Looking back, these were the 10 most baffling SEC games of 2021
Perspective is everything. In life, in football, perspective is always needed.
Some might look at Kentucky and wonder why Mark Stoops gets so much praise even though he entered the year with only 1 ranked finish in his first 8 seasons. That take, of course, would lack perspective. We know that he took over a historical bottom feeder, and now, the Cats have a 5-year stretch with a much higher floor than any other time in the 21st century.
Perspective is important within a season, too. For example, nobody would’ve predicted before the year that Kentucky would beat Florida and LSU. But now, with an entire season’s worth of data, we saw that Kentucky was better than both of those teams, so it’s not baffling that the Cats took down both preseason contenders.
Some games, however, are more baffling because of perspective. Even with an entire season’s worth of data, some games are ultimately just head-scratchers. They feel random. They feel like games that didn’t really reflect how a team’s season played out. And for what it’s worth, how a team won can be surprising, too. Alabama only beating Florida by 2? Stunning then and now.
I’d argue that South Carolina beating Florida and Auburn were stunning at the time. Looking back, though, they all ended up being 6-win teams. The Gators and Tigers were both in free-fall mode, so that game wasn’t necessarily a 1-off.
At the time, I thought Mississippi State beating Texas A&M in College Station was the most baffling result of the SEC season. Looking back, though, MSU figured things out offensively in the latter half of 2021 and A&M ended up finishing with the same exact conference record (4-4). Hence, why it’s not on this list.
Making sense? Hopefully.
We’ll exclude the SEC Championship and limit it to the regular season. These were my 10 most baffling SEC results of 2021:
10. Kentucky survives FCS Chattanooga
It was baffling then and it’s baffling now. Watching the Cats struggle to hold onto the ball against an FCS team was head-scratching. The turnover issues that surfaced — the Cats had 3 of them that day — were a sign of things to come. Still, Kentucky needed defensive stops late to close out an FCS team that ultimately won 6 games.
Meanwhile, Kentucky went on to match its best regular season since the Jimmy Carter administration. First-year offensive coordinator Liam Coen spoke candidly about his lack of scheming in the run game that day, but ultimately, the offense moved past that strange performance by winning 3 straight to clinch the first 6-0 start since the Bear Bryant era.
9. LSU beats Mississippi State in Starkville
Mississippi State was coming off the Memphis loss (more on that in a bit), which is the only reason this result wasn’t higher. Still, though. LSU was lackluster at best to start the season, and really, this ended up being the most impressive win of the year for the Tigers. Having a healthy Kayshon Boutte helped.
Max Johnson 🚀🚀 Kayshon Boutte
The recipe for success 🔥
— 247Sports (@247Sports) September 25, 2021
But the LSU offense ended up being an inconsistent mess all year. If this game were being played tomorrow, the idea of Max Johnson going on the road and throwing 4 touchdown passes against one of the league’s better defenses seems far-fetched (that’s more of a Jake Peetz thing).
Well, it’s also far-fetched because Johnson hit the transfer portal. Consider that all the more reason this game made the cut.
8. Auburn beats Ole Miss by double digits
I know, I know. Matt Corral wasn’t healthy. That’s worth remembering. If he was healthy, this game would’ve made the top 4. Still, this was really the apex of Auburn’s season. Auburn got off to that blistering start and then couldn’t do much offensively in the second half. Like, it couldn’t do much in the second half for the rest of the season. Including that day, Auburn now has 5 consecutive games in which it was held out of the end zone in the 3rd or 4th quarter (the Tigers scored 2 touchdowns in overtime against Alabama).
But looking back, yeah, it’s stunning that a banged-up Ole Miss team had its worst offensive day against an Auburn defense that blew 3 double-digit leads in the month of November alone. That game moved Auburn into the top 15 and it essentially ended Ole Miss’ Playoff hopes. Now, Ole Miss is heading to the Sugar Bowl as a top-10 team and Auburn is 6-6 on its way to Birmingham.
To quote Michael Scott, “how the turntables …”
7. Alabama only beats LSU by 6
We expected a bloodbath. We instead got a throwback Alabama-LSU game. Honestly, that’s why this isn’t in the top 3. Historical perspective suggests these teams play in low-scoring games that come down to LSU’s offense coming up short late. I’d argue 2021 perspective suggests that the Tide team we saw dominate Georgia in Atlanta and the team that couldn’t muster late scoring drives against LSU were vastly different.
I mean, how did LSU hold Alabama to 6 rushing yards? Ed Orgeron was already fired, and the Tigers were reeling. That game was the beginning of their late-season defensive turnaround because hey, that’s what happens when you listen to Lane Kiffin’s suggestion to change the defense. Perhaps that had as big a part as any in Alabama needing to survive an LSU Hail Mary to keep its Playoff hopes alive. Whatever the case, a 6-6 team nearly beat the 1-seed in the Playoff … in Tuscaloosa … in November. Strange.
6. Mississippi State rallies to beat Louisiana Tech
The fact that this happened in the season-opener is baked into this ranking. First-game jitters? Sure. That still doesn’t explain why MSU was behind by 20 in the 4th quarter and was in need of a historic comeback to avoid total embarrassment. I suppose when you turn the ball over 4 times, you tend to play down to your competition. Will Rogers improved greatly, as did the MSU defense.
Even though MSU won thanks to a woeful last-second field goal attempt from Louisiana Tech, this is one of those games that aged in head-scratching fashion. Louisiana Tech ended up being a 3-9 team that fired its longtime head coach (Skip Holtz). I suppose this was a microcosm of MSU’s season. It was a totally unpredictable roller coaster from start to finish. But fortunately for Mike Leach, that finish was much better than the start.
5. Mississippi State loses to Memphis
Did I mention that there’d be a lot of MSU on here? Well, there’s a lot of MSU on here. As Cole Cubelic said, they were the weirdest team in the country. This game continued that theme. A week removed from beating a respected NC State team, MSU played a road game at Memphis, and well, it got weird. And for MSU’s case, not weird in a good way.
The SEC said Saturday night that officials made two different officiating errors in allowing Memphis’ gamebreaking punt return TD in the Tigers’ 31-29 win over Mississippi State. https://t.co/0K1dK2Gwmlpic.twitter.com/TGm0lcgfNh (via @American_FB)
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 19, 2021
We can all admit Memphis’ touchdown shouldn’t have counted. That would make the list of “most baffling plays of 2021.” But nonetheless, a game against a team that finished 3-5 in the AAC probably shouldn’t have come down to that. MSU improved offensively and Rogers developed into one of the country’s better QBs. But that Memphis loss will always sting because of how messed up that punt return was.
4. Alabama needs 4 overtimes to beat Auburn
Again, historical perspective suggests that weird things happen in the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare. But why this game makes the cut is because Auburn was riding a 3-game losing streak and playing with an injured backup quarterback. Alabama, on the other hand, was playing with the Heisman Trophy favorite trying to keep its Playoff hopes alive. Even with the Jameson Williams targeting ejection, what makes this game so bizarre was what happened the following week with Alabama’s offensive line dominating Georgia. Against Auburn? That Alabama offensive line didn’t have much of a chance.
One of the best offenses in school history didn’t score a touchdown until the final minute of regulation. And it took a 97-yard drive to make that happen. I get it. Throw records out the window with rivalries. But this game defied logic.
3. Florida rolls Tennessee
Wait … what? Florida beats Tennessee more often than the average American pays their taxes. What’s baffling about that?
At the time, nothing was really surprising about it. We just watched the Gators go 60 minutes with Alabama, and Tennessee had lost a home game to Pitt. Little did we know that Florida’s only other SEC win would be at home against Vandy. Meanwhile, Tennessee turned into a frisky 7-5 team with a top-15 offense in Year 1 with Josh Heupel.
And for what it’s worth, this game actually started out close. It all turned when the Vols had a dropped pass on 4th down in the third quarter. Then the wheels fall off and Florida took over. But within the next 1-2 weeks, Tennessee looked like the better team for the rest of the season.
2. Alabama beats Florida by 2
OK, if you’re sick of Alabama on this list, I’ve got news for you. The Georgia win is a big part of this. We saw the upside. Looking back, how was it that Alabama played down to Florida’s level like that? Florida rallied back and was a failed 2-point conversion from forcing overtime. And even crazier, it did so without Anthony Richardson. The Gators gashed Alabama in the ground game for 245 yards. That’s the strangest part about that game because the Tide figured out those run defense issues.
Alabama ranked No. 2 in yards per carry allowed (2.51) and No. 4 in rushing yards per game allowed (82.8). Florida tripled Alabama’s season-long rushing defense average. That makes no sense, and neither does Alabama scoring just 1 touchdown in the final 3 quarters after jumping out that early lead. This game was supposed to be a sign that Florida could hang with anyone and that Alabama was vulnerable.
I guess you could say that Alabama was vulnerable by virtue of playing in so many close games, but this ended up being Florida’s outlier game. Completely.
1. Texas A&M stuns Alabama
There’s no debate here. That game inspired this column. It was baffling then, and it’s even more baffling now. At the time, we saw A&M lose consecutive games to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Alabama, meanwhile, was unbeaten and No. 1 in the country a week removed from a beatdown of Ole Miss. Any lingering concerns from Florida were gone and the Tide rolled into College Station as 3-score favorites.
So obviously, that was the perfect time for a struggling backup quarterback to come in and help Jimbo Fisher become the first former Nick Saban assistant to ever take down the master. Just as we all predicted. Zach Calzada had an out-of-body 2010 Stephen Garcia game in every way. That was also the first time that the Tide lost to a non-top 15 team since Garcia’s Gamecocks pulled off the upset 11 years earlier.
Yes, the Aggies had a ton of NFL talent. Surely that was the difference and why Alabama’s offensive line struggled. Crazy it is that an A&M team that finished SEC play 4-4 was the lone team to beat Alabama. At least so far.
If Alabama wins a title, this game could have a case for “most baffling game of the past decade.”