You can argue about style points and good fortune and "garbage" officiating, but you cannot argue with undefeated.
Clemson may be 8-0 by the skinniest hair on its chinny chin chin, but's it's 8-0 nonetheless. Only four Power 5 teams in the nation can still say that, and not surprisingly those very four teams comprised the top four spots in the first College Football Playoff rankings announced Tuesday night.
The Tigers checked in at No. 2, but it's probably safe to say they have the No. 1 chance of still being in the final four when the only ranking that matters comes out Dec. 4.
"We lose this week it won't matter where we are," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team is a 27-point favorite not to lose this weekend against Syracuse.
When the initial CFP ranking was announced a year ago, Clemson was sitting No. 1 and Alabama No. 4. The eventual teams to join them in the playoff semifinals debuted at No. 7 (Michigan State) and No. 15 (Oklahoma).
So Swinney is naturally not throwing any celebratory pizza parties yet.
"If you're in it, that doesn't mean you've got a golden ticket, and if you're not in it that doesn't mean you're out of it," Swinney said of Tuesday's first draft.
Odds are, however, stacked pretty heavily in Clemson's favor after surviving an October that was frightfully close to being a disaster for last year's national championship runner-up. It would not have taken much to go wrong for the Tigers to be entering November at 5-3 instead of 8-0 and jockeying with the Georgia Techs and Pitts for more middling Atlantic Coast Conference bowl destinations.
"We've made it hard, that's for sure," said Swinney of three close calls in October. "The best part about our team is we're 8-0 but we haven't played our best football."
The Tigers may not have played their best football, but they've played their best football threats. They come out of the first two months of the season as the only team in the nation with three wins against teams still ranked among the top 20 in the traditional polls (Louisville, Auburn and Florida State). Three of the last four regular season games are at home against teams that are a combined 13-11. Its only remaining road game is at Wake Forest.
As Swinney said Saturday, "we've got two hands on the steering wheel."
Meanwhile, Alabama still has to face surging LSU and Auburn; Michigan must deal with Ohio State; and Texas A&M has to play Ole Miss and Louisiana State.
Despite its record, however, there are still a few concerns about this Clemson team. It keeps turning the ball over at an alarming rate. It's had to hang on to win five games by a touchdown or less. It's been the beneficiary of critical self-inflicted mistakes by the opposition – or if you ask Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, the officials.
"It's garbage," Fisher said in a $20,000 postgame rant about a couple of momentum-killing penalties that cost the Seminoles in Saturday night's 37-34 Tigers victory. That's how whiner's deal with adversity, not winners. Clemson, on the other hand, blew a 14-point lead and then rallied from an eight-point deficit to win for the first time in a decade at Doak Campbell Stadium.
While Clemson hasn't seemed as dominant and in control as it was a year ago, looks can be deceiving. It's not like last season's 14-0 march to the national championship game wasn't marked by a few narrow escapes as well. Clemson survived a Thursday night in Louisville by virtue of a late missed field goal and defensive stand.
It brought its own guts in the nick of time against a furious Notre Dame rally. It benefited from an egregious phantom offside call that negated North Carolina's onside kick recovery in the final minutes of the ACC title game.
But that's what good teams do – deal with whatever happens and still come out on top. Good teams make their own luck.
"People talk about karma; I don't buy into all that mess," Swinney said after Saturday's escape in Tallahassee. "You're either the better team or you're not. You either make the plays to win or you don't."
That's essentially what it always boils down to. Louisville receiver James Quick didn't make the play and got forced out-of-bounds by Marcus Edmond when he needed to fight for one more yard. N.C. State kicker Kyle Bambard didn't make the 33-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. Florida State didn't make the extra couple of yards to set up a potential game-tying field goal and instead went backwards with penalties.
For Clemson's part, it did make all the plays when it had to. It helps when you have Deshaun Watson, who might not be having the Heisman Trophy season everyone expected but he's still clutch when he needs to be.
Clemson is in this position once again for the same reason Alabama is every year – it has built a foundation to create opportunities more often than not. And it never thinks it's going to lose even when things get tight.
"It's not magic," Swinney said. "It's just a lot of hard work. I'm very proud of the program that we've built. That's what we set out to do. We wanted to become an incredibly consistent and relevant program."
Mission accomplished. The Tigers have lost only once – to Alabama – in 26 games dating back to Watson injuring his knee at Georgia Tech on Nov. 15, 2014. It hasn't always been pretty, but it's effective.
Now it's November, or as Swinney calls it "the championship phase of our journey."
Assuming Clemson's best football is indeed in front of it, the only question to be answered in the next month is whether its CFP semifinal game will be played in Atlanta or Arizona.
Tigers No. 2 in Playoff Ranking
Texas A&M was ranked fourth behind Alabama, Clemson and Michigan in the season's first College Football Playoff rankings.
The Aggies (7-1) were surprisingly a spot ahead of unbeaten Washington on Tuesday in the first of six selection committee rankings. The Crimson Tide (8-0), Tigers (8-0), Wolverines (8-0) and Huskies (8-0) are the only remaining undefeated teams from Power Five conferences and hold the top four spots in the latest Associated Press poll.
The 12-person committee, however, gave a nod to Texas A&M's strength of schedule.
Ohio State was sixth and Louisville was seventh.
The final rankings will be released Dec. 4, with the top four teams moving on to the College Football Playoff semifinals on Dec. 31 at the Fiesta and Peach bowls.
You can argue about style points and good fortune and “garbage” officiating, but you cannot argue with undefeated.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219