Who said college football is too predictable?
September offered several surprises that have threatened the entrenched establishment at the top. Week 4 put those findings in plain sight, and that involved some of those preseason College Football Playoff contenders.
Here are four surprises nobody saw coming:
Clemson will not make the College Football Playoff
The reality hit before DJ Uiagalelei’s fourth-and-5 pass sailed over Justyn Ross’ head in double overtime.
“Cardiac Clemson” isn’t meant to be in 2021. The Tigers’ streak of 36 wins against unranked teams ended with a 27-21 loss to N.C. State on Saturday. Honestly, Clemson should not have been in that position.
The Wolfpack missed three field goal attempts in regulation. The Tigers were held to seven three-and-outs and limited to 2 of 11 on third-down conversions. Injuries to linebacker James Skalski and running back Will Shipley did not help.
“This point at 2-2, you look at everything,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, via The Athletic. “There’s nothing that you don’t evaluate. But I think DJ is our quarterback.”
Uiagalelei’s struggles in the passing game resurfaced (12 of 26, 111 yards, two TDs, one INT), but he rushed nine times for 63 yards. He needs to be more of a factor as a runner to overcome some of his early-season struggles.
The rare challenge Swinney faces now is to keep Clemson (1-1 in conference play) in the ACC championship hunt, which won’t be easy given the rampant unpredictability of the conference from week to week. Of course, no two-loss team has made the CFP.
That also is reality for the Tigers.
Arkansas-Georgia is a top-10 showdown
The Razorbacks were 11-35 with a 4-30 record in SEC play the last four seasons. Now, Arkansas is 4-0 and has swept Texas and Texas A&M in the first month of the season behind a dynamic rushing attack led by KJ Jefferson. The Razorbacks likely will have a top-10 ranking heading into a road test at Georgia.
Will second-year coach Sam Pittman, the former Bulldogs offensive line coach, pull off another unbelievable upset?
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Dawgs have a case for No. 1
OSU’s one-loss makeover is impressive
Kyle McCord started in place of C.J. Stroud (shoulder) against Akron in Week 4, and the freshman quarterback completed 13 of 18 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. That, combined with fellow freshman TreVeyon Henderson’s 93 yards and two touchdowns rushing, has to be terrifying for the Buckeyes’ opponents for the next three years. The much-maligned defense had eight sacks against the Zips.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day has been proactive and aggressive since the Week 2 loss to Oregon, but there are questions.
Will McCord take over as the starter? What does that mean for Stroud and a quarterback room that also features reclassified freshman Quinn Ewers and Jack Miller III? It is a series of first-world problems for the four-time defending Big Ten champions, but the Buckeyes will be in position for another Big Ten championship given the soft conference schedule the next four weeks.
Spencer Rattler’s struggles linger
The Sooners improved to 4-0 with a 16-13 victory against West Virginia, but preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Rattler was booed in the first half. Rattler hit 26 of 36 passes for 256 yards, a TD and an interception, part of a tough first month in which he averaged 237.7 yards passing, with three TDs and three INTs against the Sooners’ three FBS opponents.
Rattler is among the college stars who benefitted before the season from NIL, and that makes him an easy target. Kaleb Williams, a heralded five-star freshman, saw action in Oklahoma’s first two games but seems like a long shot to take over the starting job unless the Sooners lose. Would Lincoln Riley be bold enough to entertain a switch if Oklahoma continue to struggle?
Rattler can ease those concerns at Kansas State. He threw three interceptions in a 38-35 loss to the Wildcats in 2020.
Those are four surprises nobody saw coming in September. What will October bring?
With that, here are more Week 4 takeaways:
Notre Dame can alter Playoff picture
Notre Dame can’t run the ball, has another quarterback controversy with Brian Kelly and is going to be the thorn in the 2021 college football season.
So, business as usual.
The Irish were tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin at Soldier Field before making big plays in every facet of the game and pulling away for a 41-13 victory. The Irish, 6 1/2-point underdogs in the game, flipped the script with special teams and defense.
The Badgers took a 13-10 lead with 14:14 remaining, but Chris Tyree responded with a Rocket Ismail-like moment: a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Third-string quarterback Drew Pyne, who replaced an injured Jack Coan, threw a touchdown pass to Kevin Austin Jr. The defense forced four turnovers in the fourth quarter, capped by pick-sixes from linebackers Jack Kizer and Drew White.
This was amazing considering Notre Dame had 24 rushing attempts for minus-8 yards heading into that final quarter. The Irish also have a quarterback controversy now with Coan (leg) and Tyler Buchner (hamstring) dealing with injuries ahead of next week’s showdown with Cincinnati. Pyne, who finished 6 of 8 for 81 yards and a touchdown, could be the starter.
Kelly, who passed Knute Rockne as Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach with his 106th victory, might have a College Football Playoff team after all. The Irish don’t have the ACC spotlight this season and probably would get squeezed out with one loss, but this is the team the rest of the FBS is going to learn to root against for the next two months.
Conference call: Surprise unbeatens
How about the Power 5 teams that finished September with a perfect 4-0 record? Here is a look at the unbeatens who are not in the AP Top 25:
ACC: Boston College is 4-0 for the first time since 2007 after a 41-34 overtime victory against Missouri. Pat Garwo III (5-8, 214 pounds) emerged as the bowling ball in Jeff Hafley’s offense, contributing 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Tigers while averaging 6.8 yards per carry. The Eagles get Clemson next. Remember last year’s 34-28 thriller where BC had a 28-13 lead at halftime?
Wake Forest improved to 4-0 by disposing of Virginia 37-17 on Friday night. Quarterback Sam Hartman has nine touchdowns and one interception through four games, and the Demon Deacons don’t have a ranked opponent on the schedule until November.
Big Ten: Taulia Tagovailoa is an emerging star for Maryland, which improved to 4-0 with a 37-16 victory against Kent State. Tagovailoa is averaging 335 passing yards per game with 10 touchdowns and one interception. The Terps get to play spoiler the next two weeks against Iowa and Ohio State.
Big 12: Oklahoma State is off to a 4-0 start after beating Kansas State 31-20. The Cowboys have a productive backfield with Spencer Sanders and Jaylen Warren. Bedlam could be in business.
Iowa State was supposed to be the breakthrough team in the Big 12. Baylor did not get the memo. The Bears improved to 4-0 by beating the Cyclones despite being outgained 469-282. Second-year coach Dave Aranda has created belief in Waco, and Baylor is just two years removed from a Big 12 championship appearance.
SEC: Kentucky edged South Carolina in an ugly 16-10 victory that moved the Wildcats to 4-0. That leaves them as the second unbeaten team in the SEC East heading into Saturday’s matchup against Florida. Will Levis struggled against the Gamecocks with 102 passing yards and an interception. Can Kentucky stake a claim as the second-best team in the division?
Sneak peek at Week 5
— Ole Miss had an extra week to prepare for Alabama and the Rebels lead the FBS with 52.7 points and 635.3 yards per game. Lane Kiffin is 0-2 against Nick Saban, but those games are memorable for two reasons.
Alabama beat Tennessee 12-10 on Oct. 24, 2009, with a last-second field goal block by Terrence Cody. Last season, the Crimson Tide beat Ole Miss in a 63-48 shootout. Alabama won national championships both seasons, but Kiffin’s teams were the toughest out in the regular season both times.
— Michigan faces some doubts after an uneven second half in a 20-13 victory against Rutgers. If the 4-0 Wolverines want to be considered for real, it wouldn’t hurt to grab a victory at two-loss Wisconsin. They have not won in Madison since a 20-17 victory in 2001, when Hayden Epstein kicked the game-winning field goal with 14 seconds remaining. This will be a strength-on-strength matchup with the Wolverines’ running game going up against Wisconsin’s run defense. A similar score could be in the works. The Badgers have won the last two meetings in blowout fashion.
— Bowling Green shocked Minnesota in a 14-10 upset Saturday. The Falcons, 30 1/2-point underdogs, are trying to break a string of five straight losing seasons. Bowling Green is 4-5 against Big Ten opponents since 2014. Go figure.
— Looking for an off-the-wall Group of 5 Playoff buster? UTSA looks the part after Hunter Duplessis hit a last-second 42-yard field goal to beat Memphis 31-28. The Roadrunners also upset Illinois. Running back Sincere McCormick logged 42 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers.
— Army improved to 4-0 with a 23-10 victory against Miami (Ohio). The Black Knights did that with zero passing yards. Christian Anderson finished 0 of 5 passing, but he made up for it with 15 carries for 236 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Anderson is averaging 7.4 yards per carry. Army has an interesting matchup against Wisconsin on Oct. 16.
—Florida State and Arizona are the lone Power 5 teams without a victory in September. The Seminoles lost 31-23 against Louisville; the third straight loss at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2021. Florida State is 3-5 at home under second-year coach Mike Norvell, and Syracuse visits Tallahassee in Week 5. Arizona committed five turnovers in a 41-19 loss to Oregon.