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Don't trust a sure thing

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Since the calendar year is just weeks from reaching its end, we can now start defining 2016. This one is simple: 2016 is the year of conventional wisdom. More specifically, 2016 is the year where conventional wisdom was proven wrong over and over again.

We’ve seen a Big South team win the College World Series. We’ve seen a team from the middle of the ACC make the Final Four and a team from the top lose a championship in the final few seconds. This is painful, I know, but we’ve seen a team leading in the fourth quarter of the CFP title game score 16 points in that final frame and still lose.

We’ve seen two teams win professional sports championships coming back from 3-1 deficits. That never, ever happens. One of them defeated the most successful regular season franchise in NBA history, and the other was the Chicago Cubs—arguably the most futile franchise in all of sports. A washed-up quarterback led a defensive juggernaut to a Super Bowl in maybe the most offense-friendly era in NFL history.

Then there’s politics. The Brexit vote in Great Britain was supposed to be a mere formality that would solidify the nation’s place in the European Union. Instead, in spite of polls and pundits suggesting otherwise, the Brits voted to leave in a move that truly sent shockwaves around the globe.

And then America voted. The nation elected Donald Trump as its next president, a man whose candidacy was proclaimed dead by many (including me) several times and whose path to victory seemed narrow and improbable even as the vote totals began to appear on Election Night. His win is already being hailed perhaps the greatest upset in American political history, largely because of the polls and projection models that pegged Hillary Clinton as a heavy favorite.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver—who famously correctly predicted each electoral vote and the margin of victory in the 2012 presidential election—gave Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of winning the White House. That was perhaps the most modest projection, as some even predicted a Clinton win with certainty in the mid-90s.

Once again, conventional wisdom was abundantly clear. Once again, it was wrong.

As election returns were coming in on Tuesday night, a different kind of conventional wisdom began to take shape when the College Football Playoff poll was released. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit led the talking heads in a coronation of both Alabama and Clemson as CFP participants, crediting their respectively easy schedules and citing them both as models of consistency.

He may be correct. Alabama may easily navigate its remaining four games (counting a conference title tilt), and Clemson may do the same. It wouldn’t shock anyone.

Analytics make both of these scenarios highly likely right now. Including prospective conference championship matchups, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Clemson a 69.1 percent chance of winning out and entering the CFP with a 13-0 mark. The FPI gives Alabama a 65.6 percent chance to win out, just a bit behind where the Tigers sit at the moment.

Those are very good odds, basically two-to-one in both cases. But check this out: Right now, it is more likely that both Clemson and Alabama will lose a game this season than it was that Trump would prevail on Election Day.

We all know how that turned out.

This has been a year of cautionary tales. Really, it’s been a year where the exact same cautionary tale has been told over and over again. I’m not saying Clemson is about to lose a game, but I am warning anyone who believes the final three games to be a mere formality that it’s clear the world doesn’t work that way.

So, show up to Memorial Stadium on Saturday ready to yell and scream. Be confident in the result but act as if it’s still in doubt. Appreciate the contributions of seniors (and NFL-bound juniors) instead of taking them for granted. Enjoy the tenth win instead of jumping ahead to the playoff in your brain.

If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s this: Never assume anything, even if it seems absolutely certain.

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