After Alabama opened the college football season with a 44-13 rout against Miami in Atlanta, there was probably the same collective moan from Athens, Georgia, to Eugene, Oregon: “Oh, no, not again!”
Then, after the defending national champion barely survived a 31-29 victory at Florida on Saturday, the widespread reaction was: “Oh, man, Alabama hasn’t been this vulnerable since Nick Saban’s first season.”
Well, if we’ve learned anything in the first three weeks of the season, it’s that the Hurricanes aren’t that good and the Gators might actually be better than expected. Since when did beating the No. 11-ranked team in the country on the road, with a first-year starting quarterback no less, become such an alarm bell?
Doubt the Crimson Tide all you want. This isn’t the first time Alabama’s defense has looked shaky en route to winning a national championship.
Here are some other overreactions from this past weekend:
The Pac-12 should just stop playing football (except Oregon)
Let’s look back at what transpired in the first three weeks on the West Coast: The league’s most visible program, USC, fired its coach, Clay Helton, after two games. Washington, ranked No. 20 in the preseason, lost to FCS program Montana in its opener. BYU went 3-0 against Pac-12 foes, taking down Arizona, Utah and Arizona State. Half of the league’s 12 teams already have two or more losses, and No. 3 Oregon is the lone unbeaten team left and the only hope for the College Football Playoff. The Ducks might want to ask the Big 12 if it still has room.
What happened Saturday night was inexcusable, even for a league that has struggled to remain relevant in the CFP era. UCLA, which looked so good against LSU, surrendered two 75-yard touchdown drives in the final 7½ minutes to blow a pair of leads in a 40-37 loss against Fresno State at the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs needed only 40 seconds within the game’s final minute to score the winning touchdown. Meanwhile, Arizona State had four turnovers and 16 penalties in its 27-17 loss at BYU.
And those weren’t even the worst performances by Pac-12 schools. Colorado had 63 yards of offense in an ugly 30-0 loss at home to Minnesota. The Buffaloes had 82 passing yards and minus-19 rushing. They had nearly as many three-and-outs (five) as first downs (six). Their leading rusher was backup quarterback Drew Carter, who had 9 yards on two carries.
“Offensively, we’re struggling in a number of areas,” Buffaloes coach Karl Dorrell said. “And it’s not just the quarterback. It’s protection, it’s the run game, it’s receivers, it’s backs, it’s everything.”
Arizona dropped its 15th straight game, the longest losing streak in the FBS, this time against FCS program Northern Arizona, 21-19 at home. Afterward, according to The Associated Press, a Lumberjacks coach in the press box shouted, “We [expletive] run this state!” Hard to argue with that.
Clemson will win the ACC because no one else is any good
As Clemson rolled to six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020, we grew accustomed to the Tigers just plugging and playing quarterbacks without missing a beat, regardless of how good the guy was who left. The Tigers won a national championship with Deshaun Watson and then another with Trevor Lawrence.
Even after Lawrence was chosen No. 1 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL draft this past spring, we expected his backup, D.J. Uiagalelei, to pick up where Lawrence left off. Uiagalelei played extremely well when Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19 in 2020, throwing for nearly 800 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame and Boston College.
Through three games, however, Uiagalelei has yet to throw for 200 yards and ranks 89th among FBS quarterbacks in Total QBR (43.6). The No. 9 Tigers have just one touchdown pass (against FCS program South Carolina State) and allowed seven sacks against Georgia. As my colleague David Hale pointed out, Clemson has just two completions of more than 20 yards and is averaging 3.75 yards per dropback against Power 5 opponents, which is second worst among Power 5 teams (ahead of only Colorado).
“It’s everybody around D.J., too,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They have to improve. D.J. has prepared every day. It’s just a matter of time before he puts it all together and has the type of game we know he’s capable of having.”
It’s unfair to put Clemson’s early struggles entirely on Uiagalelei’s shoulders. The Tigers’ offensive line didn’t stand a chance against Georgia’s dominant defense in their opener, and it struggled again in a 14-8 victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Justyn Ross’ return from a neck injury hasn’t opened up the downfield passing game as they’d hoped, and they sorely miss departed tailback Travis Etienne, maybe even more so than Lawrence. Against Georgia and Georgia Tech, Clemson had only three runs of more than 10 yards, none more than 15 and averaged 1.33 yards before contact, which ranks 104th in the FBS.
If there’s a shortcoming in Swinney’s machine, it has been recruiting and developing blue-chip offensive linemen, although the Tigers’ recruiting at the position has recently improved. According to data from ESPN Stats & Information, only five Tigers offensive linemen have been selected in the NFL draft since 2009, including three in the past two drafts. In comparison, 13 schools have had more than 10 offensive linemen drafted during that span.
Given Clemson’s recent dominance of the ACC, one might assume its offense will simply turn it up a gear and run through the league once again. These problems, however, seem to be more complex than that. It’s not just one area that needs to improve, it’s the entire unit. Clemson’s defense has yet to allow a touchdown, which might be enough to beat middling ACC teams. But, at some point, the lack of offensive production is going to catch up with Clemson, perhaps at NC State on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN App).
Notre Dame is a CFP contender
The No. 12 Fighting Irish are 3-0 after Saturday’s 27-13 victory against Purdue, but the early results haven’t been too promising. They needed overtime to beat (still winless) Florida State and a late touchdown to sneak past Toledo (which was then manhandled by Colorado State).
Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive line, which had to replace three players selected in this past spring’s NFL draft, has already lost its first- and second-team left tackles to injuries. Quarterback Jack Coan, who faces his former team, Wisconsin, at Soldier Field on Saturday, has been steady, but his limited mobility is a liability behind his current protection. The line has also struggled to make room for Notre Dame’s talented running backs; the Irish had only 63 yards on 27 carries before Kyren Williams had a 51-yard scoring run late in the fourth quarter against the Boilermakers.
This isn’t coach Brian Kelly’s most talented team (although they should just go ahead and give safety Kyle Hamilton the Jim Thorpe Award), and it certainly is not as good as the ones that made the CFP in two of the previous three seasons. Given the early struggles and its upcoming schedule (No. 8 Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina after the No. 18 Badgers), Notre Dame might be lucky to make a New Year’s Six bowl.
Michigan State is the best team in Michigan
Given Colorado’s struggles, Buffaloes fans can’t be too happy about what’s transpiring at Michigan State. Their former one-and-done coach, Mel Tucker, has guided the Spartans to their first 3-0 start since 2015 following a 38-17 road upset of Miami on Saturday.
Tucker worked under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart and his team is a clear reflection of his coaching background. Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III leads the FBS in rushing with 164.3 yards per game, 24 more than the next-closest player. It isn’t a one-dimensional offense, either. Quarterback Payton Thorne threw for four touchdowns in each of the past two games. Thanks to three sacks, the Michigan State defense limited the Hurricanes to only 2.2 yards per carry.
“Our players believe in what we’re doing, believe in our process, and it’s going to reinforce all the things that we’ve preached, everything that we work on every day,” Tucker said.
The Spartans’ next four games are more than manageable — against Nebraska, Western Kentucky, Rutgers and Indiana. If they can handle success, there is a chance they’ll be 7-0 heading into an Oct. 30 home game against Michigan. Michigan has also looked good, so it’s probably too early to say which team will be better by season’s end. One thing is clear: The Spartans are coming on fast.
BYU is the best non-Power 5 team in the FBS
At No. 8 in the AP Top 25 poll after a 3-0 start, Cincinnati remains the highest-ranked team from a Group of 5 league. The Bearcats got past their first Power 5 hurdle Saturday, rallying from a 14-0 deficit and taking advantage of four Indiana turnovers en route to a 38-24 road victory. The Bearcats have an open date Saturday before their road trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 2.
If the Bearcats are going to return to a New Year’s Six bowl game for the second season in a row, however, they might need No. 15 BYU to lose at least once. The Cougars are the only FBS team that has defeated three Power 5 teams (the aforementioned Pac-12 opponents). Independent BYU will play four more during the regular season — Baylor, Washington State and USC on the road and Virginia at home. If the Cougars win out, and that’s asking a lot, it’s going to be difficult to keep a Group of 5 team ahead of them.