10 takeaways from a day of college football clarity

Ten takeaways from a clarifying day in college football:

1. Notre Dame’s path to the College Football Playoff is clear. And easy.

With the Fighting Irish ripping Stanford 38-17 Saturday night, their remaining schedule is a veritable cakewalk to 12-0. Now, landmines have been known to pop up in the middle of cakewalks before, and there are questions about whether Notre Dame is really talented enough to go 12-0. But the opportunity is absolutely there.

Next week, the Irish are at Virginia Tech, which is without injured starting quarterback Josh Jackson. The Hokies got a great performance from backup Ryan Willis in a win over Duke (332 passing yards, three touchdowns), but Notre Dame should be solidly favored.

After that the opponents are Pittsburgh in South Bend, Navy in San Diego, at Northwestern, Florida State in South Bend, Syracuse in New York City, and at USC. After the trip to Lane Stadium, that’s just one hostile atmosphere left. That’s USC (Notre Dame will have as many fans as Northwestern at that game in Evanston), and if the Trojans aren’t doing well then that fan base may have checked out.

Expect the Irish to be a touchdown favorite or more in every game until they face the Trojans. And they don’t have the added jeopardy of a conference championship game.

Even at 12-0, there could be legitimate questions about Notre Dame’s strength of schedule. Which means the Irish will be rooting hard for Michigan and Stanford to win every game the rest of the way to enhance their résumés.

Even if those teams don’t pile up wins, the idea of an undefeated Notre Dame in the playoff is the kind of ratings gold that would be difficult for the selection committee to resist.

Stanford coach David Shaw, left, meets with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Stanford coach David Shaw, left, meets with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

2. Brian Kelly’s recruiting prowess was on full display Saturday night.

The Notre Dame coach probably doesn’t get his full due as a recruiter, but the evidence is unmistakable. He has stacked up quality players across the roster, and they’re ready to produce when given a chance.

The two latest stars are quarterback Ian Book and running back Dexter Williams — guys who weren’t part of the plan in the first three games of the season.

Book was promoted to the starting quarterback role last week against Wake Forest and in two games he has been magnificent, throwing for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns and rushing for 90 yards and three more TDs. Book’s quick decision-making, passing accuracy and ability to improvise has made the Irish offense much more dynamic than it was under Brandon Wimbush.

Williams, meanwhile, saw his first action of the season after what was basically an unannounced four-game suspension. He sliced through the Stanford defense for 161 yards on 21 carries, hitting holes quickly and running with north-south authority.

Combine those two with an array of play-making receivers and an imposing line, and the Notre Dame offense is suddenly finding a gear it lacked in the first three games of the season. Kelly’s recruiting has given him a lot of options at key positions, and Plan B(ook) is working perfectly thus far.

3. Clemson escapes September undefeated, but enters October with issues with its once-flush quarterback situation.

Trevor Lawrence made a supremely ill-advised decision to push a no-hope scramble to the limit against Syracuse, and the end result was a disaster for the Tigers. The freshman quarterback’s first career start was over in the second quarter after taking a shoulder to the head, and all the events of the previous days suddenly came home to roost for the Tigers.

Kelly Bryant, who had been demoted after starting the previous 18 games, was nowhere to be found in Death Valley. He quit the team in the wake of being benched. So Dabo Swinney had to turn to former third-stringer Chase Brice for the remainder of the game.

It worked out in the end, barely. After struggling most of the game, Brice made two huge plays on the game-winning drive: a fourth-and-6 throw to Tee Higgins for a first down, and then a 17-yard run on a zone-option read. Clemson eked out a 27-23 win.

There was plenty of speculation in-game about Bryant, who reportedly has not withdrawn from school, perhaps rejoining the team. But Swinney wanted nothing to do with the subject of Bryant postgame.

“I’m going to talk about our team,” he said. “… We’re moving on.”

There are plenty of questions about whether Bryant would be welcome back, or be interested in returning. If Lawrence is out Saturday against Wake Forest (or longer), he would seem the logical choice to start — if he’s back with the team. If not, Clemson will go with Brice and hope that it doesn’t have to turn to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow as an emergency QB.

The good news for the Tigers is that if they can get past the Demon Deacons, they have a bye week Oct. 13. Unless Lawrence’s injury is more severe than it appeared, he would seemingly be ready to go Oct. 20 against currently unbeaten North Carolina State.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence leaves the field after being injured during the first half against Syracuse on Saturday in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence leaves the field after being injured during the first half against Syracuse on Saturday in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

4. Clemson is good. But Clemson also has been lucky.

The Orange had the Tigers on the ropes all day Saturday, but never moreso than with nine minutes left in the game, up three, and the ball in Clemson territory. Syracuse coach Dino Babers went for a fourth-and-1 and dialed up a gutsy play call — a jump pass by Eric Dungey. He executed the play perfectly, and Syracuse seemingly was on its way to a potential clinching score — except lineman Cody Conway was illegally downfield on the play.

Faced with a fourth-and-6, the Orange punted. About eight minutes later Clemson scored the winning touchdown.

Combine that good fortune with a fortuitous rule (and ruling) against Texas A&M. Late in the fourth quarter of that game, Aggies receiver Quartney Davis was hit near the goal line and fumbled. It was ruled that the ball was fumbled into the end zone and thus a touchback, and Clemson’s possession. It was never clear whether the ball crossed the goal line or went out of bounds before that point, but Clemson got the benefit of the call on the field and it was too close to overturn on review.

Given the underwhelming nature of the ACC, and given those close escapes, Clemson’s playoff résumé may not be as compelling as it has been the last three seasons when it made the Final Four.

5. Here’s a first: the game that will in all likelihood decide the SEC East will be played in Lexington, Kentucky.

When Georgia visits Kentucky on Nov. 3, the division title could well be on the line. Since the SEC went to divisional play in 1992, the Wildcats have never finished higher than third in the East — but that could change this year. They are 5-0 for the first time since 2007, 3-0 in the SEC and own victories over East opponents Florida and South Carolina.

Georgia also is 5-0 and 3-0 in the league after pasting Tennessee. But the Bulldogs were expected to be in this position. Kentucky, not so much.

It has taken sixth-year coach Mark Stoops a while, but he finally has a team that is built to win in the SEC: Kentucky came into Saturday leading the league in rushing offense and is sixth in rushing defense, the latter a category in which UK hasn’t finished better than 10th in at least nine years.

Running back Bennie Snell (639 rushing yards and eight touchdowns) has started to appear on the Heisman Trophy radar, and he’ll stay there as long as the Wildcats are winning. They have a significant test at Texas A&M next Saturday. If they pass that test and improve to 6-0 for the first time since 1950 — when the coach was Bear Bryant — fans will have to pause their annual migration to basketball season for a while longer.

6. Bobby Petrino gave an arsenal of ammunition to his growing number of critics by blowing Louisville’s game against Florida State.

Leading 24-21 with two minutes on the clock and a first down at the FSU 21, the Cardinals simply needed to run the ball three times to hugely increase their already-strong chances of winning. The Seminoles had two timeouts left and would not have been able to stop the clock after Louisville’s third-down play. Theoretically, the Cardinals could have been kicking a field goal to go up six with less than 90 seconds on the clock, and FSU would have been facing a desperation TD drive with no timeouts remaining.

But Petrino instead called a first-down pass by his very raw, extremely erratic first-year starting quarterback, Jawon Pass. He promptly threw the ball directly to Florida State’s A.J. Westbrook. Five plays later, Florida State scored the winning touchdown.

“I guess I should have run the ball,” Petrino said afterward.

Ya think?

The loss to a truly bad Seminoles team drops the Cardinals to 2-3, 0-3 against Power Five competition, and further inflames fan dissatisfaction with a coach who has shown signs of having lost his innovative offensive touch. In the fifth season of Petrino 2.0, Louisville came into this game ranked 124th nationally in total offense and 123rd in scoring offense.

The Cardinals showed some life on that side of the ball against Florida State — but still wound up giving the game away on a massive coaching error. Petrino’s decision was so bad, it keeps Penn State’s James Franklin from owning the worst play call of the day.

7. If you’re making a list of the top one-loss teams lining up behind the unbeatens for playoff consideration, don’t forget Washington.

The Huskies have to be behind Auburn, which beat them in Atlanta to open the season, and should also be behind Penn State. But that’s probably it at this stage.

After routing BYU 35-7 — the Cougars were shut out until scoring in the final minute — Washington certainly slots itself ahead of a Wisconsin team that lost to BYU. The Huskies have allowed an average of just 246 yards over their past four games and surrendered a mere 194 Saturday night.

After playing winless UCLA next week, Washington hits the key stretch of the season: at Oregon, Colorado, at California, Stanford. Combined record of those opponents: 15-3.

Whoever wins the Pac-12 will likely need help making the playoff in the form of unexpected upsets elsewhere. But Washington is the league’s top candidate at this point.

Washington quarterback Jake Browning looks to pass behind running back Salvon Ahmed during the second against BYU on Saturday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington quarterback Jake Browning looks to pass behind running back Salvon Ahmed during the second against BYU on Saturday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

8. In addition to Washington, several teams that suffered bad losses in Week One continued their comeback this weekend.

Michigan rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat Northwestern on the road, holding the Wildcats to 87 yards and zero points on their last nine possessions of the game. The Wolverines’ lone loss, by a touchdown to Notre Dame, continues to look better as the season goes along.

Texas jumped out 19-0 on Kansas State and held on for a 19-14 victory in Manhattan, Kansas, lifting the Longhorns to 4-1 and raising stakes for their Red River Shootout game against Oklahoma on Saturday. Kansas State’s 217 yards were the fewest Texas has allowed in a Big 12 game since 2011. The Horns’ defense is much improved after the opening upset loss to Maryland.

Miami smashed North Carolina on Thursday, scoring three defensive touchdowns and breaking out the Turnover Chain six times on the night. After losing 33-17 to LSU to start the season, the Hurricanes now look like what they were supposed to be all along: the best team in the ACC Coastal.

9. Dan Mullen still owns Starkville. And Joe Moorhead might need to make a quarterback change.

The Mullen Bowl went to its namesake Saturday when the former coach at Mississippi State led his new team, Florida, past his old team in a 13-6 slugfest. The Gators (4-1) have equaled last year’s win total and now get a shot at ruining LSU’s perfect season Saturday in The Swamp.

For the Bulldogs, this was a second straight game in which their offense was completely impotent. In losses to Kentucky and Florida, Mississippi State has averaged 6.5 points and 201.5 yards. Senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was expected to thrive in Moorhead’s system, but the opposite has happened — he’s not throwing or running with any effectiveness against SEC competition. Moorhead will have to consider playing sophomore backup Keytaon Thompson, who led State to its bowl upset of Louisville last year and a season-opening romp over Stephen F. Austin.

10. Central Florida played its one Power Five opponent and rolled. But the Knights could still have a couple of high-leverage games remaining.

UCF blitzed Pittsburgh 45-14, and it’s a shame the game against North Carolina was canceled by Hurricane Florence because the Knights would have won that one as well. As it stands, the team on the nation’s longest winning streak (17 and counting) could be 9-0 and then finish the season with a couple of monster American Athletic Conference games.

On Nov. 17, UCF plays a currently undefeated Cincinnati team in Orlando. Then on Nov. 23, UCF visits currently undefeated South Florida in a rematch of a classic game last year. It remains highly unlikely that the Knights will have the strength of schedule for playoff inclusion, but they do have the potential for two high-profile games to finish the regular season and further their argument.

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