The opening 10-3 loss to Georgia was easy enough to brush off. Last week’s 14-8 escape against Georgia Tech made it clearer what the Tigers’ limitations are.
And then came Saturday’s 27-21 double-overtime stumble at N.C. State, a stark illustration of just how little No. 9 Clemson (2-2, 1-1 ACC) can realistically do against a solid team.
Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei might not be a Deshaun Watson or a Trevor Lawrence, but he had some fine moments last year when Lawrence was sidelined. This isn’t all on him.
The Tigers’ offensive line isn’t as stout as past seasons, their receiver corps has few consistent options beyond Justyn Ross and the value of running back Travis Etienne has come into even greater focus now that he’s no longer around in Death Valley.
In three games against FBS teams, Clemson has scored five touchdowns. There does not appear to be an easy fix, at least not this year.
It’s possible the loss in Raleigh goes down as an end of an era, at least in a continuous sense. Clemson won the last six ACC titles. It has ripped off 10 consecutive 10-win seasons. For those who remember the Tigers’ chronic inability to get out of their own way in the 1990s and the 2000s, Clemson’s ACC dynasty is remarkable on several levels.
It’s far too soon to bury Clemson for the long haul. There is too long a track record under Coach Dabo Swinney and too many advantages, and too few other ACC programs capable of matching them on a consistent basis, to believe this is a more catastrophic end. A disaster of Florida State proportions, this is not.
And given the uneven state of the rest of the ACC, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Tigers regrouped and made it to the league title game yet again.
Even if that happens, this clearly isn’t a vintage Clemson bunch. There’s little reason to think the Tigers won’t slip up at least one more time this season, and there’s plenty of reason to think the most interesting part of the rest of Clemson’s fall is how it responds on the fly to a rare rough stretch.
N.C. State. Because it’s the Wolfpack, it couldn’t come easy. But at least it came.
N.C. State’s 27-21 double-overtime defeat of Clemson is a high-water moment in the nine-year Dave Doeren era, and it really doesn’t matter what the Tigers end up doing. There was immense psychological value in finally getting the better of a program that has run roughshod over the rest of the ACC for the last six years and elevated itself over the non-Florida State portion of the league well before that.
The Wolfpack (3-1, 1-0 ACC) dominated possession, running nearly twice as many plays as the Tigers. But it also had to overcome a pair of missed field goals in the fourth quarter, including a 39-yarder as time expired in regulation.
Back-to-back touchdowns in overtime followed by a defensive stand set off a celebration at Carter-Finley Stadium. It was N.C. State’s first victory over a top-10 team since 2012 and puts the Wolfpack squarely in the middle of the first wide-open ACC title race in at least a decade.
Texas-San Antonio. Well, look who’s 4-0. The Roadrunners wiped out a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter at Memphis then won, 31-28, on Hunter Duplessis’s 42-yard field goal as time expired.
UTSA has won its first four for the first time since 2012, and it again showed it has one of the sport’s true workhorse backs. Sincere McCormick piled up 184 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries as the Roadrunners stunned the host Tigers (3-1).
Arkansas. It’s a shame for the Razorbacks the old Southwest Conference isn’t having a reunion this season. They’ve spent September picking off Lone Star State rivals: First Rice, then Texas and now Texas A&M.
No. 16 Arkansas (4-0, 1-0 SEC) pounced early and held on for a 20-10 victory, scoring on its first three possessions behind a pair of K.J. Jefferson touchdown passes (including an 85-yard connection with Treylon Burks). There weren’t many style points to be had in the final 40 minutes, but the Hogs contained a limited Texas A&M passing attack and did enough to get by after building a 17-0 lead.
While it remains to be seen just how good either Texas or Texas A&M is, September was still the most invigorating month of Arkansas football since Bobby Petrino’s ill-fated motorcycle trip. Given how hopeless the Hogs looked both at the end of Bret Bielema’s run and for the entirety of Chad Morris’s stint in Fayetteville, the success of Sam Pittman’s brief tenure is especially welcome.
Wake Forest. Wherever the Demon Deacons are in the ACC’s pecking order, it’s somewhere near the top. Wake Forest is 4-0 for the fourth time in the last six seasons after overwhelming Virginia, 37-17, on Friday, and it has a school-record 155 points through four games.
If nothing else, Dave Clawson’s team is as consistent as anyone in the ACC. Maybe Clemson or North Carolina or even Boston College (the only other remaining ACC unbeaten) is better; they’ll all get their shots at Wake Forest in November. But with a manageable October that includes games against Louisville, Syracuse, Army (after an open date) and Duke, there’s a path to 8-0 in Winston-Salem for quarterback Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons.
Jalen Cropper. The Fresno State wide receiver tied a school record with four touchdown catches in Friday’s 38-30 comeback victory over UNLV. Cropper had 10 catches for 108 yards while becoming the first Bulldog to haul in four scoring catches since Davante Adams.
For Fresno State (4-1), it was a needed showing a week after an upset of UCLA. The Bulldogs allowed the first 14 points and trailed the winless Rebels 21-9 early in the second half before Cropper caught touchdown passes of 4, 23, 25 and 26 yards from Jake Haener to secure a victory in the Mountain West opener for both teams.
Georgia. Won a conference game and didn’t even need to rely on starting quarterback JT Daniels for more than a quarter. That alone made Saturday a successful one for the No. 2 Bulldogs, who pummeled Vanderbilt, 62-0, while getting the chance to go deep into the roster.
Georgia (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern) scored 35 points in the first quarter and quickly entered name-your-score territory against the Commodores (1-3, 0-1). The Bulldogs, who have allowed only 23 points this season, outgained Vanderbilt 532-77.
Southern Methodist. A week after catching the luckiest of last-second breaks in a victory at Louisiana Tech, the Mustangs had far less tension in a 42-34 victory at Texas Christian. Tanner Mordecai threw four touchdown passes and Ulysses Bentley IV rushed for 153 yards — the most of any Mustang against TCU since 1985.
SMU is 4-0 for the third consecutive season and also has won back-to-back games against its Metroplex rival for the first time since 1992-93. The Mustangs also won in Fort Worth in 2019 before the pandemic wiped out last year’s game.
Oklahoma (barely). The best thing that can be said about the Sooners’ 16-13 defeat of West Virginia is they stitched together three long drives in the second half, including a 14-play, 80-yard march that culminated with Gabe Brkic’s 30-yard field goal as time expired.
The next best thing about it for Oklahoma is it didn’t suffer the same fate Clemson and Texas A&M did Saturday.
There are only so many nice things to note about the Sooners (4-0, 1-0 Big 12), who have flirted with trouble in each of their three games against FBS opponents but survived each. While Oklahoma faces a much less severe reckoning than Clemson, it’s time to acknowledge its offense isn’t up to its usual standards.
The Sooners had scored 27 or more points in 65 consecutive games before last week, the longest such streak in the country since at least 1980. Then came a 23-16 win over Nebraska to end the streak. Now this.
Oklahoma hasn’t allowed more than 100 yards rushing yet this season and appears to have a formidable defense. It might just need it, because the early returns suggest the Sooners aren’t as equipped to win wild, high-scoring games as they usually are.
Iowa State. The Cyclones didn’t give away their Big 12 opener the way they did a game earlier this month to Iowa. They had only one turnover, and running back Breece Hall rolled up 190 yards and two touchdowns at Baylor.
But special teams were a problem for No. 14 Iowa State (2-2) in a 31-29 loss. It was a Trestan Ebner kickoff return that gave Baylor its only touchdown of the second half, and Ebner’s 41-yard punt return set up a field goal with 5:36 left to put the Bears up eight.
That forced Iowa State to go for two when it scored with 24 seconds to go. That attempt was picked off, Baylor escaped with a victory and Iowa State’s chances of a truly special season — already teetering after the loss to Iowa — are now basically gone before all the leaves change colors.
Texas A&M. The Aggies’ high hopes were pinned heavily on finding stable quarterback play, and their chances of doing so took a major hit two weeks ago when Haynes King suffered a broken leg.
Jimbo Fisher’s team navigated three games without a loss but couldn’t escape September without a setback. The No. 7 Aggies managed just 272 yards in a 20-10 defeat against Arkansas. There were only two plays of at least 20 yards — a 23-yard completion from their 10, and Isaiah Spiller’s 67-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The situation is anemic enough that it’s fair to wonder just how well Texas A&M would be faring regardless of its quarterback situation. This much is clear: A season that started with playoff aspirations sure seems headed for a much more mundane finish.
Florida State. Hard as it is to believe given their ongoing struggles, the Seminoles did win a national championship within the last decade. That’s why it’s still at least a little noteworthy when the program hits another new nadir.
This time, Florida State actually played a decent second half in a 31-23 loss to Louisville. Nonetheless, the Seminoles dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 1974. That will be the last first-time-in-forever mention on that front for a while; that 1974 team lost its first eight on its way to 1-10.
Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were arguably the sport’s most erratic team in September, including Saturday’s 14-10 loss to Bowling Green.
Minnesota has already pestered Ohio State, barely escaped Miami (Ohio) and then throttled Colorado on the road. Due an off game to continue the pattern, the Golden Gophers delivered thanks to three turnovers (including two late interceptions) and an anemic passing game in which they completed 5 of 13 for 59 yards.
P.J. Fleck’s team is capable of a wide range of results, which means the Gophers will probably have some say on how the Big Ten West sorts itself out. It probably will not happen as a serious contender; Minnesota is just too up and down. But catching the Gophers on the right (or the wrong) day could be just the stroke of luck needed to win the West.
Wisconsin’s offense. It is hard — really hard — to lead a game in the fourth quarter and still find a way to lose by four touchdowns. Yet No. 18 Wisconsin managed this rare feat by giving up the final 31 points in a 41-13 loss to No. 12 Notre Dame.
There’s little blame to cast upon the Badger defense. It allowed just three rushing yards and 242 total yards to the unbeaten Irish, and it had no hand in three Notre Dame touchdowns. The Irish returned a kickoff for a touchdown with 14:01 left to take the lead and later tacked on a pair of interception returns for touchdowns to seal things.
With an extra week to get ready, the Badgers (1-2) committed five turnovers and never really got their offense on track. Couple this with an opening-week loss to Penn State, and there doesn’t appear to be much punch to the Wisconsin offense. That hasn’t prevented the Badgers from thriving in past years, but continued turnover troubles will place a low ceiling on this team.
North Carolina. The Tar Heels began the month trying to figure out how everything went wrong in an opening loss at Virginia Tech, but at least they could fall back on the idea that their defense hinted at improvement.
It’s hard for them to feel the same way as September closes. North Carolina lost at Georgia Tech, 45-22, giving up 261 yards rushing while failing to establish any sort of control of the line of scrimmage on the other side of the ball.
The Yellow Jackets warrant some credit for this. Yes, they opened the year with a loss to Northern Illinois, but they’ve made progress week after week after week. A game after testing Clemson, Georgia Tech put together a strong formula over the final three quarters.
Of course, the Tar Heels (2-2, 1-2 ACC) helped, too. Quarterback Sam Howell’s three fumbles led to 17 points, and the hot-and-cold running game was icy in Atlanta. But the worst part was surrendering five consecutive scoring drives in the second half. There’s a lot to fix in Chapel Hill and not much margin for error in conference play remaining.