Can the Clemson Tigers repeat last year and absorb a loss to ultimately find their way into the College Football Playoff with a chance to defend their national title?
That is the question many Tiger fans are asking following the 27-24 loss to Syracuse.
Yesterday we examined ways that the Tigers could find themselves playing for an ACC championship or watching from home. Today we examine what needs to happen for the Tigers to find themselves in the final four of the playoff committee’s rankings.
First, one cannot overstate the obvious: The Tigers continue to lose on the best weekends.
Last season, on the same day Clemson lost to Pittsburgh at home, Georgia beat No. 9 Auburn, Southern California beat No. 4 Washington, Mississippi beat No. 8 Texas A&M and Iowa beat No. 3 Michigan.
Last weekend, similar madness ensued with No. 8 Washington State, No. 5 Washington and No. 10 Auburn all joining the Tigers with losses — meaning Clemson only fell five and six spots respectively from their No. 2 ranking in the AP and coaches’ polls.
Second, more madness is yet to come.
The Tigers lost late last season, meaning they needed the perfect storm to help them maintain their spot in the College Football Playoff rankings — week 11 of the season. This season, with their loss coming in week seven of the season, there are many upsets and key games on the horizon.
Second-ranked Penn State faces one of the most difficult stretches beginning this week against No. 19 Michigan, followed by trips to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State over the next two weeks.
No. 3 Georgia’s biggest tests, before a seemingly sure-fire trip to the SEC Championship to face No. 1 Alabama, will come over the next month in traveling to Jacksonville to face the Florida Gators before hosting South Carolina and traveling to No. 21 Auburn.
No. 4 TCU faces a three-week stretch beginning next week of dangerous games, traveling to Iowa State, hosting Texas and traveling to No. 9 Oklahoma.
Fifth-ranked Wisconsin seemingly has the easiest road to finish the season undefeated, as they face only two teams with winning records — Iowa and Michigan, both at home — in their final six games.
And finally, No. 6 Ohio State still has games against No. 2 Penn State and No. 18 Michigan State, and a season-ending matchup with No. 19 Michigan remaining.
Third, the committee values big wins more than bad losses.
One thing has never been more evident than the fact that the committee values big wins over ranked teams more than they do a loss, especially on the road.
No team in the nation currently has a stronger resume than the Clemson Tigers, having amassed three victories, two on the road, against teams that were in the top 15 when they played, and a potential matchup with a ranked team in the ACC Championship game. Those victories put money in the Tigers’ bank account.
The loss to Syracuse sent the account plummeting to a zero balance, but it did not go into the negative. But the Tigers cannot absorb a second loss and still make it to the playoffs.
Last, the Tigers are a proven commodity.
The playoff committee is made up of 12 humans, not computers as was the case in the BCS era of college football. Because they are humans, they are prone to give known commodities the benefit of the doubt.
The Tigers were the beneficiary of this effect last season as the committee dropped Clemson only two spots following the loss to Pittsburgh and eventually moved the Tigers to the No. 2 spot in its final rankings. The reason was simple: The Tigers had proven themselves the year before against Alabama in the 2016 College Football Playoff championship game.
This season, should the Tigers win out, will be no different with the defending champions receiving the benefit of the doubt.
In order for the Tigers to find themselves in the playoff, they must take care of business the rest of the season. Simply put: Win and you are in the playoffs. Lose and you are out.
The Tigers still control their own destiny when it comes to the playoffs, and when the committee convenes to release their first rankings Oct. 31, it would not be surprising for Clemson to be sitting at No. 4 or just outside the playoff at No. 5 — if they take care of their business.