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Week 5 college football preview: N.C. State faces biggest game ever

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/30/2022 Patrick Stevens
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Nothing in sports — not the New York Yankees, not the Dallas Cowboys, not anything — is more inescapable as we approach the middle half of the 21st century than the constant chatter of what is or was the greatest or best or most important player or team or event of all time.

These exercises are largely harmless and uninteresting, except for those who take the yammerings of people paid to talk on various broadcast outlets far more seriously than they should.

These are also discussions that claim to be “this was the greatest ever” but in effect are “this was the greatest ever … since I started paying attention.”

So with that well-honed cynicism firmly in place, it seemed odd this week to hear about how North Carolina State’s visit to Clemson on Saturday was the most significant game in the Wolfpack’s football history. N.C. State (4-0) hasn’t won an ACC title since 1979 and has enjoyed puzzlingly few notable peaks, but surely the program had a bellwether game in its past with a greater spotlight than this.

Or maybe not.

After being picked on all game, a Clemson DB gets to be the hero

The invaluable College Poll Archive notes this week is only the 12th time the Wolfpack has landed in the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings. It happened twice in 1957 (when N.C. State split consecutive games with unranked foes), six times in 1967 (at the tail end of an 8-0 start before losses to unranked Penn State and Clemson) and twice in 1974 (with a loss to unranked rival North Carolina spoiling a 6-0 start).

This leaves one top-10 cameo in 48 years before this week. It was the reward for a 9-0 start in 2002 during the Philip Rivers era, and the Wolfpack promptly lost three in a row (all to unranked teams) to tumble out of the rankings entirely.

And so it is that No. 10 N.C. State, armed with an imposing defense and a Devin Leary-led offense that still has some questions to answer, visits No. 5 Clemson (4-0, 2-0 ACC) in what might just be the most high-profile game in program history. Every now and then, the hyperbole isn’t quite as hyperbolic as it seems.

The wreck at Tech

Georgia Tech fired head coach Geoff Collins on Monday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP) © Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Georgia Tech fired head coach Geoff Collins on Monday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Georgia Tech made it three Power Five coaching changes in as many weeks, following the lead of Nebraska and Arizona State in creating a job opening before October.

The Yellow Jackets wanted something different after 11 seasons of option football under Paul Johnson. Geoff Collins delivered it, going 10-28 in three-plus seasons and offering little reason to think things would get better. In three games against FBS opponents this season, Georgia Tech (1-3) was outscored 110-20. That’s after losing by a combined 100-0 to Notre Dame and Georgia to close out 2021.

While a switch from the option to a more conventional 21st century scheme was bound to take time, the Yellow Jackets should have shown progress by now. To describe things in Atlanta as “not good” is an understatement.

Middle Tennessee. James Madison. How lesser-known teams do enchant us.

There wasn’t incentive to wait any longer like there should have been at Nebraska; Collins’s buyout decreased by January, but not October (as was the case for former Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost). And unlike Arizona State’s hire of Herm Edwards, Georgia Tech didn’t entirely try to reinvent the wheel in how it ran its program, though it did attempt to reinvent its brand.

It was just a failed hire, and the guy who made it (athletic director Todd Stansbury) also lost his job this week.

This all raises the question: What is the Yellow Jackets’ brand, at least when it comes to football?

Frankly, it’s one of steady competence, or at least it was before Collins’s arrival. From 1997 to 2018, Georgia Tech went to 20 bowl games in 22 seasons. It finished with at least 10 victories in 1998, 2009 and 2014, which matches the number of times it finished below .500 (2010, 2015 and 2017) in that span.

The Yellow Jackets had three consecutive coaching tenures — under George O’Leary, Chan Gailey and Johnson — that saw them usually finish 4-4 or 5-3 in the ACC. Sometimes, they were better. Only once in those 22 years were they worse. It’s the sort of reliability fans and administrators tend to take for granted until they spend four years as a doormat.

Georgia Tech has some assets (geography) and some challenges (the academic options of a school largely known for its offerings in engineering, one of the few areas of study that might be more time-consuming than football). It probably isn’t going to annually contend for league titles. But it sure shouldn’t be 10-28 since the start of 2019, either.

Weathering change

Hurricane Ian’s arrival in Florida this week was the source of plenty of actual damage, but it didn’t deliver a severe wallop to major college football’s relatively rigid schedule (at least not as of Thursday night, anyway).

South Carolina’s game against South Carolina State was moved up to Thursday, with the Gamecocks authoring a 50-10 rout. East Carolina’s trip to South Florida was shifted from Tampa to Boca Raton. And a pair of games — Eastern Washington-Florida and SMU-Central Florida — were pushed back a day to Sunday.

Hurricane Ian: Bucs-Chiefs will be played, but NCAA football games affected

Nonetheless, it was a reminder the southeastern portion of the country is subject to hurricanes in September and October, and with an expanded playoff with first-round games probably ticketed for mid-December on the horizon, it might be time to look at building in a greater cushion for scheduling flexibility.

There are three ways to realistically do that. One is to eliminate conference championship games, and another is to reduce the number of regular season games each team plays. Considering the amount of money at stake — from television rights fees to ticket sales, among other things — both are probably non-starters.

Which leaves the option of beginning the season earlier, which is already occurring thanks to the modest offerings of Week 0 every August. If roughly 10 of those games can be played every season, why not 70 or so?

An obvious downside is demanding players who aren’t directly paid to cut their summers short by a week (though many are already on campus, anyway). However, the addition of an extra open date in the middle of the season, especially if there is a way to guarantee one of them comes either in late October or early November, would probably be a plus for players.

Considering an expanded playoff makes it possible (if not especially likely) that a team could play 17 games in a season (12 regular season, one conference championship and four playoff contests), finding ways to spread things out more would presumably be a plus. The fact it could create extra scheduling flexibility to deal with severe weather would be a bonus.

Five teams with the most at stake

Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) and wide receiver Jonathan Mingo (1) will lead the Rebels against Kentucky on Saturday in a matchup of unbeaten teams. (Thomas Graning/AP) © Thomas Graning/AP Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) and wide receiver Jonathan Mingo (1) will lead the Rebels against Kentucky on Saturday in a matchup of unbeaten teams. (Thomas Graning/AP)

1. N.C. State. Win in Death Valley, become the biggest target in the ACC the rest of this year. Control of the Atlantic Division is on the line as the Wolfpack looks for its first victory at Clemson in 20 years.

2a. Kentucky and 2b. Mississippi. This might be the weekend’s most interesting game. No. 7 Kentucky (4-0) has won 16 of 19 since late in the 2020 season and would be well-positioned to get to 7-0 heading into an Oct. 29 date at Tennessee if it can win in Oxford. The No. 14 Rebels (4-0) have won 18 of their last 22 and might just be Alabama’s greatest threat in the SEC West.

College football best bets: Kentucky can keep pace with Mississippi

3. Oklahoma State. The No. 9 Cowboys (3-0) come off an open date to open Big 12 play with a game at Baylor. Oklahoma State is one of three undefeated Big 12 programs (along with 4-0 Kansas and 3-0 TCU), but the Cowboys are the ones playing on the road this week in a rematch of last year’s conference title game (a 21-16 Baylor victory last December).

4. Florida State. So just how for real are the No. 23 Seminoles (4-0, 2-0 ACC)? It’s time to find out. They have the Labor Day weekend defeat of LSU, and they handled Louisville and Boston College the last two weeks. Now comes the heart of the Atlantic Division: A visit from No. 22 Wake Forest, a trip to N.C. State and a home game against Clemson. Beat the Demon Deacons this week, and there’s extra validation for QB Jordan Travis and Co.

5. Arkansas. A week after a disappointing, top-of-the-goal-post-aided loss to Texas A&M, the No. 20 Razorbacks (3-1, 1-1 SEC) get a crack at No. 2 Alabama in their only October home game. The Crimson Tide has won 15 in a row in the series, and while no one would be stunned if their streak extended to 16, it’s still a huge opportunity for Sam Pittman’s bunch.

Heisman Watch

Quarterback Hendon Hooker has entered the Heisman Watch after leading Tennessee to a 4-0 start. (Wade Payne/AP) © Wade Payne/AP Quarterback Hendon Hooker has entered the Heisman Watch after leading Tennessee to a 4-0 start. (Wade Payne/AP)

A weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue.

1. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (1,222 yards, 16 TDs, 1 INT passing). Torched Wisconsin for 281 yards and five touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener, though he did throw his first pick of the season. Still, it’s been a fine opening third of the regular season for Stroud. (Last week: 1)

2. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (1,029 yards, 13 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 150 yards, 2 TDs rushing). Ho-hum. Just a 385-yard, four-touchdown day against Vanderbilt in the Crimson Tide’s SEC opener. The defending Heisman winner has done nothing to take himself out of contention through four games. (LW: 2)

3. QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee (1,193 yards, 8 TDs passing; 175 yards, 3 TDs rushing). The touchdown total isn’t gaudy, but it is consistent — two scoring strikes in each of the Volunteers’ first four games, including last week when he threw for a season-high 349 yards against Florida. (LW: Not ranked)

Tennessee finally beats a rival (College football winners and losers)

4. QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington (1,388 yards, 12 TDs, 1 INT passing). The Indiana transfer just had his least efficient day of the season. The Huskies will be perfectly content if Penix’s off days feature 22 of 37 passing for 309 yards and two scores, which is what he managed against Stanford. (LW: 5)

5. QB Caleb Williams, Southern California (1,054 yards, 9 TDs passing; 100 yards, 2 TDs rushing). The sophomore was largely contained at Oregon State, completing 16 of 36 for 180 yards and a touchdown. But he played well in the Trojans’ go-ahead drive late, converting a fourth down on the ground and then later finding Jordan Addison for the game-winning touchdown. (LW: 3)

6. LB Will Anderson, Alabama (20 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT). Had a hand in three third-down sacks last week against Vanderbilt, and was also responsible for a fourth-down stuff early in the second quarter. It’s only a matter of time before he generates more Heisman chatter. (LW: 6)

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