2006 Ohio State. 2012 Notre Dame. 2014 Florida State. What do those teams have in common? They all went undefeated and were granted a chance to play for the national title. In each instance the zero in the loss column was more important than any sort of evaluation of how good the team actually was. In all three seasons, the undefeated (and untested) teams were obliterated in the post season. Get ready to add another name to that list: 2015 Clemson.
Usually teams like this don’t make it to the national championship. Most years they lose a game, either by an upset or by a better team. But sometimes they make it through. Sometimes the schedule isn’t hard enough and doesn’t provide enough tests and we get an undefeated team that is not elite.
Why aren’t more people talking about the lack of quality on Clemson’s schedule? Why are the Tigers getting a pass?
There are some teams whose schedule is so weak they never get a shot at the Playoff. Take a look at a team like Temple. The Owls lost to Notre Dame two weeks ago, but even if they had won that game, they weren’t going to the Playoff. If Temple had gone undefeated, they might have earned a berth in one of the other bowls chosen by the Committee, but they were never going to sniff the Top Four. And they shouldn’t. Their schedule wasn’t hard enough to make them deserving.
In fact, on closer inspection Temple’s schedule is remarkably similar to Clemson’s. Both teams played Notre Dame at home, and both play a Power Five school out of conference (Penn State for Temple, South Carolina for Clemson). In conference both schools play one ranked team (Memphis and Florida State). In a conference championship game each might draw a third ranked team, probably North Carolina and Houston. Actually Temple seems to have the harder schedule, and they were never in consideration. Clemson gets no questions.
Being undefeated is not enough to be deserving. With only 12 games, we don’t know enough about the team. In almost any other sport there are enough games to know that being undefeated actually means something. Being undefeated in basketball puts you among the elite teams of all time. Never do you see an undefeated team bow out of March Madness in a first round blow out. We see it in college football. Look at those teams listed above. It happened to them, and Clemson is setting up to do it again.
Clemson has made their reputation on beating weak ACC teams. They are the big fish in their small pond. Their proponents point to the Notre Dame win as proof of their merit. They did stop a Notre Dame two point conversion at home in a monsoon. That game should be more reason to doubt them than to validate them. Would it have been different if Notre Dame wasn’t playing their back up quarterback? What about the weather aided turnovers; anyone remember those? This is the type of game we will look back on and say “of course, we should have known.”
There are other red flags on Clemson’s resume too. We’ll look back at the NC State game, where the Tigers gave up 41 points and remember that we should have known better. 41 points is the most NC State has scored in an ACC game this season. It’s more points than they’ve scored against anyone other than South Alabama and Troy. That’s not good company for the Tigers.
Florida State’s Dalvin Cook nearly rushed for 200 yards on Saturday. Good defenses don’t give up 194 yards to anyone. 75 of those yards came on one play, so without that, the defense was good, right? No, without that one run, Cook rushed 20 times for 119 yards, almost 6 yards an attempt.
But isn’t Clemson is led by their offense? Yes, and you can use that if you want to believe Clemson is elite. Their offense isn’t bad, but it isn’t part of a complete, number one team. The Tiger offense is built to put up big points against bad teams and to create avalanches when things get out of control. That’s the beauty of the offense, once it gets going, it piles up the points. But it doesn’t always get going. 23 points against Florida State, 24 against Notre Dame and 20 against Louisville will be what we look back on. When the Tigers get to the college football playoff don’t expect them to put up more than 20 points. What has the offense accomplished against a good defense that would make us think otherwise?
Unfortunately for Clemson they won’t get to find out whether they are actually good or if they are just ACC good. They’ll beat Syracuse,
Charleston Southern Wake Forest and the last place team in the SEC East, South Carolina. Then they’ll beat a UNC team whose resume is just as thin as their own. They’ll be feeling good; Dabo will be dancing, and they’ll be in the playoff. They’ll add their name to the list of pretenders who got to play for a national championship, their spot having been secured by their schedule rather than their merit. And when they are blown out, we will look back at their entire season and say, “of course, we should have known, these are just paper tigers”