Simply when pundits had penciled in Alabama and Georgia as two unstoppable forces on a collision course for the SEC championship sport and Faculty Soccer Playoff, Texas A&M stepped into the breach and reminded the school soccer world that there’s just one certain factor on the midpoint of 2021:
Now we have seen it within the sheer quantity of upsets throughout the board and in a high 10 that appears vastly completely different than the one to begin the season. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — all perennial playoff groups — have already got not less than one loss every, and we’re solely six weeks in.
What Texas A&M did final weekend goes down as probably the most unpredictable outcome but. Alabama had overwhelmed the Aggies by a mean of 23 factors in three earlier conferences underneath Jimbo Fisher. Texas A&M went into the sport with a struggling backup quarterback and an harm record practically 10 deep. But by some means the Aggies gained.
When requested how every part got here collectively for his workforce final week, Fisher advised ESPN, “Typically it will get right down to this: You bought to. Somebody asks, ‘How did you do one thing?’ I do not know; I simply needed to. It is superb how one can put your self in that scenario. Now we have to this week too towards Missouri. However now, it is are you able to deal with success?
“It is nice to be an underdog. However you do not ever need to be an underdog. An underdog says you are content material being second, third and fourth place. Now we have to be taught that these aren’t upsets. Solely we will get upset. Now we have to vary that tradition and mentality, and now, that is the half now we have to coach our gamers on.”
Fisher stated he noticed glimpses from quarterback Zach Calzada regardless of the struggles in losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, noting how generally gamers simply must develop up as soon as they’re put into sport conditions. However the unpredictability throughout the board has been one thing everybody has needed to cope with — coaches included.
“You have acquired youthful gamers, guys within the switch portal, you bought guys bouncing round, not as many guys aware of conditions or how groups work; that might presumably trigger it. However whoever can determine this out and get it again to regular would be the man who comes out on high,” Fisher stated.
The chaos has reached different conferences too. The ACC is totally large open now that Clemson has misplaced. The Large Ten additionally seems to be up for grabs, with the undefeated squads of Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State and one-loss Ohio State and Penn State nonetheless very a lot within the thick of the race. The identical goes for the Pac-12, which is as unpredictable as ever. All of it makes Stanford coach David Shaw take discover. He and his fellow Pac-12 coaches are used to this. And given the best way individuals have grown uninterested in the identical groups on the high of the game, Shaw has welcomed the change.
“I am happy that there is parity in faculty soccer, and I believe it makes it extra thrilling,” Shaw stated. “As a result of you do not know, week to week, who’s going to win. There are not any assured victories, and each convention now could be tight. Each week, there are upsets, and each week you already know the highest 25 will get flipped the other way up. That makes it extra enjoyable for everyone concerned.”
When requested whether or not he has an concept about the best way the season will play out, Fisher laughed.
“I want I did,” he stated. “I would sleep higher.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 11 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS): Kentucky’s protection will not be the one which will get a lot of the consideration main into the sport at No. 1 Georgia, however make no mistake: It is the rationale the Wildcats are 6-0 for the primary time since 1950, and it is why the wins may hold coming.
A veteran unit led by finish Josh Paschal, linebackers DeAndre Sq. and Jacquez Jones, and free security Yusuf Corker has allowed solely 17.5 factors per sport and 4.6 yards per play. Kentucky has purchased a transitioning offense sufficient time to get proper. Kentucky ranked final nationally in turnover margin for some time, and it nonetheless ranks third to final (minus-8), however the Wildcats proceed to win due to an skilled and dependable protection.
“There’s only a calm,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White advised ESPN. “After they exit on the sphere, they do not get nervous. It is actually cool to be round. There is no panic. Man, they simply play laborious. It is not at all times good, but it surely’s relentless.”
Paschal makes Kentucky go, and he may hold the Wildcats in Saturday’s contest if he can strain Georgia’s quarterback, once more anticipated to be Stetson Bennett. The 6-foot-3, 278-pound senior DE leads the workforce in each tackles for loss (7.5) and quarterback hurries (6). Paschal has 17 tackles for loss in his previous 19 video games.
“He is simply taking part in at a unique degree proper now, and he has been for the final two years,” White stated. “He is so disruptive, he creates detrimental performs, he forces offenses to know the place he’s, which opens up issues for different guys.”
Paschal’s efficiency will probably be particularly vital towards Georgia, as Kentucky will probably be with out high inside linemen Octavious Oxendine and Marquan McCall, who’re out with leg accidents. White will ask sophomores Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes to deal with the noseguard spot.
Kentucky is a 23-point underdog in Athens, however White expects his protection to step up.
“They perceive the standard of the protection we’re about to play towards,” he stated. “A competitor at all times judges himself towards another person in his area, so if you wish to be in contrast and really feel like you’re a protection that is within the higher echelon of the nation, you have to compete at that degree, and you have got an ideal measuring stick sitting proper throughout the sphere.” — Adam Rittenberg
UCF at No. 3 Cincinnati (midday ET, ABC): Throughout Tuesday’s media availability, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell was requested if he felt just like the No. 3 Bearcats had been among the best groups within the nation. It is a query that solely will get requested of coaches and gamers who can fairly reply “sure,” and a query that solely elicits a stunning reply if the coach or participant had been to say “no.” So, Fickell replied with certainty that he believes Cincinnati is simply that.
That sort of confidence from a Group of 5 workforce is not new. However prior to now few years, it is come from Cincinnati’s opponent this weekend: UCF. Fickell acknowledged that Tuesday, saying UCF has been the American Athletic Convention’s most gifted and constant workforce since he has been at Cincinnati. It is why the Bearcats have regarded on the matchups between the 2 groups as a rivalry — competing towards this system they need to beat in an effort to be the convention’s finest.
The Knights, for his or her half, are having a down yr. At 3-2 with losses to Louisville and Navy they’re nowhere close to scratching the heights that earlier UCF groups have reached. Nonetheless, Fickell is not letting the narrative flip this right into a potential entice sport for Cincinnati, which is favored by three touchdowns.
“They nonetheless have quite a lot of talent,” Fickell stated. “They nonetheless have that expertise and big-play functionality, and so they’re higher defensively than they’ve been.”
Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder reiterated his coach’s sentiments on Tuesday.
“Coach Fick does an ideal job of claiming, ‘It is not going to be the very best ranked workforce who wins. It may be the very best workforce that performs collectively Saturday,'” Ridder stated.
This season, the plight of the Group of 5 groups within the playoff chase is Cincinnati’s to shoulder, and so they’ve performed their job thus far. Towards Temple final week, the Bearcats lastly “performed 4 quarters,” in line with Fickell, and blew out the Owls 52-3. Given the remainder of the Bearcats’ schedule (except for presumably dealing with an undefeated SMU workforce in late November), their win over then-No. 9 Notre Dame would be the crown jewel by the tip of the season. The query is whether or not it is going to stay as lustrous. But when Cincinnati cannot management that, it fits them to look inward for issues that might veer them off target.
“I believe for us as a workforce and as a program, it is actually about how we will deal with this consideration and the issues which are occurring,” Fickell stated. “We have been good about dealing with the excitement.”
It is laborious to argue with Fickell’s evaluation that the Bearcats are among the best groups within the nation. And but Cincinnati’s complete case for the playoffs feels as fragile as a chandelier: One stumble and all the venture will shatter to items. In fact, the last word dilemma of being within the Bearcats’ place is that even when they win out, they may not be assured a spot within the playoffs in any respect. — Paolo Uggetti
No. 10 Michigan State at Indiana (midday ET, FS1): Michigan State’s unimaginable turnaround from 2020 to 2021 will be tied to a revamped roster and the power to make many extra explosive performs on offense. From 2016 to 2020, the Spartans averaged 5.09 yards per play, which ranked 121st nationally in the course of the span. This fall, MSU ranks fourth in common yards per play (7.45) and is tied for 14th in performs of 20 yards or longer (36).
Working again Kenneth Walker III, the Wake Forest switch who leads the nation in speeding (913 yards), has been the largest issue, however so have the boys making features within the passing sport.
“Ken’s a really gifted participant, however you have to give kudos to the large receiver group so far as their blocking,” MSU offensive coordinator Jay Johnson advised ESPN. “They’ve performed an ideal job within the blocking piece downfield. It is helped a few of these runs that may be common runs be extra. That has paid dividends for them within the move sport.”
Johnson stated high wideouts Jayden Reed (21.4 yards per catch), Jalen Nailor (21.1 ypc) and Tre Mosley (15.5 ypc) all excel in blocking. MSU additionally rotates as much as 9 offensive linemen, which has stored the group contemporary. Johnson famous that veterans resembling heart Matt Allen and left deal with Luke Campbell, who missed most of all of 2020 with harm, have helped solidify the entrance.
They’ve protected quarterback Payton Thorne, a first-year starter who gained an in depth competitors with Temple switch Anthony Russo earlier than the season. Thorne has accomplished 62.4% of his passes for 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns with solely two interceptions.
“I’ve at all times favored Payton, however we did have an ideal battle in fall camp, and also you simply by no means know, since he hadn’t performed a lot, how he’ll reply within the video games,” Johnson stated. “We have tried to simplify issues total with what we do, and even within the quarterback room, ‘Get your eyes in the best spot and get your ft proper.’ He is actually simply tried to return to these fundamentals.”
Thorne and the Spartans face an Indiana workforce that sits at 2-3 however boasts an skilled protection that has held three opponents to lower than 200 move yards.
“They’re very disciplined in what they do, and so they’re the place they’re speculated to be,” Johnson stated. “It is a good problem for us. We will need to earn it.” — Rittenberg
No. 12 Oklahoma State at No. 25 Texas (midday ET, FOX): Can Texas rebound from a heartbreaker?
After a crushing 55-48 loss to Oklahoma, the Longhorns should choose themselves up shortly with Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State coming to city.
“No one feels sorry for us,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian stated on Monday. “We do not have quite a lot of time to really feel sorry for ourselves.”
A house sport would not supply quite a lot of room for consolation, both. The Cowboys had gained 5 straight in Austin till the 2 groups’ most up-to-date assembly, a 36-30 Longhorns win in 2019. Texas held Oklahoma State off final yr in Stillwater, 41-34. It has been that sort of close-fought matchup over the previous 4 years, with the collection tied 2-2 and simply seven complete factors separating the 2 groups (122-115 in Texas’ favor).
Texas’ offense confirmed the big-play risk towards Oklahoma that Sarkisian had been predicting would come as timing developed. The Cowboys, in the meantime, have had one of many nation’s finest defenses, permitting simply 18.6 factors per sport.
Texas’ Casey Thompson threw for 388 yards and 5 touchdowns towards Oklahoma. and the breakout of large receiver Xavier Worthy (9 catches, 261 yards, two TDs) will not enable the Cowboys to give attention to star working again Bijan Robinson, who has rushed for 789 yards and scored 10 complete TDs in six video games.
Gundy, whose workforce ranks 89th in scoring offense, is relying on his protection towards the Longhorns.
“I would desire to not get in a shootout with them,” he stated this week. — Dave Wilson
No. 20 Florida at LSU (midday ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Florida’s protection, after getting hit within the mouth within the first quarter towards Alabama on Sept. 18 in a 31-29 loss, has steadied the ship coming into Saturday’s sport at LSU. The Gators misplaced the rivalry sport a yr in the past after defender Marco Wilson was penalized for throwing an LSU’s participant shoe, organising the Tigers’ profitable area aim.
That shoe sport kind of outlined Florida’s disappointing season on protection a yr in the past, however the Gators have made a powerful comeback on that facet of the ball by means of the primary half of this marketing campaign. Previously 15 quarters, courting again to the second quarter of the Alabama contest, Florida’s protection has given up a complete of 38 factors (2.5 factors per quarter). And prior to now 10 quarters, going again to halftime of the 38-14 win over Tennessee, the Gators’ protection has allowed simply two touchdowns; solely a type of scores was a drive of 30 yards or extra.
“We would have gotten somewhat nervous that first quarter towards Alabama, did not deal with the surroundings properly, and so they acquired some fast touchdowns. However after that, we settled down, and it is a credit score to our guys how laborious they’ve performed, the best way they’ve purchased in and developed,” Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham advised ESPN.
The addition of defensive position transfers Daquan Newkirk, Tyrone Truesdell and Antonio Valentino has been enormous for Florida, and Grantham stated 6-foot-6, 303-pound sophomore Gervon Dexter has actually come on because the Alabama sport.
“He is a robust dude and has grown up and actually been an element for us inside,” Grantham stated of Dexter.
Grantham defined that having to play so many true freshmen and younger gamers final yr (security Rashad Torrence II and Dexter, for instance) is paying dividends this season.
“They did not get a spring observe final yr and have now had a full yr to develop, and you’ll see the distinction,” the D-coordinator stated.
A few of the finest information for the Gators is that All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam will return towards LSU after lacking the previous three video games with a knee sprain.
LSU will probably be with out star large receiver Kayshon Boutte, who’s out for the rest of the season with a decrease leg harm. That is a significant loss for the Tigers’ offense, as Boutte had caught 9 of the 17 landing passes.
However even earlier than the lack of Boutte, particularly going again to the 42-21 loss to Kentucky final week, the sensation across the league was that LSU was reverting to extra of the working sport used underneath former offensive coordinator and present analyst Steve Ensminger. Junior working again Tyrion Davis-Worth had a season-high 22 carries and rushed for 147 yards towards a Kentucky protection ranked twenty eighth nationally towards the run. No LSU working again had greater than 5 speeding makes an attempt within the 24-19 loss to Auburn the week earlier than, and Davis-Worth’s 13 carries had been probably the most for any LSU working again in every of the Mississippi State and UCLA video games earlier within the season.
“You’ll be able to see [Ensminger’s] affect and that they had been extra dedicated to the run within the final sport, and that is one thing we have to be prepared for,” stated Grantham, whose protection held Kentucky to 137 speeding yards and Alabama to 91 yards on the bottom. — Chris Low
Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN app): For years, Pat Narduzzi has advised anybody who would pay attention that he had an NFL-caliber QB at Pitt, however Kenny Pickett’s annual stat line — 13 TDs and 9 interceptions over every of the previous two seasons — has meant that not too many of us had been listening.
Certainly, NFL scouts pegged Pickett as a fourth- or fifth-round choice throughout final yr’s analysis course of. Each Pickett and Narduzzi thought the ceiling was far larger.
“I simply knew I used to be a greater participant than that,” Pickett stated.
So, Pickett got here again for a fifth season — he has been Pitt’s starter since late in 2017 — and he has issued an emphatic wake-up name to the skeptics to date.
By means of 5 video games, Pickett leads all Energy 5 QBs in passer score (234.28) and is second to Alabama’s Bryce Younger in passing TDs (19), and his completion charge (72.0%) ranks sixth nationally. It has been sufficient to place Pickett squarely in the midst of the Heisman Trophy dialog.
And whereas the remainder of the school soccer world may be shocked by that, Pickett is not.
“That was the plan after I got here again,” Pickett stated. “Heisman wasn’t the rationale, however I got here again to have an ideal season and to win a championship, and quite a lot of particular person targets are met when you have got a championship-level workforce.”
Pickett will get his largest check of the season on Saturday when Pitt travels to Virginia Tech, the place the Hokies have held opposing QBs to simply 59% completions and 7 passing TDs. Justin Hamilton’s protection has already annoyed North Carolina’s Sam Howell and compelled Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner to the bench after throwing two picks simply final week. Virginia Tech’s secondary is led by nickelback Chamarri Conner and cornerback Jermaine Waller, who’ve mixed for 5 interceptions and two pressured fumbles thus far.
“It is a veteran group that makes performs, and so they’ve acquired velocity at each degree,” Pickett stated of the Hokies’ protection. “This will probably be our hardest check. They’ve somewhat of every part. That is what makes them good. They present quite a lot of completely different seems. We have got to ensure our communication is on level and we execute the very best we will.”
Pickett has thrown for not less than 4 touchdowns in every of his previous three video games. (The 15 complete TDs in that span broke a faculty report held by Dan Marino.) The final ACC signal-caller to do this was Russell Wilson in 2009.
Pickett additionally has thrown for not less than 380 yards in his previous three consecutive tilts. If he had been to hit these marks once more versus Virginia Tech, he would turn into simply the third FBS QB to take action in 4 straight video games within the playoff period, becoming a member of Cal’s Davis Webb and Washington State’s Connor Halliday.
Pickett additionally would doubtless put Pitt within the driver’s seat to win the chaotic Coastal Division. The Hokies and Panthers are the lone remaining Coastal groups undefeated in ACC play. — David Hale
Clemson @ Syracuse (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): To say factors have been laborious to return by for Clemson can be placing it mildly. By means of 4 video games towards FBS competitors, the Tigers are averaging simply 12.5 factors per sport in regulation, worse than each workforce within the nation, besides Colorado, Rice and Southern Miss. Coach Dabo Swinney has chalked up the struggles to quite a lot of small issues, together with QB footwork, sustaining blocks and crisper routes. But it surely’s additionally price noting that Clemson has one massive drawback: massive performs.
In its 4 video games versus FBS opponents, the Tigers are averaging an explosive play on simply 8.6% of their offensive snaps, fifth worst within the nation. Why’s that matter? Chunk performs make all of the distinction relating to scoring. Drives which have not less than one explosive play (a 12-yard run or a 16-yard completion) end in factors 64% of the time. Drives that do not, lower than 10%. Sustaining drives with quick features down the sphere is just not a recipe for achievement — for Clemson or anybody else.
That is one thing Syracuse’s protection is properly conscious of too. Solely six defenses nationally have allowed a decrease charge of explosive performs than the Orange (7.8%).
“We emphasize that rather a lot in observe,” stated Syracuse defensive lineman Josh Black. “If a workforce goes to beat us by getting 4 or 5 yards each play, so what. However we won’t surrender these big performs. That hurts us; it hurts our offense. It places everyone in a foul place.”
It has been one thing of a trade-off for the Syracuse protection, nevertheless. Final yr, the Orange had been way more inclined to massive performs, however the Orange additionally acquired quite a lot of takeaways. It was an aggressive strategy that led to quite a lot of boom-or-bust outcomes. This yr, Black stated Syracuse remains to be on the lookout for extra turnover alternatives, however that tally has been sacrificed a bit in favor of eliminating simple features for the opposition.
It has been a sound technique for Syracuse, which is led by a veteran defensive position and supported by a again eight made up totally of freshmen and sophomores. Making the opponent work for yards takes some strain off the younger secondary for Syracuse whereas additionally placing the strain on opponents to keep away from errors.
And for Clemson, loads has gone fallacious thus far. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott stated the workforce’s focus is on “taking what they offer us” and “making the layups” — which appears to jibe with Syracuse’s philosophy, as properly.
“If we make them go the entire area, it is not going to go properly for them,” stated Orange linebacker Mikel Jones. “Finally, one thing’s going to go fallacious for them.” — Hale
TCU at No. 4 Oklahoma (7:30 p.m., ABC)
Freshman quarterback Caleb Williams changed Spencer Rattler towards Texas and placed on a present. Williams accomplished 16 of 25 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns, together with 88 yards on the bottom and one speeding landing.
The long run battle between Rattler and Williams hasn’t been publicly settled but, as Sooners coach Lincoln Riley will not title a starter for Saturday’s sport towards visiting TCU.
It is protected to say Williams earned extra taking part in time, although, as he helped the Sooners beat the Longhorns 55-48 in a shootout. So, the place did Williams come from and the way did he get himself so far the place he is pushing Rattler, who was regarded as a Heisman candidate originally of the season.
A part of it has to do with Rattler’s play, as he has thrown 10 touchdowns and 5 interceptions by means of six video games thus far this season. However a part of it’s the truth that Williams is gifted sufficient to push one of many high quarterbacks within the nation.
Williams was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and the Sixteenth-ranked recruit total within the Class of 2021 out of Washington, D.C. He had a high record of Oklahoma, LSU, Maryland, Penn State and Clemson.
Williams gained Gatorade Participant of the Yr for Washington, D.C., his sophomore yr after throwing for two,624 yards and 26 touchdowns whereas additionally working for 394 yards and 10 touchdowns on 102 carries.
When Williams dedicated to Oklahoma, he stated he knew Rattler was the man however that he wasn’t afraid of the competitors and wished to compete as quickly as he may. Williams is getting that chance now, and if he continues to play the best way he did towards Texas, he’s going to make it troublesome for Riley to maintain him off the sphere. — Tom VanHaaren
No. 18 Arizona State at Utah (10 p.m. ET ESPN/ESPN app): The final of the unbeaten.
Coming into the season, the Solar Devils-Utes sport figured to hold elevated stakes within the Pac-12 South race. However with it being so early on the schedule, it might have been laborious to foretell simply how essential this one has turned out to be.
ASU (3-0) and Utah (2-0) are the one remaining undefeated groups in Pac-12 convention play, and whoever wins would be the undisputed favourite within the division. That is very true for ASU, which has already overwhelmed UCLA and would then have the head-to-head benefit over each the one-loss Bruins and the Utes. The opposite three groups within the division — USC, Colorado and Arizona — all have not less than two convention losses. ASU, which kicks off at 7 p.m. or later native time for the seventh time this yr, has the convention’s finest scoring (16.2 factors per sport) and complete protection (298.0 yards per sport), thanks largely to an skilled secondary that has mixed for 147 profession begins. That complete ranks second amongst FBS faculties. The Solar Devils are averaging 7.1 yards per play, which ranks No. 11 within the FBS, behind quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Following the loss of life of cornerback Aaron Lowe, it has been a attempting couple of weeks for the Utes. After beating USC on Saturday, the workforce flew from Utah to Texas for Lowe’s service on Monday, solely to instantly flip round and fly again to proceed preparations for the sport towards ASU. Their 42-26 win towards USC was simply the workforce’s finest efficiency of the season, and it’ll attempt to construct off that in entrance of their dwelling crowd. — Kyle Bonagura