now it feels like there's a fire burning within the program because not only is Riley leaving for USC, but he's taking several top assistants with him. The news also set off a chain reaction of Oklahoma commits announcing their decommitment from the school, many of whom are located in Southern California.
It's led to a lot of speculation from Oklahoma fans that this was Riley's plan all along and that he'd been working on it secretly with USC for weeks. Now, I don't believe that's true. The more likely scenario is that Riley was being courted by LSU and USC and decided to head west instead of east with no grand conspiracy behind it.
But let's just pretend for a moment that this was all some sort of Machiavellian plan by Riley to leave for USC and burn Oklahoma to the ground in the process. Can you imagine the gall of somebody who would work behind the scenes to do such a thing, never letting anybody know, only to unexpectedly announce the decision and leave behind the people they supposedly cared about? Who would do such a thing!?
Question of the Week
Perhaps the biggest unresolved storyline of Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma for USC has to do with his pets. The Riley family has two dogs named Boomer and Sooner. Will Riley be forced to change their names to Fight and On? And is that fair for the dogs?
Invisible Team of the Week
I love snow football with a fiery passion, which is ironic given that fire melts snow. Still, as much as I enjoyed seeing Michigan State and Penn State go at it on the snow-covered turf of Spartan Stadium, it was a difficult watch at times. Penn State was wearing the best camouflage I've ever seen. And while Michigan State was a lot easier to spot, the Spartans were in green and white, meaning they blended in with the turf a bit themselves.
Worst Coaching Decision of the Week
Auburn lost to Alabama 24-22 in four overtimes Saturday. It was the Tigers' fourth loss in a row after a 6-2 start to the season, and it included a mistake made by Bryan Harsin that I've seen far too many coaches make over the years.
When the game reached overtime, Auburn won the coin toss and did what it should've done: opted to go on defense first. Alabama scored a touchdown to take a seven-point lead, but the Tigers responded with a touchdown of their own. But that's when Harsin made the critical error.
Harsin decided to kick the extra point and force a second overtime instead of going for the win. On the one hand, I can understand the thought process. Auburn's defense had been outstanding all day and it was playing at home. But while those things are true, so is the fact that Alabama is a much better football team. When you're playing a better team, you don't extend the game because you only increase the better team's odds of winning. Imagine it like rolling a pair of dice, but instead of numbers, four sides of the die have your opponent's logo on it, and two have yours. The more often you roll them, the more often you'll see your opponent's logo come up.
That's what Harsin did, and while the first few rolls came up Auburn, it was only delaying the inevitable. Had Harsin gone for two at the end of the first overtime, it may have failed, and Alabama might've won anyway. Still, that was Auburn's best chance at pulling off the upset and destroying Alabama's season, and Harsin passed on the opportunity.
Best Coaching Decision of the Week
It happened back in January when Jim Harbaugh agreed to a contract extension at Michigan that slashed his salary in half, replacing it with performance bonuses, and lowered his buyout significantly. It was an interesting decision at the time and one that benefitted both parties. There aren't many coaches who would be willing to take such a drastic pay cut to keep their jobs knowing they're already on the hot seat, but not every coach is in the same position as Harbaugh.
Harbaugh's connection to Michigan has been lifelong and finishing the job he set out to do was more important to him than the money. On Saturday, he was rewarded with his first win over Ohio State as a coach, as the Wolverines dominated the Buckeyes from start to finish in a 42-27 victory.
It's not the kind of decision that I'd expect most coaches to make -- nor do I think most should -- but it's one I admire. I'm sure Nebraska fans hope they'll get the same results from the similar restructuring of Scott Frost's contract.
Mind-Blowing Question of the Week
If you make an argument that this is the season a defensive player should win the Heisman Trophy because no offensive player has separated themselves from the pack, and then list multiple defensive players who are deserving of the award, aren't you making the same argument that this is the year an offensive player should win the Heisman because no defensive player has separated themselves from the pack?
Two-Point Conversion of the Week
Are screen passes to your left tackle the offensive innovation of the new decade? Only time will tell, but Kansas seems to be starting a trend here. It wasn't enough for the Jayhawks to beat West Virginia, but it was cool to watch.
Catch of the Week
Washington got worked 40-13 by Washington State in The Apple Cup, but don't let that distract you from this one-handed grab by Huskies wide receiver Rome Odunze. I mean, that's just a spectacular catch. Not only does Odunze reel the ball in with one hand, but he does it while reaching back the opposite direction from where the rest of his body is taking him, surrounded by two defenders, and holds on to survive contact with the ground.
College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
Until the next Monday After!