- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Regression can strike quickly. After a miserable 2021 campaign, Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei was one of the best rebound stories of 2022. He threw for 371 yards and five touchdowns in the Tigers’ 51-45 track-meet win over Wake Forest in Week 4, and heading into Saturday’s home game against unbeaten Syracuse, he had completed 64% of his passes with a beautiful 17-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio and a Total QBR ranking of 30th — not exactly Heisman-worthy but far better than last fall’s No. 97 ranking.
Apparently that was too much improvement in too little time. Uiagalalei suffered a disastrous performance against the Orange, completing 13 of 21 passes for just 138 yards with two interceptions and a sack; he also lost a fumble that Ja’Had Carter returned 90 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
Following Uiagalalei’s third turnover, a midfield interception by Jason Simmons Jr. with Clemson trailing 21-10 with 6 minutes, 27 seconds left in the third quarter, coach Dabo Swinney decided something needed to be done. He benched Uiagalelei in favor of blue-chip freshman Cade Klubnik. While Klubnik didn’t do much — he was 2-for-4 for 19 yards and a sack and rushed five times for 26 yards — he didn’t turn the ball over. Riding backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, Clemson drove for back-to-back touchdowns to take the lead, then tacked on a late field goal. R.J. Mickens picked off a pass at the Clemson 15 with 15 seconds left, and the Tigers barely survived, winning 27-21.
Syracuse is a good team, and any path to beating the Orange and remaining unbeaten has to be considered a good one. Clemson will likely be a favorite of at least a touchdown in all of its remaining regular-season games (and a hypothetical ACC championship game), and the Allstate Playoff Predictor gives the Tigers the third-best overall odds of reaching the College Football Playoff (62%).
After the game, Swinney was quick to proclaim that Uiagalelei’s job was not in danger — “DJ’s our starter. DJ’s our leader. Ain’t nothing changed there.” But Uiagalelei’s struggles were both a flashback and a harbinger of what might either derail the Tigers’ playoff hopes or get them harshly eliminated from the CFP if they get there. If you think about the players who might have the most impact on both the CFP and national title races, Uiagalelei and/or Klubnik might top the list.
With November barreling toward us and the first CFP rankings just more than a week away, let’s turn our gaze toward the title race. The Playoff Predictor basically shows us two tiers of CFP contenders. Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, Alabama, Tennessee and Michigan all currently have a 49% shot or better and should be considered the primary contenders. Meanwhile, four teams are between 3.5% and 10% (USC, TCU, Oregon and Penn State), and five are between 1% and 3%. Before the season we looked at the 25 players who affect the CFP. As we head toward the final Saturday in October, here is a current list of the 25 players who will have an oversized influence, both on who makes the CFP and who wins it.
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