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Monday, January 18, 2021

Week 11 of College Football Has Fewer Games but More Room for the Cinderellas

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Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throws a pass during the second quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)

Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

By the time you read this, there’s a good chance another college football game will have been postponed or canceled. The current surge of COVID-19 positive cases inside programs across the country has hit the sport hard of late—eliminating double-digit games from the Week 11 schedule.  

Three of the nation’s top five teams—Alabama, Ohio State and Texas A&M—will be sidelined. The SEC slate will feature only three games. A schedule that was already light on intrigue has been gutted. Still, despite the absences, Week 11 will go on as planned.  

Through the schedule changes and uncertainty, opportunity emerges. There are quality football teams and great stories out there deserving of your attention—teams that would otherwise blend into the backdrop. We love our brands and our playoff contenders and our Heisman hopefuls. 

But it doesn’t have to always be about them. And during a week of chaos, there is no better time to celebrate the unsung stories across college football.   

Don’t give up on Week 11. In fact, do the opposite. These teams are deserving of your attention.                                             

Liberty

MATT GENTRY/Associated Press

The secret is no longer a secret. Hugh Freeze knows how to coach football. 

Sure, there’s some history of baggage, and a simple Google search will unearth a mountain of stories that explain why and how Freeze landed at Liberty in the first place. But his team is 7-0, coming off a 38-35 victory over Virginia Tech and is now ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll.

This week, Liberty will play Western Carolina. The Catamounts—large, wild cats—will play their first game of the year, and the outcome will almost certainly not be close. The Flames will cruise, and it seems likely that quarterback Malik Willis, who began his college football career at Auburn, will likely obliterate another defense.

Willis won’t win the Heisman, but he could make a compelling argument down the stretch. In seven games, he has thrown for 1,339 yards, run for 603 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. 

One of the most entertaining players in college football, he’s worth the admission on his own. Tune in early, because he probably won’t be in the full game.

Before we move on, one bit of bonus information: Liberty and Coastal Carolina are scheduled to play December 5. That will be delightful.

Marshall

Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

In six games this season, Marshall has outscored its opponents 200 to 57. And at No. 16 in the country, the Thundering Herd might be the least celebrated and acknowledged Top 25 team. Seriously, the average football fan probably would have no idea this team was even ranked.  

Let’s take the hype a step further. This also is one of the most balanced teams in college football.

Marshall currently has the No. 2 scoring defense in America, ranked behind only Wisconsin. (The Badgers, of course, have played only one game.) Marshall also averages 36.7 points per game on offensejoint-27th nationallyall while being led by Grant Wells, a freshman quarterback you’re going to be hearing about for a while. 

This week, Marshall is a massive favorite against Middle Tennessee to stay unbeaten. And with a favorable schedule on deck, an undefeated season would not surprise. Enjoy the ride while you can.

Appalachian State

Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

The once small but mighty program that conquered Michigan in one of the greatest upsets of our lifetime has become a program that regularly finds itself hovering around the Top 25. 

Appalachian State isn’t just the little engine that could anymore. This is a program that has gone 33-4 in its last 37 games—a Sun Belt power that is getting better with age. The only thing keeping the Mountaineers out of the Top 25 at the moment is a hard-fought loss to Marshall. Outside of that, App State has beaten every opponent by at least two touchdowns. 

This week, the Mountaineers take on 3-3 Georgia State. If you’re going to watch, and I implore you to do so, keep an eye on Daetrich Harrington. The running back has three 100-yard games in his last four starts. The junior is averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

A win here, and Appalachian State could find itself back into the Top 25. Might as well get cozy again at some point. 

Indiana

Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

One thing here is not like the other. That one thing is a Big Ten team, although that team doesn’t normally find itself ranked inside the top 10 of the AP Poll. 

The Hoosiers are 3-0. In a fun piece of parlor trivia, they have also added exactly one point to their offensive output on each of the past three weeks: 36 points against Penn State, 37 points against Rutgers and 38 points against Michigan.

This is shaping up to be one of the greatest—if not the greatest—season in Indiana football history. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has scored nine touchdowns in three games, becoming the heart and soul of the turnaround.  

Perhaps “turnaround” is a touch too strong. Indiana has flirted with seasons like these, pushing teams inside its conference at times when the moment is least expected. But the first three weeks have been much different. 

The Hoosiers look like one of the best teams in the conference and one of the greatest rivals to Ohio State. The momentum to keep those lofty aspirations alive will now head to 1-2 Michigan State.

Next week? A road trip to Ohio State. Things will escalate quickly. But for now, the best surprise in the sport should be celebrated as such. 

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