From the Rivals corner: Inside Clemson's pursuit of perfection, Baylor's big shot 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 brings a losing proposition for Clemson, a proving ground for Baylor and a chance for Missouri to provide its coach with a touch of much-needed security. 

HIGH-RISK, NO-REWARD WEEKEND FOR CLEMSON 

Clemson currently sits at No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but there’s at least some semblance of concern that its strength of schedule may not be enough to keep it there should things break a certain way in the SEC and Big Ten. So while the respect narrative is college football’s most overplayed trope, this installment of the debate could have meaning because Dabo Swinney and company have absolutely no margin for error. 

Even this weekend’s meeting with 7-2 Wake Forest comes with diminished luster, as Demon Deacons star wideout Sage Surratt was ruled out for the season this week, giving the College Football Playoff committee another reason to side-eye a potential Clemson victory and the Tigers’ résumé as a whole. Lose to a formidable opponent and you’re all but eliminated from the national title conversation. Win and have your effort dismissed. 

Clemson's Dabo Swinney yells to an official during the fourth quarter of a game against North Carolina on Sept. 28, 2019. (AP)

Alas, we’ve arrived in a place that sees the defending national champions, a team that hasn’t lost a game in nearly two full seasons, answering what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-type questions. Larry Williams, who covers the program at TigerIllustrated.com, is as familiar as anybody with the narrative being spun. 

“I'd doubt that a great performance against Wake Forest would make much difference to the people who are hung up on Clemson's weak schedule,” Williams said. “Wake's blowout loss at Virginia Tech last week took most of the shine off of this matchup as it relates to the Deacons being a victim that truly moves the needle if you blow them out.

“The players and coaches viewed the No. 5 ranking [the first week the rankings were released] as disrespectful given the track record and credibility they've built up. They think people are quick to give Alabama the benefit of the doubt based on the Tide's track record, all the while pouncing on whatever occasional flaws Clemson might show as it once again rolls to an undefeated season.”

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BAYLOR LOOKS TO ADD EXCLAMATION POINT TO SEASON

When Matt Rhule took over Baylor prior to last season, the program was marred by a widespread sexual assault scandal that resulted in the removal of the previous coaching staff. It was also coming off of a 1-11 season. People wondered why a buzzed-about young coach such as Rhule would accept the Bears’ job at all. Less than two years later, the career-suicide narrative is dead.

Rhule now has the Bears sitting at 9-0 and sitting at 12th in the College Football Playoff rankings. The turnaround was quick and succinct. And, oh yeah, it could yield a Big 12 title. 

Of course there are hurdles between Baylor and that last part — most notable, this weekend’s game with a 8-1 Oklahoma team most expected to win the league. 

Suddenly, however, Rhule and company are not only involved in the game of the weekend but also the national title picture. Kevin Lonnquist covers the Bears at SicEmSports.com and sees Saturday’s clash with Oklahoma as a signpost game not just for the season, but for the program as a whole.

Beating Oklahoma would be that landmark victory that would show that Baylor can compete with the elite in the country,” Lonnquist said. “I think that's one of the final two hurdles this program would have to cross to be seriously considered for the national stage. The program has shown it can win. It has shown that it can beat solid competition. The hurdles are beating programs like Oklahoma and winning the Big 12.”

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CAN MISSOURI FINALLY ANSWER TO THE BELL?

Not long ago, there was optimism surrounding Missouri’s season. No, really. There was. The Tigers opened the season 5-1 with victories over three Power Five opponents. They haven’t won since, however, and now sit at 5-4 heading into a game against No. 11 Florida.  

If there were ever a time to snap out of whatever funk caused the losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, as well as a shutout at Georgia, this weekend is it. What’s most concerning, however, is that nobody seems to have any idea what caused said funk.

“Mizzou had a lot of defensive touchdowns in the first six weeks and maybe those masked the fact that the offense wasn’t that good to begin with,” said Gabe DeArmond, who covers the Tigers at PowerMizzou.com. “But now it’s not even competent. They scored 14 against Vandy, seven against Kentucky and none against Georgia. They’re getting worse as time goes on. They don’t throw it very well, don’t catch it well, can’t run it, can’t block and commit a lot of penalties. Other than that, things are going well.”

Whatever the cause, head coach Barry Odom may be on the verge of serious trouble. And while few expect Mizzo to steal a win from the Gators this weekend, an upset would certainly provide a dash of job security for a guy that desperately needs it. 

“There’s no doubt there’s heat on Barry Odom from the fan base,” DeArmond said. “The only question I really get asked anymore is, ‘When are they firing him?’ A win this week would at least allow me to be able to give an answer that they aren’t. But Missouri almost can’t salvage this season. Even if they win out, people are going to think, “You were 8-4 … and lost to Vanderbilt and Wyoming and a Kentucky team that was playing a wide receiver at quarterback.”

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