Weekend brings massive upsets across college football
College football’s championship system can be cruel. At the end of 12 games, only four teams can find their way into the playoff. With so few games to make a statement, one slip-up can completely derail a team’s hopes of lifting the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy come January. This week, three of NCAA Division I’s top four teams suffered brutal blows to their playoff hopes — a loss with a couple games left to go in the season to regain their footing and standing in the eyes of the selection committee.
Second-ranked Clemson and their high-octane offense were the first to suffer a loss and probably have no hope of playing for a title after the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) vanquished them in a shootout. Neither team was ever able to pull away by more than one score, as both defenses seemed helpless to stop the other from marching down the field. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson put up 580 passing yards, good for the Atlantic Coast Conference record, while Pitt put up over 300 yards in the air and over 150 on the ground.
Clemson was the first team to draw some semblance of separation. They were leading 21–14 when Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman put up a jump ball down the right sideline for tight end Scott Orndoff, which Orndoff hauled in and took to the house. Pitt wasn’t able to convert the extra point, so when Clemson scored touchdowns on either side of the half, they went up by eight points, meaning Pitt would need a two-point conversion to tie the game if they couldn’t put together consecutive scoring drives without intervening points by Clemson. Pitt finally went for those two points after running back James Conner cut to his right and broke a tackle in the backfield to score and shrink the gap to 42–40 in the middle of the fourth quarter. They were unable to convert, giving Clemson the ball and the opportunity to try to run the five remaining minutes off the clock.
Clemson came close to successfully putting the game away. They marched from their own 23-yard line into Pitt territory, taking just over four minutes off the clock. After a completion to set up a third down and one situation for Clemson, Pitt’s rush defense, which held up nicely throughout the game, stopped Clemson running back Wayne Gallman for no gain on consecutive plays, giving the ball to their offense in good field position, needing just a field goal to take the lead. Pitt took 52 seconds to drive down the field, setting up a long field goal for kicker Chris Blewitt, who split the uprights to give Pitt the win.
Pitt was the first unranked team to top Clemson in five years.
Fourth-ranked University of Washington struggled to put up yards against 20th-ranked University of Southern California (USC) and eventually was outgained 400–276. Washington’s non-existent running game allowed USC to commit to the pass, leaving little space for Washington quarterback Jake Browning, who threw two interceptions, including one with four minutes remaining in the game that effectively ended Washington’s hopes of coming back.
Washington and USC traded field goals in the middle of the first quarter, but Browning’s interception on the ensuing drive turned into a USC touchdown, putting USC up 10–3. This lead was never relinquished. Washington and USC exchanged a field goal and a touchdown, respectively, and Washington went into the half down by 11.
Washington threatened to tighten the gap early in the second half. Browning found wide receiver John Ross all alone down the left sideline for a 70-yard touchdown. USC quarterback Sam Darnold threw an interception on the next drive, and Washington was set up to kick a 38-yard field goal that would bring them within one. This kick was blocked and the ball was returned to USC’s 40-yard line, setting up a touchdown drive by USC and restoring the lead to 11. Washington never got back within one score, and USC took home the upset.
Second-ranked University of Michigan was the last of the top-four teams to suffer a loss on Saturday night. The Michigan offense let the defense down, averaging merely four yards per pass and less than three yards per rush. The offense also relinquished a safety when they left University of Iowa defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson essentially unblocked on a run from their own goal line that turned out to be the difference between a win and a loss.
Michigan got off to a good start and led 10–0 by the middle of the second quarter, but that lead quickly faded. One drive after relinquishing a safety, the Michigan offense stalled deep in their own territory and ended up giving the ball to Iowa near midfield. Iowa took advantage of the field position and scored their first and only touchdown of the game. They failed to convert the 2-point play, but hit a field goal on the first drive of the second half to put them up 11–10.
After Iowa took the lead, Michigan would only top 25 yards on one drive, a 60-yard field goal drive to open the fourth quarter, putting Michigan up 13–11. With 1:49 left in the game, it seemed like Michigan would be able to hang on for the victory when they took over possession on their own 16-yard line. However, their offense was unable to make any meaningful progress, and Iowa’s remaining timeouts kept nearly a minute and a half on the clock when they got the ball back. A facemask penalty on the punt gave Iowa the ball on Michigan’s 36-yard line. Iowa was able to put together a short drive to get into field goal position, setting up kicker Keith Duncan to put the game away on a 33-yard field goal.
All three teams have reason to worry about their playoff standing with just a few games left in the season. Washington’s loss to USC was ugly and they looked overmatched all day. Clemson and Michigan lost by one point on last-second field goals, but the selection committee probably won’t take too kindly to losses to unranked teams, especially with Clemson’s loss coming at home. Michigan will have the best shot at redemption when they travel to Columbus to play the currently fifth-ranked Ohio State in two weeks, and Clemson’s win over sixth-ranked Louisville earlier in the season may help keep them afloat, but late losses could stick out in the selection committee's minds when they go to decide the regular season’s titans.