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Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Race Might Have Some Intrigue After All

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Race Might Have Some Intrigue After All

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Race Might Have Some Intrigue After All

All offseason, no matter what radio show you tuned into, podcast you listened to, season preview you read or talking head that you watched, there was some form of discussion along the lines of the 2019 college football season being defined as simply one long slog to the inevitable meeting of Alabama-Clemson, Part V.

In the words of the esteemed Lee Corso however, not so fast my friends.

Thanks to North Carolina's shocking near-upset of No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama looking mortal for a quarter or so against lowly Ole Miss, there's now some measure of hope for neutral fans that this College Football Playoff race might actually have some intrigue to it at the top. Combined with Ohio State's thumping of Nebraska in Lincoln, Oklahoma continuing to slice apart anything they come across plus big wins already under the belts of LSU/Georgia and the field looks like they're closer than we thought to the winners of the last four national championships as well.

Week 5 was a lot of things in college football but more than anything it could be summed up as installing a fleeting hope that the unpredictable nature of the sport was going to ring true in what was pegged in August as simply a six month run-up for the Tigers and Tide.

You can start with the scare in Chapel Hill, as UNC punched far above their weight against the ACC's heavyweight and came within a two-point conversion of pulling off the upset. Only a small sliver of folks will criticize Mack Brown for going for the win in that situation though the Tar Heels' play call on what proved to be the critical play of the game left much to be desired.

As has Clemson's overall play as they begin their title defense in the weakest Power 5 league in the country even factoring in Saturday's result. This simply hasn't been the offense we all expected to see the way they destroyed teams at the end of last year but it's probably not time to hit the panic button fully for Dabo Swinney. This is simply that program's M.O. in recent years (see those Syracuse games last year and in 2017 plus Pitt in '16) and usually a team that figures things out before flipping the switch in late October.

That said, a few things were exposed by North Carolina. Trevor Lawrence has been far from the greatest quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and alternates between making a jaw-dropping throw one series and a puzzling decision to do his Jameis Winston impression the next. After a hot start, Travis Etienne has slowed down running the ball too. Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and the rest of that ridiculous receiving group has already bailed out this team a few times thanks to sheer talent but that might not be enough against a better opponent.

A lot of those above issues can probably be traced to breaking in so many new faces along the offensive line. It was glossed over this offseason that cornerstones like left tackle Mitch Hyatt and others had moved on so in retrospect it probably shouldn't be surprising to see a few stretches of struggling at Clemson right now.

The good news is there's plenty of time for Dabo and that veteran group of coaches to make tweaks and fix things. They'll have a week off to regroup and diagnose, plus the schedule is manageable to say the least. The Florida State game does seem more intriguing in light of Saturday's events but that's in Death Valley and even Wake Forest, the league's second- best team right now, got a scare at lowly Boston College.

Things seem slightly different at Alabama, which is contending with both their own play and that of several of their upcoming opponents.

While playing talented freshmen is nothing new for Nick Saban, the quantity of fresh faces in the starting lineup or two-deep for the Tide has to be a little concerning for the brain trust in Tuscaloosa. Maybe even more pressing is where those freshmen are playing too: in the trenches and up front. Evan Neal has held his own at left guard but alignment and tackling has proven to be a bit more pressing on the defensive side of the ball — especially in the middle at linebacker.

Like last season, such issues may be obscured somewhat by the incredible level of play from Tua Tagovailoa and that stacked receiving corps but it's a factor that could come into play when playing the rest of the SEC's elite in close games.

“We got exposed in some areas where we didn't play very well,” Saban said after beating Ole Miss. “The players we have are the players we have.”

The Rebels did find some early success, leading going into the second quarter before getting run over and allowing backup John Rhys Plumlee to run wild at times. That has to keep the head coach up at night because for as good as the offense has looked at times, it's not turning the ball over and putting up huge numbers against weak competition. What happens when ranked teams start coming up on the docket and Tagovailoa has an off night?

There's enough trust in Saban at this point that Alabama is probably going to be just fine even if it does seem like the program is a lot closer to its competition in the SEC than in years past. LSU and their new-look offense is looming and Auburn might be the most balanced in the SEC West given what they also bring to the table defensively.

It's still a long season and one should expect that teams will evolve and grow plenty as the rest of the year plays out. Still, one can't help but think after this weekend that we might actually have a pretty fun national title chase on our hands and not the inevitable matchup we all thought this year would build toward.

That said, it still wouldn't be all that surprising if it's Tigers-Tide V in New Orleans in January either. Such is life in this great big beautiful sport.

2. Where do Scott Frost, Justin Fuente and Charlie Strong go from here?

There were a lot of tough losses sustained this weekend but things felt particularly gloomy in Lincoln, Blacksburg, and Tampa. Those first two venues, in particular, were really amped up well before kickoff... only to be turned into ghost towns come the fourth quarter of blowouts. Now the question is, where do some of these head coaches go from here?

Let's start on Friday night, where Justin Fuente's Virginia Tech squad was not only beaten by Duke, but run off the field. It was the program's worst home loss in 45 years and dropped the Hokies to 4-7 against Power 5 opponents the past two seasons. After a stellar debut replacing Frank Beamer — no easy task given his stature — things have now turned for the worst as reality has sunk in and the fan base has turned on the Fuente and the coaching staff.

The recruiting hasn't been good enough. The roster has fluctuated too much. Fuente simply hasn't developed a quarterback capable of elevating those around him. Bud Foster's defense has struggled for years with modern offenses and continues to do so with even less talent.

Hokies fans are right to worry about the state of the program at the moment but Fuente knows better than most how to dig out of a deep hole. He took Memphis from one of the truly worst programs in all of FBS and delivered a conference title. While making it to Charlotte with regularity might be tough given some of the inherent limitations Virginia Tech has, competing for the Coastal title and making a decent bowl is a level the Hokies can get back to.

Fuente will be given the time to make the necessary changes as the administration's support is firmly behind him and his buyout is prohibitive. This offseason looms large and it wouldn't be shocking to see a number of changes to the staff beyond finding Foster's replacement. Priority will need to be given to finding a quarterback too and re-installing that toughness on both sides of the ball that used to be a hallmark of playing the Hokies.

As for Frost, the native son who enjoyed near-universal approval ever since arriving in Lincoln has to be wondering what changes he will have to make over the coming months as well. Nebraska remains uncompetitive against some of the Big Ten's elite and, while getting run off the field by Ohio State is a fate that will befall many, the lack of progress the Cornhuskers have shown in Year 2 is a bit troubling considering there wasn't a lot of downplaying of expectations coming into the year.

Just as pressing, Adrian Martinez has shown he is capable of being a big-time quarterback but has mostly regressed this season. The team overall continues to struggle in close games and instead of playing free and being excited to sense that bit of blood in the water in those situations, players instead seem to get tense and make mental mistakes. The defense isn't making any strides and is not fit to wear the Blackshirts label after their recent performances against Colorado, Illinois, and the Buckeyes.

It still is too early in Frost's tenure to write things off and getting back to a bowl game — or even eight wins — still seems like a realistic goal that would be a good step in the right direction. Contending for division titles was never going to be realistic for a program that lacked a foundation to build on and it seems like the coaching staff still need to redouble their efforts on making sure that base layer is rock solid before casting their gaze on bigger sights.

Big Red might not like to hear that rebuilding takes time but it's a fact — something many in Lincoln are coming to grips with more than ever after such an uneven 2019 so far.

Finally, there's Charlie Strong, whose tenure at USF continues to crumble after the Bulls were embarrassed in front of a paltry crowd by SMU. While getting blasted by a team of Wisconsin's caliber is at least understandable if you're a middling Group of 5 team, being run over by a fellow conference contender makes this recent slide (nine losses in a row to FBS competition) ever more concerning.

That we're even in this position has to be surprising to some in Tampa given how many boxes Strong ticked when he was hired. While his tenure at Texas was an utter disaster, he still brought enough of a track record in the state of Florida and up the road at Louisville as a head coach to make sense. Plus, when the Longhorns are picking up most of the check for his first few years, that doesn't hurt either at a place like USF. In terms of fit, there should have been few better. Instead we find the message simply isn't working on or off the field.

Rather predictably, offensive malaise has contributed mightily to Strong's woes. QB Quinton Flowers won a lot of games for the program and was never replaced. Alabama/Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett was a big name to trump in press releases but proved to be a bad fit amid coordinator changes. And the speedy skill position talent that is normally found on the roster has all but cycled out of the program. Add in recruiting that has been meddling for their location and the rise of I-4 rival UCF has made the entire situation even worse.

Athletic director Michael Kelly has mostly focused on improving facilities around campus and has not been put in this kind of position before. It will be expensive to make a change for the Bulls but given how much the program has regressed under Strong, there may be no choice for the brass to make a move this December and hope a younger set of eyes can turn things around.

Such a move would certainly eat at Strong given the way his career transpired before and after he first became a head coach. But at some point, the game passes you by and all those lopsided scores add up to something you can't overcome.

3. Matt Rhule's big win

One coach who doesn't have to worry about the direction of his program is Baylor's Rhule, who struck an early claim as to being the Big 12's best team behind Oklahoma and Texas by holding off Iowa State to deliver the signature win of his tenure.

It was a monstrous victory not only for this season's standings but quite the reflection on where the Bears had come from when he took over to where they are now (1-11 post-scandal, to 7-6 last season to starting off 4-0). Baylor still is at a talent deficit compared to most of their conference peers but the roster is miles from where it once was overall. Plus, you can tell the kind of coaching players receive when you look at the continued development of guys like QB Charlie Brewer or DL James Lynch. This team plays hard nearly every snap and all that concern about a coaching staff that didn't know the state of Texas or the Big 12 has quickly faded away as they've made good, old fashion hard work between the lines do the talking.

While a guy that has only just now gotten his record to .500 for his career as a head coach would normally not be a hot name, that's not been the case for Rhule. He had a chance to jump to the NFL before and was already a name getting some traction for potentially bigger openings around college football before taking down the Cyclones. Perhaps that's why the school announced on Sunday they had agreed to another long contract extension through the 2027 season that should keep the 44-year-old in Waco for many more years.

That's quite the endorsement as to what Rhule has accomplished so far but also a sign as to the faith the new school brass has in the coach that wins like Saturday's over ISU are going to be more common over the coming weeks, months and years.

4. Auburn's offense breaks out

Fans on the Plains are an interesting bunch because it seems like they are in a constant state of expecting the bottom to fall out when things are going well or complaining ad nausea when things are stuck in the mud. Despite posting one of the best non-conference victories of the young season with their true freshman quarterback, there was still some skepticism about the Tigers coming into their matchup with Mississippi State and many observers wondering when exactly Gus Malzahn's group would finally start to bury folks given all the talent they have to use.

Safe to say Auburn answered a lot of those questions on Saturday night as they bludgeoned the Bulldogs from the opening snap and made things look effortless in a 56-23 win that wasn't even that close. Bo Nix had his best game as a passer (335 yards, 2 TDs) and led the team in rushing to boot. Nine different players wound up with at least one carry while eight different Tigers caught a pass (Seth Williams had eight for 161 and two scores).

Though AU's defense initially got thrown off a bit when Garrett Schrader took over for Tommy Stevens as MSU's quarterback, the talented group adjusted to clamp down the rest of the game until it was time to send in the backups. In short, it's hard to find a truly more complete team on both sides of the ball in the SEC if the offense hums as it did against the Bulldogs — which just might confirm a lot of suspicions that this is another one of those years where Auburn has a magical season just as the hot seat talk for their head coach was reaching a fever pitch.

We'll find out for real at the Swamp this upcoming week in what should be a fun top-10 battle with Florida. The Tigers get the beat-up Gators at the right time on the docket and if they keep rolling like they have started to lately, perhaps both teams in the state of Alabama need to be mentioned in the same breath.

5. Pac-12 might have the most interesting title chase

While the Pac-12 has been written off nationally as the lone conference without an undefeated team right now, the amount of parity out West just might make for the most interesting league title chase of any in the Power 5.

Think about it, the Big 12 is largely pegged as a two-team race between Red River rivals Oklahoma and Texas. The ACC is Clemson's to lose by a large margin while the Big Ten seems destined for a Wisconsin-Ohio State meeting in Indianapolis depending on how real Penn State turns out to be. The SEC will have a very orderly run to Atlanta, with Alabama facing off against LSU and Auburn for the right to play the class of the East in Georgia.

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But the Pac-12? Good luck projecting — and having confidence in — things playing out beyond the Rockies.

At this point, the North Division seems like it will boil down to Oregon's trip to Seattle to face Washington. The Ducks and the Huskies still have an outside shot at the CFP should they keep winning and sit there at the end of the season with just one loss but both appear quite beatable given how they have not quite hit on all cylinders on offense during league play yet. Cal still has a defense that isn't to be trifled with but will need to overcome a likely loss of QB Chase Garbers in the short term. Stanford, Oregon State, and Washington State all occupy the lower rung of the conference but, especially at home, still have enough on the roster and in their schemes to give others fits.

Then there's the South, which has only one squad that seems to be eliminated from the division race at the moment in UCLA. Both Arizona and Arizona State have surprised to this point and Colorado is 1-0 in conference play under new head coach Mel Tucker. USC's injuries and Clay Helton's hot seat make the Trojans combustible but they already own the head-to-head over Utah and still have the most talent of anybody in the South. Speaking of those Utes, they probably are the best bet but have been dealing with a number of key injuries and also have to go to Seattle in early November too.

Look, it's easy to rag on the Pac-12 for not fielding an elite team this season that can compete with the top-ranked teams in the country but the flip side for fans out West is that things are incredibly fun to watch week in and week out. You're bound to see something strange on Pac-12 After Dark like clockwork and it feels like an upset happens every other week that shakes up the perception of no fewer than six schools. It may not be great football overall but you can't fault it for not being entertaining.

6. Rutgers' next move

It is not at all surprising to see Rutgers make the move to fire Chris Ash on Sunday, which was eyebrow-raising only in the fact that it came before October had rolled around on the calendar. Certainly it was an indictment on the state of the program the right now, which never showed any sort of a pulse (8-32 overall, 3-26 in the Big Ten) during his tenure and only further reinforced the Scarlet Knights' place as one of the toughest Power 5 gigs in the nation.

The fact that Rutgers even arrived at this point was hardly shocking and so typically Rutgers that those familiar with the State University probably just shrug. Not only did the brass at the time hire an unproven first-time head coach to help navigate the continued transition into the Big Ten, but they were stuck handing out a hefty contract extension (resulting buyout: nearly $8.5 million) due to the previous coaching staff's NCAA violations. The school also fired OC John McNulty on Sunday, who had been given a rare multi-year contract to return to the school only to see the offense show virtually no development from where it was at the beginning of Ash's tenure.

While Rutgers' status as the homecoming opponent of choice for fellow Big Ten programs isn't likely to change anytime soon, it will be fascinating to see where AD Pat Hobbs goes from here. A report from says Greg Schiano backed out of a deal to become the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator largely so he could take his old gig with the Scarlet Knights at some point in the coming months. Subsequent reports from Stadium and others have already said there's been contact between the two parties about some form of a reunion.

If that is the case, and given the talk emanating from Piscataway at the moment there's no reason to think it's not right now, the school might as well go ahead and pull the trigger on Schiano's hire before October is up and install him right away. The fan base isn't likely to revolt like Tennessee's did at the thought of bringing him back and he knows better than anybody how to pull the team from the depths of college football hell having already done it once. Plus, naming him head coach prior to November allows him to evaluate the current set of players, coaches, support staff and get a jump on recruiting with the early signing period fast approaching.

If Schiano declines a return or issues crop up, the school would be wise to turn to somebody like Army's Jeff Monken or Eastern Michigan's Chris Creighton. Butch Jones and Texas A&M's Mike Elko are bound to get tossed around but it sure seems like this is a move made with the thought to bring back Schiano and try to rekindle a link to one of the rare times where the football team was actually respectable.

It's not like it can get any worse. We say that about Rutgers and it somehow finds a way to happen time after time but after this latest hit of the restart button, perhaps things will actually start to change in New Jersey.

7. Backup QBs proving depth in transfer portal era is going to loom large

We're in a unique era of college football given the prevalence of transfer quarterbacks. Heck, most voters for the Heisman Trophy probably have three (Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Joe Burrow) in their top five right now. But for as good as things appear to be at the top, these first few weeks of the season are a good reminder that head coaches across the country better also have a plan for depth at the position too — either with youngsters who can ball or transfers who can play — because injuries or ineffective play behind center are happening at quite the alarming rate.

In the SEC East alone, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina have all lost starters for the season. The Pac-12 has been hit just as hard with backups in this week for USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, and Arizona. Louisville, Minnesota, Michigan, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Texas Tech among others all saw injuries at the position in recent weeks. Purdue's Elijah Sindelar was knocked out against the Gophers too. Among a host of changes at the Group of 5 level, you can also add D'Eriq King's fascinating decision to redshirt at Houston to the pile as well.

All of which is to say, the transfer portal may giveth a quarterback but head coaches better make sure it doesn't taketh at the same time or there could be trouble under center during a long, long season.

Tweet of the Week

Play(s) of the Week

Stat of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Team of the Week: Arizona State

Goat of the Week: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

Heisman Five: 1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 4. Johnathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Joe Burrow (LSU)

Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. Alabama, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Oregon vs. Wisconsin, Sugar Bowl — Texas vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Virginia vs. LSU, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Boise State

Quote of the Week:

Super 16

Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

1. Ohio State

2. Georgia

3. LSU

4. Clemson

5. Alabama

6. Oklahoma

7. Auburn

8. Wisconsin

9. Notre Dame

10. Oregon

11. Penn State

12. Texas

13. Iowa

14. Washington

15. Boise State

16. Wake Forest

Best of the rest: Oklahoma State, Baylor, Florida, Appalachian State, Virginia, Arizona State, Cal, SMU, Memphis

Pre-Snap Reads

Auburn at Florida

Dan Mullen's first really, really big home game should have the Swamp rocking like all times in this top-10 battle. The Gators are breaking out the 1960's throwbacks, ESPN's College GameDay is in town and it's homecoming in Gainesville. Florida's defense is salty up front but it's hard to find a team that is playing as well as Auburn is coming off that big win against MSU. The Pick: Tigers -2.5

Iowa at Michigan

The Hawkeyes have flown under the radar for the most part so far this season but are your typical Kirk Ferentz team with a solid offense and stellar defense. A.J. Epenesa has been a beast so far and seems like he'll have a mismatch against a Michigan OL that hasn't lived up to expectations. The Wolverines have done nothing to merit any faith in them to win a big game, which… probably will change in a wild weekend, right? The Pick: Michigan -5

Michigan State at Ohio State

//Checks weather for Columbus on Saturday, doesn't see rain. The Pick: The Buckeyes -17

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.