Clemson has a bounce-back blueprint.
In 2016, Clemson lost at home to an unimpressive Pitt team, but went on to run the table and win the national title as a one-loss champion. Repeat: Clemson lost last year and won it all.
As shocking as Clemson’s 27-24 loss to unranked Syracuse was Friday night, it’s important to remember the selection committee hasn’t even convened yet, and if the Tigers run the table and win the ACC, they will still be considered for a top-four finish. There are two key factors in their favor: good wins appear to outweigh bad losses, and the committee considers injuries to key players.
All 13 committee members will know starting quarterback Kelly Bryant left the game in the second quarter because of a concussion. Clemson needs Bryant healthy, and it has a bye week for him to heal before facing Georgia Tech on Oct. 28. It was clear in the first half that Bryant still wasn’t 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury he suffered Oct. 7 vs. Wake Forest. His mobility was limited, and the entire offense started forcing things in the passing game. While the Tigers struggled offensively all night, Clemson’s typically elite defense also didn’t look the part of a top-four team.
And this was supposed to be the easy part of Clemson’s schedule.
The Tigers have already earned two wins against top-15 teams (Sept. 9 vs. Auburn and Sept. 30 at Virginia Tech). This was already their third conference road game of the season. The nonconference win against Auburn could give Clemson the edge over another one-loss conference champion with a weaker nonconference strength of schedule.
Like the Big Ten. Or the Pac-12.
Unlike Clemson, Washington State doesn’t get a mulligan on its upset loss at Cal. The difference? Wazzu’s nonconference wins were against FCS Montana State (2-3), Boise State (3-2), and Nevada (1-5). Not one Power 5 nonconference win.
Clemson’s win over Auburn — assuming Auburn continues to win and stay ranked — should wind up being more valuable than any nonconference win Washington, Washington State, Penn State, Wisconsin or Ohio State had. Should either one of those teams finish as a one-loss conference champion, it’s possible Clemson could get in at their expense.
Washington State’s shocking Sept. 29 win against then-No. 5 USC will continue to impress the committee, especially if USC goes on to win the Pac-12 South, but the odds of them meeting again in the Pac-12 title game seem slim. Washington State still has to play Stanford and at Washington in the Apple Cup, and ESPN’s Football Power Index projects Wazzu to lose both of those games.
Nobody suffered a worse loss so far than Oklahoma to Iowa State, but even the Sooners have their win at Ohio State to help compensate for it. A debate between Clemson and Oklahoma for the fourth spot could get interesting, but as of now it looks as if Clemson has a better win against Auburn, and OU the worse loss because it was favored by 31 against Iowa State.
Clemson fans should be rooting for Auburn, and Oklahoma fans should hope Ohio State wins the Big Ten. NC State fans? Worry about beating Notre Dame. The Wolfpack just became the leader in the ACC’s Atlantic Division race after wins over Louisville and Florida State, but if the Pack can’t beat the Irish on Oct. 28, beating Clemson and winning the ACC won’t be enough with two losses.
The team with the biggest short-term gain from Clemson’s loss could be TCU, the lone undefeated team in the Big 12. If the Horned Frogs can beat Kansas State this weekend, don’t be surprised to see them in the Associated Press top four Monday. They’re playing well against good competition, winning two Power 5 road games at Oklahoma State and Arkansas.
The selection committee’s first ranking comes out on Oct. 31 — plenty of time for last-minute shuffling in the playoff pecking order. Penn State might lose at Ohio State. Georgia could lose to Florida.
And Clemson could lose to Georgia Tech.
There is no blueprint for that one.