- Friday night brought maximum chaos, with top-10 teams Clemson and Washington State both suffering road losses to unranked opponents. How do the upsets shake up college football?
September came and went without many seismic shifts in the College Football Playoff race—there were upsets, to be sure, but no stunners that forced fans and experts to totally recalibrate their expectations. Now in the first two weekends of October, teams that ranked No. 2, 3, 7 and 8 at kickoff have fallen to middle-of-the-pack conference opponents: Last week Oklahoma stumbled Iowa State before Michigan lost to Michigan State; on Friday night Clemson suffered a 27–24 loss to Syracuse that sent shockwaves through the college football world, and before anyone could fully process the impact of that result, Washington State laid an egg on the road at Cal, dropping from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 37–3 loss.
Let’s take a look at the ripple effect of Friday night’s upsets from three different levels: the losing teams, the conferences they had sat atop and the national title picture at large.
Take heart, Tigers: In year four of the College Football Playoff, we’re still searching for our first unbeaten national champion. Last year’s lone loss to Pittsburgh came a month later in the season; from there Clemson won out, claimed the ACC title and hit its stride in the postseason. As Dabo Swinney reminded his team after Friday’s game, every goal his players had other than an undefeated season is still on the table. But the Tigers need all 15 days to heal up before their next game.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant started the game at far less than 100% after injuring his ankle in last weekend’s win over Wake Forest—he was moving gingerly every time he was flushed from the pocket, and the Orange sent him to the ground several times in the early going before he re-tweaked the ankle late in the second quarter and then suffered a concussion when defensive tackle Chris Slayton swung him to the turf on the Tigers’ last offensive play of the first half. Freshman Zerrick Cooper played a largely mistake-free second half, but it’s clear the Clemson offense has to take some pages out of the playbook without as reliable a dual-threat QB as Bryant calling the shots. Dynamic freshman running back Travis Etienne also tweaked his hamstring on the 52-yard touchdown run that proved to be Clemson’s final points midway through the third quarter. While the Tigers certainly aren’t hurting for weapons, Etienne had quickly become one of their most feared skill players.
Only three ACC games remain, but none of them are cheapies: Georgia Tech (Oct. 28 at home) has already ended Dabo Swinney’s national title hopes once this decade; NC State (Nov. 4 in Raleigh) is the only Atlantic Division team left with a spotless conference record and the only one that can match the Tigers in the trenches; Florida State (Nov. 11 at home) has been held back by injuries of its own but will not go quietly. Survive those, dispatch outmatched in-state rival South Carolina and beat the Coastal winner in Charlotte, and the Tigers will almost certainly find themselves back in the top four.
Washington State’s path back to playoff contention is not so simple. The Cougars were blown off the field by Cal and will have a lot of trouble trying to explain away a 34-point margin of defeat. Luke Falk was the victim of a few awful bounces, but he threw five interceptions on Friday after throwing just two in the season’s first six games. Upsets are one thing in the eyes of the committee; no-shows are another.
With the Apple Cup against Washington looming, the Cougars needed to enter November blemish-free to maximize their chances in a tight Pac-12 North race. Even if they solve both the Stanford and Utah defenses in back-to-back weeks before the bye that precedes their regular season finale, they'd have to make a huge statement against their in-state rival to make up for Friday night's embarrassment.
But if Syracuse can beat the Tigers, who else can? And would Clemson’s return to Earth leave the ACC in danger of ending up on the outside of the playoff looking in, just a year after it had asserted itself as college football’s dominant conference?
NC State had to already like its upset chances after toppling Florida State and Louisville in the season’s first half, but the Wolfpack play Notre Dame in South Bend the week before welcoming Clemson. If they lose to the Irish but beat Clemson to win the Atlantic and then take the conference title game, would the committee be able to overlook that unsightly Week 1 loss to South Carolina and make NC State the first two-loss playoff team? That answer would depend in part on how well Notre Dame navigates the rest of its brutal home stretch. And we are talking about a program that seems to recoil from prosperity as often as pre-2015 Clemson did; maybe it’s a little early to start sweating playoff résumés.
The preseason Coastal Division favorites—Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech—still have to finish their round robin before a possible meeting with Clemson in the ACC title game, and the Tigers outclassed Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. None of the three appeared to have the makeup of a playoff contender entering the season, but Clemson’s first stumble has at least cracked the window now.
The Pac-12 joined the Big 12 (TCU) and ACC (Miami) as Power 5 leagues with one unbeaten team left ... for about 18 hours, before Washington lost to Arizona State. Washington State is in for a substantial drop in the rankings, and while Stanford seems to have moved on from its 1–2 start it’s tough to know what exactly a win over the Cardinal in mid-November would mean for the Huskies. The more losses those three North contenders and USC take before championship weekend, the more danger the Pac-12 assumes of becoming the odd conference out of the playoff.
The National Title
Six weeks into the season, it seemed like Clemson and Alabama sat on their own separate tier, each fielding rosters stacked with blue-chips who were well-coached enough to never stoop to the level of the mere mortals that populated their respective conferences. Now that the cracks in Clemson’s armor have been exposed, are we back to Alabama vs. the field? For one thing, Georgia (assuming the Bulldogs claim the woeful SEC East) seems poised to make the Crimson Tide truly earn their fourth consecutive SEC title. But over the course of the last two national title games, Clemson seemed to have cracked the code for how to hang with Nick Saban teams on the biggest possible stage. If the Tigers aren’t waiting for Bama in the bracket, it would be hard not to make the Tide prohibitive favorites. But if Friday night taught us anything, it’s not to throw around that type of label lightly, no matter how strong the top teams look.