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Clemson's Narrow Path To The College Football Playoff

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson is now 7-0 and, following Florida State's loss to Georgia Tech, the best chance the ACC has to send a team to the college football playoff. The lack of respect the ACC is shown by the media, some real and some imagined, has led to some consternation about Clemson getting left out of the playoffs. Below, we look at what is a rather narrow path for Clemson to make the college football playoffs.

If Clemson is undefeated at the end of the regular season, they will get into the college football playoff. Period. Full Stop. No discussion.

Now, I could move on to what happens if Clemson has 1 loss, but there has been talk about what if Clemson got jumped by a 1 loss team or what would happen if there are more than 4 undefeated teams. I wanted to explore those possibilities.

First let's look at the chances of having more than 4 undefeated teams. Going back to the 2005 regular season, only 1 season has seen more than 4 undefeated teams. That season saw 5 teams: Alabama, Texas, TCU (then in the Mountain West), Cincinnati, and Boise State. That is 3 teams in the BCS conferences and 2 G5 teams. No BCS conference team would have been left out of a playoff that year.

Every other year, there hasn't even been more than 2 BCS conference teams ending the season undefeated. Since the beginning of the BCS system in 1999, only once has there been more than two undefeated teams from BCS conferences—in 2004 when Oklahoma, USC, and Auburn all finished the regular season undefeated.

But ok, you're still not convinced. What if this year is another 2009 type year? What if there are 5 undefeated teams? Let's look at how this season is going to play out. First let's assume Clemson wins out. Now let's look at the SEC. LSU is currently the only undefeated team in the conference. They still have to play Ole Miss, Alabama, and the SEC Championship game, possibly against Florida again. But for our argument let's pretend the Tigers from Deaf Valley go undefeated as well.

Next, we head over to the Pac-12. Utah's loss to USC on Saturday means the Pac-12 has ZERO undefeated teams left, and will likely have a 1-loss champion in Stanford or Utah.

Over in B1G land, we currently have 3 undefeated teams in Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa. OSU and Michigan State will play each other and the winner is likely going to the B1G Championship game where they could play an undefeated Iowa. After December 5th, the B1G will have at most 1 undefeated team. That gives us 3 undefeated teams.

Then we head down to the Big 12. We've got Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU all undefeated right now. Because of the round robin nature of the Big 12, only one of those teams will be undefeated at the end of the year. That gives college football 4 undefeated P5 champions. That would be your college football playoff. Even if a Memphis or Toledo finishes the season undefeated, they aren't jumping Clemson or any of the other P5 champions.

But the concern likely isn't a G5 champ, it is a 1 loss champion from a P5 conference. In the above scenario, we could be looking at a 1 loss SEC Champion, a 1 loss B1G runner up, Notre Dame, and a Pac-12 Champion with 1 loss. Notre Dame is a non-starter because they lost to Clemson. If Clemson had 1 loss it could happen, but even then it would be surprising. For the Pac-12, Stanford could make a play, but that loss to Northwestern isn't great, and based on today's rankings, their only top 25 victories would be against Notre Dame and Utah. Clemson would have 3 such wins.

The B1G isn't much better. An Ohio State or Michigan State, because Iowa certainly isn't jumping anyone, isn't going to end up with a great resume. They might have 2 wins over top 25 teams, if they are lucky. But, either team with a single loss would only have 1 top 25 victory, Michigan.

Now let's talk SEC. This is the scenario that scares everyone because of SECBIAS and some nonsense. Here we would have a 1 loss LSU team. Because of the remaining schedule, LSU is the only team that can finish with 1 loss and not be the conference champion. LSU would have a win against Florida, a win against Ole Miss, and either a loss or win against Alabama depending on if they lost to the Tide in 2 weeks or if they had a loss against Florida in the SEC Championship game. But even in this case, the argument is silly. You would then have a playoff pool of Florida (SEC Champ and 1 loss), Clemson (ACC Champ and undefeated), B1G Champ (undefeated), Big 12 Champ (undefeated), and LSU (1 loss no conference title). I just can't see the committee making that decision, and if they do, I think they'd drop the Big 12 Champ, not the ACC Champ.

If Clemson loses a game this year, we have a problem. The likely culprit would be FSU, and that loss would keep them out of the ACC Championship game. We would be counting on Syracuse—yuck—or NC State to beat FSU and give them a second loss. The odds of that aren't exactly spectacular. And no ACC title means no chance at Clemson making the playoff. Now if Clemson beats FSU but loses one of the other 3 ACC games on the schedule or loses to the Gamecocks? We have a dogfight with the Pac 12, Notre Dame, and maybe another team or two. We could end up with 1 loss, but so could every other conference champion. Then things look better for us. Or no one else could lose, and we'd be in trouble. We'll see.

In the end, the solution is simple for Clemson—just win out. Beat NC State this weekend, beat Florida State, defeat Syracuse, demolish Wake Forest, beat South Carolina, and go whip the ACC Coastal champ. We do that and we'll be heading to the College Football Playoff.