SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg provides his opinion of the top three programs in the history of college football.
Clemson is the defending national champion and the No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll, but the Tigers aren’t the best team in the country right now and probably shouldn’t be ranked that way.
The Tigers are 5-0 after holding off North Carolina, 21-20, but there are issues.
First, a caveat: Clemson has kind of pulled this underwhelming act before early in the year, revved up the engines by November and then blasted off in the College Football Playoff for a pair of national titles. Based on that track record and nothing else, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about how the Tigers look right now.
But, boy, they sure don’t look like they’d be ready to compete today with the likes of Ohio State and Georgia, much less Alabama. And the reason is, oddly, because of the Clemson offense, which is laboring to move the football despite bringing back most of the key pieces that boat-raced Alabama in January.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has moments where he looks like the No. 1 draft pick in 2021, but he follows them with too many moments where he makes questionable decisions or his mechanics break down in ways they didn’t last season. (What’s up with all the throws off his back foot?) Running back Travis Etienne had just 67 yards on 14 carries against the Tar Heels, and generally Clemson just isn’t getting enough done with the running game.
What’s really carrying Clemson right now is its defense, which was a question mark coming into the season because of the losses up front but has held up well with new personnel. North Carolina gained just 290 yards but still had a two-point conversion try to take the lead with 1:17 remaining. For some reason, the Tar Heels called an option play and Clemson read it the entire way for a rather routine stop.
After the game, coach Dabo Swinney acknowledged that Clemson had been outplayed and outcoached and was fortunate to win. It’s certainly not the first time, as Clemson has survived a few of these close calls over the years against teams that appear overmatched on paper.
You have to think that Clemson’s offensive talent is eventually going to play to its level and this will look like the No. 1 team in the country by the end. But for now, the Tigers have given plenty of justification to be moved down in the polls.
Here are nine other observations from the college football weekend:
Ohio State looks scary
The schedule has not yet offered the Buckeyes a legitimate test in Ryan Day’s first season as head coach, but my goodness do they look like a machine right now. Ohio State’s string of blowouts to begin this season continued at Nebraska in a 48-7 win that looked laughably easy on every front.
The biggest difference for the Buckeyes this year is the defense, which held Nebraska to 76 yards of offense in the first half (231 for the entire game) and created three turnovers. Even bad teams were able to score on Ohio State last season, but this year the Buckeyes have been air tight against teams with less talent, allowing just 10 points to Indiana, five to Miami of Ohio and none to Cincinnati.
But there’s also this: Quarterback Justin Fields looks absolutely phenomenal, to the point where you kind of have to wonder if Georgia will regret letting him go.
Fields, who some believed was the nation’s top quarterback prospect in the recruiting class of 2018, made almost no impact as a freshman at Georgia last year playing behind Jake Fromm. Though Kirby Smart gave him some specialty packages to work with in almost exclusively running situations, the Georgia offense didn’t flatter his skillset and it was clear that he wasn’t going to supplant Fromm as the starter.
So Fields transferred to Ohio State and has already proven he can throw the ball — he’s got 16 touchdown passes with no interceptions so far — while looking more comfortable every week. Though the level of competition will go up soon, Fields is looking like the player he was supposed to be coming out of high school, which means Ohio State has a real chance to win a national championship.
Auburn might be the best team in the SEC
Don’t worry, that rumbling in your stomach isn’t a virus or motion sickness bubbling up. It’s the familiar feeling that this is one of those odd-numbered “Auburn years” where the Tigers not only get the breaks, but they’re good enough to take advantage of them.
While Alabama and LSU look awesome on offense, Auburn looks like the most classic SEC team of the group. Not only are the Tigers predictably stout on defense, but they’re getting better every week with freshman Bo Nix at quarterback and had a lot of their game clicking Saturday in a blowout win over Mississippi State. Sure, it was just Mississippi State, but Auburn had control of it from the jump, pilling up 328 yards of offense and 42 points in the first half alone. And unlike Alabama, which hasn’t played anyone of consequence yet, the Tigers already have wins banked over Oregon and on the road at Texas A&M.
Auburn has tough road tests remaining at Florida and LSU, but this is one of those years where the Tigers play Georgia and Alabama at home, which theoretically should give them a little margin for error in the SEC West and the playoff race. So far, Auburn has been as impressive as anyone in the SEC.
The Pac-12 isn’t dead
You wouldn’t necessarily predict it as of today, but there’s still a chance for the Pac-12 to get into the College Football Playoff. The bottom line is this: The Oregon-Washington game in Seattle on Oct. 19 will eliminate the lower and give the winner a shot if they can go undefeated the rest of the way. That’s a narrow path, admittedly, but it’s a path — particularly for Oregon, whose 27-21 loss to Auburn in the season opener looks better by the day.
Washington still doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in big games, but its 20-19 loss to Cal doesn’t seem quite as bad as it did at the time, and the Huskies have bounced back nicely, including Saturday’s 28-14 win over USC. If they can beat Oregon, that’s a signature win that should carry some weight with the selection committee if Clemson or a Big 12 team stumbles.
Fans getting frustrated with Fuente
Of the 28 coaching changes that followed the 2015 season, none received more acclaim than Virginia Tech hiring Justin Fuente. And after a strong debut season that included a trip to the ACC championship game, it seemed like the transition out of the Frank Beamer era was going to be unusually smooth.
But the stability didn’t last long, and now Fuente finds himself embattled if not fully on the hot seat in Year 4. Friday’s 45-10 loss to Duke was ugly, the kind of game Virginia Tech fans aren’t used to seeing at Lane Stadium, which was once among the nation’s most difficult places to play.
This is a delicate situation for athletics director Whit Babcock. After starting out 17-5 in Blacksburg, Fuente is just 10-12 since with a lot of roster churn that was supposed to reset the locker room culture this season. And of course, this is the problem with following a legend: Fans only remember the program at its best, even though Beamer’s last four years were decidedly average and the Hokies had already slipped out of the nation’s elite.
Virginia Tech isn’t as easy a place to win as Beamer made it look, but Fuente hasn’t made enough recruiting inroads in the state and he hasn’t done a good job of developing a quarterback to run his system.
Fuente’s turnaround job at Memphis wasn’t a fluke. He took over a program that was arguably the worst in the country and made it into one of the best among the Group of Five largely through terrific evaluation of recruits and superior in-game coaching. But so far, that hasn’t translated and the Hokies’ streak of 26 straight bowl games is in serious jeopardy. Don’t expect Babcock to make any big moves, but the heat is definitely cranking up on a hire that seemed foolproof a few years ago.
We should be talking more about Penn State
In a Big Ten where Ohio State’s dominance, Michigan’s struggles and Wisconsin’s efficiency have gotten all the attention, it feels like the Nittany Lions are a little too under-the-radar. To be fair, it’s hard to get a gauge on how good James Franklin’s team really is because the lineup of opponents it has faced so far might be as weak as anyone in the top 25.
Still, Friday’s 59-0 win at Maryland was as thoroughly one-sided a game as you’ll see between two Power Five opponents. Penn State out-gained Maryland 619-128, created three turnovers and once again got good quarterback play from quarterback Sean Clifford, who was an unknown quantity coming into the year. Also of note: The Nittany Lions’ defense has yielded just 30 points total on the season.
Penn State’s schedule really begins in two weeks when it travels to Iowa, and things will get tougher from there with Michigan coming to Happy Valley and a trip to Michigan State on successive Saturdays. But beating the bad teams by these impressive margins should definitely give the Nittany Lions a lot of confidence going forward.
Baylor has redefined itself
Matt Rhule has been painfully close to some big wins since taking on the massive turnaround job at Baylor, but being able to come back and close out Iowa State on Saturday feels like a significant breakthrough. Baylor led the game 20-0, fell behind, lost the lead with 3:45 remaining, then came back and drove 54 yards in 14 plays to set up a game-winning 38-yard field goal by John Mayers.
Baylor is now 4-0, and the trajectory is unmistakable after Rhule took over a scandal-ridden program in 2017 and went 1-11 in his first season. Though it probably feels like a long road to Rhule, it’s remarkable how quickly he’s changed the entire identity of the program from the Art Briles days when the Bears broke offensive records but couldn’t stop anyone in big games. Now, Baylor plays physical football and defensive coordinator Phil Snow is as good as anyone in the country at slowing down the spread.
Many in the coaching industry questioned why Rhule took the Baylor job, given some of the options he would have had based on his success at Temple. Though he’s already on a faster timetable than anyone could have expected, it feels like Rhule is on the verge of making himself a true superstar this season. Though Baylor probably isn’t in the same weight class as Oklahoma and Texas, a win next week at Kansas State would give the Bears a claim as the third-best team in the Big 12.
BYU schedule isn’t sustainable
The Cougars have been part of two of the season’s most memorable wins, beating Tennessee in overtime after a near-miracle 64-yard pass and backing it up the next week with another overtime win over Southern Cal. But beating those two big name brands hasn’t mattered much in the big picture, as BYU now sits at just 2-3 after a 28-21 loss at Toledo.
This perfectly illustrates the problem BYU faces as an independent. The Cougars want to play as many high-profile teams as possible, but those programs only want to play in September for the most part, which means BYU’s schedule is annually as front-loaded as any team in the country. Who wouldn’t be spent and a bit nicked up after facing Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington the first four weeks? Though BYU has no desire to join a conference if it’s not Power Five — none of which have shown reciprocal interest — you have to wonder if this is a sustainable model. BYU still has Idaho State, UMass and Liberty coming up so getting to a bowl game won’t be a problem, but the Cougars routinely bite off more than they can chew in September only to fall off the national radar by October. Even if they bank a big win or two, it feels rather meaningless
Has Kellen Mond regressed?
Texas A&M’s No. 11 preseason ranking was predicated largely on the theory that quarterback Kellen Mond would take a big step forward in his second year working with Jimbo Fisher. But Mond doesn’t look like the same player, and the Aggies’ inability to run the football may be to blame.
Texas A&M had just 89 rushing yards Saturday in a game that would be more accurately described as bad loss avoidance rather than a win against Arkansas. The Aggies ran it for 56 yards against Auburn last week and 53 in their Week 2 loss at Clemson. That looks like a trend, and one that demands a reset of expectations in College Station.
It’s fair to criticize Mond for throwing too many interceptions (four in five games), and even his best game of the year throwing for 335 yards against Auburn was misleading because much of his success came late when the Tigers had the game well in hand. But how much more can you really expect when teams know by now that Texas A&M isn’t going hurt them with the run?
AAC West looks spicy
Nov. 2 might be a day to mark on the calendar when SMU visits Memphis. The Mustangs have been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises at 5-0 with notable wins over North Texas and TCU while scoring more than 40 points in four straight games. Memphis has shown significant improvement defensively and looked really good in the second half Thursday against Navy.
Memphis has a couple tough games coming up, traveling to Temple and hosting suddenly resurgent Tulane. SMU could very well be 8-0 when it visits the Liberty Bowl.
Though Boise State may be the favorite from the Group of Five to make a New Year’s Six bowl, this looks like a really strong year in the AAC and particularly in the West and the winner may well come from that SMU-Memphis game.