Nitpicking Clemson, Alabama and all the CFP contenders through Week 8

Sports

On Saturday, Clemson turned the ball over four times, trailed by as much as 14, benched its starting QB and won. That, Dabo Swinney said, is the headline.

Got it?

No, don’t ask about that quarterback controversy. It doesn’t exist. Figment of your imagination. Swinney is essentially Kevin Bacon at the end of “Animal House,” standing in the midst of a stampede and yelling, “All is well!”

Swinney spent the entire offseason hyping DJ Uiagalelei, despite his struggles in 2021. The coach has spent the first seven weeks of this season dishing out one “I told you so” after another, including as recently as last week, when he called doubts of Uiagalelei “embarrassing” and a product of “the world we live in now.”

And when Clemson was trailing by 10 and Uiagalelei coughed up his third turnover of the game midway through the third quarter, Swinney came with the hook.

Why? Swinney believed freshman Cade Klubnik could give the offense a spark, and the move worked. Clemson scored on three of its next four drives. Sure, Klubnik completed just two passes in the game, so his inspiration was more Rob Schneider in “The Waterboy” than Bill Pullman in “Independence Day.” But hey, a win is a win.

In the aftermath, Swinney emphatically assured Clemson fans that Uiagalelei is still the starter as the Tigers, now 8-0, head into an off week with their ACC Atlantic Division crown all but assured. They will not play another ranked opponent this year.

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Clemson switches quarterbacks in the second half and overcomes four turnovers to beat Syracuse 24-21.

But Swinney is right. The world is a cold, callous place, and so we must also ask the bigger question: Is this an 8-0 team capable of winning a national championship?

Before last season, the answer might have been an emphatic, “Yes!” After all, we’d seen Clemson shrug off mediocrity before and still keep winning. Look back at Swinney’s first national title in the 2016 campaign. That season, the Tigers struggled against Troy, only beat NC State because of a missed chip shot as time expired and lost to Pitt. But Deshaun Watson still found Hunter Renfrow in the back corner of the end zone at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium in the title game against Alabama, and no one needed to remember those regular-season struggles after that.

But then 2021 happened, and despite its 10-3 finish Clemson was clearly vulnerable. The wins were less destiny than they were rugged determination. That is commendable but perhaps not sustainable.

Clemson needed double overtime to get past Wake Forest and nearly coughed up a big lead a week ago against Florida State. And if not for Syracuse‘s utterly mind-boggling decision to put Sean Tucker into witness protection Saturday — “I felt like he was the one guy who could flat-out beat us,” Swinney said afterward — there’s every reason to think this might be more 2021 than 2016.

And yet, is this question any different from the ones posed at Oregon or Alabama or Michigan and on down the line?

The Ducks demolished UCLA on Saturday and established themselves as the clear front-runner in the Pac-12, but does that matter when they’ve already been curb-stomped by Georgia in the opener?

Should we forget the way the Bulldogs demolished them way back when if the recent data points are far more impressive? Do we need a rematch of a game that was over by the end of the first quarter? It’s complicated.

Ole Miss offered the SEC an alternative to the Crimson Tide, but LSU sent the Rebels scurrying on out of Louisiana like a crawdad in a steam pot, as Brian Kelly would say.

But Lane Kiffin’s crew will still get its shot at Alabama, and if it should win, wouldn’t the Rebels be a playoff team? It’s complicated.

Or how about those Crimson Tide? Nick Saban likely spent this week of practice like Jigsaw, planning ever more sadistic dilemmas for his team to maneuver, but the rat poison was successfully expelled from Alabama’s system with a 30-6 win over Mississippi State. Yes, the Tide have appeared vulnerable against Texas and A&M and lost to Tennessee, but does anyone really think Alabama can’t be a playoff team? Well, it’s complicated.

Despite the easy win, Alabama finished with just 290 yards of total offense — its lowest production in an SEC game since 2014.

Are we sold on Tennessee? Has Georgia just been easing into the season like it’s a warm bath? Is Michigan a fitting adversary for Ohio State?

Max Duggan wasn’t perfect Saturday in the 38-28 TCU win, but he was exceptional when he had to be, and the Horned Frogs’ ground game pounded away at Kansas State until the Wildcats finally gave way. TCU has been tied or behind in the second half of each of its last three games, including against Kansas State’s backup QB on Saturday, all of which might underscore just how narrow the margin is for the Horned Frogs, but it’s a line they’ve yet to cross. Does that make TCU a playoff team? Well, it’s complicated.

If we’re nitpicking, we’ll find nearly all teams left wanting. In other words, it’s all complicated.

But Swinney isn’t nitpicking. Well, sure, he picked a few nits with his starting quarterback Saturday, but bygones are bygones now. The point is, Clemson won. So, too, did Alabama and Oregon and Penn State and Oklahoma State. Their chase continues.

In the end, Clemson is 8-0, one of just six teams (Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU) left with a zero in the loss column.

And when it comes time for the committee to pick nits and split hairs, that zero looms awfully large because winning every game is the one way to erase all the complications and make the committee’s decision simple.


Nix, Ducks roll past UCLA

We would like to issue a formal apology to Bo Nix. He is not the reason Auburn fans spent four years beating their heads against a wall, shouting “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

Nix bested UCLA 45-30 with a brilliant performance Saturday, completing 22-of-28 passes for 283 yards and five touchdowns. He ran for 51 more yards. He electrified a fan base that remains blissfully unaware of all the pain he once helped inflict in his old life.

Yes, the numbers at Auburn seemed to suggest Nix was at the root of the problem, but as Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and Nix’s numbers were the most insidious of lies.

Yes, we watched Nix struggle in his Oregon debut as the Ducks were steamrolled by Georgia, but that was an unfair sample. It was like starting fresh at a new high school with a chance to finally fit in with the cool kids, only to bump into an old classmate at the mall. Georgia knew Auburn Bo Nix too well.

But look past all that. Look at what Nix has become now that he’s clear of Auburn, past Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin and … boy, it feels like there were six or seven other coaches in there, too. Oh, sure, Nix was an Auburn legacy and a five-star recruit, but The Plains has eaten up better men than that. But after years of tumult, Nix finally realized that this relationship was toxic, that he had to move on. Nothing in Taylor Swift’s discography captures the emotion of this breakup.

And when Nix left, he got as far away as he could go. And at long last, he was free.

Nix has Oregon at 6-1 and undefeated in Pac-12 play. Despite that brutal opener against Georgia, the Ducks have miraculously forced their way back into playoff conversation. Nix’s performance Saturday helped the Oregon fan base fully exorcise one of its demons, forcing Chip Kelly to return, defeated, to the sad suburban condo with the empty pool that we all assume he lives at.

What happened at Auburn was inevitable. Nix just happened to be playing QB at the time, like the activities director on the Titanic. So, consider this Nix’s “Good Will Hunting” moment. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.


Eight is enough

Over the summer, Mario Cristobal wanted to assure the public that Miami was serious about winning and didn’t need any gimmicks to get the job done. So, Cristobal said, no more turnover chain.

Big mistake.

The turnover chain was not a gimmick. It was a sacred relic, and its destruction has signaled the end times in Coral Gables.

Duke annihilated Miami 45-21 on Saturday, as the Hurricanes coughed up the football eight times.

Eight. Times.

Now, it’d be easy enough to chalk up all the turnovers to the simple fact that Miami is a very bad football team. But that would be like suggesting there are so many “Fast and Furious” movies because Vin Diesel is America’s greatest living thespian. Both things are true, but those facts alone cannot explain such prolific output.

No, for Miami there can be but one obvious culprit: Cristobal angered the football gods, and he must now go on a mythic quest, through corridors haunted by the ghosts of Al Golden and Randy Shannon, scale the unconquerable mountains of the ACC Coastal Division and survive an epic freestyle battle with Uncle Luke to retrieve the turnover chain and return it to its rightful place on Miami’s sideline.

The whole thing is already in development at HBO.


Sanders leads Cowboys past Texas

Quinn Ewers has had some rough moments this season. His car was towed. He hurt his shoulder. He had to watch Oklahoma play for an entire game. But Saturday was his rock bottom.

Ewers completed just 19 of 49 throws and tossed three interceptions in Texas’ 41-34 loss at Oklahoma State.

The Pokes were playing with a battered offensive line, but Spencer Sanders still delivered some critical throws, tossing two touchdowns, while Jaden Nixon showed he could’ve run over Texas’ defense wearing bedroom slippers.

It was a huge bounce-back win for Oklahoma State after blowing a late lead against TCU last week. The Cowboys are 6-1, and Sanders has firmly established himself as either the best bad QB or worst good QB in the country.

After the Longhorns lost twice without Ewers earlier this season, Saturday’s defeat can at least remove any linger “What if” debates and allow Texas to completely turn its attention to keeping trick-or-treaters safe from monkey attacks this week.


Iowa digs past rock bottom

Iowa finally benched Spencer Petras on Saturday, after he managed just eight completions — six to his team, and two to Ohio State. But honestly, benching isn’t enough salvation for Petras. It’s time Quarterback Protective Services steps in and removes him from his home. He deserves to run free on a farm upstate.

Even after Petras was benched, things didn’t get better for the Hawkeyes. Alex Padilla completed just five of 10 passes for 32 yards and an interception, essentially assuring Iowa’s QB depth chart is just the two Spider-Mans pointing at each other meme.

How bad was it?

Iowa was 1-of-13 on third-down tries.

Iowa had six turnovers. (Miami can expect a thank-you card from coordinator Brian Ferentz this week.)

Iowa averaged 2.2 yards per run and yet the QBs were so bad the Hawkeyes still chose to run it 35 times.

There’s only one logical solution to Iowa’s offensive woes at this point. It’s time for Kirk Ferentz to fire his son and hire Jeff Bowden.


Under-the-radar play of the week

If you missed the ending to Stanford vs. Arizona State, we understand. Watching that game was punishment for shoplifting in several states. And perhaps fittingly, the final moments were every bit as unfortunate as a matchup between two bad teams would suggest.

Trailing 15-14, Arizona State chucked a Hail Mary throw down the sideline on fourth-and-19, which appeared to be hauled in by Elijhah Badger to set up a game-winning field goal with just seconds remaining.

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Arizona State falls to Stanford in the final seconds as Emory Jones has one foot out on the 4th-and-19 catch that would have set up a game-winning field goal.

Upon replay review, however, the call was overturned, with officials saying Badger had a toe out of bounds on the catch, allowing Stanford to snap a 10-game conference losing streak.


Under-the-radar game of the week

Rhode Island and Monmouth put on a marathon Saturday, playing seven overtimes before the Rams emerged with a 48-46 win. Not since the famed Texas A&M-LSU epic has a college football game between two teams no one cared about gone on so very, very long.

The game featured seven ties and four lead changes. Monmouth QB Tony Muskett — who also may have been a character on “Bonanza” — threw for three touchdowns. Rhode Island QB Kasim Hill threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, including a 73-yarder to Marques DeShields with 3:23 remaining to tie the game at 35, but he also tossed three picks.

In the first OT, both teams traded touchdowns. Both went scoreless in the second frame. Then it went to 2-point tries, and the Rams and Hawks stayed even through four more frames. In the seventh OT, Rhode Island broke up a pass in the end zone, and Hill completed his throw to Ed Lee to secure the win.

Sadly, Jimbo Fisher’s nephew was not able to attend, so this seven-OT game did not end with fisticuffs, and frankly, we cannot truly embrace seven overtimes unless someone wearing khakis starts taking swings at complete strangers.


We hate to be the ones to bring this up, but it needs to be said: Liberty is 7-1.

We know, we know: When quarterback Malik Willis left, we all hoped we could safely stop paying attention to the Flames. But somehow, they’ve kept winning, including a 41-14 stomping of BYU on Saturday behind 213 rushing yards from Dae Dae Hunter.

Liberty’s lone loss came on a missed 2-point try against 6-1 Wake Forest.

Liberty has won with three different starting QBs.

Liberty is — deep breaths — good.

Is it possible Hugh Freeze is fueled by the country’s anger at him, like the emperor in “Star Wars?” (We also assume that if Twitter existed in a galaxy far, far away, Palpatine would slide into Obi-Wan’s DMs to complain about rebel criticisms too.) There’s simply no keeping the guy down (even when he is literally kept down).

So, do we need to take Liberty seriously? The only acceptable answer is yes. To embrace Freeze is to take away his power. Or, if not that, maybe Iowa should hire him.


Heisman Five

Even in a week in which three of the nine remaining undefeated teams lost, there wasn’t much room for shake-ups at the top of the Heisman hopeful list.

1. Tennessee Volunteers QB Hendon Hooker

Tee Martin won a national championship at Tennessee. UT Martin, on the other hand, struggled badly at Tennessee on Saturday. The Skyhawks had no answers for Hooker, who averaged more than 11 yards per throw and tossed three more touchdowns.

2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud

Exposure to the Hawkeyes’ offense took its toll on Stroud, who struggled through the first half, but thankfully Ryan Day was able to perform a full Iowa exorcism (it involves spewing creamed corn instead of pea soup) and Stroud rebounded with four second-half TD throws.

3. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Young did all he could to pull Alabama over the finish line last week against Tennessee, but we were still worried he might catch some strays from Saban during practice this week. Thankfully, he survived, and he returned with another strong day, throwing for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide’s 30-0 win over Mississippi State.

4. USC QB Caleb Williams

USC was off Saturday, leaving Lincoln Riley with an extra week to find some defenders in the transfer portal.

5. Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman

Wake is 6-1 after drubbing Boston College, and in the lone loss, Hartman had six touchdown passes. He nearly matched that total Saturday, throwing for five touchdowns and running for a sixth in the win. Hartman now has the third-most passing TDs in ACC history (93), trailing only Tajh Boyd and Philip Rivers, all despite also working part time as a 1920s mafia hit man.


The most college football thing to happen Saturday

We talk often about the plague of #CollegeKickers, with flubbed chip shots invariably costing teams a needed win on an almost weekly basis. Long-snappers, on the other hand, tend to fly below the radar.

Unfortunately for Weber State‘s Grant Sands, his Saturday will be remembered for a long time.

Sands snapped the football over the punter’s head and out of the back of the end zone for a safety four times against Montana State on Saturday, handing the Bobcats eight points in a game that Montana State ultimately won 43-38.

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Weber State is on the wrong end of the record books as it surrenders four safeties on errant special teams snaps.


Big bets and bad beats

Miami has been favored to win four times this season. The Hurricanes are now 1-3 in those games after a miserable eight-turnover loss to Duke on Saturday. Miami has now lost as a 25.5-point favorite to Middle Tennessee, a 10-point favorite to Duke and a four-point favorite to North Carolina. The Hurricanes’ lone win as a favorite came against Virginia Tech, after they failed to cover a nine-point spread in a 20-14 victory.


Clemson trailed Syracuse 21-10 at the half on Saturday, which was just about the perfect spot for the Tigers — or at least for sharp bettors. The Tigers were -9.5 in the second half, and they covered that number easily, outscoring the Orange 17-0 in the final two frames. That makes Clemson coach Dabo Swinney 11-2 against the second-half spread in his career when trailing at halftime.

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