Week Three’s slate was by no means the most appetizing of the year. Replete with potentially one-sided match-ups and just a handful of marquee games, the widespread expectation was that the third week of the FBS calendar would be a quiet one, providing just enough to tide us over until the big conference games begin in earnest next week. Such pessimism was, however, unnecessary. Week Three served up more tight games than we were expecting, and produced enough to not only inform the playoff race, but also solidify — if not change — perceptions.
Clemson ascends to the summit (for now)
The main talking-point of the night was, of course, Clemson’s dominant performance against Louisville on the road. The Tigers’ defense managed to nullify Lamar Jackson throughout most of the game, sacking the Cardinals’ QB four times while allowing only a single touchdown in the first three quarters. All in all, it was a statement performance from Clemson on both sides of the ball. Although we expected a lot from Dabo Swinney’s defense this year, the key takeaway from last night’s game is that Clemson now have an offense to match. Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster were exceptional against Louisville, combining for almost 200 rushing yards between them, and the emergence of QB, Kelly Bryant, has put defenses throughout the ACC on notice. If Clemson’s offense was pedestrian against Auburn, it’s fair to say it now enjoys Swinney’s full confidence.
Whether or not the Tigers will climb up to the No.1 spot in the AP Poll is in some ways irrelevant. The important point is that they should be treated as the best team in the country until Alabama proves otherwise. With wins against Auburn and Louisville, Clemson now possesses a resumé far surpassing any other — they’ve been bold with their scheduling and should be duly rewarded. But in terms of the rankings, the important takeaway is that Clemson’s toughest two-game stretch of the season is now over, and games against ranked opposition should be few and far between. Alabama, on the other hand, have a string of awkward opponents to come. Wins against LSU, Mississippi State, and Auburn should have the Tide back in the top spot by the close of the regular season.
Wobbles on the West Coast
USC and Texas might have delivered a classic, but a double over-time win against the Longhorns was not what we were expecting from a Trojans team with serious playoff ambitions. Both defenses came to play at the Coliseum, and it took an exceptional finish from QB, Sam Darnold, to get USC over the line: The Trojans signal-caller put up a touch under 400 yards passing.
Does a close game against Texas hurt USC’s playoff stock? Probably not. Last week, I prematurely suggested that Southern Cal deserved consideration for the No.2 spot, but after this performance, their place at No.4 looks about right. Texas, it should be said, is clearly better than we thought after Week One — perhaps Tom Herman just needed a couple of weeks to get the Longhorns playing in a manner befitting of their natural talent.
Elsewhere, the PAC-12’s other big guns had weeks they’d sooner forget. Unranked Memphis were able to outlast UCLA despite a high-octane performance from Josh Rosen, who put up 463 yards (4 TDs – 2 picks). Ultimately, it was the turnovers that killed the Bruins, and the Tigers were able to humble yet another ranked opponent. UCLA will have an opportunity for redemption next week when they face Stanford who also had a miserable night, losing 20-17 to San Diego State. Sitting at 1-2, and with games to come against Oregon, Washington, and Notre Dame, #19 Stanford are officially in trouble. Last night’s power-outage at San Diego Stadium could be emblematic of something more. (Ironically, San Diego State had marketed the game as a “blackout”, encouraging fans to wear black).
Keeping an eye on the Badgers
It is, of course, too early to be talking about the bubble, but Wisconsin is quietly marching down a path to the playoffs that is becoming a little wider each week. Before the season began, Wisconsin was recognised by many analysts as possessing one of the clearest routes to the playoffs, and the Badgers are yet to miss a beat. I, for one, was critical of Wisconsin’s performance against FAU in Week Two, but it’s really too early in Lane Kiffin’s chaos-filled tenure to get an accurate feel for how the good the Owls are. A 31-14 win could well turn out to be respectable.
Crucially for Wisconsin, Michigan struggled again this week, putting up just 22 points against Air Force on the back of 169 passing yards. With games to come against Ohio State and Penn State, Jim Harbaugh will need to make substantial adjustments on offense if the Wolverines are going to make it to the BIG10 Championship Game.
I’m still of the view that the BIG10 won’t be represented in the playoffs this year — the East will simply be too fratricidal — but if the Badgers can run the table, they will have a legitimate claim to enter the final four. Penn State, which looks to be class of the BIG10 so far, could be the Badgers’ primary obstacle, but will they be able to emerge from their tricky schedule with enough in the tank to see off Wisconsin in December? While not the most glamorous or compelling storyline, the Badgers’ campaign will be an interesting sub-plot this year, and one that that we should keep an eye on.