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How chaos could reign over the 2021 college football season

Let’s face it: College football has a bit of a chaos problem at the moment. As in, a lack thereof.

The current ruling class is ruling a bit more than usual. Alabama has won six of the past 12 national titles and five of the past seven SEC titles and hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 since 2007. Clemson has six straight ACC titles and top-five finishes nationally. Oklahoma has won six straight Big 12s, and Ohio State has won four straight Big Tens with seven straight top-six finishes.

Those four teams have occupied 20 of 28 total College Football Playoff slots thus far, and oh, hey look, they occupy the top four spots in this year’s preseason AP poll.

This phenomenon is not particularly new, of course. College football has always been ruled by an oligarchy. USC enjoyed seven straight top-five finishes from 2002 through 2008; Florida State had 14 straight from 1987 through 2000; Miami had seven straight with three national titles from 1986 through 1992; and so on. And if you choose a top-10 poll from the 1970s at random, some combination of Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Texas are probably occupying at least seven of the spots.

There have always been blips to break up the monotony, however. In 1976, in the middle of the bluest of blue-blood decades, Pitt jumped from 8-4 to 12-0 and stomped Notre Dame and Penn State on the way to the national title. As the balance of power shifted during the early 1980s, BYU won the title in a particularly chaotic 1984. In 1990, smack in the middle of the Miami-FSU era, Georgia Tech and a Colorado team with multiple blemishes split the title.

And then, of course, there was 2007. Appalachian State beat Michigan; Stanford beat USC as a 41-point underdog; Illinois beat Ohio State; LSU lost twice in triple OT; seven No. 2 teams lost; the top two teams lost in the same weekend three times; and we headed into championship weekend looking at a possible MissouriWest Virginia national title game. (We got LSU-Ohio State instead, but still.)

Even in times of rigid oligarchy, we end up with great moments and outstanding games. But the blip seasons give us life. They remind every fan base to keep paying attention, just in case. And no matter how predictable this era of college football might feel, they will happen again.

Will we get 2007-level chaos in 2021? It’s hard to say yes, but then again we never see them coming in advance, do we? Let’s review the road map to chaos, just in case.

The No. 1 team loses early

Nothing sets the stage like an early upset. In 1984, top-ranked Auburn fell as a five-point favorite to No. 10 Miami in the Kickoff Classic. Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes leaped to No. 1 but then lost to No. 14 Michigan two weeks later. At the end of September, new No. 1 Nebraska fell to an unranked Syracuse team that had just been shut out by Rutgers, and the Chaos Meter was officially set to 11.

Potential for 2021: moderate. As you would expect, the highest-ranked teams don’t face too many statistical tossups. But it does bear mentioning that of the preseason top-four teams, three are breaking in new quarterbacks and face some of their toughest tests (relatively speaking) in September.

• Sept. 2: Ohio State 69% win probability, per SP+, at Minnesota

• Sept. 4: Clemson 57% win probability vs. Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina.

• Sept. 4: Alabama 72% win probability vs. Miami in Atlanta

• Sept. 11: Alabama 69% win probability at Florida

• Sept. 11: Ohio State 72% win probability vs. Oregon

Oklahoma has an incumbent QB in Spencer Rattler and a pretty soft early slate (the Sooners’ lowest SP+ win probability in September is 86% against Nebraska), but the other three top contenders all face some hurdles. They’re favored in the five games above, but SP+ gives them only a 14% chance of winning all five, and top-ranked Alabama gets only a 50% chance of surviving both Miami and Florida — preseason No. 14 and No. 13, respectively — unscathed.


First-time No. 1?

When Virginia is No. 1 in the country, it’s clear things have gone off the rails.

The early chaos of 1984 set the stage for six different teams to hold the top spot at some point. The 1990 season didn’t produce that many, but it made its shifts count. Defending champion Miami lost to No. 16 BYU out of the gates; new No. 1 Notre Dame fell at home to unranked Stanford in early October; and replacement Michigan lost at home to unranked Michigan State a week later. With plenty of other contenders having slipped up along the way, the world awoke to top-ranked UVa on Oct. 15. The Cavaliers beat Wake Forest before falling to eventual national co-champion Georgia Tech in a thriller.

Potential for 2021: low. But not impossible! While there is nothing surprising about the AP’s preseason top four, there are plenty of oddities beneath the surface. No. 6 Texas A&M hasn’t ranked No. 1 since 1957, and No. 10 North Carolina spent a single week at the top in 1948, while No. 7 Iowa State begins 2021 with its highest-ever ranking, and No. 8 Cincinnati has never been higher than fourth.

That’s a lot of potentially uncommon No. 1 teams right there. But one of them establishing residence in the top spot would require not only an upset or two from the September batch of games above but also potential upsets of Oklahoma and Georgia (if the Dawgs beat Clemson). The odds aren’t high, but the possibilities are intriguing.


Historically unsuccessful programs challenging for big bowls

In 1967, Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan found themselves in need of sudden refreshes, going a combined 13-16. It opened the door for chaos, and after an upset of Purdue, Indiana walked right through that door, making its first and only Rose Bowl trip. Forty years later, Kansas found itself winning in the Orange Bowl and finishing 12-1. (The Jayhawks have won 12 total games over the past seven seasons, further adding to the marvel of 2007.)

Potential for 2021: moderate. Indiana was a technicality away from playing in the Big Ten championship game last year, and Iowa State is coming off of its first major bowl win ever. If Indiana (or a potential This Year’s Indiana candidate such as Minnesota) were to make a Rose Bowl run, that would certainly be noteworthy. If it isn’t the Hoosiers (or Gophers), however, there aren’t a ton of obvious candidates to fit this category unless we look at a program such as UCLA, which has been down for a few years but has experience and potential.


The Michigan Rule: Either a rising program knocks off an established power or a mid-major upsets a fading power

The two primary Ann Arbor-related examples:

• In early October 1985, after top teams Auburn, Florida and USC all had fallen, Hayden Fry’s Iowa Hawkeyes found themselves ranked No. 1 for the first time in 24 years. A couple of weeks into their reign, they knocked off No. 2 Michigan in a thriller that the Big Ten Network still seemingly shows about once a week. And speaking of BTN …

• In 2007, BTN debuted by showing No. 5 Michigan hosting FCS powerhouse Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were exciting and solid, but this wasn’t supposed to be a game. And yet, of course, it was. Michigan would quickly fall out of the rankings entirely.

Potential for 2021: moderate. Even if the Iowa States and UNCs don’t reach No. 1, we could see some particularly great home atmospheres when Iowa visits Ames on Sept. 11 and Florida State and Miami visit Chapel Hill back-to-back in mid-October. Beyond that, however, there are a few games with some potential for Iowa-Michigan stakes and atmosphere:

• No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M (Oct. 9)

• No. 4 Ohio State at No. 17 Indiana (Oct. 23)

• No. 3 Clemson at NC State (Sept. 25) — this one is admittedly a reach

Meanwhile, here are 10 “power program vs. mid-major” games that have at least slight App State potential (including one that involves App State itself!):

• No. 8 Cincinnati at No. 9 Notre Dame (Oct. 2)

• No. 2 Oklahoma at Tulane (Sept. 4)

UAB at No. 5 Georgia (Sept. 11)

Toledo at No. 9 Notre Dame (Sept. 11)

Fresno State at No. 11 Oregon (Sept. 4)

Army at No. 12 Wisconsin (Oct. 16)

• Appalachian State at No. 14 Miami (Sept. 11)

San Jose State at No. 15 USC (Sept. 4)

Central Michigan at No. 16 LSU (Sept. 18)

Ball State at No. 19 Penn State (Sept. 11)

Really, Cincinnati-Notre Dame might not count — Cincy might be too well-regarded.


A genuine mid-major power rises

The 1984 season had BYU. The next year, Air Force nearly pulled off BYU’s feat. An underrated 1967 season produced a top-five Wyoming team. And of course, who could forget the wild 1914 season, in which mighty Michigan, Chicago and Yale all stumbled while the Colorado School of Mines romped to prominence?

Potential for 2021: low. If a 12-team playoff had existed for 2020, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina would have made the field. Both teams return healthy portions of last year’s production, and while Coastal begins the season 22nd and Sun Belt-mate Louisiana is 23rd, Cincy starts out in the top 10.

Luke Fickell’s Bearcats get marquee win opportunities with games at No. 17 Indiana and, yes, No. 9 Notre Dame. It’s fair to be extremely skeptical of the CFP committee ever putting a Group of 5 team into the top four, but a 13-0 Cincinnati would be awfully hard to dismiss.

The problem: Cincy is projected to slip from eighth to 19th in SP+ and has only about a 2-3% chance of reaching 13-0. Coastal’s odds of being unbeaten are higher, but the only power conference team on the Chanticleers’ schedule is Kansas, which doesn’t really count. Louisiana does draw Texas in Week 1, but it has only a 1-2% chance of running the table.


Preseason top-10 teams bomb out of the Top 25 and/or multiple blue-blood programs collapse

Most years feature some top-10 disappointments. Just last season, in fact, preseason No. 6 LSU and No. 7 Penn State went a combined 9-10, with LSU pulling off the worst national title defense in 70 years. Some seasons, however, cram in loads of disappointments. In 1983, five preseason top-10 teams lost at least four games each, but on the other hand, four year-end top-10s (including eventual national champion Miami) started out unranked.

Potential for 2021: pretty high. It’s fun seeing upstarts such as Iowa State, Cincinnati and UNC in the preseason top 10, but none of those three has the depth of other powerhouses, and a single injury, particularly at quarterback, could create a pretty steep stumble.

Texas A&M has the requisite depth, especially on defense, but the combination of a new starting quarterback and a mostly new offensive line obviously could lead to growing pains. And while Notre Dame is receiving justifiable benefit of the doubt from pollsters, the Fighting Irish have to replace their starting quarterback, their two most explosive receivers, and five of probably their six or seven best defenders. And they face five consecutive opponents projected 33rd or better by SP+ in the middle of the season. Stumble potential: high.


Title hopes abound in late October

Even if the teams at the tippy-top aren’t losing, it doesn’t take too many upsets for lots of teams to harbor conference title and, potentially, top-four aspirations. Just two years ago, after all, Baylor headed to overtime in the Big 12 championship game with a shot at the CFP’s No. 4 seed. (The Bears fell to Oklahoma.)

The 2007 season was perhaps the ultimate when it came to these aspirations. Nearly every major conference had multiple teams dreaming big.

• The Big 12 saw Missouri and Kansas playing for the top spot in the BCS rankings in late November, and Oklahoma was an injury-driven upset loss to Texas Tech away from a title-game chance.

• In the SEC, LSU won the national title, while Georgia was possibly the best team in the country after early October.

• The Pac-10 saw Oregon rise to second before a key injury, while USC was eight points away from an unbeaten season.

• The Big East’s West Virginia was a single win from the BCS Championship game, and USF rose to No. 2 in mid-October.

• The ACC had Boston College at No. 2 in early November, and Virginia Tech would have been a candidate for the No. 4 seed had the CFP existed.

The 2007 season saw 24 teams enter the top 10 at least briefly, and strangely the Big Ten was the only major conference with only one horse in the race (Ohio State) late in the year.

Potential for 2021: low. This is where college football has been lacking in recent years, and it’s where things will likely be lacking again.

Granted, the SEC (Alabama, Georgia and maybe Texas A&M) and Big 12 (Oklahoma, Iowa State) bring multiple contenders to the table. However, the Big Ten will need a solid rebound from Wisconsin, Penn State or Michigan to test Ohio State’s dominance; the ACC is desperately waiting for UNC and Miami to rise further and give Clemson an actual challenge; and although half the Pac-12 has top-20 potential this season, it’s unclear whether anyone has top-5 potential. (Early Oregon-Ohio State and Washington-Michigan games could tell us what we need to know there.)


A healthy sprinkle of innovation for flavor

One example of when blips can happen is when offensive innovation hasn’t floated to the top of the football food chain. The sport’s blue bloods get caught a bit behind the times and fall victim to a few more upsets here and there. That was certainly a big reason the 2007 season came together as it did — Oregon clicked (before Dennis Dixon’s injury) with an early version of Chip Kelly’s mach-speed spread; the Missouri and Kansas quarterbacks threw for a combined 8,000 yards in their versions of the spread; and Rich Rodriguez’s spread-to-run attack at West Virginia dominated. (Florida’s Tim Tebow won the Heisman that year while piloting the Urban Meyer version of the spread, as well.)

Potential for 2021: low. We don’t appear to be in that part of an innovation life cycle. Just as the long run of blue-blood dominance in the 1970s coincided with a lot of powers adopting the trendy wishbone, we have seen recruiting powerhouses LSU and Alabama field a couple of the most perfect offenses we’ve ever seen in back-to-back years.

That’s not to say there aren’t fun and creative offenses out there. Coastal Carolina’s combination of option principles, misdirection and high-end passing concepts, for example, could earn quite a few imitators in the coming years. But the sport’s four dominant programs are all projected fifth or better in offensive SP+, so unless we see an explosion of creativity and points from Rhett Lashlee’s Miami offense or new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich at Penn State, it’s unlikely the top teams will find themselves a step behind in the innovation department this year.


High-stakes games go to overtime

Granted, many historic chaos years (1984, 1967 and who can forget 1914?) came before overtime was even a thing. But there’s no question that LSU’s triple-OT losses to Kentucky and Arkansas added even more color to 2007’s proceedings. (And in the underrated chaos year of 2013, a certain game nearly going to OT was good enough.)

Potential for 2021: high. We don’t specifically need overtime for chaos, but it does bear mentioning that there are a lot of potentially key matchups — for conference title races and the national title race — that SP+ projects as extremely close.

Sept. 4: AP No. 3 Clemson favored by 3.3 vs. No. 5 Georgia; No. 12 Wisconsin by 3.7 vs. No. 19 Penn State; UCLA by 1.3 vs. No. 16 LSU*

Sept. 11: Michigan by 0.6 vs. No. 20 Washington

Sept. 18: No. 8 Cincinnati by 0.7 at No. 17 Indiana

Oct. 2: No. 13 Florida by 3.6 at No. 16 LSU; No. 9 Notre Dame by 2.6 vs. No. 8 Cincinnati; No. 25 Arizona State by 0.4 at UCLA

Oct. 9: No. 19 Penn State by 0.2 at No. 18 Iowa

Oct. 16: No. 10 North Carolina by 1.7 vs. No. 14 Miami; No. 24 Utah by 2.9 vs. No. 25 Arizona State

Oct. 23: No. 15 USC by 0.03 at No. 9 Notre Dame; Ole Miss by 3.0 vs. No. 16 LSU

Oct. 30: No. 10 North Carolina by 1.3 at No. 9 Notre Dame*

Nov. 6: No. 20 Washington by 3.7 vs. No. 11 Oregon; No. 15 USC by 0.9 at No. 25 Arizona State

Nov. 20: No. 24 Utah by 0.2 vs. No. 11 Oregon

(* Here’s your reminder that SP+ really isn’t sold on LSU or Notre Dame this year.)

There is another chaos year in college football’s future; we just don’t know when it’s going to come. The seismograph isn’t picking up on too many reasons for a full-on 2007 explosion this fall, but keep this map on you just in case. And if Miami knocks off Bama in Week 1, buckle up.

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