The late-night reaction to Clemson’s 47-21 pounding of Louisville on Saturday understandably centered on the Tigers. How Kelly Bryant sure looks like a worthy heir to Deshaun Watson. How Clemson’s defense might be better than ever under coordinator Brent Venables. How it’s mistaken to say the Tigers aren’t back in contention for a national title, because they never really left.

While there are plenty of chances to look more closely at Clemson — a trip to Virginia Tech at month’s end and a visit from Florida State in November among them — it is possible Saturday’s game was just as definitive for Louisville.

The Cardinals (2-1, 1-1 ACC) will try to get back on the horse Saturday against Kent State but might be done as ACC contenders this year. Sure, they could win at Florida State, which is a mystery at this stage thanks to losing quarterback Deondre Francois for the season and then not playing the past two weekends. And the Seminoles might go to Death Valley and win a low-scoring slog against Clemson.

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But for that to matter, Louisville — loser of four of its past six since the end of last season — would have to navigate the rest of its league schedule without losing. Assuming there’s another stumble over the Cardinals’ last six ACC games, the Lamar Jackson era will have come and gone with plenty of highlights but little in the way of meaningful team hardware.

While Jackson is still Jackson, the Louisville defense has struggled in its first three games under new coordinator Peter Sirmon, who arrived from Mississippi State. The Cardinals have faced Purdue, North Carolina and Clemson — admittedly not a fun stretch — and rank 104th nationally in yards allowed, 115th in scoring defense and 122nd in passing defense. Chances are, someone will outscore Louisville between now and the end of the year. Maybe multiple someones.

What’s more jarring is the bigger-picture implication. If the Cardinals couldn’t win the league when they had the best player in the country, when can they?

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The answer might be when Clemson and Florida State aren’t maximizing their built-in advantages, something unlikely to happen so long as Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher are around.

It’s possible for someone other than Clemson or Florida State to represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game; just ask Wake Forest (2006) and Boston College (2007-08). But those titles were collected during the decline phase of a pair of Bowden eras (Bobby at Florida State, Tommy at Clemson).

In the original Atlantic, everyone else contended at the leisure of Clemson and Florida State. Louisville, though better-resourced than much of the division, might have to live with a similar fate.

Aztecs’ money Penny

In case anyone thought San Diego State might miss career FBS rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey too much, former understudy Rashaad Penny has put those concerns to rest.

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Penny has rushed for 588 yards in the Aztecs’ first three games, rumbling for 216 yards against Arizona State and then adding 175 yards last week against Stanford. After rushing for 1,018 yards as a backup last season, he’s well on his way to surpassing that total as a senior.

San Diego State (3-0) has a chance to contend for a New Year’s Six bowl bid with Penny carrying a hefty load. The Aztecs, who will visit Air Force on Saturday, play in the weaker half of the Mountain West and face divisional crossover opponent Boise State at home.

Though there are other Group of Five possibilities (Memphis and South Florida of the American Athletic Conference, most prominently), San Diego State and its latest star tailback should remain in the conversation for quite some time.

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Big 12’s big start

The College Football Playoff is dissected every which way, but the early returns — coupled with common sense — dictate that the best way for anyone to earn an invitation to the four-team tournament is to go undefeated while playing in a power conference. The next best way is to lose once but beat a couple of high-end teams while (preferably, but not necessarily) winning a league title.

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By this point last year, only two teams in the Big 12 (Baylor and West Virginia) owned undefeated records, and the perception was the best victory the league could boast was Texas’s wild defeat of a Notre Dame team that would go on to finish 4-8. (In reality, Oklahoma State’s triumph over Pittsburgh would prove to be the most compelling result.)

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It would have taken chaos elsewhere or a surprise title run from Baylor or West Virginia for a Big 12 team to reach the playoff. Chaos did not unfold, Baylor collapsed in the second half and West Virginia turned out to be perfectly solid but not a league champion.

This year, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Christian have gone on the road and defeated Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Arkansas, respectively. None has lost a game, and neither has Texas Tech. And just as the Big 12 was toast by mid-September last year, its results over the first quarter of this season are promising.

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And, it should be noted, it didn’t need a 13th data point to make it happen.

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Boren set to exit

University of Oklahoma President David Boren announced Wednesday that he would retire at the end of June, a decision that will end a 24-year run at the school.

This isn’t a run-of-the-mill presidential retirement, especially as far as college athletics is concerned. On the former U.S. senator’s watch, Oklahoma entrenched itself as national contenders in several sports thanks to shrewd coaching hires (football’s Bob Stoops among them). But Boren also had a way of attracting media attention, and he was a central figure as the Big 12 teetered on the edge of disintegration earlier this decade.

One thing seems clear: The next president in Norman will not play quite as large a role in the next round of Big 12 realignment angst as his predecessor, if or (probably) when that does occur.

Five games to watch

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No. 16 Texas Christian at No. 6 Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN): Mason Rudolph threw for nearly 500 yards last week at Pittsburgh to help the Cowboys (3-0, 0-0 Big 12) put together another dominant performance. Can that consistency continue in the league opener for both teams?

No. 1 Alabama at Vanderbilt (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): The host Commodores (3-0) edged Kansas State, 14-7, last week and are perfectly comfortable engaging in a low-scoring slog. Alabama (3-0) won’t see many defenses better than Vanderbilt’s, though the Commodores will also struggle to score even against a depleted Crimson Tide defense.

No. 17 Mississippi State at No. 11 Georgia (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN): Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald got loose in last week’s pounding of Louisiana State. If he does it again against Georgia, the Bulldogs (SEC West edition) will be the clear-cut No. 2 team in the SEC.

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No. 4 Penn State at Iowa (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC): The Hawkeyes sprung a surprise on Michigan in a prime-time game last year. Repeating the feat against a Penn State bunch that’s shown minimal weakness against Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State won’t be easy, but Iowa has a chance if its plodding, possession-oriented style can keep the Nittany Lions off the field.

No. 7 Washington at Colorado (Saturday, 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1): It’s a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 title game, a 41-10 Washington victory. Both teams enter with 3-0 records, and the Huskies in particular are fairly untested after opening with Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State. How the running games fare — Myles Gaskin for Washington and Phillip Lindsay for Colorado — will go a long way in determining this edition of #Pac12AfterDark.

More college football coverage from The Washington Post:

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