Everyone and his or her addled central nervous system knows that somewhere along autumn's path, almost all college football national champions treat their fans to at least one Saturday of horror, powerlessness and compromised oxygen. Seldom does a champion comb through the whole thing like Nebraska in 1995, with its average win of 53.2-14.5, its average rushing advantage of 400-78, its closest game of 35-21 and its still-astonishing sacks-allowed total of zilch.
Alabama 2009 and Florida 2006 blocked potentially calamitous field goals on final plays of games (against Tennessee and South Carolina, respectively), and the former caused Coach Nick Saban to say, "You talk about how fragile a season is." Cam Newton's Auburn 2010 made a habit of escaping thickets, and Ohio State 2002 made such a habit of it that after a while it seemed to dive into the thicket just to practice the art of escaping it.
The path of Tennessee 1998 reached an intersection that collided with an opponent's shocking gaffe, and that's where this Saturday came in. Two-thirds of the top three - No. 3 Clemson by day and No. 2 Ohio State by night - wound up preserving spotless records by getting to overtime and doing what sports people weirdly call "surviving." Yet it's the Clemson case that evokes more, because while almost every champion has to endure some case of shortness of breath, it's actually rare that the highest hopes sustain themselves on a single blunder.
Protecting a 24-22 lead near midfield inside two minutes on Nov. 14, 1998, Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner lost a fumble with 1:43 left in the kind of overly human, stumbling, unimpeded way that really does animate nightmares. On Saturday in Clemson, South Carolina, with the score 17-17, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley led the ambitious visiting Wolfpack on a 14-play, 55-yard careful navigation that chewed up the last seven minutes of regulation, left star Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson helpless on the sideline and left 81,200 mostly hapless in the stands.
Kicker Kyle Bambard lined up for a 33-yard field goal, and let the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins take it from there.
"I ended up on the floor," he said, a sweet term for the field, "and I looked up and I saw it start to sail, then I closed my eyes and I couldn't believe what was actually happening, so I just waited for the crowd to cheer."
If you do study the crowd behind the goal posts as it notices Bambard's kick insist itself wide right, you might spot the untrammeled bedlam of reprieve.
Or you might just spot bedlam.
In truth, Clemson doesn't look champion-like, with nine turnovers in its past two home games, the 42-36 escape of Louisville and Saturday's 24-17 overtime escape of N.C. State. But it does have champion knowhow, and it does have a coach, Dabo Swinney, who can quip, "Right now, we've beaten everybody but Clemson. We're trying to beat Clemson, but we haven't quite achieved that yet."
Ohio State did something harder, but plainer: It surmounted a wily No. 8 Wisconsin in a hostile rink in the great Madison, 30-23 in overtime, on the prettiest third-down, seven-yard touchdown pass you ever saw from J.T. Barrett to Noah Brown in the right corner of the end zone. It won even through the jarring sight of Wisconsin treating Ohio State's defense like some solvable puzzle, churning through it with jet sweeps to a player beautifully named Jazz Peavy and a quite competent freshman quarterback (Alex Hornibrook). A team that left Michigan two weeks ago with eight lonely first downs got 450 total yards on a team allowing 247 and six yards per play on a team allowing 3.69. Still, Ohio State's fans lived to note, perhaps, that their 2014 national champion also had an overtime win, at Penn State.
Then again, they might peek out from under a pillow, look at this young team and deem it all different.
As usual on these overstuffed Saturdays, there was too much to comprehend. Vanderbilt - Vanderbilt! - pulled a 17-16 upset at Georgia, putting the brief head-coaching career of Kirby Smart in severe jeopardy (is there any other kind?) just seven games into this 4-3 season. One week after Virginia Tech looked formidable and North Carolina looked terrible, North Carolina looked formidable (winning at Miami to sweep the Atlantic Coast Conference's Florida teams on the road) while No. 17 Virginia Tech took a loss some might dub terrible (at Syracuse).
No. 22 Arkansas and No. 12 Ole Miss played their usual cliffhanger that reminded of the old line from the great Keith Jackson: "Them Hogs and Rebels have been fightin' down there a long time." One year after their 53-52 absurdity, the suspense ended Saturday night on a fourth and 16 when Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly took off on a compelling scramble through the left and neared the first-down marker only to find defensive back Santos Ramirez trained squarely on the ball, which then flew awkwardly backward as a fumble to cement the Hogs' 34-30 win.
Down in Houston, they just had your garden-variety stop at the 1-yard line on the final play, after Houston Coach Tom Herman went to the defensive huddle and said, "Trust your training," so Austin Robinson and Khalil Williams got a shared save of a 38-31 win by stalling Tulsa's big Jesse Brubaker. And while Brubaker seemed to spend a near-eternity sliding along the invisible plane of the goal line, the Houston duo kept him on the other side of the invisibility, whereupon everyone waited for a game-clinching review to confirm. And here is a reminder that No. 10 Nebraska stands 6-0 after its 27-22 survival at Indiana, and that its players told Sam McKewon of omaha.com that it peeved them when ESPN's "GameDay" crew allegedly belittled the Cornhuskers.
"They laughed at us for five minutes," safety Kieron Williams told McKewon, which stirs a question.
That must have been boring TV, panelists sitting there laughing for five minutes.
Was the director asleep?
Of course, in this national festival of survival, some haven't had to survive just yet. Those include No. 5 Washington and No. 4 Michigan, both idle Saturday, and, of course, No. 1 Alabama, unscathed but for a few hairy moments in Mississippi, which could happen to anyone.
When Alabama (7-0) mauled No. 9 Tennessee, 49-10, on Saturday, it pleased Saban - "as proud of our team as I've been all year long" - and lifted its "NOT" total to a whopping 11. "NOT" stands for non-offensive touchdowns, and the Crimson Tide has 11 of them this year: five on interception returns, three on fumble returns and three on punt returns. Safety Eddie Jackson, who has three himself this year, added a 79-yard punt return to the interception and punt returns he already had.
Imagine the Alabama defense sitting around together, comparing touchdowns; they've got touchdowns from four defensive backs, one defensive end, one nose guard, one cornerback and one hybrid end-linebacker. It's almost as if you're uncool if you don't have one, and it's almost as if Alabama hasn't realized that, given college football history, it's being too kind to its fans' nerve endings.