FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Earlier this month, Clemson safety Jayron Kearse received messages from players he would typically consider rivals. He required no reinforcement of the importance of Clemson’s college football playoff showdown against Oklahoma, the winner of which will play for the national title. Members of the Florida State Seminoles wanted him to remember another strain of motivation.
“They’re telling me, ‘Put on for the ACC,’ things like that,” Kearse said. “They did it one year. They went to the playoffs last year. Right now, we feel like we have the ACC on our back. We’re going to try to carry it to the best of our abilities.”
When the Orange Bowl kicks off Thursday at 4 p.m., the foremost concern of No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma will be on their own upshot – their season ends, or they play for the big trophy. The playoff game will also offer a one-game referendum — no matter how frivolous the idea — of the strength of the Big 12 and the ACC, perhaps the two most-maligned conferences among the Power 5.
The rest of college football remains suspicious of the ACC, Florida State’s national title two years ago notwithstanding, especially after Oregon drubbed the Seminoles in last season’s playoff. The Big 12, the lone Power 5 conference without a title game to showcase its best teams, did not send a team to the playoff last season and boasts the fourth seed, and therefore the last team to make the cut, this year. If Alabama beats Michigan State, it will leave either the ACC or the Big 12 as the lone conference to win a playoff game.
Is it rational to gauge a conference’s relative strength on the basis of one game, like some gridiron version of single combat? Surely, it is not. But if you are looking for rational, college football is the wrong place to start. The hot take machine is already humming, and the missives are already being prepared, ready to be typed on message boards and spoken by rival coaches in living rooms. If Oklahoma loses, it will be more evidence of the Big 12’s slippage. If Clemson falls, the ACC will reinforce its status as the stepchild of the Power 5.
If you don’t believe the playoff’s impact on conference reputation, remember last year. Ohio State flipped the perception of the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes’ sudden rise combined with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan elevated the entire conference. The committee left out TCU and Baylor, the co-champions many believed would have been worthy. Oklahoma has the chance to suggest the Big 12 deserved representation last season and prove it shouldn’t be passed over again in the future.
“It really hurt us,” Sooners defensive lineman Charles Tapper said. “There were two teams that should have been in it. They could definitely been in the playoffs and probably won the playoffs. If we go out there and we dominate, the Big 12 would definitely take a big step up.”
To be sure, not all the participants are as preoccupied by measuring conferences. “I definitely think a lot of guys in the … Big 12? Is it Big 12?” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “Big Ten or Big 12, I get them confused. I definitely think a lot of guys in the Big 12 are happy to have Oklahoma represent them.”
The college football playoff committee is not supposed to take prior seasons into account when it chooses the best four teams. As OU Coach Bob Stoops said, “Every year is a new year.” But the committee is composed of humans, and humans are nothing if not a collection of biases. They can say the way conferences stack up in significant games will not leave an imprint on their selections. Perception, though, is hard to sandblast from a brain. The winner of this year’s playoff games could well impact the composition of next year’s bracket.
It can also affect recruiting classes. SEC coaches can no longer tell recruits that they won’t play for national titles if they choose a Big Ten or ACC school – Ohio State and Florida State proved it false. The Big 12, meanwhile, has not won a national championship since Vince Young led Texas to the BCS title in 2005. And coaches use conference standing as a weapon in recruiting.
“They’re always talking about conferences,” Kearse said. “They know guys want to play against the best, play with the best. So that comes up a lot. When the SEC school is coming to you, that’s the first thing they say: ‘Wouldn’t you like to play in the SEC?’ ”
For Clemson and Oklahoma, a lesser bowl may have provided a clue to the relative strength of each conference. Tuesday in the Russell Athletic Bowl – the game in which Clemson battered Oklahoma, 40-6, last year – the Big 12’s Baylor thumped ACC runner-up North Carolina.
On Thursday, the Tigers and Sooners will render that matchup wholly irrelevant, and add their own arguments to the ongoing conference warfare, whatever that means or doesn’t.
“It’s really just about Clemson and Oklahoma right now,” Boulware said. “It is ACC versus Big 12. Whatever. We’re focused on Clemson.”