The College Football Playoff selection committee released its first set of rankings Tuesday, the initial salvo in the sport’s controversy-industrial complex that roars to life every November. And the committee wasted little time in working everybody into a froth by ranking defending champion Clemson at No. 5, below similarly undefeated Ohio State, LSU, Alabama and Penn State. It’s the first time in CFP history that the defending champion has not been ranked among the top four teams in the season’s initial poll.
|Year||Defending Champion||Record||Initial ranking|
|2015||Ohio State||8-0||No. 3|
Most people are pointing to the ACC, and not Clemson specifically, as the reason for this very premature slight. And why not? The ACC is terrible: Only two teams from the conference — the Tigers and Wake Forest — earned spots in the initial CFP rankings. For comparison’s sake, the less-esteemed American Athletic Conference has four, and the AAC West Division’s average rating in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric tops both of the ACC’s divisions (along with that of the Pac-12 South). Take away awful Connecticut, and the AAC as a whole would rate higher than the ACC as a whole in SP+.
But fear not, Clemson fans. The Tigers are not getting left out of the playoff should they run the table (at N.C. State on Saturday, home vs. No. 19 Wake Forest on Nov. 16, home vs. South Carolina on Nov. 30 and then a presumptive spot in the ACC title game on Dec. 7). Here’s why:
1. The CFP selection committee is not leaving an undefeated Power 5 team out of the playoff.
It just won’t. Take 2014, the first year of the playoff when defending BCS champion Florida State finished the regular season as the only undefeated Power 5 team in the country. The Seminoles that year hardly looked strong down the stretch, winning their final three regular season games and the ACC championship game by a combined 14 points. Nevertheless, the committee rewarded Florida State for its unbeaten run with a No. 3 seed in the playoff.
Imagine if Clemson goes undefeated in the regular season, wins the ACC title, gets left out of the playoff and then wins its bowl game to finish undefeated. The Tigers would have a claim to the national title, and multiple claims to the national title is exactly what the CFP was supposed to eliminate. The committee knows this and wants no part of it.
2. There won’t be that many undefeated teams left at the end of the season.
At least two of the four teams ahead of Clemson in the rankings will not finish the season undefeated, as all four of them play one another (LSU at Alabama on Saturday, Penn State at Ohio State on Nov. 23). No. 17 Minnesota, also undefeated, still has to play Penn State (on Saturday) plus Iowa and Wisconsin (both of which are ranked). No. 12 Baylor, which is 8-0, has to get through Oklahoma and Texas plus a possible Big 12 title game to stay unbeaten.
Again, the committee isn’t leaving Clemson out of the playoff if it’s undefeated, and especially if it’s one of only three undefeated Power 5 teams.
3. Clemson is getting better with every game.
The Tigers’ narrow win over North Carolina (now 4-5) on Sept. 28, when the Tar Heels were a failed two-point conversion away from scoring the biggest upset of the season, seems to be stuck in everyone’s head. Here’s Clemson’s margins of victory since: 31, 35, 52 and 45, and two of those games were against teams with winning records. The Tigers have allowed 31 points total over their past 12 quarters; take away the 14 points Wofford somehow put up in the third quarter Saturday, and those numbers go down to 17 points in 11 quarters.
Again, all Clemson has to do is beat North Carolina State (they’re favored by 32½ as of Wednesday), Wake Forest (spitballing projected spread: Clemson by around 25) and South Carolina (Clemson by around 18) and then win in the ACC title game. A loss would make things tricky, obviously, but a loss also would be kind of surprising.
ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, for one, thinks Clemson is in perfect position for the stretch run.
“Dabo Swinney went out last night and got an RC Cola and a pizza and celebrated, because he can finally be an underdog again,” Finebaum said. “He didn’t like being number one. They didn’t play very well. And now, I think, Clemson is the most dangerous team in the country.”
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