2021: The Year of College Football Chaos

David Marsh Editorials 54 Comments

We are only three weeks into the 2021 college football season, and already it is proving to be a chaotic year. The perennial top teams have all been challenged to date. Alabama escaped Florida with a narrow victory, Georgia Tech gave Clemson a scare, and Oklahoma barely survived a game against Nebraska — and this was only last weekend. In Week 1, Oregon scored a monumental victory over Ohio State, and Georgia took down Clemson. No team is safe this year.

There are fewer undefeated teams at this time than in a normal year. Oregon is the Pac-12’s lone undefeated team, with UCLA falling to Fresno State and Arizona State losing to BYU. BYU has beaten three Pac-12 teams in as many weeks, which is a bad sign as to how strong the Pac-12 is going to be this year. A growing trend this year has been that Group of Five teams and lowly Power-Five teams are rising up to give the college football blue bloods a challenge.

Even FCS schools are getting in on the upsets. To date, the FCS has won 10 games against FBS opponents. That number is outside the norm, but not unprecedented, as the last time the FCS won 10 games against the FBS was back in 2016. The real shock is how many of these beaten teams are Power-Five teams — that is highly unusual. Washington, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Florida State have all lost to an FCS opponent this season.

Craig Strobeck

CJ Verdell and Oregon had a slow start against Stony Brook but ended the game with a clear victory.

Extra Eligibility for Veterans

COVID-19 is one contributing factor to all the chaos this year, though it’s not disruptive in the same way it was last year. Last year, COVID-19 wreaked havoc by forcing game cancellations, rescheduling, player opt-outs, and a much shortened off season. However, the carry over from last year is that all players were granted an extra year of eligibility. Yes, there were still players who opted to enter the NFL draft rather than play another season of college football, but many more were given another year to play football when they would normally have retired due to loss of eligibility.

With so many players remaining for another year, the normal talent gap between the top and bottom of college football has shrunk. For most schools, development is the key to success, and it typically takes multiple years to see results in players. So being able to retain a senior for a fifth, or even sixth, year of play can make all the difference. Physically, these players are bigger, but most importantly they have more game experience.

Now when compared to a team like Oregon, which lost a great deal of senior talent before the 2020 season started and lost even more after it concluded, and there is a major age and experience gap. Oregon has players with far higher ceilings and potential than teams like Stony Brook and Fresno State. However, what Oregon lacks currently is experience.

Scott Kelley

Oregon survived their meeting with Fresno State, even if it was only by seven points.

Oregon was able to overcome both opponents despite bouts of inadequate play. However, not all Power-Five teams are so lucky. UCLA  squared off against Fresno State last Saturday, and their roster didn’t have the same caliber of raw talent that Oregon’s does, which made all the difference. Oregon survived, while losing some major star players, while UCLA fell in the waning seconds of the game.

Teams like Fresno State have made incredible use out of the extra year they have had with their veterans. Normally, these players would be replaced by younger players with less experience. At many of these schools, freshman and sophomores don’t see the field as often as juniors and seniors — players who have put in years with the program. This is also not a one-off year, either. It will potentially affect the skill gap between programs for at least the next three years, since all student athletes gained an added year of eligibility. Every player effectively gained an extra red-shirt.

The Transfer Portal Has Real Impact

This may be the first year that we see the true impact of the transfer portal. There have been teams in the past that have benefited from the transfer portal in some meaningful ways, but this last off-season saw an explosion of transfers. For many top programs, like Oregon, there was a net loss of players from the transfer portal, as Oregon lost 10 players to other schools and gained zero. Of these players, however, only two ended up at Power-Five programs. Most went to Group of Five or FCS programs, elevating that program’s talent level.

Scott Kelley

For teams like Oregon there still still a major talent difference between them and Group of Five teams.

A prime example of this is Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener, who ripped apart Oregon’s and UCLA’s defenses. He is a spectacular player who was originally with Washington before he transferred to Fresno State. He has made the Bulldogs a much better team and brought his Power-Five-level talent to elevate their program.

Between the added year of eligibility and the transfer portal finally paying dividends for many teams, there is a real sense that the talent gap may be shrinking for the majority of college football. The upper echelon of teams at the very top still stand far apart from the majority of college football, but the rest of college football’s programs may be as close as they have ever been.

Is this a good thing for college football? Well, that is still up for debate, but it is certainly entertaining.

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Tom Corno

Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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Defense Huddle_Pac12 Video.jpg

Mark Helton or Clay Helfrich?
“They’ve lost it in the trenches,” said one Pac-12 North coach. “If you want to win championships, you’ve gotta be able to run the football and be physical up front. And they can’t, and they’re not. Part of that was going to the Air Raid, because if you’re going to that, you gotta buy into that mentality and be all in. Well, it might look good and you might have good stats, but that changes the mentality of your team. USC turned soft. It just is what it is.”

Quote from Shaw or Cristobal most likely? Who else you think, and why?

Jon Joseph

This has been a general refrain. Helton did not practice hard and did not hold his assistants accountable; especially, when it came to recruiting.

Lots of very good skill players on the Trojans. But the multiple NFL bound OL and DL guys under Carroll are not on today’s SC roster.

In a number of articles, most recently Bruce Feldman’s take up on The Athletic, former SC assistant coaches are making the same comments.

Good call on the Helfrich comparison. Two good guys way over their skis as head coaches.


i don’t know shaw’s speech patterns, and that sounds a heckuvalot like cristobal. but something tells me MC wouldn’t talk like that about another team even if it’s off the record.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck


So great to see you back over the last couple of days. Good stuff…

Jon Sousa

One team that seems to be making a killing in the Portal are the Beavers in Cornvalley.

I am shocked at how many former 4* they collect from blueblood teams. That is how their defense has gotten so much stronger the last couple years.

Beavs are starting to snag a couple 4* right out of high school. J Smith is for real.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

He is pulling off a near-miracle up there…very impressive.


I wish him the Best of Luck, would be great to see a competitive foe to the NW of the Ducks. My wife is just happy that I receive some humble pie, every once in awhile. Loved him as the QB of the Beavers, the “lil engine/brother that could”.


I can see teams like the beavs really tapping into the transfer portal even more than they do now.

The guys who can’t get on the field at top 15 programs would love to play in Corvallis, develop and have a shot at the pros.

Nobody wants to just model the uniform and get free classes anymore.


I think this affects the SEC more, no longer will second string talent sit on the sidelines. NIL, has shown there is money to be made from your talents but you have to show it on the field. So, I believe the talent will start looking for suitors that can get them on the field sooner. Once your out of college, no more NIL gravy train, it is Pro Football or a real job.


Another aspect that balances out the teams is that the population is growing, and along with it, more high school football players while the number of football colleges stays about the same.

Some exceptional body types are coming in from foreign countries.

Kids today are being coached up better and beefed up better due to strength and conditioning programs – all before they finish high school.

One would think that the better p5 programs would be able to run all over the little schools. Not so anymore. There are enough D linemen now for even the smaller programs.

The top 5 recruiting programs still have elite talent that will keep them at the top. Oregon is now getting some of that elite talent and it is making a difference.

Some 3 star players are elite. Oregon needs to continue to find them. Like Troy Dye. Like Brandon Dorlus.

Last season, Iowa St had a whole team with elite 3 star players.

And quite a few 4 star players are over rated. Especially at QB and WR.

The smaller programs are getting better at evaluating high school talent and picking up the prime leftovers that p5 programs did not take.


Having “super seniors” and experience is definitely a plus. The top talent laden teams do have players leaving as early as possible for the NFL draft. Which means that freshman/red shirts back fill many of those vacated positions.

Some teams are paper thin with depth, but their starters can be competitive with top talent. Kind of like the Ducks in the late eighties and early nineties. A few key injuries and all of the sudden the offense can’t move the ball, or defense can’t get off the field.

Depth is really the key to having a legitimate shot at being a playoff contender. We are building a bench that would start at many colleges. Hence, we really got hit with the transfer bug.

J Duck

Washington losing to an FCS school brings joy to my heart.


I want the Ducks to score at least 12 TDs against the _uskies at home. 6 by the D!!!


I also want to point out Alabama has won 6 National Titles under Saban. He went undefeated in only 2 of those seasons.

The elite programs can lose a game, and still win the National title. Oregon isn’t in that group.

This season, in my opinion, we have to win out to get to the playoffs, and have a chance at a title.

The chaos may allow a Florida, tosu, or Clemson to lose a game and make it to the playoffs and get a national title, but that isn’t the road Oregon will have to take.

Our program and schedule is more like the Cincinnati Bearcats. They need to make a statement win this weekend, and hope they go undefeated.

The pundits, mostly SEC sycophants, want the blue blood programs in the playoffs. The upstarts, in weak conferences, have to almost sneak in to get a chance at a title.

From here on out, there will be criticisms of every Oregon win, and this will only get tougher as the season goes on. Any loss the Ducks will get crucified by the pundits. I hope the Ducks can stay strong, and make it a special season, Go Ducks!

Jon Joseph

Should benefit Cincy?

Bearcats are idle this Saturday while Notre Dame is likely to get into a slug fest with Wisconsin.


I definitely agree with the talent gap narrowing for most teams.


That is a most excellent analysis, particularly the point about how COVID has had an impact. Very astute.

To my mind, what is happening is not chaos; it’s much-needed change in what was (I hope) the stagnant pond of college football.

Jon Joseph

OT – USC true frosh QB, Jaxson Dart, who threw for 391 yards vs WAZZU, was operated on this week for a torn meniscus.

Trojans best hope that Slovis can stay upright.


He plays his first game and gets a torn meniscus. Sad. Makes me feel lucky that I don’t have permanent issues from high school football. Those college players really do sacrifice their bodies.

That kind of perspective really makes me appreciate what they do and how much they have to pay for it.

But he did get a kiss from Donte, so that is something.

Jon Joseph

The Beavs have a legit shot. But I think SC is better than Purdue, and OR ST did not look good on the road at Purdue.


a beavs victory is a real possibility, and i would love to see it.

Jon Joseph

Great take and recap to date. Very good call on the impact of 2020 not counting against eligibility and the contribution of Super Senior players.

Transfer Portal? The rich get richer; or, so it seems.

In Bama’s win over the Gators. the leading receiver for the Tide, Wilson, was a 5* recruit transfer from Ohio State. 2nd in tackles for the Tide in this game was Too Too, all SEC LB as a freshman and a 5* recruit transfer from Tennessee.

Nick Saban predicted this would be the result of ‘college free agency;’ Nick is rarely wrong.

We’ll see what happens in Austin Saturday, but to date, Tyler Shough to Texas Tech, has been a big boost for the 3-0 Red Raiders. (TX TECH is on the Ducks schedule in 2023/2024.) And Burgmeister has played very well at Va Tech.

Meanwhile, AB has proven to be a great pick up. A good leader who manages the game well and is not turning the ball over.

Glad that you noted how young this Oregon team is. The 6th year QB and familiar names at RB mask the youth of this roster.

Meanwhile, Ohio State is the Ducks best friend.

Clemson going off the rails because its O has disappeared is certainly of interest and in theory, could free up a final 4 spot? But nothing would help Oregon’s fortunes more than Ohio State going 12-1 on the way to winning what looks to be a very deep Big 10 conference.

Thanks David, great read.

BTW: A number of bowl projections I have seen have Fresno matching up with UW. How sweet would this be for Haener?


Jon my man where have you been?! I was worried about you and am happy to see your alive and kickin!!

Jon Joseph

Thank you my friend.

I was working on my golf game and came OH SO CLOSE to making the Ryder Cup team.

As a towel boy.

All the best.

Jon Joseph

1 thing that is very sad.

There are far more players in the portal than there are scholarships available. Many the young man who had a ‘free ride’ now has nothing.

Saban noted that had not been for scholly limits, Bama would have signed 7 to 10 more guys in the portal.

TCU’s Gary Patterson went public and called out ‘five SEC’ schools for improper contact with guys on the Horned Frogs roster.

This kind of tampering is not allowed and is penalized in the NFL. But with the NCAA disappearing, wide open NIL dealings, as you so noted David, are today’s norm.

I expect many a player to be tempted by a booster offering sweet NIL deals if a player will transfer to the booster’s school of choice.

Free agency is governed in the NFL. In CFB today for any player who has not transferred once, it is the wild west.


David, good thoughts. Makes me also wonder if the NIL change will cause some players to stay another year or two if their NIL “valuation ” in school might be better than if they enter the draft for those CFB standouts that might not pan out at the next level? Thibs cryptocurrency anyone?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I think this is a massive overlooked point, and I appreciate you bringing it up. For many players…they want the money NOW and go early to the NFL, but if they stayed another year?

They might end up being a starter in the NFL as Demmodore Lenoir is doing at San Francisco. (Wrap your head around that one!)

And staying another year might happen because of NIL earnings that allows them to focus on getting better, and that helps the teams!

Good stuff NW777.

Deommodore Lenoir makes one handed pick at USC_Video.jpg

Interesting that a number of folks are blaming OK QB Spencer Rattler’s average play to date on his NIL deals and the $ he is making.

And DGU to date? Has he played well enough to start for Fansville High?

Jon Joseph

I completely agree. Every athlete should have the right to market his/her NIL.


Lenoir was almost a 5 star out of high school. He has an NFL body. Ducks had some really good DBs in 2019, which helped them overcome a poor offensive scheme.

Steven A

Plus, NILs might keep players from entering the transfer portal as their deals might not be portable.

Jon Joseph

But according to a number of ticked off coaches. talented guys on lower level teams are being offered bigger money if they transfer.

TCU’s Patterson went public with this complaint.

Probably happening everywhere but the SEC has already been called out for improper contact. I know, you’re shocked!

Steven A

With the guaranteed money for first round picks, especially the top 10, he has to go as opposed to another year of potential career ending injuries. I am hopeful he is not the type of person who if he misses many more games, just says the hell with it and sits until the draft. I think the players that opted to not play last year took this route.

Jon Joseph

And not just the first contract money that per the union has a cap that varies by when a guy is taken, but to get the clock running to when a player will be a free agent and be able to sell his services to the highest bidder.

I still see the talent gap between the “Playoff-3” and the rest of college football as vast, but you make a great point about how the bottom half of CFB teams have been strengthened by the extra COVID year and transfers.

Great observation and fun to ponder David.

1 of the ‘playoff 3,’ Clemson, best look out this Saturday on the road at NC State?

Clemson’s OL has looked bad. Thus, the run game without Etienne, has been awful.

On the other hand, the Clemson D is looking far better than it did in 2020.

Clemson is on thin PO ice. I could easily see Clemson winning the ACC at 11-2, and the ACC missing the PO for the 1st time?

I think another game that could go either way is W VA at Oklahoma?


Both OK & Clemson have lost ground line wise, OK opened at -19.5, current is -17.0, Clemson opened at -12.0 current is -10.0. Betting on either to cover seems risky at this point. I’m intrigued by UCLA at Stanford. The Bruins, coming off the loss at home to Fresno State opened at -4 at Stanford, and it’s currently at -4.5.

Jon Joseph

Bruins at Cardinal will certainly be an interesting game; chance to watch 2 future opponents.

Can the Cardinal run D hold up against the Bruins solid run game?

Can UCLA defend the forward pass? At least better than the Bruins defended vs Haener + Fresno in the 4th Q.

With UCLA ranked 24, it probably would be better for the Ducks ultimate SOS to have the Bruins win and run the table before Oregon trips to LA?

If both Oregon and UCLA can run the table, Ducks at Bruins might have game of the week potential?

Just hope the game doesn’t kick off at 10:30 EST on Larry’s network.


My argument would be no team should be ranked until later in the season.

Actually the playoff rankings don’t come out until Tuesday November the 3rd. Most of these early games don’t really matter, as much as we are making them out too.

If Oregon loses one, and tosu takes care of it’s schedule the first playoff rankings will be flipped from what we see now.

I agree the transfer portal will have unknown and significant impact on teams. The team up north, not that one, led by Smith is going to be a sneaky force. They could very well be our nemesis for the foreseeable future when trying to get into the playoffs.

While Oregon beating tosu and Georgia beating Clemson may seem like shocking outcomes, they aren’t. What will be shocking will be to see the rankings in November

Jon Joseph

Good point on the Polls.

Why, based on results to date is Oklahoma at 4, let alone in the top 10?

1 thing the PO Committee does get right, as you so noted, is not coming with the initial ranking before November.

I’d be happy if the PO Committee had no interim rankings. But ESPN has to make $, right?

The polls draw eyeballs and conversation, we are stuck with the preseason polls. But that doesn’t mean that a pollster has to be stuck with how he or she voted in the preseason.

One thing I did like regarding the AP and the majority of the other polls, Fresno righteously being in the top 25. Fresno hangs on and at least in theory, this should help the Ducks SOS come November?


I definitely agree that the rankings have more credibility by Nov.3. It’s Eye Test until then. In the recent past Clemson’s loss to Georgia would have kept them in the Top 4, but they are so underwhelming they dropped, and now their weak schedule is hurting them in climbing up.

Jon Joseph

30, I did not mean to demean you my friend. Referring to you yesterday as Dixie; my bad.

J Duck

Totally agree, the polls are stupid until at least 6 weeks in, but media and college football, it’s money money money


You had me at “the polls are stupid”. 😀

Steven A

I would love to see an algorithm that starts every team even. After the first week, all winners are equal and all losers are equal. From there the calculation fun would begin matching similar foe results while teams without a comparison point that are undefeated all have the same #1 ranking, etc.