ORANGE RUSH

Clem­son finds a level above the Play­off de­bate

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Manie Robinson Con­tribut­ing: Scott Keep­fer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — The Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off is mu­si­cal chairs. As long as there are five ma­jor con­fer­ences and merely four spots, at least one league will be left stand­ing when the mu­sic stops.

At the ad­vent of this sys­tem five years ago, count­less coaches and ad­min­is­tra­tors grum­bled about po­ten­tial bi­ases and in­equities that would fa­vor some leagues over oth­ers in the se­lec­tion process. Clem­son coach Dabo Swinney heard qualms from his col­leagues in the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence. He re­fused to join the cho­rus of con­ster­na­tion.

Dur­ing a league meet­ing, he dis­missed any no­tion that the ACC would lose its seat as na­tional ti­tle con­tenders. He ac­knowl­edged the league’s un­sta­ble, un­fa­vor­able na­tional per­cep­tion then, but he as­serted that the league would not change it by whin­ing.

It had to change it by win­ning.

“Any of you who don’t think this league is go­ing to be a prom­i­nent part of the play­off, you need to take a look in the mirror,’” Swinney told the coaches. “If you play the right peo­ple and de­velop your pro­gram enough to win enough of the right games, there’s no rea­son we shouldn’t be in the play­off ev­ery year.”

Swinney has done his part. Through the last five sea­sons, Clem­son has won 63 games, claimed a na­tional cham­pi­onship and notched land­mark vic­to­ries against prom­i­nent pro­grams Alabama, Ok­la­homa, Auburn and Ohio State.

How­ever, com­pared to Clem­son’s vivid bril­liance, the other ACC teams have been flick­er­ing bulbs. Pro­grams like Vir­ginia Tech, North Carolina, Mi­ami and Louisville have flashed into the lime­light, but none of them has sus­tained its shine. Con­se­quently, they re­main in Clem­son’s broad shadow.

Clem­son won its fourth con­sec­u­tive ACC cham­pi­onship last week­end with a 42-10 vic­tory against Pitts­burgh. Clem­son de­feated four differ­ent teams in these four ti­tle games — North Carolina, Vir­ginia Tech, Mi­ami and Pitt — by a com­bined score of 167-85.

The lat­est drub­bing cul­mi­nated the 2018 cam­paign of dom­i­nance. Clem­son edged Syra­cuse, the only other ACC team ranked in the Top 25 of the CFP stand­ings, 27-23 on Sept. 29. Clem­son de­feated its other eight ACC foes by an av­er­age mar­gin of 39.1 points.

The swollen mar­gin helped Clem­son over­come the ACC’s weak­ened rep­u­ta­tion. Re­gard­less of how one may as­sess the ACC as a whole, no one can dis­pute Clem­son’s sta­tus as one of the top four pro­grams in the coun­try. The most stub­born bias could not di­min­ish a 13-0 record.

Clem­son cer­tainly would benefit from a stronger, deeper, more consistent con­fer­ence. It would ex­pand Clem­son’s mar­gin for er­ror and sharpen the Tigers for the play­off. How­ever, in the ACC’s cur­rent com­po­si­tion, Clem­son was forced not only to play be­yond per­cep­tion but to play be­yond pre­sump­tion.

From the day the sched­ule was an­nounced, Clem­son was ex­pected to sweep through it. The Tigers ex­ceeded those lofty ex­pec­ta­tions.

They won the games they were pre­sumed to win and col­lected the nec­es­sary style

Danny Sheri­dan’s line: Clem­son by 111⁄2

points to sway their de­trac­tors. Clem­son’s mer­ci­less dom­i­nance left noth­ing to de­bate ex­cept where the Tigers would play their CFP semifinal.

They found out Dec. 2 they will play Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 at “Jerry World” — the home of the NFL’s Dal­las Cow­boys and the brain­child of team owner and gen­eral man­ager Jerry Jones.

The sea­son is a se­ries of com­pe­ti­tions, not 13 ex­hi­bi­tions. Ge­or­gia had an op­por­tu­nity to win its way into the bracket. It fal­tered, los­ing 35-28 to Alabama in the SEC cham­pi­onship. The as­sess­ment of its per­for­mance should not be inflated by the el­e­vated re­gard for the Tide.

Top to bot­tom, the SEC may be stronger than the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten this sea­son. Notre Dame may not have closed the reg­u­lar sea­son un­de­feated if it played Ge­or­gia’s sched­ule. Florida, Auburn and Louisiana State would have pre­sented more for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges for Clem­son than Wake For­est, Duke and Ge­or­gia Tech.

But Clem­son can­not be faulted for the cal­iber of its foes. Clem­son could only play the sched­ule as it was printed. The Tigers took care of busi­ness and took the de­bate off the ta­ble.

They won, sim­ply and em­phat­i­cally.

“They say Dal­las is a nice place,” Swinney said.

“I’ve gotta get my boots out, gotta work on my ap­parel. I’ve never been to Jerry World, but we’re gonna paint Dal­las orange.”

HEAD COACH DABO SWINNEY, 53-4 IN FOUR SEA­SONS,IS IN THE MIX FOR THE NA­TIONAL TI­TLE AGAIN

JEREMY BREVARD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Coach Dabo Swinney kisses the ACC cham­pi­onship tro­phy af­ter Clem­son de­feated Pitts­burgh 42-10 Satur­day at Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium in Char­lotte, North Carolina.

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