The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clemson had four big hurdles to the College Football Playoff. It’s already cleared two of them.

Christian Wilkins (No. 42) and Jalen Williams (No. 30) celebrate in the fourth quarter of Clemson’s win at Louisville on Saturday night. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Cade Massey, a practice professor at the Wharton School, and Rufus Peabody, a Washington-based sports analyst, developed this ranking system for projecting future performance. Ratings represent a team’s predicted point differential against an average team on a neutral field. Current season statistics are adjusted for home field, opponent and game situation, blended with preseason expectations and weighted by their predictive ability.

As prognosticators forecast this college football season a month ago, bandwagons loaded up for Florida State, Ohio State, Southern Cal and, inevitably, Alabama. Somewhat overlooked was the reigning national champions. Clemson lost too many players, the thinking went, most notably otherworldly quarterback Deshaun Watson.

No one is overlooking the Tigers now. Clemson’s 47-21 thrashing of 14th-ranked Louisville was a loud retort to those who believed last season was merely charmed. Three weeks into this college football season — and a hurricane-shortened three weeks at that — Clemson has improved its status on the national landscape with each game. Can the Tigers repeat? As always when projecting college football, we need to consider three factors: team, schedule and the field.


Clemson slides into the No. 2 spot in our power rankings this week, just below Alabama. If those two teams met this week on a neutral field, we’d expect the Tide to be favored, but by only 1.5 points. That is a dramatic tightening — just three weeks ago, we would have projected that line at 10 points. Alabama has come back to the field a bit, but Clemson has risen sharply, with the fifth-biggest jump in our numbers since the start of the season.

That jump has been led by the country’s second-best defense. After limiting Auburn to 117 total yards a week earlier, Clemson flummoxed reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson on Saturday night in Louisville. Before the game turned into extended garbage time late in the third quarter, Clemson held Louisville to under 200 yards and Jackson to harmless sideline passes. A year ago, Jackson accounted for 457 total yards in a 42-36 barnburner that Watson rescued for the Tigers in the final minutes.

Kelly Bryant is filling Watson’s shoes surprisingly well. Known best for his legs, Bryant guided the Tigers’ rushing attack to 297 yards and four touchdowns, including two himself. But he also completed 22 of 32 passes for another 316 yards. That combination makes Clemson the country’s No. 4 offense in our rankings, which blend preseason expectations with in-season performance.

We grade each game using the same model as our power rankings. The goal isn’t to figure out what happened in that game, but what it bodes for future games. Clemson has had three top-five games in three weeks so far, including this week’s best against Louisville. No other team has more than one.


The Tigers entered the season with four big regular season challenges on the schedule, and with wins over Auburn and Louisville, they already have cleared two of them. In two weeks they travel to Virginia Tech for the first of what might be two games against the Hokies this year. We expect the Tigers to be favored there (minus-8), and when they host Florida State in November (minus-5.5). All other games will be double-digit lines and, except for North Carolina State (minus-14), likely 20 points or more.  Do we expect them to go undefeated? No. It’s unwise to expect perfection this early, but we forecast them to finish the regular season 11-1, with a 64 percent chance of winning the ACC Atlantic.

The ACC title game is a legitimate risk to Clemson’s playoff hopes. While they would be strongly favored against either Virginia Tech or Miami, those Coastal favorites are underappreciated around the country. Indeed, we assess the ACC’s big four (Clemson, FSU, Virginia Tech and Miami) to be every bit the equal of the more highly lauded big four from the Big Ten (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan). Clemson is the clear favorite to emerge from this group, but we put their chances of winning the conference at “just” 50 percent.


At this point in the season we have to take national forecasts with a healthy skepticism. Somewhere a lock will fail, an upstart will emerge and a conference will self-destruct. What we can say is that the conferences look more competitive than they did last year. With the exception of Alabama in the Southeastern Conference, every strong team has a clear conference rival (or three). This matters because the playoff is a numbers game. Each good team is hurt by the existence, anywhere, of another good team. Right now we’re looking at a lot of good teams.

Our simulations show 10 teams with at least a 14-percent chance of making the playoff and another eight with at least a 5 percent chance (see table). That’s a deep field.

We give Clemson a 50 percent chance to make it into the playoff, more-or-less their odds of winning the ACC. That’s third behind Alabama (58 percent) and Oklahoma (53 percent), and ahead of Ohio State (38 percent). The next two teams, USC (36 percent) and Washington (24 percent), continue their march to what already seems like an inevitable Pacific-12 championship game.

Team MP MP Rank E(Ws) E(Ls) P(L<2) Conf Champ Playoff
Alabama 28.61 1 11 1 75% 55% 58%
Oklahoma 26.12 4 10.9 1.1 71% 58% 53%
Clemson 27.23 2 10.9 1.1 70% 49% 50%
Ohio State 26.46 3 10.3 1.7 50% 55% 38%
USC 21.05 6 10.6 1.4 59% 47% 36%
Washington 18.84 8 10.1 1.9 45% 28% 24%
Wisconsin 18.02 11 10.5 1.5 56% 23% 21%
Florida State 24.66 5 7.5 2.5 19% 23% 16%
Penn State 19.5 7 9.9 2.1 34% 11% 15%
Okla. State 18.74 9 9.7 2.3 30% 19% 14%
Va. Tech 16.41 13 9.4 2.6 24% 11% 9%
Miami (FL) 14.3 20 7.4 2.6 27% 9% 8%
TCU 16.29 14 9.1 2.9 17% 12% 8%
Michigan 15.22 18 8.7 3.3 12% 5% 6%
Georgia 15.66 15 8.9 3.1 18% 12% 6%
Miss. State 15.38 16 8.7 3.3 11% 6% 5%
Oregon 13.18 22 8.7 3.3 13% 7% 5%
Auburn 18.63 10 8.4 3.6 6% 12% 5%

Michael Salfino contributed to this report.

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