September superlatives: Kudos to Alabama, Ole Miss QB and the SEC

·6 min read

The first month of the 2021 college football season is complete. Here's what we learned:

  • Alabama is good.

  • So is Georgia.

  • And so is the entire non-Vanderbilt SEC.

It's been an opening month with more chaos than usual, from early-season losses from Ohio State and Texas A&M through the troubling collapse of the Clemson offense.

That's made it easier to crown the SEC as the dominant conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision and added a dash of intrigue to what has been a predictable race for the College Football Playoff.

Even in the scenario where two spots in the national semifinals are reserved for the SEC champion and runner-up, an avenue has widened for a party crasher to crack the top four — whether that's Iowa, Group of Five frontrunner Cincinnati or even the best team from the Pac-12.

The first month gave a glimpse into how the race may unfold.

Best team

At this point in the season, it appears just one or two teams can topple Bryce Young and Alabama.
At this point in the season, it appears just one or two teams can topple Bryce Young and Alabama.

The easy pick is Alabama, which was No. 1 in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and has held onto the top spot with wins against Miami (Fla.), Mercer, Florida and Southern Mississippi. Amid a struggling running game, first-year starting quarterback Bryce Young has thrown 15 touchdown passes with just one interception to keep the Crimson Tide inside the top five nationally in points per game.

But the answer isn't that simple. No. 2 Georgia smothered Clemson to win 10-3 in the season opener and has cruised past Alabama-Birmingham, South Carolina and Vanderbilt by a combined 138 points. With JT Daniels on the mend from his oblique injury and the Bulldogs' defense atop the FBS in yards given up per play and per game, the question of whether Georgia can beat Alabama might work better in reverse: Are the Tide built to take down the Bulldogs?

Best Group of Five team

One year after posting an unbeaten regular season and reaching the Peach Bowl, No. 8 Cincinnati remains the team to beat for the Group of Five bid to the New Year's Six bowl slate and a legitimate contender for the national semifinals. Saturday's game at No. 7 Notre Dame won't derail the Bearcats' quest to stick atop the Group of Five, which instead relies on an American championship. A loss would make the top four in the playoff rankings an impossibility — but a win would make things very interesting and potentially complex for the selection committee.

Best player

Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral scores against Tulane at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral scores against Tulane at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral has thrown nine touchdowns without an interception as the ringleader of an offense that leads the FBS in yards and points per game. The lack of turnovers represents a huge turning point after a 2020 season defined by two forgettable performances: six interceptions in a loss to Arkansas and another five in a loss to LSU. The race for the Heisman Trophy has already centered on Young and Corral, adding another national story line to this weekend's SEC West matchup between the No. 12 Rebels and the Crimson Tide.

Best defender

The decision to return for one final season at Michigan has turned defensive end Aidan Hutchinson from a borderline first-round pick into one of the top prospects in this year's NFL draft class. With an FBS-leading 5.5 sacks, Hutchinson has been the star of a defense that has keyed the Wolverines' return to Big Ten championship contention after a miserable pandemic season. This defense has given up just 3.2 yards per carry and 5.2 yards per throw in the first three quarters of Michigan's four wins.

Best coach

Sam Pittman has orchestrated an incredible turnaround at No. 11 Arkansas, which is 4-0 with wins against Texas and Texas A&M after winning seven games in the previous three seasons. It does get harder from here: Georgia, Ole Miss and No. 22 Auburn come next, with Alabama and LSU looming in November.

This is shaping up to be Dave Clawson's best team at No. 25 Wake Forest, which might finally give the Demon Deacons' eighth-year coach some national recognition. Also in the ACC, Boston College coach Jeff Hafley has steered the Eagles through a perfect September despite losing starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Hafley will be on the shortlist for several Power Five job openings this winter.

A few others worthy of commendation: Baylor's Dave Aranda, Michigan State's Mel Tucker, Texas-San Antonio's Jeff Traylor, Brigham Young's Kalani Sitake and yes, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.

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Best transfer

Former Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III has helped transform No. 16 Michigan State's running game into one of the best in the Big Ten and the driving force behind the Spartans' unbeaten start. Walker leads the FBS with 554 rushing yards on 7.3 yards per carry, tops among backs with at least 65 carries. Another addition of note is SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who traded in the backup role at Oklahoma for a spot in Sonny Dykes' explosive offense and leads the nation with 20 touchdowns.

Best conference

The SEC has eight teams in the Top 25, beginning with the clear-cut top two. Teams in the SEC West went 6-2 in non-conference games against the Power Five, including wins against Texas, Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina State. Once again, every other FBS conference is playing in the SEC's wake.

The only league within sight of the SEC is the Big Ten. While Ohio State's early failures on defense have been the dominant theme of the opening month, the conference has drawn hot starts from Michigan, No. 5 Iowa and No. 6 Penn State, along with surprisingly strong play from the Spartans, Maryland and Rutgers. That's been enough to offset the Buckeyes' issues and a disappointing September for Wisconsin.

Hottest seat

Texas Tech football head coach Matt Wells
Texas Tech football head coach Matt Wells

Last weekend's 70-35 loss to Texas has increased the pressure on third-year Texas Tech coach Matt Wells, who had a terrific run at Utah State before arriving in Lubbock but has failed to lift the Red Raiders out of the bottom third of the Big 12. One issue is the sense of buyer's remorse — or firer's remorse, maybe — over the decision to get rid of former coach Kliff Kingsbury, a beloved figure in program history who has since rejuvenated his reputation with the Arizona Cardinals.

In Wells' defense, he addressed complaints over a dip in production on offense by making staff changes, which has resulted in Tech leading the Big 12 and ranking fifth nationally in yards per play. Games to open October against West Virginia and TCU have the potential to decide where the Red Raiders fall in the conference standings, and in turn whether Wells will return for a fourth season in 2022.

Biggest disappointment

After losing seven games in the previous six seasons, Clemson lost twice in September and is essentially eliminated from the playoff race. (Getting there would take so much chaos that it's almost impossible to imagine.) The issues are multiple and severe, and almost entirely contained on the offensive side of the ball. The inability to succeed on first down, throw the ball downfield or locate any sort of explosiveness can be tied directly to the substandard play of the Tigers' offensive front.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football September superlatives: Kudos to Alabama, Ole Miss QB