Assessing Clemson’s Chances

I wasn’t the biggest believer in Clemson as recently as a few weeks ago when they played Virginia Tech. But with the losses of Oklahoma and Wisconsin, it’s time for even us skeptics to take the Tigers seriously in the race for the national championship. They’ve made it 2/3 of the way through the schedule unscathed and sit at 8-0. They’ve survived most of the toughest teams on that schedule, from Auburn to Florida State to Virginia Tech. And now they’re up to #5 in the BCS rankings, trailing only Boise State and Oklahoma State and the fight to take on the Alabama-LSU winner.

There’s no question Clemson is for real as the favorite to win the ACC, but whether they can win their last four regular season games, plus a conference championship game is another question entirely. And the defense still has to be considered a concern. Actually, given that they’ve given up 83 points combined to Maryland and North Carolina the last two weeks, we have to conclude that this is in no way a national championship-caliber unit. It’s not the first time that the Clemson offense, with its fearsome Big Three of quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receiver Sammy Watkins, has had to carry the Tigers home. They beat Auburn, in spite of the defense giving up 151 rush yards to Michael Dyer. They beat Florida State even though the ‘Noles threw for 336 yards. Even in their best defensive showing, the 23-3 dismantling of Virginia Tech, Hokie back David Wilson rushed for 123 yards and that was before Logan Thomas showed signs of his development at quarterback. A rematch between these two teams in Tampa on December 4 has the potential to a great football game.

When a team is 8-0 and #5, a post shouldn’t overly focus on the negative, so we need to look at just how good this offense is. Boyd is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and has broken the 300-yard barrier against Auburn, Florida State, Boston College and North Carolina, while almost getting there against Maryland. Watkins is one of the country’s most prolific receivers and if you lock in too closely on him, Boyd can get the ball to sophomore DeAndre Hopkins. And Ellington is one of the most versatile backs in the country, right in the mold of C.J. Spiller who had a great run here in Death Valley before becoming a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills. At the start of the season it was in-state rival South Carolina that was supposed to have the Big Three with Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey. But when the Tigers and Gamecocks meet their traditional Thanksgiving Saturday battle, Garcia will be long gone, kicked off the team, and Lattimore is out for the year. Clemson’s offense has provided the heroics in the state.

Clemson’s remaining schedule is road-heavy—a tough test at Georgia Tech coming up, along with trips to N.C. State and South Carolina. Fortunately the one game they really need to win is at home and that’s Wake Forest on November 12. They also have two weeks to prepare. The Deacons are the only team within a game of Clemson in the Atlantic Division and if the Tigers win that one, they’d need only split against the Yellow Jackets and Wolfpack to secure the trip to Tampa in early December. That, and getting the ACC’s bid to the Orange Bowl, has to be this program’s focus. But on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 national championship team, that came out of nowhere and surprised the country, it’s nice to think more could be in the offing. Who knows, maybe Boyd is the new Homer Jordan and Watkins the new Perry Tuttle, the QB-WR combo who hooked up for the touchdown that clinched the Orange Bowl win over Nebraska that gave Clemson it’s proudest moment.

Elsewhere in the power conferences…

*Stanford continues to look nothing short of devastating and if they keep winning, I would assume they’d overtake Clemson and Boise State without any outside help. The Cardinal still has Oregon and USC on the schedule, and with a running game that ran over Washington for over 400 yards, they showed they can beat good teams without Andrew Luck carrying them.

*Kansas State might be the next team we’re talking about in the same breath as this post did in Clemson. It’s hard to see them as a team going all the way, but they are 7-0 and they’re comes a point when a record speaks for itself. Beating Kansas is no big deal, but hanging a 59-21 thrashing is something top teams do and Collin Klein continues to be one of the country’s versatile quarterbacks.

*Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan State did more than knock the Badgers from the national title race. The Notebook raised concerns about Wisconsin’s defense prior to that game and those came to fruition in East Lansing. The Badgers need to run the table to ensure their season finale against Penn State will be for the Leaders Division title, and if you’re not playing defense, giving up blocked kicks on special teams and displaying horrid clock management at the end of halves, nothing can be considered a given. What we saw Saturday night should give hope to division rivals like Penn State, and even to Michigan State, that they could do it again if a rematch in Indianapolis happens in December.

*The buildup continues in the SEC where Alabama and LSU each took care of business, in blowing out Tennessee and Auburn respectively. The Tide took a half to get into gear, but A.J. McCarron continues to grow up at quarterback, throwing for 284 yards and spreading the ball around. The nation’s two best teams are off next week, so the showdown in Tuscaloosa two weeks hence, will have a Super Bowl feel to it in prime-time. Arkansas rallied from 17-0 down to beat Ole Miss, and if the Hogs win all their remaining game with the exception of LSU, they’d be 10-2 and go to the Capital One Bowl. As poorly as they played on Saturday, they also showed they could win a conference challenge without a big game from quarterback Tyler Wilson, so that 10-win season is within reach.

Below is how the Notebook projects the major bowl matchups shaking out…

BCS National Championship: Alabama-Boise State
Sugar: LSU-Oklahoma State
: Clemson-Cincinnati