What we learned in Week 7: Ohio State embraces chase, Clemson plays with fire
The No. 2 Buckeyes and No. 3 Tigers are headed in different directions
The Buckeyes won another incredibly difficult road test with a very young team, this time rallying at Wisconsin to win a terrific game that speaks volumes about both teams. The Tigers dodged an upset at home by a game but flawed NC State team thanks to a missed 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Clemson looks like Ohio State in 2015 -- constantly playing with fire until at some point the Tigers get burned.
I have a longstanding theory about college football teams: It's easier to chase the prize than grind to stay on top.
Ask Urban Meyer and his 2015 Buckeyes. They won big on the national stage in 2014, a year earlier than expected, but couldn't totally grasp the grind of being the hunted in 2015. Some players had the NFL on their mind. Ohio State found itself in too many games against inferior teams that became too close for comfort. Complacency set in and the weight of the expectations kept building and building until a loss was inevitable.
This year, Ohio State is the youngest FBS team. That didn't show when the Buckeyes won at Oklahoma earlier in the year. Nor did they blink when trailing 16-6 at halftime to the Badgers, a very good team that was this close to legitimately jumping into the College Football Playoff discussion.
Wisconsin is fast and athletic, and Ohio State's deep passing game remained virtually non-existent. The Buckeyes lack a reliable deep threat who can consistently create separation for J.T. Barrett. Instead, Barrett used his legs (92 rushing yards, two touchdowns) more efficiently than his arm (226 yards on 29 attempts).
Wisconsin gained 313 yards in the first half but was held to 137 yards in the second half and overtime. The Buckeyes' defensive line, led by Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa, took over in the second half. Yet Wisconsin still hung around. Ohio State overcame a false start and holding penalties in overtime before Barrett connected with Noah Brown for a gorgeous touchdown.
"They hung in there, they hung in there. That's a young team that's getting mature," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said on ABC after he won his 20th straight road game, the longest streak since Miami from 1984-88. Meyer has built a machine -- not unlike what he had at Florida and Nick Saban has at Alabama -- but it's a hungry machine in 2016.
Clemson is a year removed from surprising many by nearly winning the national title. It's now an established, elite program that's not going away. But it's also not the lovable new kids on the block, either. The Tigers are the hunted now. Their task is to embrace the grind, not the chase. The details really matter.
No team is immune from struggling with the grind after a very successful year. Before 2015 Ohio State, there was 2014 Florida State. After Saban's first national title at Alabama in 2009, he had an even more talented team in 2010 that lost three games. Alabama has mastered the grind in recent years, which makes what it's doing now after last year's national title all the more impressive.
Clemson keeps winning tight games (Auburn, Troy, Louisville, NC State), and that's surely better than losing. But this was an offense that Deshaun Watson boasted could be the best in college football history. Instead, Clemson committed four more turnovers Saturday (including two inside the NC State 10-yard line) and ran for just 117 yards (3.0 yards per carry).
Here's an amazing stat from the Charleston Post & Courier 's Aaron Brenner: Clemson is 9-0 in the past two years when it turns the ball over at least two more times than its opponent; the rest of FBS wins 18 percent of those games. The Tigers are clutch and that shouldn't be ignored. But how long can you keep lighting matches before the house gets burned down?
"Just a day at the office, man!" Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ABC while also noting his team has to hold onto the ball, both in terms of turnovers and dropped passes.
Staying loose is probably a smart approach for Swinney to handle the grind. It's who he is. Look at the strain Meyer felt during the year after his national championship seasons.
But you can also talk yourself into believing everything is fine during the grind until it isn't. Everything was fine at Ohio State in 2015 until Ezekiel Elliott didn't get enough carries in the rain against Michigan State and then complained publicly about it.
2016 Ohio State is playing with hunger and freedom. 2016 Clemson looks like it desperately wants to recapture that feeling again before it's too late.
What we learned
1. Alabama isn't fair right now: It's difficult enough to move the ball against Alabama's incredibly stingy defense. That's a given most years. But now the Crimson Tide are scoring on defense and special teams? That's downright unfair for opponents. Alabama has 11 non-offensive touchdowns in 2016. South Carolina has nine touchdowns for its entire team all season. Seven of the Crimson Tide's 11 defensive starters have a touchdown halfway through the season. Seven!
Texas A&M is built to give Alabama a more competitive game next week than Tennessee, which has a weak offensive line and is ravaged by defensive injuries, did this week. Rushing game: Alabama 438 yards, Tennessee 32 yards. That's Alabama's best single-game rushing attack since gaining 451 yards against Tennessee in 1986.
Saban tried to sell that Tennessee is Alabama's biggest rival, but no one was really buying it. Instead, Alabama's 49-10 win was the most lopsided victory by either team in this rivalry since a 51-0 Alabama win in 1906. The Tide have won 10 straight games over the Vols by an average of 23 points, one shy of Bear Bryant's 11 in a row over Tennessee from 1971-81. What rival?
2. Big Ten West is actually fun: It's been easy for a number of years to mock the Big Ten West. It's time to enjoy the division. Nebraska is 6-0 for the first time since 2001, the last time it played for the national championship. Wisconsin beat LSU and dropped very tight games to Michigan and Ohio State. Even Northwestern went to Michigan State, which is simply a bad team now, and won there Saturday.
Because of their schedule, the Badgers are only 1-2 in the Big Ten so far. But if they win in the next two weeks against Iowa and Nebraska, they'll have a good shot at playing Ohio State or Michigan again in the Big Ten Championship Game. Nebraska follows its road trip next week against Wisconsin with another road game at Ohio State. The Badgers control their destiny if they win out and Nebraska loses to Ohio State.
After years of being mocked, the Big Ten is going to put out quite an enjoyable conference schedule this year. Of course, the big one is still to come: Michigan-Ohio State on Nov. 26.
3. West Virginia has a real defense: Admittedly, I've been skeptical of what to make of West Virginia's strong start. I'm not anywhere close to declaring the Mountaineers a real playoff contender yet -- their eight straight Big 12 games with no bye could haunt them -- but it's fair to say West Virginia has a much-improved defense that could be the Big 12's best.
The Mountaineers went on the road and held Texas Tech, the nation's top-ranked offense in scoring and yards, to 17 points and 379 total yards. That's 38 points and 271 yards below the Red Raiders' season averages. West Virginia ended Texas Tech's NCAA record of nine straight home games with at least 50 points. West Virginia has held three of its first five opponents to under 20 points
West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard (318 yards passing, 89 yards rushing vs. Texas Tech) continues to improve. We'll know more about the Mountaineers after the next two weeks against TCU and Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, can someone please get Dana Holgorsen a Red Bull endorsement already?
4. ACC Coastal chaos is back: A week ago, Virginia Tech handled North Carolina and Miami played well in a one-point loss to Florida State. That appeared to set the stage for a big Thursday night game in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Oct. 20 between Miami and Virginia Tech. Just when you think the ACC Coastal looks more predictable, 22-point underdog Syracuse beats Virginia Tech by two touchdowns and North Carolina goes to Miami and wins.
Of all the terrific ACC quarterbacks, North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky may possess the best NFL potential. There's a reason Ohio State wanted him. Against Miami, Trubisky was 33 of 46 for 299 yards and two touchdowns, adding 47 rushing yards. Kudos to defending ACC Coastal champion North Carolina, which has road wins this season over Florida State and Miami.
The Coastal hasn't produced a repeat champion since 2011. I tend to still view the Tar Heels as the Coastal's best team, but their two rivalry games late in the year -- at Duke, vs. NC State -- now look more difficult after those teams nearly upset the ACC's two best teams (Louisville and Clemson). The ACC better hope its championship game doesn't have an upset. Every Coastal team now has at least two losses.
5. Notre Dame is the biggest disaster among preseason flops: The more Notre Dame loses, the more miserable Brian Kelly gets, and the more you wonder if he needs a change of scenery. I can't imagine Notre Dame fires Kelly after this season, but the tension kept mounting as the Irish have fallen to 2-5 after losing a 10-0 lead at home to Stanford, which was without Christian McCaffrey. Kelly even had a post game exchange with Stanford's strength coach because, according to Kelly, the coach said "bye bye" while brushing past him. "Bye bye" is now setting Kelly off?
Kelly pulled DeShone Kizer early in the second after two interceptions. That caused former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen to go off on Twitter. Kizer later returned and the game ended when he got sacked and tackled with no timeouts left.
If I was Kizer I'd want to go in the draft early. Why would I come back with a HC that has no trust in you? Throw 2 ints and get yanked?— Jimmy Clausen (@JimmyClausen) October 16, 2016
Notre Dame, which was ranked 10th in the preseason AP Top 25, is part of a long list of disappointments. Nine of the top 13 teams in the preseason poll have at least two losses halfway through the season. Preseason No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 12 Michigan State have a combined 7-12 record. About three top-10 preseason picks go awry each year. Notre Dame is the worst of these bad picks in 2016.
Score of the day
Northwestern 54, Michigan State 40: The Spartans' collapse has been epic since they reached the College Football Playoff last season. Northwestern, which entered Saturday with the 112th-ranked scoring offense and managed only seven points against Illinois State last month, scored the most points ever by a road team at Michigan State. The Spartans are 2-4 and in serious jeopardy of missing a bowl game. Wins by teams in the state of Michigan: Western Michigan seven, Michigan six, Central Michigan five, Eastern Michigan five, Michigan State two. Ouch.
Stat of the day
The SEC West is 7-0 vs. the SEC East in 2016, winning by an average of 23.4 points: Since 2009, when Urban Meyer's SEC reign ended and Nick Saban's began, the SEC West is 89-35 (.718) against the SEC East. The East's reputation wasn't helped when Vanderbilt won at Georgia for Derek Mason's first SEC road win in three seasons. Just think: An Alabama-Tennessee rematch is possible for the SEC Championship Game. Joy. I'll say it again: The SEC's divisional imbalance could haunt the it one of these years. What happens if a one-loss West champion needs a quality win in Atlanta over the East to make a late statement for a playoff spot?
What was he thinking?
Oh, Tulsa: Houston, a College Football Playoff contender just a week ago before falling to Navy, was that close to losing any realistic hopes of reaching a New Year's Six bowl. With the game tied late, Houston scored on a defensive touchdown. Tulsa drove the length of the field in the final minute, but with seven seconds left and out of timeouts, threw a strange pass near the goal line that was short of the end zone. The pass was completed without the ball crossing the goal line. Houston still needs help to even reach the AAC Championship Game, but a loss would have been disastrous.
Quote of the week
"When I caught it, I kind of blacked out. I almost died. No, for real, I almost died. Everybody kept piling on me." -- Clemson cornerback Marcus Edmond on his interception in overtime to secure a win over NC State, which set off a wild dogpile with his teammates
It was the second straight home game Edmond made a defensive stand on the final critical play of the game.
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