College football’s new era of unpredictability

When Will Levis decided to transfer from Penn State to Kentucky last offseason, no one could have imagined it would have any impact on the 2021 national championship chase.

Levis was mostly a backup quarterback for the Nittany Lions with just three touchdown passes in two seasons. Sean Clifford had established himself as Penn State’s clear starter, despite up-and-down performances. Only diehard fans of either program likely noticed the transaction.

Yet there was Levis on Saturday, throwing three touchdowns to lead Kentucky’s 42-21 blowout of LSU. It extended a magical 6-0 start to the season for the 11th-ranked Wildcats heading into a mega matchup with No. 1 Georgia this week. His solid, if occasionally spectacular, play has been key to the upstart program.

Meanwhile, then-No. 4 Penn State lost to No. 3 Iowa, 23-20, on Saturday after Clifford was knocked out of the game. He was replaced by backup Ta’Quan Roberson who was not ready for the vaunted Hawkeyes defense and went 7 for 21 for just 34 yards with two interceptions. The loss dumped the Nittany Lions from the unbeaten ranks and hurt their playoff chances.

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis warms up during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Does Penn State win if Levis had stuck around and been that capable backup when Clifford got hurt? Is Kentucky unbeaten if he hadn’t come to Lexington?

There is no way of knowing, of course.

However, the situation is an example of a new era of college football, where an open transfer portal (no more sitting out a season) and the opportunity for money earned from name, image and likeness opportunities (where being a starter is critical) makes player movement and roster management critical to building a contender.

It’s a topic that was discussed on this edition of the “College Football Enquirer.”

Subscribe to The College Football Enquirer
Apple PodcastsStitcherGoogle PodcastsSpotify

The days may be over of powerhouse programs stockpiling so much talent that they can brush off critical injuries. Some will weather it better than others, but the ability and obvious benefits of finding new teams on the fly should do what happened on Saturday … spread out the talent and flatten the competition. It’s an exciting development to a sport that has been too top-heavy for too long.

Successful teams need depth, especially at quarterback. Texas A&M defeated Alabama with backup Zach Calzada. Oklahoma beat Texas with backup Caleb Williams. Georgia used backup Stetson Bennett in a victory over Auburn. Notre Dame needed backup Tyler Buchner for a spell in a victory over Virginia Tech — and third-stringer Drew Pyne helped the Irish beat Wisconsin earlier this season.

The struggle is first getting multiple good quarterbacks and then keeping them content. The coaches who can keep talented – or at least capable – backups when instant opportunities elsewhere are available will be successful going forward.

It won’t be easy. Levis went from frustrated second-stringer in State College to viral star in Lexington – part of that is Kentucky’s record, part of that is his social-media videos of eating a banana, peel and all, and drinking coffee with mayonnaise (hey, it’s 2021).

It’s hard to argue Levis didn’t make the proper choice. He certainly looks happy, a smiling face on why transfers are changing everything. Levis’ top receiver at Kentucky, Wan’Dale Robinson transferred in as well, from Nebraska, which might have upset unbeaten Michigan Saturday (and impacted the Wolverine’s playoff hopes) if the Cornhuskers still had such a game-breaking talent. That’s how it spins.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 30, Michigan will face another surprise team, 10th-ranked Michigan State. The Spartans are powered by Heisman-contending running back Kenneth Walker III, who arrived from Wake Forest, as one of 20 transfer portal alums that turned coach Mel Tucker’s program around overnight — way faster than traditional high school-based recruiting classes.

This is a new era in the sport, not an established trend. Yet here in a season which has already produced a number of upsets — 10 teams ranked in the top 15 lost in the past two weeks — it speaks to some much-needed chaos and unpredictability.

And perhaps some playoff contenders in places where they didn’t traditionally exist.

Check out the full conversation, plus the “Monday Overreactions” to an epic slate of games on Saturday: Alabama-Texas A&M; Oklahoma-Texas; Penn State-Iowa; Michigan-Nebraska; Michigan State-Rutgers; Arkansas-Ole Miss; Georgia Auburn; West Virginia-Baylor; UConn-UMass; and a host of others. Plus the guys hand out their Small Sample Heismans and try to say something nice about something or someone.