May 28, 2024

Week 8 saw more than its share of close calls for top teams, with Oklahoma and Texas barely hanging on as the best of the Big 12.

We also saw Ohio State make its case as a playoff team with a second statement win of the season — leaving the impression it could get even better — while Washington survived a scare that might help the Huskies in the long run.

On the other side of the spectrum, USC and Clemson both took another one on the chin as their unexpected struggles continued. And Penn State again fell short on the big-game stage.

Then there was a feel-good win for Virginia, which upset unbeaten North Carolina.

Here are our college football reporters’ biggest takeaways from the weekend.


The Big 12’s big swings continue

The Big 12 is once again a conference of unpredictability.

In the past three years, just one team — Oklahoma in 2020 — has returned to the conference title game in consecutive years. Neither Baylor, Iowa State nor Oklahoma State won more than seven games in the season following their appearances. This year is more of the same, with TCU crashing back to earth, sitting at 4-4 with Texas and Oklahoma remaining on the schedule.

Let’s recap some of the twists and turns to this point: Oklahoma State lost 33-7 to South Alabama before later beating Kansas State 29-21. TCU beat Houston 36-13 and BYU 44-11 before losing to Kansas State 41-3. West Virginia beat Pitt, Texas Tech and TCU in consecutive weeks before losing two straight to Houston and Oklahoma State. Baylor rallied from 28 down to beat UCF 36-35 three weeks before the Knights came to Norman and was a 2-point conversion away from tying No. 6 Oklahoma with about a minute left Saturday. The same day, Houston took No. 8 Texas to the wire, missing a fourth-and-1 opportunity at the 8 with 1:08 left and falling 31-24.

Oklahoma and Texas are still the conference front-runners, but the defending champs, K-State, are rounding into form. The Longhorns have BYU and Kansas State coming to town the next two weeks. The Sooners go to Kansas, then to Oklahoma State for an emotional Bedlam finale.

It’s less than ideal for the conference to have two departing teams battling it out for the league title. But in this case it’s also a huge asset, with the Allstate Playoff Predictor giving the league the second-best odds — an 81% chance — to make the College Football Playoff, behind only the Big Ten.

If there’s one thing we can be sure of based on the Big 12’s recent history, though, it’s that nothing is for sure. — Dave Wilson


USC needs to toughen up under Riley

The brilliance of Pete Carroll’s run at USC is that he incorporated the Hollywood element without losing any edge on the field. I remember talking to USC players during Carroll’s heyday who would say practices were often more taxing than the games. The Trojans would line up and beat the hell out of one another while Snoop Dogg or Will Ferrell or [insert celebrity here] looked on.

Those days are over. USC might have captured some glamor in hiring Lincoln Riley as coach and mining the transfer portal for Caleb Williams and other top talents. The program has dived head first into NIL and rightfully played up its location and the incredible resources of having the entertainment industry in its backyard. But on the field, USC lacks the gritty ingredients to become a champion. The Trojans only had to look across the field Saturday night to see what they’re lacking.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, a pig farmer’s son who walked on for the Utes and has been thrust into action for several huge games, went into the Coliseum and eliminated Williams and USC from CFP contention. USC still can’t get the big stops on defense, a theme under Riley at both his current job and his former one (Oklahoma). The Trojans certainly can’t beat Utah, which has a four-game win streak against them.

Riley spoke afterward about his team struggling under the weight of expectations and questioned the narrative of USC being a national contender. He also didn’t have players speak with reporters — a first for a program that, even amid its struggles since Carroll left, always took the required professional approach toward the media in a massive market. Shielding players after a tough loss looks small and soft, two words that are stuck on USC right now.

I thought USC would find a way to beat shorthanded Utah. Now the Trojans could easily be looking at a four- or five-loss season, a gargantuan disappointment given the star power from Williams and others.

Riley is still an excellent coach who could win big at USC, but he has to find the balance between glitz and grit that Carroll perfected, which the program clearly lacks. — Adam Rittenberg


Few answers for slumping Clemson

Times are tough in Death Valley. Clemson is 4-3, with three losses in ACC play for the first time since 2010. The Tigers’ playoff hopes, conference title hopes, hope in general — they’re all gone. Just days after Dabo Swinney suggested a few losses might cull the herd of ungrateful fans on the team’s bandwagon, Clemson fell in overtime to Miami and that bandwagon is just an empty car speeding off a cliff.

For the second time this year, Clemson blew a double-digit lead and lost in OT.

For the third time this year, Clemson lost a game Swinney knows his team had no business losing.

For the first time in a long time, there seems to be no clear path forward for a program that dominated the ACC for the past decade.

What’s so frustrating is the underlying metrics largely suggest a very good football team. Clemson is 18th in the Football Power Index (FPI), 19th in SP+, ninth among Power 5 teams in successful play differential and 11th in explosive play differential. Swinney now must fix something that doesn’t really appear to be broken.

“This team is in a position to win,” Swinney said after the loss to Miami. “I don’t have an answer. I just don’t.”

There are ample places to point fingers, but none reveal a true villain.

Swinney has blamed turnovers, and indeed, Clemson has an issue with fumbles. But the Tigers are in the middle of the pack in turnover differential, a margin created by little more than some bad luck and the law of averages.

Fans are rightly upset with quarterback Cade Klubnik after he changed a playcall on fourth down that ended the game in double OT, but since Week 3, he has accounted for 11 touchdowns, just one interception and a 70.7 Total QBR, just a step behind UNC’s Drake Maye.

The defense certainly didn’t live up to expectations given Miami was starting a freshman quarterback (Emory Williams) with little prior experience, but that unit, too, has been one of the most consistently stifling in the country, posting a successful play rate in line with those of Michigan and Alabama.

Garrett Riley’s offensive scheme has frustrated some — too many short throws, not enough big plays. But Clemson averages 10 explosive plays per game, the same rate as ACC leader Florida State.

After last year’s Orange Bowl frustrations, Swinney fired his OC. DJ Uiagalelei, the favored punching bag in each of the past two years, left for Oregon State (where he has been one of the better QBs nationally). The defense is loaded with NFL talent. The Tigers have been in every game.

And yet, here they are — losers of six of their past 11 Power 5 games, with little room to maneuver in another direction. The only plan might be to stay the course, and that’s a plan almost certain to send whatever fans remain on the bandwagon diving for cover. — David Hale


Ohio State rounding into shape

We’ve heard a lot about what Ohio State supposedly isn’t, that the Buckeyes aren’t explosive on offense, that they’re only pedestrian at quarterback with Kyle McCord and that they might not measure up across the board with some of the upper-tier teams in college football.

Ultimately, we’re going to get answers in all those categories.

But as we point toward the final weekend of October, here’s what we know definitively about the Buckeyes: They’re unbeaten (7-0 and 4-0 in the Big Ten). They have the two most impressive wins of the season: a 20-12 home victory last Saturday against then-No. 7 Penn State and a 17-14 road win over then-No. 9 Notre Dame on Sept. 23.

And while the grumbling continues about an offense that has been hit and miss, the best news is that star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. is looking like his old self, healthy again and carving apart opposing defenses. He caught 11 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown in the win over Penn State.

The running game needs to be better, but the Buckeyes are hopeful of getting back two of their best playmakers in receiver Emeka Egbuka and running back TreVeyon Henderson.

Defensively, Ohio State is third nationally in scoring (allowing 10 points per game), and defensive end JT Tuimoloau is starting to play his best football.

In short, if the offense can catch up with the defense — and McCord said he thinks the offense is close to breaking through — the Buckeyes are as good a candidate as any to be right there in the national championship conversation come December. — Chris Low


Penn State’s loss a familiar storyline

Penn State’s offense is not top-four worthy. After all of the hype and hoopla that so often surrounds this program in the offseason, the answer was a resounding no, Penn State is not ready to be taken seriously as a playoff contender under James Franklin. Not when it goes 1-for-16 on third downs.

Penn State has no answers at wide receiver, and the Nittany Lions couldn’t get their running game going against a fearsome front for Ohio State. The Nittany Lions were outplayed and outcoached (again), leaving Michigan and Ohio State in the familiar position of representing the Big Ten’s hopes to make the playoff.

Franklin knew the big-picture question about what the loss meant for his program was a fair one, but he didn’t want to answer it postgame. His record in the big games arguably answers it for him. He is now 3-16 against AP top-10 opponents (0-10 on the road) while at PSU. — Heather Dinich


Virginia pulls off historic victory

It is hard to truly understand what the Virginia coaching staff, players and community have endured over the past 11 months, let alone the families of the three Cavaliers players shot and killed last November. They have lived through unimaginable circumstances that tested them. As Tony Elliott said of his players, “They have been taken down to their knees.” Yet they kept pushing forward, always thinking about teammates Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, always playing to honor them and their legacy.

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Drake Maye throws INT, Virginia completes massive upset

Virginia upsets No. 10 North Carolina on the road after Drake Maye throws an interception in the final minute.

Not many gave the Cavaliers a chance against rival North Carolina on Saturday. Not after an 0-5 start. Not with North Carolina undefeated, with real College Football Playoff chances. But those who have followed Virginia this season knew this team was a few plays away from a winning record — last-minute losses in three games having shown that if they could put it all together, results would follow.

Elliott saw it most of all. Rather than get down over such close losses, the team kept believing. To hit that point harder going into the North Carolina game, Elliott showed his team a video of the late Kobe Bryant, to illustrate the mindset of what it takes to compete and win at the highest level.

“In that video, he talked about one of his championship teams, where they had to overcome some adversity, and the way that he phrased it is: ‘The lion stared us in the face, and we stared back,'” Elliott told ESPN on Sunday. “That was a message that, ‘Hey, there’s a lion that’s staring us in our face, and at some point, you’re going to have to stand up and fight that lion, and you can’t flinch.’

“That’s what you saw in the guys. My hope is that I want that to become a part of our DNA. I want us to have that mentality, that we’re not going to flinch. We’re not playing to what the scoreboard says, but we’re playing every single snap like it’s our last. And if you do that, collectively, then you’ll win enough snaps to be able to have the scoreboard in your favor at the end.”

Virginia beat No. 10 North Carolina 31-27, the school’s first win on the road against a top-10 opponent. The journey does not get much easier from here, with another road game at Miami on Saturday, in addition to games against No. 18 Louisville and No. 20 Duke. Elliott wants his team to build off the victory over the Tar Heels because the biggest goal remains in play — making it to a bowl game.

The Cavs will have to dig out of a deep hole to get there, but as running back Mike Hollins pointed out after the UNC victory, “This team is full of fighters. There’s no quit anywhere in the program.” — Andrea Adelson


Washington survives scare

Any given Saturday. Pac-12 After Dark. Call it whatever you want, but Washington might well be better off for what it endured late against Arizona State on Saturday night in Seattle.

Kalen DeBoer’s team couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief until junior cornerback Mishael Powell‘s 89-yard pick-six with 8:11 left in regulation put the Huskies in front for the first time, and they held on for a 15-7 win. It was a shock to the system to watch Heisman front-runner Michael Penix Jr. struggle to find his rhythm (27-of-42 passing) against the Sun Devils’ defense, as Penix threw for a season-low 275 yards and turned the ball over three times (two interceptions). The Huskies’ offense was held to 288 total yards, the first time in DeBoer’s tenure Washington didn’t reach the 300-yard mark. It also was the first time the Huskies did not have an offensive touchdown under DeBoer and OC Ryan Grubb.

Arizona State was the last team to hand Washington a defeat (45-38 on Oct. 8, 2022, in Tempe), and Washington owns the nation’s second-longest active winning streak at 14. Great teams find ways to win when they don’t play well, and that’s what the Huskies did Saturday. A trip to USC, a home game with two-time defending conference champ Utah and a visit to Oregon State begins the November slate as the program looks for its first Pac-12 title since 2018. If the Purple Reign navigate those waters successfully and get to Vegas for the conference championship Dec. 1, they might have Arizona State to thank for it. — Blake Baumgartner

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