6 takeaways from the weekend in college football
The 2021 season has seen a record amount of upsets and plenty of College Football Playoff intrigue. Somehow, Week 11 managed to keep pace with everything that came before it.
Just when the 2021 college football season seemed incapable of becoming more unpredictable, Kansas went ahead and defeated Texas in Austin, the Jayhawks’ first-ever win at Texas, which snapped a 56-game Big 12 road losing streak in the process.
The 2021 season has seen a record amount of upsets of ranked teams, plenty of College Football Playoff intrigue, as well as shocking coaching firings (and hirings). Yet somehow, Week 11 managed to keep pace with everything that came before it, Kansas-Texas being but a small sampling.
Here are six takeaways from the latest weekend of college football.
It looks like Rose Bowl or bust for Utah
Anyone who watched Utah play Arizona Saturday saw a team that was looking ahead. Kyle Whittingham praised the Wildcats afterward for their effort, players and scheme, and it is fair to say that Jedd Fisch is affecting change in Tucson, but the Utes were clearly looking forward to playing Oregon (given the way the Ducks played early on against Washington State, they were doing the exact same thing).
The Utes won ugly against the Wildcats — the occasional ugly win is the hallmark of a good team, finding ways to win when you shouldn’t and all that — and now are staring at a showdown with the Ducks this weekend, as well as a near guaranteed rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
At 7-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play, Utah won’t — and frankly shouldn’t — be content with just making it to another Pac-12 title game, though.
Since Cam Rising took over as the starting quarterback, Utah has been the best team in the Pac-12 in almost every statistical metric, and ESPN’s latest FPI reflects that.
The Utes are now the favorite to the win conference, not Oregon, despite the Ducks current standing in the CFP rankings.
Utah is a flawed team. The Utes’ special teams have been a disaster and the defense still isn’t up to normal standards.
Any talk about losing to Oregon twice to guarantee a berth in the Rose Bowl should be stopped right now, though.
Oregon is vulnerable and has to travel to Salt Lake City this coming weekend. Win that game and Utah has only Colorado (3-7 overall, 2-5 in the Pac-12) left.
Utah could and probably should be 9-3 entering the conference championship game, with every opportunity to win 10 games this season and play in the Rose Bowl.
After making it to the Pac-12 title game in both 2018 and 2019, this looks like the year for the Utes to finally win the conference.
Do that, and it should be time to talk about how this is the best coaching job Whittingham has ever done, considering everything that has happened with Utah over the last year.
Utah State is close to being the Mountain West favorite
Through the first nine games of the season, there was reason to doubt the Utah State Aggies were legitimate MW title contenders, and it is all because of Boise State.
Yes, USU was 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play, not to mention the favorite to win the Mountain Division, but the way the Aggies lost to the Broncos earlier in the season (you can throw in the loss to BYU as well) left room for doubt.
San Diego State, Fresno State and Nevada all appeared to be significantly better than Utah State heading into Saturday’s action, and the Aggies’ game against San Jose State looked to be extremely dangerous.
The Spartans were favored, quarterback Nick Starkel was fully back from injury after he had previously missed over a month and SJSU had given Nevada everything it could handle the week before.
So what did Utah State do? Obliterated the Spartans. It was USU’s most complete showing of the season, in all three phases of the game.
Afterward, Blake Anderson said the Aggies’ underdog status was kind of insulting to the team — “So many games we’ve been the underdogs and I think, to some degree, the guys felt a little bit disrespected,” — and frankly they should have been insulted.
Utah State is playing as well as any team in the MW right now. SDSU, Fresno and Nevada were more impressive early in the season, but USU is coming together at just the right time.
With games left against woeful Wyoming and New Mexico, 10 wins should be in the cards for Utah State, and with an elite offense and surging defense, it is time to stop talking about the Aggies as just a cool story.
They are title contenders and Anderson should be in discussion for Coach of the Year awards (he is probably being eyed for open Power Five jobs, too).
The Pac-12 is finally settling down, with clear tiers emerging
While unpredictability has been the norm throughout college football this season, the Pac-12 had taken it to extreme levels most of the year.
Almost inconceivable upsets have been regular — think Stanford over Oregon, Colorado over Oregon State, Washington State over ASU — but finally, things calmed down for a week.
There wasn’t a single upset in the Pac-12 over the weekend, and because of that, the conference picture cleared up considerably.
At the top, away from everyone else, are Oregon and Utah. The Ducks and Utes are the clear favorites to win their respective divisions — ESPN’s FPI gives both teams better than a 93% chance — and barring some significant upsets, should meet in the conference title game.
Below those two are ASU, UCLA and maybe Oregon State. The Sun Devils are a clear third right now — a few inexplicable losses have to be killing ASU — while the Bruins and Beavers have established themselves as solid bowl eligible teams.
After that is a lot of mess.
Washington and USC are probably not in a bottom tier, but both teams have coaching disasters going on and have fallen hard and fast from their usual place at the top of the conference. Bowl eligibility is stretch at this point.
Cal, Stanford, Colorado and Arizona, meanwhile, are all pretty bad FBS teams right now.
Arizona is the worst (when Cal is healthy), but none inspire much confidence. Every conference has its dregs, but there’s an argument that a third of the Pac-12 is in the lowest tier of P5 teams right now.
But hey, Oregon has a shot at the playoff still.
San Diego State, Nevada or Fresno State. ... Who’ve you got?
The West Division of the Mountain West has been one of the most exciting divisions in all of college football this season.
San Diego State, Nevada and Fresno State have all had a legitimate shot at winning the thing, often shifting positions week by week.
After Week 11, things are not any clearer, either. The Aztecs currently hold the top spot — and have the best odds to keep it — following a win over Nevada, but still have to play a dangerous Boise State team the final week of the season (Boise State should be 7-4 entering the game).
Nevada seemingly has the hardest path to the division title — after losing to both the Aztecs and Bulldogs and with games against Air Force and Colorado State remaining — but crazier things have happened (the Wolfpack would need SDSU to drop its final two games of the season and for Fresno State to be upset once).
As for Fresno State, sneakily the Bulldogs are in good position. Fresno State has games against New Mexico and San Jose State remaining, games that should be wins, and with wins over SDSU and Nevada, all the Bulldogs need is for Boise State to upend the Aztecs and the division is theirs.
Only SDSU has its destiny in its own hands, and the Aztecs have been great this season, but the way things have gone, all three teams still have a chance.
Contrast that with the Mountain Division, where USU need only to. win out, and the West is providing the majority of excitement in the MW as the season draws to a close.
Time to rank the conferences
I was wrong. A week ago, I ranked the Pac-12 ahead of the ACC in a brief comparison of two of the Power Five conferences.
On closer reflection, that ranking was incorrect.
Through 11 weeks, the ACC has been better in totality than the Pac-12. There is even an argument that the AAC has been better than the Pac-12.
What is the best conference in the country? Let’s do some rankings.
- Big Ten — Top to bottom, the Big Ten is the best conference in the country this season. The league has the second-best overall winning percentage, the hardest combined strength of schedule and entering last weekend, six top 25 teams. Only four schools in the conference have a losing record this season.
- SEC — If we are simply looking at the top, the SEC is the best conference in America. Georgia has been dominant and Alabama is still pretty good. The SEC has the best overall record of any conference this year and the best nonconference record, but the third-best strength of schedule. The SEC only has two teams under .500 right now, but the conference really only has two contenders, compared to the Big Ten’s three.
- Big 12 — This conference is similar to the Big Ten in a lot of ways. The Big 12 has the second-hardest strength of schedule this year, has an identical winning percentage with the Big Ten and actually has a better nonconference record. Where the Big 12 is dinged is at the top. The conference has Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor, but those teams aren’t on the same level (perceived. at least) as Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
- ACC — Now things get interesting. By overall strength of schedule, overall record and nonconference record, the ACC is clearly the fourth-best league in the country. The ACC doesn’t have an elite program this year, but it does have some solid ones, like Wake Forest, Pitt, Clemson (the Tigers are actually 7-3) and NC State. Only three teams in the conference have losing records, and one of those (Florida State) has a path to bowl eligibility.
- Pac-12 — Everything starts with Oregon, and rightfully so given the Ducks’ lofty CFP rankings. With each passing week, Utah has established itself as a positive for the conference and ASU, UCLA and Oregon State are all solid. After that though, the league struggles and has six teams with losing records. The Pac-12 has the seventh-best strength of schedule this season and a worse winning percentage than every conference before them and one after them. Oregon is the reason the conference is in this spot.
- AAC — Overall winning percentage, nonconference winning percentage and strength of schedule all state that the AAC is the fifth-best conference in the country right now. Throw in Cincinnati, Houston and SMU, and the AAC has three really good/great teams. East Carolina and UCF have been fine, too. The real problem is the rest of the conference, with five of the six teams having sub .500 records.
- Mountain West — By almost every metric, the MW is right behind the AAC and Pac-12 this season. The league has a better overall and nonconference record than both those aforementioned leagues, but the issue is strength of schedule, which puts the MW squarely behind the AAC and Pac-12. The MW doesn’t have an elite team this year, but with SDSU, Fresno State, Nevada, Utah State, Air Force and Boise State, it has really solid depth at the top. The bottom of the league is pretty rough, though, with New Mexico, Hawaii and UNLV.
- Sun Belt — Now things start to fall off. While the Sun Belt has some good teams — Louisiana, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina — it has more teams that are just kind of there. Strength of schedule and winning percentages are better than what comes after on this list, but nowhere close to what came before.
- Conference USA — The league has been dealing with realignment all fall, but that hasn’t affected its play. UTSA is one of three undefeated teams left in FBS, UAB is solid and then the rest of the league is pretty forgettable. Conference USA is a clear tier below the leagues before it but still better than the MAC.
- MAC — Ah, the MAC. MACtion is great every week, but the conference itself is not. A lot of metrics have the MAC barely ahead of multiple FCS conferences, and Northern Illinois (7-3) is the best the league has to offer right now.
A look at the latest chaos
It is almost being rote to list off the upsets that happen every week, but upsets are what is making this one of the most exciting and unpredictable college football seasons in recent memory.
So without further adieu (rankings listed are of the CFP variety):
- No. 13 Baylor defeated No. 8 Oklahoma 27-14, validating the CFP committee’s multiple slights of the Sooners. Oklahoma can still win the Big 12, but the playoff might be a long shot.
- No. 15 Ole Miss defeated No. 11 Texas A&M 29-19. The more time goes by, the more the Aggies upset of Alabama seems like a complete fluke. Texas A&M’s offense is bad, particularly the passing attack. On the flip side, the Rebels are good now and Lane Kiffin is actually a good head coach.
- Mississippi State defeated No. 17 Auburn 43-34. This upset is just indicative that after Georgia and Alabama, the SEC is a lot of solid teams, but nothing more. The Bulldogs will find a way to be ranked again, because solid SEC teams get ranked.
- A few other ranked teams lost — Purdue and NC State — but they were playing higher-ranked teams, so that was to be expected.
- The biggest upset, of course, came when Kansas defeated Texas 57-56 in overtime. The game meant nothing in a the big picture, but it was a perfect example of why college football is the greatest sport on earth.