An Oklahoma escape, a never-ending Big Ten slog and more in Week 8

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, October 24, 2021

The 2021 college football season has been a rollicking, chaotic mess so far, but until Week 8, something had been missing -- something terrible and beautiful and ridiculous.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Kansasto the party. The Jayhawks brought a close game against Oklahomaand a bottle of cheap wine. They're, uh, not great party guests.

Still, what happened in Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday was genuine excitement, a potentially momentous upset that would send shockwaves through the playoff debate and give Texas fans something to laugh about for years to come. The Jayhawks' offense moved the ball consistently, the defense held Oklahoma scoreless through the first half, and for a few delirious minutes, anything seemed possible.

It was a wild scene -- undefeated Oklahoma scrambling, hapless Kansas seeming marginally less hapless, and with the Jayhawks up 17-7 late in the third quarter, the elation gave way to a full-on YOLO moment as Kansas opened the doors to the stadium for anyone who wanted to drop by -- no ticket necessary.

We'd like to think some random guy in Kansas was halfway through a corned beef sandwich, mindlessly scrolling Twitter, saw that invitation and thought to himself: "Nah."

And, of course, he was right to choose his sandwich over the Jayhawks because this is, after all, Kansas football. The result was inevitable. The only question was how the Sooners would stage their comeback.

Turns out, the answer was pretty good.

Caleb Williams has been a superhero for Oklahoma since taking over for Spencer Rattler against Texas, but it begs an obvious question: If a team needs a true freshman superhero, particularly against teams like Kansas, is it really a playoff team?

On one hand, the Sooners remain undefeated, and Saturday's 35-23 win was their first by more than a touchdown against an FBS foe. There's been a high-profile QB change, but that feels almost like some magician's sleight of hand ("Keep your eye on the QBs, ignore what we're doing with the defense"). But it's more than that. The whole experience has felt ... off. Oklahoma is like a season of "Ozark." It's got some drama. All the pieces are there. On paper, it should be great. And yet, if you think about it just a little, the whole thing seems paper thin.

But if not Oklahoma, then who?

Wake ForestandMichiganboth remained undefeated Saturday, their respective cases for serious consideration getting ever stronger.

For the Wolverines, the game plan has been as simple as a pair of pleated khakis. They beat Northwestern 33-7 behind some stellar defense and 119 yards on the ground from Blake Corum. Michigan hasn't thrown for more than 255 yards in a game this season, but it also hasn't needed to. Jim Harbaugh might be running a vanilla offense, but it's really good vanilla -- like that French vanilla ice cream with sprinkles.

Meanwhile, Wake Forest is 7-0 for just the second time in program history after hanging 70 on Army, despite just 17 minutes, 17 seconds of possession time. That's a point every 14 seconds, a level of cold, cruel efficiency usually reserved for tax audits. Sure, the Wake defense also gave up 56 points, turning the box score into something more like a Cheesecake Factory menu, but this is 2021, and everyone has flaws. At least Wake's flaws are fun.

Alabama is supposed to be a juggernaut, but the Tide struggled early with Tennessee.

Oregon still has the season's most impressive win, but since beating Ohio State in Columbus, the Ducks have been college football's most milquetoast team, including Saturday's narrow escape at UCLA. (Of course, it's Oregon, so the toast is at least farm-to-table organic.)

Cincinnati let Navy hang around. Penn State and Oklahoma State both lost. Iowa, Michigan State, Notre Dame -- not a speck of excitement among them.

So perhaps we're left with an inevitable truth: A team that needs a hero to get past Kansas really might be a playoff team. After Clemson, LSU and Alabama gave us successive seasons of thinking the eventual champion might actually be the best team to ever take the field in college football, perhaps 2021 is something different -- less explosive, less sexy, more enigmatic, more flawed.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. It gives us moments like Saturday, when Kansas invited the world to a party, and only Oklahoma's offense eventually showed up.

Ohio Statemakes a statement

If the remainder of the regular season is less about identifying college football's best team (we missed you in Week 8, Georgia) and more about finding someone, anyone who might be able to dethrone the kings, Saturday might have provided us our best answer yet.

Ohio State continues to cut through its schedule like warm butter, throttling Indiana 54-7, and while it's hard to ignore the flashing red light reminding us of the Buckeyes' Week 2 loss to Oregon, that seems like a distant memory compared to their utter dominance since.

First, a word of condolence for Indiana: The Hoosiers are just the second team in the past decade to face five top-18 teams through seven weeks, joining last year's Arkansas -- though the Hogs have an asterisk, since the AP poll was abridged in the early season as the Big Ten and Pac-12 sat out. It's been a brutal run in which the Hoosiers have lost all five games by a total of 118 points. Indiana gets a one-week reprieve before traveling to Michigan. At least basketball season starts soon.

But for Ohio State, everything seems to be falling into place. The Buckeyes have won five straight by an average of 42 points. The offense has put up 50 in four straight. If there's a team that can truly challenge Georgia's defense, isn't it likely to be the Buckeyes?

The hypothesis here is simple: To beat Georgia, a team needs to score. That likely leaves Ohio State and Alabama among the nation's top contenders. And while Alabama will get first crack in a potential SEC championship game matchup, it's Ohio State that looms over the playoff.

The remaining schedule includes Penn State, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, plus a potential showdown with Iowa's dominant defense in the Big Ten title game, and with a loss already on their record, there's no margin for error for the Buckeyes. With the way Ohio State is playing, however, those all seem more like speed bumps on a path that points inevitably toward the College Football Playoff.

Penn State's loss signals apocalypse

There's an old Woody Allen joke about bad meals. "The food was awful," the man says. "Yes," replies the woman, "and such small portions."

Those poor souls who tuned in for Penn State and Illinoison Saturday had no such concerns. Yes, the product was just dreadful, but the portions were so big, it might have been the Golden Corral of bad football.

We could give you the background on regulation, but you'd be more entertained scrolling through your iTunes terms of service. Suffice to say, both offenses were terrible, and the two teams headed to overtime tied at 10. For Penn State, a massive favorite, this was bad. But it was about to get so much worse.

In the first overtime, the two teams traded field goals. The same in overtime No. 2. This represented a true windfall of offensive achievement.

Beginning in the third OT, college football's new rules kicked in, whereupon each team gets one play to attempt to find the end zone from 3 yards out. This, as it happens, is much harder than it sounds.

The two teams each failed to convert the two-point try in OTs No. 3 and 4. At this point, the game had effectively become the final season of "Game of Thrones" -- a tedious, illogical slog that you endure simply because you've come too far to turn back.

The fifth overtime was more futility; but by now, viewers began to identify with their captors in what doctors have called the first case of college football Stockholm Syndrome.

We wish we could tell you that, in the sixth overtime, Penn State fought the good fight, and Illinois let it be. We wish we could tell you that -- but this was no fairy-tale world.

The seventh overtime was when Fighting Illini coach Bret Bielema first dragged a cooler full of beer onto the sideline and started barbecuing ribs on a portable grill.

In overtime No. 8, something clicked. The world began to understand that this game was bigger than just one Big Ten score. It was bigger than the No. 7 team losing as a 24.5-point favorite. It was bigger than all of us. This game was about hope and perseverance and America and freedom. Each overtime was a new opportunity to tell the world that we won't be beaten back, that, sure, we might not be the prettiest girl at the dance and, sure, we've overdrafted our checking account three times since Tuesday, and yeah, we might not know which fork to use for the salad, but ... what were we saying? We blacked out for a minute there.

Oh, but the ninth overtime -- the ninth overtime was truly beautiful. By this point, quarterbackArt Sitkowskihad injured his wrist, and backup Brandon Peters pulled away from the mezzanine section, where he'd been sharing nachos with a nice couple from McKeesport, to take over the offense. Peters hadn't appeared in a game since Week 0, which through a strange paradox of physics understood only by Albert Einstein, actually happened more recently than the start of this game. He threw the ball to Casey Washington. Washington stretched across the goal line. The nervous bolt of light flickered across the scoreboard. Points. Glorious points. It was -- a miracle. Then the seas caught fire, frogs rained from the sky and a bunch of horsemen charged onto the field -- but ultimately were dragged down at the 1-yard line.

Anyway, the only real downside to the whole thing is that James Franklin was just one more overtime away from getting a free footlong at any central Pennsylvania area Subway.

Let's knock Cincinnati

Well, it finally happened. Cincinnati lost a game. OK, no, it didn't actually lose. In the standings, the Bearcats remain undefeated. But Cincinnati's 27-20 win over Navy was close, and by playoff committee standards for Group of 5 teams, that's a loss. Or maybe half a loss. We'll have to check our CFP rule book.

Is it fair? Of course not. Cincy got another solid performance from Desmond Ridder (176 pass yards, 2 TDs); Jerome Ford and the ground game were good (90 yards on 15 carries); and the defense once again was exceptional (Navy managed just 2.9 yards per rush). But the rules are the rules, and until the Bearcats officially join the Big 12, we can't simply give them credit for winning games. They have to win by a lot -- but also not too much, because then it's obvious their schedule was too weak.

On the plus side, Cincinnati saw some of its competition fall this week -- with Coastal Carolina, Oklahoma State and Penn State all losing -- and the committee could still follow the "maybe if you're the last decent team on Earth" rule. And after SMU destroyed Tulane on Thursday to stay undefeated, at least one more big game remains on the Bearcats' schedule. So there's hope.

But let Saturday's performance be a warning to you, Cincinnati. No more of these near misses, no more close calls, no more shoddy offensive outputs and, of course, make sure you're giving out full-size candy bars for Halloween. None of that fun size stuff. You're better than that.

Highs, lows for ACC hot seat coaches?

An optimist might note that Virginia Techis just 14 points away from being 6-1 this season -- and that the Hokies had a lead in the final few minutes of two losses and were at the goal line with a chance to go ahead in a third.

There are no optimists left in Blacksburg, however.

Saturday's outing marked yet another brutal blow to Justin Fuente's tenure at Virginia Tech, as the Hokies coughed up 14 points in the game's final 2:28 and fell 41-36 to Syracuse.

The Hokies have now lost 10 of their past 31 games by a TD or less, none of which makes the current status -- 3-4 and riding a three-game home skid -- any more tolerable.

After being blown out last week by Pitt, Saturday's collapse could well mark the end for Fuente, who entered the year on the hot seat and has done little to assuage anger from the fan base.

Three separate home losing streaks of three games or more in four years might be good for sales of Rails at Top of the Stairs, but it's not how a coach keeps his job.

At Miami, Manny Diaz might've found a lifeline. The Hurricanes took down No. 18 NC State 31-30, a much-needed tight win after two close calls went the other way in Miami's prior two games. It was cause for celebration, which Miami fans did even before the game.

But after AD Blake James failed to offer Diaz even the most tepid of endorsements, the win was another signal that this Hurricanes team is fighting despite myriad setbacks. Freshman QB Tyler Van Dyke threw for 325 yards and four touchdowns, and while the 3-4 record certainly won't pacify Miami fans, it might have at least bought Diaz a little more time to plug the holes.

Coach of the Year

You might think Kirby Smart or Luke Fickell or even Lincoln Riley deserves recognition as the country's best coach, but any of them is, at best, a distant second. The winner, hands down, should be Louisiana-Monroe's Terry Bowden.

How good is Bowden?

Well, it goes without saying he has done a remarkable job for the Warhawks. In 2020, ULM finished 0-10, outscored by more than 25 points per game on average. After Bowden took over this year, however, the Warhawks are playing good football. They've already beaten Deion Sanders' Jackson State and Hugh Freeze's Liberty; and on Saturday, as two-TD underdogs, they beat South Alabama by 10. ULM is 4-3, better than .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2018.

Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg on Bowden's impact.

For the previous two years, Bowden served as an unpaid graduate assistant at Clemson, where he was pursuing a master's degree. During those two years, Clemson was a combined 24-3 with two playoff appearances. This year, Bowden is gone, and the Tigers are a mess. Coincidence? We think not.

Hot take of the week

Mike Leach has candy opinions. Those opinions are wrong.

First off, candy corn is fine. On the scale of holiday candy, they're far better than Peeps, candy hearts and lit M-80s (only consumed in Florida). Second, he should really be celebrating the entire gummy bear oeuvre, as opposed to just Haribo. Lastly, all 45-6 blowouts should end with extended sideline interviews about food preferences. Lane Kiffin certainly should have thoughts on Five Guys vs. In-N-Out.

Running to stand still

Kudos to Division II Shippensburg University, which delivered an important life lessons to the folks at Millersville: Running is for fugitives and masochists. Next time, just stay home, relax on your couch, order a pizza and enjoy having 61 more rushing yards than you did Saturday.

From Heisman hopefuls to benched and battered

This year's preseason Heisman odds have aged about as well as an Ed Orgeron contract extension.

A quick look at how the season has progressed for some of the favorites:

1. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma (11:2): His own student section called for his benching ... and the students were right.

2. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson (7:1): His finest work has come in a Dr Pepper commercial. He also has been benched.

5.JT Daniels, Georgia (12:1): Might have lost his job to Stetson Bennett,who previously captained Kirby Smart's yacht.

6. Sam Howell, UNC (15:1): His team has lost three games, including, for the second straight year, to Florida State, the school Howell spurned as a recruit.

7. D'Eriq King, Miami (18:1): Injured his shoulder, out for the season.

8. Kedon Slovis, USC (20:1): His coach was fired, and most of the country forgot Slovis existed.

t-11. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State (30:1): Two losses, his team is under NCAA investigation.

t-11. Emory Jones, Florida (30:1): His coach has him in a fantasy league, which is the only reason he keeps starting.

14. McKenzie Milton, Florida State (40:1): Well, Week 1 was pretty nice.

It's an absolutely bizarre turn of events that so many players expected to be superstars have been bruised, battered and benched. It's rare that anything outside of Auburn gets so much advanced hype and delivers so little. The 2021 season is truly a strange time.

Heisman Five

It's been an awful year for many of the preseason favorites. But it's becoming a particularly deep bench of guys who have stepped to the forefront this season.

1. Georgia NT Jordan Davis

The Dawgs were off this week, but here's a little food for thought: Davis has played 155 snaps this season, and just four of them -- four! -- were explosive plays for the offense. Overall, opponents are averaging just 2.72 yards per play with Davis in the middle of UGA's defensive line in 2021. He deserves a spot atop Heisman ballots.

2. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Young was solid through the air in a surprisingly close game with Tennessee, but he was even better with his legs, scoring twice on runs. Young remains the betting favorite to win the award, and each week, he keeps proving why he belongs at the top of the list. But it's Week 8, we're bored with the same old storylines and so he checks in at No. 2 this week.

3. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral

Ho-hum effort for Corral, who was banged up late in last week's win. He finished with 185 passing yards -- a season low -- and two TDs (one rushing) in the win over LSU. Corral is still clearly in the middle of the Heisman race, but we should probably throw a few votes to Ole Miss' social media coordinator too. The rare double burn on both Tennessee (for throwing mustard) and LSU (for eating corn dogs, which will never not be funny) is a truly tremendous effort.

4. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett

There was a time when the name Kenny was synonymous with greatness. Loggins. Rogers. The guy who played R2-D2. Then, around the early 1990s, the tide turned. We were left with some awful Kenny options. Kenny G ruined elevator rides around the world. Kenny Banya was a "Seinfeld" punchline -- and not even one as funny as Ovaltine. Each week, a boy named Kenny died on "South Park." These were dark times. Then, as all Kenny hope seemed lost, along came a hero. You see, Kenny Pickett's 302 passing yards, his two TD throws, his pair of hard-fought first-down runs, and his promise to "have a cold one" after Pitt's signature win over Clemson weren't just about securing his space among Heisman contenders. No, this was a Heisman moment for all Kennys -- from Mayne to Chesney -- to announce that our long national nightmare is over. It is good to be a Kenny once more.

5. Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson

We like to use the No. 5 spot to highlight a player who hasn't gotten nearly as much Heisman love as he should, so while Ohio State's QB, C.J. Stroud, has a better shot at the award, it's Henderson who warrants some more attention. The freshman tailback and former five-star prospect has played a smaller role on the Buckeyes' offense, but he has been absolutely electric every time he has touched the ball. Entering Saturday, Henderson had the highest yards per carry in the country (8.74) and had touchdown runs on nine of his 70 carries. Against Indiana, he improved on even those eye-popping numbers, touching the ball 10 times for 95 yards and three touchdowns.

Under-the-radar play of the day

Rarely does a Saturday go by in which college officials don't make at least one truly egregious call, but those mostly fall within the realm of honest mistakes. The flag against Iowa State's Xavier Hutchinson for excessive celebration -- a spot foul in college, absurdly -- to overturn a touchdown was quite simply the worst, dumbest, most pointless bit of officiating we've seen in a long, long time. This crew deserves some punishment from the league -- or at least maybe a demotion to the American Athletic Conference when Cincinnati, UCF and Houston join the Big 12.

Under-the-radar game of the day

You know it's been a great Saturday when you can pose the question: Which was your favorite multiple-overtime game that ended with a failed two-point conversion? If you didn't get enough of Penn State-Illinois -- and, honestly, what kind of a monster are you? -- then the Ivy League delivered its own version, as Harvardand Princetonwent five overtimes, trading offensive ineptitude before the Tigers ultimately prevailed. Harvard had its shots in OT, with a late timeout and an offensive pass interference call negating potential game winners. After it was over, Princeton fans stormed the field -- though it wasn't to celebrate the big win but rather just a rush to tell other people that they go to Princeton.

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