College football Week 5 provided some clarity about the worthiness of some top rankings around the nation.
Starting Friday night when No. 10 Washington took No. 7 Stanford behind the woodshed, contenders were separated from pretenders in epic fashion.
But not all losses by top teams are created equal. No. 8 Wisconsin deserves much respect after testing No. 4 Michigan to the max in Ann Arbor. The same goes for Louisville, which gave Clemson all it could handle Saturday night in Death Valley.
We witnessed some spectacular upsets as well. Among them, an ACC power appears to be losing its way with rough waters still to come.
These are the biggest takeaways from what was an intoxicating weekend of college football action.
1. Louisville vs. Clemson lived up to the hype
Tremendous showing from both Louisville and Clemson. Only one could walk away victorious.
Clemson wins, 42-36 pic.twitter.com/T02DypXMEp
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 2, 2016
With everything to lose, both No. 3 Louisville and No. 5 Clemson came into this prime time game with some serious butterflies. Playing tight, both Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson led stagnant offensive attacks throughout the first quarter.
Then both teams got a bit loose, and the game was on.
Watson set the tone early, leading the Tigers to a 28-10 halftime lead with three touchdowns. But you just got the sense that Jackson and the Cardinals weren’t going to lay down and die.
Action Jackson came charging back with authority in the third quarter. At one point, Louisville scored 26 unanswered points to go up by eight points midway through the fourth quarter. At that juncture, it was 36-28.
Then, in a flash, Clemson returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards to move to the 23-yard line of Louisville. Two plays later, Watson threw his fourth touchdown of the game. That pulled the Tigers to within two points after a failed two-point conversion.
Feeding off the momentum of the home crowd, Clemson’s defense did what it hadn’t done often after the first quarter and forced a three-and-out.
As he’s done throughout the past year-plus, Watson came back into the game and made huge plays with the game on the line. He led an eight-play, 85-yard drive that took almost three minutes off the clock and finished with his fifth touchdown of the game. After a successful two-point conversion, Clemson led by the score that would become final, 42-36.
Jackson and Co. gave their all in an effort to respond, but ultimately they came one yard short on fourth down in the red zone.
Both Jackson and Watson performed awe-inspiring feats. Both teams also turned the ball over profusely. There was a wide range of good and bad in this one, not to mention a roller-coaster of emotions for all who watched.
This was an instant classic. It did what big games far too often do not do and lived up to the hype.
And as a side note, Jackson is still clearly the Heisman favorite with three more touchdowns in a losing cause. He now has 28 combined touchdowns on the season and played extraordinarily well on the road on Saturday night.
Feel bad for Lamar Jackson. Can we at least present him with the Heisman in the postgame?
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 2, 2016
2. Cardinal meltdown tells us more about Stanford than Washington
Don’t get us wrong. Washington’s performance Friday night, winning 44-6, was darn impressive. Yet we’re not convinced the Huskies are strong enough to finish the season as one of the nation’s playoff contenders.
Instead, Stanford’s showing on the road against a well-rounded Washington team tells us much more about a program that isn’t as strong as its No. 7 ranking suggested before the game. This was something that was evident when the Cardinal eked out wins against Kansas State, USC and UCLA.
But winning covers a multitude of sins, which were all exposed during the dismantling that occurred at Husky Stadium Friday night.
Christian McCaffrey, for all his sparkling talent, can’t block for himself. Nor can he throw the ball to himself or threaten defenses with any semblance of a downfield passing attack.
The offensive line isn’t nearly as strong this year as it was the past couple of seasons (and is dealing with injuries, to boot). Too often, McCaffrey is being met by multiple defenders before he even sniffs the line of scrimmage. The Huskies, who feature a stout front seven with speedy linebackers, dominated Stanford’s offensive line in embarrassing fashion.
The following play represents a microcosm of Friday night’s showing by this unit.
Stanford’s defense was just as overmatched. Outside of the tremendous efforts of defensive end Solomon Thomas, the Cardinal don’t scare anyone up front.
This team will still win more games than it loses in 2016. But any idea that Stanford is a national powerhouse was quickly squashed in Week 5.
3. Getting beaten by Michigan will not doom Wisconsin
Wisconsin (No. 8) has nothing to hang its head about after pushing the No. 4-ranked Wolverines to the limit at The Big House.
Sure, coaches and players alike will look back at the missed opportunities and mistakes that led to the 14-7 defeat.
But by no means did the loss significantly diminish this team’s place among the top teams in the nation. Heck, the way Michigan is playing at home these days, it’s not hard to imagine any team — Alabama included — losing to Jim Harbaugh’s crew.
Offensively, the Badgers were a hot mess. Noise played a huge factor, but nothing impacted Alex Hornibrook and Co. like Michigan’s defense did. Clearly, the Wolverines feature one of the most dangerous units in the nation.
Even though Wisconsin managed just 159 yards of total offense, it took a preposterous interception by Jourdan Lewis to seal the game for Michigan (watch here).
The one negative that came out of the game is that Hornibrook was clearly rattled. Indecisiveness and foolish mistakes cost his team the chance to win, but the freshman will learn.
Things don’t get any easier two weeks from now when the Badgers host No. 2 Ohio State. That said, beat the Buckeyes and suddenly the Badgers are back in business.
4. Baylor lucky to escape with win over Iowa State
A win is a win is a win. But my goodness, for the sake of Baylor fans everywhere, let’s hope the No. 13-ranked Bears don’t have many more close shaves like we saw against Iowa State in Week 5.
The Cyclones jumped out with a 14-0 lead in the first quarter before the Bears could counter with a score of their own. Iowa State controlled the game from the opening kickoff until the end of the third quarter, when it still led Baylor by two touchdowns, 42-28.
The Bears rallied back in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points to close out the 45-42 win with a last-second field goal.
— Baylor Football (@BUFootball) October 1, 2016
This was a bit too close for comfort. Iowa State isn’t a team Baylor should have had trouble with. The Cyclones were 1-3 coming into the game, and they lost badly (42-3) to Iowa in Week 2.
The big issue here for Baylor is that Iowa State was able to dominate the line of scrimmage on offense. The Cyclones tallied 465 yards, 25 first downs, converted nine-of-13 third downs and scored 42 points.
Clearly, Baylor must tighten things up.
5. Could Texas be looking to move on from Charlie Strong?
The future couldn’t have looked been any brighter for the Longhorns after they took down Notre Dame, which was No. 10 in the nation heading into Week 1. Freshman quarterback Shane Buechele was the toast of the town, and it was easy to dismiss Texas’ Swiss Cheese defense due to the potency of Notre Dame’s offense.
The Longhorns continued to roll in Week 2 against UTEP. And Hook ‘Em nation was giddy about the future of their team.
Then Cal beat them in Week 3. The defense was as porous in that game as it was against Notre Dame, allowing 507 yards and seven touchdowns to Joe Webb and Co.
Charlie Strong and his coaching staff had time to figure out what was wrong with the defense and fix it with a bye in Week 4. Unfortunately, the Longhorns were just as inept Saturday against Oklahoma State, which had its way in the 49-31 blowout at home.
After the game, Texas athletic director Mike Perrin did not exactly throw his support behind Strong when asked about the coach’s future (more on that here).
A report came out a few hours after the big loss, via ESPN’s Brett McMurphy, that indicates the university will not fire Strong during the season. That by no means rules out the move, however, as reports are often proved wrong in the end.
Could the University of Texas be ready to give up on Strong already after just over two seasons? It hardly seems fair, especially considering the mess he inherited when Texas finally let go of Mack Brown.
Yet many of the things we’re seeing from this team are just as much the responsibility of the coaching staff as they are the players for failing to execute. With the Red River Rivalry game against Oklahoma upcoming, things could get even uglier next weekend.
6. Volunteers have become the new Cardiac Kids of college football
Tennessee (No. 11) already had a reputation for keeping its fans on their toes leading into its SEC showdown with No. 25 Georgia.
The most double-digit comebacks in the country this season? Tennessee (3-0). @Vol_FB trails Georgia 10-0.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 1, 2016
The Vols upped the ante Saturday, winning with a stunning Hail Mary pass as time expired to beat the Bulldogs by the score of 34-31 (watch here).
What makes this particular comeback all the more outrageous is that it sure looked like Georgia was going to be the comeback king. After watching Tennessee take a lead late in the fourth quarter, Jacob Eason threw the go-ahead touchdown with just 10 seconds left on the clock (watch here).
The range of emotions that hit fans and players alike for both teams was extreme during the final 20 seconds of the game.
While it has been hard to believe in Tennessee as a top team this year, we’d be foolish to count this team out of any game. The Vols will have another huge test next weekend when they travel to College Station to take on the Texas A&M Aggies.
7. Florida State in trouble after loss to North Carolina
Facing its second ACC opponent of the year, No. 12 Florida State was handed its second loss of the year Saturday. North Carolina stunned the Seminoles with a 54-yard field goal while the clock ticked down to zeroes.
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) October 2, 2016
It was late in the second quarter before FSU got on the scoreboard with a touchdown. By that time, the Tar Heels had 21 points on the board.
Both teams continued to put points on the board through the second half, but it wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter that the Seminoles finally took their first lead of the game.
With 23 seconds remaining, FSU led 35-34.
It should have been the end of it. But one long pass by North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky and a pass-interference penalty on Florida State gave the Tar Heels the chance they needed to pull off the big upset.
The big issue this year for Florida State is a lack of defensive dominance. It’s something that has carried the program in recent years, but after giving up 37 points on Saturday, the Seminoles are allowing 35 points per game.
For Florida State, the loss comes at the worst possible time. The program is likely out of the ACC title race at 0-2 in the conference.
Worse still, the Seminoles are looking at an upcoming schedule that includes games against Miami and Clemson before the end of the month.
8. Cal becoming quite the Pac-12 wild card
The boys from Berkley sure know how to throw a monkey wrench into the standings.
As we predicted, Cal upset Utah Saturday, ultimately nailing down a tremendous 28-23 win with a goal-line stand as time expired.
Quarterback Davis Webb is a phenomenal passer who is extremely underrated nationally. He threw four touchdowns Saturday, bringing his season total up to 22 through five games. Webb has great chemistry with receiver Chad Hansen, who has caught eight of those touchdowns.
This was the second time already in 2016 that the Bears took down a ranked opponent.
They’ll have other opportunities to take down giants this season as well, with games against Stanford and Washington later this year.
9. Oklahoma still in the Big 12 big picture
Despite featuring a 2-2 record overall, the Sooners remain in play for the newly reintroduced Big 12 Championship Game this year after taking down No. 21 TCU, 52-46.
This was a hard-fought win for Oklahoma, which fell into an early 21-7 hole against the high-scoring Horned Frogs. Baker Mayfield was passionate about his team’s victory afterwards.
“To come into a road environment like that and battle back and kind of take over the game, completely take momentum, it’s good to see. Even with a lot of guys hurt and banged up, for us to battle back and take momentum is huge,” Mayfield said, per ESPN’s Max Olson.
With the win, Oklahoma is now 1-0 in the Big 12, a record that should improve next weekend against the reeling Texas Lonhorns. Remember, the Sooners lost to two of the best teams in the nation — Houston and Ohio State — the first three weeks of the season.
This is a program that knows how to finish strong after suffering frustrating losses. And speaking of Texas, you can be sure Bob Stoops, Mayfield and Co. will be ready to serve a cold dish of revenge to the Longhorns in response to their embarrassing loss last year.
Assuming the Sooners do take care of Texas, they still have important Big 12 games coming up against Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas, Baylor and Oklahoma State. While it’s not an easy road, winning out isn’t out of the realm of possibility for this program.
10. Houston continues to quietly dominate
Nearly forgotten in the glitz and glamour of the huge Saturday games, No. 6 Houston put together another dominant performance on Thursday night.
The Cougars dismantled Connecticut behind Greg Ward Jr.’s five combined touchdowns, winning 42-12.
It was the kind of outcome one would expect from a top team going up against an inferior opponent. However, as we see every week (and as Houston found out last year against Huskies) those are never sure victories.
At this point, the only real threatening opponent standing between Houston and a perfect record is Louisville in November. From now until then, the Cougars will face teams that — on paper — have no business beating them.
Given the fact that Louisville lost to Clemson Saturday night while the rest of the top-five teams lost, Houston should advance into the No. 5 ranking when the new polls come out Sunday.
Yet every week, the Cougars somehow remain under the radar.
That will likely suit Tom Herman’s program just fine, at least until it’s time to deal with Louisville later this year.