The Biggest 'What-Ifs?' of the 2021 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2022

The Biggest 'What-Ifs?' of the 2021 College Football Season

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    Tim Heitman/Associated Press

    When the final whistle sounds on the 2021 college football season, one program will be celebrating a national title.

    Look around the nation, however, and a handful of teams will be thinking about a result that stopped them from standing on that stage. One loss, for example, prevented a championship run for programs such as Notre Dame and Oklahoma State.

    As we approach the title showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia on Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium, we're exploring those alternate realities.

    Now, the butterfly effect is ignored. If you flip a September loss to a win, several factorsgame prep, practices and future resultsundoubtedly could change in subsequent weeks too. In the interest of precision, we're altering one specific piece of the 2021 season.

    You'll see, though, that a couple of losses in particular also played a key role in a wild coaching carousel.

What If Pittsburgh Hadn't Lost to Western Michigan?

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    As the calendar flipped to November, the ACC already had a horrible outlook in the College Football Playoff picture. Wake Forest held a Top 10 ranking and 8-0 record, but few expected the Demon Deacons to perfectly navigate a challenging month.

    Nobody else in the conference even had a one-loss record. By this point, it was Wake Forest or bust.

    Looking back, the most frustrating result is Pittsburgh's 44-41 letdown at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 18. Even if Miami had still beaten the Panthers in October, perhaps Pittas a 12-1 conference championmight have leaped Cincinnati in the CFP rankings. That's no guarantee, but it certainly would've inspired a debate.

    Instead, the Panthers entered the ACC Championship Game at 10-2. The conference title is meaningful to the program, as is quarterback Kenny Pickett finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting.

    But if Pitt had avoided falling to WMU in September, maybe coach Pat Narduzzi's team would've had a larger postseason stage.

What If Ohio State Toppled Oregon?

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Also in September, Ohio State hosted Oregon for a battle of defending conference champions. Much to the surprise of the hometown crowd, the Buckeyes lost to the visitors from the Pac-12. Combined with a November loss to rival Michigan, Ohio State fell frustratingly short of a Big Ten crown and a CFP trip.

    Flip the result against Oregon, though, and just imagine the pregame hype for the regular-season finale at Michigan.

    After all, that would've meant a Game of the Century redux. Back in 2006, the programs met with dueling 11-0 records and a trip to the national championship at stake. Fifteen years later, only the Oregon loss prevented a comparable game.

    Would the Buckeyes have ranked ahead of Cincinnati despite a loss at Michigan? Again, we're not suggesting it unquestionably would've happened. But we can't confidently say it would not have either.   

What If Notre Dame Beat Cincinnati?

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    The immediate answer is the Fighting Irish could've finished 12-0 and held Cincinnati's place in the CFP. An undefeated Notre Dame would've altered the final CFP rankings and semifinal matchups too.

    But this unknown extends well beyond the championship race.   

    Had the Irish qualified for the CFP for the third time in four seasons, would coach Brian Kelly actually leave for LSU? When he left South Bend for Baton Rouge, his Notre Dame team needed a plausible, though unlikely, sequence of results to reach the playoff party. That unlikelihood probably made his decision a little easier.

    Money talks. The freshly signed $100 million contract may have persuaded Kelly to join the Tigers anyway.

    But it seems improbable that Kelly would've bolted an undefeated, playoff-bound Notre Dame in November.

What If Oklahoma Held Off Oklahoma State?

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    In a similar way, Oklahoma's loss to Oklahoma State on Nov. 27 might've finalized the first shocking move of the coaching carousel.

    Given that Lincoln Riley left for USC within 24 hours of this result, clearly there was behind-the-scenes movement on this already. Oklahoma needed even greater help than Notre Dame to crash the CFP party, with a dramatic surge in the last two weeks, so Riley could've been contemplating his future for several weeks.

    But if the Sooners had protected their 33-24 lead over Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter, they would have closed the regular season 11-1. They would've had a shot at revenge on Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game. They would have been on the brink of a seventh consecutive conference title.  

    If Oklahoma won, would Riley stay? And if he stuck around in Norman, who would ultimately land at USC?

What If Auburn Won the Iron Bowl?

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    Dear underdogs, never extend the game. Go for the win.

    In late November, Auburn put a thoroughly unexpected scare into rival Alabamaa 20.5-point favorite. Auburn held the Crimson Tide scoreless through three quarters but surrendered a game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left in regulation.

    Alabama began overtime with a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead. Auburn's offense took the field, and quarterback T.J. Finleythe replacement for injured starter Bo Nixfired a five-yard score to Landen King. Rather than attempt a two-point conversion, Auburn settled for an extra point and another OT period.

    Fast-forward a few minutes, and Alabama won 24-22. But if the Crimson Tide had lost, they would've dropped to 10-2 and created a messy CFP discussion.

    Even if the SEC Championship Game result didn't change, would two-loss Alabama make the CFP? Would the Tide have jumped Georgia in the final ranking? That makes Michigan the No. 1 team, right? Who would the Wolverines have played in the CFP semifinal? Any chance Notre Dame would've replaced Georgia in the Top Four?

    Auburn's late collapse reshaped the playoff picture.

What If Baylor Didn't Stop Oklahoma State?

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    Tim Heitman/Associated Press

    Thirty seconds left. Baylor leads Oklahoma State 21-16 in the Big 12 Championship Game, but OSU has a final opportunity to score from the 1-yard line. If the Pokes convert and hold Baylor in the closing moments, they secure the league title.

    More importantly, Oklahoma State would then demand a spot in the College Football Playoff discussion. Would the selection committee favor the Cowboysa one-loss power-conference champion with three Top 15 winsover unbeaten AAC champion Cincinnati? Seven years of trends suggested the decision would lean OSU's way.

    That conversation, however, will never be more than a hypothetical.

    Baylor defender Jairon McVea chased down OSU running back Dezmon Jackson, whose desperation dive landed a couple of inches shy of the left pylon. Baylor won 21-16, removing any debate and controversy about the final CFP spot.