Don’t Mess With the Mountain West

The 2021 college football season is off to a somewhat chaotic start. There’s only one team that seems really great, and even that team, Alabama, came pretty close to losing this week. After that, the national landscape looks more wide open than it has in years. Week 3 brought the season’s fluidity into focus, as six top-25 teams lost (albeit three of them to other ranked teams) and a couple Group of 5 conferences scored huge wins against the Power 5.



Here are four winners and four losers from a busy weekend of college football.

Winner: Penn State

The Nittany Lions had a weird 2020 season. They started 0–5 but recovered to win their last four games after everyone stopped paying attention to them. Entering the year, the big question around PSU was whether their woes last year could be chalked up to the weirdness of playing during the pandemic or if they were indicative of bigger problems.

After a primetime win over Auburn at Beaver Stadium moved James Franklin’s team to 3–0, it seems clear that 2020 was a blip and not a sign of long-term decline. PSU’s 28–20 win marked one of QB Sean Clifford’s best performances in three years as the starter. He threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns, and his lone interception was a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.

Loser: Pitt

PSU’s in-state rival didn’t have such a good weekend. The Panthers lost to the MAC’s Western Michigan, 44–41, and that brought the excitement of their 2–0 start to a grinding halt. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is in his seventh year, and he has a fifth-year quarterback in Kenny Pickett. 2021 is supposed to be a year of progress at Pitt, but it now looks like the Panthers aren’t materially better than they’ve been across the rest of Narduzzi’s tenure. It doesn’t help that Pitt’s main recruiting adversary for local talent, Penn State, seems to be on the rise again. Athletic director Heather Lyke should be seriously considering Narduzzi’s future with the school.

Winner: The Mountain West

This league had two pretty big wins on Saturday. First, San Diego beat Utah in three overtimes, moving to 3–0 and notching a second victory in three games this year against the Pac-12. (The Aztecs also beat Arizona, which has its own problems. More on the Wildcats later.)

Later, Fresno State mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to beat No. 13 UCLA at the Rose Bowl, 40–37. Quarterback Jake Haener, fighting through what appeared to be a significant injury to his midsection, threw for 455 yards and launched the game-winning touchdown pass to Jalen Cropper in the last minute.

And as a bonus, Wyoming moved to 3–0 by destroying Ball State and also scoring 40-plus points for the second week in a row. The Cowboys play a lackluster UConn next, so they should be 4–0 coming out of their bye week after that. Bottom line: The MWC has a handful of fun, ascendant programs this year.

Loser: SEC officiating crews

In a typical non-conference game, an officiating crew representing the visiting team’s conference oversees the game. That was the case in both the Auburn-Penn State and Mississippi State-Memphis games, which meant that SEC crews were in charge of the action. Late in the game in Memphis, MSU’s punt coverage team appeared to down a punt inside Memphis’ 10-yard line. The official in the area didn’t blow the play dead, and Memphis picked it up and ran it back for a touchdown that turned out to be the difference in the game. The SEC had to admit an error after the game—not just that the play should’ve been whistled, but that Memphis should’ve been penalized for having two players wearing the No. 4 jersey on the field at the same time.

The Auburn-Penn State game also became an officiating calamity. At one point the zebras took a down away from Penn State, then denied PSU what seemed like a clear first down, and then later failed to call a costly intentional grounding on Auburn QB Bo Nix. That prompted yet another admission of error from the SEC office. Officiating is hard, but two such press releases in one day are never a good sign.

Winner: BYU

Heading into the year, it seemed like BYU was due for one of the steepest declines of any team in college football. The Cougars finished 11th in the AP Top 25 last year, but they lost QB Zach Wilson and many of the experienced players on their roster: BYU ranked dead last in the nation in returning production, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. And yet the Cougars are sitting at 3–0 after beating No. 19 Arizona State on Saturday. QB Jaren Hall seems to know what he’s doing, and Kalani Sitake’s defense has been nothing but solid.

Loser: Arizona

After rival ASU routed the Wildcats in last year’s Territorial Cup game, 70–7, UA fired head coach Kevin Sumlin. That made sense. It made less sense to replace him with Jedd Fisch, a longtime college and NFL assistant whose most recent collegiate experience had been an extremely unimpressive year as UCLA’s offensive coordinator in 2017. The Fisch hire looked like a bad idea at the time, and it looks worse now that the team has started the year 0–3.

Saturday’s 21–19 loss to FCS team Northern Arizona was the worst yet. As a general rule, if your school’s name is the name of your state, you do not want to lose to a directional school in your own state. For instance: Arizona should not lose to Northern Arizona.

Winner: Arkansas

The Razorbacks were the worst team in the SEC in 2018 and 2019. They made progress in 2020, but much like Penn State’s struggles last season, it wasn’t clear to what extent Arkansas’ progress should be chalked up to a weird year. Three games into 2021, and it’s clear the progress was real. Arkansas clobbered Georgia Southern this week, 45–10, and avoided the kind of stumble that would’ve deflated fans’ hopes. The Hogs are now 3–0 heading into an enticing game against Texas A&M at North Texas’ AT&T Stadium next week.

Loser: Virginia Tech

Hokies coach Justin Fuente sits on one of the hotter seats in college football after several mediocre seasons and a flirtation with the Baylor job after the 2019 season, which didn’t go over well in Blacksburg. Fuente started the year with a nice win over what was then a No. 10-ranked North Carolina, and the Hokies even climbed into the top 25 themselves. They were ranked 15th this week when they visited West Virginia.

After falling behind by a wide margin, they fought back and set themselves up inside WVU’s five-yard line with a chance to win in the last minute (after WVU had gifted Tech an interception to provide the late opportunity). But Fuente couldn’t draw up a play to get the Hokies into the end zone, and the day ended in a crushing loss.

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