A 12-1 season for the Clemson Tigers was enough to get them into the 2016 College Football Playoff. In fact, it was a good enough yearly performance to have them ranked as the number-two team in the country. And yet, ESPN FPI gives the Tigers just a 19 percent chance of winning the national championship, ranking third behind both Alabama and Ohio State.
That is because Clemson's 12-1 record seems to have been claimed on shaky footing, especially compared to its performance from last season. There were the one-score victories in the first two weeks of the regular season that set everyone's Clemson expectations back considerably. There were the minuscule victories over Louisville and then NC State and then Florida State. The NC State game especially could (or should) have gone against the Tigers, as the Wolfpack missed a chip-shot field goal at the end that would have sealed the game.
A close loss to Pittsburgh followed weeks later, solidifying people's beliefs that Clemson wasn't as good as its record indicated. Except the team never lost another game, holding on in the ACC championship against Virginia Tech to complete the 12-1 year.
Where other teams faltered and fell, Clemson encountered struggles but only once fell victim to the upset. In a year where everyone outside of Alabama displayed numerous slip-ups, the Tigers put together a "good enough" season to be rightfully considered one of the nation's best teams.
Clemson ended up being the only other solid playoff choice outside of the Crimson Tide. There was no controversy with the selection. Clemson had won its conference; Clemson had scheduled (and defeated) at least one quality out-of-conference opponent; it defeated all the other main contenders in its conference, both on the road or in a neutral site. There was really nothing more Clemson could have done this year other than the ambiguous wish that it looked better in some of its victories. That's pretty pedantic and probably asking too much of a college football team.
The Tigers will be the fake home team in Arizona when they face the Buckeyes in the national semifinal. They also have a really good chance of advancing. Ohio State is an elite club defensively but struggles on the offensive side. OSU has had a poor passing attack all season (ranked 54th in Passing S&P+). If Clemson finds some space to make plays, it is hard to imagine Ohio State being able to hang with it on the scoreboard.
Heisman candidate Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the Tigers' best player. On the surface, he doesn't seem as good as he was a year ago, like his team at-large. However, that is only because his running has been reined in, perhaps saving him for the biggest games. Watson's best game on the ground came in his latest game: the ACC title against VT. That could be a pattern heading into the playoff. A harnessed Watson was good enough to go 12-1. A dual-threat Watson is good enough to win a national championship.