College football week ahead: Season slipping away from some teams

Rashaan Gaulden wasn’t exactly celebrating as he raised his hands towards the sky.

The Tennessee defensive back might have been glad that his team just scored on an interception return against Alabama, but a different emotion prompted his gesture as he gave Crimson Tide fans a double-barreled, one-finger salute.

“There was just a lot of frustration that led up to that,” Gaulden said.

Welcome to the dog days of college football, that point in the season when summer hopes smash headlong into the brick wall of reality.

USC isn’t alone in feeling the sting after its humbling loss to Notre Dame. Tennessee’s defensive touchdown against top-ranked Alabama represented a lone bright spot in a 45-7 loss that now leaves the Volunteers at 3-4.

“I hurt for the players,” embattled coach Butch Jones said.

Similarly bleak stories are unfolding across the nation this week as marquee programs realize their seasons are slipping away.

Down and out

In Michigan, the Wolverines have fallen out of the playoff hunt — and out of the AP’s Top 25 — after a one-sided loss to No. 2 Penn State.

It cannot help that coach Jim Harbaugh is 4-5 against the Big Ten’s best teams since taking control of the program in 2015. Though Harbaugh insisted his team will “regroup, refit, retool,” he did not share any specifics.

At least not with the outside world.

“No one else can help us but us,” he said.

The situation is worse at Florida State, where coach Jimbo Fisher traded words — at least one of them vulgar — with a heckler after his team’s loss to Louisville.

The Seminoles have gone into a tailspin since losing to Alabama and losing quarterback Deondre Francois in the season opener. At 2-4, they face the prospect of going from preseason No. 3 to bowl ineligible.

Fisher asked fans to remain loyal as his team prepares for Boston College on Friday night.

“Just keep fighting with us,” he said. “We ain’t quitting on you.”

Movin’ on up

On the flipside of all that disappointment, Notre Dame rose to No. 9 on Sunday as it enters a stretch run that includes games against three ranked opponents, starting with No. 14 North Carolina State next weekend.

That kind of schedule could fuel a late move.

“We want more,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I kind of use the analogy of let’s enjoy this but let’s act like we’ve been there before.”

The Fighting Irish have returned to national prominence with a combination of brute-force defense and offensive punch in the form of quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams.

With talk of a playoff run in South Bend, Wimbush said he and his teammates don’t want to get too excited.

“I try not to pay attention too much to the rankings and being overrated or underrated,” he said. “We’ll just keep winning games.”

Fond memories

It was about this time last year that a rebuilding Penn State scored one of the 2016-17 season’s biggest upsets, scoring on a blocked field-goal return to shock highly ranked Ohio State.

That victory launched the Nittany Lions on a serious run.

Notwithstanding a close loss to USC in the 2017 Rose Bowl, they have put together a winning streak that currently has them at No. 2 and looking formidable after their performance against Michigan.

Next comes a trip to Columbus that rekindles memories of last fall’s statement game. Not that Penn State wants to dwell on the past.

“That was last year’s team,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “This is a new team.”

The biggest difference? The Nittany Lions still have an explosive offense built around Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley but have been tougher on defense.

“Everybody wanted to talk last year about us being a second-half team,” Coach James Franklin said. “I agree that was an area where we needed to improve.”

So far this season, Penn State has taken early leads in large part because it is the only FBS team to hold opponents scoreless in the first quarter.

That’s a statistic worth celebrating.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter

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