Another week of upsets and close calls has shaken up what we thought we knew and brought new teams to the forefront of races for conference titles and College Football Playoff berths.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 5:
1. It’s starting to feel like 2007
The 2007 season was famous for its chaotic nature that by the end of the regular season left no undefeated teams and only one one-loss team. The 2015 season has a long way to go to reach that level of pandemonium, but the early signs are there.
Name one team that looks unbeatable. Several undefeated teams suffered their first losses of the season Saturday, including No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 7 UCLA and No. 8 Georgia. Even the ones that did win often scraped by in disappointing performances. Ohio Statebarely held off Indiana, Michigan State endured a scare from Purdue, and LSU led Eastern Michigan by just eight entering the fourth quarter.
In a season in which every team appears vulnerable and no win seems certain, there’s only one rule: Survive and advance. Narrow victories may not inspire much confidence or score points with the playoff selection committee, but they’ll certainly carry teams farther than losses will.
2. Clemson is the ACC’s top playoff threat if the conference doesn’t weigh it down
The Tigers scored the biggest win of Week 5, overcoming pouring rain and a furious Notre Dame rally to beat the Fighting Irish 24–22. Clemson’s defense looks like one of the best in the country, after its front seven, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson, created havoc in the backfield and held running back C.J. Prosise to 50 yards on 15 carries. Notre Dame entered Week 5 averaging 284.8 rushing yards per game but gained just 116 on the Tigers. Clemson also boasts a tremendous dual-threat option at quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who spurred the Tigers’ offense Saturday with 97 yards passing, 93 yards rushing and all three Clemson touchdowns.
The victory over the Irish gives the Tigers a critical bullet point on their playoff résumé as it could prove to be the best nonconference victory of the season. Clemson’s schedule the rest of the season also sets it up to pile on victories. In keeping with my first point, the Tigers certainly have their flaws, including a shaky offensive line—though that line came through Saturday, keeping Watson from being sacked once. Clemson is definitely capable of suffering a crushing loss, but at this point it looks like the toughest team in the ACC.
Yet while it’s easy to imagine the Tigers winning 11 or 12 games in the regular season, that’s also part of the problem they’ll face in their quest for a playoff berth. The ACC has gone 5–14 this season in nonconference games against the other Power Five leagues, the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West. If Clemson or any other ACC team finishes with the same record as another Power Five team, it’ll be a tough sell to show that the ACC team is more worthy of a playoff berth than the other team. Clemson’s argument could become especially difficult if Notre Dame drops a few more games.
Of course, this all becomes moot if the Tigers simply win out. Even with Florida State producing sloppy win after sloppy win last season, the Seminoles still made the playoff field because they went undefeated, something no other team could do. But if Clemson slips up against Florida State or in any other game on its schedule and there’s a gridlock of one-loss teams—or if it falls twice to join a mix of two-loss teams vying for playoff spots—that’s not a situation that’s likely to end well for the Tigers.
3. Another week, another shakeup at the top of the SEC
Alabama pummeled Georgia in Athens 38–10 as Derrick Henry chugged for 148 yards rushing, Jake Coker chipped in an efficient 190 yards passing and the Crimson Tide held the Bulldogs to 4.3 yards per play. The trouncing shook up both divisional races, thrusting Alabama back into the mix in the West while knocking Georgia off its pedestal in the East. The Tide finally got everything clicking Saturday, including an aerial attack that had struggled to take off. If they can maintain the quality of performance they put forth against the Bulldogs, their loss to Ole Miss may look like an aberration by the season’s end. And with matchups still to come against Texas A&M and LSU, both undefeated, Alabama still controls a significant portion of its fate.
Florida did the Tide a huge favor by dealing the Rebels a stunning blow in the Swamp, also a 38–10 decision. After completing fewer than 60% of his passes in each of the past three games, Gators quarterback Will Grier was masterful in his dissection of Ole Miss’s secondary, completing 24 of 29 passes for 271 yards with four touchdowns. Finally backed by a competent offense after years of ineptitude under Will Muschamp, Florida’s defense thrived, forcing four turnovers and holding the Rebels to 4.0 yards per play. The Gators are now off to a stunning 5–0 start, including three conference wins.
With Georgia’s loss Saturday, there’s an opening for Florida to make a run for the SEC East title. The Gators will still likely have to take down the Bulldogs in Jacksonville on Halloween to win the division, but Alabama’s defensive gameplan could work for Jim McElwain’s squad. The Tide put the majority of their emphasis on shutting down star running back Nick Chubb and forcing quarterback Greyson Lambert to beat them. They were successful on both fronts, holding Lambert to 10-of-24 passing before he was benched and limiting Chubb to 63 yards rushing apart from an 83-yard touchdown scamper after the outcome was already settled. Florida also can afford to stack the box against the Bulldogs because it boasts one of the nation’s best secondaries—led by star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who recorded his third interception of the season Saturday.
If the Gators’ offense maintains the dramatic improvement it demonstrated against the Rebels, McElwain could have Florida in contention for an SEC title far sooner than expected.