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Sunday Quarterback: Clemson crosses the Rubicon

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Saturday's games, in perspective

Leaping obsolete narratives in a single bound
Leaping obsolete narratives in a single bound
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Reputations take years to form, and given Clemson's track record with high expectations, a healthy skepticism comes baked right in. Between 2001 and 2011, the Tigers were ranked in the preseason polls four times, and subsequently failed to finish there in any of those four seasons. Between 2006 and 2011, they lost ten games as a ranked team to an unranked opponent. Twice in that span they played their way into the top ten in late October, only to blow both opportunities by losing four of their last five (2006) and four of their last six (2011). When they finally reached their first BCS bowl, in 2011, they were not only upset, but humiliated in the most lopsided blowout in Series history.

The program is so reliably volatile in high-stakes situations that the Internet coined a verb for it, "Clemsoning," defined in the Urban Dictionary as "the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance." It's not just a reputation – it's their DNA.

13Or so it was. Whoever brought up the ghosts of Clemsons past to coach Dabo Swinney after the Tigers' 38–35 win over Georgia Saturday night probably did not use the term "Clemsoning" in their question, but they were instructed to come up with a new definition:

"...People need to start writing something different and whoever covers us need to start asking different questions," Swinney said. "The bottom-line is this program has been as consistent as any program in college football over the last 30 something weeks. There are only 6 teams in America that have been ranked 30 something weeks in a row or more. There is only six.
There are a whole lot of other great programs that are not on that list. So why don’t y’all write about them? Because Clemson has been as consistent as anybody in the country. We haven't won them all but them other teams haven't won it all either. But that seems like that always wants to come up. People always bring up something that happened from five years ago. We need to move on. Let’s get a different storyline. Let’s talk about what we have done, not what we haven’t done. We are beyond that. Our players deserve better than that."

And so they do – one player in particular. In Tajh Boyd's first season as the starting quarterback, 2011, the Tigers won their first eight and claimed their first ACC title in two decades. In his second season, they did not come close to losing a game they were favored to win and came from behind in the fourth quarter of their last game to upset LSU, clinching their highest finish in the AP poll (11th) since 1990. By then, the "Clemsoning" narrative was already growing mold; by the end of Saturday night Clemson had its second in a row over blue-chip, SEC heavyweights ranked in the top ten, and Boyd's record against ranked teams stood at 6–4.

In both of those games, Boyd's undeniable, pinpoint brilliance as a passer has been contrasted by his willingness to get his hands dirty as a runner – under pressure, in short yardage, in the red zone, he is thoroughly uninterested in maintaining some kind of statuesque "poise." Combining the win over Georgia with last year's above-the-fold dates against Florida State, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and LSU, Boyd has carried 97 times for 161 yards – a tenderizing average of 19.4 carries per game for 1.7 yards per carry. But he's also run for six touchdowns in those games, two of them coming Saturday against the Bulldogs, where his long run of the night covered 10 yards. At one point it took him three consecutive attempts from inside the UGA 5-yard line to punch the ball over the line, and only then on a second effort. But in the end he got the ball over.

As a senior, Boyd is at the divide that separates a very good, all-conference quarterback enshrined in the "Records" section of the media guide from the kind of enduring greatness that only comes with a championship, and in that story winning the first game of the year is only one bridge along the way. To anyone who still doubted his ability to deliver on a national stage, though, or his team's, it's one they cannot be forced back across.


North Dakota State 24, Kansas State 21. Kansas State has made a healthy living the last two years playing the tortoise in the up-tempo Big 12, dismantling ostensibly more talented outfits with a deliberate, grinding efficiency befitting its head coach's persona. So it's only appropriate that, as defending Big 12 champs and heavy favorites at home, the Wildcats got Snyder'd themselves. After falling behind in the third quarter, 21–7, North Dakota State manufactured three consecutive scoring drives over the final quarter-and-a-half covering 75, 74 and 80 yards, respectively, and draining more than 17 minutes from the clock. The winning drive itself is the stuff of legend: 18 plays, 80 yards, six first downs, four successful third-down conversions and a quarterback named "Brock Jensen" plunging across the goal line on a second effort as the clock ticked below 30 seconds. When the drive started, it was just inside of nine minutes.

Still, as has always been the case with Snyder's best teams, the defending FCS champs were nothing on Friday night if not fundamentally sound, and there's a good case to be made that the upset says a lot more about the Bison than it does about their victim. Minus last year's He-Man quarterback, Collin Klein, K-State managed all of 41 yards rushing, 153 yards below their average in 2012, on just 1.8 per carry – a terrible night for the Wildcats, but just another day at the office for the NDSU defense, the No. 1 unit in the FCS two years running. (Consider that in eight playoff games en route to back-to-back titles in 2011-12, the Bison held opponents to 8.8 points per game; the highest-scoring team in the nation in both of those seasons, Sam Houston State, managed six points in the 2011 championship game and all of 13 in last year's rematch.) On the other side of the line of scrimmage, North Dakota State ran 43 times for 215 yards on the Wildcats' rebuilt front seven, well above what the Wildcats allowed on average last year but pretty much in line with NDSU gained. The Bison were 10-of-17 on third down conversions to 2-of-10 for K–State, and rolled up a 12-minute advantage in time of possession. And long before casual fans were made aware of their existence around 10 pm on Friday night, they cut their teeth on more realistic takedowns at Kansas (2010), Minnesota (2011) and Colorado State (2012) in consecutive seasons. It's not by accident that they were so popular in last week's upset columns.

True, the opener looked like one of the very few ostensible gimmes for K-State, a must-win on a schedule loaded with land mines and outright long shots. If it turns out the Wildcats are as bad as Kansas and Colorado State, et al, without Klein and the vast majority of last year's starting defense, it's going to be a very, very long season in Big 12 play. Snyder has seen the odds catch up with his personal Manhattan project before, at the end of his first stint as head coach in 2004–05, and the overall talent level is still closer to the league's doormats than the upper crust. More likely, though, the new faces will begin to gel and ultimately prove to be more or less who we thought they were – a rebuilding, middle-of-the-pack outfit bound for one of the generic Your-Name-Here bowls. But it is much too soon to suggest that going down at the hands of a similarly well-coached group of overachievers necessarily makes them worse than that, or that there isn't still a chance to be better. (Just ask Virginia Tech.)

Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10. Speaking of the Hokies, they have no reason to feel as bad about a 35–10 waxing against Alabama as the final score suggests, and not only because everyone just assumed they'd get beat that badly, anyway. After an early touchdown drive in the first quarter – which started in Virginia Tech territory – the most touted Crimson Tide offense in recent memory went nowhere, punting on eight of their last ten possessions with five three-and-outs. Bama's total production for the night, 206 yards, was the most anemic turn of Nick Saban's seven-year tenure. The game was over early thanks to the overwhelming contributions of the defense and special teams, but aside from a successful bomb to Christion Jones in the third quarter, at no point in the final three quarters did A.J. McCarron look like the most efficient passer in the nation – in fact, with a dismal rating of 89.3, he turned in the least efficient game of his career – and the offense as a whole looked nothing like the attack that ended last year on equal terms with the chart-topping defense. Virginia Tech's veteran defense has a lot to do with that; certainly three new offensive linemen making their first career starts do, too.

13In that context, although the game was never within reach, Tech effectively battled Bama to a stalemate on a down-by-down basis: The difference was three big, lightning-strike plays in the first half (an early punt return by Jones, a pick-six by Vinnie Sunseri and a kick return by Jones) that accounted for 21 points in a 25-point margin, but almost certainly will not be lingering issues that affect the ACC race. Even if they didn't bother to address them, specifically, the Hokies could very easily go the rest of 2013 without seeing another punt, kick or turnover taken to the house against them, simply because these are such unusual, once-a-season events that from a predictive standpoint, they're basically meaningless. That's not a slight to Jones, a fantastic return man who brought a track record of big plays into the game and will probably go on making opponents look ridiculous. It's just an acknowledgment that Tech doesn't have to go forward worrying about giving up 21 points in another game without the defense stepping on the field.

Given the question marks coming into the season, it still does have to worry about the offense – redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds isn't going to be breaking a lot of 77-yard touchdown runs, either, and neither Logan Thomas nor his receivers gave any indication that last year's flop was behind them. (With the interception and just five completions in 29 attempts, Thomas came out of the game boasting the worst efficiency rating in the nation.) But Alabama's defense is not exactly the most fair litmus test for any offense, so we'll reserve judgment until more returns are in.

LSU 37, TCU 27. Of the day's headliners, no team looked more like its platonic self than LSU, which dominated time of possession, introduced a new member to its bottomless rotation of burly, productive tailbacks, encountered a bizarre clock-management situation at the end of a half and effectively shut down the Horned Frogs' offense from start to finish. TCU limped in with 259 yards and benched its starting quarterback, Casey Pachall, in the second half; backup Trevone Boykin made a couple of plays to move the sticks, but ultimately didn't fare any better. Two of the Horned Frogs' three touchdowns came on a kickoff return and an LSU fumble inside its own 10-yard line, setting up an extremely short field; otherwise, there were two sustained drives for a field goal and a touchdown, and not much else.

Which is, of course, exactly how this game was supposed to play out. Although TCU's secondary was extremely active, and limited Zach Mettenberger to 16-of-32 passing, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry made enough plays to keep them honest (Beckham and Landry were both over 100 yards receiving), and LSU's line gradually wore down TCU's much smaller defensive front, playing without its best player, DeVonte Fields. LSU was missing one of its best players, too, leading rusher Jeremy Hill, the difference being that LSU had no trouble whatsoever plugging in another back with no discernible dropoff: In Hill's absence, unsung junior Terrence Magee broke a 52-yard touchdown run and looked every bit the part of an every-down workhorse alongside Alfred Blue, with whom he combined for 184 yards on 5.8 per carry. Right out of the gate this team looked exactly like every LSU team of the Les Miles era, with the notable caveat that there is clearly some firepower in the passing game – if not much consistency, yet – that has not been there the past five years, and 448 yards and 37 points against a defense of TCU's caliber opens up a few possibilities for sustained growth.

Saturday was the debut for two highly anticipated freshman quarterbacks, Christian Hackenberg and Jared Goff, starting for the first time on opposite ends of the country, in very different offenses, and ultimately falling on opposite sides of the win-loss column. One thing they have in common, though, is a nigh arm that coaches wasted no time exploiting: Hackenberg launched two long touchdown passes in the second half of Penn State's win over Syracuse, covering 51 and 54 yards, respectively, while Goff connected on touchdowns of his own in the course of a 38-of-63, 445-yard night against Northwestern. Hackenberg completed 71 percent of his passes overall with an efficiency rating well above 150; Goff set the Cal record for attempts. Both gave every indication of growing into reliable, long-term starters, at the very least.

13And then, yeah, there were the glaring freshman mistakes – two interceptions by Hackenberg, three by Goff, two of them returned for touchdowns that supplied the final margin in the Golden Bears' loss. (In fact, both of the pick-six scores came off of tipped balls that were not necessarily Goff's fault; the other interception was actually much worse, a fly ball down the hash marks that might as well have had a bow and a name tag on it for Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell.) Already, though, it's astonishing how polished these kids' arms are, a testament to the ubiquity of camps and private coaches devoted to getting the cream of the crop up to speed physically before they ever step on campus. Until they pick up more of the offense and develop a veteran comfort level in the pocket, at times going long may actually be the more conservative option, because it's a throw they can make without being bombarded with decisions. When their brains catch up with their appendages – and I think this is especially true for Goff, who's coming up with some very good, very green receivers who are going to catch a lot of passes in this offense – they're going to be around while.

Time to Rethink: Boise State as a perennial mid-major power. Boise was a slight underdog at Washington, but the 38-6 beatdown that ensued was shocking in all phases. The 32-point margin marked the Broncos' most lopsided defeat since the 2005 opener at Georgia; the last double-digit loss was a 2007 trip to Hawaii. All five losses between 2008 and 2012 came by a combined 11 points. Even at 11–2, there were enough close calls last year to mark it as an obvious step back from the Kellen Moore-led teams that virtually never lost, but green as they were, even the 2012 Broncos never lost big. And 2013 was supposed to be a step forward.

Instead, it begins with a wholesale collapse. The failures of the offense, while not exactly expected, were all too familiar to anyone who watched Boise against a halfway conscious defense last year. The defense, though, was a strength then, finishing atop the Mountain West in yards and points allowed for the second year in a row, and was expected to remain a strength. It was a disaster, yielding 324 yards passing and 268 rushing to an outfit Boise defeated in a neck-and-neck game last December. Not that anyone was singing hosannas to the champions of the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl, but the team that won that game and the team that showed up in Seattle on Saturday are many miles apart.

Maybe Washington is just that good. Or maybe it's time to begin thinking of 2013 as the year the fastest-rising stock in football over the last ten years finally emerged from the bubble. The Broncos have a Friday night trip to Fresno State on Sept. 20, a nationally televised game that might wind up deciding not only the Mountain West title, as everyone expected, but also whether Boise still belongs in that discussion. Barring a major leap across the board, especially from pedestrian quarterback Joe Southwick, there was no indication on Saturday that it does.

Kyle Fuller and Kendall Fuller • CBs, Virginia Tech. At some point, Tech is still probably going to miss senior Antone Exum, an All-ACC pick still rehabbing a torn ACL from last winter. But it certainly did not in the Georgia Dome. Kyle, a decorated senior, and Kendall, a five-star freshman in his first college game, seemed to be everywhere in the loss to Alabama, and not in the usual context for cornerbacks: The brothers were in on four tackles apiece, while Kendall held his own against All-American Amari Cooper, Kyle picked off A.J. McCarron in the second quarter, and the Tide left with one of their worst passing games of the Saban era.

13Todd Gurley • RB, Georgia. Gurley had the numbers against Clemson (154 yards, two touchdowns on just a dozen carries), but on a more visceral level, he brings the same physical flourish to his runs that another dreadlocked No. 3, Trent Richardson, used to bring at Alabama – specifically, the impression that tackling this guy is like tackling a runaway refrigerator filled with bricks. He's a powerful, violent runner between the tackles, and he can run away from everyone else when he gets by them.

Chris Spielman • ABC. Unlike most ex-jocks, who use the booth to conduct a lecture series (Rod Gilmore) or bark their way through some Madden-esque nonsense (Matt Millen), Spielman has always excelled in the color chair by actually being able (and more importantly, willing) to communicate information that is not readily apparent to the average viewer. On Saturday, he did a great service to Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas by pointing out that the intended receiver on Vinnie Sunseri's pick-six had stopped on his route a few steps shy of the mark Thomas was aiming for; had the receiver gotten there, he may have been creamed by a fast-closing Sunseri, but it would not have been a back-breaking interception. Thomas had an awful game, but thanks to having someone in the booth who actually pays attention to the details on the field, we're able to get a much clearer picture of just how much blame there was to go around.

Jordan Taylor • WR, Rice. Taylor's numbers (7 catches for 68 yards, 1 TD) don't quite jump off the page, but he jumped off the screen in the first half of the Owls' loss to Texas A&M with a handful of improbable catches, including a crazy tip-drill touchdown and an over-the-shoulder, fingertips grab along the sideline that was negated by a (bogus) penalty for an ineligible lineman downfield. When scouts talk about "catch radius," they mean this guy.

DaQuan Jones • DE, Penn State. Between them, the offenses in Penn State's win over Syracuse averaged 1.7 yards per carry, finished 7-of-36 on third-down conversions and committed seven turnovers. Only appropriate, then, that top honors from that game should go to who delivered nine tackles, three for loss and one sack while holding the Orange to 71 yards rushing.

Wendi Nix, Todd McShay and Robert Smith • ESPN2. Everyone has an opinion about Jonathan Football Manziel, especially at the WWL, where it's probably mandatory. But none managed to be quite as condescending and tone-deaf over the reigning Heisman winner's heel turn against Rice than the ESPN2 studio crew, which addressed the issue with all the nuance and insight of a bunch of clucking grandmothers aghast over the young man's "immaturity." Nix, responding to an aimless rant by a clearly disgusted Smith, had the last word: "Well, he should be embarrassed, that's what I say." Oh, he is, Wendi. He is.

Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles outgained Texas State by 185 yards, but also committed six turnovers in a 22–15 loss, at home, extending USM's losing streak to 13 games with Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State on deck. If for some reason Nebraska and/or Boise fans are actually worried about those games following harrowing openers of their own, I can assure you, you should not be.

Connecticut, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oregon State. I hope didn't forget anybody. But just in case: If you lost to an FCS team on opening weekend, even one of the "good" ones, please step forward to receive your official notice of shame. Our listed victims lost to, respectively, Towson, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, and Eastern Washington.

San Diego State and South Florida. The Aztecs and Bulls come in for a separate line than their disgraced brethren because they were both crushed by FCS opponents: San Diego State allowed 533 yards and turned the ball over five times in a 40–19 loss at the hands of Eastern Illinois, and USF was trounced nearly start to finish in a 53–21 debacle against McNeese State. After breaking an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, the Bulls didn't score against until they trailed 40–7 in the third quarter.

Faking injuries. I believe in gamesmanship, but I also believe in a little thing called America. Here, we find flopping fundamentally offensive to the spirit of competition. So if you don't want to deal with the opposing offense running the up-tempo game on you, deal with it by getting the opposing offense off the field. For god's sake, don't start resurrecting the Fainting Irish.