D.J. U and Clemson soar, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan stumble, plus more from Week 9

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

In the real world, where typical human beings react to unreal situations with shock and amazement, Boston College’s 18-point lead late in the first half over Clemson Saturday seemed like a big deal. After all, think about how the previous 72 hours wreaked havoc with college football’s status quo.

Trevor Lawrence, the game’s best player, was announced Thursday to have tested positive for COVID-19. He has to miss at least 10 days following the positive test, which left everyone wondering about Clemson’s Nov. 7 date with Notre Dame. We all skipped right past Saturday’s game against Boston College, because an upset of that magnitude seemed too far-fetched to consider.

And then CJ Lewis scored with a little more than a minute left in the first half, giving the Eagles an 18-point lead over a team that had won the ACC five years in a row, won 30 straight regular-season games and was favored by four touchdowns.

For most college football fans, this was a huge deal.

For D.J. Uiagalelei, the Tigers’ true freshman quarterback and understudy for Lawrence, the Heisman Trophy favorite, the reaction was a little more measured.

“Being down 18,” Uiagalelei said, “that’s not a lot of points.”

See, Uiagalelei isn’t like the rest of us. He stepped in front of a camera for a video conference after top-ranked Clemson’s near-record-setting come-from-behind 34-28 win wearing a gold chain around his neck that read “Big Cinco.” All while he sipped a protein shake through a straw with the type of detached coolness of Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction.”

Big Cinco is a nickname a high school teammate gave him, and Uiagalelei liked it. He had a little extra scratch after a stipend check this summer, so he bought the bling. It’s some West Coast swagger, he said.

Taking over for Lawrence on short notice? No worries. He was in the film room Thursday afternoon when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney walked through the door with a scowl. Uiagalelei assumed he was in trouble. Had he tweeted something he shouldn’t have? Nope, his coach just wanted to let him know Lawrence was out and Uiagalelei would be starting.

That’s pretty cool, Uiagalelei thought. Then back to film.

A few minutes before that, Swinney stuck his head into offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s office to deliver the news. Elliott had just come from getting a haircut, which was good. Because finding out on Thursday afternoon that your entire game plan was thrown into flux would have been enough to force most playcallers to rip their hair out in frustration. But Elliott knew what he had in Uiagalelei. “We’re good,” he thought.

The game plan didn’t change.

Uiagalelei woke up Saturday morning and, he said, it took him a second to remember what he had planned for the day. “Oh right, I’m starting today.”

Before the game, Uiagalelei — the top QB in the 2020 class out of California — got a text message from one of his heroes.

“I’ve got complete faith in you,” the text message read. It was from Reggie Bush. That, Uiagalelei said, was pretty cool.

Once the game started, Uiagalelei looked the part of an elite QB. He dished out a plethora of short throws and a few lasers, moving the offense consistently despite some struggles from the ground game. The problem wasn’t the true freshman at quarterback. It was everything else. The defense looked lost against BC’s passing attack. Running back Travis Etienne, who would go on to set the ACC career rushing record in the third quarter, found little room to run. Then at the goal line, with Clemson threatening to tie the game, Etienne fumbled, and BC returned it for a 97-yard score.

All of that should have been enough to turn college football on its head. Instead, we got a sneak peek at the next great Clemson QB, the son of a former celebrity security guard, who couldn’t have been less overwhelmed by the moment.

“I just tried to keep it simple,” Uiagalelei said. “My job’s not too hard.”

Right. True freshmen QBs erase 18-point deficits in their first starts with a possible playoff berth on the line all the time.

Even the play that served as a turning point in the game offered little room to showboat. Uiagalelei ran 30 yards on fourth-and-1 for a touchdown, pulling the Tigers to within eight. All he was worried about was what the film would look like if he got caught from behind. Last thing he wanted was to look like Daniel Jones, tripping on his way into the end zone.

“I didn’t want to get made fun of,” Uiagalelei said.

Good luck to whichever misguided fool would’ve made that joke.

Instead, the joke seems to be on all of us. Oh, you thought Clemson would miss the best QB in the sport? Nope. You thought Boston College would pull the upset? Hah, 18 points is nothing. You think Notre Dame is going to have a big edge next week when Lawrence misses his second consecutive game? Bet against Big Cinco and the Tigers at your own risk.

Back or not back

It’s time to play a little game of “Back or not back,” in which we offer knee-jerk reactions to one game to decide the fate of some of college football’s marquee programs.

Texas is … BACK

Oh, sure, Texas has two losses and has looked incredibly lackluster throughout this season, including Saturday’s game in which the Longhorns were outgained 530-287, allowed 35 first downs to Oklahoma State, and had 142 yards in penalties. But Texas still has Joseph Ossai, who was awesome Saturday, racking up 12 tackles, including six behind the line of scrimmage, and forcing a fumble, while recording a sack of Spencer Sanders that sealed the game in overtime. It was the Longhorns’ first road win over a top-10 opponent in a decade. And anything that reminds Texas fans of the earlier parts of the 2000s means that, indeed, Texas is back.

LSU’s defense is … NOT BACK

Bo Pelini is getting $2.3 million to coach LSU’s defense. We assumed that was being paid by LSU, but perhaps it is actually the opposing teams paying that salary because the Tigers’ D is making them look awfully good. Auburn was the latest beneficiary, thumping LSU 48-11 on Saturday behind four touchdowns from quarterback Bo Nix. Through five games, LSU’s defense has given up 168 points. But the important thing for LSU fans to remember is that they celebrated a national championship a mere 10 months ago. So kick back, have a cocktail, and 2021 will be here before you know it.

Jim Harbaugh’s khakis are … ON THE WAY BACK

A week ago, Harbaugh debuted a new sideline look, rocking a pair of blue slacks instead of his trademark khakis. The result was a dominant Michigan win over Minnesota, and a fresh new look for Harbaugh. “You don’t want to become stale bread, or overripe fruit, or burnt meat,” Harbaugh said. “That’s not good.” Also not good: losing to your “little brother” yet again. Michigan’s 27-24 loss to Michigan State was the latest debacle for Harbaugh, who figures to be in the market for some new fashion options. We’re going to suggest yoga pants or gym shorts. They’re both quite comfortable when working from home.

Trick or treat?

It wouldn’t be Halloween without someone dressed up as a bad guy — or, in this case, a whole officiating crew of villains.

Rutgers was trailing Indiana 37-21 in the fourth quarter when the Scarlet Knights went for a miracle. Quarterback Noah Vedral tossed a short pass to Shameen Jones (who, by the way, finished with three catches for negative-8 yards, which is impressive in its own right), who then began a string of eight laterals that was highlighted by a backward, overhead heave by offensive lineman Raiqwon O’Neal. Finally the ball ended up in the hands of Bo Melton, who appeared to go 55 yards for a touchdown.

Until the refs stepped in and ruined all our fun.

A replay review determined one of the laterals had constituted an illegal forward pass, overturning the play despite the fact that it would have made no real difference in the outcome and the entire world enjoyed watching it happen. Some people just have no sense of decency.

It was fitting, too, that the Rutgers’ laterals came exactly five years to the day after Miami’s eight-lateral win over Duke which was allowed to stand, despite what the ACC later called clear officiating errors. Those refs were suspended by the league, but it was a small price to pay for an iconic play. Why couldn’t the officials in Indiana-Rutgers do the same?

Who is No. 4?

Clemson came back, Alabama dominated and Ohio State offered another impressive win, 38-25 over Penn State, behind a terrific game from Justin Fields. So far this season, it’s been pretty easy to peg the top three teams in the country, but who is No. 4? We will likely find out next Saturday.

Georgia’s defense, led by safety Richard LeCounte (who was hospitalized postgame after a traffic accident) and his 13 tackles, has made a good case that, despite the loss to Alabama, the Bulldogs belong in the conversation. They beat Kentucky 14-3 Saturday, but it is still tough to feel great about the offense. Stetson Bennett finished just 9-of-13 for 131 yards and two picks. That comes on the heels of a subpar performance against Alabama (three interceptions) and makes it fair to wonder if he is Georgia’s best QB option. The good news is that the Bulldogs do have options. Could D’Wan Mathis warrant another look? Is it time to give JT Daniels some snaps?

Whatever the game plan is, Georgia will need some offense to hang with Florida next weekend. The Gators looked sharp Saturday, with Kyle Trask turning in another stellar performance in a 41-17 win over Missouri — even if things got a little heated before the half. More important, though, this was the best defensive performance of the season for the Gators.

Notre Dame will get a chance to stake its claim to a playoff bid next weekend when it hosts Clemson, but the Fighting Irish followed a pretty standard formula in toppling Georgia Tech 31-13 on Saturday. Again, the passing game offered little — just one completion of more than 20 yards — but the ground game looked stellar, scoring three times, while the defense held the Yellow Jackets to just 2.7 yards per rush.

But perhaps the best case for No. 4 belongs to Texas A&M, which, like Georgia, has just a loss to Alabama on its résumé. Kellen Mond looks like he has found his stride, tossing three touchdowns in a 42-31 win over Arkansas. The Aggies’ remaining schedule is entirely manageable, but will the committee reward a team that might not play for its conference title? It has happened before — though not everyone should expect the same treatment as Alabama.

Who is the SEC’s best receiver?

Vanderbilt’s defense had absolutely no answers for Ole Miss’s passing game Saturday, and wide receiver Elijah Moore was the beneficiary of the bulk of the yardage. Moore finished with 14 catches for 238 yards and three touchdowns, the first Power 5 player to hit those marks since TCU’s Josh Doctson in 2015. It marked Moore’s fourth 100-yard game and second 200-yard game of the season.

Not to be outdone, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith checked in with 11 catches for 203 yards and four touchdowns in a dominant win over Mississippi State. In the process, Smith passed Amari Cooper for the school record in receiving TDs and offered an emphatic reminder that, even without Jaylen Waddle, Alabama’s passing game isn’t going to miss a beat.

So, who is better? Perhaps it is best not to debate. Combined, the pair has 1,588 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns this season — numbers that would put them in the top 25 nationally of entire teams. That is too good to split hairs over who is better.

Sorting out the Group of 5

The race for a New Year’s Six bid is getting interesting, with the three top contenders — Boise State, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina — all winning Saturday.

As good as Cincinnati looked to start the season, the hype was all about the defense. The offense was struggling. The Bearcats led SMU 14-10 at the half last weekend, with QB Desmond Ridder looking pedestrian. Since then? Cincinnati has outscored its opposition 77-13 and Ridder has dominated. In his past six quarters of action, including Saturday’s dominant 49-10 win over Memphis, Ridder has racked up 510 yards of offense and seven touchdowns.

Not to be outdone, Coastal Carolina got starting QB Grayson McCall back from a shoulder injury, and he threw for four touchdowns in a 51-0 win. As good as the Chanticleers’ offense has looked, its defense hasn’t allowed a point in six quarters.

Then there are the Broncos, who went to Air Force without starting QB Hank Bachmeier on Saturday and still put up 49 points behind USC transfer Jack Sears, who threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns.

So, who is the favorite for a big-time bowl? At this point, Cincinnati has the inside lane, with a trip to UCF on Nov. 21 being the biggest obstacle. Coastal Carolina might have its toughest test that same day with a home game against App State. Meanwhile, Boise State could hit a snag next weekend against BYU.

Missed it by *this* much

Is North Carolina the best bad team in college football or the worst good team? The Tar Heels have to be one or the other. The explosiveness of the offense was on display during a ferocious comeback bid against Virginia, but one boneheaded play after another eventually cost them, with the Cavaliers hanging on for a 44-41 victory.

Those results have been par for the course for North Carolina under coach Mack Brown. This is the Heels’ eighth loss under Brown in this stint at the school, by a grand total of 32 points. None of those losses was by more than a touchdown, and Saturday’s result was the second in which UNC fell behind by 21 against a one-win team, roared back in the second half, but was unable to make a final play to put itself over the top.

The upside for North Carolina fans is that there are myriad Michael Jordan memes that can fully encompass the emotions you’re feeling right now.

Heisman Five

1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

Can Lawrence maintain his Heisman hopes even after missing two games? It is a good question, particularly given that next weekend’s contest against Notre Dame might have served as his biggest stage to impress. For now though, the Clemson quarterback had a big enough lead for him to survive atop the list for another week.

2. Alabama QB Mac Jones

Four more TD passes and another sizzle reel of deep balls has Jones nipping at Lawrence’s heels. Unfortunately, neither of them will be playing next weekend.

3. Ohio State QB Justin Fields

Another 300-yard game and four more touchdown passes. Better news for Ohio State, though: The ground game looked terrific without having to rely on Fields as a runner.

4. BYU QB Zach Wilson

Wilson entered Saturday with 22 touchdowns and one interception through six games. In the past decade, the only other QBs to do that: Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields, Marcus Mariota and Geno Smith.

5. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel

Gabriel threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns — and that constitutes a pretty bad game by his standards. Still, he’s topped 2,500 yards passing through six games. Not too shabby.

Under-the-radar play of the day

A little advice: Don’t ever get comfortable with Louisville’s Javian Hawkins in the backfield. With just 8 seconds left on the clock and Louisville trailing 21-7, the Cardinals handed off to Hawkins to run out the first half. Someone forgot to tell Hawkins. He broke through the line, cut to the sideline and ran 90 yards for a touchdown as time expired. More impressive? Because of a sack, Hawkins’ run was actually 5 yards longer than the official drive (85 yards). Less impressive? Hawkins had the 90-yard TD and an 11-yard score, and managed just 28 yards on his other 17 carries in a 42-35 Virginia Tech win.

Under-the-radar game of the day

Louisiana Tech trailed UAB 31-17 entering the fourth quarter, and was still down seven with when it got the ball with 2:05 left, 90 yards from the end zone. But Aaron Allen executed a 13-play drive that culminated with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Hardy with 10 seconds to go to send the game to overtime. After trading field goals in the first OT, UAB fumbled at the goal line, and Louisiana Tech notched another field goal for the win in double overtime. And all of that ignores what might have been the biggest Bulldogs highlight, when Bee Jay Williamson wrestled a catch away from a UAB receiver and immediately lateraled to Khalil Ladler, who returned it 79 yards for a score.

Best bets and bad beats

  • The total in the Ohio State-Penn State game closed at 63, and bettors with the over were ready to cash their tickets as the Buckeyes lined up for a 23-yard chip-shot field goal with 1:17 to play. Easy winner, right? Ah, college kickers. Dominic DiMaccio pushed the kick wide right — a meaningless miss for the Buckeyes, and a brutal way to lose for bettors.

  • Michigan closed as a 21.5-point favorite in its rivalry game against Michigan State but lost outright. As much as the past decade has been a struggle for the Wolverines, this one still stung more than most. It was Michigan’s worst upset loss (by point spread) since 2007. That game? You might remember it. It came vs. an FCS foe by the name of Appalachian State and stands as one of the most legendary shockers in college football history.

  • Good teams win. Great teams cover. Cincinnati, it must be said, is a great team. Up 42-10, the Bearcats had their backers covered easily, but that didn’t stop Jerome Ford from rumbling 48 yards for a TD with 1:30 left to play, running the score to 49-10 and, in the process, going over the total of 57.5.

  • Kansas is bad. This is not breaking news. But fittingly, the Jayhawks are also now 0-6 against the spread this season, an almost impressive feat considering they have been underdogs of at least 17 in each of their past five, including Saturday, when Iowa State easily covered 27.5 in its 52-22 win. We suggest celebrating this type of consistency, because if you’re not going to win any games, you might as well ensure the folks betting against you enjoy the ride.

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