B/R's College Football Awards for the 2021 Season
Immediately after conference championships each year, college football starts to hand out the hardware.
While the most prestigious award is the Heisman Trophy, the winners of each major national honor—the Maxwell Award, Doak Walker Award, Outland Trophy, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award, among many others—are also revealed.
B/R is distributing several awards of our own, too.
From the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year to the Best Single-Game Performance and Play of the Year, we have a collection of honors for the 2021 season to unveil.
Bleacher Report's college football crew―David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard―each submitted a ballot to determine our award winners.
Head Coach of the Year
With a well-deserved nod to Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, Michigan boss Jim Harbaugh is the Coach of the Year.
Ultimately, this selection is about two games.
For the third time in Harbaugh's tenure, the Wolverines headed into the regular-season finale with Ohio State at 10-1. However, they lost 30-27 in 2016 and 62-39 in 2018. Another loss for Michigan may have spelled the end of his reign in Ann Arbor.
But on this brisk day, Michigan dethroned the Buckeyes. Harbaugh's team earned a 42-27 victory and a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in which the Wolverines pulverized Iowa 42-3.
Hot seat? Gone.
Big Ten title? The program's first in 17 years.
National championship? We'll find out soon.
Assistant Coach of the Year
Oklahoma State fell devastatingly shy of the College Football Playoff. More on that storyline a bit later.
All season, though, the Cowboys boasted a spectacular defense. The unit featured a quartet of first-team All-Big 12 choices and two more second-team selections.
And the brain behind the operation was Jim Knowles.
Entering bowl season, Oklahoma State leads the FBS in tackles for loss (133) and sacks (54), ranks second in opponent third-down conversion rate (25.8), fourth in yards allowed per play (4.4) and seventh in scoring defense (16.8). The fourth-year coordinator, incredibly, put the Pokes on the brink of a trip to the CFP.
Knowles has parlayed the success into a job at Ohio State, where he'll take over as the defensive coordinator in 2022.
Offensive Player of the Year
The presumptive Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young is our unanimous choice for Offensive Player of the Year.
After backing up Mac Jones last season, the 5-star prospect took the reins in 2021 and excelled. Young completed 68.0 percent of his 35.5 passing attempts per game, averaging 332.5 yards (9.3 per attempt) with 43 scores to only four interceptions. He also rushed for three touchdowns.
Young capped the pre-CFP portion of the season with an epic performance to upset top-ranked Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. You'll read extensively about that in a few minutes.
The sophomore is certain to receive a collection of All-American honors, and he's included on B/R's team, too.
Defensive Player of the Year
Aidan Hutchinson is the only person who could've prevented an Alabama sweep. However, the Michigan edge-rusher garnered two votes to Will Anderson Jr.'s three.
Break out the brooms, Tuscaloosa.
Anderson has assembled a legendary year, winning the 2021 Nagurski Award after racking up 91 tackles and spending a whole lot of time in the backfield. He's collected 32.5 tackles for loss with 15.5 sacks—both of which lead the FBS—and nine hurries, but the latter stat is far, far below the legitimate number of pressures he's created.
Most impressively, Anderson posted two-plus tackles for loss in 10 of his team's 13 games. That level of high-end consistency hasn't happened since Houston's Sammy Brown in 2011.
Since he's not eligible for the NFL draft yet, Anderson will return in 2022—likely as a unanimous preseason All-American.
Freshman of the Year
Although his season ended a victory short of the Big Ten Championship Game, C.J. Stroud had a superb redshirt freshman year.
Now, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Stroud dealt with a rough first half in the opener at Minnesota. After falling to Oregon at home, Stroud struggled in a tighter-than-expected win over Tulsa and sat against Akron to rest a shoulder injury.
But after that, he spearheaded an explosive offense.
Ohio State heads into bowl season atop the FBS in yards per game (551.1), yards per play (7.8) and points per game (45.5). As a passer, Stroud holds top-five rankings nationally in yards per game (351.1), yards per attempt (9.8) and touchdowns (38).
While key receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are likely to pursue the NFL, Young will lead an exciting offense with running back TreVeyon Henderson and wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba in 2022.
Senior of the Year
The rise of Kenny Pickett is best described as baffling.
Sure, quarterbacks tend to improve as they age. Yes, Pittsburgh returned a promising playmaker in Jordan Addison. But as some progression could be expected, we didn't imagine Pickett morphing into a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Through four years at Pitt, he'd managed just 6.8 yards per attempt with 39 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Pickett was, by any metric, an above-average QB at best.
So much for that.
Pickett threw more touchdowns (42) in 2021 than his previous years combined, setting career-high marks in completion rate (67.2), yards per attempt (8.7) and passing yards (4,319). He propelled the Panthers to their first-ever ACC crown and, in the process, became a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Transfer of the Year
Kenneth Walker III didn't arrive in East Lansing as the subject of national hype. Michigan State needed an upgrade at running back, and Walker seemed like he could at least provide that.
But after rushing for 579 yards in consecutive seasons at Wake Forest, expectations were relatively tame. In hindsight, perhaps 13 touchdowns in a shortened 2020 due to COVID-19 should've meant more. Still, he'd managed only four carries of 20-plus yards last season.
Walker didn't just enhance the backfield; no, he emerged as a program-changing influence.
The breakout runner exploded for 264 yards and four touchdowns in his debut and hardly slowed down. Walker notched 125-plus yards in eight of MSU's 12 games, heading into bowl season with the second-most rushing yards (1,636) in the FBS. He's totaled 19 touchdowns, scoring 18 of them on the ground.
Even if he leaves for the 2022 NFL draft, Walker will be an MSU legend because of his 197-yard, five-touchdown day in the Spartans' comeback win over rival Michigan.
Comeback Player of the Year
If everything had gone according to plan in 2020, Aidan Hutchinson probably would've left for the NFL. But that intention changed when a broken right ankle halted his season.
Hutchinson chose to return for another year.
"Being injured, I didn't get a chance to get a lot of film," he said, per ESPN's Tom VanHaaren. "I figured coming back, [I'll] kill it next year, I think that will help my draft stock. I thought from a team aspect and a personal aspect this was the best decision for me to make."
Check and check.
As the Wolverines won their first Big Ten championship since 2004 and made the CFP as the No. 2 seed, he's amassed 58 tackles with 15.5 for loss and a program-record 14 sacks. Hutchinson is one of four finalists for the Heisman Trophy, guaranteeing he'll be Michigan's top finisher since Chris Perry wound up fourth in 2003.
Group of Five Player of the Year
One year ago today, you probably hadn't heard of Bailey Zappe. He nearly led Houston Baptist to an upset of Texas Tech in September 2020, throwing for 567 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-33 loss to the Big 12 school. But beyond that, he was an FCS quarterback who might only attract some recognition from draftniks.
In the offseason, though, Zappe and Houston Baptist teammate Jerreth Sterns transferred to Western Kentucky. Together, they've put on an absolute show for the Conference USA runner-up.
Zappe, who's registered 5,545 passing yards and 56 touchdowns, has a chance to break single-season FBS records in both categories. The marks to beat are 5,833 yards (B.J. Symons, 2003 Texas Tech) and 60 touchdowns (Joe Burrow, 2019 LSU).
Sterns, meanwhile, leads the FBS in both receptions (137) and yards (1,718) along with his team-high 14 touchdowns. Zappe is the G5 Player of the Year, but it's only fitting to highlight Sterns too.
Zappe will attempt to break those records opposite Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 18 at FAU Stadium.
Most Exciting Player of the Year
The "why" of Jameson Williams leaving Ohio State is not complicated. Although he'd earned a starting role, Williams totaled 15 catches for 266 yards and two touchdowns in two seasons. Plus, there isn't a program that recruits the position better than the Buckeyes, who seem to land a 5-star receiver every year.
Williams saw more opportunity at Alabama. And, whew buddy, did he take full advantage of the opportunity.
The speedster has caught 68 passes for 1,445 yards—the fifth-most in the FBS—and his 21.3 yards-per-reception average is second-best nationally among players with at least three receptions per game. Williams also ranks second in touchdown receptions with 15, and he even returned two kickoffs to the house.
Alabama will lean particularly heavily on Williams in the CFP now that John Metchie III (torn ACL) will be unavailable. Michigan must be prepared for the nation's most explosive wideout.
Best Single-Game Performance
Context is the driving force of this selection.
First, look at Alabama. The preeminent dynasty of this era arrived in the SEC Championship Game likely facing a win-or-go-home scenario. Only a preposterous sequence of results—one that didn't come close to happening anyway—could keep the Crimson Tide in the CFP picture despite a loss. They needed a victory.
Second, consider the opponent. Georgia, the nation's No. 1 team, flaunted a suffocating defense. Heading into that game, the Dawgs had surrendered a minuscule 4.9 yards per pass attempt and 6.9 points per game.
Young rose to the challenge—and then some. He overwhelmed the vaunted UGA defense, totaling 461 yards and four touchdowns in a decisive 41-24 Alabama win.
Throw in that Young's day effectively locked up the Heisman Trophy, and this performance was perfect.
Play of the Year
Only a few inches separated Oklahoma State from causing a real argument on Selection Day.
In truth, our Play of the Year is better described as a series of plays. One fourth-down snap receives the spotlight, but Baylor ended the Cowboys' hopes of a national title thanks to a sensational goal-to-go stand in the Big 12 Championship Game.
From the 2- and 1-yard lines, Baylor stopped a first- and second-down run. Oklahoma State's third-down pass fell incomplete, setting up a climactic 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
OSU running back Dezmon Jackson took a handoff and bounced outside. For a moment, it seemed he had the angle on Jairon McVea. But the Baylor safety narrowed the gap, creating a breathtaking moment as Jackson lunged in a full-extension dive toward the pylon.
He was short. By two, maybe three inches.
Perhaps you feel 13-0 Cincinnati would've clipped a 12-1 Oklahoma State in the final CFP ranking anyway. That's plausible. But so is the opposite result. Anyone who feels certain one way or the other simply doesn't know the answer—all because of this play.
Game of the Year
The appropriately titled rivalry between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State gave us an incredible game in 2021.
Both teams entered the clash at 10-1, holding Top 10 rankings. Oklahoma needed a win to force a rematch in the Big 12 Championship Game and keep its six-year conference title streak alive. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, had a CFP trip on the brain.
Oklahoma State never trailed in the opening half, but OU stayed within seven points the whole time. Oklahoma scored a late touchdown to make it a 24-24 game at the break, too.
In the third quarter, Oklahoma took a 33-24 edge thanks to a safety and scoring a touchdown on a mishandled punt. It seemed the Sooners would end OSU's national championship dreams.
However, the Pokes responded in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Spencer Sanders' 37-yard touchdown run cut OU's lead to 33-31, and the Cowboys capitalized on a botched punt return from the Sooners. Jaylen Warren scored three plays later to give OSU a four-point advantage.
Oklahoma State's defense stood up down the stretch, forcing a punt and two turnovers on downs to celebrate a 37-33 win. The Pokes snapped a six-game losing streak to OU, too.