From the Rivals corner: Inside Clemson's narrow escape, Notre Dame's bounce-back win and more

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Each week, we’ll talk to our reporters on the ground to get their thoughts on the biggest happenings during the college football season. This week, we look at Clemson’s closer-than-expected victory over North Carolina, check in with Notre Dame after the Irish’s bounce-back victory over Notre Dame and visit Columbus to talk about Ohio State’s incredible start to the season.

Trouble at Clemson?

After a 15-0 run to the national championship a year ago and one of the best seasons ever for a true freshman quarterback, expectations were that Clemson would pick up right this season right where they left off last year. And while the team is 5-0 on the year, the Tigers and quarterback Trevor Lawrence haven’t looked nearly as sharp as expected. After narrowly surviving against North Carolina on Saturday, the Tigers dropped from the No. 1 spot in both major polls and plenty are questioning if Clemson even belongs at No. 2. So is it time to start worrying about the Tigers?

We checked in with’s Cris Ard to get his take on the situation.

“What an incredible standard that's been set at Clemson. Two national titles in the last three years. A 20-game winning streak. A 5-0 start. Through five games Clemson is averaging nearly 490 total yards of offense and 38 points per game. And it ranks eighth nationally in total defense, allowing just over 250 yards a game.

“Yet here we are asking questions about an offense that hasn't yet hit its stride. We're revisiting our August camp questions about Clemson's defensive front and its ability to consistently generate pressure.

“The root of all this? I think people make hard-and-fast decisions about teams and conferences way too early, especially in an era of hot takes and drive-by analysis from 30,000 feet above what's really going on. What's this really about? People are going to question Clemson any time it does not blow the doors off an opponent, especially a conference opponent. And that's largely because the reputation of the Atlantic Coast Conference isn't good and it generally will not be good so long as Miami and Florida State are down. If Miami and Florida State were in the top 10 along with Clemson, the perception - right or wrong - of the ACC would be dramatically improved.

Clemson's Travis Etienne (9) celebrates his touchdown with Trevor Lawrence (16) and Tee Higgins (5) during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

“This isn't the same football team. They're not the same football team defensively. They're not the same football team offensively. And the good news for Clemson is they don't have to be in order to reach the CFP for a fifth consecutive year. They won't play at optimum levels 12 straight weeks. They didn't in 2018. They didn't in 2016. They didn't in 1981.

“Dabo Swinney said Saturday his team was outplayed and his staff was out-coached. There's no argument in this corner. From my vantage point, I believe they've got the personnel to make a greater commitment to the run game. I expect that to happen against Florida State. Lawrence, a star and a potential No. 1 pick in two years, has taken more risks early and has forced more lower-percentage passes. Understandably, he's got a lot of leeway to do so. But to this point it's why he's picked up three of his five interceptions. Defensively, they are not in a position to generate consistent penetration with four down-linemen, let alone three. So in other words, Brent Venables will be more aggressive and I suspect more expansive with their pressure package (comprising the front seven), particularly given that they trust the secondary implicitly. Given that trust, he should be able to take more risks. Florida State's QBs have been sacked 19 times in five games. Clemson will be happy to build on that total in two weeks.

We've seen this movie in Clemson before.”

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Notre Dame bounces back

Coming off a heartbreaking defeat at Georgia last weekend, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly repeated the mantra all week that Saturday’s game against Virginia would tell him everything he needs to know about his team. And after falling behind to the Cavaliers early only to come back and win, it’s safe to say Kelly got the answers he was looking for. So can the Irish keep it rolling and end up back in the College Football Playoff?

We checked in with’s Lou Somogyi to get his thoughts on the Irish’s bounce-back victory.

“There is nobody remaining on the 2019 regular season schedule better than the Irish — which is not to say a clunker can’t occur somewhere, be it versus USC at home Oct. 12, at Michigan Oct. 26 or the type of situation versus Pitt or Vanderbilt in 2018 where the Irish will have to hold on for dear life at the end to avoid the upset. That’s going to happen with everyone (see No. 1 Clemson at North Carolina).

“An 11-1 Notre Dame probably would be hard pressed to get into the College Football Playoff because of the likely lack of a needle-moving victory. Either way, we don’t envision the Irish finishing worse than 11-2 (including the bowl), and they will place in the top 10 for the second consecutive year for the first time since 1992-93.

“The offense is starting to get pieces back each week, first tight end Cole Kmet at Georgia, receiver Michael Young versus Virginia, and hopefully running back Jafar Armstrong sometime in mid-October. Meanwhile, a defense that was rebuilding at linebacker and in the interior has made significant strides in each of the past two weeks while getting more salty, yet still sound.

“The program is by far the healthiest it’s been since the early ’90s. The main frustration remains that there also remain a handful of schools that will be difficult to eclipse on the CFP food chain.”

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Day and Ohio State continue to dominate

When Urban Meyer abruptly retired last year and the Buckeyes handed the reins of the program over to Ryan Day, it seemed likely that there would at least be a transition period on the field after years of success under Meyer. But a month into the season there’s a new head coach, a new starting quarterback and the same impressive results. Ohio State dominated Nebraska from start to finish on Saturday night in front of a national audience and look to have all the momentum in the world heading into the meat of their schedule. With Day and quarterback Justin Fields making it look easy, Ohio State appears to have a great shot at the College Football Playoff. Was this fast start and transition from Meyer to Day expected to go so smoothly? And will the dominance continue?

We checked in with’s Kevin Noon to get his take on the Buckeyes’ hot start.

“I don’t think anyone went into this season worrying that Ohio State had talent on its roster or even if it would win a lot of games. The question would be how Ohio State would perform in high-pressure situations with a first-year head coach and a first-year starting quarterback. Consider those fears being unfounded, at least for now as the Buckeyes are not only winning games, but just dismantling foes at near-historic proportions.

“The most surprising thing is how this team really is not showing any weaknesses to this point. That does not mean that this team is perfect by any stretch of the imagination but this team is not doing anything to hurt itself with bad turnovers or foolish penalties. Last season Dwayne Haskins went and assaulted the ‘never going to be touched’ single-season touchdown responsible for record of JT Barrett and now Justin Fields is doing the same of Haskins’ one-year-old record of 54 touchdowns.

“While everyone wants to focus on the offense and how it is No. 7 on the ground, No. 3 in scoring and No. 8 in running the ball, the biggest story needs to be the Ohio State defense and how one of Ohio State’s worst defenses of all-time (yet the Buckeyes still won 13 games and a league crown last year) is now No. 2 in total defense with many of the same pieces. They are fast, they hit hard and they don’t miss tackles and teams are scoring less than nine points per game against them.

“Last season we had a glimpse of what a Ryan Day-led team would look like but make no mistake, that was Day running Urban’s system with Urban’s coaches in his absence. Now we are seeing a true Ryan Day team and while we are still learning some of the finer points of his tendencies, the Buckeyes are making it look too easy at this point of the season but still have tests with Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michjgan still on the regular season report card.

“Fans and pundits alike felt that Ryan Day would do a great job taking over for Meyer and should contend for a league title and be in the conversation for the College Football Playoff once the season is over. I do not think however that anyone thought this team would be looking like the best team in the nation only five games into Day’s tenure. Many times internal hires sound good in practice and then leave a lot to be desired. That is not the case here as the Buckeyes continue to build each week. It will be interesting to see what happens when this team faces its first real adversity but at this rate, critics might have to wait awhile to see that crossroads as this team seems invulnerable.”

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