College football is, perhaps above all, a game of weird bounces. If a few balls bounced in different ways in Week 3, we could have been talking about a Saturday for the ages. Instead, games from around the country once again gave us a taste of what could have been.
No. 11 Florida took top-ranked Alabama to the limit in a 31-29 loss in The Swamp, sticking with starting quarterback Emory Jones for the whole game rather than mixing in rising star Anthony Richardson as a complementary piece. No. 3 Oklahoma held off Nebraska 23-16 in one of the worst scoring outputs of the Lincoln Riley era. No. 6 Clemson needed a goal-line stop to beat Georgia Tech 14-8.
With so many games coming down to the wire, some of the nation’s most-hyped players found themselves under a more intense magnifying glass. Some made heroic plays under the pressure while others wilted. In a sport with a compact regular season, every detail will matter for weeks to come.
Yes, Week 3 was about what could have been, but perhaps just as importantly, it showed us what is still to come. Here are the winners, losers and overreactions from an exciting Week 3 of the 2021 college football season.
Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson: Stepping foot on campus as one of the most heralded running back recruits in recent years at Ohio State, Henderson blew away every possible expectation Saturday in the No. 9 Buckeyes’ 41-20 win over Tulsa, breaking Archie Griffin’s 49-year-old freshman rushing record with 24 carries for 277 yards and three touchdowns. The game marked the third-best rushing performance in Ohio State history behind only Trey Sermon and Heisman winner Eddie George. Ohio State has some of the best receivers in America, but coach Ryan Day probably needs to reshape his offense around Henderson.
Penn State: Beating an offensively-challenged Wisconsin team in the season-opener was a start. Knocking off No. 22 Auburn in a truly entertaining matchup is a trend. With the Tigers’ stout defensive front causing issues, Nittany Lions QB Sean Clifford delivered in a big way, completing 28 of 32 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the 28-20 victory. Penn State’s defense did a great job of throwing different looks at Auburn quarterback Bo Nix to keep him under control. With two impressive wins against ranked opponents on the résumé, it’s time to take No. 10 Penn State seriously as a Big Ten contender.
USC QB Jaxson Dart: The future arrived in Los Angeles, and it was impressive. Dart, a true freshman, was thrust into the limelight after longtime starter Kedon Slovis suffered a game-ending injury. After throwing an interception on his first drive, Dart bounced back by leading the Trojans to 45 unanswered points in a 45-14 victory vs. Washington State. Dart completed 30 of 46 passes for 391 yards and four touchdowns, and he even led the team with 32 yards rushing. There is optimism that Dart can be the next great quarterback at USC. Whichever coach takes over this job in 2022 will have a great piece to build around.
SEC referees: As the old saying goes, if you notice the refs, it’s probably a bad thing. This week, the SEC refs were the stars of the show … for all the wrong reasons. Things started going sideways in the Alabama-Florida game, beginning with a number of inconsistent pass interference calls and ending with a clock issue in the final two minutes. Then, a crew of SEC refs inexplicably lost track of downs during Penn State’s battle with Auburn, forcing a Nittany Lions punt on third down. There was also a controversial targeting call among numerous other issues in Happy Valley.
But the wildest call of the day came Saturday afternoon when SEC officials incorrectly allowed a dead punt to be advanced in Memphis’ 31-29 win over Mississippi State. Tigers wide receiver Calvin Austin III picked up the live ball and returned it for a game-deciding touchdown, but because a back judge (incorrectly) ruled it dead on the field, it should never have counted. The call was so confusing that the SEC officials actually released a statement acknowledging the mistake. College football is one of the toughest sports to officiate, but it’s a shame when these things take away from the product.
Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei: Remember when Uiagalelei entered started in relief of Trevor Lawrence last year against Boston College and Notre Dame looking like the next big thing in college football? That feels like a decade ago. Uiagalelei struggled to rekindle that magic against a dreadful Georgia Tech team Saturday, throwing for just 126 yards on 25 attempts. For comparison, Clemson beat this same Georgia Tech team 73-7 last year with 500 yards passing. Clemson has work to do across the offense, but three straight games under 200 yards passing is a real shock after what Uiagalelei showed last season.
Virginia Tech: After physically crushing North Carolina in the opener, it seemed like Virginia Tech might be ready to again ascend to the top of the ACC Coastal competition. Turns out, it was silly to think we might know anything about college football’s most mercurial division. The Hokies couldn’t complete a comeback against West Virginia in a 27-21 Mountaineers victory. Explosive plays early in the game were a difference-maker, as WVU opened with an 80-yard rushing touchdown from running back Leddie Brown. This kind of frustrating inconsistency has plagued Justin Fuente’s teams throughout his six years in Blacksburg, Virginia. Unfortunately, it seems the Hokies have not turned any kind of corner.
College football chaos is on the horizon
Every team in the AP top 10 won Saturday, but for the first time in a long while, a few of college football’s superpowers looked fallible. The middle class of the sport has put on a show through the first few weeks. Ole Miss has been putting together an offensive exhibition. Programs like Virginia and Maryland have shown that they can cause some issues with their offensive playmakers. As most programs head into conference play, there’s no question that upsets are coming once these teams play consistently better competition. Is there any truly good team this year? Get ready, we’re about to find out.
The ‘elite’ tier of QBs is open
Heading into the 2021 season, Pro Football Focus ranked Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, UNC’s Sam Howell, Miami’s D’Eriq King, UCF’s Dillon Gabriel and Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. as the top five quarterbacks in America. Even taking into account new starters like Uiagalelei and C.J. Stroud at Ohio State, that top tier has been surprisingly inconsistent.
Both Penix and King have had major turnover issues that proved costly in losses to No. 8 Cincinnati and Michigan State, respectively. Rattler’s production has been good, but Oklahoma has struggled to finish drives and Rattler threw some errant passes against Nebraska. And now, Gabriel is out indefinitely with a broken clavicle.
The one young star who has played well to this point is Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. Outside of him, though, the elite quarterback tier is open for the taking. Under-the-radar names like Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa should enter the national conversion soon.
It’s time to take Michigan schools seriously
It was easy to dismiss Michigan State’s impressive victory over a struggling Northwestern in the opener, but going on the road and crushing Miami 38-17 is hard to ignore. Running back Kenneth Walker III looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate in yet another important victory.
Michigan has also looked remarkably consistent on both sides of the ball. While the Wolverines haven’t played anyone of particular note, they’ve taken care of business — something that didn’t always used to be the case under coach Jim Harbaugh. It certainly helped that Western Michigan, one of the Wolverines’ previous opponents, upset Pitt on Saturday. Heck, even Northern Illinois’ win over Georgia Tech in the opener earned some credibility after the Yellow Jackets took Clemson to the brink.
Will the Big Ten championship run through the state of Michigan? Probably not. Regardless, both teams have done enough through three weeks that they deserve to be taken seriously. Their battle on Oct. 30 will be one of the best fights for the Paul Bunyan Trophy in years.