College News & Analysis

College Football Week 9 Takeaways: Notable grades, advanced stats & more

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III (9) celebrates a touchdown against Michigan during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

The first College Football Playoff rankings will be unveiled in just a few days, but the current picture is still murky after Week 9

Now that our first run of analysis is live on PFF Premium Stats, let's dive into the biggest storylines from Week 9 of the 2021 college football season.

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Kenneth Walker III, welcome to the Heisman conversation

Kenny Heisman.

In less than a year, Kenneth Walker III has gone from a quality veteran back for Wake Forest to a legitimate Heisman contender for Michigan State.

Walker entered this Week 9 game — the Spartans' biggest game of the 2021 season — as one of the highest-graded and most elusive ball carriers in college football, and he sustained his elite level of play despite facing the highest-graded run-defense in college football. The Michigan State back earned a 90.8 rushing grade across 23 attempts against the Wolverines, breaking 13 tackles and averaging 7.0 yards after contact per attempt in the process.

Highest single-game rushing grade vs. Michigan in the PFF College Era
Player Rushing Grade
1. Kenneth Walker, Michigan State (2021) 90.8
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State (2016) 88.4
3. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (2019) 81.6

Three of his five touchdowns came on a run of 20 or more yards, even though Michigan had given up only one 20-plus-yard touchdown run on the year before this weekend.

After this standout performance, it’s fair to say that he should be the leader in the clubhouse for the Heisman Trophy.

Ohio State’s offensive line had an off night

There is no denying that Ohio State's offensive line headed into Week 9 as one the best units in college football. They had been giving quarterback C.J. Stroud clean pocket after clean pocket and ample time to throw, and they just weren't losing reps in pass protection. They paired this standout work in pass protection with power and intent in the run game, consistently clearing wide-open lanes for their running backs.

Ohio State’s Offensive Line Through Week 8
PFF Grade 92.8 (2nd in Power Five)
Pass-Block Grade 77.0 
Run-Block Grade 95.8 
Pass-Block Losses Per Game 9
Yards Before Contact on RB Carries 2.7

But the group was seemingly lost to start against Penn State in Week 9, as they lost reps in both facets of the game. 

Ohio State’s Offensive Line in Week 9
PFF Grade 53.6
Pass-Block Grade 65.8
Run-Block Grade 53.8
Pass-Block Losses 14 (12 in the first half)
Yards Before Contact on RB Carries 0.3

Every starting offensive lineman lost at least one pass-block rep in the first half, while three lost more than one. As a result, the offense just couldn’t get into a rhythm. Ohio State generated negative expected points added (EPA) per play over the first two quarters.

Fortunately, the offensive line improved in both facets in the second half, and the offense jumped back into positive efficiency on a per-play basis in those final two quarters.

The Buckeyes may have left with a 33-24 win, but their play on offense fell shy of its usual elite standard. Look for them to bounce back in the next couple of weeks. 

Wake Forest has one of the best offenses in the country

Wake Forest once again fielded one of the most efficient passing offenses of the week, and quarterback Sam Hartman was one of the four Power Five QBs with a passing grade at or above 90.0 for the week.

Hartman produced five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays while leading Wake Forest to 0.61 EPA per pass. Now, the Demon Deacons have the second-most efficient passing offense in the Power Five, behind only Alabama.  

Most Efficient Passing Offenses in the Power Five through Week 9
Team EPA Per Pass
1. Alabama Crimson Tide 0.45
2. Wake Forest Demon Deacons 0.40
3. Ohio State Buckeyes 0.39
4. Oklahoma Sooners 0.35

It will be tough for Wake Forest to come out unscathed over the next three weeks as they take on North Carolina, N.C. State and Clemson. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack boast offenses capable of putting up points and delivering a shootout with Wake, while the Tigers still field a strong defensive unit that will be familiar with Wake's system. 

It's going to be a fun few weeks in the ACC.

If the Bearcats get through SMU and Houston, their spot in the College Football Playoff shouldn’t be in question

One of the best games of the Week 9 slate came courtesy of an AAC matchup between SMU and Houston that had major conference title game ramifications. The winner would pencil itself in to play Cincinnati in the 2021 AAC Championship Game, and Houston ended up coming out on top thanks to a go-ahead kickoff return for a touchdown with 30 seconds to play.

Cincy will have to play both SMU in the regular season and Houston in the conference title game. But while neither of the two is high in the polls, both figure to be formidable opponents for the Bearcats. 

As usual, SMU and Houston dominated along the defensive line. The two teams generated a pressure rate north of 30%, and they gave up only one explosive run each on 46 combined running back carries. Both teams also found success in the passing game, with each generating at least 0.35 EPA per pass play to rank inside the top 25 offenses in Week 9.

The good news for the Bearcats is that they are well-equipped to handle those kinds of offenses. Cincinnati still ranks top five in team coverage grade, EPA per pass allowed and yards allowed per play.

If Cincy gets by these underrated Group of Five teams and finishes with an undefeated record, they should be locked into the CFP.

Oklahoma true freshman quarterback Caleb Williams is off to a historically good start

On first review, Caleb Williams earned a 92.8 PFF grade against Texas Tech, the highest of any Power Five quarterback this week. And while he did have one turnover-worthy throw, that was one of just a few mistakes on the day. 

The Oklahoma quarterback completed six of his seven deep pass attempts over 20 yards downfield for 218 yards and three touchdowns. He totaled six touchdowns on passes thrown over 10 yards downfield, which is the most by any FBS quarterback in the 2021 season.

Williams now boasts a 94.8 overall grade through Week 9 of his true freshman campaign and is on track to record the highest single-season PFF grade ever given to a first-year player.

Up until this point, only one true freshman quarterback at the Power Five level has earned a 90.0-plus PFF grade in their first year: 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. And Williams is actually performing at a higher level than Lawrence did that year.

Caleb Williams vs. Trevor Lawrence: The two best true freshman seasons by an FBS QB

Caleb Williams, Oklahoma

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
120 Dropbacks 424
94.8  PFF Grade 90.7
6.8% Big-Time Throw % 6.8%
2.3% Turnover-Worthy Play % 1.6%
8 10+ Yard Runs 11
136.9 Pass Rtg on 10+ Yd Throws 131.9

To take it a step further and expand that filter to quarterbacks who produced at an elite level within their first couple of years in college, the list only adds two players — Justin Fields in 2019 and Spencer Rattler in 2020.

Drake London should still be the frontrunner for the Biletnikoff, even if he misses the rest of the season

USC star wide receiver Drake London suffered what looked like a season-ending injury on Saturday against Arizona, likely ending his collegiate career as he sets his eyes on the NFL.

London was the engine of USC’s offense and on pace for one of the top receiving seasons of the PFF College era. Even with this season-ending injury, he’s still likely to finish with the top grading profile in college football.

Drake London Through Week 9 in 2021 (with FBS ranks)
Receiving Grade 91.8 (1st)
First Downs/Touchdowns 54 (1st)
Contested Catches  19 (1st)
Broken Tackles 22 (1st)
Yards Per Route Run  3.52 (6th)
Catches vs. Single Coverage 36 (1st)
Wins Above Average 0.26 (1st)

London was fed 13 targets on 28 routes before going down with an injury on Saturday, and he produced an 85.8 receiving grade for the game. He should still be viewed as the favorite for the Biletnikoff Award.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was lethal — again

Malik Willis has benefited from facing an easy schedule in the 2021 season, and he’s taking full advantage of it. He has earned a PFF grade north of 75.0 in all but one game, including this Saturday’s performance against UMass when he earned a 94.1 mark on first review.

Most of the damage Willis did came as a passer. He made the right decisions and showed off his strong arm with four big-time throws on deep shots over 20 yards downfield. Willis now has an 11.2% big-time throw rate in 2021, which is on pace to be one of the five highest rates of the PFF College era. He lacks technical refinement and will be a project at the next level, but his tools and high-level production are special.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong is on a tear

Nevada's Air Raid offense has heavily leaned on quarterback Carson Strong of late, as he’s on a streak of three straight games with at least 50 dropbacks. And the junior QB is handling that large load with ease as those three games have been his highest-graded performances of the 2021 season.

Carson Strong in his last three games
Total Dropbacks 176
Passing Grade 92.0
Big-Time Throws 11
Turnover-Worthy Plays 2
Clean Pocket Completion % 78.6%

He may not be a mobile quarterback, but Strong has arm talent for days. He has an ultra-quick release and is accurate to all levels of the field. If he keeps this up, his draft stock may be on the rise.

You've got the first pick with your finances. Western Southern Financial Group.

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