10 takeaways: What's wrong with Clemson?

Ten takeaways from the weekend in college football:

Clemson struggles in narrow win

Clemson survived its annual clunker. But what’s wrong with that offense?

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The defending national champions had to stop a North Carolina two-point conversion with 1:17 left to beat the Tar Heels, 21-20, in Chapel Hill. Despite dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference for the past five years, the Tigers have thrown in at least one uninspired performance per season along the way to super-power status.

Last year, Clemson had to rally from 10 points down in the fourth quarter at home to beat Syracuse. The year before, Clemson lost to the Orange in the Carrier Dome. And the year before that, Pittsburgh sprang the upset in Death Valley.

In each of those seasons, the Tigers advanced to the College Football Playoff, winning two of the past three. But this Clemson team may not be able to afford a loss and still earn a playoff bid.

The ACC is that weak, and the non-conference schedule is that soft. Clemson may not be able to win a résumé contest with other one-loss teams the way it did in 2016 and ’17, which is why winning Saturday against North Carolina was vital.

So the Tigers did what they had to do. Barely. But a Clemson offense that seemingly could be the best in school history has had a sluggish September.

At 38 points per game, it’s not like Clemson is punchless. But scoring just 24 against Texas A&M and 21 against North Carolina is not what anyone expected from Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Co. after watching that group light up the playoff last season.

The Clemson offensive line was underwhelming against the Heels. It only allowed one sack, but Lawrence was hurried seven other times and had to do a lot of running (a career-high 11 carries). Etienne didn’t get much running room, gaining 67 yards on 14 carries, with a long run of just 13 yards.

And Lawrence himself has not sustained the level of play he reached in the playoff. He entered Saturday 55th nationally in pass efficiency, and that ranking will almost certainly drop after a pedestrian performance (18 of 30 for 206 yards, with one touchdown). For a guy who was drawing comparisons to Peyton Manning after last season, he’s been underwhelming.

If judging on this season alone, Clemson shouldn’t be No. 1 when the new polls come out this week.

Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney argues for an incomplete pass call against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. The Clemson Tigers won 21-20. (USAT)
Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney argues for an incomplete pass call against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. The Clemson Tigers won 21-20. (USAT)

UNC stands tall for Mack Brown

Mack Brown made the right decision but the wrong call.

The performance by his North Carolina team against Clemson shows Brown has still got it as a coach — he can get a team ready, equip it with the right gameplan and motivate his players to perform at an inspired level. And his decision to win or lose the game on a single snap, going for two after scoring to make it 21-20 with 1:17 right, was the way to go.

After taking a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, the Tar Heels’ offense was smothered. Their next six possessions produced 47 yards on 24 snaps, less than two yards per play, and only three first downs.

So when UNC mounted its only successful drive of the second half to score, trying to gain three yards one time seemed the smarter decision than playing for overtime and giving Clemson’s superior talent more time to assert itself. Brown went for the gusto. It was a great idea.

But the call from coordinator Phil Longo wasn’t a great idea against the athleticism of the Tigers. Carolina ran an option with freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who isn’t much of a runner. Clemson strung out the play and stuffed it easily, and the game was essentially over at that point.

Despite the missed opportunity for a landmark upset, North Carolina is in good hands with Mack Brown going forward.

Hurts for Heisman alive and well

The Jalen Hurts Heisman Trophy campaign is real and spectacular.

One month in, the Alabama transfer keeps piling up one spectacular performance after another. This time, it came against a more qualified opponent than the previous three.

Lighting up struggling 1-3 Houston, FCS South Dakota and 1-3 UCLA? That was nice. But lighting up a Texas Tech team that was third in the nation in passing yards allowed and 13th in pass efficiency defense? That’s better.

Hurts dropped dimes all over the Red Raiders in a 55-16 Oklahoma rout, producing 485 yards total offense and four touchdowns. The nation’s leader in pass efficiency threw his first interception of the season but still had a 249 rating Saturday, his fourth mark higher than 245 this season. Per Oklahoma, no other FBS player since at least 1996 has recorded more than two games with a 245 efficiency rating in the same season.

Not Baker Mayfield. Not Kyler Murray. And we know what those two ended up accomplishing in the Lincoln Riley QB assembly line.

Irish defense finds groove

Notre Dame’s defense is coming on, especially up front.

The Fighting Irish sacked Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins eight times Saturday, twice producing game-turning, second-half fumbles — one that they returned for a touchdown, while the other set up a short touchdown. Nearly as important: Notre Dame allowed zero runs longer than 16 yards for the second straight game.

Doing that against Virginia is good. Doing it last week against Georgia was really good.

The Irish had to fill a couple holes on the interior of the defensive line, and that unit seems to be coming together as the season progresses. Clark Lea, second-year defensive coordinator, is seeing his star continue to rise.

Could Penn State be OSU’s Big Ten foil?

Ohio State stampeded through September looking like it will destroy the Big Ten East. But Penn State raised its hand as a possible contender Friday night.

The Nittany Lions obliterated Maryland on the road, 59-0. It was Penn State’s largest margin of victory in a Big Ten road game since — ah, well, since its last trip to Maryland, when it crushed the Terrapins 66-3 to close the 2017 regular season. But this game was played in front of the Terps’ largest home crowd in eight years, a blackout game for a program creating some buzz after its 2-1 start under new coach Mike Locksley.

The Nittany Lions jumped to a 38-0 halftime lead and outgained Maryland by a whopping 491 yards, prompting coach James Franklin to call the performance “one of the more complete games that we have played in our six years.”

The first road start of quarterback Sean Clifford’s career couldn’t have gone much better — he completed 26 of 31 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 54 yards and another TD. “Sean was on fire,” Franklin said.

Clifford is developing a big-play connection with receiver KJ Hamler. Locksley called Hamler a “gameplan wrecker,” and he was every bit of that Friday with six catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. The Nittany Lions are still dabbling with a number of running backs, but they have enough balance to keep opposing defenses honest.

October will be a big month for Penn State, with home games against Purdue and Michigan and road games at Iowa and Michigan State. If the Nittany Lions are 8-0 coming out of that stretch, the Nov. 23 game at Ohio State would likely loom as the decider in the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes have rallied to win the last two meetings by a single point apiece, and Penn State won the 2016 game by three. The 2019 meeting could be a fourth straight thriller.

Day’s Buckeyes might be best OSU team in a while

After Ohio State’s 48-7 evisceration of Nebraska on Saturday night turned predictably gruesome, the question is worth asking is whether the Buckeyes – or another top-five team – should jump Clemson for No. 1.

Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia and LSU all have arguments for the top spot at this point, especially after Clemson sleepwalked to a last-second victory against an unranked UNC team.

No one made a louder statement this weekend than Ohio State. Ryan Day’s first edition as a full-time head coach is ripping off victories at a historic clip. Ohio State improved to 5-0 after throttling the Cornhuskers in Lincoln and making accurate the initial questioning of why “Gameday” bothered to travel out there. Ohio State still hasn’t been tested, as they have outscored opponents 262-43 over the season’s first five games. So far, this Ohio State team appears as complete and as dominant as any team during the Urban Meyer era.

Justin Fields continued his brilliance, completing 15-of-21 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 72 more yards and another touchdown. But the biggest difference at Ohio State this year has come from Jeff Hafley’s defense, as the Buckeyes entered the weekend No. 2 in total defense after finishing last year No. 72.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said on the broadcast that he thought this was the most complete Ohio State team he’d seen since the 2006 team that lost to Meyer’s Florida team in the national title game.

The competition – at least from the opposing defense – ramps up next weekend when the Buckeyes host Michigan State.

Clay Helton’s job status takes another hit

The odds of Clay Helton surviving as USC’s coach took two body blows this week. The first came six days ago when the school’s most decorated recruit, Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young, flipped his verbal commitment from USC to Alabama.

Young was not only USC’s highest-rated recruit, a five-star quarterback for a program with a bushel of uncertainty at that position. He’s also from Mater Dei, which has essentially served as USC’s personal quarterback feeder over the years, as stars like Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley and injured Trojan quarterback JT Daniels all went to school there.

The Trojans rank No. 63 in the latest Rivals.com recruiting rankings, which is likely a pinch lower than it should be because those rankings heavily favor volume. USC has just 11 commitments. But USC has just a three-star average, lower than Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Arkansas, Purdue and Virginia.

A run of wins could have recalibrated that ranking and given recruits more faith in Helton’s future, but USC fell to 3-2 after losing 28-14 at Washington on Saturday. They have a bye and travel to Notre Dame on Oct. 12, a game where they will be a heavy underdog.

The combination of mediocre results on the field and little hope in recruiting – none of the top 12 committed players in California are going to USC – is making Helton’s future increasingly untenable at USC. With a new president and search firm already hired to pick a new athletic director, Saturday offered another step toward the inevitable.

Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton talks with his players during an NCAA college football game against Washington Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton talks with his players during an NCAA college football game against Washington Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Bully gets in on the action

How bad did it get for Mississippi State on Saturday night? Even their mascot didn’t even make it out of the game unscathed. Bully, the adorable bulldog, collided on the sideline with Auburn tailback Jatarvious Whitlow.

Bully left the field and it was tweeted later that he has a clean bill of health. But the collision provided a fitting metaphor for a disastrous night for Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs trailed 42-9 at halftime and Auburn continued to enhance one of the better résumés in college football with a 56-23 victory.

Does anyone have four better wins than Oregon, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Tulane? It’s hard to imagine, as Auburn has gone from down 21-6 in the opener to the thicket of the national conversation.

Freshman quarterback Bo Nix continues to grow up in front of us, throwing for 335 yards and looking less like the happy-footed freshman we saw in the Oregon game. Auburn has been consistent, its defensive line dominant and it’s beginning to feel like the Tigers are more accomplished than their No. 7 ranking.

Houston finally gets some good news

Few teams need a morale boost this week more than the University of Houston. The Cougars spent the week as unintentional modern collegiate lab rats after star quarterback D’Eriq King and star receiver Keith Corbin decided to redshirt after Houston’s 1-3 start.

Whether King and Corbin actually return to Houston to play next season remains to be seen. But the move became a litmus test of one’s perspective on transferring, the waiver process and amateurism in general.

The optics were terrible for Houston, where officials spent the offseason patting themselves on the back for luring Holgorson from West Virginia. They’ve faceplanted to a 1-3 start. That included a loss at Tulane that ended with a soul-crushing defensive breakdown that went viral.

Playing at North Texas without King and Corbin appeared dangerous, as the Cougars were a touchdown underdog against the Mean Green. And there was the unknown factor of how they’d bounce back mentally after two of their teammates checked out for the season. But after all the furor, Houston rolled the Mean Green 46-25.

New starting quarterback Clayton Tune ran for 100 yards and threw for 124, picking up his first victory as a starter. Houston hosts Cincinnati on Oct. 12 in its next game.

Memphis might be over the hump

Through four games, Memphis has made a case that it’s going to be a factor again in the AAC conference race. The Tigers fought past Navy on Thursday night, 35-23, showcasing what coach Mike Norvell sees as new identity.

The Tigers have undergone one of the season’s biggest transformations under first-year defensive coordinator Adam Fuller, as they entered the weekend No. 13 nationally after finishing No. 89 last year. Norvell has been heartened to see Memphis win games this season with a stout defense (15-10 at Ole Miss) and opportunistic special teams (Gabriel Rogers’ 99-yard return on Thursday). “We’re a much more mature football team than what we’ve been,” Norvell said by phone on Saturday. “We’re grown up in all phases.”

Memphis (4-0) has tailored its identity from an out-scoring mentality to a more complete team. The last two seasons, Memphis lost in the AAC title game after giving up 56 points and 62 points to UCF. While they haven’t encountered an offense as explosive as UCF, they’re clearly better equipped for another run at the AAC title.

“We’re doing a great job getting in a wonderful position to attack,” Norvell said of the defense. “We’re tackling well on the perimeter and we’ve been aggressive. The scheme fits the players, and everyone has bought in.”

The more defense-friendly system fits with Memphis quarterback Brady White, who got booed some in the first half against Navy and rebounded to throw three second-half touchdowns and finish 14-of-18 passing. With the return of star tailback Patrick Taylor expected in the next few weeks – Norvell said that Taylor will start “pushing” to come back this week – Memphis can be a more complete team. “If not this week, hopefully for Temple,” Norvell said of the game on Oct. 12.

It has been a wild run at Memphis, as Norvell has replaced 15 coaches in the last two years. With Fuller on defense, Kevin Johns as offensive coordinator and Pete Lembo running special teams, Memphis has found the right balance. And this new identity may mean the best-looking Memphis team in his four seasons there.

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