College football September recap - Making sense of a wild first month


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Oklahoma fans chant for Spencer Rattler to be benched after INT (1:06)

Oklahoma fans advocate for backup quarterback Caleb Williams to come into the game for Spencer Rattler with a loud "We want Caleb!" chant. (1:06)

7:00 AM ET

As the 2021 college football season approached, we were dreaming of chaos. Willing it to happen, even. Our pleas were heard.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, with six more ranked teams losing on Saturday, that makes 25 for the season, the most through four weeks in the history of the AP poll. Clemson couldn't fix its offense in time to avoid an upset at NC State. Iowa State settled for too many field goals and lost to Baylor despite a big yardage advantage. North Carolina, which had seemingly rebounded after a Week 1 loss to Virginia Tech, got totally outclassed by Georgia Tech.

That doesn't count the things that almost happened, either! No. 5 Iowa trailed Colorado State at halftime, No. 15 BYU seriously considered blowing a 22-point halftime lead against South Florida, No. 19 Michigan thought about blowing a 17-point halftime lead against Rutgers, and No. 20 Michigan State needed late special teams magic to avoid losing to Nebraska.

Oh yeah, and Minnesota lost as a 31-point favorite to Bowling Green.

I spelled out how a chaotic year might take shape in a late-August column; it was a fun piece to write, and a lot of it boiled down to "Everyone seems vulnerable, and every week has a few 'What the HELL?' results." Through four weeks, we've had plenty of those.

Granted, it would help if Alabama and Georgia actually appeared a little vulnerable. But there are tests on the way for both the Dawgs and Crimson Tide. In fact, they host two potential chaos teams -- unbeaten Arkansas and Ole Miss, respectively -- this coming week.

Still, as we wait to see whether the top two teams are anywhere near as vulnerable as the other 128, let's recap the month of September and take stock of what specifically has changed over the first four weeks. It's been a lot.

Spencer Rattler is no longer the Heisman favorite

A perusal of the preseason AP top 15 gives us a quick reminder of just how much has changed in a short amount of time. Six of those 15 teams have already lost twice (Clemson, Iowa State, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Miami, USC), three others have lost once (Ohio State, Texas A&M, Florida) and two more (Oklahoma and Notre Dame) have hung on by a thread, surviving five one-score finishes between them. Plus, before beating Ohio State in Columbus, current No. 3 Oregon nearly lost to Fresno State.

Fans and writers alike had taken to bemoaning the lack of unpredictability at the top of the sport in recent years, and even with the top two teams appearing obvious for now, very little else has been predictable.

The same sentiment goes for the Heisman Trophy race. The sports books listed Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei and North Carolina's Sam Howell among the preseason favorites, while the likes of USC's Kedon Slovis and Miami's D'Eriq King weren't far behind.

Needless to say, that's shifted a little. Uiagalelei is struggling mightily, and Howell has gotten no protection and run himself into trouble. Slovis hasn't produced a passer rating higher than 120 since Week 1, and King hasn't produced higher than a 125 all year.

By comparison, Rattler is doing just fine. He's completing 74% of his passes (up from 68% last season), his third-down passing conversion rate is 48% (up from 38%) and he has taken sacks on just 4% of his dropbacks (down from 6%). Plus, while the QBs in the previous paragraph have each presided over two losses, Rattler's Sooners remain undefeated following a gutty, physical 16-13 win over West Virginia.

The Sooners indeed scored only 16 points, though, and they scored only 23 against Nebraska the week before. Oklahoma hasn't averaged fewer than 40 points per game since 2014, and even with a 76-0 win over Western Carolina factored in, its current scoring average is 38.8. The Sooners scored touchdowns on at least 38% of their drives against FBS opponents from 2015 to '20; they're currently at 26%.

Mind you, they're still scoring on 48% of their drives, within reach of the 50-55% range they typically occupy. But they've been settling for loads of field goals, which hints at the main issue at hand: a total, and rather jarring, lack of big plays and easy scores.

Compare:

• Rattler's yards per completion: 14.2 in 2020; 10.2 in 2021

• Air yardage per pass: 9.3 in 2020; 7.0 in 2021

• Passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield: 17% in 2020; 5% in 2021

In my marginal explosiveness measure -- a field-position-adjusted look at the magnitude of a team's successful plays (i.e. the ones that gain at least 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second or 100% on third or fourth) -- Oklahoma ranked 26th in 2020, a pretty low number by the Sooners' standards but still very good. Rattler throws a pretty deep ball, and between that and explosive running from Rhamondre Stevenson (now a member of the New England Patriots), OU was excellent in the chunk-play department.

The Sooners currently rank 102nd in marginal explosiveness. Taking away just a couple of big plays per game means OU is having to work with more patience and precision to matriculate the ball down the field. Mind you, they're 18th in success rate; they're staying on schedule just about as well as ever. But without big plays, you need more successful plays to score, and they're stalling out far more than usual.

What's behind the big-play absence? Saturday's performance suggested there were quite a few causes.

1. West Virginia's defense is good. (Nebraska's too.) Let's start by acknowledging the opponents. West Virginia's defense swarmed to the ball with velocity and played as physically as possible against both Rattler and his skill guys. They were hitting hard. They made sure tackles and forced the Sooners to work as hard as possible to move into scoring position.

WVU has risen from 47th to 26th in defensive SP+ in just three weeks, and Nebraska, Oklahoma's Week 3 opponent, has risen to 31st. Previous OU offenses would have probably done more damage to mere top-30 or so defenses, but these weren't cupcakes.

2. The Sooners' receiving corps isn't getting open downfield. Last year, Rattler primarily targeted three players with his deeper passes: Marvin Mims, Charleston Rambo and Theo Wease. They combined to catch 17 of 40 passes of 20 or more yards for 654 yards and nine touchdowns. No one else was targeted on more than five such balls.

This season, Mims moved to the slot, presumably to account for the addition of Arkansas transfer Mike Woods out wide. Rambo transferred to Miami, while Wease has missed the first four games with a leg injury.

There's still obvious talent in the receiving corps -- Rattler's two leading targets thus far are former blue-chippers Jadon Haselwood and Mario Williams, and Mims is averaging 19.3 yards per catch. But Haselwood is coming off an injury, and Williams is a true freshman. Rattler seems to have trust issues with a newer-than-expected receiving corps, and he's quickly checking down to shorter passes. Again, these passes have proved efficient. But the bomb attempts are far less frequent.

3. Oklahoma's offensive line is mortal. Speaking of trust issues, Rattler sure seemed to be harried and rushed out of the pocket quite a bit on Saturday. After fielding one of the best lines in FBS last season (and in most recent years), the Sooners had to deal with a good amount of transition this offseason. All-conference center Creed Humphrey and tackle Adrian Ealy are both in the NFL, and OU is fielding new starters at both tackle spots.

The line hasn't been an outright weakness, but the timing is clearly off a bit, both in the run game and in pass protection. Against a disruptive West Virginia front, this was an obvious matchup disadvantage. Running backs Eric Gray and Kennedy Brooks averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, and Rattler was forced to throw short quite a bit whether anyone was open deep or not. He completed a 35-yard pass to Woods and a 38-yarder to Gray (another transfer), and 24 other completions averaged 7.6 yards.

There's obvious good news here. For starters, Rattler wasn't a house afire to start last season either, throwing five interceptions (and suffering two losses) in his first four games before igniting later on. His play is far better than it was last September.

For another thing: Oklahoma remains unbeaten! In a year in which so many top teams have fallen, the Sooners have avoided that fate so far. There's nothing saying they won't fall eventually, but surviving and advancing buys time for them to figure themselves out. A shaky first impression has left Rattler far behind in the Heisman race -- too far, perhaps, if Ole Miss' Matt Corral and Alabama's Bryce Young continue to produce as they have -- but the bigger prize, a College Football Playoff bid, remains very much on the table.

The ACC is more wide open than it's been in 10 years

It's jarring to compare the current conference title odds, per ESPN's FPI, to where they were just a few weeks ago. In the SEC, Georgia's odds have risen from 30% to 50%. In the Big Ten, Iowa's and Michigan's have risen from 4% and 1%, respectively, to 21% each, while Ohio State's chances have been more than cut in half, from 71% to 34%. In the Pac-12, USC (22% in the preseason) and UCLA (21% now) have basically traded places in the No. 2 spot behind Oregon. The Big 12 has gone from a one-horse race (Oklahoma was at 73% in the preseason, and no one else was above 13%) to basically three: Oklahoma (57%), Texas (26%) and the field (17%).

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Paul Finebaum breaks down what is wrong with Clemson after the Tigers fell to 2-2 with a loss to NC State.

Still, from a broad perspective, only so much has changed in those power conferences. Oregon, Ohio State and Oklahoma remain the favorites, after all, and Alabama has basically gone from top billing to co-No. 1 in the SEC. But true chaos has taken hold in the ACC.

Here are the top five ACC title odds in the preseason, per FPI:

1. Clemson 80% 2. Miami 12% 3. North Carolina 5% 4. Virginia Tech 1.3%

5. Pitt 0.7%

And here are the top five now:

1. Clemson 29% (down 51%) 2. NC State 24% (up, well, 24%) 3. Pitt 18% (up 17%) 4. Miami 8% (down 4%)

5. Wake Forest 6% (up 6%)

Clemson has gone from having a 96% chance of winning the ACC Atlantic to being, at 38%, the No. 2 favorite behind NC State (41%). Pitt has surged to Coastal favorite status thanks to massive underachieving by both Miami and North Carolina. ESPN's Playoff Predictor said before the season that Clemson had a 78% chance of making the CFP, while Miami was at 9%, UNC at 3%. Now? Clemson 10%, NC State 2%, Pitt 1%.

The conference does still have two unbeaten teams in Wake Forest and Boston College, but both have quite a few stiff tests ahead, and neither FPI (which ranks them 32nd and 45th, respectively) nor SP+ (54th and 34th) thinks all that highly of either team. Could that change? Of course, but their fundamental stats don't suggest either is winning another eight (or more) games in a row.

A lot of what changed in September was more theoretical than tangible. Ohio State is still probably the Big Ten's best team (and Oklahoma the Big 12's), but their margin for error has vanished; Spencer Rattler is still awesome, but he hasn't been as awesome as others, and so on. But from a practical standpoint, the ACC is a flaming-hot mess, and while that probably means bad things for the conference's national title hopes, we think about that too much sometimes. We should focus more on what could be a delightful, messy and entertaining conference title race, one that at least four or five teams -- if not more -- have a shot at winning.

Hog, Sparty and Beaver stocks rising

Ratings systems like SP+ and FPI are pretty antisocial when it comes to the heartwarming, up-and-comer stories. "Wake Forest, Boston College, Maryland and Kentucky are all 4-0? Pssh, they're probably all going to go 8-4." "Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma all look shaky? Whatever, they're still their conference favorites."

Outlooks do change, however. Let's look at the teams whose expectations have shifted the most so far. Here are the 10 teams whose projected win totals, per SP+, have increased the most over the course of September.

Oregon State: +3.2 wins (from 4.3 to 7.5). The Beavers moved to 3-1 on Saturday, beating USC in the L.A. Coliseum for the first time since 1960. They're ninth in offensive SP+, and while defense remains an issue, they could score plenty of track-meet wins in the weeks to come.

Arkansas: +3.1 (from 5.3 to 8.5). Sam Pittman's Hogs scored one of the biggest wins of Week 4, a 20-10 triumph over Texas A&M that was even more resounding than the score. The schedule remains brutal -- road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama loom -- but this is a damn sound team.

Bowling Green: +2.9 (from 2.7 to 5.6). The Falcons were showing signs of improvement even before Saturday's stunning upset of Minnesota. Now, after winning six games in their last three seasons, SP+ gives them a 52% chance at going 6-6 and reaching bowl eligibility.

Baylor: +2.4 (from 6.1 to 8.5). FPI has declared Texas the No. 2 favorite in the Big 12, but SP+ isn't convinced yet, projecting an average of 5.9 conference wins for Baylor as compared to 5.7 for the Longhorns.

Michigan State: +2.4 (from 5.5 to 7.9). It's a crowded field in the Big Ten East, and the Spartans probably don't have enough juice to win the division. But their postseason prospects have ignited over four weeks.

Utah State: +2.3 (from 4.5 to 6.8). The Aggies suffered a humbling loss to Boise State on Saturday but have still upgraded their bowl prospects considerably.

UTSA: +2.3 (from 7.7 to 10.0). Only two Group of Five teams have a higher projected win total than Jeff Traylor's Roadrunners now: Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati.

Syracuse: +2.3 (from 3.5 to 5.8). SP+ gave the Orange only a 9% chance of reaching bowl eligibility in the preseason. Those odds are up to 57%.

Rutgers: +2.2 (from 4.2 to 6.4). The Scarlet Knights are an increasingly tough out in the Big Ten East and now have a 76% chance of bowling in Greg Schiano's second season back in Jersey.

SMU: +2.2 (from 7.2 to 9.3). Sonny Dykes' explosive Mustangs have jumped into the SP+ top 40; while Cincinnati remains the AAC favorite, SMU and Central Florida are nearly even in the No. 2 spot.

Seminole, Hoosier, Cougar and Husky stocks falling

Here are the 10 teams that have seen their projected wins fall the most.

Ohio: -4.0 wins (from 7.2 to 3.2). SP+ isn't programmed to take coaching changes into account in preseason projections. It appears Ohio wasn't programmed for it either. The Bobcats are 0-4 with three blowout losses following Frank Solich's July retirement.

Ball State: -3.1 (from 6.6 to 3.5). From 86th in SP+ in the preseason, the defending MAC champions have plummeted to 118th, dragged down not only by a dismal defense but also by an offense that hasn't clicked nearly as well as projected.

Florida State: -2.9 (from 5.7 to 2.8). One had to figure Mike Norvell's Seminoles would make this list. They showed some fight in attempting to come back from an early deficit against Louisville, but consistency is nonexistent.

Georgia Southern: -2.5 (from 5.3 to 2.8). The Eagles' outlook might have actually improved in Week 4 with a solid showing and near-upset of Louisiana. But at 1-3, they're playing from behind.

Indiana: -2.5 (from 6.9 to 4.4). Life in the Big Ten East is rough. The Hoosiers have already dropped two games to top-30 teams and have five more to play.

Washington State: -2.5 (from 6.2 to 3.7). Head coach Nick Rolovich has made waves off the field by evidently continuing to refuse coronavirus vaccination despite state mandates. He doesn't have much of an on-field résumé to point to either at the moment -- the Cougs are 1-3 with an 8% chance of bowl eligibility.

Washington: -2.4 (from 9.2 to 6.8). The Huskies survived their annual scare (or worse) from Cal, and their defense remains solid, but they're 56th in offensive SP+ and 109th on special teams. It will be hard to challenge Oregon in the Pac-12 with that.

Miami: -2.4 (from 9.1 to 6.7). The loss to Alabama was understandable. Getting dominated physically by Michigan State: less so. The Canes could still rebound but have lost the statistical benefit of the doubt.

USC: -2.4 (from 8.9 to 6.5). Firing your head coach after two weeks is a pretty good sign that your season has gone awry. Losing to a conference mate at home for the first time in 61 years is another.

Clemson: -2.2 (from 10.8 to 8.7). But you already knew this one.