Clarity is a wonderful thing, and we’re starting to get some as it relates to the College Football Playoff following the action in Week 11.
Not surprisingly, as the postseason draws near some teams can’t handle the pressure. We saw one top team lose badly in a big upset, and a couple more needed big performances by their stars to avoid the same fate. Contrarily, other teams have begun to play their best ball of the season with pressure mounting, proving their mettle is worthy of the high stresses that come with intense scrutiny and high-level competition.
There was a lot that happened around the nation, so we highlighted the top takeaways for you to chew on as the end of the season draws nigh.
1. Clemson learns about the dangers of complacency
Nobody thought Syracuse would have a chance against the No. 1 team in the nation, but the Orange gave the Tigers one heck of a fight Saturday afternoon.
Clemson won the game 37-27, thanks to another amazing individual performance by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, but for a while it appeared Dabo Swinney’s gang took an inferior opponent for granted. Watson finished with 465 total yards and three touchdowns, and his 40-yard bomb to Deon Cain was a thing of beauty.
After going up by two touchdowns early, the Tigers were suddenly laid upon by a feisty Orange offense that was determined to punch a hole in their outstanding run defense. Syracuse tied the game up in the first quarter, and the outcome was no sure thing after three quarters with the score 31-24 in favor of Clemson.
Coming into the game Syracuse had lost six straight games, and the Orange played like a championship was on the line. This is the type of effort the Tigers should expect from Wake Forest and South Carolina, both of which gave top teams some trouble in Week 11.
The Tigers will once again be No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings when they are released on Tuesday, but this honor should belong to another team, which leads us to our next point.
2. Alabama is the best team in the nation
There isn’t another coach in the nation who can compare to Nick Saban when it comes to building a long-term, sustainable program that is top-notch on all fronts. Saban’s Crimson Tide (No. 2) continued their march towards a championship with another impressive road win, 31-6, and it was the special teams that got things kicked off with a bang.
Cyrus Jones bolted like lightning through Mississippi State’s coverage unit on punt return that ended up going 69 yards for a touchdown.
— SportsReport (@CFBUpdates) November 14, 2015
Prior to this score, ‘Bama’s offense hadn’t been able to move the ball much, and the deafening crowd at Davis Wade Stadium appeared to be inspiring the Bulldogs to play their best game of the season defensively. But that Jones’ score silenced the stunned crowd, setting up a dominant victory for the Crimson Tide.
The defense swallowed up talented quarterback Dak Prescott, who was brutally pummeled all game long. That he was able to still generate 300 yards passing under such conditions is a credit to the young man, but in the end the Bulldogs could only generate six points.
On the other side, Heisman favorite Derrick Henry had another superb game, piercing through Mississippi State’s defense for 204 yards and two touchdowns on just 22 carries. He and the offensive line saved Alabama’s offense from a miserable performance by quarterback Jake Coker, who threw an abominable interception early.
Even with an average quarterback, it’s quite clear Alabama features the top program in the nation. The way this team has been mowing down tough opponents — winning in all sorts of ways — it’s quite clear if the playoffs were held today the Crimson Tide would emerge as the champion.
3. Oklahoma State is the Big 12’s only hope of making it into the playoff
Barring a loss by one of the top teams, it appears the Big 12’s last hope of making it into the four-team playoff rests in Oklahoma State, which is the only remaining undefeated program in the conference.
Baylor lost at home Saturday to Oklahoma, which is playing outstanding football of late and which will face the Cowboys in the final game of the regular season.
The Sooners lost to Texas in the Red River Rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl earlier this year, and they face TCU before taking on the Cowboys at the end of the year. Even if they did win out, that loss to the Longhorns won’t allow them to get in, regardless of how they finish the season.
Simply put, in order to get into the playoff, the Big 12 must produce an undefeated team, despite what Baylor head coach Art Briles would have us believe.
4. Ezekiel Elliott will carry Ohio State’s offense the rest of the way
Regardless of who starts behind center for the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes, this program will only go as far as Elliott takes it.
As he’s done all year long, Elliott carried Ohio State to victory against Illinois on Saturday, rushing for 181 yards — 126 of which came in the second half — and two touchdowns. It was the 15th game in a row in which he’d eclipsed the 100-yard mark (longest streak in college football), and the 20th time in his career.
Ezekiel Elliott joins Heisman winners Eddie George, Archie Griffin as only Buckeyes with 20 career 100-yard games: https://t.co/XxByMPgL8z
— ESPN (@espn) November 14, 2015
Elliott now has 1,425 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground this year for the Buckeyes. He has been a forgotten man by many in the national media when discussing the Heisman race, but it is quite clear he is going to be one of the top finalists when it’s all said and done at the end of the season.
Ohio State still has games upcoming against Michigan State and Michigan — both of which feature tough defenses. Elliott will have to come through in a major way for the Buckeyes to finish the season undefeated and compete for the national championship.
5. The Gators are lurking beneath the surface of the playoff picture
Another week, another unimpressive victory for Florida (No. 11). The Gators beat South Carolina Saturday by a score of 24-14, no thanks to the poor play of quarterback Treon Harris, who threw a couple of interceptions. Granted, the defense did a fine job keeping the Gamecocks out of the red zone until the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t the kind of dominant performance you’d expect from a top team against an inferior opponent.
After watching this team barely squeak past Vanderbilt last weekend, 9-7, it seems clear the playoff committee had it right when doling out its ranking to Florida leading up to this weekend’s slate of games. That said, looking ahead it’s equally clear the Gators will present quite the dilemma if they continue winning — unimpressive or not.
Consider the fracas that will ensue if Florida wins out during the regular season and then somehow finds a way to win against Alabama (likely) in the SEC Championship Game. Such a conclusion would see Florida going 12-1 in the toughest conference in the nation, and it would be crazy to think about the committee keeping the program out of the playoff under such circumstances.
Florida State still looms large in Week 13, but things are going to get very interesting if the Gators do finish the season strong without another loss on the record.
6. North Carolina is the most impressive team nobody’s talking about
The way it’s going, it looks like North Carolina (No. 23) is going to face Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. The Tar Heels have destroyed their last two opponents since beating Pitt a few weeks back, scoring 125 points in the process.
Though not normally a prolific passer, the Duke game being the exception, quarterback Marquise Williams has exploded with nine total touchdowns the past two games.
Since losing to South Carolina to open the season, North Carolina has rattled off nine straight wins, and with the offense heating up it wouldn’t be shocking to see this team giving Clemson a real run for its money in for the ACC title.
While this program isn’t getting any recognition, head coach Larry Fedora believes it will be coming soon.
“We really feel like if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll look up at the end of the season and get the recognition we deserve,” he said after beating Miami 59-21 on Saturday, per David M. Hale of ESPN.com.
If the Tar Heels were to win out and beat the Tigers, who weren’t sharp Saturday, then they would present another big conundrum for the playoff committee to sort through.
7. LSU goes from championship contender to afterthought in two short weeks
After getting smoked by Alabama last weekend, LSU (No. 9) needed a big win to keep its hopes alive as a potential SEC West champion and College Football Playoff hopeful. Unfortunately, the Tigers not only failed to impress but were completely humiliated at home by Arkansas, which won handily by a score of 31-14 — the second season in a row in which the Razorbacks have beaten the them.
Just like we saw against Alabama, which gained 250 yards on the ground, Arkansas absolutely rolled through LSU’s defense with a relentless rushing attack, gaining 299 yards and scoring three rushing touchdowns. The Razorbacks dominated the first half of the game and went up 21-0 late in the second quarter when Alex Collins scored his second touchdown of the game.
Collins torching Tigers defense, this TD run gave the Razorbacks a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter https://t.co/lUInw7caQc
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 15, 2015
Arkansas scored 10 more points in the second half but would have won without that extra padding, as LSU only managed 14 points all game long. It was a humbling loss for the Tigers, who were competing for a shot at making it into the playoff before getting rolled by the Crimson Tide. On the other side of the coin, it was the third straight win for Arkansas, which has averaged 49 points per game during this stretch.
Speaking about his surging team after the game, via the ESPN broadcast, head coach Brett Bielema praised his players.
“You know, the kids have gotten better every week. They believe in what the coaches are telling them. We’ve done a nice job recruiting the last couple of years, and to get two in a row over LSU is big, especially now that we’re recruiting over here.”
While Arkansas rides high on its way back home with “The Boot” in tow for the second year in a row, LSU now has the undesirable task of picking up the pieces of its shattered playoff dreams.
8. Pac-12 out of playoff picture after Stanford’s loss to Oregon
Stanford (No. 7) was really the only hope Pac-12 had of making it into the playoff heading into Week 11. Now the highly competitive conference will almost certainly be on the outside looking in at the end of the year after the Cardinal lost to Oregon at home Saturday night, 38-36.
For Stanford, the loss came in an unusual way, as it was a poor defensive effort that lost the game. Oregon landed some huge blows on explosive plays, thanks to some defensive breakdowns by the Cardinal.
This 49-yard TD gave Oregon the lead for good in the third quarter. https://t.co/8uPzEyAnjv
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 15, 2015
Despite putting up great offensive numbers, Stanford just couldn’t find a way to win at home. Quarterback Kevin Hogan put together a terrific performance, and running back Christian McCaffrey totaled 249 yards (running, receiving and returning), breaking Stanford’s single-season record for total yards in the process.
Pac-12 fans will tell you this conference is known for featuring games in which odds mean absolutely nothing. Saturday’s loss for the Cardinal illustrated this fact to perfection. It also means the Pac-12 won’t be represented in the playoff, opening up the door for others to get in, as we’re about to discuss.
9. Iowa deserves to get in with a perfect record
Should Iowa finish the season still undefeated, then there is no doubt the Hawkeyes deserve to get into the playoff.
The Golden Gophers gave them quite a scare Saturday night at home in front of their loyal fans, answering every score with one of their own until the end. Ultimately, Iowa was able to hang on and win to improve to 10-0 on the season by the score of 40-35. Through 11 weeks, the Hawkeyes are one of just five teams left in the nation without a blemish on their record.
Undefeated teams left in college football:
That's all of them.
— Pistols Firing (@pistolsguys) November 15, 2015
While Iowa hasn’t beaten any of the top-tier programs this year, it has taken down a couple of tough ranked opponents and has survived in the better-than-advertised Big Ten, taking down the likes of Wisconsin and Northwestern in the process.
With the Pac-12 falling out of the playoff race and the Big 12 looking more and more like it won’t feature an undefeated team, Iowa’s chances of getting into the playoff are improving every weekend. The Hawkeyes should win out, provided they don’t underestimate an opponent. Given the way they’ve been performing every week, though, that isn’t likely to happen.
10. It’s time to put an end to head-butting and head-slapping celebrations
Concussions are no joke. They represent trauma to the brain that can cause extreme long-term damage, and more needs to be done in order to combat them, at every level of the sport of football. While it’s impossible to remove the inherent violent nature of football, there are things that can be done to keep concussions from happening.
Georgia cornerback Rico McGraw had to leave Saturday’s game with a concussion after one of his own coaches slapped his helmet hard as a way to congratulate him on a big play.
McGraw clearly was hurt by the slap, which should never happen in this day and age. Coaches and players need to realize — quickly — that it’s not just the big-time crashes on the field that can cause head trauma. A recent study by researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University showed multiple minor impacts cause more long-term damage than the big hits we would all assume cause big damage.
Any unnecessary hits to the head should be avoided at all costs. It’s time to stop — at all levels, from pee-wee football to the NFL — using helmets as an excuse to bash heads in celebration of big plays. McGraw’s unfortunate injury Saturday highlights another way we can make the game safer, and everyone involved in the game needs to use it as a learning experience going forward.