Since opening weekend of this 2021 college football season, we’ve been offered weekly reminders of Georgia’s elite defensive fortitude. The Bulldogs suffocated Clemson, back when that was considered impressive, and have put on a clinic in weekly opponent offensive suffocation.
As the college football season has unfolded in a wondrous cacophony of fits, starts and surprises, there’d been no obvious foil for the top-ranked Bulldogs. Alabama flashed that potential before bursts of mortality. Oregon’s win at Ohio State thrust it into the conversation. Cincinnati’s march to perfection, combined with its last-second bowl loss to UGA last year, has moonlighted it in that conversation.
But it wasn’t until No. 4 Ohio State’s emasculation of No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday that a destination-caliber No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up in the sport revealed itself. In the most dizzying, impressive and jaw-dropping half of football that 2021 has seen, Ohio State scored touchdowns on seven consecutive first-half possessions and didn’t yield a point.
Ohio State took a team ranked in the top 10 and rag-dolled them around The Horseshoe as if they were a directional Michigan. At times, more like Bishop Sycamore.
The Buckeyes filleted Michigan State’s suspect pass defense, turned Mel Tucker’s reported $95 million contract offer into a Twitter punchline and showed just how devastating the OSU offense can be when quarterback C.J. Stroud is working at peak accuracy.
Stroud finished 32-for-35 for 432 yards. To be clear, this was not Georgia’s defense. But it also wasn’t Otterbein. The Spartans’ pass defense ranked No. 56 in efficiency, but it yielded more passing yards per game than any team in the country.
And that’s why it’s expected that the Buckeyes will appear at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. No. 3 Oregon did the Buckeyes two huge favors — it rattled the program enough in September to make seismic changes. And then no-showed in Salt Lake City, getting blasted 38-7 by Utah to end the Ducks’ and Pac-12’s hopes for a College Football Playoff spot.
Will Ohio State’s performance be enough to leap No. 2 Alabama? The Crimson Tide aren’t reaching the same crescendo as the Buckeyes, as they slogged through a workmanlike 42-35 victory over Arkansas on Saturday.
That comes on the heels of a listless showing against LSU. Don’t be surprised if Alabama is pressed at Auburn (6-5) on Saturday, even in the wake of Auburn’s three-game losing streak. Alabama hasn’t won there since 2015, and this could save Bryan Harsin’s largely forgettable first season on The Plains.
Regardless, Ohio State has shown enough offensive burst and consistency in recent weeks that it’d be fun to envision a matchup with Georgia. The Buckeyes have the sport’s best collection of receivers — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — and a quarterback who has gained the poise and experience to fully exploit those weapons. Freshman tailback TreVeyon Henderson continues an ascent to be one of the sport’s defining players in upcoming seasons, as he's averaging more than seven yards per carry.
Here's the most under-appreciated part of a potential OSU and Georgia matchup: Ohio State’s offensive line is one of the few in the country that could measure up to UGA’s mauling defensive front. OSU’s offensive line has the size — RT Dawand Jones (6-8, 360), RG Paris Johnson Jr. (6-6, 315) — and experience with LG Thayer Munford having logged 43 career starts.
No. 4 Ohio State entered the game with No. 7 Michigan State as a 19.5-point favorite, so the notion of a Spartan grand gravitational comeuppance wasn’t that far-fetched.
But few could have envisioned the relentless and unmerciful tenor of Ohio State’s 56-7 evisceration of Michigan State. The Buckeyes didn’t just annihilate Michigan State, they managed to completely alter the trajectory of a Spartan program, the Heisman Trophy race and, along the way, the perception of Ohio State’s ability to win the national title. Georgia is still the favorite, but a fascinating foil has emerged.
There was good news for Michigan State on Saturday — any notion of Mel Tucker leaving for a job like LSU in this coaching cycle disappeared by halftime. Tucker’s career record fell to 16-14 with the loss, and any grand notions of Tucker serving as the answer for an ailing blue blood were put on ice. Tucker has been a very good coach for Michigan State, and he’ll continue in that role in the near future.
Ohio State still must go to No. 5 Michigan next week. That does not project to be the same caliber of joyride, as Michigan has the country’s No. 7 pass efficiency defense and No. 4 scoring defense. Michigan hasn’t seen any offenses close to the class of Ohio State, and the Buckeyes haven’t played anywhere near as hostile as Ann Arbor.
Another aced test for OSU next week would solidify it as Georgia’s potential foil, and the drumbeat for that matchup would only pound louder as we go through league title games and the College Football Playoff.
Seminoles trying to win Florida
How wayward are things with the power conference schools in the state of Florida? With a win at Boston College on Saturday, Florida State improved to 5-6 with a chance to get bowl eligible and perhaps be the best-positioned program in the state for the immediate future.
A win at Florida on Saturday and a bowl bid in Mike Norvell’s second season would make FSU the most stable of Florida’s supposed Big Three. Consider that Miami is amid an athletic director transition that’s expected to yield a coach change. Florida is in the throes of a searing spiral that included a blowout loss at South Carolina, a historically bad defensive performance against Samford and an overtime loss at Missouri.
Florida State isn’t exactly channeling the 1990s, but it is 5-2 in its past seven games and won back-to-back gritty three-point games over Miami and Boston College. Despite the gut-wrenching loss to Jacksonville State this season and 0-4 start, FSU can play in the first bowl game under Mike Norvell while the other Florida schools appear on the cusp of recalibration.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Norvell told Yahoo Sports after the game. “For our guys to be able to go out there for a chance to win the state. With the win at Miami and the opportunity to go to Gainesville, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Nearly 75% of FSU’s roster are freshman and sophomores, which means a bowl game would offer a key chance to develop. That’s one of many reasons why the Florida game looms so large. Sophomore Jordan Travis finished with three touchdown passes and 251 yards on 20-for-34 passing on Saturday against Boston College. FSU is 5-2 in games he’s started this year and 0-4 in the others.
One more win would give Florida State a chance to help the young roster grow up a little more.
“If we can find a way to be successful, you get a chance to secure one more game with this team,” Norvell said. “It’s an opportunity to grow and develop a lot of momentum that is going to carry over into recruiting.”
How Oregon's loss impacts CFP picture
Utah’s trouncing of Oregon on Saturday opened up a world of possibility in the College Football Playoff rankings. While closing the door on the Pac-12’s playoff chances, it brightened the fortunes of others.
The immediate beneficiary should be Cincinnati (11-0), which is expected to slide into the No. 4 playoff spot behind Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama. (Michigan would earn a trip into that group if it wins out.)
Oregon's and Michigan State’s loss also allows for some dreamers. No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 9 Oklahoma State find themselves with conceivable paths to the top four, as Michigan and Ohio State play each other, as do Georgia and Alabama.
Notre Dame is 10-1 with its only loss coming at home to Cincinnati. The issue with the Irish is they lack quality wins other than Wisconsin, which was No. 18 in September. The Irish don’t have a No. 13 data point, nor have they been dominant until the back half of their schedule. (They close at Stanford, which doesn’t help. At all.)
Oklahoma State is 10-1 with a loss at unranked Iowa State, which has lost some luster as a loss. The Cowboys close with Oklahoma at home, and then will play either Baylor or Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. That offers two chances at quality wins.
But it also leads to a question that will get more oxygen as we get closer to the playoff being selected — could a two-loss team like Michigan, Alabama or Ohio State earn a spot over them? Remember, back in the BCS days, LSU had two regular season losses and still played in the title game.
While the ACC and Pac-12 appear toast in the CFP race, options still loom. And there are enough quirky scenarios to portend something controversial is on the way.
Quarterback roulette at Southern Miss
No win over the weekend was more improbable than Southern Miss’ 35-19 win at Louisiana Tech for the program’s first victory over an FBS school this year.
Southern Miss had used six different quarterbacks this season before the Louisiana Tech game — four scholarship quarterbacks, a walk-on and a student coach turned player midseason.
With no healthy scholarship quarterbacks available, Southern Miss coach Will Hall essentially played quarterback roulette with four position players — primarily star tailback Frank Gore Jr., who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. They also used defensive back Antavious Willis (one touchdown pass), tailback Dajon Richard (120 rushing yards) and receiver Jakarius Caston.
“We’re playing four of them back there right now,” Southern Miss coach Will Hall told Yahoo Sports. “Rotating them in and out to keep them fresh.”
Hall said in a phone interview on Saturday that Southern Miss huddled and milked the play clock to nearly two seconds to shorten the game. He said that the decision to rotate the quarterbacks and shorten the game came down to this simple truism: “Football is math and geometry.” He added: “It’s similar to what Florida did with Tebow. Outnumber the box and get a hat on a hat.”
Southern Miss’ quarterback issues have undercut its offense all season. The defense, led by coordinator Austin Armstrong, has held nine of 11 opponents under their scoring average.
Hall said Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill told him recently that he’d never seen a 1-6 team that played as hard as Southern Miss. “I think people have seen that all year,” Hall said. “It’s a credit to the culture we’re building and the kids.”
Southern Miss is 2-9, and it has one more week of quarterback roulette with position players against FIU next week.