That the 2021 season has been unique is well documented by this point. The upsets have been routine, the preseason top-25 looks like Swiss cheese and expectations and assumptions rarely survive the next Saturday. It's been fun.
What 2021 hasn't been, at least until Week 12's games kicked off, was informative.
A quick rundown of what we knew with some degree of certainty entering Saturday's festivities:
Georgia is good.
Texas is not good.
Dan Mullen lost a fiddle battle with the devil, and now Florida will roast in the depths of hell for all eternity.
And, of course, all those assumptions were reinforced again in Week 12, a small bit of solace in an otherwise chaotic world.
As for the rest of the college football landscape, however, we knew precious little, even after 11 weeks of action. Sure, we yelled about committee rankings and debated the merits of head-to-head wins and guessed about who might actually be good enough to challenge the Bulldogs' defense -- but we didn't really know much of anything.
That's why Saturday mattered so much. Saturday was the day that finally provided some answers, finally drew a clear road map to the postseason, finally separated the true contenders from September's illusions. It was a show-me Saturday.
Saturday showed us who the real powers were in the Big Ten. Mel Tucker probably spent the end of the game wondering if his reported $95 million contract extension offer was still on the table after Ohio State hung 49 on Michigan State in the first half. The common belief all year was that the Buckeyes were, perhaps, the only team talented enough to compete with Georgia, but after a home loss to Oregon, a defensive shake-up and close calls with the likes of Tulsa, Nebraska and Penn State, it was fair to wonder if all the pieces would ever click into place.
Wonder no more.
Ohio State was like the guy who shows up to the pool hall with his own cue, pulling it from a leather case embroidered with a name like "Slim" or "Fats." It took the field, opened up its offense and everyone in the building stopped and said, "Oh, this is going to be good." C.J. Stroud made an emphatic case for the Heisman trophy. Ohio State's collection of receivers made Michigan State look downright foolish. The defense shut down Kenneth Walker III, and the game was over midway through the second quarter. Ohio State is for real. Michigan State was not.
Saturday showed us that Alabama's path to the College Football Playoff isn't as straightforward as most observers assumed. The Crimson Tide narrowly escaped No. 21 Arkansas, thanks to another Heisman-worthy performance from Bryce Young. The Tide's résumé includes a loss to Texas A&M (unranked at the time) and squeakers against Florida, LSU and Arkansas (combined 8-13 vs. other Power 5 opponents this season) with Auburn and Georgia still on the docket. The thought of the first playoff without Clemson or Alabama looks entirely realistic now.
Saturday showed us that Oregon's September shocker at Ohio State was far less indicative of the Ducks' ability than its loss to lowly Stanford three weeks later. Utah won 38-7 in a game that never felt close. That Oregon was the one team the committee believed warranted extra consideration for its head-to-head win probably said more about the committee's opinion of Ohio State than it did Oregon, but that metric no longer matters (unless it can somehow hurt Cincinnati). More importantly, the Pac-12 can enjoy a stress-free Thanksgiving holiday without worrying about any playoff implications. It's an annual tradition right there with mom's cranberry sauce and the Detroit Lions doing something embarrassing.
Saturday showed us that Notre Dame is just hitting its stride, as the Irish routed Georgia Tech 55-0 and topped 200 yards on the ground for the third time in four games. Notre Dame has only a trip to Stanford remaining before it retires to the clubhouse, like a golfer with an early tee time, waiting to see if the leaders on the scoreboard will bogey a few holes and open up an unexpected path to a trophy.
Saturday showed us that the ACC might still have a great team, and that team might still be Clemson. The Tigers eviscerated Wake Forest behind a dominant defense and young backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace. If Wake and NC State both fall in Week 13, it will be Clemson once again representing the Atlantic Division in the ACC championship game. Saturday affirmed that Lincoln Riley is a lucky man, as Oklahoma won its sixth one-possession game of the year, and that Scott Frost is atoning for something truly horrific in a past life, as Nebraska lost its seventh one-possession game of 2021.
But perhaps most significantly, Show-Me Saturday might have finally answered the most contested question of the season: Will Cincinnati crash the playoff party?
The Bearcats haven't shown us much lately. Since the win at Notre Dame they hoped would define their season, they've added lackluster wins against Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and USF. At each turn, the committee, the fans and the critics all asked for more. On Saturday, Cincinnati delivered, drubbing SMU 48-14 behind four touchdowns from Desmond Ridder. Dates with bowl-bound ECU and No. 24 Houston remain, but if Cincinnati wins out, the path is actually quite clear. Alabama is likely to have a second loss. Either Ohio State or Michigan will, too. Same goes for Oklahoma or Oklahoma State. The committee is simply running out of alternatives, and Cincinnati has finally given the masses reason to stop looking.
In a season of chaos, Saturday was something altogether different. Saturday was sanity. There were no seismic shifts to the landscape, no world-altering upsets, not even another win by Kansas, though the Jayhawks certainly made it interesting. Not one top-25 team favored to win failed to do so. That's a Saturday that instills confidence and makes us believers, like a framed diploma on an office wall, an Oprah's Book Club stamp or a good mustache. (Seriously, Sam Elliott could convince us Rutgers was a playoff team. Powerful mustache.)
The 2021 season has been a roller coaster, and it's been well worth the ride. But as we lurch toward the finish line, there's also some joy in knowing we've survived the loop-de-loops and recovered from the steepest drops. A little certainty in a topsy-turvy world is a good thing every so often.
And next week, we'll settle in for the Iron Bowl and Bedlam, for Michigan and Ohio State, and with any luck, we'll wonder why we felt so sure we finally had it figured out just a few days before.
The other OSU
Let's do a little blind résumé test.
Team A is 9-1. It's 4-1 against bowl-eligible teams. It has one win over a currently ranked team. It lost to a preseason top-15 team at home by seven. Its last remaining game comes against the team ranked fourth in ESPN's FPI.
Team B is 9-1. It's 4-1 against bowl-eligible teams. It has one win over a currently ranked team. It lost to a preseason top-15 team on the road by three. Its last remaining game comes against the team ranked fifth in ESPN's FPI.
So, who do you like better?
It's a bit of a trick question. Team A is Ohio State, and after watching the Buckeyes unleash on Michigan State on Saturday, there's little doubt about their ceiling.
The point of this exercise, however, is to spotlight Team B, Oklahoma State. While the Cowboys aren't getting much love from the national media, the committee or pretty much anyone outside Stillwater, their résumé doesn't look all that much different than the Buckeyes'.
The difference is Oklahoma State is doing it mostly with defense, as it did again Saturday in a 23-0 win over Texas Tech.
The Cowboys have held every opponent this season to 24 or fewer points and under 400 yards. In the playoff era, seven other teams have done that through their first 11 games. One is this year's Georgia. Three others made the playoff. The others were all ranked in the top five after 11 games (2017 Wisconsin, 2018 Michigan and 2019 Georgia).
It's not as sexy as Ohio State's passing attack, but it has been absolutely dominant.
Atlantic Anarchy, Coastal Calm
How's this for a topsy-turvy 2021? The ACC's Coastal Division, which had seven different champions in seven years from 2013 through 2019 (and, informally, an eighth in Notre Dame, as the ACC played without divisions last year), is all settled with a week to play.
Kenny Pickett and Pitt survived a marathon against Virginia, 48-38, to secure its second trip to the ACC title game since 2018. It's always good to see a city that considers French fries a condiment have some college football success.
The Atlantic Division, on the other hand? That's where the chaos is this season. Clemson and Florida State have represented the Atlantic in the ACC's championship game every season since 2009. And that could still happen this year -- at least for Clemson.
The Tigers' win over Wake Forest leaves the door open for three teams to win the Atlantic. Wake can clinch with a win against Boston College next week. A loss, however, would put NC State in the driver's seat. Of course, the Wolfpack, who throttled Syracuse on Saturday, would still need to beat rival North Carolina. If both NC State and Wake lose, then we're right back where we started, with Clemson heading to Charlotte with sights set on a seventh straight conference championship.
But here's a possible twist: ACC commissioner Jim Phillips offers the slot to Notre Dame instead, if only the Irish are willing to join the league full time. Notre Dame gets a chance to bolster its playoff résumé, the ACC lands its big fish, everyone's happy. Except Clemson, Wake and NC State.
Questioning the future for Texas
So Texas lost. Again. It's the Longhorns' sixth straight loss, the first time that has happened since 1956, when they finished 1-9. It's an astoundingly dire moment for Texas, which leads us to a question we've been wanting to ask head coach Steve Sarkisian as he looks ahead to an uncertain future:
A couple years ago, one of my good friends and I were facing a massive problem we couldn't solve. (It was about whether "Con Air" is a good movie, but that's not important here.) In his wisdom, he said, "You know, at this point, we need to stop and ask ourselves, what would an extra ordinary person do in this situation?" Now, I don't know how you can be extra ordinary. Ordinary by definition is average, so how do you become extra average? I guess Jeff Fisher was extra ordinary. Anyway, you're not Jeff Fisher. Though I wonder what it might cost to get him to Texas. I digress.
This resonated with me when I realized that, of all the coaches who could be standing at that podium right now, in those shoes (are those Yeezys? Sweet), you are that extra ordinary person. And you have a team that I call coaching juggernauts. ("Juggernaut" is French for "monkey owners.") That's not only my opinion. This is a fact. I don't think anyone could dispute this. (Put your hands down. That was rhetorical!)
So my question is, when we write the Sarkisian era story (we're not even done with the first chapter yet; I'm titling this chapter, "It was the best of times, and then Caleb Williams came in the game"), can you unfold some of the onion of what are you working on -- how are you solving this problem? I realize you might not even know. (Narrator: He doesn't.) I want to steal from Mike Tyson: You're going to fade into Bolivian.
A meat-lovers win for Coastal
Quarterback Grayson McCall returned to action for Coastal Carolina on Saturday, throwing for 319 yards, running for 53 more and tossing five TDs in a 35-21 win over Texas State.
Still, it wasn't a perfect day for McCall or his Chanticleers teammates.
The thrill of the win on the field was quickly overshadowed by an unmerciful beatdown in the locker room, as Joey Chestnut ran the table in a locker-room pizza-eating contest that might honestly be the most disgusting thing we've seen on a college football Saturday since ... well, OK, Texas played earlier in the day, so it actually hadn't been that long.
Ate Em Up with @joeyjaws🍽#BEL1EVE | #STRIKETHESTONE | #TEALNATION pic.twitter.com/65dP1stSDA— Coastal Football (@CoastalFootball) November 20, 2021
In any case, the lesson here is simple: A Sun Belt title and a few good mullets don't mean much against a true champion. Better luck next time, Chants.
Yale remains first in gentlemanly club life
Harvard pulled out all the stops to topple hated rival Yale 34-31 in their Ivy League finale Saturday. The Crimson blocked a punt and returned it for a score to go up 20-10. (Cheating is even more rampant than last year, perhaps.)
Big play for the Crimson. Sack ➡️ blocked punt ➡️ touchdown.— Harvard Football (@HarvardFootball) November 20, 2021
35-yard return for Logan Bednar who takes it to the house.
Harvard 20, Yale 10
Watch live: https://t.co/PRE7TizPLf#GoCrimson #OneCrimson pic.twitter.com/BybGNSCy9r
Yale fought back valiantly, however, taking a 31-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Harvard then had to engineer a 66-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the game to finally pull ahead for good, 34-31. Honestly, I don't even know why Harvard bothers to show up. It barely even won!
Big win for UConn
UConn doesn't get many wins in football, but Saturday was something special.
On the field? No. That was ugly, as usual. UCF throttled the Huskies 49-17.
On Twitter, however, it was an all-timer for the UConn social media folks.
The Civil ConFLiCT is the dumbest rivalry in sports, and UCF treated the trophy with an appropriate level of dismissiveness.
And when UConn left the American after the 2019 season, it seemed the rivalry was over. But Saturday's nonconference game revived the fun (we use that term loosely) and UCF revived the trophy.
November 20, 2021
Only, the internet sleuths realized this trophy didn't look quite right. (Well, it never looked "right." It should've just been an old bowling trophy with an empty Narragansett can on top.) Had UCF purchased an imposter trophy for the game?
I can't believe a lie would be told in Central Florida but here we are— UConn football endurer (@NoEscalators) November 20, 2021
The answer is, it doesn't matter. What's important is that UConn delivered an absolute mic drop before the game.
Was this made at the same place that did your National Championship trophy? https://t.co/QPGH5iML8q— UConn Football (@UConnFootball) November 20, 2021
And that, friends, is how you win Twitter, which, in the metaverse, is way more important than the actual games.
Ranking the cupcakes
Week 12 is the annual bake sale in the SEC -- i.e., the whole conference is shelling out top dollar for cupcakes. It doesn't make for good football, but it's at least a more reasonable use of $10 million a year than Mel Tucker's reported new contract offer.
But since all football just means more in the SEC, we will do our best to provide necessary analysis of these games by ranking them by pastry.
Kentucky 56, New Mexico State 16
Pastry equivalent: Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets
The G.O.A.T. of national brand pastries is the Tastykake Krimpet, so it's a deserving honor to bestow upon New Mexico State. The Aggies are awful, and they've now been blown out in back-to-back weeks by SEC opponents (they lost 59-3 to Alabama last week), but it's also worth noting that New Mexico State also held a lead in both games, too! They went up 3-0 on the Tide last week and 7-0 on Kentucky on Saturday. So, safe to say the Aggies would be a better addition to the league than Texas.
Mississippi State 55, Tennessee State 10
Pastry equivalent: Little Debbie Honey Buns
Who doesn't love a honey bun? Sticky, sweet, delicious. Much like a Mike Leach offense. (OK, we're working hard for these metaphors. Don't overthink it.) And speaking of Leach's offense, Will Rogers threw for 391 yards and five touchdowns Saturday -- his ninth straight game topping 300 passing yards. In the past 15 years, the only QBs with longer streaks are Graham Harrell and Gardner Minshew, both of whom played for Leach, too.
Georgia 56, Charleston Southern 7
Pastry equivalent: Swedish Fish
Swedish Fish aren't pastries, you say? Well, Jordan Davis likes Swedish Fish. Do you want to tell him he can't have any? We didn't think so.
Texas A&M 52, Prairie View A&M 3
Pastry equivalent: Hostess Twinkies
We're personally offended Devon Achane got only 10 carries Saturday. We wanted the Aggies' speedster to carry 60 times just to see what would happen -- much like how people leave Twinkies out for decades just to see if they'll age. (Note: They don't.) Also, the little guy on the box wears a cowboy hat and boots.
Tennessee 60, South Alabama 14
Pastry equivalent: Entenmann's raspberry Danish twists
Hendon Hooker was cast aside by Virginia Tech, which now has endured awful QB play and fired its coach. But, in a surprising (raspberry?) twist, Hooker has blossomed into an exceptional passer at Tennessee, completing 17 of 20 passes for 273 yards and three total TDs against the Jaguars on Saturday.
LSU 24, Louisiana-Monroe 14
Pastry equivalent: Beignets
Good game for Max Johnson. Possibly a final home win for Ed Orgeron. A win, even if it wasn't exactly dominant, is always good. Like a good beignet, you enjoy it, and then realize you still have powdered sugar all over your pants.
Pastry equivalent: Tastykake Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes
Pro tip: Put your Kandy Kakes in the freezer for a few hours, then eat them frozen. So good. And like Kandy Kakes, revenge is a dish best served cold. A year ago, Dan Mullen incited a fight (and was fined $25,000) as Florida and Missouri headed to their locker rooms at halftime. Florida won that one 41-17, but Missouri got its revenge Saturday, as Connor Bazelak connected on a two-point try in overtime to win 24-23. Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz offered the perfect pastry topping, too, by satirizing Mullen's famous Darth Vader news conference, then went out and bull's-eyed womp rats in his T-16.
After Florida coach Dan Mullen dressed up as Darth Vader following the Gators' win in 2020, Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz pulls out a lightsaber after the Tigers' win on Saturday.
Florida and rival Florida State will face off next week, with the winner getting bowl eligibility and the loser's season ending.
We came into Week 12 with a clear mission: Put two defensive players on top of our Heisman ballot. We left Week 12 with an obvious answer: There are two QBs who simply cannot be ignored. The wide-open Heisman race got a lot less interesting with Saturday's games, and while the sprint to the finish still matters, our list of contenders went from perhaps a dozen or more to the two best quarterbacks in the country and perhaps a defensive dark horse or two.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young
As Alabama kicked off Saturday afternoon, college football social media had already declared the Heisman race over. Ohio State's QB had secured the award with a monster game against No. 7 Michigan State. Problem is, they forgot to tell Young. In a game when Alabama's defense couldn't get off the field and the ground game didn't have a run longer than 15 yards, Young put the Tide on his back and carried them past Arkansas 42-35 with 559 yards passing and five TD passes. He's the favorite now, but the biggest test awaits in the SEC title game against Georgia's monster D.
2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
In any other week, Stroud would have been the story of the day. Perhaps he still should be, but the shine of a ridiculous first half against Michigan State was overshadowed a bit by Young's heroics against the Razorbacks. Still, Stroud's numbers were downright ludicrous. In the playoff era, there were just three examples of Big Ten QBs racking as many pass yards and TDs in a game as Stroud did in the first half. He finished with six TD passes and just three incompletions. And don't worry about his No. 2 ranking here. If he even approaches those numbers next week against Michigan's exceptional defense, he'll move up to the top spot.
3. Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
It's not as if Anderson did anything to slip from the top spot on our ballot. He actually turned in one of his best performances of the season in Alabama's narrow win over Arkansas, racking up 11 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, a sack and two QB hurries. But when your QB almost single-handedly keeps your team's playoff hopes alive with five TD passes -- well, there's always the Iron Bowl, kid.
4. Georgia DT Jordan Davis
Week 12 should have been the final stamp on Anderson and Davis' ticket to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Davis was excellent, as expected, against Charleston Southern. The Buccaneers (yes, we Googled that) managed just 126 yards in the game and punted 12 times. Davis' defense remains unflappable. But what was he really supposed to do to impress the voters against a cupcake opponent? Well, how about a TD run?
TOUCHDOWN. JORDAN. DAVIS. ‼️‼️‼️@GeorgiaFootball pic.twitter.com/IbsUveDenZ— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 20, 2021
5. Pitt receiver Jordan Addison
Odds are, it'll be Addison's QB who lands on more Heisman ballots, and Kenny Pickett is certainly deserving. But Pickett's excellence this season has come in no small part because of Addison's brilliance. On Saturday, he caught 14 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns -- the last of which involved Addison stealing the ball from the Virginia defender and racing downfield for a 62-yard game-sealing TD that handed the Panthers the ACC Coastal Division.
Addison needs just three more TD receptions in Pitt's final three games to tie the ACC's all-time single-season record.
Under-the-radar play of the week
To be clear, all big-guy TDs are impressive. Works of art, really. But the big-guy-TD play drawn up by UMass Dartmouth on Saturday wasn't simply art. It was transcendent art, like the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel or Weird Al's "Like a Surgeon."
Hey @SportsCenter, can we get some love for a lineman TD?! #SCtop10 @d3football @D3FBHuddle @NoontimeSports @SC_Varsity @UMassDAthletics @TBCFNetwork pic.twitter.com/53oJ1fsaqQ— UMass Dartmouth Football (@CorsairFootball) November 20, 2021
On a third-and-5, QB Dante Aviles-Santos completes a pass to receiver Mike Vincent for an easy first down -- and that's where the fun begins. Vincent flips the ball to O-lineman Tyler Gmyr, who runs it into the end zone, celebrates, is mobbed on the sideline and then is given the celebratory "Money in the Bank" briefcase that is just the perfect icing on the cake.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Army beat UMass 33-17 on Saturday. Was this a big game you needed to watch? No. But if you ignored it, you missed the greatest sideline interview in the history of televised football.
Bill Murray is in the house for @ArmyWP_Football and @UMassFootball! pic.twitter.com/FgffPSnz2L— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) November 20, 2021
Where do we begin to appreciate the genius of Bill Murray? Sure, "Ghostbusters" is great and "Lost in Translation" was genuinely beautiful and, honestly, "What About Bob?" is an underrated gem. But this may be his finest work.
Let's break it down: First, he insists the interview is done inside the practice kicking net because he thinks it will make the reporter look "like a dramatic Spanish actress." He taps an Army player on the shoulder and steals some food. Then he offers a speech that rivals his Masters monologue in "Caddyshack" while explaining how to make a sake Bloody Mary. And he's wearing a pin that says "Beat everyone."
So UMass has that going for them. Which is nice.