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Starting 11: Clemson Returns To Normalcy, Arkansas Surges Edition

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The Clemson Tigers have had an incredible run under Dabo Swinney over the past nine years, finishing in the top ten in eight of those nine years and winning two national championships, including playing for the national championship in four of the past six seasons.

But those college football playoff title runs were helmed by elite quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. With the departure of Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s offense has become putrid, notching just 3, 14, and 14 total points in regulation in their last three games against power five competition. Yesterday Clemson lost to an unranked team, the N.C. State Wolfpack, who overcame three missed field goals and notched an overtime win to end Clemson’s playoff chances before October even arrived.

Now the question for the Tigers and the ACC, is this: what happens if Clemson moves from great to good? For much of the past decade Clemson has helped to provide cover for the ACC in football. Much like USC’s dynasty in the Pac 12 helped to cover up the woeful play of the rest of the league in the early 2000’s, an ACC where Clemson is merely good is an ACC that doesn’t matter at all on the national stage.

In fact, based on Clemson’s play on the field so far, there’s nothing that justifies Clemson even being ranked in the top 25 this year. (By the way, did a narrow win over Georgia Tech and beating South Carolina State really justify being in the top ten this week? Poll voters need to do a better job actually looking at the results as opposed to forecasting what they expect to see.)

Right now Wake Forest and Boston College are the only undefeated teams in the conference. Sure, Demon Deacon and Eagles fans should be ecstatic with their 4-0 starts, but the rest of the conference is in very real danger of being eliminated from playoff contention before the month of October begins.

Given how much playoff talk dominates college football, this means the ACC is essentially eliminated from the national conversation. Which makes it all the crazier that the ACC wouldn’t be among the foremost proponents of expanding the college football playoff to 12 teams. Clemson’s dominance and consecutive playoff appearances for the conference helped to cover up a glaring issue: there’s no other football team even worthy of national discussion in the ACC. And if Clemson is in danger of moving from great to good, as seems likely, the entire ACC is in danger of giving up a shot at the playoff, especially with Florida State and Miami in dire straits as well.

While they may be upset about Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, the ACC should get over that disappointment and be advocating as loudly as possible for a playoff expansion to 12 teams. Because Clemson camouflaged what would have been an ACC playoff disaster over the past several years.

It’s worth thinking about as we roll through the Starting 11 this week.

1. Alabama and Georgia are the two prohibitive favorites to win the national title — FanDuel has them tied as favorites at +175 — so how likely are the two teams to play an SEC title game ranked 1 and 2 in the country?

This upcoming Saturday should give us an excellent idea. Alabama hosts Ole Miss and Georgia hosts Arkansas. Vegas is going to make both Alabama and Georgia over two touchdown favorites in these games. That would suggest there’s a big gap in the SEC between Alabama and Georgia and everyone else.

But is that true?

And who is the third best team in the SEC? Is it Arkansas? Is it Ole Miss? Might it be Florida?

Buckle up, by about eight eastern on Saturday night we’ll know since both of these are early kickoff games.

But just know this, if Alabama and Georgia both roll, there’s going to be a very good chance each of these teams have their playoff tickets punched before they even get to Atlanta for the SEC title game.

2. Let’s talk about what Sam Pittman has accomplished at Arkansas for a moment.

When Pittman took over the Razorbacks, Arkansas had not won an SEC game since October 28th, 2017 when they beat Ole Miss 38-37 in Oxford. The Razorbacks lost Pittman’s first SEC game as a head coach to run the record to 20 straight SEC losses.

That’s a level of futility that’s virtually unheard of in conference history.

Coach after coach turned down the Razorbacks before they settled on Pittman.

Expectations were incredibly low for Pittman and the Razorbacks as the 2020 season began. Yet he won three SEC games last year and has now started off this year by ending a long run of futility against Texas A&M. (And by whipping Texas).

Sure, things may come back down to earth for Pittman and the Razorback faithful this upcoming weekend in Athens, but he’s already vastly exceeded expectations in year two with Arkansas.

With wins over Texas and Texas A&M, the Razorbacks own the state of Texas, something you haven’t been able to say for decades. And Pittman along with his two coordinators, Barry Odom and Kendal Briles, is riding high.

It’s truly a remarkable turn of events.

Right now Pittman is the national coach of the year.

3. Oregon feels like a national title pretender to me.

Late last night Oregon held on to beat Arizona — by the way, how bad does Arizona look right now under first year head coach Jedd Fisch? — meaning Oregon remains the last unbeaten team in the Pac 12. (I’ve been skeptical of Fisch, by the way, since I saw he had me blocked on Twitter. I’d never even mentioned the guy in my life and he blocked me on Twitter? You’re too soft for major college football if you’re seeking out people you disagree with on social media and blocking them when their opinions upset you.)

Given Clemson’s collapse, the ACC is essentially eliminated from playoff contention.

As we discussed above, Alabama and Georgia look like playoff teams. So who will snag the remaining two spots? Oregon fans would argue they will, but I’m not sure I see it.

In fact, I think Oregon should be on early upset alert at Stanford, really, this coming weekend.

The bullish case for the Ducks is they only play one ranked team left on their schedule — UCLA — and with the win over Ohio State, the Ducks may have margin for schedule error, especially if Ohio State goes on to run the table and win the Big Ten. (12-1 Oregon would get in over 12-1 Ohio State if that scenario were to materialize).

But I just think this Oregon defense, which is a mess, will ultimately catch up with them. Which is why I think Oregon is more likely to lose two games than they are to win the national title.

4. Oklahoma feels like a national title pretender to me as well.

The Sooners survived at home against West Virginia, but Oklahoma doesn’t look like a playoff team so far this season. Small margin victories over mediocre Tulane, Nebraska and West Virginia teams will eventually spell doom for the Sooners as the competition increases.

I know we have to find four playoff teams out there somehow, but while much of the blame is cast upon Spencer Rattler for the passing game futility the thing that alarms me about the Sooners is they can’t run the football at all. Yesterday they carried the ball 28 times for just 57 yards against West Virginia. No disrespect to the Mountaineers, who deserved to win this game in Norman yesterday, but if you can’t run the ball on West Virginia, do you really think you can run it on Georgia or Alabama?

Goodness, that would be a massacre.

Oklahoma may well make the playoff because we have to find four teams, but I think once they get there it’s one and done again. The Sooners don’t have the horses to compete with Alabama or Georgia and I don’t think they’ll be in the playoff at the end of the year.

5. Okay, is Notre Dame a legit playoff contender after their big win over Wisconsin in Chicago?

Oddsmakers would say no, even in the wake of the incredible smackdown the Irish put on Wisconsin yesterday. (This Badger offense is tough to watch and Graham Mertz, thanks to having his own logoed apparel, may become the first athlete to go bankrupt because of NIL, especially if he bought his gear in advance. Something I know a bit about since I lost $50,000 selling pants.)

Right now Notre Dame is 60-1 to win the national title.

60-1!

That’s despite the fact that an Irish schedule which looked really daunting before the season started suddenly looks much more manageable.

Yes, Notre Dame plays Cincinnati, in the biggest game in Bearcat football history this upcoming weekend.

But if Notre Dame can get past Cincinnati this coming weekend then the Irish don’t play a single top 25 team for the rest of the year. (Games against USC, North Carolina and Stanford don’t look anywhere near as difficult as they did and every opponent other than Cincinnati and Virginia Tech already has at least two losses on their schedule). Without a conference title game to worry about, the Irish could be 12-0 in the clubhouse having punched their playoff ticket already.

The odds would be against Notre Dame running the schedule to finish unbeaten, but it doesn’t look anywhere near as difficult as it did before the season started.

Shifting back to Cincinnati, the way the schedule is breaking this year, this might be the season when the Bearcats, or maybe even BYU, could make a real run at the playoff as well. Don’t discount that possibility, especially if Cincinnati comes into South Bend and wins on Saturday.

Notre Dame’s win was huge for the Bearcats too, especially if they can win.

6. Who’s the best team in the Big Ten?

Even with their defensive struggles, Ohio State should still be the prohibitive favorite in the conference. Why? To a large degree based on the schedule. Having said that, you’ve got five unbeaten teams remaining and four of those teams are in the Big Ten East. (Ohio State lost to Oregon, of course, so that means the Big Ten East still has five unbeaten teams in conference.)

Iowa and Maryland play on Friday so one of those teams will get knocked off in five days. Regardless, I think you have to make Iowa a fairly substantial favorite to win the Big Ten West. Do the Hawkeyes have what it takes to contend for a playoff berth? That remains to be seen. But they should be considered a large favorite to play in the Big Ten title game.

So who wins the east and advances to most likely play Iowa for the title? Is it Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, or Maryland? (Okay, I’m tossing Maryland).

Well, let’s look at the schedules of the other four teams.

And, as always seems to be the case, the schedules set up by far the best for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State plays at Rutgers, Maryland, and at Indiana between now and when Penn State comes to town on October 30th. The Buckeyes will be monster favorites in all three of these games. So 6-1 with Penn State rolling into the Shoe feels really likely. Beat Penn State and you get at Nebraska, Purdue, and then Michigan State before you finish on the road at Michigan.

So the Buckeyes should be the Big Ten East favorite, I think.

Michigan is a really quiet 4-0 so far. But what looked like a daunting challenge at Wisconsin, doesn’t look as challenging. If the Wolverines can win that game, they get at Nebraska, and Northwestern before the Michigan State game. 7-0 for the Wolverines is highly doable.

How about Penn State? It’s a pretty brutal schedule draw, honestly. You have road games against four currently undefeated in the conference Big Ten teams: Indiana, at Iowa, Illinois, at Ohio State, at Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, at Michigan State. And, remember, Penn State already played at Wisconsin to start the season.

That leaves us with Michigan State. So let’s discuss that situation.

7. Mel Tucker is killing it at Michigan State.

The Spartans are 4-0 in a year when the team wasn’t even expected to finish with a winning record.

And if you look at their schedule: Western Kentucky, at Rutgers, and at Indiana are the next three weeks. Win those three games and it’s possible the Spartans are 7-0 with Michigan coming to town on October 30th.

How monstrous of a game would that be? Especially if Michigan were undefeated too? That would be fantastic.

Right now the two best coaching jobs in the country, I think, are Arkansas with Sam Pittman and Michigan State with Mel Tucker.

8. This was supposed to be Texas A&M’s year, but clearly it isn’t.

So how will Jimbo Fisher’s program weather the storm now that they aren’t taking the step many Aggie fans hoped would happen this year.

Texas A&M has Alabama in two weeks, in what was supposed to be Jimbo Fisher’s official coming out party in College Station. That was the game to demonstrate the Aggies had what it takes to win the SEC West. Instead the Aggies, thanks in a large degree, granted, on the injury to starting quarterback Haynes King, look like they’re closer to an average SEC team than they do a title contender.

This offense is just awful.

And with this offense I don’t see any way they can compete with teams like Alabama and Ole Miss that are still on the schedule.

After last year when it appeared A&M was ready to compete with the best teams in college football, this year feels like an 8-4 or 9-3 return to the SEC pack season.

9. Fan Duel’s national title odds are intriguing as you wake up this morning.

Alabama +175 Georgia +175 Oregon +1600 Ohio State +1600 Oklahoma +2000 Michigan +4000 Iowa +4000 Penn State +4000 Cincinnati +4000 Texas +5000 Ole Miss +5000 Notre Dame +6000

That’s your 12 most likely national title teams per Fan Duel.

Look at how massive the drop off is after Georgia and Alabama, who are now tied as title favorites.

Essentially oddsmakers are just throwing up their hands and saying we have no idea who’s really good after Bama and Georgia. And if you think anyone other than Alabama or Georgia is going to win the title this year, you can make an absolute killing.

Which, again, means this playoff race is completely wide open.

10. Outkick’s national top ten

Believe it or not, we are now a third of the way through the college football. That means we’re starting to get decent reads on many teams across the country.

And many of you are about to fall to your fainting couches and clutch your pearls when you see that I now have Arkansas as the top team in the country. But when you get the vapors and are able to sit back up again tell me who has a better resume than the Razorbacks through four weeks of the season? Arkansas smoked an otherwise undefeated Texas team and they beat an otherwise undefeated Texas A&M team by double digits in a neutral venue.

Compare that with the SEC’s other top teams Alabama — the Tide beat a mediocre Miami team and beat Florida by two — or Georgia — the Bulldogs beat what appears to be a fairly mediocre Clemson team by a touchdown and otherwise have crushed South Carolina and Vanderbilt, two of the SEC’s weaker teams.

Our goal with the Outkick top ten isn’t to tell you who we think is the best team — there are plenty of people doing that — it’s to look at the games that have actually been played and tell you who has the best resume.

And right now that is Arkansas, who FanDuel currently has at 200-1 to win the title, by the way.

With that in mind, here we go with the Outkick top ten:

1. Arkansas
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Penn State
5. Iowa
6. Oregon
7. BYU
8. Ole Miss
9. Florida
10. Notre Dame

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

Again, these rankings are based entirely on the games that have been played, not what I expected to see before the season started.

1. Arkansas
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Florida
6. Kentucky
7. Texas A&M
8. Auburn
9. LSU
10. Mississippi State
11. South Carolina
12. Missouri
13. Tennessee
14. Vanderbilt

As always, thanks for reading Outkick and we look forward to seeing you guys for the Ole Miss-Alabama game at the Outkick Bus Tour in Tuscaloosa next weekend.

We will be set up at the Innisfree Pub, you can’t miss us.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

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