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Statistical Outlook: Inspecting Clemson and Other Top Contenders

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Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

We’re now at the halfway mark of the college football regular season. As Clemson enters their bye week, we take a moment to take stock of the Clemson’s path to the playoff and the broader landscape by looking at a few simplified statistics. Below are the S&P+ advanced stat rankings (overall, offense, defense) and well as yards per play and yards per play allowed for the teams that I consider to be playoff contenders plus NC State.

Statistical Overview - Playoff Contenders

Team S&P+ Rank S&P+ Offense Rank Offensive Yards per Play S&P+ Defense Rank Defensive Yards Per Play Allowed
Team S&P+ Rank S&P+ Offense Rank Offensive Yards per Play S&P+ Defense Rank Defensive Yards Per Play Allowed
Alabama 1 1 8.23 18 4.73
Clemson 2 10 7.03 4 4.16
Georgia 3 5 7.26 19 4.35
Ohio State 4 2 7.10 27 5.34
Michigan 5 25 6.37 2 3.58
Notre Dame 8 8 5.84 5 4.49
Washington 10 29 6.59 7 4.24
West Virginia 11 7 7.78 47 4.96
Wisconsin 13 8 6.70 55 5.52
Miami 16 39 6.38 14 3.96
NC State 22 34 6.46 26 5.30

Clemson

There’s been a bit of frustration in Clemson circles about a perceived sloppy start to the season. The Tigers were slow to get going in wins over Furman and Georgia Southern, let Texas A&M creep back into the game and nearly send it to overtime, and were a play away from losing at home to Syracuse - who just lost to Pittsburgh! Despite that, Clemson is one of just two teams in the country that rank in the top 10 in both S&P+ offense (#10) and defense (#4). While they trail Georgia and Ohio State in many national polls, the S&P+ still has Alabama and Clemson as #1 and #2, respectively.

It’s particularly hard to gauge Clemson because of the QB change and the schedule they’ve faced. Below is Clemson’s schedule sorted by S&P+ overall ranking:

  • Texas A&M: 17
  • Georgia Tech: 56
  • Syracuse: 60
  • Georgia Southern: 65
  • Wake Forest: 89
  • Furman: FCS

Fortunately for Clemson, the Aggie’s knocked off undefeated Kentucky and jumped 5 spots to #17 in the S&P+ rankings. That win may age well. Even if they lose to Mississippi State and LSU, 8-4 with their schedule would be impressive.

Clemson has played three triple-option offenses, one pro-style offense, and a pair of spread/tempo offenses. It wasn’t until these past two games that our defensive line had a chance to demonstrate their dominance. The Xavier Thomas pseudo-clincher sack against Eric Dungey made a statement, but I was even more impressed with how they ransacked the Deacon’s rushing attack. Sure, Wake isn’t good, but that’s mostly due to their defense. Their offense had been ok, scoring 34 and 27 against Boston College and Notre Dame respectively. Clemson locked up their rushing attack until garbage time when QB Kendall Hinton started picking up some yards on the ground. They were often in the backfield hitting the RB while he was still receiving the handoff.

Clemson is only allowing 2.26 YPC to opposing rushers. Those triple-option teams obviously comprise an out-sized chunk of that average, but after Georgia Tech’s 66-point shellacking of Louisville that no longer seems like a major distortion. Alabama is allowing 1.7 YPC more than Clemson at 3.96. Clemson’s defense is better than Alabama’s and that’s reflected in the S&P+ rankings.

That’s not to say Clemson is ready to beat Alabama yet. The Tigers’ offense will need to be clicking on all gears to keep up with what Alabama is now doing on offense with the heavy Heisman favorite leading an offense like we’ve never seen at Alabama. A sluggish start against Wake Forest means you win by 60 instead of 67, but against Alabama it could spell doom.

That’s in the distance, but next, Clemson must focus on the biggest test remaining on their schedule, NC State. The Wolfpack sit at 5-0 (2-0) with an FCS win, two Group of Five wins, and ACC wins over Virginia and Boston College. QB Ryan Finley has a 70% completion percentage and is averaging 324 passing yards and two passing TDs per game.

His best receiver, Kelvin Harmon, has 33 catches for 534 yards and 2 TDs. For perspective, Higgins and Ross have combined for 32 catches. NC State’s primary running back, Reggie Gallaspy II is only averaging 3.6 YPC. All four of Clemson’s scholarship running backs are averaging at least 5.1 YPC. NC State has been fairly balanced, but I expect Clemson to completely stonewall their rushing attack leaving Ryan Finley to carry the offense.

NC State’s defense has been better than expected. They lost loads of talent to the NFL, but have still fielded the 26th best defense (S&P+). They deserve kudos there, as a bigger drop off could have been expected. Their defense is statistically similar to Ohio State, which ranks one spot below them in the S&P+ and is allowing 0.04 yards per play more. Of course, that has come against a very poor schedule, but the S&P+ is opponent adjusted.

Thinking about their schedule highlight and important point for Clemson. For all the talk that Clemson has to go undefeated to make the playoff, a loss here would be even more catastrophic. Looking ahead, it’s unlikely NC State drops two ACC games after the Clemson game. After Clemson, they have: Syracuse (just lost to Pitt), Florida State (just lost to Miami), Wake Forest (just lost by 60 to Clemson), Louisville (just lost to GT by 35), and North Carolina (bye week after a 37 point loss to Miami). If Clemson loses this game, they’re likely not winning the Atlantic Division and will be left to play for a fifth straight Palmetto Bowl and a trip to the Peach Bowl.

Fortunately, Clemson controls their own destiny. Take care of business against six inferior opponents, then go to Charlotte and beat the Coastal Champ and we’re in!

Notre Dame

Notre Dame looks like a legitimate playoff team. They rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense and have been looking better as of late. In their last three games (at Wake Forest, Stanford, at Virginia Tech) they tallied three wins by an average score of 46-22. Much like Clemson, they moved from a run-oriented QB (Wimbush) to their more talented passer (Book) and their offense has shown more production and upside.

They deserve their top five ranking and Clemson fans needn’t worry about them ruining Clemson’s playoff plans. With Oklahoma’s loss and an eventual Alabama/Georgia tilt in Atlanta, Clemson is firmly entrenched in the top four. In fact, Notre Dame boosting their brand with a playoff appearance serves the ACC well financially as their brand in inextricably tied to ACC TV money. Furthermore, if Clemson is to lose a game they would likely not be the first one loss team to get back in the playoff. Their schedule features just two current top 40 (S&P) teams (A&M and NCSU) with the next best teams being Duke (42), South Carolina (46), and Boston College (51).

The teams that need a Notre Dame loss most are Penn State, Michigan, Georgia, and West Virginia. Of course, chaos always comes and clears up these issues.

Georgia

I pity the Bulldogs. They’re probably one of the four best teams, but if Alabama goes undefeated and beats them in the SEC Championship they will likely be left out. The committee would have to place the Big 10 champion in over them and if Clemson and Notre Dame go undefeated they’re out. West Virginia could even be ahead of them if they manage to beat OU and Texas (and one of them again).

Ohio State

The Buckeyes are not what I expected. They’ve allowed an average of 28 points against P5 opponents not named Rutgers. Meanwhile, Dwayne Haskins has been fantastic at QB and may earn himself a Heisman invitation.

Their defensive end Nick Bosa was injured in their win over TCU, but that was after they allowed 31 points to Oregon State. It’ll be interesting to see if their defense turns the corner. If so, they’ll be very dangerous in a playoff when it’s paired with their exceptional offense. If not, Michigan has a real shot to challenge them (it’s in the Big House) and even if they get by that I’d feel good about a matchup with the Buckeyes.

Travis Etienne

I’d like to turn it back to Clemson to wrap up the article. Last week, I argued that Travis Etienne belongs in the Heisman conversation. This was met with an unexpectedly positive reception from Clemson fans and a mostly positive response from other fan bases. Some disagreed however.

Week 6 was good for his candidacy. He tallied 167 yards and 3 TDs on only 10 carries. This pushed his YPC to 9.2 and gives him 11 rushing TDs. He is now second among P5 RBs in rushing TDs (behind Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson), 1st in YPC, and 3rd in total rushing yards.

Obviously the conversation at the moment is who else gets invited when Tua Tagovailoa is awarded the Heisman, but the invite is an honor nonetheless. With Kyler Murray’s Sooners losing last week and Jonathan Taylor’s Badgers looking at a potential second loss next week against Michigan, Travis Etienne should begin creeping up voters Heisman ballots.