How Clemson-UNC nearly turned the entire season upside down, plus more from Week 5

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 29, 2019

Here's how close we came to having the college football world turned on its head Saturday evening: Against Clemson, North Carolina's Sam Howell got hit at the 3-yard line, was spun upside down, and then half-flipped/half-fumbled the ball into the hands of Tar Heels receiver Dazz Newsome.

In a parallel universe, Newsome scores. Unranked North Carolina wins. No. 1 Clemson loses its first regular-season game in two years.

That didn't happen, of course. The Tar Heels' 2-point conversion failed, and Dabo Swinney's squad held on to win 21-20. This is Clemson, after all. The Tigers are masters of stopping 2-point tries, having survived similar near-disasters against Notre Dame in 2015 and Texas A&M last season. But it's hard not to wonder ... what if?

On the field throughout their victory, the Tigers hardly looked like a team ready to go toe-to-toe with a genuinely good opponent anyway.

So what would've happened if Newsome found the end zone? Is a one-loss Clemson team, muddling through the season with a résumé that looks like a high school sophomore applying for a job at Taco Bell, still a lock for the playoff?

It's an intriguing discussion, because if the Tigers don't flip a switch soon, this might not be the last time the debate looms over a stunningly close fourth quarter.

Trevor Lawrence was the Heisman Trophy favorite entering the season, but five games in, he's got just eight touchdown throws to go with five picks.

After exploding for 205 yards in the opener, Travis Etienne has gone four consecutive games without topping 76.

The defensive line, the strength of the Tigers throughout this run of playoff campaigns, failed to rattle North Carolina's freshman QB, Howell.

Yes, Clemson is 5-0. That's the important part, as Swinney was quick to note after the game. But Swinney also reminded fans that Clemson was outplayed and outcoached, and for a team that was a cinch for the playoff, those comments are tough to ignore.

So what gives?

Perhaps this lackluster schedule is a part of it. As Mack Brown, Swinney's counterpart Saturday, is well aware, the only thing harder than winning is to keep winning. The demands, the attention, the hype that follow a championship all take a toll. Swinney has always seemed to have the magic formula for his Tigers, a Svengali spell to convince his guys they're still the underdogs. But given the near certainty surrounding Clemson's playoff march in 2019, maybe that magic is running out.

There's something to be said for the old notion that Clemson gets everyone's best shot, too. Brown's decision to go for 2 -- made even before North Carolina scored a potential game-tying TD with 1:17 to play -- underscored the idea the Tigers are everyone's Super Bowl. If there's a trick up their sleeve, it's coming out for Clemson.

After the game, Swinney also commented that this is a young team, and as silly as it sounds, perhaps that's the ultimate issue. Lawrence and Justyn Ross are just sophomores. The defense is full of fresh faces. So maybe it takes a game like Saturday's for these kids to grow up, for them to learn how to struggle and persevere.

That final 2-point try probably added plenty of gray hairs to every Clemson fan in the country, so it only makes sense it aged the team a bit, too.

Heisman Five

1. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Through four games, Hurts has nearly 1,300 total yards of offense, has 12 touchdowns and is completing 77% of his throws. And those are just his numbers from the first halves of his games.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Ole Miss has jumped out to an early lead in each of the past two seasons against Alabama only for Tagovailoa to utterly torch the Rebels' defense the rest of the way. This Saturday: tossed six touchdowns (school record) for 84 career total TDs (also a school record).

3. Joe Burrow, LSU

He was off this week, so his passer rating went up only three points.

4. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Fields had six touchdowns in the second quarter a week ago. In Saturday's drubbing of Nebraska, he had just three in the entire first half. Fields is really slacking.

5. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Taylor racked up 119 hard-earned yards against Northwestern, his ninth consecutive 100-yard game. That's the longest streak since Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary had 12 straight in 2017. Taylor even made those throwback khakis Wisconsin was wearing look good.

So long, old friend

It's the end of an era in college football. On Saturday, we bid farewell to arguably the nation's greatest rivalry, the Civil ConFLiCT.

This proud tradition came to a raucous end in a game for the ages, when the upstart Knights of UCF narrowly escaped mighty UConn by a score of 56-21.

Now, the rivalry dies, thanks to UConn's decision to leave the storied American Athletic Conference, but we'll always have the memories. There was the time UCF won the trophy, then just left it on the field and forgot about it. Then there was the time ... OK, that was the only good thing to come from the rivalry.

Regardless, it's always sad to see tradition end, so we felt it was only wise to come up with some alternative rivalries that might fill the void.

The Healthy CarCinogen: The annual showdown between East Carolina and Cincinnati checks all the boxes. One terrible team vs. one good one? Done. A rivalry with no geographic significance? Yessir. A pointless trophy that gets lost the first time it's awarded? OK, we've got to work on that.

The Battle for Eastern Missouri: We'll give the winner of Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee full ownership of the eastern edge of Missouri, which borders both states, perhaps giving the winning coach the key to the city of Cooter, Missouri.

The Upbeat U Bowl: UTEP and UAB will fight for the right to be the most upbeat university in the country -- Upbeat U being an anagram for UAB-UTEP.

The Troy MAClure Bowl: This will be a revolving rivalry showdown between Troy and a team from the MAC. You might remember this trophy from such games as Troy 35, Akron 7 last week or Troy 42, Buffalo 32 in 2018.

Bully is a MOOD for MSU fans everywhere

Mississippi State's mascot came away unscathed after Auburn's JaTarvious Whitlow nearly barreled into him. The same can't be said for the Bulldogs, who lost a blowout to the Tigers.

And then there were ... 18

Virginia, Kansas State, UAB and Cal all fell in Week 5, leaving us with 18 remaining unbeaten teams to wrap up September. Some of the names were expected: Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Penn State, Ohio State, Oklahoma. A few others register as only mild surprises: LSU, Auburn, Wisconsin. And there are always a few top Group of 5 teams still standing at this point, too, and it's no shocker that Memphis, Appalachian State and Boise State are here.

The rest, though? There are some teams treading in new territory. So, how do they stack up? Here's how we'd rank them based on likelihood they're still undefeated at the end of October.

Wake Forest: The Deacons are shaping up as the only real competition for Clemson the rest of the way, but the crazy thing is the reverse might be true, too. Wake has winnable games ahead of it all the way to its road trip to Death Valley on Nov. 16.

Baylor: Matt Rhule's team is playing well, and the schedule is incredibly backloaded. Though K-State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State all present some challenges, it's not crazy to think the Bears could run the table until seeing Oklahoma and Texas in back-to-back weeks in mid-November.

SMU: The Mustangs are off to their best start in 35 years, so this is uncharted territory in the post-death penalty era. If they can escape Temple on Oct. 19 and a road trip to Memphis on Nov. 2, though, they could make a real run at a New Year's Six bowl.

Minnesota: The Gophers might be the quietest 4-0 team in the country, perhaps due to some narrow escapes. Though they were in control throughout their game against Purdue on Saturday, it was their fourth one-possession victory of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that's the first time that has happened since Penn State in 1985. Those Nittany Lions won their first 11 before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and ironically, Minnesota has a pretty manageable schedule before a date with Penn State on Nov. 9.

Iowa: Life gets far more difficult for the Hawkeyes starting next week, with a trip to Michigan followed by a date with Penn State, but we've seen Iowa pull some upsets before. Kirk Ferentz is always good for making the Big Ten a bit more interesting.


After Arkansas was stunned by San Jose State last week, QB Nick Starkel vowed to give up his Justin Bieber fandom to focus more on football. Seemed like a good idea to us, though The Biebs was less than thrilled about it.

"I'm disappointed @nick.starkel," he said on Instagram.

So, how'd the Bieb-free lifestyle go for Starkel? A mixed bag. He threw four fewer interceptions Saturday and completed 12 of 17 passes ... but he also hurt his arm while throwing a pick at the goal line. His backup, Ben Hicks, nearly helped Arkansas upset Texas A&M, but the bid fell just short. The win helps A&M avoid its first 2-3 start to the season since 2008.

The lesson: Best to stay on Bieber's good side.

Rutgers: The gift that keeps giving ... up TDs

Trouble at work? Fighting with the spouse? Lost a brutal road game to Wisconsin and your khakis are wrinkled?

Well, we've got the cure for your Saturday blues: Rutgers.

Nothing turns a frown upside down quite like the football team from New Jersey, designed to act quickly by rolling out the red carpet for your offense on its way to the end zone while never letting its own offense dent your scoreboard.

Just watch as Michigan's wretched performance against the Badgers is erased in an instant with just one dose of Rutgers. Now those chants of "overrated" have been replaced by the joy of a 52-0 victory.

Clinical trials show Rutgers consistently delivers strong results to all opponents in need of an easy win. Need a shutout for your battered defense? Rutgers has gone scoreless nine times since the start of the 2014 season. Want to get your second-string players some work? Rutgers has lost 21 games by 30 or more since 2013. And if you're a member of the Big Ten, there's even more benefit to taking Rutgers -- the Scarlet Knights haven't cracked 20 in 13 consecutive conference games, all losses.

Warning, side effects including watching a Rutgers football game.

Best of ESPN Stats & Info

  • Clemson closed out the first quarter of its game against North Carolina trailing 7-0. Alabama was losing 10-7 to Ole Miss after the first frame, too. The last time both Clemson and Alabama trailed after one quarter on the same day? That would be Nov. 6, 2010, one month after Trevor Lawrence's 11th birthday.
  • At Alabama, DeVonta Smith put on a clinic against an overwhelmed Ole Miss secondary, catching 11 passes for 274 yards and five touchdowns. Smith caught four of his scores in the first half alone, and by game's end, he had stamped his name into the record book, setting the Alabama record for receiving yards and tying the SEC mark for touchdown catches.
  • Wake Forest QB Jamie Newmanaccounted for 345 yards and two passing TDs in a win over Boston College, sending the Demon Deacons to their first 5-0 start since 2006. It was Newman's ninth straight game with a TD pass, which is the longest by a Wake QB in 15 years and just two shy of Brian Kuklick's school record.
  • Virginia ran the ball 29 times, and 55% of those runs were stuffed for a loss or no gain. That's the highest stuff rate by a Notre Dame defense since the Irish stopped 56% of Stanford's rushes in 2005. For the game, Notre Dame held the Cavaliers to just 4 yards on the ground, a massive turnaround from some early-season woes. The Irish entered play ranked 110th in rushing defense.
  • Princeton quarterback Kevin Davidson threw for 381 yards and seven scores in a thrashing of Bucknell. The seven touchdown passes set an Ivy League record.

Big bets and bad beats

  • Pittsburgh had a close call with FCS Delaware, trailing in the fourth quarter and winning by just four. Panthers fans probably knew better than to bet the home team, though. It's the fifth time in the past nine seasons Pitt has failed to beat an FCS team by more than a touchdown, including a 2012 loss to Youngstown State. Since Pat Narduzzi took over as head coach in 2015, Pitt is 0-5 against the spread vs. FCS teams.
  • Nothing like a Friday night bad beat to get the weekend off to a rollicking start, and Air Force gave us one bettors won't soon forget. The Falcons were a 19.5-point favorite and led 41-10 with less than five minutes to play. So what happened? San Jose State scored twice, including one TD that followed a head-scratching decision by Air Force to go for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 22, leading to a 41-24 final.
  • Northwestern might not always pull out the win, but the Wildcats have been cover machines when playing the underdog role of late. Pat Fitzgerald's bunch struggled to do much of anything on offense in Saturday's 24-15 loss, but the defense kept things relatively close against 23.5-point favorite Wisconsin. Northwestern is 14-5-1 against the spread in its past 20 games overall as a 'dog -- though last weekend's blowout against Michigan State was a notable exception -- and it's a whopping 11-0 ATS as a road underdog.
  • Bettors won't have the final say in Clay Helton's future at USC, but they'll probably be happy to see him go when the time comes. After failing to cover in a loss to Washington on Saturday, the Trojans are now a dismal 9-21-1 against the number since 2017.
  • The Civil ConFLiCT ended in a completely uncivil way for UCF backers. UConn tossed the final TD in the rivalry with 19 seconds left, allowing the Huskies to cover a 42-point spread. In lieu of winnings, someone should send a piece of the ConFLiCT trophy to anyone who had the Knights.
  • Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard finished with 296 yards on the ground in a 26-13 victory over Kansas State. It's Hubbard's third 200-yard game of 2019, becoming the first Big 12 player with three such performances in his first five games of the season since Ricky Williams in 1998. He's just the seventh FBS player to do it in the past 15 seasons, joining Leonard Fournette, Ameer Abdullah, LaMichael James, DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Moats and Cody Getz.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Until Saturday, the "Charlotte Special" meant a free month's rent when you signed a year lease on a new apartment in Uptown, but the 49ers gave the term new life with a perfect rendering of the "Philly Special." This one comes a week after Pitt ran the play to beat UCF, too. Will the play ever get old? No. No, it won't.

THE CHARLOTTE SPECIAL?! @CharlotteFTBL trickery takes them down to the goal line!

: @ConferenceUSA on NFL Network

- NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 28, 2019

Under-the-radar game of the week

Sure, UMass got smoked by an FCS opponent three weeks ago, and yes, the Minutemen had allowed 40 or more points in every game this season, and of course Walt Bell's team isn't very good. But let it be known that UMass is not the worst FBS team this season, thanks to a 37-29 win over Akron. The Zips turned the ball over three times, allowed UMass to convert on 11 of 18 third- or fourth-down tries and fell to 0-5 on the season. A road trip to Kent State next week might be Akron's best shot to avoid a winless season. The Zips, Rice and New Mexico State are the only remaining winless FBS teams.

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