Clemson deserves spot in playoff discussion
Several deserving teams missed out in our first look at the playoff picture, but of all of them, undefeated Clemson and the ACC might have the greatest grievance.
Clemson’s season got off to an unfortunate start, with the loss of star WR Mike Williams (+17.6 overall grade in 2014) to a neck injury. As the team’s premier deep-threat, the loss of Williams was a significant blow to the offense, and a contributing factor to Deshaun Watson’s (+0.7) lukewarm form. The offense wasn’t quite clicking, but they got enough from Watson, WR Artavis Scott (+1.8), and RB Wayne Gallman (+5.3) to get by while they leaned on their impressive defense. The defense was the key to routine victories over Wolford and Appalachian State, and hard-fought wins over Louisville and Notre Dame.
Clemson lost a lot of defensive talent to the NFL after the 2014 season, so a settling-in period for the new unit was anticipated, but the new players have stepped up immediately. Defensive ends Shaq Lawson (+12.9) and Kevin Dodd (+7.2) have combined for five sacks, 28 total pressures and 23 stops. Inside linebackers Ben Boulware (+10.5) and B.J. Goodson (+6.9) are reveling in their increased roles, while safety Jayron Kearse (+11.9) has matched his 2014 grade in a little over one-third of the snaps.
Clemson had their bye after the Louisville game, and hoped to use that time to get the offense clicking ahead of hosting Notre Dame. However, poor weather turned the game into an attritional affair, one where the Tigers’ defense did just enough to edge the game, with Boulware (+4.1), Kearse (+2.1) and Lawson (+1.8) particularly impressive.
Victory over Notre Dame leaves Clemson on the cusp of the playoff picture, and they arguably should be ahead of both Baylor and Ohio State in the discussion, based on their body of work right now. The problem they face is the perception, right or wrong, that the ACC is alongside the Big Ten as the weakest of the Power-5 conferences. (Defending champions Ohio State catch a bit of a break in that regard, for now at least.)
To overcome that obstacle, Clemson likely needs to win out, or, if they are to slip up, they need Florida State and either Duke or North Carolina to keep winning to ensure that there are at least two more significant scalps to be had. In an ideal scenario, both Clemson and Florida State would arrive undefeated for their Nov. 7 clash in Death Valley; the victor would take on a one-loss team from the Coastal division. Of course, ideal scenarios don’t tend to work out in college football—that’s why we love it.