Why should basketball get to have all the fun in March?
Better yet, why limit college football to a four-team playoff? 64 teams make it a lot more fun — and a lot more representative.
Here’s the format for ESPN’s fictional 2021 NCAA football tournament: We’ve seeded the teams 1 through 64, and the seeds are based to a large degree on ESPN’s latest SP+ projections entering the 2021 season. The top four teams are Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma (yes, the usual suspects). With the Sooners being the fourth No. 1 seed, that means they will travel to the West Region.
The seeds are just seeds. So, yes, there will be upsets. There always are, especially in the early rounds. We’ll keep things interesting, create some compelling storylines and potentially cause a little angst among certain fan bases.
And before anybody even thinks about screaming it, we are well aware that “ain’t nobody played anybody” coming into the tournament.
Today, we’ll examine the field and work our way through the first two rounds of the tournament, narrowing the pool from 64 to 16. We’ll then play the rest of the games and crown a champion with the late Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment” humming in the background.
1-seeds: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma
2-seeds: Georgia, Iowa State, Miami, Oregon
3-seeds: Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, Texas A&M
4-seeds: North Carolina, Cincinnati, Penn State, Iowa
5-seeds: USC, Louisiana, Utah, Arizona State
6-seeds: Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Texas, Michigan
7-seeds: LSU, Indiana, Auburn, UCLA
8-seeds: Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, TCU
9-seeds: West Virginia, Maryland, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State
10-seeds: Virginia Tech, UCF, Boise State, Liberty
11-seeds: Purdue, Pittsburgh, Arkansas, Mississippi State
12-seeds: North Carolina State, Washington State, Louisville, Army
13-seeds: Colorado, Northwestern, Baylor, BYU
14-seeds: SMU, Kentucky, Tulsa, Georgia Tech
15-seeds: Tennessee, Memphis, Missouri, Oregon State
16-seeds: Virginia, Kansas State, Florida State, Michigan State
First four out: Wake Forest, Cal, Boston College, Stanford
(1) Alabama 45, (16) Michigan State 7: Much like the last time these two teams met in the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal in Arlington, Texas, this one isn’t much of a game. The Spartans do manage to score this time, but it’s a late touchdown.
(2) Oregon 31, (15) Oregon State 13: The nickname has been dropped for this longstanding rivalry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Oregon’s dominance. The Ducks win for the 13th time in their last 15 meetings, counting a win in the regular season, which eases the sting of the Beavers upsetting the Ducks in 2020.
(3) Texas A&M 31, (14) Georgia Tech 3: The Aggies welcomed back 20 of 22 players from their defensive depth chart in 2020, and it’s a defense that flexes its muscle in the tournament opener. The Yellow Jackets manage a first-quarter field goal and are shut out the rest of the way.
(4) Iowa 28, (13) BYU 21: BYU didn’t just lose star quarterback Zach Wilson from last season’s 11-1 team. The Cougars lost most of their key performers on both sides of the ball. They fight hard, as do all of Kalani Sitake’s teams, but the Hawkeyes get two clutch fourth-quarter stops on defense to survive.
(12) Army 27, (5) Arizona State 24: Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils can’t avoid the dreaded 5 vs. 12 curse. But in reality, it’s Army’s always potent running game that’s the difference, as the Black Knights churn out more than 300 yards on the ground to pull off the first-round upset.
(6) Michigan 34, (11) Mississippi State 30: Jim Harbaugh shook up his coaching staff in the offseason and brought in six new assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Mike Leach’s Mississippi State offense rolls up 350 passing yards, but Daxton Hill‘s interception seals it for the Wolverines.
(10) Liberty 35, (7) UCLA 28: After leading Liberty to a program-tying 10 wins in 2020 in his second season as coach, Hugh Freeze steers the Flames to their second straight season of 10 or more wins thanks to a first-round upset of the Bruins. UCLA has its chances, but turns it over three times in the second half.
(8) TCU 27, (9) Appalachian State 20: It’s always a challenge against a Gary Patterson defense, and even though the Horned Frogs lost some elite talent from their 2020 unit, the likes of Khari Coleman, Dee Winters and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson are too much for the Mountaineers to handle in this first-round match up.
(1) Alabama 38, (8) TCU 14: TCU gets on the board early on the strength of Hodges-Tomlinson’s interception return for a touchdown. But Alabama reels off 31 unanswered points — capped by Brian Robinson Jr.’s 68-yard catch and run for a touchdown — to cruise into the Sweet 16.
(10) Liberty 34, (2) Oregon 28: If the college football world didn’t already know Malik Willis‘ name, they do now. Liberty’s do-it-all quarterback dazzles with 280 passing yards, 120 rushing yards and accounts for four touchdowns to lead the Flames to their second straight upset win.
(3) Texas A&M 33, (6) Michigan 17: For the second straight game in the tournament, Texas A&M’s defense holds an opponent under 20 points. Michigan can’t get anything going in the running game and finds itself in third-and-long repeatedly, leaving Harbaugh to answer another dose of tough offseason questions.
(4) Iowa 23, (12) Army 21: Jeff Monken’s Black Knights can’t pull off a second straight upset, although the game goes down to the final minutes. Iowa running back Tyler Goodson, known for his speed and shiftiness, proves that he can also earn the tough yards with a pair of third-down conversions in the fourth quarter to ice the game for the Hawkeyes.
(1) Alabama vs. (4) Iowa
(3) Texas A&M vs. (10) Liberty
(1) Clemson 42, (16) Florida State 14: Clearly, Dabo Swinney is still not thrilled about getting all the way to Tallahassee a year ago and finding out hours before the game that the matchup with Florida State wasn’t going to be played. The Tigers put the second of two beatings on the Seminoles in 2021, extending Clemson’s winning streak in the series to seven straight games.
(2) Miami 35, (15) Missouri 16: Manny Diaz, in his third season as Miami’s coach, has a team that’s both talented and experienced, and the Hurricanes waste no time in putting away the Tigers early in a lopsided first-round matchup.
(3) Washington 34, (14) Tulsa 10: After compiling the best winning percentage in the Pac-12 North a year ago but not being able to play in the Pac-12 championship game because of COVID-19 protocols, the Huskies have something to prove in 2021. They’re mighty impressive in their tourney opener.
(13) Baylor 24, (4) Penn State 20: Dave Aranda’s defensive wizardry is on full display in the Bears’ first-round upset of the Nittany Lions, who were held to just two touchdowns. There were some concerns hovering around the Baylor program after just two wins a year ago, but early-round upsets always have a way of changing the narrative.
(5) Utah 27, (12) Louisville 20: Charlie Brewer, a grad transfer quarterback from Baylor, leads Utah to its third divisional crown in the last four seasons in the Pac-12 and then leads the Utes down the field for a game-clinching touchdown in the final minutes in a first-round thriller.
(6) Texas 34, (11) Arkansas 21: In a matchup of old Southwest Conference rivals — and 52 years after their “Game of the Century” — the Longhorns give first-year coach Steve Sarkisian his first NCAA tournament victory in a game that’s never really in doubt after halftime.
(10) Boise State 35, (7) Auburn 31: You just knew the selection committee was going to find a way to match up these two teams in the first round after Bryan Harsin left Boise State for Auburn in the offseason. The game doesn’t disappoint, either, as Boise State linebacker Riley Whimpey comes up with a key sack late to thwart an Auburn drive.
(9) Coastal Carolina 31, (8) Minnesota 27: The Chanticleers have one of the best mascots in all of college football, one of the brightest young coaches in Jamey Chadwell and perhaps the most underrated quarterback in Grayson McCall, and McCall has a huge day with three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown to send the Chants into the second round.
(1) Clemson 34, (9) Coastal Carolina 31: Obviously, Coastal Carolina would love a regular-season shot at in-state behemoth Clemson, but even better is an NCAA tournament showdown. The Chants go toe-to-toe with the more talented Tigers, but Clemson wins it in overtime on B.T. Potter‘s 51-yard field goal.
(2) Miami 30, (10) Boise State 21: Miami quarterback D’Eriq King rehabilitated like a champ in the offseason after tearing his ACL a year ago in the bowl game. He plays like a champ against Boise State and completes passes to seven different players in leading the Canes into the Sweet 16.
(6) Texas 28, (3) Washington 23: Texas paid Sarkisian some serious cash ($34.2 million) to bring him from Alabama to the Forty Acres, and that investment is paying off for the Longhorns in his first season. And this time, it’s the Texas defense that clamps down when it needs to in the fourth quarter.
(5) Utah 24, (13) Baylor 10: Sometimes those first-round upsets zap a team of its energy in the second round, and that’s what happens to Baylor after shocking Penn State to open the tournament. The Bears can’t get anything going on offense, and Utah plays keep-away in the second half.
(1) Clemson vs. (5) Utah
(2) Miami vs. (6) Texas
(1) Ohio State 42, (16) Kansas State 14: No problem for the Buckeyes in the first round, as they get a chance to rest most of their starters in the fourth quarter after jumping out to a 28-0 halftime lead on the strength of three Master Teague touchdown runs.
(2) Iowa State 37, (15) Memphis 13: Talk about lofty expectations. Good luck in finding the last time this much was expected from an Iowa State football team, but the Cyclones don’t flinch in their tournament opener and win easily behind a stifling defense.
(3) Wisconsin 31, (14) Kentucky 17: Even though the Badgers lost a couple of key players in their offensive line, when are they not able to reload up front? Their running game, with Jalen Berger bursting though big holes, is too much for the Wildcats, who aren’t able to generate much of a running game.
(4) Cincinnati 41, (13) Northwestern 16: Still miffed about being left out of the College Football Playoff a year ago, Cincinnati gets its chance to say “I told you so” in a 64-team tournament field. The Bearcats are dominant from the opening possession and send the Wildcats packing.
(5) Louisiana 38, (12) Washington State 21: All Billy Napier has done at Louisiana is win. That and turn down coaching opportunities at Power 5 schools. Napier knew he had a really good team coming back in 2021, and the Ragin’ Cajuns sprint into the second round.
(6) Ole Miss 42, (11) Pittsburgh 34: It’s Lane Kiffin’s offense versus Pat Narduzzi’s defense, a pair of head coaches who know what they’re doing on their respective sides of the ball. In the end, the Panthers simply can’t keep up with the Rebels’ warp-speed offense, and the Lane Train rolls on.
(10) UCF 28, (7) Indiana 24: It’s hard not to like what UCF did in the offseason. The Knights got a veteran coach in Gus Malzahn who has won championships, and they got him at a bargain price. Malzahn is plenty motivated, too, after being fired at Auburn and steers UCF to a first-round upset of Indiana.
(8) Oklahoma State 31, (9) Maryland 28: Inconsistency plagued Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders for much of the 2020 season, but his best performance came in the bowl game. He’s only grown from there and breaks the Terps’ hearts with a game-winning, 35-yard touchdown pass in the final minutes.
(1) Ohio State 38, (8) Oklahoma State 20: Ohio State has talented skill players all over the field. Then again, when hasn’t that been the case with the Buckeyes? But the difference in this game is Haskell Garrett and that loaded Ohio State defensive line. The Buckeyes sack Sanders six times and keep him on the run all game.
(2) Iowa State 28, (10) UCF 27: Just about every team that makes a deep run in the tournament has to find a way to grind out a game in which it doesn’t play its best ball. Dillon Gabriel gives UCF the fourth-quarter lead with his third touchdown pass, but the Cyclones turn a fumble later in the quarter into the winning touchdown.
(6) Ole Miss 45, (3) Wisconsin 38: For the second straight game, the Rebels top the 40-point mark with Matt Corral passing for 400 yards and four touchdowns, including a fourth-down throw on the run that has Kiffin raising his hands for his trademark touchdown signal while the ball is still in the air.
(5) Louisiana 27, (4) Cincinnati 26: Too bad these two groups of 5 heavyweights have to meet in the second round. Both are good enough to make deep runs. But in the game of the tournament so far, quarterback Levi Lewis recovers from a third-quarter interception to throw the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.
(1) Ohio State vs. (5) Louisiana
(2) Iowa State vs. (6) Ole Miss
(1) Oklahoma 47, (16) Virginia 27: This game is a lot closer than anyone would have predicted in the first half, but the Sooners score on their first three possessions to start the second half and advance to the second round despite giving up nearly 400 yards of total offense.
(2) Georgia 41, (15) Tennessee 24: Not since the Hail Mary touchdown pass (Dobbs Nail Boot) to end the 2016 game has Tennessee beaten Georgia, which sweeps both games from the Vols and has now won 11 of the last 13 games in the series.
(3) Florida 35, (14) SMU 21: There were some rumblings in the offseason about Dan Mullen possibly moving to the NFL. But in his fourth season in Gainesville, Mullen puts yet another potent offense on the field, and the Gators ride a balanced attack to oust Sonny Dykes’ Mustangs in the first round.
(4) North Carolina 31, (13) Colorado 17: It didn’t take Mack Brown long to make UNC nationally relevant again in his second stint in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels win 10 games in his third season and are one of the more improved defenses in college football, which Colorado finds out the hard way.
(5) USC 34, (12) North Carolina State 14: The Trojans feast on a favorable conference schedule and then feast on the Wolfpack in the first round of the tournament. Not that Clay Helton will ever completely get off the proverbial hot seat at USC, but he is for now.
(6) Notre Dame 28, (11) Purdue 24: This all-Indiana first-round matchup comes down to the final play. With Purdue driving inside the Notre Dame 5-yard line, Kyle Hamilton cements his status as the best safety in college football with a one-handed interception in the end zone.
(7) LSU 23, (10) Virginia Tech 20: Neither offense lights it up in this game, but LSU has the ultimate weapon on special teams. Cade York kicks three field goals, two of those from 50 yards plus, and the Tigers move on despite not being able to finish off drives with touchdowns.
(8) Nebraska 35, (9) West Virginia 21: Now in his fourth season at his alma mater, Scott Frost needs to show some real progress. It’s been a struggle to this point, but the Huskers play their most complete game of the season to advance to the second round.
(1) Oklahoma 42, (8) Nebraska 31: Remember when this game used to be a staple on Thanksgiving weekend during the old Big Eight Conference days? The Huskers hang around for much of the game, but don’t have any answers for Spencer Rattler and a Sooners’ passing attack that is unstoppable in the second half.
(2) Georgia 28, (7) LSU 17: Georgia has its own problems with some early turnovers that snuff out scoring opportunities, but LSU has an even bigger problem, as in 6-6, 330-pound Jordan Davis. The Dawgs’ mammoth defensive tackle wrecks everything the Tigers try to do offensively.
(3) Florida 30, (6) Notre Dame 28: Two of the best brands in college football go at it in a game that gets testy at times. The teams have to be separated right before the end of the first half, and after a seesaw second half, Emory Jones scores the game-winner for the Gators on a quarterback keeper.
(4) North Carolina 37, (5) USC 24: A lot of people predicted before the season that Sam Howell would emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and the UNC junior lives up to that billing. He throws his 40th touchdown pass in the second quarter, the first of four scoring tosses, and the Tar Heels advance to the Sweet 16 … in football.
(1) Oklahoma vs. (4) North Carolina
(2) Georgia vs. (3) Florida