- The ACC just might end up with two teams in the playoff. Plus thoughts on the Big Ten pecking order, Washington’s emergence and Tennessee’s miracle win.
Let’s start this off by reflecting on what an absolute gift Week 5 of college football was. With three matchups between top-10 teams, it was clear this week was going to be great, but that doesn’t cover half of what made it so enthralling from start to finish. With Hail Marys, last-second field goals, overtimes and a bevy of upsets, Week 5 offered everything a college football fan could hope for and then some.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from a sensational week of games:
1. The ACC could still get two teams in the playoff. Florida State won’t be one of them
No. 5 Clemson and No. 3 Louisville provided a fittingly epic cap to the week with a 42–36 slugfest in which the Tigers prevailed. Clemson took a 28–10 lead into halftime thanks to three Deshaun Watson touchdown passes before Louisville came roaring back with 26 straight points. The remarkable comeback, keyed by (who else?) Lamar Jackson, didn’t last though, as Watson rebounded with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and a seemingly gassed Tigers defense found its second wind to make the lead stick.
The game more than lived up to the hype: The Heisman Trophy candidates delivered Heisman-worthy performances, and the back-and-forth affair kept up the drama until the closing seconds. The only shame was that the teams had to stop playing.
Thankfully, they could resume in two months and 30 days. The close finish, with Louisville falling on the road, ensures that neither team is out of the College Football Playoff hunt. If Clemson goes undefeated and Louisville avoids a slip-up, the ACC should become the first conference to send two teams to the playoff. Both the Tigers and the Cardinals looked deserving of playoff spots Saturday night in Death Valley.
As for the other ACC playoff contender, that playoff path came to an abrupt end. No. 12 Florida State suffered its second loss of the season when North Carolina kicker Nick Weiler booted a 54-yard field goal as time expired to stun the Seminoles 37–35.
Florida State trailed from midway through the first quarter on before taking the lead with 23 seconds left on a Deondre Francois touchdown run. But Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who finished with 405 yards passing, coolly guided North Carolina down the field and, with the help of a pass interference penalty, set up Weiler for the game-winning kick.
The Seminoles faced an uphill road to get back into playoff contention after Louisville trounced them 63–20 in Week 3. Any hope is gone now. Jimbo Fisher’s squad can only look inward and wonder what might have been had star safety Derwin James not gotten hurt.
2. The Big Ten appears to be down to Michigan and Ohio State
Just as everyone expected at the start of the season, the Wolverines and Buckeyes appear to be the class of the Big Ten. After comfortable wins against overmatched opponents to begin the season, No. 4 Michigan got its first true test Saturday against No. 8 Wisconsin. The Wolverines passed it, grinding through a physical, punishing battle to emerge with a 14–7 victory. Michigan likely should have won by more as it outgained Wisconsin 349–159, but a clutch Badgers defense held the Wolverines to 3 of 15 on third downs and Michigan missed three field goals.
Despite those miscues, the Wolverines never cracked under the pressure as the Badgers hung around. Midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan finally broke through as Amara Darboh hauled in a pass from Wilton Speight for a 46-yard score. Overall, it was not a particularly pretty performance from the Wolverines, but the offense did enough and the defense was virtually impregnable, holding Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook to 88 yards passing with three interceptions. Coach Jim Harbaugh will certainly be pleased.
All eyes now begin looking ahead to Nov. 26, when the Wolverines clash with Ohio State in Columbus. The Buckeyes had a much easier time Saturday as they demolished Rutgers with a vigor usually limited to FCS opponents. Quarterback J.T. Barrett tossed four touchdown passes, Rutgers was held to 33 yards through the air and Ohio State rolled to a 58–0 stomping. The Buckeyes are giving up fewer than 10 points per game so far this season.
Michigan State, the third member of the Big Ten East’s power trio entering this season, showed Saturday the key pieces the Spartans lost this off-season might have been too essential to maintain their elite level of play. After falling at home to Wisconsin 30–6 last week, Michigan State dropped a 24–21 overtime thriller to Indiana. With two conference losses already, the Spartans’ chances of rebounding to win the East are close to zero.
Michigan State still has to play Michigan and Ohio State, which can be looked at in a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty way. On the one hand, the Spartans could at least play spoiler for two of their division rivals. On the other hand, given the way the season has gone so far, their record could get even worse.
3. Washington inherits the Pac-12’s mantle
The Huskies entered the season with no shortage of hype but also plenty of questions about whether they were deserving of that hype. After all, Washington won just seven games last season.
Chris Petersen’s squad silenced the doubters Friday night with a 44–6 thumping of Stanford in Seattle. The Huskies beat the Cardinal at their own game and then some, winning in the trenches and in space. Washington’s defense battered quarterback Ryan Burns with five sacks and made the phenomenal Christian McCaffrey look mortal, holding him to 49 rushing yards on 12 carries. The Huskies’ offensive line manhandled Stanford to help Washington gain 5.2 yards per carry while sophomore quarterback Jake Browning threw for 210 yards and three scores.
Now that the Huskies have embarrassed the defending Pac-12 champs, they clearly move to the top of the heap in the conference that seemed most likely to get left out of the playoff before the season. But Washington’s playoff chances actually look pretty good. The Huskies go on the road next week to Oregon, whom they haven’t beaten since 2003, but the Ducks have looked horrid this season, dropping to 2–3 on the year with a 51–33 defeat to Washington State on Saturday. A trip to Utah and a home date with USC—which perhaps turned a corner with a 41–20 rout of Arizona State on Saturday—could be challenging, but it’s not hard to see Washington finishing the season 11–1 or even undefeated. If the Huskies continue to play like they did Friday against Stanford, there’s no reason they shouldn’t make the playoff.
Bonus thought: In a week of wild games and even more insane finishes, Tennessee’s win over Georgia takes the cake
In case you missed it, let’s quickly go back over the dramatic swings of this game. Georgia opened a 17–0 lead on Tennessee due in part to Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd fumbling into the end zone when he caught a pass and eased up thinking no one was around him, only to get blindsided by Bulldogs cornerback Deandre Baker.
Tennessee cut away at the deficit in the second half, finally taking the lead with 2:56 remaining when Georgia true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason fumbled in his own end zone and defensive end Corey Vereen recovered. That lead appeared likely to hold, but the Bulldogs got the ball back with 1:13 left for one final shot. Eason made the most of it, tossing a perfect deep ball to Riley Ridley for a 47-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining.
Just when that seemed likely to be the game-winner, Tennessee’s Evan Berry brought the kickoff return to the Georgia 48 with five yards tacked on for a penalty. Close enough to heave a Hail Mary, quarterback Joshua Dobbs lobbed one up into the end zone, and Jauan Jennings came down with it for the miraculous 34–31 win.
The method of victory was incredible in and of itself, but it also completely changes the complexion of the SEC East. Had the Vols lost, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia would each have one loss in conference play with Tennessee holding the tiebreaker over Florida and Georgia holding the tiebreaker over Tennessee. Furthermore, for the Vols to make the playoff, they likely would have had to go undefeated for the rest of the regular season, which includes a trip to Texas A&M next week before a home date with Alabama in two weeks.
With Jennings’s catch, Tennessee is in firm control of the SEC East. The Vols hold the tiebreaker over both of their two toughest competitors and are a game up on Florida and two up on Georgia. All of Tennessee’s postseason goals are in play halfway through the make-or-break portion of its schedule.