Clemson entered the season as maybe the most fascinating team in the country, a program out to prove it could still contend for national championships after taking a step back in 2021.
The Tigers (8-0) will head into the last month of the season unbeaten and a virtual lock to get to another Atlantic Coast Conference title game after missing out on that last season for the first time since 2014.
After rallying for a sloppy 27-21 victory against No. 14 Syracuse, Clemson looks like both the best bet to reach the College Football Playoff in the country, but not a serious threat to win it.
The Orange were one of three unbeaten teams to fall Saturday afternoon, along with No. 9 UCLA falling 45-30 at No 10 Oregon and No. 8 Mississippi losing 45-20 at LSU.
The Ducks have put that opening-weekend humiliation against No. 1 Georgia in the rearview mirror and played like the Pac-12’s best team since.
Ole Miss rose to top-10 status with little stress from their schedule and some good fortune in a win against Kentucky. But Brian Kelly’s Tigers closed the game on a 42-6 run and now head into an off week atop the SEC West, and preparing for a visit from No. 6 Alabama on Nov. 5.
As for those other Tigers, the ones who play in South Carolina’s Death Valley, they survived four turnovers and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei being benched against Syracuse.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney shut down talk of a quarterback controversy.
“As far as DJ, DJ’s our starter. DJ’s our leader. Ain’t nothing changed there,” Swinney told reporters.
The Tigers have knocked off their four toughest division foes (No. 13 Wake Forest, No. 23 North Carolina State, Florida State and Syracuse) in the last five weeks.
Clemson has won a high-scoring game and a defensive struggle. The Tigers have held off a late rally and erased a fourth-quarter deficit.
Clemson’s highly touted defensive line feasted on Syracuse in the second half and freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik came off the bench to guide the Tigers to a 17-point fourth quarter, mostly by handing off to Will Shipley (career-high 172 yards rushing) and Phil Mafah (94).
There is no doubt Clemson is really good, but this is the time of the year we have grown accustomed to the Tigers going into Death Star-mode and tearing through the ACC.
Aside from one blowout against a tattered Boston College team, Clemson’s victories against Wake, N.C. State, FSU and Syracuse have come by a combined 28 points.
In November, Clemson plays at Notre Dame before a three-game homestand against Louisville, Miami and South Carolina. No other playoff contender has a path quite so accommodating the rest of the way.
The Tigers might look vulnerable, but they will be healthy favorites in all those games, and will likely be the same in the ACC title game.
An undefeated season will get Clemson back to the playoff for the seventh time, but compared to the top teams in the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten, the Tigers seem less than.
DUCKS BO UP
Oregon turned the first top-10 matchup in the Pac-12 in four years into a Bo Nix Heisman campaign commercial.
The Auburn transfer, whose career had been defined by inconsistent play, was at his very best against UCLA.
He was 22 for 28 for 283 yards and five touchdowns passes. Nix also chipped in 51 yards on the ground as the Ducks displayed devastating balance with 261 yards rushing.
“I think we’ve got an elite quarterback,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said.
Nix was a blue-chip recruit who started as a freshman at Auburn. There were some good moments for the son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, but he never got substantially better over three seasons.
Now, Nix already has a career-high 17 touchdown passes and just one interception since the two he threw against Georgia.
Losing to the defending national champion by 46 points is going to be tough to overcome, but the Ducks have a chance to break the Pac-12’s five-year CFP drought.
Mario Cristobal’s first season at Miami is officially a mess after the Hurricanes had eight turnovers in a loss to Duke.
At 3-5, Miami is going to have a hard time reaching a bowl game.
“If someone’s not playing hard, they have to go play somewhere else. What we have to do requires tough people. To turn a program, rebuild it, it requires tough-minded people willing to do the work.” Cristobal said.
That’s tough talk for a coach hailed as a savior, returning to his hometown to lead his alma mater.
But it should be noted: Miami went 7-5 last season under Manny Diaz, winning five of its last six. At Duke, first-year coach Mike Elko took over a team that went winless in the ACC last season and improved to 5-3 by beating the Hurricanes.
This rebuild at Miami wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
The Texas message boards will have a field day with this: The 20th-ranked Longhorns were flagged 14 times in loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were not penalized once in beating Texas for the sixth time in eight meetings. … C.J. Stroud and No. 2 Ohio State needed about two and half quarters to figure out the Iowa defense, but finished with 54 points, the most ever scored against the Hawkeyes in Kirk Ferentz’s 24 seasons as coach. As for the Iowa offense, six turnovers and eight first downs. … Liberty thumped BYU at home to move to 7-1. Coach Hugh Freeze’s Flames haven’t played the toughest schedule, but their only loss was by one point at Wake Forest. Next up, Liberty visits Arkansas on Nov. 5. It’s been an impressive job by Freeze after having to replace QB Malik Willis. When that Auburn job opens up, it will be fascinating to see how much interest Freeze, who was 39-25 with two victories against Alabama while at Ole Miss, gets from the decision-makers on The Plains. … Get to know Behren Morton. The redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit passed for 325 yards and a couple of touchdowns for Texas Tech in a victory against West Virginia. … In front of a packed house, No. 25 Tulane jumped out to a 35-0 lead and then held on to beat Memphis in the Green Wave’s first game as a ranked team since 1998.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
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