The college football regular season just ended, but before diving into bowl season, let’s look back at a memorable season that reminded us all why we love the sport.
We saw a return to stadiums for fans across the country, and the action on the field matched the pageantry of the stands. The season featured an undefeated Group of 5 team, multiple underdog stories and a Heisman-clinching drive. And that was just in the last few weeks.
The unpredictable rivalries and eccentric traditions were back in full force, there was a run of major upsets in the first half of the season, then the College Football Playoff contenders kept us guessing who the last four teams standing would be right up to the end.
Now that we have some time to catch our breath before the games pick up again, our reporters reflect on the top 21 moments of the 2021 season.
Cincinnati makes history
When Cincinnati Bearcats fans stormed the field at Nippert Stadium after beating Houston in the AAC championship game, it became clear to me this was no ordinary field storm. This was not about one game, but about one giant glass ceiling being shattered, with the knowledge that the Bearcats would become the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. People cheered and they cried, as their euphoria engulfed everyone around them.
Cincinnati had gone undefeated the season before, but never got a chance at the playoff. UCF never got a chance in 2017 and 2018. We all just told ourselves it would never happen. So to see history made, in person, in a sea of black and red — I will never forget that moment. — Andrea Adelson
Michigan beats the Buckeyes in the snow
We could look back at Nov. 27, 2021, as the turning point for Michigan football. The program hadn’t beaten Ohio State in a decade, and had been largely noncompetitive in recent losses. But on a snowy day, before an amped-up home crowd at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines broke through. They didn’t just beat the Buckeyes, they dominated them, using a style that coach Jim Harbaugh had always espoused but which hadn’t yet come together. The Wolverines completely controlled the line of scrimmage, ran for 297 yards and six touchdowns and bullied a team they hadn’t beaten for a decade. When the game ended, Michigan fans mobbed the field, setting off a celebration that will never be forgotten in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State was by far the biggest obstacle for Harbaugh and his players. While few are expecting Michigan to completely flip the series in the coming years, the Wolverines’ victory — and subsequent Big Ten title — provides some much-needed balance in the Big Ten and the national title race. — Adam Rittenberg
For weeks, I waited for Bryce Young’s Heisman moment. Alabama‘s quarterback had the numbers to merit consideration for the award, but he hadn’t provided the kind of singular performance to define his candidacy.
Then came the Iron Bowl and a result I did not see coming as Auburn nearly derailed Young’s Heisman chances and Alabama’s shot at reaching the playoff. Backed by a raucous crowd in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers shut down the running game and blitzed Young mercilessly, sacking him seven times. It looked bleak late in the fourth quarter. Down 10-3 with 1:35 left, Alabama took over on its own 3-yard line.
Then Young went to work. He threw a 22-yard pass to John Metchie, ran for 9 yards and threw a 21-yard pass to Ja’Corey Brooks to move into Auburn territory. On fourth-and-7, Young didn’t panic and found Jahleel Billingsley for 14 yards to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Young threw a picturesque, 28-yard, back-shoulder lob to Brooks for the game-tying touchdown.
Four overtimes later, Alabama won another thrilling edition of the Iron Bowl. Young had earned his spot as the Heisman favorite with a fourth-quarter drive for the record books. — Alex Scarborough
Texas A&M kicker beats Bama; family goes wild
Did any single moment capture the emotion of what it’s like being a college kicker’s family better than when TV cameras showed Texas A&M senior Seth Small‘s loved ones anxiously watching him attempt a potential game-winning kick against No. 1 Alabama at Kyle Field on Oct. 9?
As Small lined up for a 28-yard field goal, which would give the Aggies a 41-38 upset of the Crimson Tide, his wife, Rachel, held hands with his mother, Jennie Ann Small, and her father, Michael House. Small’s twin sisters, Isabella and Emma, and his dad, Rick, were also waiting and could barely hold back their emotion. On a video that went viral, Rachel screamed, “You got it! You got it, babe!” as Jennie Ann Small closed her eyes.
— Cam Worthy (@cameron_worthy) October 11, 2021
When Small’s kick soared through the uprights and the crowd erupted, giving the Aggies their biggest win of the Jimbo Fisher era, Rachel and Jennie Ann covered their faces with their hands and cried. Rachel later leaped over the wall and ran to celebrate with Seth. That’s the essence of college football. — Mark Schlabach
I have followed McKenzie Milton’s journey since he rose to prominence as UCF‘s starting quarterback in the Knights’ magical undefeated 2017 season, to the catastrophic knee and leg injury he suffered in 2018, charting his comeback every step of the way. Despite nearly losing his leg and suffering nerve damage, Milton was determined to play again. When he decided to transfer to Florida State, he did it believing he would have a chance to start. Though he did not take the first snap in the opener against Notre Dame, his return to the field felt like a Hollywood movie.
Milton was forced into the game after starting quarterback Jordan Travis was sent to the sideline for one play, then led a 10-point comeback to send the game into overtime. Though Florida State lost, Milton completing his long road back — and the raucous cheers that followed — will go down as one of the most triumphant moments in college football history. — Adelson
The first ‘Jump Around’ of 2021
Safe to say, Wisconsin‘s season wasn’t quite as good as Badgers fans had hoped for. Wisconsin started 1-3 before rebounding, then lost at Minnesota when a win would have sent the Badgers to the Big Ten championship game. But as much as anything, this season was about the return of fans to the stands, and there was no single more joyous moment in Week 1 than when the third quarter ended at Camp Randall Stadium and the opening notes to “Jump Around” kicked in for the first time in about 21 months. “Raucous” doesn’t even begin to describe it. — Bill Connelly
Kansas walk-on beats Texas, cashes in
Videos of coaches awarding scholarships to walk-on players are some of the best highlights of every college football season. But when a walk-on becomes an unlikely hero in a game, it’s downright Oscar-worthy.
That’s exactly what happened to Kansas walk-on freshman fullback Jared Casey in the final moments of the Jayhawks’ stunning 57-56 victory in overtime at Texas on Nov. 13. Casey, from tiny Plainview, Kansas, hadn’t played an offensive snap all season, but he was forced into action on the final play because of injuries.
Casey lined up as the lone receiver on the left side of the field, went into motion and crossed the field once the ball was snapped. After quarterback Jalon Daniels was forced to scramble, Casey was somehow left alone in the end zone. Daniels found him, and Kansas ended its 56-game losing streak in Big 12 road games.
But the best part was the reaction of Casey’s parents. His mother, Karen, videotaped the final play on her cell phone from the stands. At first, they weren’t even sure it was their son who made the winning catch. Immediately after the play, Casey’s father, Jerry, said, “That was Jared! That was Jared, wasn’t it?” After realizing it was him, Jerry said, “That’s our son!”
Casey became instantly famous and earned an NIL deal with Applebee’s restaurants in Kansas and with a car dealership near his hometown. — Schlabach
Jonathan Garibay nails a game-winning 62-yard field goal
On Nov. 13, with just three seconds left in a tie game between Texas Tech and Iowa State, and the Red Raiders at the Cyclones’ 38, Texas Tech interim head coach Sonny Cumbie trusted the right leg of Jonathan Garibay more than a traditional Hail Mary pass. The redshirt junior was called on to deliver, and he booted the ball perfectly through the uprights as the clock expired. The 62-yard field goal, which was Texas Tech’s longest since 1977, was the longest kick this season in FBS, and it sent Lubbock into a field-storming frenzy.
Afterward, Garibay basked in his newfound glory. He tweeted that his DMs were open for name, image and likeness deals, and recently posted a video of himself making a 62½-yard kick in practice and a video of himself eating a chicken sandwich from Church’s as part of an NIL deal. After hitting a field goal like that, there’s also a good chance he’ll never have to buy a drink in Lubbock again. — Paolo Uggetti
Bedlam lived up to its name
The Oklahoma–Oklahoma State rivalry is affectionately referred to as “Bedlam,” but it doesn’t always live up to that fantastic moniker. Often, OU simply wins the game with minimal trouble. But with Big 12 title and CFP hopes on the line in Stillwater on Nov. 27, the Cowboys and Sooners played one of the wildest games in their history.
We saw special-teams touchdowns, special-teams disasters, huge turnovers and even huger momentum shifts, and after OU took a 33-24 lead into the fourth quarter, OSU scored twice to surge ahead, then held off a pair of late OU drives to knock the Sooners out of the Big 12 race and keep the Cowboys’ CFP hopes alive for one more week. It was everything you could want in a rivalry game. — Connelly
Washington State ends Apple Cup streak
When Washington State finished off a 40-13 win over Washington on Nov. 26 — the Cougars’ most lopsided Apple Cup victory ever — it represented more than the end of a seven-game losing streak to an archrival. Controversy had hung over the WSU program since the summer, when coach Nick Rolovich couldn’t attend Pac-12 media days because he did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Rolovich’s vaccination status remained a story all the way until Oct. 18, the deadline for state employees in Washington to get the shots, when he and four assistants were fired.
The Cougars actually had been playing well before Rolovich’s firing, and continued to make progress under interim coach Jake Dickert, pushing BYU in a close loss and thumping Arizona State and Arizona to become bowl eligible. Washington State finished with its best performance, and the night became extra special when WSU fans rushed the field at Husky Stadium. Beating a rival is great, but rushing that rival’s field — and possibly forcing Washington pay a fine from the Pac-12 — is even sweeter. As several WSU sources recently said, the field rush was not only celebratory, but a release of emotions pent up over the past five months. Dickert landed the permanent coaching job soon after, and WSU is excited to move forward after a difficult year. — Rittenberg
Lane Kiffin dodging golf balls
It’s never boring with Lane Kiffin, and we all probably should have known that when he returned to Knoxville for the first time as a head coach that all hell would break loose. His Ole Miss Rebels outlasted Tennessee 31-26 on Oct. 16 in a game that was halted for 20 minutes when fans began peppering the field with water bottles, vape pipes, all sorts of debris — and, yes — even a golf ball that grazed Kiffin.
It was an ugly scene, as upset fans (a loud and drunken minority) were showing their displeasure with a controversial fourth-down spot that went against Tennessee. Still, Kiffin found a way to make light of it all. He retrieved the scuffed-up yellow golf ball, put it in his pocket and still has it. “At least whoever threw it was smart enough to throw a dirty range ball,” joked Kiffin, who was Tennessee’s head coach in 2009 before bolting for the USC head-coaching job.
As wild as that October night was in Neyland Stadium, the most enduring image was of exhausted Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral limping to the chair in front of his locker afterward, sitting down and exhaling slowly as the mix of eye black and sweat rolled down his face. Corral carried the ball 30 times for 195 bruising yards and took a beating. He kept getting back up in what was a microcosm of his season, a season that saw him become the only FBS player with more than 3,000 passing yards and more than 500 rushing yards and establish himself as one of the most indispensable players in college football. — Chris Low
Folks makes the most of his eighth season
We’ve heard of fifth-year seniors, even sixth-year seniors. But East Tennessee State linebacker Jared Folks became the first student-athlete in NCAA history to have an eighth year of eligibility after transferring from Temple, fighting through painful injuries, getting two degrees and becoming a fixture on defense for the Bucs. It was all worth it, as ETSU had a historic season and made it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals before losing to powerhouse North Dakota State.
The 26-year-old Folks thought he was done with football and was working back home in Pennsylvania at a credit union in February 2020. But taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19 season in 2020 and waivers he received from the NCAA based on two seasons he missed because of injuries, Folks decided he couldn’t stay away and returned for one final season at ETSU, a memorable season that saw the Bucs win a school-record 11 games and a season that epitomized what college sports are supposed to be about. “I always wanted to go out on my terms,” said Folks, who plans to get into coaching. — Low
Billy Napier’s final moments as Louisiana head coach
The crowd picked Napier up 😂 Cajun Nation is so going to miss him pic.twitter.com/k6sJWU61Ts
— Meagan Glover (@MeaganGTV) December 5, 2021
The coaching carousel means a lot of different things to a lot of different fan bases. While a school like Oklahoma might not be particularly accustomed to losing its head coach to another school (it hadn’t happened to the Sooners since the mid-1940s), it’s almost a sign of success for a school like Louisiana. Billy Napier left Lafayette to take the Florida job this December, but before he walked out the door, he stuck around long enough to help the Ragin’ Cajuns win their first outright conference title since 1970, when they were in the Gulf States Conference. They had fallen just short against Appalachian State in both 2018 and 2019, and the 2020 Sun Belt championship game was canceled. But this time around, UL beat App State 24-16, and fans carried Napier around on their shoulders. You couldn’t ask for a more positive departure. — Connelly
Corny dogs, the midway …
In 2020, Texas and Oklahoma tried to maintain a sense of tradition, returning to the Cotton Bowl to play their annual rivalry game despite the State Fair of Texas being canceled and a limit of 25% capacity at the game. It was at once comforting in the familiar surroundings and eerie with a silent midway outside, and at one point, I was the only person on the giant Texas Star Ferris wheel, which was allowed to operate.
This year, the fair was back, it was packed, and the incredibly long lines at Fletcher’s Corny Dogs showed how much fans missed it. The fact that we got perhaps the greatest game in the history of the rivalry was the icing on the cake. — Wilson
… and a fox at Red River
No. 6 Oklahoma put together a furious comeback to beat No. 21 Texas 55-48 in the Red River Rivalry. And yes, the only way to describe the comeback is furious, because of the dominating way Texas got its 28-7 lead to start the game.
In the middle of the madness, however, a fox ran onto the field and interrupted the game:
FOX ON THE FIELD pic.twitter.com/1euAPrUqhw
— Harry Lyles Jr. (@harrylylesjr) October 9, 2021
The fireworks on the field were more than enough to make this the best game in the 117 matchups between the teams. But a fox running on the field? That’s the extra sprinkle of madness we all appreciate with our college football when we can get it. — Harry Lyles Jr.
The Iron Skillet got hot
As far as old Southwest Conference rivalries go, there isn’t much national fallout from the results of the SMU–TCU game since they’re two private schools 40 miles apart in different conferences. But there’s a lot of history — this year’s edition was the 100th time they’ve played — and pride on the line, especially after 2020’s game was scrapped because of COVID.
This year, we had pregame regional smack (“No one comes to Texas for Fort Worth. They come for Dallas,” SMU receiver Rashee Rice said) and a postgame dustup after Rice tried to plant the Mustangs flag on the field after SMU beat the Horned Frogs. TCU coach Gary Patterson was up in arms about it, and took some shots at the Ponies. Then, in a historic twist, Patterson left TCU, ending his 21-year run with the program he rebuilt, and was replaced by … SMU coach Sonny Dykes. This one will stay warm for a while. — Dave Wilson
Four schools and four 10-win seasons for Dave Clawson
Wake Forest‘s 41-10 victory over Boston College on Nov. 27 didn’t exactly send ripples across the college football landscape. Sure, it clinched a spot in the ACC championship game for the Demon Deacons, their first appearance in the title game since 2006. They came up short a week later in the title game, a 45-21 setback to Pittsburgh. But when you dive a little deeper into this season and that win over BC — and the job Dave Clawson has done at Wake Forest — you gain a better appreciation for a coaching career that has been wildly underrated.
That win over BC was Wake Forest’s 10th of the season, making Clawson the only coach in NCAA history to win 10 games in a single season at four Division I institutions (FBS and FCS). He also won 10 games at Bowling Green in 2013, 11 at Richmond in 2007 and 10 at Fordham in 2002. The Deacons are making their sixth straight trip to a bowl game. Clawson has a new contract after being wooed by Virginia Tech for its head-coaching job, and the Deacons have one of the best coaches/people in the sport.
It’s also a reminder that one season never defines a coach, good or bad. Clawson was the offensive coordinator on the 2008 Tennessee team, which finished 5-7 and led to the firing of Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer. Clawson, in his first and only season at Tennessee, was a convenient scapegoat, as the Vols finished 110th nationally in scoring offense. But it’s always the body of work that matters, and Clawson recovered from that one blip on his coaching résumé to make coaching history this season. — Low
Shepherd’s dual Hail Marys
The small-school playoffs are constant sources of glorious wackiness. This year’s main progenitor of chaos: the Shepherd Rams. They reached the Division II semifinals by winning not one, but two games via last-second touchdown passes. First, Tyson Bagent found Josh Gontarek for a 23-yard touchdown to beat Notre Dame (Ohio) with one second left. Then, Shepherd beat Kutztown with a more genuine Hail Mary, a 42-yard pass from Bagent to Alex Wetzel.
If there was any doubt before the playoffs, the last 7 days has erased all doubt. 2 game winners. Tyson Bagent should be your unanimous Harlon Hill Award winner. @SURamsFootball pic.twitter.com/LXTzBVPEEU
— Highly Disputed (@DisputedHighly) December 5, 2021
Dogpiles, wild celebrations, shaky camerawork … what more could you want from college football? — Connelly
We’re storming the field!
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve seen there were a record number of field stormings this season (at least in our estimation because there’s not an official record of this sort of thing). But we attempted to document the phenomenon last month, and shortly thereafter, there were several more stormings on rivalry weekend, even by road fans. And even at Harvard-Yale. Personally, I covered five games this season where it happened and was on the field for two of them, including having an offensive lineman’s giant hand in the middle of my back steering me through the masses in Stillwater, Oklahoma, after an OSU Bedlam win. In a year when we were all wanting a return to certain experiences, that was definitely one. — Wilson
Brian Kelly, y’all
New LSU head coach Brian Kelly talks to the crowd during halftime of their men’s basketball game against Ohio on Wednesday.
Brian Kelly leaving Notre Dame — while the Fighting Irish still had a very real shot at the College Football Playoff — was shocking. The head coach of one of the most prestigious brands in the sport leaving for another college football power isn’t something we often see. And yet, this was the second most shocking thing Kelly did. Because once he showed up in Baton Rouge at an LSU basketball game, he developed some semblance of a Southern accent. And I say “some semblance” because his rendition isn’t how people from that part of the South talk, and he also wasn’t able to maintain the accent that he chose for long. — Lyles Jr.
Fans a welcome sight
Out on the West Coast, the 2020 season didn’t really count. Between the late start, the minimal number of games and the empty stadiums, football games never really felt like the distraction from real life that usually comes with sports. They were just another reminder of how bad everything was. Having fans back in our stadiums in this part of the country went a long way toward restoring a sense of normalcy. It was refreshing. Even when the football was bad or the officiating subpar, those problems are so much better to have, and keeping that perspective throughout the year made the experience really enjoyable. — Kyle Bonagura