That we're even asking if the Tigers and Seminoles could both finish in the top four speaks volumes about them and the ACC.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — We can begin the theorizing about both Clemson and Florida State making the College Football Playoff with a concession: Both Clemson and Florida State probably won't make the College Football Playoff.
That it was even a talking point at ACC media days last week was notable for multiple reasons. One, it suggested the ACC actually has exceptionally good football teams that no one dares ignore. Two, it necessarily meant the second tier of the league is good enough that it might prop up the Tigers and Seminoles, as opposed to dragging down their respective strengths of schedule. The
burgeoning ACC Network got all the fanfare in a hotel ballroom, but this shift in perception about the competitive worthiness of the actual football product could've merited its own celebratory video montage.
The ACC wouldn't be the first league to have two teams worthy of playoff inclusion. What would have to happen for both to get in? A lot, but not the impossible. Not this year, and that alone might be enough to celebrate in this league. "It would have to be an unusual circumstance across the board for two teams to get in, but [it's] not out of the realm at all," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Other conferences, the [champion] might be 8–4. So is the 8–4 team better than the 11–1 team that only lost to the No. 1 team? I don't think so."
Most would agree, so the path here is concurrently convoluted and clear: The Clemson-Florida State game in Tallahassee on Oct. 29 must be close and/or controversial, and the winner must go undefeated while the loser doesn't drop another game. Both must more or less dominate everyone else; given that Clemson may have the best offense in school history and Florida State may have the best defense in school history, the potential is there.
The issue is the other power conference champions along with Notre Dame and the Group of Five candidate, nearly all of whom would have to be underwhelming. "I think it would have to be the perfect storm," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said.
O.K., so are the Seminoles and Tigers dangerous enough to at least make it an argument? "Yeah, they are," Clawson said with such certainty that he might as well have been asked if plants need water to grow. "Look at what they've done the last three years."
In the end, if it's close, it may come down to Louisville and a quarterback who can Netflix and thrill.Andy Lyons/Getty Images
How tough an out the Cardinals prove to be will impact the evaluation of both Clemson and Florida State. And the variable there is Lamar Jackson, the kinetic sophomore quarterback who regains control of the offense after an understandably spotty first year. The 6'3", 205-pounder completed just 54.7% of his attempts and threw just 12 touchdowns passes while getting sacked 26 times. He was incredibly raw; Louisville coach Bobby Petrino recalls watching film of Jackson and wondering aloud, "He had no idea on that play, did he?" This was not entirely surprising: Jackson never studied a playbook in high school because his high school team didn't have a playbook.
But Jackson's coda to the year was 227 yards passing and 226 yards rushing against Texas A&M in a Music City Bowl victory. Subsequently, he studied the offense every off-season morning before throwing to receivers around midday—"I'm not fixing to look like a freshman in my sophomore year," he said—and he appears single-minded enough to apply that discipline to the 2016 season. "I don't watch TV, man," Jackson said. "I don't watch TV at all. I don't know what people say about me. Netflix—O.K., that's it."
If Jackson is really good, then the Cardinals should be really good. "Nobody will be excited to play Louisville, I promise you," Swinney said. The Cardinals surely could wreck the title hopes of one or both of the ACC's powers and maybe even make a playoff run themselves. Failing that, they nevertheless can be a very high-quality win for Clemson and Florida State, the sort of eye-grabbing victory the playoff selection committee looks for. (Louisville can also win at Houston on Nov. 17 and eliminate a possible challenger for a semifinal spot, to boot.)
As Clawson said, the perfect storm must blow through college football, only to leave the clouds parted for two schools from the same division in the same league. And first, the Tigers must replace a few important defensive pieces while the Seminoles find a quarterback. But if they do, then this is not just a fun prospect to analyze before any team has even had an official practice. Clemson and Florida State could make the playoff selection committee's decision quite difficult come December.
"They got elite players. We have elite players," Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. "They got a great coaching staff. So do we. We have the top players: Deshaun Watson is probably the best quarterback in the country, Dalvin Cook is probably the best running back in the country, I consider myself the best defensive end in the country. You just keep going on. You got all those guys clashing with each other, I feel like these two teams can be in the playoff."
It probably won't happen. But it's just possible enough to gleefully imagine the chaos if it does.