Ohio State Coach Ryan Day: “A lot of things to work on, both sides of the ball.”
Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly: “I feel pretty good. We just have to be executing at a little bit better level, and we got great teaching opportunities now this week.”
What gifts these kingdoms have given their followers early on in this murky season. Just when it seemed they were ushering college football into a hegemonic boredom, hogging 22 of the first 28 College Football Playoff spots across seven years among them, they’ve all gone and lent their fans one of the greatest joys known to fandom: a chance to sit around and diagnose problems.
As a bonus, all of the diagnoses will be obvious solutions.
Clemson nudged Georgia Tech, 14-8, after a goal line stand with 15 seconds left, and with eternal linebacker James Skalski upending a tight end on a middle screen on fourth down. Alabama gasped through loud Florida, 31-29, with a late stop on a two-point-conversion play some Florida fans did not find to be the best two-point-conversion play in history. Ohio State won, 41-20, against visiting and winless Tulsa, but the 27-20 score midway through the fourth quarter counted as shocking. Oklahoma fought, rather than toyed, with Nebraska in a 23-16 tub of goo. Notre Dame spent the fourth quarter going from 17-13 to 27-13 against Purdue, which did feel better than scraping past Florida State and Toledo.
All of the powerhouses were hit with imperfection at once. Clemson even fumbled hauntingly in the end zone at the end, Will Shipley falling on it for a safety that took the score from 14-6 to 14-8. Alabama looked masterful, then didn’t, as Florida started making it look like falling behind Alabama 21-3 could be some sort of clever plan. “What concerned me most,” Saban said, “was that we could not sustain our intensity, especially on defense.” Oklahoma, land of kinetic scoreboards during Riley’s tenure, found its lowest point total since losing its 2016 opener, 33-23, at Houston — way, way back when Tom Herman coached Houston. New Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud felt moved to say, “Of course, everybody has mistakes, but I know I’m a great player.”
New quarterbacks are better (more prepared) than new quarterbacks have ever been, but now they’re looking new, as if defensive coordinators are finding things to make them look new. There’s DJ Uiagalelei replacing Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, which has seen its offense total 17 points against Georgia and Georgia Tech, while the defense has allowed zero touchdowns in the first three games for the first time in 71 years. There’s Bryce Young at Alabama, who did impress with composure even as the offense depressed in the second quarter and, to some degree, beyond.
Any of these five that make the playoff this time will have fixed an unusual lot of stuff.
Off they go this coming week — Clemson (2-1) to North Carolina State (2-1), Alabama (3-0) home to Southern Mississippi (1-2), Ohio State (2-1) home to Akron (1-2), Oklahoma (3-0) home to West Virginia (2-1), Notre Dame (3-0) to Soldier Field in Chicago to play Wisconsin (1-1) as part of a beast of a schedule. Their various wheezes remain the focus even in a country with fur flying east and west.
That was Lion fur and Tiger fur, in Penn State’s 28-20 win over Auburn in a rare Big Ten-SEC occasion. That was Bruin fur and Bulldog fur, given how UCLA’s early-season renaissance stalled in a 40-37 home loss to proud Fresno State on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds left, a hobbling but heroic Jake Haener finding Jalen Cropper, who turned around and slipped right past the right pylon. And that’s Cougar fur, with independent BYU’s 3-0 run through the Pac-12 South after a win over Arizona State to pile atop those over Arizona and Utah.
Then there was that occasion with those other Cougars, Washington State leading Southern California 14-0 early, only to get overrun, 45-14. Now Trojans fans, whose chances to gripe seemed to diminish somewhat last week with coach Clay Helton’s dismissal, can yak about whether Jaxson Dart or Kedon Slovis should play quarterback, the former having replaced the injured latter and led the charge from oblivion in Pullman. Their team is 2-1, and who knows what possibilities abound nationwide if the bigwigs are undergoing mass diagnoses.
Riley, that guru of offense with the experienced quarterback (Spencer Rattler), might have summed up the slight malaise when he said of Oklahoma: “It really felt like offensively, without having watched the tape, that everybody was just okay, you know, as far the quality of play. You know, we fought our tails off, but we just weren’t quite sharp enough to play elite ball. We had some great moments, especially to open both halves, but we’ve got to play cleaner ball. … We’re close there.”
We’re close there.
These guys sound like golfers.
Swinney says they’re close with Uiagalelei. Kelly says they’re close. Saban, in his lifetime war against complacency, would never say anything of the kind.
Everybody has to hang on sometime and overlook an opponent in a sport of absurdly young players, but they’re all hanging on at once here. Alabama had the cluster of defenders in a steamy mass on Florida’s failed two-point conversion, and a missed PAT earlier by a Florida team that went 59 for 59 in such matters last year. Clemson had Skalski and Swinney saying, “Man, how ’bout Skalski?” — even as he also said of the Georgia Tech defense, “They absolutely lined up in nothing that we prepared for.” Ohio State had a stop when Tulsa, which lost to California Davis two weeks prior, reached the Buckeyes’ 43-yard line with 7:15 left, down only 27-20. Oklahoma had Nebraska kicking woes that included a blocked PAT the Sooners returned for two points.
“I’m proud of our team,” Nebraska Coach Scott Frost said. “And I’m disappointed for them because we had a chance there, and that would have been pretty special.”
He said that on a whole Saturday of would-have-been-pretty-special for underdogs, leading to a whole week of giants worrying.