The best college football team in America is currently ranked No. 2 in the polls.
After becoming the first team in college football history to beat three top-15 ranked opponents before the end of September, you’d think Clemson would at least get the ceremonial top billing in the media and coaches polls.
It might require a victory in Clemson-Alabama III for the reigning national champs to get recognized on equal footing with the Crimson Tide.
Old habits die hard in the subjective world of ranking the best of anything. Raters who may have played Pine Valley only once many years ago will continue to be so awed by the experience that the ultra-private course in New Jersey will forever get the benefit of the doubt atop the annual lists of world’s greatest golf courses.
The same goes for Alabama as long as Nick Saban remains in charge in Tuscaloosa. As long as the Tide keeps swamping the Fresno States and Vanderbilts and Ole Misses of the football world, some voters are never going to move them off the pole position.
Clemson merely fuels itself on perceived slights.
“It’s something we used as motivation,” receiver Hunter Renfrow told ESPN after Saturday’s win in Blacksburg, Va. “That’s not how we’re looked at now.”
There are a number of brand-name programs in the nation that will always be at the forefront of the football playoff conversation, but right now there are two that stand out above the rest.
Clemson, under Dabo Swinney, has evolved into the Atlantic Coast Conference equal of Alabama under Saban. Standing prejudices will always favor Alabama for its seniority in this elite realm, but it’s time to face facts Clemson has reached that level where all the Tigers do is reload year after year. They have the facilities, coaching staff, deft scouting eye and talent depth to compete for titles every year for the foreseeable future.
We can admit there were doubts about this year’s Clemson team having to move on without Deshaun Watson and a host of other weapons that graduated. But the new generation of Tigers are playing even better than last year’s team that ultimately won the national title in a rematch against Alabama.
Clemson, however, has been the most impressive team of a season that isn’t even half over and supplanted trendy preseason choice Florida State as the ACC’s top dog. A hard fought home win in Week 2 against Auburn should have been enough of a clue Clemson should be a playoff favorite again, but it’s what the Tigers have done since that removed all doubt they are the nation’s best team at the moment.
“Our team has shown great maturity through five games, but five games don’t make a season,” Swinney said.
Despite going into two intense road environments whipped to a frenzied pitch by the presence of ESPN’s travelling road show College GameDay, the Tigers dominated at both Louisville and Virginia Tech. The “relentless” defense humiliated a couple of offenses that had been putting up big numbers.
Yet it’s the offensive output that elevates this Clemson team. Kelly Bryant has been a revelation in replacing Watson at the helm – as Watson himself predicted he would be. His passing is reliably efficient, but his flare for running the football adds an even more dangerous element than Watson. And with this pair of emphatic road performances, there should be little doubt Bryant is capable of handling the big moments as well as Watson did in his Heisman runner-up seasons that produced consecutive ACC championships and College Football Playoff final appearances.
Anticipation is already building for the potential for a third consecutive showdown with Alabama on the championship stage. It’s a conversation Swinney is rightfully loathe to entertain.
“You go get beat this week, they won’t be talking about that any more, I promise you that,” Swinney said Tuesday.
The Tigers face Wake Forest in a noon game Saturday at Death Valley and while outsiders may scoff at the matchup, Swinney is plenty wary of an experienced 4-1 Demon Deacons team that came “a hangnail away from beating Florida State” last week.
“You have to have a biggest-game-of-the-year intensity and mindset every week of the season,” Swinney said.
That weekly mentality is what has buried Clemson’s bygone reputation for letting moments get away from them. That seldom happens to the Tigers anymore. Clemson has won eight consecutive games against ranked opponents. It’s won 12 straight on the road. It has humiliated elite programs like Oklahoma and Ohio State. It’s gone head-to-head with Alabama on the biggest stage in the game without flinching.
At the moment, Clemson has no peers in the ACC the way Alabama doesn’t in the SEC. Florida State, N.C. State and Georgia Tech will offer various degrees of resistance in the coming months, just as Alabama must likely overcome threats from Auburn and Georgia.
While Georgia fans are excited about their own 5-0 start and building momentum, the No. 5 Bulldogs are still trying to gain a purchase at the pinnacle of college football.
Clemson, on the other hand, has reached a level beyond anything we’ve ever seen around here. Beyond even the Bulldogs’ glory days with Herschel Walker.
The Tigers have become more than one transcendent player or class. They’ve become a repeatable power on par with Alabama. If things keep going at the current trajectory, we may be blessed with a championship collision of college football’s two biggest heavyweights to decide which one deserves the presumptive No. 1 ranking.