Oh, what chaos might’ve been in Saturday’s early slate. Ohio State spent much of Saturday afternoon flummoxed by Rutgers’ defense and unable to corral Kyle Monangai. Texas jumped out to a big lead, then handed Kansas State one chance after another after another.
The No. 1 team was on the ropes.
The No. 7 team saw its playoff hopes flickering.
And in the end, the favorites clung to victory like so many loose opossums.
thinking about the legend pic.twitter.com/UwIswipWJj
— no context college football (@nocontextcfb) November 3, 2023
The committee rewarded the Buckeyes by placing them atop the first playoff rankings last week, in spite of their repeated offensive hiccups. The obvious counterargument was that Ohio State had played quality opponents and still won. On Saturday, however, Kyle McCord looked lost for long stretches, relying almost exclusively on Marvin Harrison Jr. in the red zone, and the Buckeyes finished with fewer than 400 yards of offense for the fifth time this season — something they’d done just four times total in the previous four seasons.
The committee considered Texas the second-best of the one-loss teams, providing the Longhorns with a pretty clear path to the playoff if they won out. And they had Saturday’s game against Kansas State well in hand, leading 27-7 in the final seconds of the third quarter. But Will Howard responded with three second-half TD passes, and Chris Tennant drilled a 45-yard field goal with 1 second left to send the game to overtime.
And yet, both survived, almost in spite of themselves.
Ohio State scored on a pick-six off a tipped ball and got 208 of its 328 yards from TreVeyon Henderson, including a 65-yard catch-and-run that was the dagger for Rutgers.
Texas overcame two Maalik Murphy interceptions largely because Kansas State botched two late kicks — one a PAT that would’ve given the Wildcats the lead and the other a short field goal.
And yet both remain contenders for a playoff berth because a win is a win.
Still, it’s hard not to have watched both games unfold, almost simultaneously, like college football’s version of a Jardiance commercial — confounding plot lines, sudden shifts in perspective, weirdly captivating. Was this good football? High drama? An important data point in an otherwise still mystifying season?
This is perhaps the real beauty of this season thus far. The flaws all seem so evident in the nation’s top teams — from QB concerns to marginal run games to ex-military operatives who may or may not have been wearing night vision goggles outside Ryan Day’s house earlier this year. But those flaws all seem to evaporate when the game is on the line, and chalk prevails.
The hope for Ohio State and Texas is that those battle wounds heal over, and the scars serve only as a reminder of how narrow the margins can be; that the tough wins make them stronger because every grueling, ugly victory is better than a loss.
Or perhaps the 2023 season is just saving its biggest moments for the very end, a twist buried deep into the final chapters when it’s revealed this whole song-and-dance was actually just a commercial shoot and the wardrobe people step in and — man, that Jardiance commercial is catchy.
Dabo Swinney spent 18 months selling commercial real estate before landing on Tommy Bowden’s staff at Clemson 20 years ago. He took time last week to reminisce about that time in his life, noting in the wake of Clemson’s 4-4 start and a revolt by fans — or, at least one of them in Spartanburg — that sometimes the lowest moments set the table for the greatest victories.
After Saturday’s 31-23 win over No. 15 Notre Dame, Swinney wasn’t talking about his old career. He was headlong into his new one as a financial adviser.
“If Clemson’s a stock,” Swinney shouted after the game, “you better buy all you freakin’ can buy!”
“If Clemson’s a stock, you better buy all you freakin’ can buy right now!”
Dabo was FIRED UP after taking down No. 15 Notre Dame 🗣 pic.twitter.com/chfM7Oo66V
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 4, 2023
It was a mammoth win after a brutal two months to start the 2023 season.
The past week felt like either a turning point or an ending point for Swinney after he first ripped a caller into his radio show with “an Old Testament answer” then doubled down during his weekly media session saying he wouldn’t allow critics to “steal my joy.” Indeed, this was essentially Swinney’s “Eras Tour,” as he took fans through more than a decade of his greatest hits, from confounding analogies (“even healthy trees need pruning”) to vague threats (“you can apply for the job, and good luck to you”) to lamentations of the downfall of American culture (“our society today…”), and even sprinkled in a few grievance deep cuts along the way (“I worked my ass off every single day.”) Heck, he might have quoted “Shake It Off” a few times, too.
More than anything, however, Swinney referred back to his latest banger: It’s all about the turnovers. And Saturday proved he was right.
Clemson recovered a muffed punt and turned that into a touchdown, then saw Jeremiah Trotter Jr. return a pick-six that buried Notre Dame. With a half-dozen starters out for the game, Phil Mafah carried 36 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns, and Swinney won for the 166th time as Clemson’s head coach, moving him past Frank Howard for the most victories in program history.
For Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman, it was another brutal afternoon against his archnemesis. Hartman completed just 13 of 30 passes with two interceptions, finishing his college career with an 0-5 record against the Tigers. He’ll carry that burden the rest of his life, with only his NIL money, his Wake Forest degree, his awesome rib necklace, his amazing head of hair and his numerous ACC records to provide solace. He has our deepest sympathies.
But if the game was a brutal ending for Hartman against Clemson, it felt like a new beginning for the Tigers. Eight years ago, Clemson beat Notre Dame at home and it was the spark in a season that ended with Swinney throwing a pizza party for the entire fan base. Saturday’s win was a big one, too, and it could end with Swinney ordering a dozen pizzas to be delivered to Tyler in Spartanburg’s house at 3 a.m.
Aggies’ road woes continue
For much of Saturday, Texas A&M seemed destined to pull off a shocker against No. 10 Ole Miss.
The Rebels were on the precipice of a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter when Jacoby Mathews returned a blocked field goal try 75 yards for a touchdown. Ole Miss still was up 14 midway through the third quarter when the Aggies went on a run behind Max Johnson, who threw one TD pass to brother Jake and ran for another. But Quinshon Judkins’ 1-yard run with 1:40 to go proved the difference, and the Rebels won 38-35.
The loss adds more fuel under Jimbo Fisher’s increasingly hot seat. Setting aside the COVID-impacted 2020 season, he’s now 22-23 against Power 5 foes since taking over at A&M in 2018, including a disastrous 3-15 mark on the road.
So, if you’re in the College Station area and looking to save on a Christmas tree, now would be the time to start doing a few laps past Fisher’s house.
Bowl hopes flickering
South Carolina finished 4-of-16 on third and fourth down, committed 10 penalties (for 100 yards), and managed just 89 yards on 38 rushes Saturday, trailing Jacksonville State by seven late in the third quarter, but finished the game on a 17-0 run — the last 10 of which came after Jacksonville State turnovers — to win the battle of the Gamecocks 38-28.
Spencer Rattler’s 399 passing yards and four takeaways by the defense proved the difference in a win that narrowly keeps South Carolina’s bowl hopes alive and kept coach Shane Beamer from either injuring another foot kicking a Gatorade cooler or perhaps busting through the locker room wall like the Kool-Aid man.
The win snaps a four-game losing streak for the Gamecocks, and South Carolina now has home games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Clemson — and needs to win out to get bowl eligible.
Meanwhile, Nebraska had a chance to secure win No. 6 against woeful Michigan State on Saturday, but the Huskers couldn’t get any offense going in a 20-17 loss to the Spartans.
And Florida, too, whiffed on a chance to get bowl eligible. The Gators fell behind Arkansas 14-0, fought back to tie at the end of the first quarter, then traded scores for the rest of the way — swinging from all-out surrender gator to Trevor Etienne’s brilliance. Ultimately, Arkansas booted a 49-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, and KJ Jefferson’s TD pass then clinched the 39-36 Hogs win.
Surrender Gator. pic.twitter.com/aJaSQuQmbX
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) November 4, 2023
And somewhere, Dan Enos is firing up his burner account to send some incredibly pointed emails to new Arkansas playcaller Kenny Guiton.