6 Biggest Surprises of the 2021 College Football Season so Far
The 2021 college football season is well underway, and so it goes every year in the sport, there are the usual fair share of expected storylines. The SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12 look primed to have teams in the College Football Playoff once again.
But there have also been some surprises, even this early on in the season. Alabama's offense looks dominant, even though it replaced most of its starters and offensive coordinator from last year's national title team. The UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks look like the teams to beat in the Pac-12, and a couple of other unexpected teams have had some statement victories early.
Let's take a look at what some of the biggest surprises have been this season as we head into Week 3 of college football.
Alabama's Offense Is Still a Force Despite Losses
It was a bit surprising when Alabama announced in January that Bill O'Brien, who was fired as the Houston Texans head coach early last season after compiling a 52-48 record over six-plus years, would be the Tide's new offensive coordinator. He replaced Steve Sarkisian, who became the Texas Longhorns head coach.
The hire was even more surprising given that Alabama seemed to be facing a challenging offensive rebuild. It had to replace starting quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, among others.
But O'Brien and the Tide's offense have risen to the challenge.
Through the first two weeks, the unit is averaging 46 points per game and is third in ESPN's S&P+ rankings, which measures teams' tempo and opponent-adjusted efficiency.
New starting quarterback Bryce Young hasn't had issues in the spotlight, averaging 285.5 yards passing per game, and he's tossed seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Leading receivers John Metchie III and Jameson Williams are averaging a combined 16.9 yards per reception and have posted three scores together.
The offense hasn't had to do too much on the ground thanks to Young's success—the Tide's rushing attack ranks 77th in the nation. But backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders have combined for 201 yards and a pair of scores.
Next up is a trip to visit the No. 11 Florida Gators, so this will be an important test for Young's poise in a hostile environment. Florida's defense has seven sacks, and it's allowed 17 points per game. The Gators secondary allows 224.5 pass yards per contest, so we'll see if the Tide's aerial success can continue this week.
The Oregon Ducks Are Undefeated
Oregon had a statement victory over Ohio State last week to move to 2-0, upsetting the No. 3 Buckeyes 35-28 on the road. Not to mention they did so without two of their biggest defensive stars—potential No. 1 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Justin Flowe. The loss marked the Buckeyes' first at Ohio Stadium since Sept. 9, 2017, when then-No. 5 Oklahoma was victorious.
Oregon, which was a 14.5-point underdog, looked much better than it did in its season opener. Against an unranked Fresno State, the Ducks won by just a touchdown, 31-24—the Bulldogs even had a three-point road lead in the fourth quarter.
Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown has thrown for an average of 204 yards per game and has tossed three touchdowns. Junior running back CJ Verdell, who posted 1,000-yards rushing in 2018 and 2019, had 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Ohio State.
Head coach Mario Cristobal's defense has averaged 26 points allowed, but the unit is giving up just 3.36 yards per carry, a top-51 mark. The passing defense has been abhorrent with 391 yards allowed per game, the country's third-worst average. The Pac-12 isn't known for its defensive prowess, but defending the pass will come into play if Oregon hopes to make a CFP run.
With the victory against OSU, the Ducks look primed to win the Pac-12 North. The only team that might stand in their way in the division is Stanford, which Oregon faces on the road Oct. 2.
Who might Oregon face in the Pac-12 Championship Game? That brings us to our next surprise...
The UCLA Bruins Could Make a Pac-12 Title Run
UCLA went from unranked in the preseason to No. 13 heading into Week 3. It was an unexpected rise for the Bruins, who went a combined 10-21 in Chip Kelly's first three seasons as head coach.
They opened the campaign with a 44-10 victory over Hawai'i and upset then-No. 16 LSU 38-27 at home to move to 2-0.
The offense, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet, is averaging 41 points per game. Thompson-Robinson posted 260 yards and three passing touchdowns against the Tigers, and UCLA is a top-20 team in passing efficiency. Charbonnet, who leads the squad with four touchdowns, averages a whopping 13.1 yards per carry, good for fourth in the country. The unit ranks third overall, per S&P+.
That success, as well as the fact that Kelly is finally seeing returns on his recruiting classes as he enters year four, are contributing factors to UCLA's ascendancy. The coach told ESPN in July that building depth was key:
"In our first season when we beat USC, we had 57 scholarship players. Everybody else has got 85. Then when we added 25, we got to 72. Then last year, we were still under 80. This will be the first year we're over 80 in scholarships. So just getting that competitive depth [matters], because in this league your depth is going to get tested. I think we've always had some really good frontline players, but when one of them went down, there was a drop off."
The Bruins have some big tests remaining. UCLA plays No. 19 Arizona State at home Oct. 2 and has won the last two against the Sun Devils. It also hosts Oregon on Oct. 23, which might set us up for a rematch in the Pac-12 title game come December.
The Arkansas Razorbacks Knock Off Texas, Crack Top 25
Arkansas had a forgettable 3-7 record in 2020 under first-year head coach Sam Pittman. It was safe to say the Razorbacks weren't on many people's radars heading into this season.
But they surprised everyone with an upset of the visiting No. 15 Texas Longhorns on Saturday night.
The Razorbacks dominated throughout, finishing with 471 total yards. They led the Longhorns by at least three scores for most of the game. The 40-21 victory marked the first win over Texas in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1981. The home crowd was so jubilant, it rushed the field—resulting in a $100,000 fine from the SEC.
Arkansas' offense has averaged 422 yards per game, and it relies on Trelon Smith and its ninth-ranked running game to do so.
After the Texas win, Pittman told reporters:
"I think we took a step already. That was the No. 15 team in the country and they beat the No. 23 team [Louisiana] soundly last week. I think we've taken a step and we need to keep climbing. We've played some pretty good teams and we've beat some pretty good teams. We're headed that direction and we've got a long way to go but tonight sure was nice."
Arkansas faces a brutal four-week stretch starting at the end of September. It will square off with No. 7 Texas A&M at home on Sept. 25, travel to the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs and then face No. 17 Ole Miss on the road Oct. 9. If those weren't enough, Arkansas will face No. 22 Auburn at home Oct. 16.
The Razorbacks better enjoy their time in the Top 25 while they can.
The Iowa Hawkeyes Could Be the Big Ten's CFP Entrant
Folks, the Iowa Hawkeyes are the No. 5 team in the nation heading into Week 3.
The squad opened the season with a 34-16 win over No. 17 Indiana and followed it by going into Ames and handling No. 9 Iowa State with ease 27-17.
Iowa isn't your typical powerhouse, but this team looks like it could crash the CFP, especially considering Ohio State's early loss. It's led by its defense, which ranks 15th in points allowed and leads the nation with three defensive touchdowns.
Given that, the Hawkeyes haven't needed too much offensively. Iowa is averaging just 238 yards per game, fifth-worst in the nation, and it got only 173 total yards last week against the Cyclones. The ground game has gained just 225 yards all season, while quarterback Spencer Petras has thrown for under 150 yards in each of Iowa's two contests.
These numbers are rough, but Iowa can still rely on its defense to win.
The biggest games remaining include No. 10 Penn State at home on Oct. 9 and a road trip to Wisconsin on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes are already in front of the Badgers in the Big Ten West thanks to Wisconsin's Week 1 loss to Penn State.
According to ESPN's FPI, Iowa is favored against the Nittany Lions, with the Badgers game a toss-up.
Ohio State's Defense Hasn't Improved in the Offseason
The Buckeyes returned five defensive starters from last season, and the unit has struggled quite a bit. Even during Ohio State's last game of the season a year ago in the national title game vs. No. 1 Alabama, there were major questions about the D. It gave up 464 yards and 52 points to the Tide.
It looks like not even an entire offseason has helped the defense improve.
In the season opener against Minnesota, they gave up 408 yards and 31 points. Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim had 163 rushing yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game early with a season-ending leg injury.
The Buckeyes didn't do much better against the Ducks last week, giving up 505 yards and letting Oregon convert eight of 16 third downs. They also gave up a fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter. Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day told reporters this week that he is looking to shake things up on defense, but not by firing coordinator Kerry Coombs.
"Now it's not just a single game, it's a little bit of a pattern," Day said. "We took a long, hard look the last 48 hours at everything that's going on, and certainly going to make some adjustments here, not only of how we're attacking other offenses, but also just structurally, how we're doing our day-to-day operations."
Day didn't specify if defensive play-calling duties would shift, though.
The Buckeyes get easy games against Tulsa and Akron over the next two weeks, so the defense should make some useful adjustments. But looming contests against Maryland, Penn State and Michigan might be tall orders for this defense.