Lamar Jackson looks to take next playoff step against Clemson

After just two weeks, three blockbuster nonconference games have already impacted the College Football Playoff race.

No. 2 Oklahoma earned what could end up being the best nonconference win of the season at then-No. 2 Ohio State. That was a true road game against what could be the Big Ten champion. No. 1 Alabama‘s season-opening win over No. 11 Florida State in Atlanta will continue to carry weight with the selection committee because the Seminoles were at full strength and had starting quarterback Deondre Francois for the majority of the game. And No. 3 Clemson’s win over No. 15 Auburn will differentiate its résumé from that of another contender that didn’t play an equally difficult nonconference opponent.

Week 3, however, shifts the focus to conference play.

No. 24 Florida hosts No. 23 Tennessee in a game that will help determine the SEC East, and Clemson travels to No. 14 Louisville in a critical ACC Atlantic Division matchup. No. 12 LSU travels to Mississippi State for its first conference road game of the season, an important matchup in the SEC West.

“We can’t win the division this week, but neither can they,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We can’t lose it this week, but neither can they. But man, you can get off to a great start and really stay in control of your destiny within the division, and that’s what both teams want to do. We’re going to work our tails off to see if we can get off to a good start in conference play.”

While there are important nonconference games this week — looking at you, Texas and USC — they are only a piece of the puzzle, and teams seem to be able to overcome nonconference losses more easily than league losses, especially in a tight division race. Any Power 5 team with a shot to win its conference title has a chance at the top four, and USC’s win over Stanford last week could turn out to be more important than a win over Texas on Saturday.

“Schedule strength is one of the factors that the committee members will use to distinguish among teams that are clustered,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “The committee will evaluate the schedule for the entire season — not just nonconference games and not just conference games but the entire season. A team loses its margin for error if its schedule isn’t as strong as the other teams’ in the cluster.”

Here’s a breakdown of the top five games with CFP implications this weekend:

No. 3 Clemson (2-0) at No. 14 Louisville (2-0) (ABC & ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET Saturday): Until Florida State or Louisville proves otherwise, Clemson has asserted itself as the ACC’s top CFP contender, and the winner of this game will emerge as the front-runner to win the ACC. If the Tigers lose, their chance to win the conference will drop from 43 percent to 21 percent, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

This game resonated all season last year, as Clemson narrowly beat Louisville 42-36 after stopping Lamar Jackson a yard short on fourth down with 33 seconds remaining. Can Clemson’s defense do it again? The Tigers had 11 sacks in last week’s win over Auburn, and they’ve recorded 60 since 2016, best in FBS. Jackson, meanwhile, has been the most-sacked QB in that time (48). The defending Heisman Trophy winner has been off to another sizzling start, posting back-to-back games with at least 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing.

“Offensively, they’re crazy good,” Swinney said. “It’s video [game] numbers.”

Number to know: 0. Clemson has not allowed a touchdown this season. It’s the first time since 1950 that Clemson didn’t allow a touchdown in the first two games.

Texas (1-1) at No. 4 USC (2-0) (Fox, 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday): USC made a statement last week with its win over then-No. 14 Stanford, and although a home letdown against a still-struggling Texas team wouldn’t be an eliminator, it would put tremendous pressure on the Trojans down the stretch. However, USC coach Clay Helton is right: There shouldn’t be any questions about the Trojans’ strength of schedule, which includes both Texas and Notre Dame, plus nine Pac-12 games.

“When you look at us in a playoff-system world, you better create a great résumé,” Helton said. “… You’re going to play quality opponents, and you’re going to build a résumé that if you do your job, there’s no question you should be one of those four teams.”

Number to know: 6. Longhorns coach Tom Herman is 6-0 as a head coach in games against AP-ranked teams and 3-0 against teams in the top 10.

No. 12 LSU (2-0) at Mississippi State (2-0) (ESPN & ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET Saturday): This game will offer another clue as to whether LSU might really be able to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title. Right now, it’s the Tide and everyone else — especially after Auburn’s loss to Clemson — and ESPN’s FPI favors the Tigers by only 56 percent in this game. The second half of LSU’s schedule is loaded with four ranked opponents, which is why it can’t afford to lose now. Mississippi State, meanwhile, can crack the rankings if it can survive September.

The Bulldogs’ next three games are against No. 12 LSU, at No. 13 Georgia and at No. 15 Auburn. According to FPI, that’s the fifth-toughest three-game stretch of any schedule this season.

Number to know: 10. LSU shut out BYU and held Chattanooga to 10 points. The last time the Tigers held their first three opponents to 10 or fewer points each was in 2007, the season they won the national championship.

No. 23 Tennessee (2-0) at No. 24 Florida (0-1) (CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday): Both teams have a lot to prove before they should be mentioned as CFP contenders, but consider this: The stronger the East is, the better Alabama’s résumé could be, as it also plays Tennessee and would benefit from playing a highly ranked opponent in the SEC title game. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said this game “sets the tone for the SEC East,” and though that has been true at times, Tennessee found a way last season to beat Florida and Georgia and still finish 8-4 and lose the SEC East.

The Vols at least snapped their 11-game losing streak against the Gators last year, but the gap between the West and East still looms large. The Gators are looking to avoid starting 0-2 for the first time since 1971, when they dropped their first five games.

Number to know: 124. The Gators rank 124th in offensive efficiency, the lowest of any Power 5 teams. Florida was held to 11 rushing yards against Michigan in Week 1, marking the fourth time in the past three seasons that the team rushed for fewer than 20 yards. Since the start of the 2015 season, no other SEC team has been held to fewer than 20 rushing yards in a game.

No. 9 Oklahoma State (2-0) at Pittsburgh (1-1) (ESPN & ESPN App, noon ET Saturday): The Cowboys don’t have any ranked nonconference opponents, so a road win at Pitt is the best they can do as far as impressing the committee with their nonconference résumé. Should Oklahoma State lose, it can still run the table and win the Big 12 — with ample opportunities to boost its résumé against ranked opponents, including Oklahoma and in the Big 12 title game. If, however, the Cowboys get into a debate with other one-loss Power 5 conference champs, a loss to an unranked Pitt team could be a deciding factor.

Number to know: 185. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph has thrown 185 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest active streak in the nation.

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