Unpredictability is the expectation in college football. However, this season seems to have taken that unpredictability to another level as we reached the midpoint of the campaign.
Four teams that started in the top 10 have lost twice, led by Clemson, which is staring at the possibility of missing the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014. Alabama and Ohio State already have dropped games.
Oklahoma has struggled so much while winning in narrow fashion that it benched the quarterback that was the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.
LSU and Southern California both started ranked among the top 15 and have already announced the removal of their coaches. Texas has lost three times after opening in the top 20. North Carolina has done the same after being in the preseason top 10.
BOWL PROJECTIONS: Iowa’s loss adds new wrinkle to playoff race
BEARCATS RISE: Cincinnati now No. 2 behind Georgia in Re-Rank 1-130
These developments overshadow some of the positives. Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma State all are unexpectedly unbeaten at this point. New Heisman candidates and coaching stars have emerged as others falter. Those accomplishments are worth celebrating.
So without further ado, here are the winners of our midseason awards from three of our college football experts. The envelope, please.
Best four teams
Paul Myerberg: Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma.
The first two are obvious. Ohio State has played well enough since losing to Oregon to get back into the top four. And Oklahoma has looked like a different team with Caleb Williams under center and may have what it takes to run the table in the Big 12.
Erick Smith: Georgia, Cincinnati, Alabama, Penn State.
No doubt about the Bulldogs being first. The Bearcats deserve the second spot off double-digit wins at Indiana and Notre Dame that were expected to be their toughest tests. Alabama has been shaky in two road games, losing one. The Nittany Lions have played the best of any Big Ten team and would be unbeaten without Sean Clifford being injured in the first half at Iowa
Eddie Timanus: Georgia, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Alabama.
Yes, we know the Crimson Tide have a loss. But the Big Ten teams currently occupying nearly half of the top 10 are about to start beating each other, and we don’t see Nick Saban’s crew dropping another one, at least until they meet the Dawgs in the SEC title game.
Paul Myerberg: The Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma set a record for most combined points in series history and had the subplot of Williams stepping in for an underachieving Spencer Rattler. If not an upset in the vein of Alabama losing to Texas A&M, the result did keep OU in the playoff mix and might be seen in the future as the moment when Williams announced his arrival on the college stage.
Erick Smith: Alabama at Texas A&M. This was expected to be the the game of the year in the SEC and it delivered. While some of the pregame hype was diminished with the Aggies losing twice before the showdown, they responded with an inspired effort. Zach Calzada, who started the season as the backup quarterback, played out of his mind in giving A&M a 14-point halftime lead and then leading two scoring drives in the last three minutes after the Crimson Tide grabbed a seven-point lead with a late touchdown.
Eddie Timanus: Oregon 35, Ohio State 28, Sept. 11. The first – and so far only – regular-season loss of Buckeyes coach Ryan Day’s tenure was the first indicator that the 2021 season was going to be a wild ride. Unfortunately, the offensive star of that game, Ducks’ running back C.J. Verdell, later suffered a season-ending injury.
Best coaching performance
Paul Myerberg: Kirby Smart has built the best team in college football. But beyond the top-ranked Bulldogs, you have to appreciate the work done by Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who has the Spartans thriving in his second season after shaking up the roster with transfers. In the era of the portal, Tucker’s showing how to get it done. And Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson has the Demon Deacons rising up the Top 25.
Erick Smith: Luke Fickell should be at the top of every major opening this offseason with his performance at Cincinnati. For a program not used to lofty expectations, he has managed the situation of being a legitimate Group of Five contender for the playoff almost perfectly. Too many times teams get too high in this situation, however the Bearcats managed the challenge of road games at Indiana and Notre Dame and have been emphatic in their other victories. Much of that credit goes to Fickell.
Eddie Timanus: Dave Clawson, Wake Forest. Getting the Demon Deacons to five consecutive bowl games was already enough to move Clawson into statue-building territory among Wake fans. This year’s team was aiming higher though, adopting the mantra “good to great” in preseason camp, and they’ve delivered with a 6-0 start. An ACC title is hardly a given, but it’s also not out of the question.
Paul Myerberg: It’s now focused on two SEC quarterbacks, Bryce Young and Matt Corral. Young has the edge in his team’s performance and bounced back from the loss to the Aggies with four touchdowns in a rout of Mississippi State. But Corral has the numbers and the flashy plays to be the midseason Heisman favorite.
Erick Smith: There’s no candidate that will have more opportunities to impress voters than Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. The redshirt freshman started slowly, but the Buckeyes are leading the nation in total offense and are second in scoring. If they can keep up that pace with significant games against Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and likely Iowa, then he stands to be in the best position to win the award.
Eddie Timanus: Matt Corral, Mississippi. Honestly, there isn’t a clear favorite at this juncture for the first time in recent memory. Corral is banged up and might have to miss some time, and he was outshone by Alabama’s Bryce Young in their head-to-head showdown. But his numbers will be impossible to ignore if he can keep putting them up against the rest of his SEC opponents. Then again, we wouldn’t be shocked if an entirely different candidate emerges in the second half of the season.
Paul Myerberg: The Big Ten has five teams in the playoff hunt and will define the second half of the regular season with a round-robin slate of games involving the best in the East division. While the SEC remains the class of the FBS, the Big Ten will have the biggest impact on the final playoff top four.
Erick Smith: In its nine previous seasons since the program was born, Texas-San Antonio has managed more than seven wins once. That was eight in 2012, the first season for the Roadrunners that saw them play three teams outside of the Bowl Subdivision. UTSA is already at seven wins after an unbeaten start that has them ranked for the first time.
Eddie Timanus: To say seventh-ranked Michigan State was under the radar at the start of the campaign is something of an understatement. The Spartans weren’t even on the map, receiving no votes in the preseason coaches poll. They’re likely about to get a reality check as they reach the meat of the Big Ten East schedule, but considering where the MSU program was just a couple of years ago, even a 9-3 or 8-4 finish would be a significant achievement for Mel Tucker’s program.
Paul Myerberg: Clemson heads into Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh facing the possibility of holding two ACC losses and three losses overall before Halloween. It’s been more than a decade since the Tigers have looked this beatable. What’s wrong? It’s better to ask what has gone or is going right for Clemson, and the short answer is nothing.
Erick Smith: There’s really not a way to sugercoat going from Heisman favorite to the bench in the span of six weeks. That, unfortunately, is what happened to Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. Whether it was distractions or high expectations or worries about the NFL, everything was off for the junior as the Sooners offense floundered. The revitalization with Caleb Williams under center only underscores that Rattler was holding them back.
Eddie Timanus: Washington isn’t the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to have been tripped up by a member of the Football Championship Subdivision this year. But their ugly 13-7 loss to Montana on opening night was a clear indication their No. 21 preseason ranking was misplaced. Things haven’t gotten much better on the offensive side for U-Dub, which has committed 12 turnovers and is averaging just 5.2 yards per play.
Best defensive player
Paul Myerberg: Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis is the most dominant lineman in the country and the linchpin of a defense that is earning accolades as the best to come through college football in a decade or more. His high level of play has Davis entering into the Heisman conversation.
Erick Smith: Great defensive players are disruptors. There’s no one better than Alabama linebacker Will Anderson. The sophomore leads the country with 15 tackles for loss and is second with seven sacks, including four last week against Mississippi State. Anderson also makes plays after the line of scrimmage, ranking second on the team with 45 stops.
Eddie Timanus: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame. It’s hard to pick out just one guy on Georgia’s lights-out defensive unit. So we’ll give the nod to the veteran Fighting Irish free safety who is arguably the player his team could least afford to lose. The mainstay of the Notre Dame secondary has picked off three passes, broken up four more, and ranks second on the team with 33 total tackles.
Best true freshman
Paul Myerberg: Georgia tight end Brock Bowers leads the Bulldogs in catches (25), yards (416) and touchdowns (six). In last weekend’s win against Kentucky, he cracked the 100-yard mark for the second time and had multiple touchdowns for the third time in seven games. With JT Daniels sidelined, Bowers has helped Georgia’s offense stay afloat behind backup quarterback Stetson Bennett.
Erick Smith: Coming into the SEC as a defensive lineman, it’s unexpected that a true freshman will be able to have an immediate impact. LSU’s Maason Smith, however, has lived up to the expectations of being one of the top players in his class. He has contributed 18 tackles and ranks second on the team in sacks with four while switching between defensive tackle and end.
Eddie Timanus: TreVeyon Henderson just enrolled at Ohio State in January but the running back has quickly become a key cog in the Buckeyes’ offensive machine. He leads the team in rushing with 612 yards, with 766 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football midseason awards: Best teams, players in 2021 so far