Hard as it is to hear or rationalize, we’re past the midway mark of the college football season right now. Following a fascinating (some might even say lackluster) Week 8 on the calendar, it’s as good a time as ever to take stock of what has happened in the sport so far. Thanks to a very large sample size of games, we certainly have enough information on teams, players and coaches now to figure out some of the biggest under (and over) achievers in college football in 2021 relative to early expectations.
So we decided to take a look at some of the preseason All-America teams, the initial AP Top 25, and a handful of other key prognosticators from August. With a slew of midseason All-America teams released in recent days, it’s time to compare and contrast to find out just who makes up the All-Underachiever team — the one squad you won’t find press releases on — and who was flying under the radar in the preseason but is now a household name in mid-October.
QB — Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Most didn’t think much of Pickett’s decision to return for another year with the Panthers but it’s paid off in a big way for both him and the program. After beating Clemson on Saturday and firmly planting the team’s flag atop the ACC Coastal, the veteran — he’s 23 — signal-caller has in part become the face of CFB right now and among the surprising Heisman Trophy favorites. His numbers speak for themselves but he’s also got that added "it" factor that few saw coming in 2021.
RB — Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Walker was part of an influx of transfers to East Lansing this offseason as Mel Tucker remade the Spartans roster but not even his friends and family could have predicted the kind of year he’s having. The tailback has turned into a true Heisman Trophy contender after getting MSU into the top 10 and is leading the nation in rushing yards per game. His eye-popping stats are almost as impressive as his incredible long runs that he seems to break off with regularity.
WR — Drake London, USC
It’s not like London flew completely under the radar being a wideout at USC of all places but what earns him a spot on this list is just how incredible he’s been despite mediocre QB play and double coverage pretty much every play. He's averaging 20 yards per game more than the next closest Power 5 receiver and is the one guy who instantly draws your attention when the Trojans are on offense.
OL — Dare Rosenthal, Kentucky
His teammate Darian Kinnard gets all the attention but Rosenthal has stepped in and done a fantastic job manning the Wildcats’ other tackle spot in an offense that has taken a big step forward in 2021. The LSU transfer has allowed just one sack all year against a lengthy list of top pass rushers in the SEC.
DL/LB — Tre Williams, Arkansas
Williams’ rise to notoriety started with the number of stops he got before arriving at Arkansas but has since turned into a headliner for a resurgent Hogs D. His monster outing helped knock off Texas A&M a few weeks ago and he’s been the leader that Barry Odom can count on pretty much every snap in getting to the opposing quarterback.
DB — Ja’Quan McMillian, East Carolina
Hardly a household name, McMillian is one of the players every opposing QB has an eye on pre-snap. We’re only halfway through the year and he has already matched his number of picks from last season (four) and has graded higher than just about everybody in coverage by various metrics, including leading the country in passes defended.
Coach — Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois
The pandemic year was one to forget for the Huskies as the always-proud program went winless and were hardly competitive in any of their six losses. Now however, they’re bowl eligible before Halloween, and the lone MAC team still undefeated in the league standings. He’s got a Power 5 win to his credit in 2021 and most impressively has found the left-hand column four times in one-score games.
Team 1: UTEP
The Miners last went bowling in 2014 yet found themselves eligible for the postseason before CFB even hit the halfway point. They won only five games combined from 2017-20 and are poised to finish above .500 in Conference USA play for only the third time since joining the league. Dana Dimel’s crew also is top 10 in total defense after finishing 46th and 95th the two years prior.
Team 2: BYU
On paper, this was supposed to be one of those years where the Cougars took a step back after cracking the top 10 and putting together a remarkable 2020 season. They were dead last in returning production by some metrics and faced a schedule that was significantly harder — with seven Power 5 Five opponents. Instead Kalani Sitake has authored a terrific follow-up at 6-2 that has included ending a long losing streak against rival Utah while also cracking the top 25 despite all those new faces. It was already going to be a great year after getting a Big 12 invite but the product on the field has been very good as well.
Team 3: Oregon State
Making a bowl game would be considered a success in Corvallis but Jonathan Smith has helped raise the floor far beyond that mark. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Beavers could get eight or nine wins the way things have shaken out. This group is tough, physical and loves to run the football. They beat USC at the Coliseum for the first time since 1960 and that may not be the most notable thing about this OSU team in 2021.
QB — D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
He looked phenomenal in two starts as a freshman, got star wideout Justyn Ross back, and seem poised to be the next in line behind center in Death Valley with national NIL deals in tow. Instead it just has not worked out and a pick-six off a shovel pass and subsequent benching against Pitt seemed like just enough for Uiagalelei to edge out Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Miami’s D’Eriq King for a spot on this team that had a ton of competition.
RB — Kevin Harris, South Carolina
The second-leading rusher in the SEC from last year has only 247 yards on the ground and his only touchdowns have come when the team was down 35 and 24 points respectively. The Gamecocks have trailed at pretty much every turn this year and that hasn’t helped, but even the staff would like a bit more production out of Harris.
WR — Ty Fryfogle, Indiana
The Big Ten receiver of the year in 2020 and an All-American candidate in 2021, Fryfogle’s struggles to get going are emblematic of the Hoosiers overall. He hasn’t cracked 100 yards in any game this year and his lone touchdown catch was against an FCS foe. Quarterback woes at IU have contributed but it’s been a noticeable step back from somebody who was so stellar last season.
OL — Cain Madden, Notre Dame
The Marshall transfer was lauded as a key piece to a rebuilding offensive line in South Bend when he arrived but the Irish have struggled mightily up front instead. Madden was tabbed as a second-team All-American in the preseason but has not lived up to such a billing with Notre Dame ranking No. 115 in rushing and No. 122 in sacks allowed.
DL/LB — Cade Hall, San Jose State
The reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year just has not been able to find that extra gear that he displayed in 2020. He did come through with a key fumble to save the game against UNLV but otherwise has recorded just two sacks after reaching double digits a season ago, with the Spartans falling from being a top 15 defense into the 50s.
DB — Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
The likely top-10 pick and consensus All-American has played in just three games all year and seemingly is done with his college career between having surgery and the Tigers all but playing out the string under Ed Orgeron. It’s been a bummer to not see him on the field as one of the most promising college DBs in recent memory has had his career fizzle out amid a forgettable year in Baton Rouge.
Coach — Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
The Badgers have fallen from No. 12 team in the preseason AP poll and heavy Big Ten West favorite to 4-3 after salvaging their 2021 campaign by thumping Purdue this past weekend. The program has been unable to run the ball like they’re accustomed to and rank 110th in scoring offense. Maybe most telling is the former Wisconsin QB has seen five-star Graham Mertz regress as a passer seemingly every game.
Team 1: Clemson
This was the No. 3 team in the preseason and a lock for pretty much every single College Football Playoff prediction. Instead Dabo Swinney’s crew isn’t even going to make the New Year’s Six and will be lucky to finish third in the division of a conference that defines mediocrity. The Tigers were supposed to have their most talented roster in a decade yet have seen everything fall apart in pretty much every phase to the point.
Team 2: USC
The Trojans set their sights on a conference title or bust. Well, they busted to the point where the head coach was fired by October, the offense is a mess, they just lost to Notre Dame by two touchdowns for the third time in two decades, and may not even go to a bowl game for the third time in four years. This is a great job opening but a lackluster state of affairs in 2021.
Team 3: Indiana
The Hoosiers were ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP poll and have yet to beat a Power 5 opponent going into the final week of October. They were thrashed in primetime by Ohio State but have not done anything with a team that returned the bulk of last year’s Cinderella crew.
Seven Other Thoughts This Week
— Noon comebacks, schedule quirks
Never a great sign when the noon slate to start Saturday is headlined by games like Oklahoma-Kansas on ESPN but that’s just the kind of weekend it was… on paper. What we were treated to however was a slate of phenomenal comebacks. The aforementioned Sooners flipped a switch and returned from a 17-7 hole to move to 8-0 for the first time since 2014. That may not have even been the wildest one in the Big 12 either as Kansas State chipped away at Texas Tech’s two-TD lead to eke out a 25-24 win on the road (and further heat up Matt Wells’ seat in Lubbock). No. 2 Cincinnati trailed 10-7 early and needed an interception following an onside kick recovery to hold off Navy. Even Syracuse put the death knell in Justin Fuente’s stint at Virginia Tech with two trips to the end zone in the final 2:28 to go from down 36-27 to a 41-36 winner. Northern Illinois also got a late field goal and blocked another to return from a 35-16 deficit against Central Michigan in a bit of #MACtion that lived up to the occasion. Oh, and there was the unfathomable nine-overtime game between Penn State and Illinois that was a giant train wreck you could not stop watching.
While that was the start, there was a real whimper to the end on Saturday as the result of some strange schedule quirk thanks to hardly any late, late-night action. The Pac-12 and Mountain West (sans Hawaii) both wrapped up before the ACC did and it took a five-hour rain delay to keep Houston-East Carolina going past midnight in the sport’s only action on the mainland. Sure there was playoff baseball and some boxing on but the sports fans did not really get the end-of-night fix they needed before bedtime in Week 8. Let’s make sure the TV gods never let that happen again.
— Department of Defense takes a day off for Wake Forest
Everybody was talking about the DoD budget this week but apparently, they left out upgrades for the defense in West Point. It got overshadowed given how bonkers some of the action was elsewhere but it sure felt like every time you looked over, either Wake Forest or Army were breaking off a long play and finding pay dirt. The two combined for a 70-56 Demon Deacons win that included touchdowns on all but three non-end-of-half drives. Wake incredibly posted all 70 points in just 17 minutes of offensive possession and had seven different players score — including Sam Hartman throwing for 458 yards and five TDs plus running one in. Army lost their starting QB due to injury but actually had one of their most efficient games through the air with three TDs on 10-for-13 passing plus 416 yards off the option. The defense was certainly optional in this one but it at least made for a fun one in one of the highest-scoring games ever in regulation.
— Kayvon Thibodeaux continues to terrorize
While it’s a down year for elite quarterbacks and the overall talent level in college football when viewed from an NFL draft standpoint, one player who absolutely has lived up to the billing in 2021 is Thibodeaux, Oregon’s star pass rusher. The Ducks have been moving him around quite a bit since he returned to the lineup from injury and while you’d like to see him in more pure pass rush alignments, he’s been an absolute terror to every opposing offensive line this season. Against UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, he put on a tour de force for the rest of the nation (since he was on before 9 p.m. ET for once) and posted a stat line that still doesn’t do his effort justice: nine tackles, 4.5 TFL, two sacks, one forced fumble, and a whole bunch of hurries and holding flags. There are question marks all over the draft boards of NFL teams but not when it comes to the potential No. 1 overall pick.
— Matt Campbell and Iowa State heat up as the weather cools down
Las Vegas tried to tell you something was up in Ames when undefeated Oklahoma State rolled into town as nearly a touchdown underdog to an Iowa State squad that had not looked anywhere near the one that was touted as a playoff contender in the preseason chatter. But the ol’ Cyclones have a script under Campbell and they seem to be following it once again: falter early in games they should win before pulling surprises in October and playing like a top-10 side as the weather turns cool and crisp. Brock Purdy was tossing the rock around, the defense was popping pads (especially on that fourth-down stop late) and Breece Hall finally got loose thanks to some decent running lanes. Maybe the most encouraging sign of all is that ISU notched their first win over OSU since that fateful 2011 meeting despite the Cowboys’ offense making plays they really hadn’t made so far this year. Spencer Sanders had his best outing despite the final score and Tay Martin’s TD catch was a thing of beauty. Yet it was the ‘Clones who put their hat back in the Big 12 mix with a performance that seemed perfectly on-brand for what this program has become around this time of year — and should have been far more comfortable a victory in the end were it not for some conference officials being extremely overzealous for no apparent reason.
— Ohio State has become a death machine again
Georgia is far and away the No. 1 team in the country but hats off to Ohio State because right now the Buckeyes are downright the scariest. After a tough start to the season in September that included numerous off-the-field storylines causing waves, they’ve used some bodybag games against Akron, Rutgers and Maryland to get right and then rested up over the bye to seemingly hit an extra gear against Indiana. C.J. Stroud has really improved his accuracy, the offensive line is starting to gel and TreVeyon Henderson is on the shortlist for players you will watch every single touch they have in a game because you never know how he’s going to take a short gain and turn it into a 25-plus-yarder. Trusting this team might have to be reserved until they play somebody in the top half of FBS rankings but in terms of the eye test, OSU is the one squad you don’t want to see pop up on the schedule next.
— San Diego State stays perfect, UTSA keeps rolling, Terry Bowden is golden and New Mexico gets it done
Michigan is 7-0. Brady Hoke is 7-0. Which one is more impressive? Not for nothing, but the latter won a game on Saturday against Air Force despite just 229 yards of offense and the biggest highlight of the game being an 81-yard punt from the Aztecs’ Matt Araiza. And hey, how about the Roadrunners' week? First they make their journey to the AAC official, then they destroy Louisiana Tech in Ruston for the first time since 2012. On top of moving to 8-0, they’ll hit their off week poised to set up C-USA’s biggest game in years if UTEP can win once more the day before Halloween. Elsewhere in the Group of 5, Terry Bowden continued to do one of the more remarkable coaching jobs in the country by notching ULM’s fourth win of the year and upsetting South Alabama 41-31 (actually Funroe’s third win as a double-digit underdog). Finally, New Mexico captured their first league win by completely shutting down Wyoming 14-3 in a reverse Laramie special.