Even when things go chalk, college football teaches us something. The further we go into the season, the more meaningful those things become.
Take No. 1 Clemson, for example. The Tigers won again on Saturday. No one will complain about a loss. But after playing just a little off through the first four weeks, it’s fair to wonder whether they’re actually the No. 1 team in the land. And if they’re not, who is? Alabama and Ohio State keep demolishing their opponents. The College Football Playoff is still a ways away, as is any meaningful conversation about it, but that doesn’t mean the merits of these teams are off the table.
Weeks like these always lead to overreactions, and that’s OK. We are creatures of the moment. Overreactions are just as much a part of the game as touchdowns. So with Saturday’s action mostly in the books, let’s look at the biggest overreactions from the action and how absurd — or completely warranted — they might be.
So about Clemson steamrolling through the ACC. Hold up on that. We’re five games into the season and something’s … not right with the No. 1-ranked Tigers. A minor complaint, perhaps, but the 21-20 win at North Carolina revealed a few important details. One of them was that Clemson, with all the talent in the world, was thoroughly out-played and out-coached (Dabo Swinney’s words, not mine). This was especially true with UNC’s defense, whose pre-snap movement gave Clemson all kinds of protection problems. Even the best teams have off weeks, and Clemson had one today. The thing is, Clemson has not fired on all cylinders this season and, until Saturday, it hadn’t come close to being costly. In some ways, this year’s team brings to mind the 2014 Florida State Seminoles. Coming off a national championship, Florida State was still extremely good and made a playoff appearance but rode the edge a little too closely for much of the season. Maybe this was the wake-up call the Tigers needed to reach their full potential. But if they keep playing like they played Saturday, going undefeated is far from a sure thing.
Oh, and you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks. North Carolina coach Mack Brown leaned on before in similar situations with success. If you’re going to go for two, you don’t need to come up with the trickiest play, you need to come up with your best play and Brown thought it would be successful. Hard to fault him there. If Brown’s return to UNC has taught me anything, it’s that you’re never too old or jaded to reinvent yourself. UNC might be 2-3, but it plays hard, take risks, is fun to watch and will probably make a bowl game. Not bad for a first-year retread.to beat Clemson. Down one with 1:17 left, he could have kicked the extra point, leaned on a defense that played well all day and taken his chances in overtime. On the other side of that coin, going for two wouldn’t have sealed the win; Clemson still would have had a minute and some change with a couple of timeouts in its back pocket. In any case, Clemson is the more talented team. Boil it down to one play instead of prolonging the game. Brown read the room and made the right decision, even if it didn’t work out. Critics will question the triple-option play call, but understand that’s a play the Tar Heels have
Ohio State is the best team in college football. You can absolutely make that argument. We’re far enough into the season that every team has played somebody. And for Ohio State, that means two Big Ten road games won by a combined score of 99-17. Yes, those wins are against Indiana and Nebraska, the latter being a 48-7 blowout on Saturday, but conference road wins count for something and it doesn’t make the Buckeyes any less dominant. How many teams have a speedy, shut-down defense at all three levels and an embarrassment of riches on offense capable of explosive plays on every snap? Remember: strength of schedule only determines your path, not how good you are (though it is obviously an indicator). How you play matters, and Ohio State has been as impressive as any team through September. There are elite teams with better wins than the Buckeyes at the moment, but given that they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 43.8 points per game, that’s notable. This isn’t Maryland we’re talking about here. The Buckeyes have tougher games ahead, but they are a complete-looking team.
Alabama, not Oklahoma, has college football’s most dangerous offense. It’s an interesting thought. I’d buy stock in it. The Crimson Tide came into Week 5 tied for fifth nationally in points per game. Their 59-31 win over Ole Miss didn’t do anything to hurt those numbers. While Oklahoma typically gets mentioned as college football’s most explosive and dangerous offense, Alabama, LSU and Ohio State have all made their case. They all have tremendous depth and playmakers everywhere, but one thing stuck out about the Tide’s win over Ole Miss on Saturday. DeVonta Smith, the team’s No. 3 wide receiver, had a career day with 11 catches for 274 yards and five touchdowns — a school record. We know the Tide’s wideouts could all be No. 1 guys , and when you add in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s physical capability, this offense has a diversity that a lot of other teams can’t touch.
Reports of Houston’s demise were premature. It’s been a rough start to the season for the Cougars: a 1-3 record plus D’Eriq King’s decision to redshirt for the rest of the season made it feel as though 2019 was a lost cause. Not so much following a 46-35 win at North Texas on Saturday. Clayton Tune, who coach Dana Holgorsen is fond of, had a nice game with 224 yards of total offense while running back Patrick Carr added 139 yards rushing and three touchdowns. The road to bowl eligibility is still difficult, but Houston got a much-needed win, and with Tune, maybe it finds an identity it couldn’t in the first four weeks of the year.
Kentucky might be broken for good. Remember when Kentucky had a lead on Florida? That feels like ages ago. Since coughing up a game to the Gators in Week 3, Kentucky has lost to Mississippi State and South Carolina by a combined score of 52-20 including a 24-7 loss to the Gamecocks on Saturday. Losing starting quarterback Terry Wilson for the year hasn’t helped, but it’s always fascinating to see how precarious records are. Coach Mark Stoops did a great job raising the ceiling of this program, but looking at the future schedule, it’s hard to see the Wildcats being favored in many games. Stoops believes he’s built this program to the point where it can reload, not rebuild. That seems a little optimistic now.
Charlie Strong is done for. There are few sure things in college football coaching hires. Questionable hires can work out great and seemingly good picks can fall on their faces. Charlie Strong looked like a good pick-up for South Florida, and in turn a nice spot for the former Louisville and Texas coach to reboot his career. In a cruel twist of irony, though, the Bulls’ 48-21 loss to SMU may have sealed Strong’s inevitable fate. His former quarterback at Texas, Shane Buechele, tossed for 226 yards and three touchdowns on just 21-of-26 passing. Even more so, USF had more penalty yards (134) than rushing yards (54). The Bulls have now lost their last nine against FBS opponents. Strong got some mileage off of his Louisville days with Teddy Bridgewater, but those feel like forever ago now.
The most underrated Heisman dark horse is: Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard. He had 296 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries in a 26-13 win over Kansas State. That marks the third time he’s hit more than 200 yards on the ground in a game this year and puts his total up to 938 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The most underrated undefeated team left is: Wake Forest. Dave Clawson continues to do remarkable things with the Demon Deacons, who are 5-0 with decent wins over Utah State and North Carolina. Going back to last season, Wake has quietly been one of the more impressive teams in the Power Five. In the battle for the ACC’s second-best team behind Clemson, Wake has at least an argument.