Week 8 takeaways: Three biggest things we learned from the week
First there was the Kick-Six. Then last week brought the Gift-Six. And now we have … the Block-Six? We’re running out of names for the amazing endings college football is producing. This week it was Georgia Tech upsetting No. 9 Florida State on a 78-yard return of a blocked field goal.
It’s our latest reminder that college football never takes a week off, even when the schedule looks unappealing. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 8:
1. The Pac-12 is big on excitement but short on playoff contenders
USC’s status as the betting favorite in its matchup with No. 3 Utah seemed shocking leading up to Saturday. The Utes were undefeated while the Trojans were just 3–3 and playing under an interim head coach after Steve Sarkisian’s firing. It turns out Vegas was on to something.
USC pummeled Utah 42–24 with a dominant defensive effort, forcing Utes quarterback Travis Wilson into four interceptions after he had thrown just three entering Saturday. Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith had three interceptions alone, including a 54-yard pick-six that was part of a 35–3 run for the Trojans. USC also kept star running back Devontae Booker in check, limiting him to a season-low 62 yards on 14 carries.
The victory is a huge momentum boost for the Trojans, who had lost two straight amid their coaching staff’s chaos. Although USC’s hopes of a division title are likely over, Saturday’s win suggest the Trojans could perhaps go on a second-half run under interim coach Clay Helton similar to what they did under then interim coach Ed Orgeron in 2013. The talent is still there.
However, USC’s win increases the odds the Pac-12 could get left out of the College Football Playoff. The conference has produced plenty of exciting games, but it now lacks an undefeated team. Although one loss doesn’t end any team’s playoff chances, the margin for error is gone. The Pac-12 has shown it has great depth, but while there are several very good teams, no team has been consistently great. Utah had met that standard before Saturday.
Stanford and the Utes both have one loss (at the time of publication, the Cardinal were beating Washington 31–14 in the fourth quarter on Saturday night, continuing their impressive run since a Week 1 loss to Northwestern), and it’s possible that with the Pac-12’s strength a two-loss team could make the playoff with enough turmoil in other conferences. But the odds of the Pac-12 cannibalizing itself out of the playoff race are on the rise, and wins like USC’s validate those fears.
2. Florida State’s loss pins the ACC’s hopes on Clemson
A stunning special teams play produced a wild last-second win for the second week in a row. Georgia Tech’s Lance Austin scooped up a blocked 56-yard field goal from Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo and weaved 78 yards to the end zone to break a 16–16 tie with no time remaining. Austin and the Yellow Jackets’ heroics gave the Seminoles their first conference defeat since Oct. 6, 2012. They also made No. 6 Clemson the ACC’s clear favorite for a playoff bid.
The Tigers validated their status as playoff contenders with a 58–0 drubbing of Miami that could prove to be the final straw for embattled Hurricanes coach Al Golden. Quarterback Deshaun Watson continues to demonstrate that last season’s ACL tear didn’t rob him of any of his dynamism, while Clemson’s defense remains one of the best in the country despite major turnover from last year. It’s allowing just 14.3 points per game.
Florida State’s loss doesn’t change much about the Tigers’ path to the playoff. They’ll still have to beat the Seminoles on Nov. 7 to win the ACC Atlantic Division and reach the conference title game. However, Clemson may now be the ACC’s only shot at a playoff bid. The conference struggles in comparisons to other leagues after a dismal performance in nonconference play, so even if Florida State were to win out, it could be left on the outside looking in if other Power Five conference champions and/or Notre Dame finish with one loss or fewer. It doesn’t help the Seminoles’ case that Saturday’s win was Georgia Tech’s third of the season.
There’s no reason to doubt Clemson’s playoff chances. The Tigers have looked like one of the few consistently dominant teams this season and already have a marquee win over Notre Dame. Florida State’s loss simple shifts almost all of the ACC’s playoff hopes on Clemson’s shoulders. We’ll see if the Tigers can handle the pressure.
3. And then there were three in the SEC West
Texas A&M entered last week as one of three remaining undefeated teams in the SEC and among a handful of conference contenders. After two straight losses to divisional foes, the No. 15 Aggies are almost surely out of the race in the SEC West.
Ole Miss rebounded from its disappointing 37–24 defeat to Memphis last week with an impressive 23–3 beatdown of Texas A&M. The No. 24 Rebels got almost nothing going on the ground against the Tigers—40 yards on 24 carries—but with Laremy Tunsil back at left tackle after a suspension, Ole Miss rushed for 230 yards on the Aggies. Despite the absence of star safety Tony Conner and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, the Rebels defense shut down Texas A&M’s high-powered offense and limited a floundering Kyle Allen to 88 yards passing.
Ole Miss’s win narrows the SEC West race to the Rebels, Alabama and LSU. The undefeated No. 5 Tigers have the most clear-cut path but must survive a Nov. 7 trip to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide. After a slow start LSU pulled away from Western Kentucky late in the third quarter Saturday to beat the Hilltoppers 48–20. No. 8 Alabama survived a tougher-than-expected visit from Tennessee, beating the Volunteers 19–14 on a late touchdown from running back Derrick Henry.
Of the three contenders, Alabama is the only one that doesn’t control its own destiny. The Tide’s loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19 gives the Rebels the tiebreaker. If Ole Miss wins out, including a Nov. 21 battle with LSU, it would earn the SEC West’s berth in the conference title game.
If that happens and the Rebels win the SEC Championship Game, they could create one of the most interesting challenges for the College Football Playoff selection committee. If Memphis finishes the season undefeated—Justin Fuente’s squad passed another test Friday night in a 66–42 victory over Tulsa—it would be hard to leave the Tigers out in favor of the two-loss SEC champion that they beat head-to-head.
A one-loss Alabama, one-loss or undefeated LSU or one-loss Florida from the SEC East would all be much simpler cases. As Ole Miss-Alabama is the only matchup among the three SEC West contenders that has been played, the division is still very much up in the air. The Rebels’ win over Texas A&M on Saturday hints that they could rediscover the form that allowed them to beat the Tide and make a second-half run to the division title.