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Seven-Step Drop: Separation Saturday Clarifies College Football Playoff Race

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CLEMSON, S.C. — In the end, it was just one yard.

One yard separated Clemson from Louisville this season, and only one. It’s hard for the most anticipated, top-five matchup of the regular season to live up to expectations but as the exuberance of the fans, players and coaches calmed down and the reality of an epic clash at Death Valley began to come into focus late Saturday night, it’s hard to more accurately sum up the difference between winning and losing than that single yard of fading green grass along the sidelines.

On one side of that yard line was Cardinals wide receiver James Quick, a Louisville native who four years ago became the highest-rated recruit in recent memory to commit to the program. The wideout has had an up-and-down career in the shadows of other receivers but the senior has developed into one of Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson’s favorite targets ever since he took over behind center late last year.

So it should have come as no shock that Quick was the safety valve out of the slot on 4th-and-12 in the waning seconds of the game. With all of the other options covered down field past the sticks and an extra blitzer bearing down, Jackson wisely got rid of the ball and tried to have Quick do the rest with nine yards from extending the comeback and 11 more separating him from the end zone.

Quick would never make it however, thanks to the play of Marcus Edmond. A redshirt junior, the Clemson corner is a first-year starter but he’s been in around the program for plenty of big plays and huge wins over the years but played mostly a background role seeing them unfold on the sidelines.

On Saturday night though, it was time to step up and add his name to the ledger of memorable moments in a big way. Edmonds swiftly closed on Quick and forced him out of bounds one yard short of the down marker. It set off a raucous celebration all over Memorial Stadium and most importantly preserved a 42-36 win that keeps the Tigers in control of their postseason destiny.

“He really hadn’t played. He missed all of camp getting back healthy,” head coach Dabo Swinney said of the corner after the game. “Last year at this time Marcus Edmond was running scout team routes against our defense. One year later he’s making the game-winning tackle on fourth down to seal the deal. That is so awesome to see.”

That it all came down to that one yard separating the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat was also wholly appropriate. It’s hard to think of a game with so many back-and-forth momentum swings on such a grand stage as this one. Make no mistake about it, this was a heavyweight prize fight between two of the best teams in the country. Just when you thought Clemson and Deshaun Watson had about put the game away, there was Jackson and the Cardinals storming back. Just when you thought the tired Tigers defense was about to give up the game-winning score, there was a veteran making a key play to deny it.

It certainly made for some fantastic theater. Louisville no doubt entered the game as the up and comers but proved, even in a loss, that it is one of the best teams in the country. Likewise, Clemson did too in the win; finally living up to the lofty preseason expectations and proving that last year’s run to the title game was no one-hit wonder either. In the end, all that separated the two was a single yard but the reason why the Tigers came out on the winning side of that line dates back much further than Saturday night.

Several Clemson players and coaches specifically brought up last year’s Notre Dame game as a reason why they never panicked while the Cardinals were running off touchdown after touchdown to retake the lead. That battle with the Irish, almost a year to the day, was between two top-12 teams and a game in which the Tigers survived a 19-point, fourth-quarter rally in monsoon-like conditions. In the end they made just enough plays, including a game-saving play on a two-point conversion with just seven seconds left that came up rather appropriately two yards short.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the culture of our program has been established over the last eight years was big tonight. They’ve been there,” Swinney said. “In 2011 when we won the division and started 8-0, we didn’t really handle it well down the stretch. We won 10 games, we won the league and got over some hurdles and got to the Orange Bowl but got killed in the Orange Bowl. All those things are part of your journey and success. You’ve got to fail somewhere along the line. If you don’t fail, you don’t appreciate the work and the winning.”

As much as that failure fueled Clemson on their recent run, one can’t help but think it will serve as the catalyst to help Louisville too. Jackson will remain atop Heisman ballots after that kind of effort and, with a relatively weak schedule coming up aside from a trip to Houston in late November, it will be hard to keep the Cardinals from a New Year’s Six Bowl at the bare minimum. Given how young the core of the team is, even higher expectations will come for Bobby Petrino’s squad in the future.

After all, play that game 10 more times and both sides would probably agree that the two teams would split the series at five apiece. The two ACC programs are just that close — one yard to be exact — this season. In the end the Tigers reached back into the well and simply found that little bit extra in order to pull off the victory.

“Five turnovers, two in the red zone, one of them a touchdown, against the No. 3 team in the country…and we win. Incredible,” Swinney exclaimed. “At the end of the day we’re 5-0 and we want to win 12 games. You can’t win 12 if you don’t win five.”

That fifth win also pretty much locks up the ACC Atlantic race for Clemson too. The Tigers not only created some separation between themselves and Louisville but are now a full two games up on rival Florida State in the conference and can all but pencil themselves in to the league title game and possibly the College Football Playoff too.

You could dub it “Separation Saturday” in many respects and not just because of the events in South Carolina. While October is only just getting underway, it really is remarkable how much the national title race narrowed with the events of Week 5.

Staying with the ACC, the conference created a bit of separation from itself and fellow Power Five leagues like the Big 12 and the Pac-12. Not only does the league have two elite teams that figure to remain top-10 staples, but an emerging middle class is helping lift the ACC too. North Carolina beat a Florida State team that is not without issues but is still pretty talented. Miami remained undefeated with a convincing win at Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech and Pitt have both looked solid and can still be a factor in the Coastal. The bottom half of the league is still pretty mediocre but developing depth starts from the top and filters down. That's more than you can say for those west of the Mississippi.

Elsewhere, Tennessee all but wrapped up their division this weekend too. The Volunteers, or perhaps more accurately the Zombie Vols, once again used a second half surge and a remarkable Hail Mary to beat Georgia. That gives them head-to-head wins over the only other two SEC East teams with a pulse in back-to-back weeks. A brutal stretch against the SEC West is what awaits the rest of the month but it's probably time to start making plans for Atlanta on championship weekend.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma survived a late scare from TCU to further confirm that even with two losses, the Sooners are the team to beat for the conference crown. That’s especially the case when you factor in the comebacks needed by both Baylor and West Virginia to remain undefeated on the season.

Up north in the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan remain on a collision course in late November. Maybe the more surprising development has been the emergence of Wisconsin — not defending champ Michigan State — among the league’s big three. If the Badgers continue to play stellar defense like they have been, they could play much more than spoiler if they reach Indianapolis for the title game.

Finally, the Pac-12 finally saw the emergence of something rather unexpected: an elite team in Washington. The Huskies thrashed league heavyweight Stanford in just about every way possible to likely lock up the North division title and returned Husky Stadium to its place among the great venues for a big college football matchup. Both teams’ schedules are very favorable and it’s not out of the question that both run the table.

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The Pac-12 South also saw some clarity emerge to the jumbled mess of teams competing to make it to Santa Clara. While surprising Colorado leads the standings, UCLA continues to look like the best team and the Bruins’ two close losses appear to be to pretty good top-15 teams. The Buffaloes could still be a factor but with Utah and Arizona State both losing on the road, it’s a division the Bruins should still be favored to win.

Even in the Group of Five several teams created some separation in various conference races. USF’s dispatching of Cincinnati further confirms they’re the ones likely to face Houston in the AAC title game with a potential New Year’s Six Bowl bid on the line. Western Michigan may also have a say about that bid after an impressive win over MAC West rival and fellow directional program CMU. The combination of San Diego State’s puzzling loss at South Alabama and Boise State’s win over Utah State in Week 5 also underscores that the Mountain West is the Broncos’ to lose.

There’s still a long ways to go before December but you can’t help but shake the feeling that this past week was a seismic one in terms of shaping the national title race. In some cases the separation was by just a yard while in other parts of the country the shift was much larger. Regardless, the postseason picture from coast to coast is certainly coming into focus. 

Stat of the Week

Alabama has scored a non-offensive touchdown in seven straight games dating back to last season and has a total of seven such scores in five games this year. The Crimson Tide’s defense has actually scored as many touchdowns as it has given up and has found the end zone as many times as South Carolina has on the season.

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

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Best player: Jamaal Williams (BYU)

Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), 3. Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), 4. Myles Garrett (Texas A&M), 5. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)

Team of the week: LSU

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)

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Quote of the week: Florida head coach Jim McElwain after beating Vanderbilt 13-6: "A wise man once told me: No matter what, you even got to bring them ugly babies home from the hospital. And that was ugly."

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. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Clemson

4. Houston

5. Michigan

6. Louisville

7. Washington

8. Texas A&M

9. Wisconsin

10. Tennessee

11. Ole Miss

12. Stanford

13. Boise State

14. Oklahoma

15. Miami

16. Arkansas

Best of the rest: UCLA, West Virginia, Baylor, North Carolina, Florida State, Air Force, Virginia Tech, Western Michigan, North Dakota State

Pre-snap Reads

Tennessee at Texas A&M

Can Tennessee step up and play decently in the first half for once? If the Volunteers don’t it could be a long day on the road in College Station, where the level of competition jumps up quite a few notches. The Vols compete hard but the Wrecking Crew defense ultimately gets things done for the Aggies on Saturday.

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Alabama at Arkansas

Arkansas has given Alabama a run for its money the past two seasons and are looking to finally get over the hump and hope the third time is the charm. The Razorbacks should be well rested to face a stiff Crimson Tide defense but this is a big spot for young Jalen Hurts and the offense in a hostile environment. Alabama stays perfect thanks to a big second half in the end however.

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Texas at Oklahoma

This game has undergone two name changes in the past decade, including going by the Red River Rivalry and Red River Showdown. Given the fact that neither defense has looked all that great and the offenses are able to pile up points and yards a plenty, it’s probably appropriate to say that Oklahoma will come out on top in what will be known again as the Red River Shootout, emphasis on the shootout part.

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— 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.

(Top photo courtesy of Clemson Football's Facebook page)