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Seven-Step Drop: Potential Landmines for an Alabama-Clemson Rubber Match

Clemson QB Kelly Bryant

We’re through the first full month of the season and while you write down a few takeaways for every team at this point, there’s one inevitable truth after Week 5 – Alabama and Clemson are once again the class of college football. In fact, they’re in a class by themselves based on what we’ve seen on the field through five weeks and especially so after the victories they captured in prime time on Saturday night.

While it is certainly a very long season and a host of different issues can crop up, the Tigers and Tide have simply picked up where they left off the past two years with a couple of fresh faces. There is simply nobody better positioned to make it to Atlanta right now and the third consecutive battle over that shiny gold trophy that would await. We shouldn’t be surprised when two of the best coaching staffs have two of the best rosters in the country, but here we are come October. More than that, it very much looks like the only teams capable of beating Clemson and Alabama right now are themselves.

But this is college football. The impossible can still happen and upsets lurk around the corner at every turn. Look back to last season and Pitt’s improbable upset (and NC State’s near miss) against the eventual national champions as an example. As good as the two sides have played so far after five weeks — and they have been dominant — here’s who they may need to keep an eye out for the rest of the way.


College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Biggest trap game: at NC State

The Wolfpack were a dark horse ACC team this season and it doesn’t take much to figure out why. They’ve got an accurate quarterback in Ryan Finley, a terrific all-purpose threat in Jaylen Samuels and a defensive line that can really come after you on every snap. The team went toe-to-toe against Clemson in Death Valley last season and you can bet that overtime loss that was squandered away will get brought up more than once in the run-up to this one.

Here’s what is really tricky for Dabo Swinney’s crew though – the trip to Carter-Finley comes a week after playing a triple-option team in Georgia Tech and a week before hosting Florida State. That’s a dangerous combination of getting beat up in the trenches and a possible look ahead to what has been the ACC Game of the Year for half a decade. The Tigers have the talent edge in every game until the final one but this is the thorniest part of the slate against some top 25-caliber teams.

Biggest challenge: Florida State

Yes the Seminoles avoided an 0-3 start for the first time in decades thanks to an incredible last-minute touchdown. But nobody in the ACC can claim a narrower gap in terms of talent than the Seminoles can. That defense is nasty and you can bet they’ll be fired up to knock out their regional rivals and possibly wind up winning the division themselves if it comes down to it. While the offensive line looks to be way over its head against Clemson, this is still a team that can get much better up front as the year goes along. That’s especially true when you consider quarterback James Blackman will have a bunch of starts under his belt by the time this game rolls around in mid-November and this could be a team closer to the version we all expected to begin the season.

Don’t discount: Virginia Tech (again) or Miami

Last year’s ACC title game was supposed to be a romp for Clemson on its way to a College Football Playoff semifinal game but it turned out to be much closer than anybody expected as the Hokies traded blows against the eventual champs. Justin Fuente’s team got a little taste of this year’s Tigers this past Saturday and rued several missed opportunities to make things closer than they looked on the scoreboard. If the Hokies can emerge and win the Coastal again, that defense will give them a fighting chance and the offense should be even more threatening. The same could be said of Miami, which looked very good against Duke on the road and is probably the favorite right now to win the division. That’s a speedy, active defense that can give anybody fits and you can’t put it past Mark Richt coming up with some wrinkles offensively that just do the trick. People will probably overlook a game in Charlotte but they shouldn’t because crazier things have happened.


College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

Biggest trap game: at Mississippi State

It’s pretty en vogue to write off the Bulldogs after this weekend but — and we’re stretching a bit because of the SEC being so iffy right now — this seems like the most logical “trap” game left. It’s a road trip after the annual LSU game (which could inflate how the Tide view themselves in the league) and they face one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks not named Jalen Hurts in Nick Fitzgerald. Todd Grantham loves to attack on defense and that could result in turnovers to make things closer than expected come the fourth quarter. At some point Alabama will face some adversity and this seems like a potential spot.

Biggest challenge: at Auburn

The Iron Bowl rivalry is always one to watch no matter the records and this year’s Auburn squad could be the best positioned to beat their in-state rival since Cam Newton was on campus. The game is on the Plains and the Tigers have a quarterback who can pose a vertical threat with his arm in Jarrett Stidham. While the offense has started slow this year, they’re slowing building momentum in SEC play and should continue to work out any kinks in the mashup between Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey’s system. Being able to run the ball and play defense against Alabama is half the battle and if the Tigers can create some turnovers to amp up the pressure, anything can happen in this rivalry game — as we’ve seen before when there’s a lot on the line.

Don’t discount: Georgia in Atlanta

The state of the SEC East is such that we’ll know soon enough whether we can write the Bulldogs into one of the spots in Atlanta with pen instead of pencil. They have the personnel you are looking for in terms of front seven athletes on defense and a veteran secondary to go with it. The offensive line has held up so far and you can’t overlook the presence of not one but two potential all-conference tailbacks in the backfield. The biggest question mark will come down to the quarterback position if Kirby Smart was to meet his old team and by the time December rolls around, Jake Fromm won’t be much of a freshman at all. The last time these two squared off in downtown Atlanta was an instant classic and we could reproduce that same kind of game a few hundred feet from where the last one took place.

Potential College Football Playoff semifinal landmines:

Oklahoma — The Sooners do not come close to either Alabama or Clemson when it comes to overall talent but they have the best quarterback in the country in Baker Mayfield. That alone could give some coaches pause and neither him nor Lincoln Riley will back down from a challenge like this. Given how the past few meetings with both the Tigers and Tide have gone, this would be a blockbuster matchup if it happens in the Sugar or Rose Bowls.

Penn State — Nobody is going to be better tested for a potential matchup with the top teams in the country quite like the program that wins the Big Ten. Should that be the Nittany Lions, that means they’ll have played some excellent defenses and quality rushing attacks — prerequisites to coming up with game plans to slow down either Alabama or Clemson. Add in an explosive offense with a quarterback that can make a bunch of downfield throws, a superstar tailback in Saquon Barkley and James Franklin’s squad could be a fun matchup to watch in Pasadena or New Orleans.

College Football Uniforms: Penn State

Ohio State — The image of losing to Oklahoma is burned into everybody’s mind but make no mistake, the overall amount of talent on the roster in Columbus is one reason why this was a team many picked to win the national title in the first place. And don’t you think what happened in the Fiesta Bowl last season grinds Urban Meyer like nobody else? They’ve got a top-notch defensive line that is just as good and deep as either of the top two teams and a veteran dual-threat quarterback who would be itching to deliver one last big run with the Buckeyes. If this group can make it out of the Big Ten, there’s no reason to think they couldn’t make it to Atlanta either and take on — and beat — both Tide and Tigers in a pair of games.

TCU — A bit of an outlier because the jury still hasn’t quite ruled on how great this team is but it sure looks like a bounce-back campaign in Fort Worth. There are a lot of playmakers on offense and there’s a quarterback behind center who knows what it’s like to play somebody like Nick Saban in a big spot too. Mix in a veteran secondary and one of the deepest front seven groups and this is an intriguing dark horse should the Horned Frogs find themselves Big 12 champions and in a position to get things done. Plus, I wouldn’t want to give Gary Patterson weeks and weeks to come up with a defensive game plan against either side considering his track record.

Six other thoughts from the weekend:

2. “I told you so” at LSU and the inevitable end at Tennessee

While there were not many shocking upsets around college football, there was one contest that captured the attention of neutral observers as Troy took a lead on LSU and never gave it up. That the Trojans pulled off the victory probably isn’t too surprising at this point given the way the Tigers have played in September. Still, the fact that they lost at home to a non-conference opponent for the first time in 49 games is as notable as the fact that they were by far the less physical squad on the field against a Sun Belt team Saturday night.

Tennessee Football Schedule
LSU Football Schedule

To be somewhat fair to LSU, the team has been pretty beat up and have an injury list that is longer than anybody not named North Carolina this season. Still, that’s no excuse to lose at home when you’re paying both coordinators more than $3 million combined. While the game itself is enough to drive Tigers fans despondent over a year that could have been filled with so much promise, the outcome really just confirmed everybody’s worst fears over the hire of Ed Orgeron and prompted a chorus of “I told you sos” from media members everywhere.

It’s hard not to find a person who doesn’t enjoy the color and energy that the cajun brings to college football but like the decision that was made when firing his predecessor, this is a results-driven business. Yes there’s still enough time (and talent) around this team to turn things around but there’s been nothing in Orgeron’s track record or the program’s recent history to suggest going on some surprising run this year or the near future.

Orgeron’s buyout is $12 million after the season and you’re talking millions more when factoring in assistants too. That’s simply way too much for the program to afford right now and probably increases the chance a new athletic director is on the job in the coming 18 months or so. Perhaps the biggest question mark for 2017 left to be answered right now is if the team can rally and avoid being sent to a bowl game in Birmingham or Shreveport. Play like they have recently and that’s a prospect that could really hammer home the situation and make for a very long and cold winter on the bayou.

While the Tigers will have to claw themselves out of their predicament with the current coaching staff that does not appear to be the case at Tennessee after a 41-0 blowout loss to Georgia that saw the Bulldogs run the Volunteers (definitely the fans) right out of Neyland. It’s pretty clear that it’s now a matter of when, and not if, the school decides to part ways with Butch Jones. The past three games have been some of the most lifeless performances out the program since the Derek Dooley era and the continual motivational tactics that Jones employs (from trashcans to “Champions of Life” press conferences) grate on the fan base as they see them or hear them each week. While the coach has done a solid job turning things around in Knoxville, it’s been clear for a while that in order to take the program from solid footing to atop the division or league like many fans expect at UT, a change will need to be made.

Which brings us to an eventual coaching search at the school and the first major hire of new athletic director John Currie. While hot Group of 5 candidates like Frank Wilson and Scott Frost will come up alongside big names like Jon Gruden, Chip Kelly, Bob Stoops (not to mention other current coaches like Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm), one veteran of the coaching search industry mentioned not to sleep on Brent Venables finally exploring a potential opening like this.

It makes plenty of sense of course, as Currie likely already has a thick file on the Clemson defensive coordinator for several years as he was always one of the top names mentioned to replace Bill Snyder at Kansas State (where Currie was AD). He certainly fits the mold of somebody who could be a good fit at the school and his recruiting background from Texas to Georgia to Florida and beyond would be a big plus for the school.

Venables is paid well and is as comfortable in his role at a school as any other coordinator in the country. It would take the right job to pry him away from a top-two program right now and there’s a lot of mutual fits that make sense on both sides. It certainly helps that he has a defensive focus and isn’t a Nick Saban clone (and better yet, has experience beating Alabama) either.

We likely have a long ways to go until it’s time to hold a press conference but no matter which direction the Vols end up taking come December, it’s pretty clear that it will be a departure from away from their current head coach.

3. Washington statement

I was high on the Cougars this season and thought double-digit wins was not out of the question under the right circumstances. It was all there – they had a good quarterback who is a tough as they come, a better-than-you-think run game for a Mike Leach team and a defense that everybody outside of Pullman was sleeping on.

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach

And on Friday night we saw it all come together for the biggest victory on the Palouse since the team went to the Rose Bowl around the turn of the century. Given some of the sluggishness we’ve seen out of their Apple Cup rival Washington, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the team is now the favorite in the Pac-12 North. It still seems a little bit much to throw the Cougars into the playoff picture just yet, but they’re certainly on the fringes if nothing else.

The biggest question mark I have is whether this team will suffer some sort of inexplicable loss, as has been the case under Leach just about every season. Games against Stanford, Utah and Washington will be tough enough to end the year but this team also has to avoid letdowns against Oregon, Cal and Colorado to really be taking seriously on the national stage.

As for the Trojans, their season isn’t done nor are they completely out of the national title picture. Sam Darnold is still one of the better quarterbacks in the country under pressure and now the entire team will have that backs-against-the-wall mentality they had in 2016’s run. The injuries are concerning though, especially in the trenches where they were already thin to begin with. There are a few big-time players in the front seven but nobody that scares you in the secondary and the wideouts look very average outside of Deontay Burnett.

Still, this is the most talented team overall in the Pac-12 and you can bet they’ll come out ready to run the ball about 45 times next week against Oregon State. You can’t entirely trust the coaching staff right now but if they can get past a difficult stretch in the middle of the month vs. Utah and at Notre Dame, this is still a team you can see in Santa Clara… possibly for a rematch with the Cougars.

4. UCF firmly in Group of 5 race

Memphis arrived in Orlando for a second time this year and it felt like the Tigers got back on the plane again instead of showing up for their game against UCF — further putting that win over UCLA in the rearview mirror. Quarterback Riley Ferguson was confused all game long in throwing three picks and there was little defense to speak of by the visitors from start to finish.

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But the story on Saturday night wasn’t about Mike Norvell’s team, but Scott Frost’s. Not only has the Knights’ defense played solid, the offense is as balanced as they come in the AAC and quarterback McKenzie Milton appears to be growing each week. The team is sitting at 3-0 on the year and is probably right there with rival USF as the favorites to win the conference and secure the Group of 5 bid.

One thing to keep in mind with that New Year’s Six bid and the Knights? The loss of the Georgia Tech game that was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. The Yellow Jackets could win their division in the ACC and that could have been a huge feather in their cap to go along with a dominating win at Maryland too. Resume is going to play an oversized part in the committee’s rankings given how closely some of these teams are bunched and it’s hard to think UCF will run the table.

That said, they do help inject even more life into a fascinating race to get into the New Year’s Six. Navy remains perfect after beating Tulsa on Saturday and will play Memphis, UCF, Notre Dame, SMU and Houston down the stretch. South Florida pulled away against East Carolina on the road and is starting to show more and more potential despite the Bulls not hitting on all cylinders against some dreadful teams this year.

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And don’t discount San Diego State either after the Aztecs didn’t have their best game but still survived against a Northern Illinois program coming off a win at Nebraska. The two toughest games on SDSU’s schedule both come at home (Boise State on Oct. 14, New Mexico on Nov. 24) and Rocky Long’s will get the benefit of having those contests after playing a pair of the Mountain West’s worst teams. Plus that Stanford win is looking a little better in retrospect considering how much Bryce Love is running wild on others. If anybody goes undefeated outside of the Power 5, this remains the team to pick.

There’s still plenty of football left though but this is quickly shaping up to be a fun little race throughout the next two months.

5. Don’t sleep on Notre Dame going forward

The Irish dropped 52 points on an overmatched Miami (Ohio) team on Saturday and while that result was expected, it’s time to come to grips with the fact that this team is very good and getting better each week. They pushed a top-five Georgia team to the brink earlier in the year and should be 5-1 when USC comes to South Bend for a rivalry game that suddenly is A LOT more interesting than it was a week ago.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

Josh Adams has been terrific and should be another running back who receive more attention nationally as we hit October. QB Brandon Wimbush had his moments against the RedHawks and you can bet the coaching staff will be using the next few weeks to help him keep improving as a passer. Add in a pretty tough defense and it’s pretty clear that 4-8 is very much in the rearview mirror for Notre Dame this year.

The schedule does pick up considerably after a trip to North Carolina but this is starting to look like a team that could be right in the mix for nine (or more) wins in 2017.

6. Mississippi blues

Next week marks the three-year anniversary from when Mississippi State ascended to No. 1 in the polls and Ole Miss was right behind them at No. 3. It was a glorious time around the Magnolia State where the Bulldogs and Rebels reigned supreme on the college football stage.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

Years later however, reality seems to be hitting that those memories might as well have been from a decade ago. Any elation from a big win over (a not so good) LSU team has evaporated in Starkville after MSU dropped the next two by a combined 80-13 margin. Auburn and Georgia are two of the top three teams in the league but still that’s quite the humbling follow-up for Dan Mullen’s squad and now you start to wonder how they’ll get back on track. Is this team really capable of beating an improving Texas A&M or an Arkansas squad that might be starting to figure some things out? It’s possible, but the Bulldogs are going to have to make sure that things don’t keep rolling downhill or this could get ugly fast.

At least they’re in a better spot than Egg Bowl rival Ole Miss, which was blown out by Alabama 66-3 in a game where the Rebels had maybe five competitive plays all night. Things kept dragging out in Tuscaloosa from all that scoring and celebrating that #Pac12AfterDark was in full swing by halftime and things aren’t exactly looking up with a trip to Auburn on deck. If you thought the school’s potential for further NCAA sanctions was concerning, that may be put on a back-burner for some after seeing how lifeless the team has played so far. The calendar may have just flipped to October but it’s certainly looking like a much longer football season than even the most optimistic of Rebels fans expected.

At least the tailgating will somewhat make up for the games themselves.

7. Quiet week plus a lackluster slate means...

Let’s face it, Week 5 was kind of a dud overall. There weren’t a ton of big upsets on Saturday and the top teams outside of USC mostly took care of business across the country. Looking ahead, the Week 6 slate features just one game between teams ranked in the top 25 and just a single ranked team on the road that’s under a 10-point favorite. In other words, it’s really lackluster sailing ahead.

But you know what that means... chaos is coming.

Stat of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Stanford RB Bryce Love

Best player: Utah State CB Jalen Davis (three interceptions, two pick-sixes)

Heisman five: 1. Saquon Barkley, 2. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 3. Bryce Love (Stanford), 4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 5. Rashaad Penny (San Diego State)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Penn State

Team of the week: Washington State

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Ed Orgeron

Quote of the week: “It’s like Woodstock, except everybody’s got their clothes on.” — Mike Leach after beating USC.

Play of the Week

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 6.

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Georgia

5. Penn State

6. TCU

7. Washington State

8. Wisconsin

9. Washington

10. Ohio State

11. Auburn

12. Michigan

13. Miami (FL)

14. Oklahoma State

15. Notre Dame

16. Louisville

Best of the rest: USC, Virginia Tech, San Diego State, Utah, West Virginia, UCF, Georgia Tech, Florida, Navy

Pre-snap Reads

Louisville at NC State

We haven’t had a great slate of Thursday night college football games so far but this could be one of the best this season as the defending Heisman Trophy winner takes on a pretty good NC State team that is still in the ACC division race. While we know how electric Lamar Jackson is, the big question is if his offensive line can block that deep D-line the Wolfpack can throw at you and if the Cardinals’ defense can contain the elusive Jaylen Samuels. We’ll lean Louisville by a field goal but there’s not a great read on this one that could go either way.

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College football rankings: Louisville

West Virginia at TCU

The Horned Frogs shut down one high-powered offense in beating a ranked team, can they do so again? They have the big edge on paper against the Mountaineers and should benefit a ton from being at home with a week’s rest after a big win. West Virginia can keep this close for a half but after that, expect TCU to pull away once the defense snags a few turnovers with that terrific secondary.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: TCU
College Football Top 25 Rankings: WVU

Miami at Florida State

If the Hurricanes can’t beat the Seminoles this year, when will they? This is the best chance the team has had in some time and only the rivalry factor could make things interesting given how bad FSU looked in a near loss to Wake Forest. The Miami front seven has the potential to have a huge game and the Canes’ offense has continued to progress. Jimbo Fisher probably has a few things saved up for this game but it looks more like a two-score margin for Mark Richt’s crew as they finally get that win they’ve wanted for a long time up in Tallahassee.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: FSU
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Miami

— 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.