Sifting Through the Turmoil of College Football’s Most Unpredictable Weekend Yet

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 13:  Syracuse Orange fans storm the field after the team upset Clemson Tigers at the Carrier Dome on October 13, 2017 in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeats Clemson 27-24.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It started early, on a Friday night inside a stadium with peculiar lighting, in a game we didn’t make a whole lot of from the onset, if we’re being honest. From there, it headed west—far, far west—and the theme picked up in earnest. By Saturday night, after a slew of unexpected turns, we were sorting through the wreckage of a college football weekend no one saw coming. 

Four Top 10 teams, gone. High-profile Heisman campaigns, slashed. Jobs with millions of dollars in buyouts to be paid and once-promising expectations attached, all but lost. All on a weekend with a grand total of zero games featuring two ranked teams.

While chaos is a theme widely celebrated throughout a college football season, this was something distinctive. Week 7 wasn’t as much about what was gained for those on the right side of favorable outcomes—those that typically benefit from the atypical turns. But instead it was about all what was lost, and what it all means as the calendar motors toward November.

It began with Clemson, the proud owner of college football’s most complete football resume entering the weekend, falling to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. While this setting has produced unusual upsets in the past, this didn’t feel like the spot. 

It wasn’t long ago that this Syracuse team lost outright to Middle Tennessee at home. But in this same building, the Orange took down the Tigers as a mighty underdog. Clemson didn’t just lose its first decision in 11 months; it also lost starting quarterback Kelly Bryant to a concussion.

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

“We didn’t really handle anything well,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters following the loss. “We just didn’t win the matchups, and they just flat-out outcoached us. It’s truly that simple. If I don’t coach better than I did tonight, the rest doesn’t matter.”

Clemson will have time to rally (see: last season). But for a program that was closing in on Alabama’s stranglehold on the No. 1 team in the polls, this was a dramatic and unexpected setback. It was dealt one last year against Pittsburgh, and the entire season worked out.

These losses are more than just blemishes, though. For a team like Clemson, still in a cozy position to make the playoff, this eliminates much of the room for error it has, a luxury it had earned. And the health of Bryant moving forward, above all, could prove to be the most significant takeaway from a nightmarish evening in upstate New York.

A few hours later, Cal dismantled Washington State, the nation’s No. 8 team. One of the nation’s most productive and accurate quarterbacks, Luke Falk, threw five interceptions in the 37-3 loss—a result that was perhaps even more shocking given just how lopsided the final tally was.

While Washington State enters the second half of the season with only one loss, the optics of this game will have a lasting impact on whatever playoff aspirations remain. As far-fetched as that notion might have been in the first place for some, its impact is undeniable. Given its profile, this will be a difficult 60 minutes to come back from.

BERKELEY, CA - OCTOBER 13:  Jordan Kunaszyk #59 of the California Golden Bears sacks quarterback Luke Falk #4 of the Washington State Cougars during the  fourth quarter of their NCAA football game at California Memorial Stadium on October 13, 2017 in Berk

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Almost exactly 24 hours later, Washington, the Pac-12 favorite and a playoff team from a season ago, fell to Arizona State 13-7. The nation’s No. 5 ranked team looked offensively inept—failing to move the ball against defense that has allowed at least 30 points in every game this year.  

While the loss does not mean Washington’s season is lost, consider the following: the Huskies woeful out-of-conference slate will do them no favors here. They do not have the benefit of the doubt like Clemson. This was a crushing blow to a team that was seemingly cruising along.

This theme continued into Saturday, where Auburn was rolling right along, up 17-0 at LSU in the first quarter. It seemed like a formality that Gus Malzhan’s group would continue its climb up the polls, and then the fourth quarter arrived.

The Tigers (of the Auburn variety) ran 32 plays for 64 yards in the second half, allowing LSU to clip the nation’s No. 10 team 27-23. For Auburn, a program that was starting to feel like an authentic threat to Alabama in the SEC—and perhaps it still will be in time—this was a shock to the system.

Only a few hours earlier, the reigning Heisman winner watched his diminishing hopes to repeat as this year’s winner go up in flames. While Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had seen his resume take a hit already, a loss to Boston College, a program that had failed to score more than 30 points in a game up until Saturday, all but sealed it. 

While Jackson provided his usual brilliance (332 passing yards, 180 rushing yards and five touchdowns), this is the kind of result—Louisville’s third loss of the year—that puts a stop to any lingering conversation that remained around the award. 

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

But perhaps most jarring and noteworthy of all were the results of three teams light-years away from any real-life playoff conversations. For Tennessee’s Butch Jones, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Saturday was about their futures.

It was the latest in a long line of concerning results—albeit under different circumstances. The combined score in these three games was 112-32, with Arkansas and Nebraska doing the heavy lifting in the deficit.

For Jones, this was it. There will be no other result now that matters. No walking this back. An ugly, sluggish loss to South Carolina at home off a bye week decided his fate if it wasn’t already decided. With Alabama on deck, it’s simply a matter of when the Vols decide to make a move rather than if they should.

For Riley, given just how wide the gap looked to one of the Big Ten’s best programs, and given the fact that athletic director Shawn Eichorst has already been removed, a 56-14 defeat to Ohio State could serve as perhaps the most alarming evidence working against his tenure. 

LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 14: Head coach Mike Riley of the Nebraska Cornhuskers watches players warm up before the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

And for Bielema, a man whose buyout has been dissected at length over the past week, a 41-9 loss to Alabama isn’t exactly a shocking development. And perhaps that’s the most concerning part. With an SEC record of 10-25, this is now a matter of money. If Arkansas can afford it, the talk surrounding his future will likely be more than talk not long from now. 

There is always a bright side to any surprising outcome. For Syracuse, Week 7 will be celebrated within that program for many years to come. Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, fans will talk about that Friday night when the team knocked off the defending national champions. The sights and scenes will be used on billboards and fliers and T-shirts.

But for so many others—teams, coaches, players and futures—this weekend served as a turning point. Call it chaos, if that’s what’s most comforting. But the destruction will linger over the weeks and months to follow. For some, it will be felt far longer than that. And absolutely no one saw this one coming.

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