In a week with no major upsets, the top stories in college football revolved around quarterbacks.
Notre Dame has found one. Penn State coach James Franklin took the ball out of his star quarterback’s hands with the game on the line. The four Heisman Trophy front-runners — Tua Tagovailoa, Dwayne Haskins, Kyler Murray and Will Grier — did little to hurt their resumes.
But all of that took a back seat to the ongoing drama at Clemson.
As we’ve monitored the evolving two-quarterback dynamics among the nation’s top four teams, it became clear the most combustible situation was unfolding at Clemson. To recap:
— Trevor Lawrence, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the national Class of 2018, signed with the Tigers in December and enrolled in January. Last year’s backups, Zerrick Cooper (Jacksonville State) and Hunter Johnson (Northwestern), transferred over the next six months.
— Incumbent starter Kelly Bryant, who led the Tigers to a 12-2 record and a College Football Playoff berth in 2017, retained the job to start the season, but Lawrence frequently outplayed him in increasingly extended relief appearances over the first four games. (Although notably, coach Dabo Swinney turned to Bryant with Clemson in second-half danger in Week 2 at Texas A&M.)
— Last Monday, Swinney announced the inevitable: that Lawrence would take over as the starter for Saturday’s home game against Syracuse. Bryant was absent from practice Monday (excused by Swinney) and Tuesday and told the Greenville News his demotion “was kind of a slap in the face.”
— Wednesday morning, Swinney confirmed the Greenville News report that Bryant is leaving the program to play elsewhere in 2019 as a graduate transfer, taking advantage of the new NCAA redshirt rule that allows a player who hasn’t previously redshirted to appear in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility. If Bryant, a fourth-year senior, played in one more game, this would be his final college season.
— Lawrence took a hard hit to the head during the second quarter Saturday and sat out the rest of the game with concussion symptoms. Redshirt freshman Chase Brice — the only other scholarship quarterback remaining on the roster — helped rally the Tigers from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat Syracuse 27-23.
— ESPN’s Holly Rowe said Swinney told her at halftime that he would welcome back Bryant if he changed his mind. (Bryant, who earned his undergraduate degree in May, reportedly still is enrolled at Clemson.) But pressed on that possibility during his postgame news conference, Swinney said the Tigers are “moving on.”
While Bryant’s decision might now seem shortsighted, a change of heart is unlikely. If not cleared to play Saturday at Wake Forest, Lawrence figures to be back by the Oct. 20 home game against N.C. State that follows an open date.
Bryant clearly wants to be the man for his final college season, and early speculation about his landing spot has focused on Arkansas, whose coach, Chad Morris, helped recruit Bryant as Clemson’s offensive coordinator (although Morris left for SMU before ever coaching Bryant).
— Meanwhile, the quarterback situation that carried the most preseason drama has quietly resolved itself at Alabama. As Tagovailoa has established himself as the man to beat in the Heisman race — he’s averaging 13.2 yards per attempt with a 14-0 touchdown-interception ratio — the Crimson Tide’s 2016-17 starter, Jalen Hurts, played in his fifth game Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
That means Hurts can’t redshirt this season, contradicting a report that he would play only four games, barring an injury to Tagovailoa, and leave as a graduate transfer with two seasons of immediate eligibility. While Hurts still widely is expected to transfer this winter, it would be with only one season to play.
— Now that two of the three returning starters from last year’s CFP (Bryant and Hurts) have been supplanted, could Georgia’s Jake Fromm be next? In what has become an established pattern, Fromm’s play was a mixed bag in a 38-12 home win over Tennessee. The difference from earlier SEC victories at South Carolina and Missouri is that freshman Justin Fields — the nation’s consensus No. 2 recruit behind Lawrence — received large chunks of playing time with the game still in doubt.
The Bulldogs mixed it up even within the same possession — both quarterbacks took snaps during three of their five touchdown drives — and coach Kirby Smart said afterward “there is no plan” for the rotation going forward. While Fields was only 1 of 2 passing for 5 yards, he rushed for 45 yards and two touchdowns on five carries and clearly gives defenses an extra element to account for.
Stock up: Notre Dame
Ian Book’s play in his first two starts of the season is a game changer for the Irish. With Book accurately distributing the ball to a deep, though not explosive, array of weapons, it looks like Brian Kelly might have an efficient offense to pair with one the country’s most sound defenses. And some of the supposedly tougher spots on the schedule — at Virginia Tech, home versus Florida State and at USC — don’t look so daunting. Winning a night game at Lane Stadium is never an easy task, and the Hokies bounced back from an embarrassing loss to Old Dominion with an impressive 31-14 thumping of previously unbeaten Duke. But quarterback Josh Jackson is out with a broken leg. A sneaky-tough hurdle might be the Nov. 17 game against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium.
Stock down: Penn State
Up 12 on Ohio State with eight minutes to go in front of a raucous home crowd, the Nittany Lions had their hands on a signature victory. But they let Haskins drive the Buckeyes 75 yards in 1 minute, 18 seconds, then 96 yards in 2:32 for the decisive touchdowns. And on fourth-and-5 at the Ohio State 43 with 1:22 left, Penn State called for the brilliant Trace McSorley (286 passing yards, 175 rushing) to make a zone read. He handed off to Miles Sanders, who got buried in the backfield.
The Nittany Lions’ playoff hopes aren’t dead, but they’re essentially two games behind the Buckeyes in the Big Ten East and face an upcoming stretch of Michigan State, at Indiana, Iowa, at Michigan and Wisconsin.
Stock up: Benny Snell
The Kentucky running back was more workhorse than thoroughbred in a 24-10 victory over South Carolina, carrying 28 times for 99 yards and a touchdown. That followed a 175-yard performance against Florida and a 165-yard, four-touchdown day against Mississippi State in the 5-0 Wildcats’ first two SEC games. Snell remains a long shot, to be sure, to win an award that has gone to quarterbacks 15 of the last 18 years. A Nov. 3 home game against Georgia could be his chance to strut his stuff in the national spotlight.
Stock down: Bryce Love
Whether it’s injuries (he sat out Stanford’s Week 3 game against UC Davis), issues on the offensive line or defenses keying on stopping him, Love hasn’t looked like the same back as the one who topped 150 yards seven times last year and had an outrageous 12 runs of 50-plus yards (only Arizona had more as a team). Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame marked the third time in four games Love has been held below 100 yards, and other than his 39-yard first-quarter touchdown run, the Irish limited Love to 34 yards on 16 carries.
Franklin issued an apology for snapping at a fan who criticized his fourth-and-5 call as the Nittany Lions were leaving the field. That was neither the worst late-game play call nor the worst look for a coach Saturday.
Louisville was up 24-21 on Florida State and had a first down at the Seminoles 21 inside two minutes to play when Bobby Petrino opted to throw with erratic sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass. The Seminoles picked it off, then drove 81 yards in 43 seconds for the winning touchdown.
“I guess I should have run the ball,” Petrino understated.
Meanwhile, during Texas A&M’s 24-17 victory over Arkansas, cameras caught an enraged Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher pulling linebacker Tyrel Dodson by the facemask. Fisher said after the game he was trying to keep Dodson from “an interaction” with a Razorbacks player that might have resulted in a personal foul. And Dodson tweeted that Fisher “did the right thing.”
Celebrity fan of the week
Herschel Walker, Peyton Manning and Evander Holyfield (father of Bulldogs running back Elijah Holyfield) were among the luminaries at Sanford Stadium for the Georgia-Tennessee game, but no one drew as much attention as professional wrestling legend “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who fired up the crowd before the game.
Stat of the week
Tweet of the week
Week 6 games to watch
Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, 11 a.m. Saturday, FOX-32
The Longhorns have won four straight since their opening flop against Maryland, allowing 16.3 points per game. Facing Kyler Murray and Co. in the Red River Shootout represents a step up in weight class.
LSU at Florida 2:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS-2
The Gators defense was smothering in wins over Tennessee and Mississippi State, and that loss to Kentucky doesn’t look so bad now. Could they catch the Tigers looking ahead to a Week 7 visit from Georgia?
Kentucky at Texas A&M 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Only 14 FBS teams remain undefeated. The Aggies will have played three of them (Clemson, Alabama and Kentucky) in the first six weeks with LSU also on the schedule.
Nebraska at Wisconsin 6:30 p.m. Saturday, BTN
The Cornhuskers’ eight-game losing streak is the second-longest in the country behind UTEP’s 17-game skid. A night game at Camp Randall Stadium is not a recommended cure.
Notre Dame at Virginia Tech 7 p.m. Saturday, ABC-7
“Enter Sandman.” Exit the Irish’s playoff hopes? Lane Stadium will be rocking, but Ian Book has looked unflappable so far.