Defending champion Clemson entered the season as the overwhelming preseason No. 1, and without losing a game or superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence or any of their other standouts, the Tigers find themselves No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff ranking.
As improbable as that might have seemed back in August, the selection committee made a resounding statement with its first selections on Tuesday: The Tigers are not only being held to a higher standard than everyone else, but they are also being punished for playing in the ACC.
Specifically, they are being punished for a one-point win over North Carolina.
It is obvious when you compare the résumés of Clemson and No. 3 Alabama. Neither the Tigers nor the Crimson Tide have beaten a team ranked in the top 25. They share the same “best” win: Texas A&M. Clemson has beaten more Power 5 teams than Alabama has. Clemson has beaten more teams with winning records than Alabama has. Clemson’s opponents have a better overall win percentage than Alabama’s.
What is very clearly holding Clemson back is a closer-than-expected 21-20 road win against North Carolina, which currently has a losing record. The Tigers have been in several other close games against ACC opponents in years when they made the College Football Playoff, and it didn’t seem to hurt them as much (last year’s 27-23 win over Syracuse, for example). The difference this season is what appears to be overwhelming agreement that the ACC is the worst among the Power 5 conferences.
It doesn’t help that No. 19 Wake Forest is the only other ranked ACC team. It doesn’t help that Syracuse has had a dreadful season one year after winning 10 games. It doesn’t help that Florida State and Miami are average at best.
Nothing, it seems, helps Clemson: Not a better schedule than Alabama’s to this point. Not a win margin of 29.4 points (that includes the one-point win over North Carolina). Not seven games in which it has scored 40 or more points. Not a 24-game winning streak or its title as defending champion. Not even the advanced metrics, such as FPI and SP+, which both rate Clemson higher than Penn State.
The selection committee has made clear that it will judge each team based on this season and this season alone. Clemson is not going to get some sort of pass for winning the national title last season, even if the Tigers are the first defending champs to be outside the top four in the initial rankings. But the committee also has emphasized the “eye test,” and the thought was that overall schedule strength would be one among many factors it considers.
Since a lousy first quarter against Louisville on Oct. 19, Clemson has outscored its opponents 160-31. Two of its past three wins have come against ACC teams with winning records. Lawrence has not thrown an interception in his past seven quarters, and the Clemson offense seems to have hit its groove. And oh, by the way, the starters have played a complete game twice this season.
After the North Carolina victory, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney defended his program, saying, “It’s not easy to win. I know we’re supposed to destroy everybody, like nobody else has scholarships, nobody else has coaches. It doesn’t work that way. We’re just normal people. There’s nothing special about us. We’re not perfect. We don’t coach perfect. Unfortunately, we don’t play perfect every down, every game, but we found a way to win an ugly game.”
The truth is nobody wants to see Clemson win an ugly game against competition others deem unworthy. There appears to be little that Clemson could have done to avoid this scenario, except beat North Carolina by 30. But even then, you have to wonder whether the Tigers would be any higher than they are now, given the expectation level relative to that of the competition. Having their starters play every snap in every game likely would not have made a difference.
During his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Swinney questioned why Alabama always gets the benefit of the doubt for beating up on its conference opponents, but Clemson does not.
“It is just the same ol’ spin,” he said.
He added that he wasn’t sure if he would even watch to see where his team was ranked.
“It just doesn’t matter,” Swinney said. “If we’re 2, 3, 4, 15 — it just doesn’t matter. It’s not worth the brain cells. We just go to work and try to have a good Wednesday practice.”
Granted, all of this will change once LSU and Alabama play this weekend. Penn State has a tough game on Saturday at undefeated Minnesota, and then the Nittany Lions face No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 23 in Columbus.
If Clemson wins out, the Tigers are almost assuredly in. But these rankings reveal that there is no margin for error for the defending champs. It is hard to envision a scenario in which they can overcome a loss, the way they did in their 2016 championship season, unless there is absolute chaos down the stretch.
No matter what Swinney says, Clemson needs to be perfect. But even then, there will be questions about how good this team is if it does, indeed, make it back to the playoff.