By Saturday evening, the 2020 Notre Dame Fighting Irish could accomplish something the Four Horsemen, Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Walt Patulski, Paul Hornung, Tony Rice and Leon Hart combined could not achieve: a conference championship.
The second-ranked Irish will face No. 4 Clemson at 4 p.m. Saturday at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium before an audience of roughly 5,200 — with a national television audience and the College Football Playoff selection committee watching intently.
There has been plenty of speculation regarding what the committee might do if Notre Dame were to be blown out by the Tigers in the rematch of their November game, won in double overtime by the Irish.
But what if Clemson loses?
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What if the Tigers get swept by the best team on their relatively meager schedule? Would the CFP committee ignore every precedent they’ve set since the event was introduced in 2014 and select Clemson on the basis of 1) a single victory over Miami, currently ranked 18th by its own top 25; 2) the Tigers’ tradition of success in the event, which includes appearances in the past five as well as two titles; and 3) the opportunity to promote All-America candidate Trevor Lawrence as participating?
Of the 24 teams chosen to date, none ever has entered with two defeats. Only three teams were selected without a conference championship — Ohio State in 2016, Alabama in 2017 and Notre Dame in 2018 — and those teams had an average record of 12-1.
With a defeat against the Irish, the Tigers would be 9-2. And it wouldn’t be an inspiring 9-2, if such a descriptive could be accurate. One of the Tigers’ victories was over FCS opponent The Citadel. Their eight FBS victims to date own a composite 38-44 record. Beyond Miami’s 8-2 mark, the best record of any Tigers victim is 6-5, shared by Pitt and Boston College.
This is why ESPN’s “Strength of Record” metric, which does not factor in margin of victory but focuses on the quality of opposition — lists Clemson all the way down at No. 9, behind such teams as Indiana, USC, Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati.
Without a victory over Notre Dame, Clemson’s resume would not measure up to any previous playoff participant. Its case would come down to the win over Miami — which devalued itself in a 62-26 loss to North Carolina — and dominance over a series of mediocre teams. Clemson has outscored its FBS opponents 411-183, an average of 25.3 points per game that ranks No. 4 in the nation.
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With its rankings tomfoolery since the very first week, debasing the perfect records of Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and even USC, the committee created a conundrum for itself only a Clemson victory over the Irish — preferably by a narrow margin in an attractive game — can resolve.
If the Tigers lose, the committee likely will be forced to 1) stick with the Tigers and confess the entire operation is based on brand; 2) place No. 5 Texas A&M into an unappealing rematch of a four-touchdown loss to No. 1 Alabama; or 3) squeeze some other two-loss team into the field, such as Iowa State or Georgia.
This has been a season without precedent in college football, because of the delays and interruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt the CFP committee would prefer a dose of normalcy for at least one December weekend.
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