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College football winners and losers Week 5: Clemson suddenly looks vulnerable

Chase Brice was Clemson's third-string quarterback a week ago. Saturday he led a comeback over Syracuse after injury sidelined the team's new starter. (Richard Shiro/Associated Press)

Clemson has pulled off an impressive balancing act during its ongoing run this decade under Coach Dabo Swinney.

It’s managed an impressive degree of consistency while rattling off seven consecutive 10-win seasons without turning into a joyless machine. And it has avoided excessive drama for the most part even as one of the country’s most scrutinized programs.

The Tigers aren’t in any danger of becoming a buzzkill, in part because of games like Saturday’s 27-23 defeat of Syracuse. But thanks to one of the weirder weeks of Swinney’s tenure, there is undoubtedly drama in Death Valley.

Freshman Trevor Lawrence made his first career start Saturday, just days after Swinney elevated him to the top of the depth chart. Kelly Bryant, the program’s previous starter, then opted to transfer. With new NCAA rules in place this season, Bryant had the option of taking a redshirt because he had played in four games or less.

Lawrence didn’t make it through the first half before taking a hit on a rushing attempt, leaving it to Chase Brice (the team’s third-stringer merely a week ago) to lead a comeback from a 23-13 deficit. His final numbers (7-of-13 passing for 83 yards and one interception) weren’t strikingly impressive. But Brice delivered a 20-yard dart to Tee Higgins to convert a fourth down as the Tigers drove for a go-ahead score, then rushed for 17 yards on the next play.

Clemson ultimately survived because its defense bottled up Syracuse in the second half and its top running back (Travis Etienne) rumbled for 203 yards and three touchdowns. But there’s no shortage of questions lingering, either.

How soon will Lawrence get back? How much more could Brice do with a full week of practice with the first team? Is there any chance Bryant would come back?

(And let’s not forget a nod to the Orange here, either. Syracuse probably proved its worthiness more Saturday than it had in its four victories to open the season.

Long an afterthought at both the national and conference levels, Syracuse was opportunistic throughout and led for much of the day. If the Tigers’ running game hadn’t worn it down, it would have ended September with a sweep of Florida State and Clemson that no one saw coming).

Clemson still boasts an excellent defense and quality depth in most places. But quarterback isn’t one of them, and there’s no argument the Tigers are more vulnerable than they were a week ago. They leave September at 5-0, their playoff hopes undamaged. Clemson might be able to run the table, but it’s also easier to envision a stumble or two along the way than it was at the start of the season.

To build a consistent winner while keeping instability in check is no easy feat. It would be especially noteworthy if Clemson can do so as long as its quarterback depth remains in such flux.


Washington. So much for an improved Brigham Young bunch being a threat to the Huskies (4-1), who cruised to a 35-7 victory in their nonconference finale. Washington has allowed 37 points during its four-game winning streak and is a good bet to stymie UCLA in its next outing.

Dan Mullen. It was just like old times for the Florida coach, who walked out of Davis Wade Stadium with a victory. Only this time, he was with the visiting team rather than Mississippi State. The Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) earned a 13-6 victory over the Bulldogs (3-2, 0-2), matching their victory total from all of last season.

Kentucky. The Wildcats turned in another workmanlike performance, scoring on four consecutive possessions in the first half before turning things over to their defense in a 24-10 victory over South Carolina. Kentucky (5-0, 3-0 SEC) is off to its best start in league play since going 6-0 in 1977.

Benny Snell Jr. will make you believe in Kentucky football

Hawaii-San Jose State ticketholders. It’s tough to argue with five overtimes, even if the last four extra periods produced a total of three field goals and no touchdowns in Hawaii’s 44-41 triumph. Still, fans got their money’s worth in San Jose.

Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t answered all of their questions yet, but their 20-17 victory at Northwestern demonstrated serious gumption. Down 17-0, Michigan didn’t allow a point in Northwestern’s last nine possessions, yielded just 202 total yards on the day and finally edged ahead on Karan Higdon’s 5-yard rush with 4:06 left.

It was the first time the Wolverines (4-1) rallied from a 17-point deficit to win under Coach Jim Harbaugh, and they did it against a desperate Wildcats team trying to get on track after taking back-to-back losses at home to Duke and Akron.

Greg Dortch. The sophomore hauled in 11 catches for 163 yards and four touchdowns as Wake Forest ended a two-game slide and pummeled Rice 56-24.

Kyler Murray. The Oklahoma quarterback sat out the first series after he was late to a meeting. Upon entering, he completed 17 of 21 for 432 yards and six touchdowns while tacking on 45 yards and a score on the ground in a 66-33 rout of Baylor. Perhaps the Sooners wouldn’t mind if Murray was tardy a few more times this season.

West Virginia. Ignore the Mountaineers’ relatively modest margin of victory at Texas Tech for a moment. Ignore the underwhelming defensive performance in the second half.

In a true road environment for the first time all season, West Virginia pounced quickly, led by three touchdowns after a quarter and earned a 42-34 victory against a feisty conference foe.

West Virginia’s Will Grier is a pro. He just happens to be in college.

The Mountaineers (4-0, 2-0 Big 12) didn’t really finish things off until Keith Washington’s 51-yard interception return with 2:58 to play, and they didn’t score on any of their five meaningful drives after the break (they took a knee to end it in their sixth possession of the second half). There are plenty of things for Coach Dana Holgorsen to pick at.

Yet it was also another indicator West Virginia could very well be the Big 12’s best foil for Oklahoma this season. And with Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor to come in October, the Mountaineers have a manageable path to 7-0 before a daunting final month of the regular season.

Army. After the disappointment of falling in overtime at Oklahoma last week, the Black Knights pounded previously undefeated Buffalo 42-13.

It was a very Army-like path to victory, too. The Black Knights (3-2) had four drives that hit all of these plateaus: 10 plays, 70 yards, five minutes off the clock. Toss in a blocked field goal return for a score, and Army was every bit as methodical this week as it was in its near upset in Norman last Saturday.

Alabama. There was never much doubt the Crimson Tide (5-0) wouldn’t face a serious test from Louisiana-Lafayette. And sure enough, Alabama dropped 49 points in the first half of a 56-14 rout.

One of the best developments for Nick Saban’s team was the opportunity to play backup quarterback Jalen Hurts for the fifth time this year. Hurts wasn’t looking to make the Kelly Bryant-like midseason exit, anyway, but the redshirt possibility is now kaput. Alabama will maintain its tested quarterback depth behind Tua Tagovailoa the rest of the way.

Transfer of power? NCAA’s redshirt rule gives players more options.


Penn State. The Nittany Lions will rue allowing Ohio State to rally from a 12-point deficit to earn a 27-26 victory in Happy Valley. But there are still enough opportunities to come — Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin, among them — to completely count out Penn State from the playoff picture. They’ll need at least some help at this stage.

Stanford. Unlike Penn State, which controlled much of the first half and had the better of play for much of its game, the Cardinal (4-1) was vastly outplayed in its 38-17 loss at Notre Dame. It gave up 550 yards while managing only 229, and tailback Bryce Love had a modest 73 yards on 17 carries (including a 39-yard touchdown scamper).

For playoff purposes, the Cardinal is going to need to win out, especially after such a lackluster showing. That won’t be easy; it still has to go to Arizona State, Washington and California.

Connecticut. Huskies coach Randy Edsall authored a walk-off news conference this week when a reporter brought up how another school (Wake Forest) had fired its defensive coordinator. For its part, Connecticut entered the week last out of 129 teams nationally in total defense (664.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (54.5 per game), next-to-last in rushing defense (309.0) and 126th in passing yards allowed (355.0).

Well, Saturday’s 49-7 home loss to Cincinnati didn’t help much. The Bearcats rolled up 659 total yards --- 320 on the ground, 339 through the air --- dropping the Huskies to 1-4.

Louisville. There won’t be many losses this season that can be pinned so clearly on a lack of awareness about score and situation than the 28-24 decision the Cardinals (2-3, 0-2) gift-wrapped for Florida State.

Louisville led 24-21 with two minutes to play and had the ball at Florida State’s 21 with the Seminoles holding two timeouts. Rather than run --- and work the clock --- Cardinals quarterback Jawon Pass was intercepted with 1:56 left. Five plays later, Deondre Francois found Nyqwan Murray for a 58-yard touchdown and Florida State (3-2, 1-2 ACC) escaped after trailing by 10 entering the fourth quarter.

UCLA. Even though the Bruins’ 38-16 loss at Colorado came Friday night in Boulder, it’s worth revisiting their struggles while sizing up the week in its entirety. UCLA managed only 289 total yards, and while junior Joshua Kelley (12 carries, 124 yards) had a commendable night, his team only found the end zone once.

That leaves UCLA at 0-4 for the first time since 1971 and Chip Kelly with as many losses in his first month as the Bruins’ coach as he had in his first two seasons at Oregon. The remaining schedule is unforgiving, including cross-division games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington. Needless to say, it’s basketball season in Westwood.

Texas Tech. Red Raiders starter Alan Bowman joined Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence as true freshman quarterbacks sidelined in the first half Saturday. He departed the Red Raiders’ 42-34 loss to West Virginia.

While he was in the midst of an uneven day, it still left Texas Tech (3-2) without a quarterback who had thrown for 1,557 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in his first four starts.

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