CFB Kickoff: Chaos Theory 2021
By Stiofán Mac Fhilib
College Football is renowned for it’s unpredictability. Yet for every upset on a Saturday, it’s still the usual suspects making plans for January football. Stiofán is ready to think outside the box, and offer you an alternative – but very possible – reality for 2021:
Death, Taxes, And The Same Old Faces In The College Football Playoffs
Gary Lineker once observed that football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win. Were he a CFB fan, he would likely have noted that a college football season is also pretty straightforward: 130 FBS teams play 12 games each, and then Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma go to the playoffs.
The Athletic ran a recent piece asking nine of its top writers to make their 2021 CFB Playoff predictions. Alabama and Ohio State got nine votes apiece, Clemson seven and Oklahoma five. No one else got more than two. And the frustrating thing is, as bland as those choices may appear, they’re hard to argue with. Up to a point.
Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are replacing their starting QB, along with their other annual losses to the NFL draft. Could they be just a little more vulnerable than usual? What about the next tier of teams nipping at their heels? Georgia, Texas A&M, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Insert Pac 12 team here?
Flirting With Chaos
In a season where it’s harder than normal to make forecasts based on the discombobulated previous year, and where the very first scoring play of the entire campaign was a punt return taken back into its own end zone for a slip and a safety, what if? What if 2021 WERE to be a year of, if not complete chaos, as least a bit of disruption to the status quo? What if the footballing gods were to decide to channel a little bit of the spirit of 2007, possibly the most bizarre CFB season in modern times?
2007 is, of course, best remembered for that legendary, epic BCS Championship Game between #1 Missouri and #2 West Virginia. Or rather it would have been had that pair not both contrived to lose their final games of the regular season. The Tigers lost 38-17 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game while the Mountaineers were upset 13-9 by rivals 4-7 Pittsburgh in the Back Yard Brawl.
Ultimately Ohio State, which began as #11 in August, finished #1, before losing the actual National Championship game to an LSU team which both began and finished the regular season #2. A statistic which belies the fact that EIGHT different teams – LSU, USC, Cal, South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas (not a typo!) and West Virginia – were ranked second in the AP poll at some point that year. And SEVEN times, the #2 ranked team lost.
One of these, USC falling 24-23 to Stanford in Jim Harbaugh’s first season at the farm, was the record for the biggest ever spread for a losing favourite: 41.5 points. And speaking of Harbaugh, that wasn’t even the most shocking upset of the 2007. THAT came in week 1 at the Big House, where then FCS Appalachian State went at beat his alma mater and future home, #5 Michigan, 34-32 with a last second blocked FG. Nick Saban was also in his first season in Tuscaloosa and led his Alabama team to a 21-14 defeat at home to UL Monroe. THAT’s just how weird 2007 was.
The Path To A Unique Year
So…just what would it take to shake things up in 2021 and bring a few fresh faces to the January party in CFB? Without getting too ridiculous, here is a scenario that might make things a little more interesting when we start putting the Christmas decorations up in a few months’ time.
Wisconsin lose at home to an improving Penn State team returning to form after key injuries in 2020.
Georgia overcome Clemson in their neutral site-opener in Charlotte.
Oregon go to the horseshoe flying the flag proudly for left coast football and exit with an upset win over an Ohio State team still trying to gel around their new starting QB.
Cincinnati live up to their pre-season ranking and go to Bloomington and hand Tom Allen’s Indiana their first defeat of the season.
Notre Dame triumph in the Jack Coan Bowl in Chicago over Wisconsin.
A week later Notre Dame then lose the Marcus Freeman Bowl at home to Cincinnati.
Texas A&M puts down a huge marker with a home win over Nick Saban and Alabama. The last time they upset ‘Bama, the Crimson Tide still went on to win the SEC and National Championship. Will 2021 replicate 2012? (Spoiler: not in this scenario!).
Meanwhile back on the plains, the other team in the state of Alabama is more successful, as Auburn upset Georgia.
North Carolina lose a key ACC match up with Miami.
Notre Dame lose at home to rival USC for the first time in five years.
The Irish then bounce back the following week with a home victory over North Carolina.
LSU go to Tuscaloosa and upset the Crimson Tide, all but ensuring no repeat of 2012 for Saban’s team.
Iowa State go to Norman and defeat Oklahoma in the regular season for the second consecutive season
This is where the fun, and the upsets, well and truly kick in.
Iowa State double down and knock off the Sooner again, this time in Arlington.
Wisconsin outplay Ohio State to win the Big Ten.
Texas A&M overcome Georgia in Atlanta to claim their first ever SEC title, though modesty prevents them from even mentioning this fact when back in their own state and speaking to Texas fans.
North Carolina upset Clemson in Charlotte to end the Tigers’ run of consecutive ACC titles.
Oregon win the PAC 12 championship game, beating a USC team that yet again can’t find a good enough reason to fire Clay Helton.
So, assuming the pre-season Top 12 in the AP Poll win all their other games not included above, and assuming no other teams have fewer than two losses, how would that all shake out? (Pre-season rankings in brackets):
(6) Texas A&M 13-0
(11) Oregon 13-0
(7) Iowa State 13-0
(8) Cincinnati 13-0
(3) Clemson 11-2
(5) Georgia 11-2
(10) North Carolina 11-2
(4) Ohio State 11-2
(2) Oklahoma 11-2
(12) Wisconsin 11-2
(1) Alabama 10-2
(9) Notre Dame 10-2
The top five pre-season teams would all miss out, with Cincinnati becoming the first Group of Five school to make a playoff appearance, joining Iowa State and A&M in reaching their first final four game.
Texas A&M would likely be the #1 seed, with wins over Alabama and Georgia. Oregon’s triumph at Ohio State would see them edge out Iowa State for the #2 spot though, of course, in reality pipping the #3 team for second spot is largely irrelevant. And with all the other possible contenders, including the Big Ten and ACC Champions, having at least two losses, it would be practically impossible to deny Cincinnati their historic place at the top table, sliding in as the #4 seed.
And who would win it all? I’ll let the fans of the four playoff contenders argue that out amongst themselves…
A VERY LONG-DISTANCE SUBWAY ALUMNUS OF NOTRE DAME, COUNTY ANTRIM-BASED STIOFÁN HAS BEEN A FAN OF THE FIGHTING IRISH SINCE 2000. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SMACFHILIB.