College football midseason takeaways – Surprises, disappointments, Heisman picks and more

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5:47 AM ET

  • ESPN staff

We are halfway through the regular season, and it’s safe to say it has been a wild year of college football thus far.

That’s a good indicator that we’re in for a hectic finish.

Our reporters break down the surprises and favorite moments of the first six weeks and look ahead to the rest of the season.

Who will win the Heisman Trophy?

David Hale: Can we give a combined award to the Georgia defensive front? The best player in college football this year might well be Dawgs nose tackle Jordan Davis, but he’s supplemented beautifully by Jalen Carter, Travon Walker, Devonte Wyatt and Nakobe Dean. For the season, Georgia has allowed just two offensive touchdowns, has held every opponent but UAB (61 of 127 rushing yards came after it was down 49-0) under 100 yards on the ground, and has utterly stumped three ranked teams (Clemson, Arkansas and Auburn) to the tune of 13 total points. The best unit in college football is Georgia’s D. The best player on that unit is debatable, but my vote goes to Davis.

Andrea Adelson: Michigan State has been a huge surprise this season, and one of the biggest reasons is the play of Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III, who leads the nation in rushing yards per game and total rushing yards — and it’s not even close. Walker has 912 yards and nine touchdowns on the season and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry in a breakout performance worthy of midseason Heisman discussion.

Kenneth Walker III leads the FBS with 912 rushing yards this season, 121 more than the next leading rusher. Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire

Dave Wilson: Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral will likely get his chance to play in several more wild games like Saturday’s 52-51 win over Arkansas, racking up Heisman moments along the way. He has yet to throw an interception this season and has added eight rushing touchdowns. And he doesn’t have to play Alabama again this season.

Paolo Uggetti: Short of buying future Heisman stock in Oklahoma true freshman QB Caleb Williams or giving the award to the entire Georgia defense, it still feels like Bryce Young’s award to lose this season. Sure, the Goliath that is Alabama may have shown its ability to bleed on Saturday, but Young did his part in throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. And in the interest of avoiding an overreaction, the Tide still control their own destiny to the playoff. If Young keeps his numbers up and Alabama wins out, the narrative of helping the sport’s perennial favorite bounce back after a shocking loss will also boost his case.

Harry Lyles Jr.: While I think there’s a few answers I’m fine with, we have to give it to Corral. He had his massive performance against Tulane when he accounted for seven touchdowns, and while Mississippi didn’t beat Alabama, Corral didn’t flop. He has been the most exciting player in college football this season, and that’s who the award should go to.

Tom VanHaaren: I would have Bailey Zappe, Walker and Young at the top of my list. It’s unfortunate Zappe won’t get it because he plays for a 1-4 Western Kentucky team that has averaged 42.8 points allowed in its four-game losing streak. He has 2,235 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and only three interceptions and has completed 70.4% of his passes. The offense averaged 164.3 passing yards per game last season, ranking No. 112 in the country. With Zappe at quarterback this year, Western Kentucky is No. 1 in passing yards per game with 457.8. He’s not going to win the award, but I’d stump for him.

Jim Harbaugh entered the 2021 season on the hot seat, but now he has Michigan at 6-0 with matchups against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State looming later this season. Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Who has been the most pleasant surprise?

Hale: I’ll tip my cap (or at least smooth my pleated khakis) to Michigan. Jim Harbaugh entered the season squarely on the hot seat, and the Wolverines’ pandemic-season struggles had confined them to the role of Big Ten afterthought. But at the midpoint of the season, the Michigan defense has been exceptional, the run game has been consistently good and Harbaugh has addressed his longstanding QB problems by all but eliminating the position from the playbook. It’s a fair question about how long this blueprint can succeed, and if Harbaugh fails miserably against Ohio State again in 2021, it may not matter much anyway, but let’s be clear here: Whatever your feelings on Michigan, college football is more fun when the Wolverines are good, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun with Harbaugh a part of the success.

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Adelson: Wake Forest. What the Demon Deacons have done to date is historic: the first 6-0 start in school history since 1944; their first 4-0 ACC start; the only undefeated team left in the ACC; the first ACC team to clinch bowl eligibility. Wake Forest has an open date, then will be favored in at least its next two games — at Army on Oct. 23 and home to Duke on Oct. 30 — before a showdown against North Carolina. The last time those two teams met, Wake Forest won. It has not been perfect, but after a thrilling come-from-behind 40-37 overtime win over Syracuse, coach Dave Clawson told me, “We didn’t play our best game, but found a way.” That’s the mark of a team that knows how to win.

Alex Scarborough: No one should have been sleeping on Kentucky this year, but it’s still hard to grasp the Wildcats being undefeated and ranked so highly in the polls at the midway point of the season. Whenever you’re doing something for the first time in 71 years, by definition, that feels surprising. Credit to Mark Stoops and his staff for slowly and methodically building a contender in Lexington. And credit him for looking at what was once a one-dimensional offense and making a change this offseason, bringing in quarterback Will Levis from Penn State and offensive coordinator Liam Coen from the Los Angeles Rams. The tandem has helped transform the offense and make Kentucky a threat in the SEC.

Heather Dinich: Kentucky has defeated LSU and Florida. Let that sink in for a minute. What Wake Forest has done this year is historic and should be applauded, but what Kentucky has accomplished frankly seems more … difficult. Yes, LSU coach Ed Orgeron is coaching for his job every weekend, and a win against the Tigers doesn’t carry as much clout this fall as it might have in previous years, but Stoops has positioned the program to have a chance at winning the East. While it has been years in the making, watching it unfold against teams like Florida is truly a surprise.

Kyle Bonagura: UTEP. In the past 50 years, the Miners have finished with a winning record just six times. With a 5-1 start, that number looks like it’s about to climb, and with two conference wins, UTEP has already doubled its conference win total from the past four seasons combined. How Dana Dimel has injected life into the program has been one of the most impressive coaching jobs in college football.

Adam Rittenberg: I understand all the Wake Forest love here, but the program has been on a steady climb under Clawson, one of the nation’s most underrated coaches. To me, it’s Michigan State. The Spartans were 2-5 in 2020 … and a bad 2-5, dropping their games by an average of 26.4 points. Coach Mel Tucker flipped the roster through the transfer portal in one offseason while developing holdover players in the process. Although similar makeovers likely will be more common in the portal era, Tucker and his staff deserve a ton of credit for the Spartans’ start and newfound explosiveness on offense.

Sam Howell and the Tar Heels were ranked in the top 10 before the season began. But Howell has underwhelmed and North Carolina is 3-3 through Week 6. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Who has been the biggest disappointment?

Adelson: Excuse me for not falling on the sword for Mack Brown, who wants the media to provide a mea culpa for setting expectations too high for the Tar Heels this season. While the preseason top-10 ranking was a little excessive, the Tar Heels should be better than this in Year 3 under Brown, especially with a quarterback like Sam Howell. Sure, there was an expected transition at the skill positions, but there also have been unexpected lapses on a veteran offensive line and in the secondary. Losing to a down Florida State program two years in a row is simply inexcusable, especially when the Seminoles essentially used the same game plan they did in the upset a year ago. But so is getting blown out to Georgia Tech. At 3-3, North Carolina is one of the biggest headscratchers in the country.

Chris Low: LSU has recruited far too well to be staring down the barrel of a second straight non-winning season. The Tigers, ranked No. 16 in the AP preseason poll, are 3-3 and still have to face Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M. The magical 2019 national championship season seems like forever ago, and the real drama now in Baton Rouge is whether Ed Orgeron will make it through the season.

Scarborough: To see LSU the last season and a half is to almost forget what happened in 2019. The team that went undefeated and won a national championship is gone in mind, body and spirit. It has been replaced by a program that’s 8-8 since the start of last season and is still struggling to find its footing. What’s most perplexing is how they’ve lost, no longer able to run the ball effectively or play above-average defense. Who would have ever thought we’d say those two things about LSU? Give Orgeron credit for trying to make a course correction after the train wreck of last season, revamping the coaching staff and hiring two new coordinators, but it doesn’t appear to be working. Now he’s in danger of becoming another Gene Chizik, who led Auburn to the national championship only to be fired a short time later.

Bonagura: USC was the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 South and began the year ranked No. 15 in the AP poll. Since then, the Trojans have fired their coach and have been blown out three times in conference play. It doesn’t get much more disappointing than that.

VanHaaren: Clemson sitting at 3-2 is unexpected. Losing to Georgia, now the No. 1-ranked team, was justifiable. But losing to NC State and beating Georgia Tech and Boston College by six points each is not something I thought we would see. The team doesn’t have some of its stars from last season, notably Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, but the Tigers still boast a talented roster. Clemson has signed 66 ESPN 300 prospects over the past five recruiting classes and has been consistently near the top of the recruiting rankings. Taking away the 49 points against South Carolina State, Clemson is averaging only 14.3 points per game.

Dinich: What happened, Iowa State? Brock Purdy. Breece Hall. An experienced group of pass-catchers. A well-coached defense. Did that Fiesta Bowl win happen? It wasn’t just the media. There was a sense within the program from players and coaches this summer that the Cyclones had the ingredients for a special season. It didn’t even have to be the playoff — but now even an appearance in the Big 12 championship game seems far-fetched.

LSU dominated in 2019, going 15-0 en route to the national championship. But in 16 games since, Ed Orgeron’s Tigers have gone 8-8. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What is your favorite coaching storyline?

Adelson: It wasn’t but four weeks ago people outside Tallahassee wondered whether Florida State coach Mike Norvell could keep his job after a disastrous loss to FCS foe Jacksonville State. But those inside the Florida State administration have never wavered from their commitment, fully understanding just how bad things were inside the locker room and the required time needed to make the fixes. Now, Florida State looks like more than a functional football team after two straight wins to go from 0-4 to 2-4. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but there have been marked improvements, starting with quarterback Jordan Travis and a strong running game that has shown weekly growth. After an open date, Florida State hosts UMass — another game it should win — before heading to play Clemson in a game that suddenly looks like it may not be the type of blowout similar to their last three meetings. The schedule remains formidable, with four of its final six games against teams with winning records, so finding four wins to reach bowl eligibility is difficult. But it’s safe to say this isn’t the same team that lost to Jacksonville State, and Norvell deserves credit.

Wilson: Gary Patterson has done one of the best jobs in modern history at TCU, winning a Rose Bowl as a Mountain West team and making TCU a program worth being admitted back to a Power 5 conference when the Big 12 snatched it up. Even after disappointing seasons, there’s always a chance Patterson’s teams rebound and become a contender. This season, after a loss to SMU, he accused players of hitting one of his assistant coaches with a helmet despite video evidence showing it didn’t happen. He criticized Texas for giving Bijan Robinson 35 carries after a loss to the Longhorns. Patterson has always run his team with an edge, a chip on his shoulder about little ol’ TCU and its lack of respect. He’s not going to stop pushing the envelope. But in the modern landscape, with the impact of the transfer portal and an emphasis on branding and social media, will Patterson’s style rub people the wrong way?

Uggetti: USC coaching rumors. After hovering their thumb over the eject button on the Clay Helton experiment for far too long, the Trojans didn’t hesitate to make a move once Helton & Co. lost to Stanford in the second game of the season. Now, the long march toward a new hire begins, which means everything from absurd Urban Meyer rumors to mystery candidates surfacing will be part of the fog that surrounds the program for the next few months. And given the current state of the Pac-12 this season (and for the past few years, really), USC’s new hire just might be the only important storyline of the season left.

Hale: The answer is clearly Ed Orgeron, who will draw comparisons to Gene Chizik as a head coach who rode the coattails of an iconic QB to a national title, but that’s not the whole story. Truth is, if you’re a head coach who has won a national title in the past 15 years, and your name isn’t Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban, you suffered more or less the same fate. Jimbo Fisher was out at Florida State three years after winning 29 straight. (Yes, it was his choice, but the Seminoles faithful were largely pleased to see him go.) Same was true for Urban Meyer at both Florida and Ohio State, where his departures were ugly enough to sour all the success he had at each stop. And then, of course, there was Chizik. Even going back further — Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll and Larry Coker all lasted a tad longer, but they all left under a dark cloud. Winning it all only buys you one, maybe two years of patience. Then it’s back to the chopping block, where Jimmy Sexton is just waiting to get Fisher another new contract because of your recent job performance.

Rittenberg: The Scott Frost story at Nebraska has fascinated me ever since he returned home to Lincoln. I’ve always wondered how much reluctance Frost had about the Nebraska job, which carried emotional/sentimental connections but also challenges that his other landing spots wouldn’t bring. After failing to make a bowl game in his first three seasons, Frost clearly has a better team in Year 4 but continues to find excruciating ways to lose games. Beginning with a stunning season-opening loss at Illinois, Frost has referred to watching the “same movie” too often with his team. Nebraska ultimately must reflect the Big Ten West model of success — limited mistakes, solid defense and special teams — to break through. I don’t know whether the Huskers will ever get there with Frost, but the school remains supportive to give one of its favorite sons more time to get things right.

Freshman Caleb Williams came off the bench to lead Oklahoma to a thrilling comeback victory over Texas in the Red River Showdown on Saturday. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What was your favorite game of the first half?

Low: The Red River Showdown has it all: tradition, Big Tex, corn dogs, the State Fair of Texas and years of memorable football games. But good luck in finding a better game than Oklahoma’s comeback from three touchdowns down to beat Texas 55-48 on Saturday. We may all be watching football for a long time before we see a game that entertaining again.

Adelson: If the answer isn’t Texas-Oklahoma, you’re not doing it right.

Dinich: Amen, sister.

Lyles: Yep.

Scarborough: The best game was the Red River Showdown in a landslide. But for the sake of argument, I’ll add that my favorite game was Alabama’s trip to Florida. It was a back-and-forth battle with the Gators mounting a serious comeback and the Crimson Tide holding on to win, thanks in large part to the poise of sophomore quarterback Bryce Young. But my reason for picking this game is more sentimental. After a 2020 season without fans, it felt like a giant step toward normalcy. The Swamp was packed, and it was as loud a game as I can ever remember attending. When they played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” over the loudspeaker between the third and fourth quarters, and more than 90,000 fans sang along, it was a visceral reminder of what makes the sport so special. It’s the tradition and the fans, and seeing that in person again was my highlight of the first half of the season.

Connelly: OU-Texas was amazing, but it was barely even the best game in its own time slot! While OU was unleashing a wild and wonderful comeback in Dallas, Ole Miss and Arkansas were just going blow-for-blow, Hagler-Hearns style. Aside from three minutes early in the second half, neither team led by more than one score. They just kept going back and forth for 58.5 minutes, then combined for three scores in the final 82 seconds. One hundred three points and 1,287 yards, all in regulation. Ole Miss-Arkansas may never top the Hunter Henry lateral, but it warms my heart that they keep trying to every single year.

Hale: The answer is obviously Texas-Oklahoma, but the two-week run for UConn, which included a last-second loss to woeful Vanderbilt and a dismal defeat at the hands of winless UMass, gets my vote. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Rittenberg: It’s OU-Texas for me, too, but the other big game in the state deserves mention. No one expected Texas A&M, following losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, to challenge Alabama on Saturday night. Not with backup quarterback Zach Calzada struggling to eclipse 150 passing yards. But Texas A&M came out hot, saw its lead vanish and then scored 10 points in the final five minutes on a supposedly better Alabama defense. Calzada and Texas A&M’s big-play threats (Ainias Smith, Jalen Wydermyer, Devon Achane) showed out. The Aggies ended Alabama’s incredible run against unranked opponents, while Fisher became the first Saban assistant to beat him at Alabama. Just an incredibly dramatic scene and game at Kyle Field.

Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats might be the Group of 5’s best chance at a College Football Playoff berth. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Which second-half game are you most looking forward to?

Wilson: We could go with however many Georgia-Alabama games we’ll get. But instead, how about that Nov. 20 matchup between SMU and Cincinnati? If the 6-0 Mustangs and the 5-0 Bearcats can stay undefeated — SMU still has tough road games at Houston and Memphis ahead — a matchup between two unbeaten AAC teams in a chaotic season would be the College Football Playoff’s biggest test yet on whether the committee will let a Group of 5 team crash the party. Here’s hoping for more madness.

Low: How often do we get a Michigan-Michigan State matchup when both teams are unbeaten? That could be where we’re headed on Oct. 30 in East Lansing if both teams can handle their business these next two weeks. Michigan State’s Mel Tucker deserves some Coach of the Year consideration, and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh could ease the restlessness in Ann Arbor if he can finally pull off the sweep of Michigan State and Ohio State.

VanHaaren: At the start of the season, there was no chance anyone would say Michigan-Michigan State. After all, they won two games each last season. Now, both teams are 6-0 and on a collision course to play as two undefeated, ranked teams. You probably have to go back to 2015, when Michigan State was undefeated and Michigan had one loss, to find a matchup that meant as much as this one could. Whichever team makes it through that game has a chance to compete for the conference championship. Both teams will still have to play Ohio State and Penn State, but getting through that game is the first step.

Scarborough: Michigan-Ohio State has the chance to be a lot of fun again. (Let’s not forget Buckeyes coach Ryan Day threatening to hang 100 points on the Wolverines.) But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already peeking ahead to the SEC championship game, where it appears to be a lock that Alabama and Georgia will meet in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide have to rebound after a loss at Texas A&M, and the Bulldogs are rolling as the No. 1 team in the country. Georgia coach Kirby Smart has come oh so close to beating his mentor, Nick Saban, twice already. If he can’t get it done this year, then when will it ever happen?

Rittenberg: Liberty-Ole Miss. I’m sticking to my preseason pick. Hugh Freeze’s likely awkward homecoming in Oxford. Malik Willis vs. Matt Corral. Save me some popcorn, Lane. I can’t wait for this one.

Can Georgia end its title drought and win the national championship? AP Photo/Butch Dill

What is your updated title game matchup and national champion?

Hale: For all the chaos we’ve seen this year — and there has been plenty of it — the most likely College Football Playoff outcome is still probably Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama (15 playoff appearances between them) getting an invite, with an undefeated Group of 5 team (Cincinnati or SMU) left to complain about being left out. Same as it ever was. In a perfect world, I’d love to see a deserving upstart like the Bearcats or even Coastal Carolina get a real shot, or a Cinderella story from the Power 5 like Wake Forest or Iowa crash the party. But we’ve gotten our hopes up before. In college football, to paraphrase “The Wire,” the kings stay the kings.

Low: It’s still the two best teams in college football and a rematch of the 2017 title game: Alabama vs. Georgia. But this time, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs find a way to get it done because, unlike in recent years, good defense will trump good offense.

Dinich: C-Low is right — but I’ll go ahead and say that happens in the SEC championship game, not the title game. The Dawgs knock Bama out of the CFP, leaving a top four of Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and … Iowa? Cincinnati? Oregon? Doesn’t matter. It boils down to Georgia-Ohio State, and Georgia gets it done.

Scarborough: Is it absurd to think losing at Texas A&M might have been a good thing in the long run for Alabama? There’s something to be said for learning a lesson the hard way. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe this finally is Georgia’s year, but I’ve seen this movie too many times before to think it ends any way other than with Saban lifting yet another national championship trophy.

Uggetti: Georgia-Ohio State. The loss to Oregon is an eyesore and might get worse as the season goes along, but the Buckeyes still have the No. 1 offense in the country and have overwhelmed teams when they’re on. Just ask Maryland about what C.J. Stroud did on Saturday. The gauntlet of current ranked foes looms — first Penn State, then Michigan State and finally Michigan — but the Buckeyes’ cup is still running over with more talent than their conference counterparts. Win them all and they’re playoff-bound. As far as Georgia goes, at this point, it would be a shock just below the level of Alabama losing to A&M if they don’t at least make it to the title game. But after seeing that happen, there’s no telling where the chaos of this season might lead.

Rittenberg: This is Georgia’s year, and I take full credit for repeatedly pointing out in the preseason the program’s shameful four-decade run without a national title. I’m a bit surprised how many of my colleagues think Georgia will lose the SEC championship game to Alabama. That’s the only way the Tide are getting in the playoff. I like Georgia to knock out Alabama in Atlanta and then go on to face a Big Ten team, most likely Ohio State, in Big Ten territory (Indianapolis).