Chaos and volatility are two of the many reasons college football is so popular. Losing one game could spell doom for a team’s championship aspirations. With the talent so highly concentrated in Power Five conference schools, navigating through a season with a spotless record is a high-wire act. The circus that was Week 11 saw a historic number of elite teams stumble. For the first time in 31 years, the second, third and fourth-ranked teams in the AP Poll all lost on the same day.
The University of Clemson Tigers suffered a 43-42 defeat to the University of Pittsburgh Panthers thanks to a 48-yard field goal by Chris Blewitt with six seconds on the clock. Tigers quarterback DeShaun Watson, who is expected to enter the 2017 NFL draft as the top signal-caller available, carried his school to a 9-0 record and a clear path to the College Football Playoff. But the 5-4 Panthers entered Memorial Stadium determined to spoil the Tigers’ fun.
Clemson survived many nail-biter in-conference matches against NC State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 12 Florida State to settle in at No.2 behind first-ranked Alabama, ahead of its projected easy win against Pittsburgh. Coming off a 54-0 thrashing of Syracuse University, the capacity-crowd in “Death Valley” was primed to feast on the Panthers. However, the Tigers’ propensity to allow their lesser opponents to keep the score close came back to haunt them. Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman opened the game with a five-play, 75-yard drive, frazzling the once-raucous fans. Watson responded by leading the Tigers to the red zone, but surrendered an interception into double coverage. After a punt by the Panthers, both offenses efficiently moved down the field in under two minutes. Clemson running-back Wayne Gallman bowled over a linebacker to tie the game at 7-7, but Pittsburgh did not flinch, as running back James Conner followed up by tight-roping the sideline untouched to the end zone.
A grueling five-minute drive resulted in Gallman lunging across the line to put the Tigers level at 14-14. Watson, a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, and Peterman, an unheralded redshirt senior, dueled in prolific aerial display. Watson lobbed a beautiful back-shoulder pass to Mike Williams to give Clemson the lead and Peterman responded with a 55-yard bomb to Scott Orndoff for six points. The first split came when Blewitt whiffed on the 19-yard extra point to leave the score at 21-20. Still rolling, Pitt capitalized on another Watson turnover by scoring on a fourth and goal pass to fullback George Aston. Yet, the Clemson QB was undeterred by his errors and lofted a perfectly timed ball for a touchdown. Blewitt had a shot at redemption at the end of the half, but the Tigers blocked his 53-yard attempt to conclude a wild first half.
Clemson’s defense finally stood its ground and forced Peterman to fumble the ball in the third quarter, granting the team favorable field position. Three plays later, Watson passed his third touchdown of the night to Deon Cain to extend its lead. Pittsburgh marched the length of the field and replicated its first drive success with another shovel pass as Orndoff walked in for the score. After Gallman crossed the plane to make it 42-34, the seesaw battle halted as the sides traded punts through the fourth quarter. Watson milked the clock on a meticulous drive that placed the Tigers at the three-yard line only to throw his third interception of the game.
On the ensuing drive, Conner bounced out of traffic and shed would-be tacklers to bring the Panthers within two points. He finished with 132 rushing yards and a score of 20 carries and three catches for 57 yards and a touchdown, an impressive showing for the junior.
During the following drive, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made a gutsy call to go for it on fourth down on Pittsburgh’s 35 and helplessly watched the Panthers swarm Gallman at the line of scrimmage.
The fate of the game rested on Blewitt’s right foot. With six seconds on the clock, the senior booted a 48-yarder through the uprights. It was Clemson’s first loss against an unranked opponent since 2008 and Pittsburgh’s first win versus a top-five team since 2007. Watson flung the ball 70 times for a conference-record 580 yards, but turnovers early and late caught up to him. The Tigers dropped to No. 5 in the AP Poll, two spots behind the Louisville Cardinals who they beat head-to-head. Even so, they can still win the Atlantic Coast Conference and prove to the playoff committee they deserve a shot at the national championship.
Fans have been lukewarm to the new postseason format ever since the conference commissioners shifted from the Bowl Championship Series to the College Football Playoff in 2014. The BCS used a convoluted mixture of polls where sportswriters and coaches ranked the top 25 teams and computer rankings that compared a bevy of statistics to spit out a list, pitting the top two teams against each other for the title. Teams outside the Power Five never got the chance to play for the BCS trophy in its 15-year existence, even if they were unbeaten.
In the current format, a 13-member rotating committee determines which four teams are selected for a two-round tournament for the championship. Not only does this give more schools a chance, it allows for some accountability and attaches a face to the process. Nonetheless, the weekly battle rages on.