AP Top 25 Takeaways: Familiar early struggle for Clemson

AP Top 25 Takeaways: Familiar early struggle for Clemson
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) is pressured by North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt (21) during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Clemson might relinquish the No. 1 ranking on Sunday when the new Top 25 is released, and Trevor Lawrence is probably already out of the Heisman Trophy race.

None of this is a particularly big deal. In fact, it all feels familiar for the Tigers, who had to hold off a late 2-point conversion to win at North Carolina on Saturday in a game where the Tar Heels were about a four-touchdown underdog.

Quibble with coach Mack Brown’s decision to go for 2 with 1:17 left if you want. It was the right call. It’s never a good idea for a big underdog to play for overtime.

But the story was the defending national champions looking far less than the juggernaut they were expected to be when they were voted preseason No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in the history of the program.

“I know we’re supposed to just destroy everybody,” coach Dabo Swinney told reporters after the game, dismissing that as unrealistic.

Sorry, Dabo, but it’s impossible to ignore the disparity between Clemson and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference and not expect the Tigers to have their way every week.

This was the first time Clemson has been remotely challenged, though they haven’t been as spectacular as, say, Alabama has with Tua Tagovailoa and his loaded group of receivers early this season.

The crux of the Tigers’ problems — if you want to call them that — is Lawrence.

Call it a sophomore slump. Maybe he’s pressing. Lawrence came into Saturday ranked 55th in FBS in passer rating (147.92), completing 62% of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

Against North Carolina, Lawrence was a modest 18 for 30 for 206 yards with a touchdown pass that turned out to the game-winner. But he also missed some throws that could have broken the game open and didn’t make some smaller player that keep drives going.

Clemson has been here before.

Almost exactly a year ago, Clemson needed a late rally to beat Syracuse in Death Valley. That was the last close game the Tigers played all season. But that game came at the end of a weird week in which Lawrence replaced Kelly Bryant as starter. Then Lawrence was injured against the Orange. This feels more like Clemson’s first championship season in 2016, when Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams were supposed to be unstoppable but took a while to get revved up.

The slow start for Lawrence has put him so far behind Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Ohio State’s Justin Fields in the Heisman race there is likely no coming back. Not when Clemson will be playing North Carolina State, Wake Forest and South Carolina in November.

Watson did not win a Heisman, either.

The sleepy performance at North Carolina could cost Clemson its No. 1 ranking, but the Tigers have shown a tendency to round into form. And their ability to win these close games in recent years is why the term Clemsoning has been retired.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOKIES?

Grading head coaching hires is a fun but mostly useless exercise in college football. These days, most head coaching jobs — even in the Power Five — go to relatively inexperienced candidates. Like Justin Fuente, who spent four seasons at Memphis turning around a moribund program before becoming Virginia Tech’s successor to Frank Beamer.

Fuente and Virginia Tech looked like a near perfect marriage, especially after the Hokies went to the 2016 ACC title game in his first season and gave Clemson a game. Instead, the program has been slipping ever since, reaching a new low Friday night against Duke in the worst home loss in 45 years. It has pretty much burned all the goodwill Fuente had built up during the first two seasons.

The signs are bad. Virginia Tech is 3-7 in its last 10 games against FBS competition, with numerous blowout losses.

Fuente’s problems say a lot about the uncertainty of the hiring process and why schools are so quick to extend coaches at the first sign of success. Experienced coaches with long track records of success are rarely available. The candidate pool for most schools — even Power Five programs with a tradition of winning — is mostly guys like Fuente, Chad Morris (three seasons at SMU before Arkansas), Tom Herman (two seasons at Houston before Texas) and Scott Frost (two seasons at UCF before Nebraska).

Herman looks like a keeper in Year 3 in Austin. Morris is struggling mightily with the Razorbacks in Year 2. There is reason for optimism with Frost in Lincoln, his hometown, but it’s still more projection than production for the Cornhuskers. Fuente is backsliding at an alarming rate.

AROUND THE COUNTRY: Hurts passed for a career-best 415 yards in another video-game numbers performance, this time against Texas Tech. Clearly, he will be a major player in the Heisman race in as long as he stays healthy. Will be interesting to see if his NFL stock starts rising as well. Remember, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray weren’t considered No. 1 overall draft pick material and then they were. … Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, he of the walk-off TD to win the national championship two years ago, had eight catches for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the FIRST HALF against Ole Miss. He finished with school records of five TD catches for 274 yards. Smith is generally regarded as Alabama’s third-best receiver. … Late Friday, Arizona State beat No. 15 California, leaving the Pac-12 with no unbeaten team before the calendar flips to October. It’s the first time since expansion in 2011 that has happened in the Pac-12.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at Twitter and listen at PODCAST ONE.

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