First & 20: Clemson, Louisville look like playoff teams

Anthony Gimino

October 02, 2016 at 2:47 pm.

Oct 1, 2016; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) reacts after the play during the first quarter against the Louisville Cardinals at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 1, 2016; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) reacts after the play during the first quarter against the Louisville Cardinals at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar turned to October, and college football staged a playoff game.

Or, to perhaps be more accurate, a playoff preview.

The selection committee didn’t have to make a truly difficult call in the first two years of the College Football Playoff, with conference champions inarguably fitting snuggly into all four spots. This season looks different.

Clemson’s hype-worthy 42-36 victory over Louisville on Saturday night showcased the choices the committee might have to make in early December. Each of these ACC teams look like they belong. The Big Ten has the same “problem.” More on that in a bit.

First, Clemson. The Tigers put the ACC Atlantic into a headlock. They now have the tiebreaker versus the Cardinals. Florida State has two losses. Clemson could lose, still play in the ACC title game and get into the playoff. Margin of error is nice.

Louisville has a great win (the rout of Florida State), a great loss (Clemson) and a great opportunity (Houston, Nov. 17). The Cardinals also have a great schedule, not having to play divisional cross-over games against Miami, North Carolina or Virginia Tech. Would an 11-1 Louisville team have a playoff resume? Oh, yeah.

Maybe that wouldn’t be the case in every season. Ohio State didn’t manage that trick last season, finishing 11-1, with its only loss to Big Ten champ Michigan State. But to repeat, this season is potentially different.

The Big 12 doesn’t have a lock on a playoff spot, unless you think Baylor is going to stay unblemished once it arrives at the meat of its schedule. And the Pac-12 might be down to one candidate — Washington, which humbled Stanford in a way that makes it tough for the Cardinal to recover nationally. Do the Huskies have staying power? We’ll see.

In any case, TWO of the Power 5 conferences are on the playoff ropes, opening the door for two teams from another league.

Like the Big Ten. Ohio State very well might be the most complete team in the country. Michigan looks the part, too. Could the 11-1 loser of that regular-season-ending rivalry make the playoff, too?

Of course, there’s a long way to go, but it’s a short top tier as of today: Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Louisville, Houston.

The second tier includes Washington, Baylor, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Miami … maybe even Nebraska and other interlopers.

In any case, we’d take this final four right now — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Louisville — and think all were the right call.

10 things we learned

1. Never say a team is “back” until it’s all the way back. Texas was “back” last year when it upset Oklahoma; then it was shut out at Iowa State two weeks later and didn’t even make a bowl. Texas was “back” this year when it beat Notre Dame in the opener; now it has given up 99 points in consecutive losses and the only thing that is “back” is talk about Charlie Strong’s job security.

2. We should apply the above thinking to Washington. Everybody is in a rush to anoint the Huskies after they cleaned Stanford’s clock 44-6 on Friday night. The Huskies are well-coached and well-constructed (including having future several pros on defense), but they still have to play at Oregon this Saturday and at Utah in a Pac-12 that usually finds a way to eat its own.

3. The Group of 5 race cleared up. Houston retains the pole position for a major New Year’s Day Bowl, if not a playoff spot. But the Cougars’ top contender, San Diego State, dropped its engine on the road at South Alabama, losing 42-24. Go figure the Jaguars. They have wins over Mississippi State and SDSU to sandwich losses to Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette.

4. The Pac-12 is upside down. Oregon is last in the Pac-12 North, just another team that can’t play defense. Colorado, which hasn’t been to a bowl since 2007 and had averaged one Pac-12 victory per year in its first five years in the league, is 2-0 and first in the Pac-12 South. Takeaway: The Mark Helfrich era won’t end well in Eugene, because you don’t give up 280 RUSHING yards to a Mike Leach-coached team without being shoved to the edge of the plank.

5. A new coordinator didn’t solve Notre Dame’s defense. Head coach Brian Kelly jettisoned Brian VanGorder last Sunday and promoted defensive analyst Greg Hudson, and then the Irish gave up 489 yards and 33 points to Syracuse. The defense settled down after being swamped by the Orange’s up-tempo spread, but the rest of Notre Dame’s season lays out as a series of shootouts.

6. Les Miles WAS the problem. The former LSU head man is a very good coach who made a series of bad decisions with his offense. So, he’s gone, and the ball of atomic energy known as Ed Orgeron is the interim coach, and, naturally, the LSU offense goes all nuclear Saturday. Even without injured star running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers ran up 634 yards — their most ever in an SEC game — in a 42-7 win over Missouri. Coach O puts the O in LSU.

7. Don’t ever extend a coach’s contract when you don’t have to extend a coach’s contract. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz had a deal through 2019. He wasn’t leaving. Nobody was coming to steal him away. Then the school, early last month, extended his contract through 2025. Then the Hawkeyes lost to North Dakota State and Northwestern at home.

8. Tennessee is blessed. The team that couldn’t win in the fourth quarter last year suddenly can’t lose. The Vols’ latest comeback was their most improbable, with a Hail Mary to shock Georgia 34-31. Can a “lucky” team make it all the way to national title game? We could ask 2013 Auburn.

9. Miami’s prove-it time has arrived. New coach Mark Richt has the Hurricanes at 4-0. Saturday’s win at Georgia Tech was nice. The NFL scouts love quarterback Brad Kaaya. But this five-game stretch awaits: Florida State, North Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame, Pitt.

10. Get ready to focus on Alabama. The Tide deftly shut down Kentucky on Saturday while everyone was watching something else. Nick Saban’s guys won’t be far from our thoughts with Alabama and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts taking on this upcoming schedule: at Arkansas, at Tennessee, vs. Texas A&M, at LSU.

5 Heisman candidates

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Can a quarterback lose a game and still be No. 1 in the race? You betcha. Our eyes don’t lie: Even in defeat, Jackson was the best player on the field, and it might not have been that close.

2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. The Deshaun Watson who carved up Alabama in last season’s national title game has yet to fully re-emerge — talk about high standards — but he did throw for five touchdowns versus Louisville and did get the win, shaking off a three-interception night.

3. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. The junior became the Buckeyes’ career leader for touchdown passes on Saturday as Ohio State killed time with a romp over Rutgers.

4. Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston. Compare and contrast: He’ll be on the same field as Lamar Jackson on Nov. 17.

5. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina. After the Tar Heels’ wild win over Florida State, he’s sixth nationally in passing efficiency, with 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and the nation’s best completion percentage at 76.0.

5 games to watch in Week 6

1. Tennessee at Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET). Two of the SEC’s three 5-0 teams meet in College Station, and only one can emerge as the true challenger to Alabama.

2. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas, noon ET) — Please check the Lost and Found at the State Fair for two missing defenses.

3. Alabama at Arkansas (7 p.m. ET) — Two years ago in Fayetteville, the Crimson Tide barely escaped with a 14-13 victory.

4. LSU at Florida (noon ET) — Is the LSU offense back? We’ll know way more after the Tigers run into the nation’s No. 2 total defense.

5. Florida State at Miami (8 p.m. ET) — Are the Hurricanes the best team in Florida? Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s prospect takeaways for this week, highlighted by Friday’s Top 10 duel between Washington and Stanford. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

–DT Vita Vea, Washington, 6-5, 332, rSo. (No. 28 DT in Class of 2019): With more than 20 NFL scouts in attendance for the Huskies’ home game against Stanford, Vea showed off the agility and speed that already had him on the radar of many, helping limit Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey to 49 rushing yards.

–OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin, 6-5, 314, rJr. (#21 OT in Class of 2018): One of the hottest names in the scouting community entering the game, the Division III transfer had never experienced anything like the noise in Ann Arbor or Michigan’s senior-laden front. After surrendering early pressure, Ramczyk largely held his own and showed off the nimble feet, balance and physical punch that have scouts so intrigued.

–DT Elijah Qualls, Washington, 6-2, 225, Jr. (No. 9 DT in Class of 2019): Belying the square-ish frame which has earned comparisons to former teammate — and Cleveland Browns first-round pick — Danny Shelton, Qualls possesses impressive initial quickness to threaten gaps. His variety of pass-rush moves (including an over-arm swim and spin) gave even Johnny Caspers, Stanford’s most experienced offensive lineman, trouble.

–DE Chris Wormley, Michigan, 6-4, 303, rSr. (#70 overall, #7 DT): Wormley’s stout frame and power are a significant contrast to the quickness and length of teammate Taco Charlton. Wormley supplied consistent pressure, impacting quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s accuracy throughout the game. He added his fourth sack of the season by undercutting tackle Jacob Maxwell with a quick inside rip that demonstrated his quickness and core strength. Wormley moves well for a man of his size, showing light feet and balance to maneuver, traits which will intrigue scouts for traditional 4-3 and 3-4 clubs.

–OLB Joe Mathis, Washington, 6-2, 255, Sr. (#208, #17 OLB): Of all of Washington’s impressive defensive performances Friday night, Mathis may have helped his draft stock the most, recording several key tackles. Graded by scouts as a free agent entering the season, Mathis looked every bit the part of a draft-worthy prospect against the Cardinal’s normally stout offensive line, alternately impressing with his core strength on bull rushes and quick hands and effective rip move to wreak havoc off the edge.