Does Saturday night’s loss to Georgia already put Clemson on the outside of the College Football Playoff?
Look, we realize that talking about a four-team playoff is pretty absurd after the first week of the college football season. But it’s hard not to wonder just how much Clemson’s chances of a seventh straight playoff berth decreased with a 10-3 loss to Georgia to open the season.
The Tigers are going to be favored in each of their 11 remaining regular season games. The odds of Clemson finishing the regular season with an 11-1 record and then winning the ACC title game are still exceptionally high. There doesn’t seem to be a real challenger to the Tigers in the conference and there are no teams in the AP preseason Top 25 remaining on Clemson’s schedule.
But that lack of schedule strength may be more of a curse than a blessing. While Clemson has a straightforward path to an 11-win season, those 11 wins may not be enough to make the playoff.
Consider this: No. 1 Alabama looked like the reloaded team we thought they were in a win over No. 14 Miami on Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide are still looking pretty to go 12-0 or 11-1. While No. 2 Oklahoma didn’t put Tulane away on Saturday in a 40-35 win, the Sooners are still the Big 12 favorites. And with both Iowa State and Texas in the conference, there are multiple opportunities for quality wins by the Sooners.
Georgia has its quality win already with the victory over the Tigers. And there’s also Ohio State, a team that sprinted away from Minnesota to open the season Thursday night and has the chance for a big non-conference win in Week 2 when No. 11 Oregon comes to Columbus.
Only the biggest Clemson homers would put the Tigers ahead of any of those four aforementioned teams in the race for the playoff. And even if one or all of those teams stumbles at some point during the regular season, where does Clemson excel enough to make up ground? Top ACC Coastal contenders North Carolina and Miami are now both 0-1. Will they be high enough in the College Football Playoff standings to provide Clemson the boost it would need on championship Saturday?
This is also a Clemson team that didn’t look anything like the powerhouses we’ve seen over the past few years. While D.J. Uiagalelei filled in admirably for Trevor Lawrence in 2020 while Lawrence was out with COVID-19, it’s clear he’s still growing into his role as the Tigers’ full-time starter. And Clemson showed Saturday night that its offensive line is a work in progress while there’s also no clear replacement for Travis Etienne.
The workhorse back was a relatively unsung hero for the Tigers’ offense over the past four seasons as Lawrence and Deshaun Watson got a lot of credit. Yes, Etienne was considered one of the top running backs in the country in his time at Clemson, but it’s still possible that his importance to the Clemson offense was undervalued. On Saturday night, no Clemson non-QB got more than 14 carries and the team’s leading rusher (Lyn-J Dixon) had one carry for 10 yards.
Clemson’s veteran defense showed once again on Saturday night that it was a great unit. The Tigers held Georgia to just three offensive points and 256 total yards. That’s typically enough to win games with ease. But it wasn’t enough on Saturday night. Clemson looked the most vulnerable it's ever been in the College Football Playoff era against Georgia. And that’s more than enough to make us wonder if the playoff streak is in serious jeopardy.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from the first week of the 2021 college football season.
- Nick Bromberg
Alabama QB Bryce Young: Bryce Young’s debut as Alabama’s starting quarterback was a thing of beauty. The Crimson Tide spanked No. 14 Miami in Atlanta, 44-13, and Young lived up to the five-star hype. Young completed 27-of-38 throws for 344 yards and four touchdowns, including a fantastic 94-yarder to Jameson Williams out of his own end zone. He couldn’t have thrown it any better.
Texas: The first game of the Steve Sarkisian era was very positive for Texas. The Longhorns, ranked No. 21 in the country, hosted No. 23 Louisiana and came away with an impressive 38-18 victory. Louisiana was one of the best Group of Five teams in the country in 2020 but Texas’ talent won out on Saturday. RB Bijan Robinson and WR Jordan Whittington were especially impressive. Robinson rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 73 yards and a score. Whittington went for 113 yards and a score on seven receptions.
Penn State: How about that Penn State defense? The PSU defense was on the field for a whopping 95 plays on the road at Wisconsin and only surrendered 10 points. Along the way, the Nittany Lions forced three turnovers, including two pivotal interceptions in the final minutes. PSU took a 16-10 lead with 9:17 to play and then intercepted Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz twice to seal a dramatic victory. Jaquan Brisker’s interception on fourth-and-goal was the play of the game. Gus Johnson’s call was electric.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 4, 2021
Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker: Walker was the best player on the field in his first game in a Michigan State uniform. The Wake Forest transfer reeled off a 75-yard touchdown run on his first touch as a Spartan. It was a sign of things to come in a 38-21 road win for MSU. Walker finished the night with 263 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries. Walker rushed for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns last year at Wake. If his Week 1 performance is any indication, he is set to blow past those stats this year.
UCLA: It wasn't just that the Bruins beat No. 16 LSU on Saturday, it was the way they did it. In a 38-27 win, UCLA completely dominated the lines of scrimmage by rushing for 208 yards and limiting the LSU to just 48 yards on 25 carries. The running back duo of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown was excellent and QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson connected on several explosive gains in the passing game. On top of that, the defense was able to get consistent pressure on LSU QB Max Johnson. It's hard not to be impressed by Chip Kelly's team.
Michigan: The 2020 season was a brutal one for Michigan, but Jim Harbaugh’s group started the 2021 season with an excellent outing. The Wolverines blew out Western Michigan by a score of 47-14 and used a dominant rushing attack to do so. Michigan put up 335 rushing yards with Blake Corum (14 carries for 111 yards) and Hassan Haskins (13 carries for 70 yards) leading the way. Saturday’s performance had to have given the Wolverines a nice confidence boost with soon-to-be-former-No. 20 Washington visiting Ann Arbor next weekend.
South Carolina QB Zeb Noland: You probably know the story by now. A few weeks ago, Noland was serving as a graduate assistant. But with starting QB Luke Doty injured and the Gamecocks' QB depth lacking, Noland was added to the active roster. The former QB at Iowa State and North Dakota State then became South Carolina's starter. South Carolina beat Eastern Illinois 46-0 on Saturday, and Noland threw four TD passes. He only had 121 yards, but hey, four TDs is impressive no matter the circumstances.
Big Sky Conference: Three members of the Big Sky beat FBS opponents in Week 1. Montana's monster upset over No. 20 Washington will deservedly get the headlines, but don't forget about UC Davis beating Tulsa and Eastern Washington beating UNLV. Maybe once the Big 12 is through raiding the AAC, the AAC can pluck a few of these Big Sky schools to fill out its roster of members?
Maryland: One of the best games of the early window was West Virginia vs. Maryland. It was close the whole way through, but the Terps emerged with a 30-24 victory. Maryland trailed 21-20 at halftime before pulling ahead in the fourth quarter. The Terrapins put the game away with a 60-yard TD pass from Taulia Tagovailoa to Rakim Jarrett with 6:25 to play. Tagovailoa was excellent in the win. He completed 26-of-36 throws for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Jarrett and Dontay Demus were his top targets. The duo combined for 12 catches for 255 yards and two scores while Maryland also forced four turnovers.
Kansas: Kansas scored a late touchdown to beat South Dakota, 17-14, on Friday night to give Lance Leipold a win in his KU debut as the Jayhawks avoided losing to an FCS team again. The win was also Kansas' first since Oct. 26, 2019. Naturally, the fans stormed the field. There won't be many more wins for the Jayhawks in 2021, so enjoy the moment while you can.
BEDLAM IN LAWRENCE pic.twitter.com/thNf6e8JAG
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 4, 2021
Oklahoma: Yes, we're putting Oklahoma in this category despite touting their playoff chances above. The Sooners had a rough go of it on Saturday and fell behind Tulane early before having to stave off a late Green Wave comeback.
That comeback should never have happened. OU was up 37-14 at halftime before hanging on to win 40-35. Yes, Oklahoma scored just three points in the second half. Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler was 30-of-39 passing for 304 yards and a TD and two interceptions while also running for a TD. One of those picks came on Rattler's second throw of the game.
And while Rattler didn't have an A game, neither did the Oklahoma defense. The Sooners' defensive improvement is key to their chances of making the playoff. And while Tulane is a solid AAC team, giving up 35 to the Green Wave is not a good omen for the rest of the season.
Iowa State: If we’re picking on Oklahoma, Iowa State deserves a bit of criticism too. The Cyclones have been prone to slow starts under Matt Campbell, and Saturday was no different. ISU opened the season ranked No. 7, its best preseason ranking ever. The Cyclones did not live up to that billing against FCS Northern Iowa. Iowa State managed to win the game, but it was just by the score of 16-10. ISU went into halftime with 13-10 lead and managed to score only three points in the second half. That’s not going to cut it against Iowa next week.
Indiana: That 2020 Indiana magic did not carry over into 2021. For much of the 2020 season, it felt like everything was going right for the Hoosiers as they got out to a 6-1 start. In the 2021 opener against Iowa, things did not go well. At all. The Hoosiers were trounced 34-6 and put up only 233 yards of offense in the process. IU quarterback Michael Penix — back from a torn ACL that ended his 2020 season — had two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the first half. Those turnovers allowed Iowa to open up a commanding 31-3 halftime lead.
Boise State: Boise State was sitting pretty early in its road game against UCF on Thursday night. The Broncos stormed out to a 21-0 lead and held a 24-7 advantage late in the second quarter. But then the wheels fell off. UCF came all the way back and took a 28-24 lead late in the third. Boise would go back in front 31-30 with 8:02 to play, but would end up losing, 36-31. The Broncos combined for minus-25 yards on their first four second-half drives. Nonetheless, they had a chance to take the lead in the final minutes. Instead, QB Hank Bachmeier threw an ill-advised interception in UCF territory and BSU went home with a loss.
Stanford: Stanford had a brutal offensive performance against Kansas State. The Cardinal had 39 rushing yards on 22 attempts and 194 passing yards on 30 attempts in a 24-7 loss. The only time the Cardinal scored was with 3:16 left in regulation. And that 75-yard scoring drive accounted for 32% of Stanford’s offensive production. That’s not a recipe for success.
With Davis Mills now in the NFL, Stanford played two QBs: Tanner McKee and Jack West. Neither were very impressive. With 12 Power Five opponents on the schedule, this might be a long year for Stanford. Especially if math is a weakness for the coaching staff. It's inexplicable that Stanford didn't go for two to attempt to cut KSU's lead to two possessions after scoring that TD.
Illinois: That Week 0 shine did not last long for Illinois. A week after upsetting Nebraska, the Illini followed it up by losing 37-30 to UTSA. UTSA is one of the better teams in Conference USA, but it was still a tough dose of reality for Illinois in its first year under Bret Bielema. UTSA jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never let Illinois get closer than three points. The Roadrunners gashed the Illini for 497 yards of offense in the win.
Georgia Tech: Year 3 of the Geoff Collins era got off to a horrid start in Atlanta as Northern Illinois beat the Yellow Jackets, 22-21. The win was NIU’s first since 2019 after going 0-6 in 2020 and came when Rocky Lombardi threw a pass to Tyrice Richie for a two-point conversion with 38 seconds left. The conversion came after Lombardi hit Clint Ratkovich for a three-yard TD pass. Props to NIU coach Thomas Hammock for going for the win. The Yellow Jackets also appeared to lose QB Jeff Sims to a shoulder injury. With such a tough schedule ahead, this was a brutal way to open the season for GT.
Houston: The first game of Dana Holgorsen’s third year at Houston looked a lot like what his teams did throughout the first two. The Cougars opened the season by losing 38-21 to Texas Tech — potentially a future Big 12 conference mate. This was a game that Houston led 21-7 at halftime before getting outscored 31-0 in the second half. Houston QB Clayton Tune threw four interceptions including a pick-six that tied the score at 21-21 in the third.
Louisiana Tech: Louisiana Tech blew its chance to beat an SEC opponent on the road. The Bulldogs led Mississippi State 34-14 with 13:11 to go. They lost, 35-34. MSU proceeded to reel off three consecutive touchdown drives while the La. Tech offense went into a shell. MSU went ahead 35-34 with 3:37 to play, leaving Tech plenty of time to win it. La. Tech advanced to the MSU 30 with just over a minute to go, and then Skip Holtz proceeded to run the ball three straight times, setting up a 46-yard field goal instead of trying to make life easier for his kicker. The result? A miss and a Mississippi State victory. Gross.
USF, Temple and Navy: These three did not represent the AAC very well in Week 1. USF was trounced 45-0 by NC State. Temple, meanwhile, lost 61-14 to Rutgers. Rutgers! Last but not least, Navy was blown out 49-7 at home by Marshall.
Washington, Tulsa, Colorado State, UNLV, UConn and Vanderbilt: You all lost to FCS teams. Not good.