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Andy Wittry | | October 1, 2021

These 7 September wins will shape the 2021 college football season

Arkansas jumps to No. 8, Clemson falls in latest AP college football poll

Through the end of September, the college football program with the longest active streak of making the College Football Playoff is potentially facing an end to the streak and life outside of the AP Top 25 poll. Two preseason top-10 teams are no longer ranked and one current top-10 team started the season unranked.

And that's through only Week 4. There's still roughly two months of the season remaining before the conference championship games and if top 25 teams continue to lose at historic rates, then good luck trying to predict who will play for each conference's championship.

Here are seven wins from September that will shape the rest of the 2021 college football season.

Jim Dedmon | USA TODAY Sports Images Georgia defeated Clemson 10-3 in Week 1.

Georgia 10, Clemson 3 | Week 1

At the time of this neutral-site matchup in Charlotte, both teams were ranked in the top five of the AP poll โ€” Clemson at No. 3 and Georgia at No. 5 โ€” and it was a meeting of elite teams that you might expect to see in the College Football Playoff, which the Tigers had qualified for in each of the last six seasons. The losing team was going to have a losing record, even if only for a week, and that's not something that either program or fan base has experienced often lately.

In a game in which neither offense reached the end zone, Christopher Smith's second-quarter pick-six proved to be the difference for Georgia, as the 'Dawgs held the Tigers scoreless for the first 50-plus minutes. When a defensive score is all that separates two teams, the margins are fairly thin, but this was a win that many expected Georgia could carry in its back pocket all season and, if anything, its value might only increase over the course of the season.

However, as injuries have impacted Clemson's defensive line and running back room, and as the Tigers have dropped to .500 and No. 25 in the AP poll entering October, it remains to be seen how much value a non-conference win over Clemson will mean in December.

SURPRISES:ย 7 of the biggest September surprises in college football

Barbara Perenic | USA TODAY Sports Images Oregon won 35-28 at Ohio State in Week 2.

Oregon 35, Ohio State 28 | Week 2

In a win that could prove to be the single best non-conference win of the 2021 season, Oregon went on the road to Columbus without multiple defensive starters, including star Kayvon Thibodeaux, and the Ducks bullied the Buckeyes for much of the afternoon, then hung on for the win. As the calendar rolls from September to October, Oregon is the Pac-12's only remaining undefeated team โ€” the Ducks also have a Week 1 win over Fresno State, which has aged well โ€” and in a fall that has provided little certainty outside of Alabama and Georgia generally looking dominant, Oregon could continue to make a case that it's among the nation's elite.

Ohio State, which has played multiple green quarterbacks as it looks to replace the production of Justin Fields, has lost a non-conference game before and still won the Big Ten Championship and made the College Football Playoff (see its home loss to Virginia Tech in the 2014 season, which culminated in the Buckeyes being named national champions), so it's too early to write off a program that contends for 12 or 13 wins a season. But the Buckeyes being vulnerable has opened the door for the imagination of other Big Ten fan bases, as No. 4 Penn State is the highest-ranked team in the conference entering October, No. 5 Iowa could prove to be a tough foil in the Big Ten West and both Michigan schools are ranked in the top 25 after finishing in sixth and seventh in the Big Ten East last season.

Nelson Chenault | USA TODAY Sports Images Arkansas defeated Texas 40-21 in Week 2.

Arkansas 40, Texas 21 | Week 2

Arkansas fans waited 17 years for the Longhorns to return to Fayetteville, as No. 7 Texas left town in 2004 with a 22-20 win after the Hogs took a 17-16 lead into halftime. The two schools hadn't played, period, since 2014, and the Razorbacks celebrated the return of their series with their old Southwest Conference foe by nearly doubling up the Longhorns, who were fresh off of a 20-point win over a ranked Louisiana squad.

Texas has largely owned the all-time series, 56-23, but only holds a 10-8 advantage since 1980 and the Razorbacks have won five of the last seven meetings. More relevant for this season, it was a huge moment in establishing narratives for this season as an unranked Arkansas group dominated a top-15 Texas team. The Hogs rushed for 333 yards and four touchdowns on seven yards per carry, while forcing the Longhorns to make a quarterback change after starter Hudson Card completed just 8 of 15 passes for 61 yards.

The win showed that, no, Texas is not back, but that Arkansas was worth keeping an eye on, especially after a promising 2020 season, when the Razorbacks ended their years-long losing streak in conference play.

RANKINGS: All major college football polls

Sam Greene | USA Today Sports Images Cincinnati defeated Indiana 38-24 in Week 3.

Cincinnati 38, Indiana 24 | Week 3

In Week 5, No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) will visit No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0). Both teams could have suffered (at least) one loss this season, as currently winless Florida State took Notre Dame to overtime, Toledo gave the Golden Domers a tough test in South Bend and the Fighting Irish were tied 10-10 with Wisconsin through three quarters in their Week 4 matchup.

But here is Notre Dame, undefeated and ranked in the top 10, despite having to replace longtime quarterback Ian Book.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, found itself in a 14-0 first-half hole at Indiana and struggled to even pick up a first down against the Hoosiers, before a critical targeting call ejected Indiana's All-American linebacker Micah McFadden late in the first half. Cincinnati rolled from there and returned home with a 14-point win.

The winner of Week 5's Cincinnati-Notre Dame matchup will pick up a critical win, and with Alabama-Ole Miss and Georgia-Arkansas also scheduled for Week 5, other top teams will be bound to drop in the AP poll. If Cincinnati beats Notre Dame, it will have beaten two Power 5 opponents, putting the Bearcats in the best position of any Group of Five team ever to potentially make the College Football Playoff, if they can win out.

If Notre Dame wins, it'll be undefeated through Week 5, which is a statement that certainly felt unlikely at moments throughout September, and a win over a top-10 Cincinnati team will mean the Fighting Irish are just seven more wins from another playoff berth, which wasn't what many expected entering the season.

The value of Cincinnati's win over Indiana and Notre Dame's wins over Florida State, Toledo, Purdue and Wisconsin may change as the season ages, but right now, they were significant in that they allowed the two teams to meet with each holding an undefeated record, meaning the winner of Saturday's game will still have a zero in the loss column.

Brad McClenny | USA TODAY Sports Images Alabama defeated Florida 31-29 in Week 3.

Alabama 31, Florida 29 | Week 3

Alabama's trip to The Swamp started as so many of the Crimson Tide's games have during the Nick Saban era โ€” with Alabama taking a multi-score lead in the first quarter. The Crimson Tide led 21-3 after the first quarter and quarterback Bryce Young had three touchdown passes in the game's opening 15 minutes.

The Crimson Tide seemed totally in control of the game, but it wouldn't score again until there was just 4:33 left in the third quarter and Saban's squad only reached the end zone once after the first quarter. Florida steadily clawed back, scoring a touchdown on each of its first three drives of the second half (its fourth and final drive consisted of just one play, with the snap taken at Florida's own 23-yard line).

After the Gators cut the Crimson Tide's lead to 31-29 on Dameon Pierce's touchdown run with 3:10 left in the game, they went for two and the tie but the slow-to-develop play was stopped and Alabama was able to eat up almost all of the remaining clock. The game showed that Alabama is, in fact, vulnerable and that Florida, which had been playing two quarterbacks in the first two weeks but only had starter Emory Jones available against Alabama, could even challenge Georgia in the SEC East.

Jerome Miron | USA TODAY Sports Images Arkansas defeated Texas A&M in Week 4.

Arkansas 20, Texas A&M 10 | Week 4

Through September, undefeated Arkansas owns three wins over schools from Texas, including the namesake Longhorns and the highest-ranked team from the state in the preseason AP poll (Texas A&M, which debuted at No. 6). This series, which has typically been played in Arlington, Texas, since the turn of the century, has had a flair for the dramatic, with overtime games in 2014, 2015 and 2017, not to mention one-score margins in 2018 and 2019. But remarkably, Texas A&M won each of those games amid a nine-game winning streak dating back to 2012 that it took into the 2021 season.

Arkansas had no intentions of going into overtime, or losing, this season. The Hogs raced out to a 17-0 lead in the opening 17 minutes, thanks to touchdown passes of 85 and 48 yards from quarterback KJ Jefferson. The Aggies didn't score until the game's 30th minute and didn't reach the end zone until the 38th minute, as the Razorbacks defense held the opposition to just 4-of-14 on third-down conversions and only 4.2 yards per pass attempt.

Arkansas had 171 more yards of offense than Texas A&M โ€” 443 to 272 โ€” and once again, leaned heavily on its ground attack as it rushed 49 times for 197 yards. The Hogs showed that they're big and bruising, with realistic hopes of finishing in the top two of the SEC West.

Last season, Texas A&M remained in the thick of the national conversation as its only loss came to Alabama, and now Arkansas, which lost 20 consecutive SEC games in the not-too-distant past, has the opportunity to have that kind of stage. The Razorbacks travel to visit the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs and Week 5. The college football watching populace has already had to reevaluate the Hogs this season and if they win in Athens, it'll be time to set even higher expectations for Arkansas.

Rob Kinnan | USA TODAY Sports Images NC State defeated Clemson for the first time since 2011.

NC State 27, Clemson 21 | Week 4

One of the seven September surprises that we recently broke down was Clemson's .500 record through the end of September. During Clemson's run of six consecutive CFP appearances, a two-loss season is a disappointment and now the Tigers are staring at a "2" in the loss column after one month of play.

You probably don't need a reminder that a two-loss team has never made the playoff โ€” but it will happen someday โ€” so it's likely time for Clemson to reset its expectations, at least for one season, and for college football fans to do the same.

NC State's win over Clemson was its first in a decade and just its third in two decades. This was a series that the Wolfpack owned an 11-8 advantage during the 1970s and '80s that the Tigers had since turned the tables upon in the 2000s.

Now, NC State (3-1) is ranked No. 23 in the AP poll entering Week 5 and it holds an important head-to-head win over the Tigers, which could come in handy in what appears to be a wide-open ACC. Wake Forest, ranked No. 24 and in between the Wolfpack and Tigers, is the conference's only team with a 2-0 conference record through Week 4. Preseason top-25 teams North Carolina and Miami are 2-2 and 2-3, respectively, as of Oct. 1.

The ACC Coastal once produced seven different champions in seven consecutive years, so that half of the conference has been known to be chaotic, and now the ACC Atlantic appears to be getting in on the action. This could be anyone's conference โ€” well, besides winless Florida State, which in itself is a jarring statement โ€” and that should make the ACC a fun conference to follow this season, at least if you have no rooting interest.


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