The only Week 6 game I was able to watch was the rain-soaked disaster that was Michigan vs. MSU – so there was no recap. The most notable result from that week was Oklahoma’s utterly stunning home loss to Iowa State. Somehow that’s already old news. Week 7 was insane.
I suppose I should stop being so certain with these recaps. The conclusions we take from these games are always tenuous at best, and relatively well-established expectations can be blown to smithereens at any moment. This past weekend didn’t feature any matchups between ranked teams; three undefeated Power Five teams still fell to substantial underdogs. The playoff race was thrown into chaos. The Pac-12 no longer has any undefeated teams after Washington and Washington State suffered their first losses, and Clemson’s defeat against Syracuse was a significant setback for the reigning national champions and erstwhile playoff frontrunners.
The Tigers had survived a rock fight at home against Auburn and had handled Louisville and Auburn on the road with ease – their trip to the Carrier Dome definitely wasn’t expected to be the source of their first loss. Quarterback Kelly Bryant, who’d been nursing an ankle injury from the week before, was concussed late in the first half (he did not return). Zerrick Cooper actually played pretty well in relief of Bryant, but ultimately the 27-24 defeat was mostly due to Clemson’s inability to contain Syracuse’s Eric Dungey, who had a career night against one of college football’s most imposing defenses – he threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns (and added an impressive 91 sack-adjusted rushing yards on 15 carries).
It was clear from the beginning that Syracuse would be a challenge, as they opened the game with an impressive touchdown drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Dungey to Dontae Strickland on 3rd-and-15 from just outside the red zone. Clemson responded with a quick touchdown, but a bomb from Dungey to Ervin Phillips later in the first quarter gave Syracuse the lead and was the first of two quick touchdown drives that covered most of the field. Even though he took six sacks on the game, Dungey was able to exploit the Tiger secondary for some big plays in the passing game and wound up singlehandedly outgaining Clemson.
The game followed a pattern until the fourth quarter – Syracuse would pull out to a one-score lead, and then Clemson would tie it up shortly thereafter. The final stanza was bizarre: there were just three total drives, as Syracuse’s pass-happy Dino Babers offense was able to milk the clock – first on a 16-play march for a go-ahead field goal, and then on a clock-killing drive that started with six minutes left (the final third down was converted as Dungey lunged over the line to gain as he was being dragged down by two Tigers). In the middle was a Clemson possession that concluded with the punter dropping the ball and deciding to throw an inexplicable Hail Mary pass towards the end zone.
Clemson had the misfortune of missing two field goals from inside of forty yards, but benefitted from a fumble return touchdown in the second quarter. Regardless, Syracuse played them evenly and made enough plays down the stretch; a team that had lost to Middle Tennessee State in September pulled the huge upset. A well-timed bye week gives the Tigers a chance to regroup, but they face three tricky teams in a row after – Georgia Tech’s triple option, NC State’s stingy run defense, and a talented-but-underachieving Florida State. While they could still play their way into the playoff, their margin for error the rest of the way got much smaller.
[More on the week that was after the JUMP]
Before we get any further, I feel like I need to share this observation: even though we’ve yet to have a playoff participant with more than one loss, it seems like this could be the year to have that trend broken. The full list of currently undefeated Power Five teams: Alabama, Georgia, Penn State, Wisconsin, TCU, and Miami. There are still plenty of one-loss contenders, but the odds that we’ll have four or more major conference teams finish undefeated or with one blemish seem fairly low. Some prognosticators are down on the Pac-12’s playoff chances (as there are no undefeated teams left in the league), but things could change if we have a few more chaotic weekends like this one.
Speaking of the Pac-12, its two standard-bearers – Washington (who made the playoff last season) and Washington State (who beat a sort of disappointing USC squad a few weeks ago in a matchup of then-undefeated teams) – suffered losses this past weekend. It’s difficult to decide which was more shocking.
Washington State faced Cal in a game that probably shouldn’t have been played due to the poor air quality in the area because of the wildfires in California and lost. The Bears had suffered three losses in a row, and were routed in trips to Oregon and Washington, but they wrecked the Cougars: Wazzu managed to hit the five turnover mark when they were trailing 17-3 in the middle of the third quarter (prompting a bunch of tweets from the night owl Michigan fans who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday night (including me)) and eventually finished with SEVEN giveaways.
That the upset itself happened wasn’t a total shock, even though Cal was a substantial underdog; it was a road game against a conference opponent under bizarre circumstances and the Cougars had made an unexpected ascent up the rankings into the top ten. That the final score was 37-3? Completely ridiculous and unexpected. Things snowballed towards the end and nobody can survive a turnover margin like that (they had two drives end in field goal attempts, three in punts, and SEVEN in turnovers), but it’s quite rare to see a playoff hopeful take a loss like that on the chin from a mediocre opponent.
Not to be outdone, their in-state rivals lost the next night to Arizona State 13-7. The betting line was slightly higher for this game, and the outcome itself was much closer, but consider this: ASU’s defense was atrocious in 2016 and hadn’t been much better through five games of the 2017 season, giving up at least 30 points in each game (on the other hand, Washington had scored at least 30 points in each of their six wins). After holding the Huskies to just seven points, the Sun Devils still rank just 114th nationally in defensive S&P+.
Washington did miss two chip shot field goals, but it wasn’t like they squandered many more opportunities. They gained just two first downs in the first half (and barely made it into ASU territory); they didn’t even get on the scoreboard until there were about five minutes left in the game; Jake Browning – generally a very good quarterback – threw for 2.7 yards per attempt; they gained just 215 total yards. With two minutes left, Arizona State went for it on 4th-and-3 at the Washington 37-yard line for some reason and completed a pass to an unintended receiver. Even if they had failed, it’s hard to imagine that Washington could have driven for the winning touchdown.
Pac-12 after dark may have set a new standard this weekend. I think the Washington State loss was slightly more shocking (due to both the lopsided score-line and the Cougars’ SEVEN TURNOVERS), but Washington’s no-show on offense was unfathomable in its own right. Upsets of undefeated top ten teams by unranked foes are inherently surprising, but these were absurd games. Since both teams still have to play each other and Stanford (who already has two losses, one in an out-of-conference game), the odds of there being a Pac-12 North champ with just one loss took a huge hit.
Even though the SEC has fallen off in quality across the board, it’s still a compelling league. Alabama and Georgia won comfortably over Arkansas and Missouri, respectively, though UGA did concede 28 points (the most they’ve given up all season), and it took them until the second half to pull away from a 1-5 Mizzou team.
There were some fascinating results this week. Most notably, Auburn blew a 20-point lead on the road against LSU and the Bayou Bengals scraped out their second win in as many weeks after having beaten Florida by a single point the week before. AU scored on their first four drives of the game: they received the ball first and kicked a field goal; Jarrett Stidham completed a long touchdown to Will Hastings following an LSU turnover; a long Stidham pass to Ryan Davis set up a short Kerryon Johnson run on the next drive; Daniel Carlson made his second field goal of the game early in the second quarter to go up 20-0. They added a field goal later in the second quarter and were held scoreless in the second half; their seven drives after halftime netted a total of 73 yards and they didn’t enter LSU territory.
After Auburn opened that big lead, LSU responded – their offense was sparked by a 70-yard jet sweep by Russell Gage (that featured an ankle-breaking juke near the end) and punched in a touchdown shortly thereafter; an impressive two-minute drill engineered by Danny Etling ended with a touchdown pass to Gage and LSU was down 23-14 heading into halftime. The two teams traded punts until there was less than three minutes remaining, but one was returned for a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter by LSU’s explosive return man DJ Chark. They kicked the go-ahead field goal after running back Derrius Guice singlehandedly carried them into position and added another after a quick Auburn four-and-out.
As with many high-profile SEC games, the outlook for both teams is radically different afterwards: LSU is now 5-2 and technically control their own destiny in the division (though a loss on the road to Alabama in a few weeks is all but guaranteed) after two close wins over second-tier conference opponents; Auburn’s offensive woes crept up at the worst time and some (fairly irrational) Gus Malzahn hot seat whispers came after he said that the loss “isn’t the end of the world.”
Florida lost their second home game in a row (this one while wearing some truly hideous alligator skin pattern uniforms); after going up 17-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, they gave up three field goals to Texas A&M, who won despite having a freshman quarterback in a hostile environment. That quarterback, Kellen Mond, completed just a third of his pass attempts, but had over 20 yards per completion. Big plays from wide receiver Christian Kirk were key in setting up two of the last three Daniel LaCamera field goals: he caught a long pass from Mond to start the drive following Florida’s go-ahead touchdown and set up the game-winning field goal with an impressive punt return. Florida’s offense was anemic as ever; A&M has responded well after their ghastly season-opening loss to UCLA – they’ve gone 5-1 and the only loss came to Alabama by eight points.
The Butch Jones era at Tennessee took yet another hilarious turn, as they started a new quarterback (freshman Jarrett Guarantano), were held to 253 yards, didn’t score a touchdown, and lost at home to South Carolina. The Vols led 9-6 in the third quarter before the Gamecocks scored on their final three possessions – the first was a 12-play 95-yard march, the second was a nine-minute slog that ended in a field goal, and the third was set up by a short field after a Tennessee drive imploded. Guarantano marshaled a quick drive to get the ball inside the South Carolina two-yard line, but threw three straight incompletions – the last as time expired. Jones still hasn’t been fired, so “Interim Coach Brady Hoke” will have to wait another week. Tennessee travels to Tuscaloosa next.
Other games of note:
- Miami 25, Georgia Tech 24. Fresh off a last-minute comeback on the road against Florida State, Miami kept their undefeated record alive by pulling another comeback against Georgia Tech in a driving South Florida rainstorm. The Canes drove the length of the field in less than three minutes, had a miracle completion on a tipped pass on fourth-and-long from Malik Rosier to Darrell Langham (which was the connection for the game-winning touchdown in Tallahassee), and settled for a chip shot field goal with four seconds left in the game. The conditions on the field deteriorated over the course of the second half, as players were unable to find solid footing. Miami opened the half with maybe the worst onside kick I’ve ever seen – the ball didn’t travel ten yards and a Yellow Jacket picked up the ball and ran it for a touchdown. Tech led 24-13 at one point in the third, but eventually lost 25-24. Their two losses this season came by a point each.
- Oklahoma 29, Texas 24. Oklahoma almost followed up their loss to Iowa State with another catastrophe: in the same mid-afternoon TV slot as Auburn-LSU, the Sooners also managed to blow a 20-0 second quarter lead, as Texas eventually battled back to take a 24-23 lead midway through the fourth. Unlike Auburn, Oklahoma managed to retake the lead, as a dinged-up Baker Mayfield found tight end Mark Andrews wide open for a 59-yard touchdown shortly after. Mayfield was fantastic as usual, but Texas freshman Sam Ehlinger may have been even more impressive – he threw for 278 yards and a touchdown on 6.4 yards per attempt and added 20 non-sack rushes for 121 yards. He appeared to suffer a head injury in the fourth quarter, but returned to the game. Texas certainly has a bright future with a few years of a Tom Herman – Ehlinger partnership ahead. Oklahoma’s playoff hopes are still alive; their back-to-back games against Oklahoma State and TCU in early November will be pivotal in the Big 12 and playoff race.
- USC 28, Utah 27. A pivotal Pac-12 South matchup in Los Angeles came down to the wire: the game was tied at 21 midway through the fourth quarter before USC embarked on a long touchdown drive; Utah’s rebuttal also ended in six points with under a minute left – but Kyle Wittingham decided to go for two. Troy Williams dropped back to pass, saw that the throwback to the tight end was well-covered, and tried to run to the pylon, only to be stopped just short of the end zone. USC trailed by two touchdowns at halftime and battled back; Sam Darnold may have had a largely disappointing season up to this point, but he had a solid game against the Utes – 27 for 50 passing for 358 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions (he did lose two fumbles in the first half). USC faces Notre Dame on Saturday in a matchup of one-loss teams that could be a de facto playoff elimination game.
- Michigan 27, Indiana 20 (OT). The Wolverine passing game was really ugly, and the defense almost gave away the game by blowing a ten-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation (after having played very well up until those final two possessions). Fortunately Michigan didn’t have to pass in overtime, as Karan Higdon took matters into his own hands by bolting for a touchdown after evading tacklers in the backfield on the first play of the drive. Mike DeBord and Indiana couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the end zone on four tries from inside the five-yard line, and Michigan survived. With all the carnage across the country, it’s hard not to think of that classic axiom – a win is a win. A trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State will headline Saturday’s slate of games, and an upset would vault Michigan back into the national conversation.