Clemson, FSU bringing the ACC back to the spotlight

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For the second year in a row, Clemson and Florida State will put the ACC under the national spotlight in a contest of top ten teams. The last time the ACC had two top-ten teams play each other in a conference game before last year’s top ten clash between Clemson and Florida State was when Matt Ryan was leading Boston College on an improbable BCS Championship run. The Eagles were ranked second in the AP poll and traveled to No. 8 Virginia Tech for a Thursday night football game. Boston College escaped the game with a 14-10 victory but their BCS dreams were shattered a couple of weeks later with a home loss to Florida State. That game between the Hokies and Eagles was played on October 25, 2007.

Now it is up to Clemson and Florida State to show off just what the class of the conference is capable of doing once again.

No. 3 Clemson hosts No. 5 Florida State in one of the biggest games in the conference’s history, at least in recent memory. The showdown has all of the makings for a classic battle with division bragging rights and a chance to pursue a BCS Championship awaiting the winner. The winner of this particular match-up has gone on to play in the ACC Championship each of the last four seasons, and the two have won the last two ACC championships.

ACC championships are nice of course, but it has been a while since the ACC had a national title contender. Could the winner of this game enter that role last filled by Florida State in 2000*?

If Clemson wins…

The ball is in Clemson’s court. Or, to use a football metaphor instead of a basketball analogy, the Tigers will be in the red zone. A win will give Clemson two wins over top five teams, including the season opening win over Georgia. A quick glance at the remaining schedule shows some favorable match-ups the rest of the way in ACC play. Clemson plays their next two games on the road but they come against Maryland and Virginia. Clemson should be the favorite in those games, and despite looking to be an improved team this season the Terrapins of Maryland were blasted by Florida State, 63-0. Clemson may not put together that same kind of result, but the Tigers should be a solid favorite in each of their two games heading in to a bye week.

The rest of the November schedule could set Clemson up nicely for a final push in the rankings, if they end up needing it. Getting Georgia Tech at home after a bye week will be a nice bonus. Georgia Tech may be able to play some defense, but Clemson’s offense should be able to overcome any threat. The big test will come against rival South Carolina. Clemson travels to Columbia for the rivalry game. South carolina enters this weekend ranked 11th in the country. Could the Gamecocks move up a few more spots to give Clemson one more win over a top 10 team?

A win over South Carolina would help push Clemson over the edge, but a win over a top ten Miami team in the ACC Championship Game would also help the cause. Clemson’s best bet would be to have Miami continue to run the table, which would include a win over Florida State.

Tajh Boyd would likely benefit in the Heisman race with a win as well. Clemson has never had a Heisman Trophy winner.

If Florida State wins…

The road back to national prominence will continue, but heir path to a potential spot in the BCS Championship Game should be trickier to navigate. Rivalry games against Miami and at Florida will not be easy, but are certainly games Florida State can win. Aside from Miami, the ACC schedule the rest of the way is favorable for the Seminoles. Florida State gets North carolina State, Miami and Syracuse at home and the only ACC road game left is at Wake Forest. Florida State also gets a home game against Idaho before traveling to Gainesville to play Florida.

The the question becomes who would Florida State play in the ACC Championship Game, and would that opponent be able to help push Florida State past a conference champion from the Pac 12 (Oregon?) or Big Ten (Ohio State?). If all goes to plan for Florida State, they will have already beaten Miami, but the Hurricanes could realistically be set up for a rematch in Charlotte. Or would it be best to beat Miami and hope Virginia Tech does the same the following week? The Hokies are ranked in the top 20 right now, and could start moving up the rankings enough to crack the top ten if things work out. That would be the scenario Florida State fans would be hoping for to pad their BCS profile.

Like Boyd for Clemson, a win over the Tigers would help push freshman quarterback Jameis Winston in to the leading candidate category for the Heisman Trophy. The Seminoles have had two players win the award before (Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke), and the freshman stigma has already been shattered, so the door is open.

* Miami played for the BCS National Championship in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, but did so as a member of the Big East.

Looking to end three decades of misery, Kentucky tied with No. 20 Florida at halftime

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It has not been a great day overall for showcasing the power of the SEC East but at least the division could see one of the longest losing streaks in the country come to an end as Kentucky is locked into a tight game with No. 20 Florida 14-all at halftime in a fun atmosphere in Lexington.

The Wildcats generally looked like the sharper of the two teams offensively, racking up nearly six yards per play and scoring on both of their trips into the red zone. The latter of those two touchdowns, a beautiful Stephen Johnson pass to the corner of the end zone and into the hands of Garrett Johnson, was setup by a long punt return from Charles Walker that setup a short field and gave the team another brief lead. Johnson — Stephen that is, the quarterback of the two above — finished with 100 yards through the air and two scores going into the locker room.

Florida would not go quietly into the night with that 30 game win streak against the ‘Cats on the line though. Feleipe Franks was surprisingly solid as a passer when he wasn’t met with a hand in his face and finished with 7-of-9 for 85 yards and a touchdown. Most of that yardage and the score came as time was winding down in the second quarter and the Gators were facing a 4th-and-short from midfield. Not content to just run the ball, the team instead opted to throw it… to a wide open Tyrie Cleveland for a 45-yard score after nobody covered him as part of a defensive miscommunication.

A Vosean Joseph targeting call on the ensuing drive cost the Gators their starting linebacker and nearly gave UK a chance to take the lead but their long field goal attempt from 48 yards out hit the upright.

Could this finally, finally… finally be the time Kentucky beats Florida? The early returns are that the Wildcats will certainly have a fighting chance in the second half in what could be a huge SEC upset.

Georgia handling Mississippi State in Battle of Bulldogs

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Georgia jumped on Mississippi State early and hasn’t let up, as the red and black Bulldogs hold a 14-3 halftime lead over the maroon and gray Bulldogs at the break in Athens.

After forcing a three-and-out to open the game, Georgia took a bite out of Mississippi State’s jugular on its first play of the game as Jake Fromm hit Terry Godwin for a 59-yard flea-flicker touchdown.

Georgia then forced another punt and this time swiftly marched down the length of the field, moving 78 yards in eight snaps and culminating in a 7-yard Nick Chubb dash.

Mississippi State put together its only sustained drive in its final chance before the half, consuming 4:29 over a 12-play, 51-yard drive that stalled at the Georgia 9-yard line. Jace Christmann punched in a 26-yard field goal with 1:14 left in the half to get the visitors on the board. Nick Fitzgerald has carried the load for Mississippi State, and taken a punishment from Georgia as a reward. He’s 10-of-18 passing for 64 yards with eight carries for a team-high 30 yards.

Fromm has been perfect in his first SEC start, hitting all eight of his throws for 160 yards and the score to Godwin. Chubb leads all runners with 34 yards and a score on eight carries.

Georgia will receive to open the second half.

Cal plays tough, but No. 5 USC pulls away late to stay undefeated

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USC’s annual trip to the Bay Area for what is commonly referred to as ‘The Weekender’ is typically a casual affair for the Trojans when they go to Berkeley and their team takes on overmatched Pac-12 rivals Cal. Such was not the case for most of Saturday afternoon however, as the Bears pushed and prodded their in-state rivals before the dam finally broke early in the fourth quarter for a 30-20 win by the cardinal and gold.

The closer-than-it-indicated final score may not have been all that pretty but still allowed USC to capture their 14th straight victory and run their record against Cal to 13 straight wins over nearly a decade and a half.

Part of the reason the Trojans couldn’t pull away until late was an ineffective offense that was a continuation of last week against Texas. Quarterback Sam Darnold had to carry the team at times but wasn’t quite as sharp early in the passing game, forcing several balls while throwing his seventh interception (after having just nine all last year). His numbers improved as the game went on and, in front of a bunch of NFL scouts, he still finished with 223 yards and two touchdown passes against a feisty defense.

The biggest issue for the signal-caller was the lack of a running game. Normal starter Ronald Jones II didn’t even make the trip with the team, while true freshman Stephen Carr had his moments rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown taking the bulk of the carries.

Head coach Clay Helton can once again thank his defense for bailing out the slow starting offense as they forced six turnovers and straight up took over in the final quarter to change momentum. Josh Fatu forced a fumble early in the 4th that was recovered near the goal line to kick the party off and interceptions by Ykili Ross and Jack Jones in the next few series all but sealed the deal in Strawberry Canyon.

As a result, the numbers for Cal signal-caller Ross Bowers looked dreadful on the final stat sheet (303 yards, 1 TD, four interceptions and a fumble). Still, he did help give the team a chance for most of the day and, combined with a solid run game and defensive performance, helped show that things are still looking up for Justin Wilcox’s team despite suffering their first loss of the year to move to 3-1.

That might not be the case for USC as they fly back and look over the game tape from a sloppy victory. While it does put the team up 2-0 in league play, notching another win might prove to be even more difficult if they play like that given they face a stiff test next Friday against a Washington State team that should be ranked in the top 20.

No. 16 TCU goes to Stillwater and locks up No. 6 Oklahoma State

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Oklahoma State spent its first three games blasting its opponents from the jump. Against Tulsa, South Alabama and Pittsburgh — admittedly, not exactly the toughest non-conference schedule in the game — the Cowboys held a combined 59-0 lead at the end of the first quarter en route to blowout victories.

This game was pretty much the exact opposite.

TCU controlled the ball and the pace and tone of the game from the beginning, using a massive possession advantage to lean on an overmatched Cowboys defense and survive a late challenge from a powerful Pokes offense en route to a 44-31 victory.

Actually, the first quarter looked as if TCU would spoil a great game plan and an early advantage. The Frogs ran 25 of the game’s first 33 plays but found themselves in a 7-6 hole after two drives ended in field goals and Mason Rudolph hit James Washington for an 86-yard touchdown.

But the Frogs answered, rallying for consecutive touchdown drives of 75 and 62 yards, capped by a 28-yard Darius Anderson and a 9-yard strike from Kenny Hill to John Diarse. Oklahoma State tacked on a field goal before the break, but TCU hit the locker room with a 10-point lead on the scoreboard and an 11-minute time of possession advantage.

After halftime, a rested TCU defense intercepted Rudolph in Cowboys territory and turned it into points on a 6-yard Anderson run. Oklahoma State responded with a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown march to pull within 27-17 midway through the third quarter, but TCU rumbled down the field on a 9-play, 75-yard drive in which eight of the snaps were runs and the only pass was a 43-yard strike to Jaelan AustinSewo Olonilua punched in a 1-yard plunge — which he later fumbled, but the call of touchdown was upheld upon review — to give the Frogs a 34-17 lead.

TCU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) forced a punt on the next drive and had a chance to put the game away early in the fourth quarter, but Hill fired incomplete on a 3rd-and-7 from the OSU 14. Jonathan Song‘s third field goal of the game made the score 37-17 but preserved a comeback window for Oklahoma State with 12:03 remaining.

Oklahoma State (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) immediately notched the first of its three needed touchdowns, moving 79 yards in 2:19 and culminating in a 1-yard Rudolph keeper to pull within 37-24 with 9:44 to play. The Pokes’ defense forced a three-and-out on TCU’s next possession and its offense moved to the TCU 23, but a wide receiver pass by Jalen McCleskey was intercepted at the 5-yard line by TCU’s Nick Orr.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma State forced another three-and-out — the Frogs’ offense “gained” minus-8 yards in its first two touches after going up 37-17 — and then moved 53 yards in five plays, keyed by a 34-yard McCleskey catch — to shrink the deficit to 37-31 with 3:03 to play.

After a 42-yard kickoff return by KaVontae Turpin, Oklahoma State used both of its remaining timeouts to force a do-or-die 3rd-and-4 at the OSU 42 with 2:37 to play. A stop would’ve given Oklahoma State the ball deep in its own territory with plenty of time and a chance to win with a touchdown, and a loss would’ve allowed the Frogs to run out the clock. Neither of those outcomes happened, though, as Anderson bursted through the Pokes’ front and raced untouched for a touchdown, pushing the lead back to two touchdowns.

Anderson and the TCU offensive line dominated the game, as he carried 26 times for 160 yards and three scores. Playing without senior Kyle Hicks, TCU as a team rushed 49 times for 241 yards and four scores, while Hill hit a manageable 22-of-33 passes for 228 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The TCU defense forced Rudolph into easily his worst game of the season. Rudolph finished the game hitting 21-of-39 throws with 398 yards and two touchdowns, but he also lost a fumble and threw two interceptions. Rudolph’s first two turnovers turned into TCU touchdowns, and his third came on a tipped pass on 4th-and-1 on Oklahoma State’s last-gasp driving trailing 44-31. Washington caught six passes for 153 yards and a score, and Justice Hill carried 25 times for 102 yards and a score.