It is becoming a broken record at this point, but the 2021 college football season has been the most unpredictable, the most entertaining, maybe even the most absurd season in recent memory.
Week 5 did nothing to dispel that idea. Rather, it enforced it.
Nine ranked teams lost over the weekend, including four top-10 teams. Pick a random game to watch on Saturday, and the odds are you saw something you didn’t expect.
BYU kept winning, this time at the expense of Utah State. The Pac-12 lived up to its reputation of being the conference most likely to cannibalize itself, while the Mountain West is a complete toss-up. And unless you are Alabama or Georgia, odds are you’ll lose a game or two this year if it hasn’t happened already.
Here are six takeaways from the latest in college football.
Kalani Sitake has successfully rebuilt the BYU program
The moment Kalani Sitake was named head coach at BYU, he talked extensively about the need to rebuild the Cougars’ program.
Not in the sense that BYU football was a losing entity. Sitake’s predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, didn’t have a losing season in 11 years in Provo and won 10 or more games five times.
For all that winning, though, Sitake wasn’t pleased with the depth within the program upon his arrival. That is what he wanted to rebuild.
It has taken some time, and BYU took some significant steps back in the process, but it appears Sitake finally has what he wanted.
BYU was not healthy for the Utah State game and the Cougars only got less healthy as the game progressed, but it didn’t matter. It was easy to see that BYU had more depth and talent than Utah State, a team that had beaten the Cougars four times in the last 10 meetings, and as recently as 2018.
BYU had more depth and talent than Arizona and USF, too, and if there was a talent gap between the Cougars and Utah and ASU, it didn’t show up on the field.
For the first time in years, BYU doesn’t take a significant step back when starters go down. The Cougars were playing third- and fourth-string players against the Aggies at times, and it didn’t matter.
The fact that the team’s third-string quarterback (Jacob Conover) is a former four-star recruit who was a target of Alabama, Ole Miss and ASU is only further indication that Sitake’s plan has worked out.
“I just think we are all reliable and relentless,” BYU star running back Tyler Allgeier told the Deseret News after the Utah State game. “If someone goes down, we go on. We had two offensive linemen down, and we had two offensive linemen (Joe Tukuafu and Campbell Barrington) that ended up starting and doing their thing.
“So it shows a lot to what BYU football is and what our message is. We are all reliable and literally that is what BYU football is and what we do.”
Utah State has a talent gap to overcome
Heading into the rivalry game with BYU, Utah State coach Blake Anderson did not shy away from it: In his eyes, the Cougars were the most talented and physical team that the Aggies were going to play this season, and that was with games against Air Force and Boise State already in the rearview mirror.
Following the loss to BYU, his mind didn’t change.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part,” Anderson said. “... Ultimately, their ability to run the ball downhill and create the big plays won the game for them. We knew that was a huge challenge. We felt like that was the strongest part of the team, and it showed.”
Then he added, “That’s the part we have to recruit and develop.”
That is what lies ahead for Utah State. At 3-2, the Aggies still have a chance to win 10 games — it is a real possibility given the rest of the schedule — and contend for the Mountain Division title and a conference championship, but if the Aggies want to take a real step forward, they have to get bigger and stronger in the trenches.
Anderson is more than aware of that and believes Utah State is well on its way, especially given the 2022 recruiting class, which already includes six players on either the offensive or defensive line.
“We just have to be better,” Anderson said. “They were a little bit better and stronger than us, but that will not last. We’ll recruit our tail off, we’ll develop our tails off and we will make this a battle every stinkin’ year. This is one we won’t forget.”
The Pac-12 is gonna Pac-12
In a sport like college football, parity within a conference, unless accompanied by dominance out of conference, is disastrous.
Entertaining? Absolutely, but when it comes to participation in the College Football Playoff, the only teams that are invited are dominant.
The SEC is routinely touted as a great conference, but its playoff representatives never have more than one loss in a season. Parity doesn’t exist for them.
The Pac-12 on the other hand has routinely seen its best teams lose to some of its worst. Again, highly entertaining, but devastating to the conference’s prestige.
Through the first four weeks of the season, Oregon appeared to have finally given the Pac-12 one of those dominant teams, a CFP-worthy squad, but then the Pac-12 did what it does best and unranked Stanford upset the Ducks.
“We had some bright moments, but certainly not enough to overcome some of our own mistakes,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal told ESPN. “We didn’t play with enough discipline today and we didn’t coach with enough discipline today. It ends up costing us the game.”
It was an ugly, yet thrilling game, and Pac-12 officiating was once again a point of discussion, but in the end the conference was left without an undefeated team with the majority of the season still to go.
Oregon still could make it to the playoff, as could ASU or Oregon State after the Sun Devils and Beavers improved to 4-1 with wins over UCLA and Washington, but all three teams will need some help from teams in other conferences, and none can afford to lose another game this season.
Which in the Pac-12 seems almost impossible.
By way of comparison, the SEC still has three undefeated teams, while the Big Ten has four. The Big 12 has two unbeaten teams left, and the lowly ACC has one. Even the three most notable Group of 5 conferences — AAC, MWC and Sun Belt — have unbeaten teams.
The Mountain West no longer belongs to Boise State
For years, the Mountain West Conference has belonged to Boise State. Sure, San Diego State has had its moments, as have Fresno State and San Jose State. Hawaii has made some noise and Utah State, too, but the MWC has been Boise State’s domain year to year.
That is no longer the case.
At 2-3 overall and 1-1 in conference play, the Broncos look more vulnerable than they have in almost 20 years. They’ve lost to UCF, Oklahoma State and Nevada, with games remaining against San Diego State, Fresno State, Air Force, Wyoming and BYU.
It is entirely possible that Boise State could finish the season with a losing record.
So who now stands in place of the Broncos in the conference? That is anyone’s best guess.
San Diego State and Wyoming are unbeaten but haven’t played a conference game yet. Fresno State was on top of the world after strong showings against Oregon and UCLA, but an upset loss to Hawaii burst that balloon. San Jose State is the reigning conference champ, but the Spartans have looked very vulnerable with two losses already.
Nevada is an option, after it took down the Broncos in Boise, but at this point in the season, the conference appears to be wide open, not unlike the Pac-12.
It is possible that Boise State turns things around, but for the first time in a long time, the Broncos are just one of many contending MWC teams.
It is dangerous being a ranked team
Holding a ranking has always been a point of pride and prestige and that will continue to be the case, but this year, it is also extremely dangerous.
This weekend alone, nine ranked teams were defeated — Oregon, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Fresno State, UCLA and Baylor — only the 24th time in history that that many ranked teams have lost in a single day.
Four of those teams were ranked in the top 10. Four lost to unranked opponents, while only Arkansas, Ole Miss and Baylor lost to teams perceived to be their betters.
A record 34 ranked teams have lost this season, in just five weeks of play.
Parity has reared its head on college football in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, but also brings to mind the question of early season rankings.
Texas A&M, for instance, was a preseason Top 10 team, and the Aggies don’t look like a team that belongs anywhere close to the Top 25. UCLA got a massive bump for defeating LSU, but that same LSU team is 3-2 overall with games remaining against Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas.
Florida was praised for hanging tough against Alabama, but after losing to Kentucky, the Gators have multiple losses with Georgia still coming. Fresno State got credit for beating UCLA and battling Oregon, but the Bruins have lost twice and the Ducks are no longer unbeaten.
Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a team with a pulse, and the first one the Irish played (Cincinnati), made them look like anything but a top team.
All of which is to say, once again, early season rankings need to go.
Well, unless you’re Alabama or Georgia
Through five weeks, college football is a glorious mess. That is unless you are Alabama and Georgia. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs have been absolutely dominant this season, in a way that no other teams in the country have come close to matching.
Both have had one scare — Alabama against Florida, Georgia against Clemson — but otherwise have dominated.
Alabama has outscored its opponents, excluding the Gators, 197-62. Georgia, meanwhile, has done even better, outscoring the opposition 195-20 (205-23 if you include the opener against the Tigers) with a pair of shutouts thrown in.
Which team is better won’t be decided until the SEC Championship game, but at this point, both appear to be shoe-ins to not only make it to the conference title game, but also into the CFP.
The same cannot be said for any other team in the country. Oklahoma hasn’t lost, but the Sooners have been taken to the brink in every single game. Iowa is unbeaten, but almost lost to Colorado State and the Big Ten appears deeper than ever with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all standing unblemished at this point (those later three teams all play in the same division).
No, through five weeks, it is Alabama and Georgia who stand head and shoulders above the rest of the sport. That can always change, but right now, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs appear to be playing a different game than everyone else.