If there was one overwhelming constant in the College Football Playoff era, it was Clemson and Dabo Swinney.
Well, not this year.
Clemson went down, again, on Saturday in a 27–21 double-overtime defeat at NC State, a second loss that in all likelihood sends the Tigers into the most unlikely of categories before October even arrives: out of the playoff race.
Even more stunning is how it got here. The Tigers (2–2) are mysteriously struggling offensively. And we do mean struggling. They’ve played three games against FBS competition. In those 12 quarters, they’ve scored four touchdowns and a total of 31 points, averaging just 216 yards a game.
The post-Trevor Lawrence era is off to a rough start—a bamboozling from Georgia, a sluggish outing against a bad Georgia Tech team and then what happened Saturday in a game that never even should have gone to overtime. A Wolfpack team that lost at Mississippi State controlled Swinney’s Tigers.
NC State outgained them 386–214, tripled them up in first downs (31–10) and dominated the time of possession in a shocking way (42 minutes to 18). Something we don’t often type: a Clemson quarterback was completely inefficient.
D.J. Uiagalelei, the five-star heir apparent of this football kingdom and the star of Dr Pepper’s new ‘Fansville’ commercials, completed 12 of 26 passes for 111 yards on Saturday. In three FBS games, he’s thrown for a total of 415 yards, which most Clemson quarterbacks seem to do in a single game. He’s got two touchdowns and two interceptions. And he’s misfired on 45% of his attempts.
NC State celebrated as you might think a team that hadn’t beat a top 10 team in nearly a decade would: its fans stormed the field. It was Clemson’s first loss to an unranked squad since 2017. And for the first time since 2014, Swinney & Co. are saddled with two losses before their fifth game arrives. In fact, in four of the last six years, Clemson never even lost a second game. The other two years, it lost its second game in the CFP semifinals.
It’s a remarkable run that we all knew had to come to an end at some point. Few would have picked this as that time. But the defeat is the latest evidence that—get this—we might have parity returning to college football this year.
In the second week of the season, Ohio State lost at home for the first time since 2017, and Oklahoma has looked shaky, with near-losses to Tulane and Nebraska. Notre Dame looks far from invincible as well, with close calls to Toledo and Florida State, and Alabama’s defense was quite leaky at Florida.
It's something we’ve been dearly missing in the game.
Over the last two decades, a small group of teams has dominated the sport, and in the playoff era, an even smaller group strangles college football. Parity, never too pronounced in the annals of college football anyhow, has felt like it’s gone the way of the triple option.
Through the first seven years of the playoff era, four teams have accounted for 20 of the 28 playoff spots (71%): Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma and, of course, Clemson.
The Tigers have put the ACC in quite the tough spot. For years now, the gap between Clemson and the league’s next-best team was shockingly wide. Real, real wide. Why do you think the conference would crawl across broken glass to have Notre Dame as a permanent member? Or why it do you think it chased after Texas during the realignment shakeup this summer?
Because, right now, the only undefeated teams in the conference are … Wake Forest and Boston College (who’d a thunk it?).
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North Carolina, a playoff hopeful, started the season by laying an egg against Virginia Tech. And what did Tech do? Lose to West Virginia last week. Louisville got spanked by Ole Miss. NC State, as mentioned above, lost to Mississippi State. Pitt lost to Western Michigan, and Miami, another preseason top-25 program entering the year, has already lost twice.
And so here we sit, on Sept. 25, with the ACC’s most feared program and the CFP’s most consistent presence out of the picture.
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