We’re now past the halfway point of the 2021 college football season.
While it may seem hard to believe, time flies during football season. And now that we’re officially in the back half of the season, it’s time to look at how the conference races are shaping up across the country.
There’s still plenty of football left to play and most of those games will be conference games. There will be some twists and turns over the last five weeks of the season. Here are our best guesses for what December’s conference title games will look like as the final weekend of October approaches.
Cincinnati vs. SMU
The two undefeated teams remaining in the AAC should meet twice in three weeks. SMU and Cincinnati play each other on Nov. 20 in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the title game. Houston (5-1, 3-0) is positioned to play spoiler and has a schedule that avoids Cincinnati, but the Mustangs should take care of business against the Cougars in Week 9.
Wake Forest vs. Pitt
Welcome to an ACC title game without Clemson. After Pitt took care of the Tigers on Saturday we’re staring at the likelihood of the first ACC championship since 2014 without Clemson. Wake Forest has a one-game lead on N.C. State in the Atlantic with Clemson two games behind. Pitt has a two-game or more advantage over everyone else in the Coastal and should have no problem wrapping up the division before the final week of the regular season.
Oklahoma vs. Iowa State
The Sooners are the only team undefeated in Big 12 play but they haven’t played any of the three schools tied for second at 3-1. We like Iowa State to emerge from the group that includes Oklahoma State and Baylor after the Cyclones’ win over the Cowboys. ISU has been OU’s nemesis in recent years and we like its chances of getting a win over the Sooners more than Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Iowa vs. Ohio State
Is it now a three-horse race in the Big Ten East? Penn State is two games behind Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State after losing a bizarrely compelling 20-18 nine-overtime game against Illinois. The Battle Royale for the East begins in earnest next week with PSU’s game against Ohio State and Michigan’s game against Michigan State. The Buckeyes easily beat Indiana on Saturday.
The West is still open too as Minnesota and Iowa are tied atop the division. They meet on Nov. 13 while Wisconsin is lurking at 2-2 and hosts Iowa next week.
Florida Atlantic vs. UTSA
FAU is currently in a three-way tie for first in the East but beat Charlotte 38-9 last week. UTSA is now 8-0 after an easy win at Louisiana Tech and is one of the most fun stories of the season. Oh, both of these schools are going to the AAC in 2022.
Miami vs. Northern Illinois
Miami is tied with Kent State at the top of the MAC East. The two teams play each other on the final Saturday of the season in what could be a winner-take-all finale. NIU has a two-game lead on everyone else in the West.
Air Force vs. San Diego State
We could be looking at a rematch of Week 8. No. 22 San Diego State beat Air Force 20-14 on Saturday to move to 7-0. We’re confident in our pick of the Aztecs to win the West, but the Falcons are a dart throw. It’s going to be a fascinating race among Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State for the Mountain Division.
Oregon vs. Utah
The No. 10 Ducks hung on to move to 3-1 in the Pac-12 with a win at UCLA on Saturday. Utah, meanwhile, lost to Oregon State but has a tiebreaker over Arizona State. The most Pac-12 thing would be for an 11-1 Oregon to lose to Utah or Arizona State in the championship game and deny the conference a shot at the playoff.
Georgia vs. Alabama
This one’s the most straightforward of the bunch. Georgia was off on Saturday. Alabama didn’t play well but still beat Tennessee handily. Both teams could make the College football Playoff. Do we need to say more?
Appalachian State vs. Louisiana
App State beat Coastal Carolina on Wednesday to gain a huge advantage in the East while Louisiana has a two-game lead on everyone else in the West.
Here are this week’s winners and losers.
Northern Illinois: The Huskies came back from a 35-18 deficit in the second half to beat Central Michigan 39-38. Kanon Woodill kicked a 26-yard field goal with 54 seconds left for the go-ahead points and push NIU to a 6-2 record and bowl eligibility. It’s an incredible turnaround for Northern Illinois after the school went 0-6 in 2020.
Wake Forest: How do you score 70 points by having the ball for less than 18 minutes? Ask Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons moved to 7-0 with a 70-56 win over Army on Saturday. Sam Hartman threw for a Michie Stadium record 458 yards and five touchdowns as the Demon Deacons had 638 yards on 52 plays. Army, meanwhile, racked up 595 yards on 83 plays and held the ball for nearly 43 minutes. Wake has games against Duke and North Carolina — in a non-conference matchup — before playing NC State and Clemson in back-to-back weeks to decide the ACC Atlantic title.
Illinois: The Illini got a fantastic win in a 20-18, uh, thriller against Penn State. The game set the record for the longest in college football history with nine overtimes, though it was an exercise in futility. With the game turning into a two-point conversion contest after the second OT, neither team was able to score from three yards away until the eighth overtime. Illinois then held Penn State in the ninth to move to 3-5 and keep its bowl eligibility hopes alive.
Miami: Hey, the Hurricanes were on the right side of a close game. Miami beat No. 18 NC State 31-30 to move to 3-4 and get its first ACC win of the season. QB Tyler Van Dyke had a stellar game with 4 TD passes on 25-of-33 passing for 325 yards. Oklahoma transfer wide receiver Charleston Rambo had nine catches for 127 yards and Jaylan Knighton had 83 yards rushing and 83 yards receiving. With four winnable games remaining, Miami could get to a bowl game.
Wisconsin: The Badgers moved to 4-3 with a convincing 30-13 win over a Purdue team coming off a win over Iowa. Wisconsin ran Purdue into the ground — nearly literally. The Badgers rushed 51 times for 290 yards and three touchdowns while QB Graham Mertz threw just eight passes. Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell was intercepted three times as Wisconsin scored 17 points in the second half.
Rice: The Owls entered Saturday’s game against UAB as a 24-point underdog and won 30-24 in Birmingham. Rice led nearly the entire way and were comfortably ahead for much of the second half as UAB wasn’t able to get any closer than six over the final 30 minutes. QB Wiley Green was 17-of-22 passing for 205 yards and three touchdowns and the defense limited UAB to just two third-down conversions all game.
Clemson: The Tigers’ chances of making the ACC title game are pretty much over after a 27-17 loss to Pitt. Clemson’s offense once again struggled mightily as the passing game simply can’t get in sync. D.J. Uiagalelei and Taisun Phommachanh averaged a paltry 4.7 yards per passing attempt and Uiagalelei threw two interceptions. One of those were returned for a touchdown. Clemson should make a bowl this season, but it’s not going to be a good one. And we’re now left to wonder if this is a one-year dip for the Tigers or the start of a longer downward trend.
The overtime rules: It’s time to figure out the overtime rules again. The NCAA’s rules committee figured it would be a good idea to shorten games by starting the two-point shootout at the third overtime. If you watched Illinois’ win over Penn State, you saw that game was not a shootout.
While that game may be an outlier, it also showed how the third overtime is too soon to go to the college football equivalent of penalty kicks. How about a two-point shootout after four overtimes? Most college football games don’t get close to four overtimes, so this would provide more opportunities for games to be won in a fairer fashion.
Colorado State: The Rams lost in brutal fashion on Friday night thanks to some utter clock mismanagement by Steve Addazio and his staff. Colorado State was driving down the field needing a field goal to win and got a first down with plenty of time to spike the ball and even run a play or two before a potential game-winning kick. Instead, CSU inexplicably rushed the field goal team out onto the field to hurriedly attempt a 42-yard field goal. And yep, Cayden Camper’s 42-yard kick sailed wide right and Utah State won 26-24.
Would a less rushed process have led to a made field goal? Who knows. But it’s unfathomable how Colorado State’s staff lost all awareness of the clock situation.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders were up 14-0 on Kansas State less than 3:30 into the game on Saturday. Somehow Texas Tech lost 25-24. Kansas State scored 15 points in the second half as Texas Tech went scoreless for the final 30 minutes. The Red Raiders had just 318 total yards and threw just 17 passes while Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson picked apart the Tech defense for 296 yards on 24-of-30 passing. Tech drops to 5-3 with the loss and with the top four teams in the Big 12 remaining on its schedule, a bowl game just got a lot harder to make.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies blew a 36-27 lead over the final 5:36 to lose 41-36 to Syracuse at home on Saturday. The loss drops Virginia Tech to 3-4 and raises questions about Justin Fuente’s future at the school. Virginia Tech has finished under .500 in two of Fuente’s five seasons at the school so far and has four road games remaining in 2021. It’s not going to be totally surprising if VT ends up at 6-6. Or worse.
TCU: The Horned Frogs aren’t very good. TCU gave up 487 yards to West Virginia in a 29-17 loss at home on Saturday night. West Virginia RB Leddie Brown rushed for three TDs as TCU was shut out in the second half. TCU is now 3-4 and has lost four of its last five games. With games against Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State up next, TCU won’t be favored again until it plays Kansas on Nov. 20.