The first month of the college football season will end with 14 undefeated teams, including 10 from the Power Five and, notably, Notre Dame.
There could still be some twists and turns on the way to the College Football Playoff’s selection Sunday on Dec. 3, but September has done a thorough job of vetting the contenders, especially Saturday night’s two top-10 matchups between Ohio State and Penn State, and Stanford and Notre Dame.
While No. 4 Ohio State provided a dramatic comeback and a potential season-defining drive, it was No. 8 Notre Dame that came away looking most primed for a serious playoff run — with all the intrigue that could come with it.
The Fighting Irish (5-0) have a nasty defense, led by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, and now a good-looking offense to go with it.
Quarterback Ian Book’s second start went even better than his first.
Notre Dame also welcomed back Dexter Williams, an explosive runner and enigmatic player who was held out of the first four games, reportedly for disciplinary reasons.
The Irish already have two victories against ranked teams (Stanford and Michigan) and suddenly the rest of the schedule does not seem too daunting. Next week they will be at Virginia Tech. What follows — Pitt, Navy, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and Southern California — are mostly teams that have underachieved so far this season. Of course, an unbeaten Notre Dame makes the playoff. But is that schedule good enough for the Irish to lose one and get it in?
Notre Dame’s inclusion in the playoff discussion presents interesting questions for the selection committee. The Irish play only 12 games, while most of the other contenders will play 13, including a conference title game.
The committee is supposed to factor in league titles when judging teams, though that has not kept Ohio State and Alabama out the past couple of seasons. Notre Dame won’t have one.
Notre Dame in the playoff also means not one but at least two Power Five conferences get left out — as was the case last year when the SEC had two participants.
Love them or hate them, the Fighting Irish are the most compelling brand in the college football. And by entering October unbeaten, Notre Dame is set to be talked about a ton over the next two months.
RESILIENT OR FLAWED?
No. 3 Clemson is starting to look a little like another highly touted Atlantic Coast Conference team that reached the College Football Playoff with an unbeaten record, built on a foundation of great escapes.
The Tigers’ latest trick was a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback victory against Syracuse in Death Valley on Saturday, with a quarterback who was third on the depth chart just a week ago.
Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is hard to beat. The Tigers rarely flinch when faced with adversity and winning tight games is just part of the program’s DNA. Since 2015, the season Clemson won the first in its current streak of three straight ACC championships, no other FBS team has more than Clemson’s 13 victories by seven or fewer points . The Tigers are 13-3 in those games.
In 2014, Florida State still ruled the ACC, and it had a similar ability to dodge the upset bug. The Seminoles were the defending national champions, with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. They started the season No. 1 in the rankings but rarely did anything come easy. They rallied from 24-7 down to beat North Carolina State and trailed Louisville 21-7 at the half before winning. Florida State won seven one-score games that season against an ACC schedule that was not loaded with ranked teams. The Seminoles slipped in the rankings but never lost and eventually went into the College Football Playoff as the No. 3 seed. Their good fortune ran out in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.
Clemson didn’t enter the season with quite the hype of that Florida State team, but it was a solid No. 2 in the preseason Top 25 behind Alabama, even drawing some support for No. 1.
In the playoff era, fans are often far more focused on finding flaws in the playoff contenders than acknowledging strengths.
Clemson is positioned to be excessively nitpicked, much as Florida State was in 2014, if it doesn’t kick it into gear. The Tigers are so clearly the most talented team in the conference that they can play a poor game at home with a reserve quarterback in the second half and still gut out a victory. The Tigers’ resilience is a positive, but if they have to keep showing it off, it won’t be viewed that way.
RED RIVER RELEVANT
For the first time since 2012, Texas and Oklahoma will both be ranked going into the Red River Shootout at the state fair in Dallas.
The Red River Rivalry has produced some entertaining games in recent years, including last season when Oklahoma won 29-24. Even as Texas has fallen way behind the Sooners in the Big 12, the Longhorns have won two of the last five head-to-head matchups.
Twice Charlie Strong beat the Sooners. Neither time was Texas back.
But this is an opportunity for Texas to truly start to be taken seriously.
A victory against the sixth-ranked Sooners would put the 18th-ranked Longhorns in first place in the Big 12 with victories against TCU and Oklahoma, and with No. 12 West Virginia scheduled to come to Austin on Nov. 3.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: Not sure if coming from behind to beat a Louisville team that has looked like a mess is reason for a lot of optimism, but Florida State and new coach Willie Taggart seemingly have stabilized their season … Will UCLA win a game in Year 1 under Chip Kelly? The Pac-12 South isn’t all that tough, but UCLA also plays No. 7 Stanford, No. 11 Washington, No. 19 Oregon and No. 24 California out of the North. The Bruins have never won fewer than three games in the Pac-12 (10, 8) era, which started in 1968. … No.
13 UCF zipped through Pitt as if it was nothing and could work its way into the top 10 this week, but the Knights are again going to be saddled with a schedule that lacks oomph. UCF had to be hoping the American Athletic Conference might provide opportunities for resume-boosting wins, but that’s not working out. Memphis is down.
Navy seems OK. Temple has been about the same. Expect to be right back where we were last year, with UCF complaining about being dissed by the CFP selection committee and the committee pointing the Knights’ strength of schedule. … A week after upsetting Virginia Tech, Old Dominion lost to East Carolina to fall to 1-4. Strange game.
By RALPH D. RUSSO, Associated Press