CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 16 Clemson

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2013 record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in ACC (2nd in Atlantic division)
2013 postseason: Orange Bowl vs. Ohio State (40-35 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 8/No. 7
Head coach: Dabo Swinney (51-23 overall; 51-23 in 6 years at Clemson)
Offensive coordinator: Chad Morris (4th season at Clemson)
2013 offensive rankings: 56th rushing offense (175.62 ypg); 9th passing offense (332.9 ypg); 9th total offense (508.5 ypg); 8th scoring offense (40.2 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: 4
Defensive coordinator: Brent Venables (3rd season at Clemson)
2013 defensive rankings: 53rd rushing defense (155.69 ypg); 16th passing defense (200.6 ypg); 24th total defense (356.3 ypg); 24th scoring defense (22.2 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: 7
Location: Clemson, South Carolina
Stadium: Memorial Stadium (81,473; Grass)
Last conference title: 2011

THE GOOD
At first glance it may look as though Clemson is likely to be in a bit of rebuilding mode after losing some talented players (including Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Roderick McDowell) but the Tigers return more seniors in 2014 than any previous season in the Dabo Swinney era. This year’s senior class needs eight wins to set a new school record for wins by a recruiting class, and that certainly looks attainable this season. Cole Stoudt is ready to take over the responsibility as starting quarterback after playing the role of Boyd’s understudy each of the past three seasons. The strength of Clemson could actually come on the defensive side of the football, with a deep defensive line led by defensive end Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks last season. This Clemson team may not be as good as they have been in recent seasons, but Swinney’s recruiting in recent years have assured Clemson of a very good team once it gets going.

THE BAD
Clemson plays in the same division as Florida State. With as far as Clemson has come in recent seasons, the bar has been set to a height that may not be able to be cleared by Clemson this season, in part because they happen to play in the same division as the best team in the country (and defending national champions, and Clemson has to play on the road in Tallahassee). It could be a rough start for this Clemson team with road games at Georgia and Florida State in September, so it may be unfair to truly judge Clemson until later in the season. Clemson should be one of the best teams in the ACC by the end of the season, but they will likely be playing from behind Florida State the entire way.

THE UNKNOWN
How much will Clemson have in the tank at the start of the season. As just referenced above, the Tigers are going to be thrown right into the fire in September with rod games at Georgia, a team some expect to compete for the SEC East and perhaps even the SEC championship this fall, and later at Florida State, defending ACC and national champions and looking prime for a repeat bid out of the gate. Clemson could very well lose those two games, but will they be able to at least make them look respectable? No coach or player will take much solace in a lose, but proving worthy of going toe-to-toe with Georgia ad Florida State regardless of the outcome could go a long way in setting the tone for the remainder of the season. Clemson beat Georgia last year in a wild game at home, but failed to show up for the home game against the Seminoles. Revenge is one thing, but respect is an entirely different aspect.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. South Carolina
Regardless of what happens against Georgia or Florida State in September, the time has come for Clemson to prove it can compete with and beat South Carolina. Even Clemson’s best teams the past few years have been crippled by their in-state rivals from the SEC. Clemson has lost this game five straight years, and those games have not been all that close either. Each game has been decided by a minimum of 10 points, giving Steve Spurrier and his program some in-state bragging rights. Clemson gets this year’s meeting at home, and it would be a great way for the Tigers to put a bow on what could turn out to be a double-digit win season.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Defensive end Vic Beasley
We know that defensive players are probably never going to win the Heisman Trophy, but it should not go without mention just how good Vic Beasley is for the Tigers. He could have joined Boyd and Watkins in the NFL Draft this past spring but he opted to return for one more year at Clemson, and that is fantastic news for the Tigers. If he gets off to a fast tart in high-profile games at Georgia and Florida State, and helps Clemson’s defense lead the way to victories in each, then the campaign will quickly emerge as the latest defensive hopeful to snag the Heisman.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

 

No. 15 Washington State leads Colorado by two scores after ugly first half

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Ugly weather, ugly football. At least for No. 15 Washington State, they can say they held the lead.

In a rainy, lackluster first half of football, the Cougars managed to head to the locker room up 14-0 over Colorado at the break in a game that was far from the best showcase of Pac-12 After Dark given the sub-optimal conditions on the Palouse.

Neither offense found much of a rhythm at all as the opposing defenses were fairly feisty and active in the front seven. Wazzu QB Luke Falk at least was doing better than he was last week in a loss to Cal, throwing for 123 yards and the two touchdowns that made a difference on the scoreboard. Running back Jamal Morrow chipped in with 53 on the ground despite just seven carries.

Things were not as bright on the other sideline as the Buffs failed to convert on third down in the half and recorded just four first downs. Tailback Phillip Lindsay was kept in check (58 yards on 18 carries), while QB Steven Montez was only 4-of-13 for a whopping 21 yards.

To make matters worse, Colorado starting left tackle Jeromy Irwin was ejected for targeting on a play in which he came back to nail a WSU defender.

Falk did seem to start heating up for the Cougs as the second quarter wore on and the rain seemed to die down, but neither team can lay claim to playing all that great early on as one of the few teams still in action late on Saturday night. Hopefully for everybody who’s football-starved and still watching, some halftime adjustments will lead to some improved play on both sides.

West Virginia QB-turned-WR David Sills more than halfway to breaking single-season TD reception record

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What David Sills is doing in Morgantown is one of the more intriguing and impressive subplots of the 2017 college football season.

Once a highly-touted quarterback prodigy– as a 13-year-old he was offered a scholarship to USC by Lane Kiffin — Sills moved to wide receiver not long after signing with West Virginia as part of their 2015 recruiting class. In June of 2016, WVU announced that Sills was moving on to the junior college level “to pursue his dream of playing quarterback.”

Six months later, that dream ended as WVU announced that Sills had come back to the Mountaineers — and was coming back as a receiver. In 2015, prior to his move away, Sills caught seven passes for 131 yards and a pair of touchdowns in eight games as a true freshman; this season, Sills has taken his receiving game to a whole other level. Or levels rarely seen in college football.

Through the first seven games of the 2017 season, the junior Sills has caught 15 touchdown passes, including three in a Week 8 win over Baylor that was almost a loss as WVU nearly coughed up a 25-point fourth-quarter lead. To put Sills’ individual production into perspective, no other player entered this weekend with double-digit receiving touchdowns, with Memphis’ Lamar Miller the closest with nine (he had none in a Thursday night win over Houston).

Not only is he running away from his fellow receivers this season, Sills is also chasing some significant history. With five games left in the regular season, plus a bowl game — and maybe a Big 12 championship game as well — Sills is just 12 touchdowns away from tying the FBS single-season record of 27 touchdown catches set by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998.

Sills is also a mere 10 scores away from tying the school record of 25 set by Stedman Bailey in 2012. Bailey is currently tied for second all-time with Marshall’s Randy Moss, who set the FBS record of 25 the year before it was broken by Edwards.

And, since (again) we’re here, former Florida and current WVU quarterback Will Grier has thrown 26 touchdown passes in seven games this season. The Gators have thrown 26 touchdown passes in their last 23 games, dating back to November of 2015.

Use that little nugget at your own whim.

No. 2 Penn State exacts revenge on No. 19 Michigan, advances to showdown vs. No. 6 Ohio State

Associated Press
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The trajectory of Penn State’s program changed with last season’s loss to Michigan. That 49-10 drubbing in Ann Arbor dropped the Nittany Lions to 2-2 on the season and 2-6 dating back to the close of the 2015 season and furthered the narrative that James Franklin couldn’t compete against the elite of the Big Ten.

Penn State is now the elite of the Big Ten. The No. 2 Nittany Lions entered Saturday night 15-1 since that blowout loss to Michigan, and improved to 16-1 with a 42-13 defeat of No. 19 Michigan.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead pulled out a wrinkle on the Nittany Lions’ second play from scrimmage, and it worked to perfection. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley shifted pre-snap, and Barkley took the direct snap and raced 69 yards untouched for a touchdown.

After forcing a three-and-out, Penn State moved 78 yards in four plays, keyed by a 35-yard rainbow heave from McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley scored his second touchdown of the first quarter one play later, a 15-yard burst around the right side. 

But Penn State’s offense stalled from there. The Lions’ next possession ended in a McSorley interception, and the possession after that was a three-and-out that lost nine yards. Penn State penetrated Michigan territory midway through the second quarter, but Barkley dropped a wheel route that would’ve put the Lions inside the red zone. Penn State turned the ball over on downs two plays later.

Meanwhile, Michigan turned McSorley’s interception into an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard Karan Higdon run on fourth-and-goal. Quinn Nordin missed the ensuing PAT.

After the turnover on downs, Michigan marched 67 yards on a series of John O’Korn plays — a 14-yard rush, an 18-yard strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and 23 yards to Kekoa CrawfordTy Isaac powered in from six yards out to pull the Wolverines within one with 1:45 to play before the half. 

Threatened for the first time of the evening, Penn State ended its streak of three straight unsuccessful drives with a 7-play, 75-yard march that consumed only 52 seconds. McSorley accounted for 68 yards on the drive, including a 3-yard rush to put the home team back up eight.

That momentum continued into the second half. The Lions opened the second half with a 9-play, 80-yard march that closed with McSorley’s second touchdown run and, after a three-and-out, Penn State’s backfield battery put the game out of reach with a 42-yard touchdown connection from McSorley to Barkley. McSorley closed the night hitting 17-of-26 throws for 282 yards with a touchdown and an interception and 11 carries for 76 yards and three scores. Barkley rushed 15 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns with three grabs for 53 yards and a touchdown. As a team, Penn State racked up 506 yards of total offense, more than double the 223.8 yards per game Michigan’s FBS-leading defense entered the night surrendering — and Franklin allowed the clock to expire with Penn State inside the Michigan 10-yard line and three timeouts in his pocket, so it could have been worse.

Trailing 35-13 early in the fourth quarter, Jim Harbaugh put together a last-chance drive to claw back in the game, but O’Korn was sacked on fourth down near midfield. McSorley’s third touchdown run of the night, a 9-yarder with 7:53 to play, added the exclamation point.

The win pushed Penn State to 7-0 on the season (4-0 Big Ten) and advanced the Nittany Lions into the game of the year in the Big Ten and perhaps the entire college football regular season: a visit to No. 6 Ohio State next Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Michigan dropped to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play. Trailing Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State by two games and ceding the tie-breaker to the first two, the 2017 season officially takes on “rebuilding year” status as the Wolverines are now playing for positioning among the Tampa-Orlando-Jacksonville bowl games and 2018 preparation.

The Nittany Lions, though, are playing for much more, and they have Michigan to thank for that.

No. 13 Notre Dame routs No. 11 USC to jump firmly into playoff mix

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Wake up the echoes, Notre Dame appears to be for real this season — real, real good that is.

The Irish throttled their intersectional rivals from Southern California on Saturday night, rolling to a 49-14 win over No. 11 USC in a game that never seemed in doubt after the opening few minutes. It was as complete an effort as Brian Kelly’s team has had this season and the fashion in which it was done — under the lights and on NBC — should leave a lasting impression on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee when they meet in a few weeks.

Proving that a few weeks of rest was just what the doctor ordered, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush was simply stellar in his return from a foot injury. Playing rust-free from the opening drive, the signal-caller threw for 120 yards and two touchdowns despite just nine completions. It’s not like the team needed him to use his arm on so many short fields but he did most of the damage with his legs to the tune of 106 yards and two more scores.

As impressive as that was, he wasn’t even the best player in the Irish backfield. Running back Josh Adams, who will surely find himself on many Heisman lists come Sunday, once again dazzled with some jaw-dropping runs and finished with a whopping 191 yards and three touchdowns in a little over three quarters-worth of work. Much of that effort helped Notre Dame jump out a 28-0 lead at halftime, which was the second largest mark by the Irish in the series’ illustrious history.

As well as just about everything went for the Irish, the opposite could be said for the visitors. The Trojans turned the ball over three times, fumbling on their first drive and muffing a punt in the first half as well. Sam Darnold was anything but the golden boy many expected on this stage, posting decent numbers of 229 yards and two touchdowns but he was under siege all night long by the opposing front seven. In addition to taking five sacks, he was briefly injured just before the end of the third quarter but later returned to play out the string.

A lot fell on Darnold’s shoulders in the loss because USC simply couldn’t run the ball. Ronald Jones managed just 32 yards on the ground and the team hovered below the three yards a carry mark most of the night.

It’s not like a little improvement would have made any difference however, as the Trojans were blitzed from the opening whistle by an energized Notre Dame team. The end result was the Jeweled Shillelagh remaining in South Bend for the year as the Irish will turn their eyes toward a suddenly huge matchup with N.C. State next Saturday that may look even better on the resume than that beat down of once mighty Troy when all is said and done.