Ever since Clemson’s narrow one-point victory over North Carolina on Sept. 28, the Tigers have been consistently falling in national rankings. First, it was Alabama that surpassed the Tigers. Then, shortly thereafter, LSU surpassed Clemson. The following week, Ohio State took over the No. 3 spot in the polls. Lastly, and most recently, in the first edition of the College Football Playoff, Penn State overtook Clemson for the No. 4 spot, effectively putting Clemson on the outside looking in.
Yes, I know. Rankings mean nothing in November. I know that Dabo Swinney and the Tigers couldn’t care less about where the committee of so called “experts” ranks them when there’s a whole month of football left to play. Sure, rankings are fun to talk about and debate over, but at the end of the day, the top four teams on Nov. 5 will most definitely be different than the top four teams on Dec. 2. But at some point, one has to ask, when is enough, enough?
Most people point to the North Carolina game as the reason Clemson has dropped in the rankings. While a narrow win over North Carolina is not a great look for a top-four team, a win is a win. Though the Tar Heels are currently sitting at 4-5 overall, all five of their losses have been by one score. North Carolina is by no means a good team, but they are a program on the rise playing for a National Championship-winning coach in Mack Brown. Most importantly, Clemson won the football game. Yes, it wasn’t pretty, but they prevailed on a day where seemingly nothing was going right for them. The criticism would be justified if the Tigers were repeatedly prevailing in close games to mediocre teams, much like Notre Dame a season ago. However, since the close call in Chapel Hill, the Tigers have beaten their opponents by an average of nearly 41 points. 41 points!
I will concede, the ACC is an absolute dumpster fire this year. Florida State is in shambles, Miami is rebuilding and teams like Boston College, Georgia Tech and Syracuse are just plain awful. So, sure, it is fair to say that Clemson’s level of competition has not been exceptional, but has anyone else’s really been much better? I know, I know. How dare I question the rigor of the “SEC grind” that supposedly cost Alabama the National Championship a season ago. But here’s a stat that some may not know: Alabama’s opponents have the worst combined record of any team in a power five conference. While LSU and Georgia await, Alabama has played no one to date. With Tua Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense firing on all cylinders this season, it’s easy to overlook the average of 27 points they’ve conceded to middling teams like South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
A similar argument can be made for Ohio State. While Justin Fields and the Buckeyes have been lighting up the scoreboard, they have done so against the bottom dwellers of the Big10 conference, aside from Wisconsin. So while their big-name players like Fields and Chase Young have put up jaw-dropping score lines that have drawn national attention, they too have yet to face a real competitor.
And finally, there’s LSU. Their top-10 wins over teams like Texas, Auburn and Florida are fading quickly as big-name teams are being exposed as frauds. While their resume looks great on paper, I’m not convinced it is indicative of their ability. The 38 points they conceded to Vanderbilt and Texas are worth noting, though I doubt anyone will. And really, how much better is a three-point home win over Bo Nix-led Auburn than a one-point road win over North Carolina? I’d say marginally, at best.
Perhaps the most egregious over-ranking is Penn State at No. 4. A one-score win over Pitt? A five-point win over Iowa? I mean, come on. It’s almost not even worth bringing them into the conversation because Ohio State will be up 35-0 on them before I’m done typing this sentence.
The narrative surrounding Clemson after the North Carolina win was, as it always is anytime Clemson slips up, overwhelmingly negative. Critics like SEC homer Paul Finebaum went around declaring Clemson a fraud, claiming that they have no place in the top four. Trevor Lawrence’s slow start to the season seemingly wiped the memories of analysts across the country, causing them to question his talent and the talent of the Clemson team as a whole.
My point here is not that Clemson deserves to be ranked No. 1 based on their resume. I am not arguing that wins over Florida State and Boston College are comparable to wins over Auburn and Florida, no matter how overrated those teams may be. My point is that people seem to be forgetting how good Clemson is. Every year, people seem to fall for teams like LSU and Ohio State only to be surprised when they lose 29-0 to Alabama or 31-0 to Clemson. Now, I’m not here to hate on the Ohio States and LSUs of the world, I’m just here to stand up for a team that has proven year in and year out that they are one of, if not the very best, team in the nation. Clemson will certainly be there in the end this season. Now Ohio State and LSU? Well, we’ll see.
With the first College Football Playoff ranking in the books, I expect Clemson to hover around No. 3 through No. 4. They’ll likely pass the loser of the Alabama-LSU game in next week’s rankings and eventually Penn State when they inevitably expose themselves as frauds. With teams coming and going, it will be easy to glance past the reigning National Champions. While many will be debating between Ohio State and Alabama, or whichever team finds their way into the conversation by December, the real team to beat will be the team that no one is talking about. That team is the Clemson Tigers.