Clemson fans let out a collective sigh of relief Saturday evening when the Tigers escaped North Carolina with a one-point win and avoided a massive hit to their Playoff hopes. What’s never mentioned by critics of Clemson’s weak schedule is that along with a weak schedule comes absolutely no margin for error. Barring drastic changes to the perception of Clemson’s opponents, finishing this season with a record any worse than 13-0 puts the Tigers at serious risk for missing the Playoff.
We’ve discussed how pedigree could benefit them in a team-by-team comparison, but that’s not a crutch you want to rely on when a committee is poring through resumes at season’s end. Each season is supposed to be its own entity when the committee selects the field, and there will undoubtedly be teams with much stronger wins than the Tigers will be able to boast.
We could classify Clemson as a “loser” this week simply for its drop to No. 2 in the polls and the substantial knock to the team’s image nationally. We could also classify them as a “winner” for avoiding a potentially catastrophic loss and keeping their Playoff hopes intact. Instead we’ll just go right down the middle and give them a neutral grade this week, but they’ll want to return to dominance sooner rather than later because there is a host of teams playing better football right now.
Top teams not named Clemson - While Clemson was showing chinks in the armor against what should have been an over-matched opponent, teams like Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Auburn were busy beating conference foes of a similar caliber by an average of 35 points. It was no surprise to see the Tigers drop to No. 2 in both polls, and their status as defending national champions is perhaps the only thing that kept them from dropping further. We know the CFP poll is the only one that matters at the end of the day, but the AP and Coaches polls can still provide a glimpse into how reasonable minds could view the various teams at the top of the poll. The returns this week were not good for Clemson. With a schedule that appears to offer nothing in the way of resume-boosting wins, the “Leave no doubt” mantra has never been more important for Dabo Swinney’s group. They desperately need to return to leaving no doubt.
Notre Dame - We said last week the Irish were far from done, and they bounced back nicely this week with a home win against Virginia. They forced Bryce Perkins into five turnovers in another stout defensive performance and used a 21-0 second half run to turn a 3-point halftime deficit into a comfortable win. Notre Dame is still on the outside looking in when it comes to the Playoff because of their loss to Georgia, but a favorable schedule can help them work their way up the pecking order. They’ll have to run the table to have a chance though.
Washington - There’s nothing particularly special about beating Southern Cal at face value, but every win is important when you’re a one-loss team like Washington (or Utah, or Oregon) trying to hang onto Playoff relevance. While the PAC 12 is already in a precarious position, it at least has several teams with the makings of teams that could factor into the race. Conventional wisdom tells us these teams will knock each other off in a perfect fashion that keeps the conference out of the Playoff yet again, but there’s also plenty of teams with an opportunity to reverse the trend. Washington is one of those teams.
California - Last week we implied our lack of faith in Cal as the last unbeaten team in the PAC 12, and low and behold they — as is typical in the PAC 12 — promptly went out and lost. It would have been premature to label the Bears as a realistic contender anyways, but a home loss to Arizona State is probably not how they envisioned bowing out of the race.
Virginia - Like Cal, the Cavaliers were definitely a fringe contender at best. They were a worthy opponent at Notre Dame, but turning the ball over five times was just too much to overcome. Virginia is still the favorite in the ACC Coastal and is capable of winning 11 games, but this game may have been their best shot at true national relevance this season.
SEC and B1G are well-positioned - As college football fans, we are of course used to a plethora of SEC teams littering the top of the rankings, but the B1G is hanging tough as well in the early-going. The two conferences have a combined nine teams in the top 14 of the AP poll and figure to be heavily featured when the CFP poll arrives as well. There will be inevitable carnage when these teams face each other eventually, but it’s likely these two conferences will have plenty to say about who makes the Playoff field.
GAMES TO WATCH:
14 Iowa @ No. 19 Michigan - Noon
No. 7 Auburn @ No. 10 Florida - 3:30 p.m.
No. 11 Texas @ West Virginia - 3:30 p.m.
No. 25 Michigan State @ No. 4 Ohio State - 7:30 p.m.
California @ No. 13 Oregon - 8 p.m.