If beating a hated rival's very good team in a primetime game with what was likely the best offensive performance of the year isn't evidence that Florida State is really, truly back, then back is a myth. And even if they're not back, the Seminoles are one thing everyone wants to be: a national title favorite.
Florida State's first half against Clemson went fairly poorly: the Tigers bombed away for a touchdown on their first offensive drive, and scored twice more, on a long, grinding drive and on a short field set up by a muffed punt. Meanwhile, the 'Noles stalled out three times in Clemson territory and watched all-everything kicker Dustin Hopkins miss field goals wide right and wide left. If there was a script for Florida State Fails At Being Back, Part VII, Jimbo Fisher's bunch was following it well up to the point when Clemson took a 28-14 lead early in the third quarter.
From there, FSU went on a 35-3 run that flipped the score to 49-31 in just 16:25 of game clock, dominating in almost every facet of the game. E.J. Manuel found Kelvin Benjamin for one rampaging catch-and-run to set up one touchdown; Lamarcus Joyner's 90-yard kick return set up another; Manuel threw for 63 yards on the next touchdown drive, and completed a perfect fade to Rodney Smith for the score; James Wilder stormed through Clemson's winded defense to set up the fourth TD; and after a fumble broke a string of consecutive touchdown drives, Nick Waisome's interception set the 'Noles up at the Clemson 27, and Chris Thompson took one carry to punch in FSU's final touchdown of the night.
The carnage: Florida State ran 26 offensive plays for 298 yards during that span, averaging an unearthly 11.5 yards per play, eclipsing a second half that was staggering (39 plays, 341 yards, 8.74 yards per play) on its own. That offensive eruption overshadowed the 'Noles defense shutting down Clemson's phenomenal offense (during the run: 20 plays, 28 yards, 1.4 yards per play allowed; during the first half: 39 plays, 253 yards, 6.5 yards per play allowed), and showcased the depth of elite talent at virtually every position that Florida State has, something that should help the 'Noles hang with anyone in the country.
They probably won't need to tap all of that depth at any point between now and their regular-season finale against Florida, either. The toughest game between now and that Thanksgiving week clash is either a Thursday night excursion to Blacksburg to face a Virginia Tech team that has looked mediocre, or a trip to Miami to take on the diminished Hurricanes. The ACC's gap between its top two and the rest of the pack is so big that despite Clemson losing by double digits to Florida State, they're probably good enough that you can expect the Tigers to roll every other conference foe by double digits.
If Florida State can avoid a shocking upset, stay healthy, beat a Florida team it has dominated of late, and get an Oregon loss, these 'Noles should play for a national championship. And of the scant few teams that could challenge Alabama, these Seminoles would be my best bet to roll back the Tide.
While Florida State is the best matchup for Alabama in terms of cloning the Tide, the best contrast has to be Oregon. The Ducks are quick-strike ninjas on both sides of the ball, opportunistic and nettlesome, and got their first conference shutout since 2003 over Arizona on Saturday night in a 49-0 win that doubled as their defense's coming-out party.
Five times, Arizona drove into the red zone; five times, Oregon turned Rich Rodriguez' Wildcats back without points, snuffing out two fourth-and-goal tries from the 4- and the 2-yard lines, blocking a field goal, and intercepting two passes. There's almost no way that any team in the country matches the Ducks' 0-for-5 night on defense in the red zone this year: even New Mexico, the worst team in the red zone in 2011, never went worse than 0-for-2, and the Alabama defense that was the nation's best in the red zone in 2011 never did better than 0-for-2.
Their defense -- which forced five turnovers on the night, allowed just six third-down conversions in 17 tries, and stopped all four Arizona fourth-down tries -- kept the Ducks in the game in the first half as Chip Kelly's offense sputtered, then fueled a 36-point second half by getting two pick-sixes and setting up another two-play drive. Oregon did get to play a slightly less menacing team than Arizona's ranking (itself inflated by a big win over a merely above-average Oklahoma State squad) promised, as Wildcats quarterback Matt Scott missed time with an injury and was hampered when he was in. Still, a goose egg next to the name of a team that was scoring 46 points per contest is impressive nonetheless.
For Oregon to beat a team like Alabama, Florida State, or LSU, it needs luck and turnovers to favor it. But the Ducks seem quite adept at creating luck, and their speed could allow them to blaze to a lead and force an elite team to try to win a shootout with Oregon. That rarely works.
Kansas State's win over Oklahoma in Norman would have been the most impressive win of the night on any other Saturday of this season so far, but the Wildcats' prosaic, grinding excellence took a back seat to Florida State and Oregon last night. In fact, it might not have been the most notable thing about its own game.
K-State ran for 213 yards, came back from two deficits, and forced three Oklahoma turnovers while committing none of its own in a 24-19 win that was its first over the Sooners since the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game. The Wildcats scored twice in the fourth quarter and held off the more talented Sooners, leaving Bill Snyder with yet another massive win that has made him a demigod in Manhattan and "God" on Wikipedia.
But this loss, just like all other Oklahoma losses, ultimately falls on Bob Stoops, who had the misfortune of bringing his Sooners to the mountaintop so early in his head coaching career that a string of 10-win seasons since then has felt disappointing. Stoops is "Big Game Bob" in the derisive sense now, giving the Sooners no better than a coin flip's chance against the best of the best. Since 2003, when the Sooners established themselves as a perennial power with a 12-0 regular season, Oklahoma is 15-17 against teams that would end up winning 10 games. And even in their best years against elite teams, Oklahoma has failed to win the last game of the season (OU was 4-1 against 10-win squads in 2008 before falling to Florida in the BCS National Championship Game, and 4-0 in 2007 before West Virginia's Fiesta Bowl blitz), leaving fans with the same old narrative and another reason to tack Stoops' face on a dartboard.
It's unfair that Oklahoma's loss takes some of the shine away from Snyder's marvelous rebuild of a team that went from improbably great under Snyder to lamentably mediocre under Ron Prince and is back in the vicinity of great under Snyder now. But Oklahoma made itself the big dog of the Big 12 on the field in the 2000s, save that one year Vince Young made Texas unbeatable, and yet the big dog can't gnaw the meat off the juiciest bones. Its bark being worse than its bite will keep getting it all the attention in the world -- even when it ends up in the doghouse.
Notre Dame is used to attention, and the same shadows that Florida State dwelled in during an eternal "IS ________ BACK?" discussion. What no Notre Dame fan and no college football fan of recent vintage is used to is the Irish fielding a shutdown defense. But after allowing nine points to Michigan State and Michigan in two weeks, it appears that's what this year's Notre Dame team has.
Much of the credit for that has to go to Manti Te'o, who has anchored that defense for four years, and been on a journey from execrable (103rd in yards per play allowed and 63rd in scoring defense in 2009) to excellent (21st in yards per play allowed and eighth in scoring defense coming into last night's game in 2012). Te'o keeps adding things to his toolchest, as he proved by picking off two passes in Notre Dame's 13-6 win over Michigan. It helps that he remains a tackling machine, but he's one of many good players now. The Irish have playmakers up front, and 13 takeaways and 14 sacks in four games; this is a legitimately good defense, and its strangulation of the pounding Michigan State offense and dazzling Denard Robinson in the span of two weeks shows that it can win in different ways.
The bad news in South Bend: if the defense is waking up the echoes, the offense is still too far underwater to hear them. Brian Kelly's supposed to be a quarterback whisperer, but he hasn't done much with any of the signal callers he's had. The Irish have gone from laying 50 on Navy in Dublin to scoring 20 against Purdue and Michigan State and 13 against a Michigan team that allowed the same point total to FBS newbie UMass the week prior. That's probably good enough to get the Irish to 5-0 against Miami next week, but Stanford awaits in October.
As for Michigan: Denard Robinson may be worse as a thrower than he was in 2010, and he has not made progress as a playmaker to offset it, but Al Borges appears interested in plugging away at the Sisyphean task of making a 5'10" blur into an NFL-caliber quarterback instead of utilizing his dynamism to win games. Good luck with that.
LSU's trip to Auburn was the undercard on a night of heavyweight bouts in primetime, but the two sets of Tigers played the night's closest game, and the Bayou Bengals flashed some weaknesses against an Auburn team that had no business being in the game against them.
First, LSU coughed up a golden opportunity to take a 7-0 lead on a dominant opening drive with a fumble on a quarterback-center exchange. LSU's defense made up for it with a safety, and their offense matched that drive with another one that actually got into the end zone, but giving away an opportunity like that works against Auburn but would be fatal against Alabama -- heck, it might be fatal against Florida.
Second, LSU was casual with the ball early. Another Zach Mettenberger fumble led to Auburn's first touchdown, and it's not hard to imagine the two fumbles putting LSU in a hole much bigger than the 10-9 one it faced on the plains if committed against a team with a better quarterback than Kiehl Frazier and a better defense than Corey Lemonier And 10 Other Dudes.
But the third and most important thing to take away from the close 12-10 win is that LSU is the member of the college football elite with the biggest identity crisis. The LSU defense is tremendous, and has yet to give up more than 219 yards in 2012, but the offense that was supposed to become great with the addition of Mettenberger is too often no better than adequate. LSU should have run the ball up the middle and through Auburn's doughy gut, but of its nine penalties for 80 yards, six were on the offense, forcing it to pass repeatedly and rely on an unproven group of wide receivers that has yet to produce a go-to guy.
LSU has a date with Florida on Oct. 6 at The Swamp, sure to be rocking for what could be the Gators' announcement of their return to the SEC's top rung. It might want to figure out what it is on offense before hopping on that plane from Baton Rouge.
After all, if LSU isn't sharp, it will lose games in SEC play, as the conference's top five appears to be dangerous. Alabama's the behemoth, still, having allowed 740 yards in four games and coming one passing yard against Michigan short of having three games of 200 yards passing and rushing in 2012, an ideal offensive balance for a No. 1 team that barely has a star to speak of. But the bench is deep: Georgia's 48-3 stomping of Vanderbilt showed the Dawgs firing on all cylinders; South Carolina left Missouri's spread offense in tatters with a 31-10 win that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated; and Florida did its typical slow-start, sizzling-finish act in a 38-0 shutout of Kentucky.
If you were hoping for a year in which the SEC wouldn't be the epicenter of college football, you're probably going to go wanting again in 2012.