That wide receiver, Dabo Swinney, is pretty much a Meryl Streep of the conference championship games by now, for at least two reasons: You wouldn’t hold these occasions anymore without nominating him, and he has mastered some drama of late. As his national mastodon preps to play Virginia, Clemson has won the past four ACC championship games by 45-37 over North Carolina, 42-35 over Virginia Tech, 38-3 over Miami and 42-10 over Pittsburgh.
Worse yet, Swinney’s past five teams stand 67-4, a coaching nightmare that can drive one to extremes in seeking out potential areas of player motivation, leaving a poor dynastic coach to manufacture a national disrespect for Clemson.
In fact, Clemson’s bout with Virginia stands as a fait so very accompli that almost nobody among 320 million citizens has discussed what might happen to the playoff scenario if Virginia were to win. Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall felt moved to say last week in Charlottesville: “It’s not an accident that we’re going. We don’t intend to take a trip to see what it looks like [in Charlotte]. We’re going to go try win the game.”
Oddsmakers view that try as distinctively futile, with Clemson favored by 28½ because 28 alone didn’t seem to cut it.
There’s a prevailing feel of chalk, especially as conference championship games have spent recent seasons majoring in chalk. Only two of the past 22 Power Five title games across five seasons entering this year resulted in upsets, and neither came close to matching the shock of No. 10 Michigan State’s 34-24 upset of No. 2 Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game. The “upsets” have been Penn State over Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten (line: 2½ ) and, if you can believe this, Ohio State over Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten, when Ohio State overcame its four-point-underdog status and its two injured quarterbacks to pull out a 59-0 win.
Nobody this weekend is favored by just a smidgen: Clemson by 28½ , Ohio State by 16½ , Oklahoma by nine, LSU by seven, Utah by 6½ . If favorites win this weekend as favorites tend to do upon this weekend (Utah notwithstanding), the committee probably will place Ohio State at No. 1, LSU at No. 2, Clemson at No. 3 and Oklahoma or maybe Georgia at No. 4.
Still, they’ll play — and like — these games that many college football scientists recommend ditching to help usher in an eight-team playoff.
“It’s really good to have a press conference today,” LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told reporters in Baton Rouge on Monday, with an understanding that without an SEC championship game to combat, LSU would not have a press conference.
At Baylor’s press conference, its great coach, Matt Rhule, even thanked his athletic director, something people seldom do, and said, “I’m so grateful for that part of this, and that’s why getting to 11-1 and going to the conference championship game means a lot to me, because there’s so many people who believed when it was hard to believe” — in 2017, when Rhule’s first Baylor team went 1-11.
“We’re certainly thankful for getting the opportunity to play another game,” Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst told reporters in Madison, his words sounding brave considering his excellent team took a 38-7 dent from Ohio State on Oct. 26.
In Orgeron’s case, he’s happy even though it turns out his dazzling, hip, breakthrough team ends up with a de facto road game, with Georgia making a third consecutive appearance under Kirby Smart, and with Athens still just a 90-minute drive from Atlanta, or three hours in certain conditions.
“I know our fans are going to be there,” Orgeron said. “I feel good about that. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had great fans. But we will treat this game as an away game. We’ll have crowd noise [in practice] on Tuesday, Wednesday. We’ll be very well-prepared for all the Georgia fight songs. They’ll play on our field all week.”
Five teams — Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma — make return visits from last year, while LSU appears for the first time in eight years, Oregon for the first time in five and Wisconsin for the first time in two. Two teams — Baylor and Virginia — debut. Both do so while a country so enamored of speculating has digested their defeats already to discuss, say, the Georgia-vs.-Oklahoma puzzle for the coveted No. 4 spot.
That leaves Rhule, who reached two title games in the excellent American Athletic Conference (going 1-1 at Temple), out there in an ideal coaching situation, an inverse to Swinney’s predicament as runaway favorite.
Said Rhule: “We haven’t had a lot of success when we’ve talked about, ‘Hey, if we do this, we get this.’ You know what I mean?”
Others must talk about it for them, as in: If they do this, it will be the biggest upset in recent years of conference championship games, and a gobsmacked populace can cease wrangling about Oklahoma or Georgia.