As Dabo Swinney dropped to his knees and pounded the turf at Memorial Stadium after N.C. State’s 33-yard winning field goal attempt went wide right, there was only one conclusion to draw.
No. 3 Clemson is still livin’ right.
The Tigers escaped N.C. State in overtime 24-17 to win their 13th consecutive ACC game and avoid their first loss to an unranked opponent since Nov. 19, 2011. And it continued an almost unreal run for Clemson of being on the right end of heart-stopping finishes going back to Notre Dame last season and continuing this year with Auburn, Louisville and now N.C. State.
So Clemson is 7-0, unlikely to lose any ground in the rankings and gets a much-needed bye week with some key players like running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Hunter Renfrow banged up.
But there’s no doubt that the Tigers are now in the throes of an affliction fairly common in this era of college football.
As Florida State experienced in 2014 and Ohio State struggled with in 2015, it can be both a blessing and a curse to return the same core of players after a breakthrough year. While Swinney wouldn’t trade the abundance of talent he has on his roster right now, it is simply difficult for a team to replicate the same chemistry and live up to sky-high expectations after an offseason of hype.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott offered a revealing quote this week, telling Tiger Illustrated: “When you have a really good game, we as coaches worry about guys reading too many newspaper clippings over five days. When you have eight months to read how good you are, it’s just human nature. You’ve got to kind of get all that off of you and out of you a little bit and go back to work.”
Despite returning eight offensive starters and adding its top receiver Mike Williams off a medical redshirt, Clemson simply has not executed at the same level it did at the end of last season when it tore through Alabama in the national championship game. The Tigers committed four turnovers against N.C. State, two of which occurred inside the Wolfpack’s 10-yard line. Clemson also got stuffed on fourth-and-goal at the 1, and Deshaun Watson also threw a pick-six on the first play of the second half. In other words, the Tigers mistakes produced a 28-point swing on the scoreboard that nearly added up to their first loss.
Clemson is playing like a team that needs a wakeup call, and it certainly could happen on Oct. 29 at Florida State. If the Tigers drop that one and finish out the year with wins against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and South Carolina, they’ll still be in prime position to win the ACC and make the playoff.
Still, it feels like they’re going to need to play at a much higher level for that to even matter. For now, Clemson is still in the “winners” category, but there are troubling signs that could turn the Tigers into “losers” before long.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers in college football:
Oklahoma: After a shaky September, it sure seems like Oklahoma is the Big 12 favorite once again. The Sooners were solid all around in a 38-17 victory against Kansas State and continue to improve as the schedule eases up a bit the rest of this month. Baker Mayfield was on target against the Wildcats, racking up 346 yards on 25-for-31 passing with four touchdowns and an interception.
Give Bob Stoops some credit for getting the Sooners refocused after the early losses to Houston and Ohio State, which all but eliminated them from College Football Playoff contention. There are still some defensive questions, but Oklahoma doesn’t really have a huge test until the Baylor-at West Virginia-Oklahoma State gauntlet to end the season.
West Virginia: This started as a very big year for Dana Holgorsen, and he has delivered with a 5-0 start. Though there is a real question mark about the quality of competition — West Virginia still hasn’t faced a ranked team — Saturday’s 48-17 drubbing at Texas Tech was impressive. The Mountaineers have a variety of ways to run the ball, and Rushel Shell had his first 100-yard game of the season while quarterback Skyler Howard ran for 89 and threw for 318.
After several years of struggling with the transition to the Big 12, this looks like a real breakthrough for Holgorsen. We’ll have a better idea about the Mountaineers in two weeks — they host TCU next Saturday, then go to Oklahoma State — but this has been exactly what they needed over the first half of the season.
Vanderbilt: A truly incredible effort by Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham to stop Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie short of the first down marker on fourth-and-1 gave Vanderbilt its first SEC road victory in the Derek Mason era 17-16. Cunningham, who finished with 19 tackles, led a defense that held running back Nick Chubb to 40 yards on 16 carries but gave up 421 total yards and didn’t force a turnover.
Vanderbilt’s offense generated just 171 yards but set the tone on special teams with a 95-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff. Mason, who was 0-9 previously in SEC road games, probably got himself off the hot seat with this victory — Vanderbilt’s first in Athens since 2006.
Southern California: Things appear to have stabilized for Clay Helton following the decision to start redshirt freshman Sam Darnold at quarterback. The Trojans have been markedly improved the past few weeks and nudged their record to 4-3 with a 48-14 win at Arizona. It seems Helton is now in position to avoid an all-out disaster that could have led USC to fire him and go shopping for a big-name coach in December.
The real test will come in November when the Trojans travel to Washington and UCLA in consecutive weeks, then end the year against Notre Dame. If USC gets to 8-4, it will be a job well done for this group, which faced a brutal early schedule and could have fallen apart at 1-3.
North Carolina: It feels like there could be a whole lot more chaos in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which is good news for the Tar Heels. They needed some help from Virginia Tech and got it when the Hokies lost a shocker at Syracuse. Simultaneously, they went to Miami and took care of business 20-13. Now 5-2 overall an 3-1 in the league, there’s still time to push into the conference championship game for a second consecutive year.
Colorado: The Buffaloes blew out No. 24 Arizona State 40-16 and are 5-2 on the season, with losses to Michigan and USC. Mike MacIntyre has something going in Boulder.
Ohio State: The No. 2 Buckeyes rallied past No. 10 Wisconsin, which has proved to be a tough out this season, and stay on track for a showdown of unbeaten teams with Michigan next month, the conference crown and the Playoff.
Georgia: The second-guessing has begun in Athens. Though it’s always a tricky proposition to blame a first-year coach for underachievement, particularly when there’s a reason the previous coach got fired, it would be hard to make excuses for Kirby Smart at this point after a 17-16 loss to Vanderbilt on Homecoming. Georgia is 4-3, and as mediocre as things seemed under Mark Richt at the end, it’s worth noting that he went 10-3 and 9-3 in his last two seasons.
Frankly, Georgia is fortunate to even have a winning record at this point after razor-thin victories against Missouri and Nicholls, an FCS program. Sure, freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is inconsistent, but how does Jim Chaney’s offense generate just 75 rushing yards on 35 carries at home against Vanderbilt?
Michigan State: There doesn’t really seem to be a bottom in sight for the Spartans, who got clobbered at home — again — by Northwestern, 54-40. It’s the fourth consecutive loss for Michigan State, something Mark Dantonio has never experienced in his career as a head coach (including three years at Cincinnati). Just one year after winning the Big Ten and making the playoff, the Spartans have simply collapsed under the weight of poor quarterback play and a defense that has clearly regressed.
After rotating Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor with very little success in prior games, Michigan State turned to redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke at quarterback. He didn’t do much better, completing 12 of 19 for 99 yards until he was pulled for O’Connor. That sparked the offense, but Michigan State couldn’t get enough stops to stay in the game.
Tennessee: After all the work they have done to survive the first half of its schedule, the Vols no longer control their own destiny in the SEC East race. Tennessee did some nice things and played hard against Alabama, but the Crimson Tide are just better under any circumstances and especially with so many key Tennessee players on the injury list. The Vols will desperately want another shot at Alabama in the SEC championship game, but after Saturday’s 49-10 loss they’re going to need help.
Assuming the Vols win out (they have South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt left), they’ll need Florida to drop one of the following games: Georgia in Jacksonville, at Arkansas, South Carolina or at LSU.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are officially in contention to be one of the worst teams in Big Ten history. Even though the margins were ridiculous, you could give Rutgers a pass for losing to Ohio State and Michigan in consecutive weeks by a combined 136-0 score. But what, then, when they come back and lose 24-7 at home to Illinois? In four conference games, Rutgers has scored just two touchdowns, which pretty much says it all. This is going to be a long season for first-year coach Chris Ash.
Air Force: Coach Troy Calhoun was never a fan of moving Saturday’s game against New Mexico from the academy to Dallas, an opinion he made very clear last year with a bizarre rant about the Vietnam War and soldiers following orders from their superiors even if they knew the mission was destined to fail. In other words, Calhoun was ticked about the decision but it was made above his head.
Air Force’s players (and fans) certainly didn’t seem like they wanted to be in Dallas either, losing to New Mexico 45-40 in front of an embarrassingly small crowd. After a solid 4-0 start, the Falcons have lost consecutive games to teams they were favored to beat.
Notre Dame: The Irish coughed up a 10-0 lead and lost to Stanford 17-10, dropping to 2-5 on the season.
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