We’re doing it again. It’s too soon. We can’t make this mistake again.
The hand-wringing and scenario-guessing and poll-watching has commenced, just like it did last year. The term “style points” is becoming more and more popular, just like it did last year. The nervousness of Clemson fans about missing a shot at glory is on the rise with every passing week, just like it was last year.
I thought we covered all of this last year, since, of course, it was all happening then. However, it appears we could all use a little refresher.
Through eight weeks of college football, there are nine unbeaten teams—seven from Power 5 leagues, two from Group of 5 leagues. Last year at this point, there were eight from the Power 5 and four from the Group of 5. In other words, no matter how crowded you think it is at the top of the college football hierarchy, it was more crowded a year ago.
The carnage didn’t actually begin until two weeks later. LSU lost by two scores at one-loss Alabama, and Clemson fans fretted that the Crimson Tide might jump their team AND that the Bayou Bengals could get into the playoff with one loss because of SEC bias.
LSU lost its next two games. Clemson finished the season number one.
Michigan State’s perfect season ended with a loss at 5-7 Nebraska by a single point. Sparty would eventually make the College Football Playoff, but its quest to go unbeaten was thwarted by a team that only qualified for a bowl game due to the oversaturation of the marketplace.
TCU lost by 20 points at fellow unbeaten Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs finished the season with a 10-2 record. Clemson kept winning.
The next week in Big 12 action featured undefeated Baylor losing at home to one-loss Oklahoma. The Bears would lose three of their final four games after beginning 8-0—including a home loss to Texas—and the number of unbeaten teams had dwindled to four, half of what it was merely three weeks prior.
The next week, with three slates of games remaining, Ohio State dropped a game at home to the same Michigan State team whose hopes and dreams were seemingly dashed just two weeks before it went to the Horseshoe and won by a field goal. Oklahoma State lost to the Baylor team that had lost as an unbeaten team the previous week—at home, no less.
The only other unblemished record remaining at that point belonged to Iowa. The Hawkeyes lasted until the Big Ten title game, when Michigan State’s epic game-ending drive crushed Kirk Ferentz’s team’s spirit and ended its run to the CFP as it stood right on the doorstep.
Through all of this, Clemson kept winning. Each week, there were doubts and questions and concerns about one team or another, about whose schedule set up favorably or unfavorably, about whether the Tigers could withstand the pressure that builds in November.
There are two lessons we should have learned last season watching Clemson roll to the national title game. First, winning every game is hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that basically no one ever does it. Teams lose games in all sorts of ways—as heavy favorites and underdogs, at home and on the road, to ranked and unranked teams, in league play and outside of it.
The second thing we saw was that one loss doesn’t wreck seasons and ruin lives. Respected programs with solid resumes that lose once and still win their conference championships get into the playoff, every single time. A single defeat inside of an otherwise great season isn’t a deal-breaker.
This is why Ohio State fans should probably be feeling okay right now. Sure, the Buckeyes lost as a 20-point favorite at mediocre Penn State, but if they beat Michigan and win the conference title at 11-1, they’re still getting into the football Final Four.
Not to jinx it, but even if Clemson loses in Tallahassee this week, the Tigers will still be in great shape to make the College Football Playoff with an 11-1 regular season record, wins over Auburn and Louisville, and a conference title. That’s probably a more likely scenario than 12-0 right now, anyway, just based on what we always see across the college football landscape.
Even given this possibility—by no means am I conceding the game against a flawed Florida State team—there is no need to fret over what is to come. An 11-1 Louisville isn’t getting into the CFP over 11-1 or 12-0 ACC Champion Clemson. Michigan has to travel to Ohio State, and then one of those teams will play Nebraska. Baylor and West Virginia still have to play each other.
But we knew all that, or we should have. Alas, it seems that rather than retaining such knowledge, many people studied for the test last year and remember nothing. College football is simple: Win and you’re in, lose and hold on for dear life. Both scenarios, at this point, favor Clemson.