Monday Measure: Why Clemson deserves playoff inclusion (and more respect)

Don’t get distracted by the overall weakness of the ACC, this Clemson team is just as good — if not better — than Clemson teams of recent years.

The lack of any real signature win, plus the lingering memories of a near-upset to North Carolina, put Clemson at No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. But ever since that 21-20 win over the Tar Heels on Sept. 28, the Tigers have been absolutely trouncing every team they’ve faced.

In that five-game span, Saturday night’s 55-10 beatdown of NC State included, Clemson’s average margin of victory has been 41.6 points.

It’s almost as if that UNC win reminded Clemson it was mortal after an undefeated 2018 and a demolition of Alabama in the national championship game. But there’s little doubt that Clemson is one of the four best teams in the country. Even if it plays in the fifth-best conference in the country. 

The ACC is Clemson’s enemy at this point. There probably won’t be another ACC team in the top 25 on Tuesday. A loss could doom Clemson’s title hopes.

But while the ACC is mediocre at best, it’s also got a bunch of teams that are in the middle tier of college football. That’s not much different than previous years. The conference has always had a large middle class. There’s just not much of an upper middle class this year.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence yells to his teammates at North Carolina State on Saturday. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

And the gap between the middle class and the elite that is Clemson was on full display on Saturday night in Raleigh. The Tigers scored six first-half touchdowns in a primetime ABC display. That wasn’t good for the network’s ratings but very good for Clemson’s confidence and the Tigers’ playoff ranking. After a day where LSU put up 46 in a win over Alabama and Ohio State scored 73 against Maryland, Clemson needed to keep pace. 

Even when you throw that North Carolina game into the equation, Clemson’s average margin of victory is 33.8 points this season. That’s second only to Ohio State and ahead of the average margin of victory (33.0) Clemson had through 10 games last year. 

The Tigers are really, really good, just like we expected them to be after three members of the defensive line were selected in the first 17 picks of the NFL draft. The ACC isn’t really, really good, but that’s not Clemson’s fault. 

Coach of the Year race heating up

Tom Allen, Indiana (7-2)

Indiana jumped into the AP top 25 for the first time since 1994 on Sunday when the Hoosiers checked in at No. 24 following a bye week. With the Hoosiers already at 7-2, Indiana is also guaranteed to win seven games in a regular season for the first time since 2007. IU hasn’t won eight games since 1993. With Ohio State and Penn State atop the Big Ten East and a blowout by the Buckeyes already on Indiana’s ledger, the Hoosiers haven’t gotten a lot of love. But Allen, the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten, deserves to get some consideration here.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon (8-1)

Things could have gone south in a hurry at Oregon after a Week 1 loss to Auburn. Instead, the Ducks have reeled off eight straight wins and could be within spitting distance of the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings come Tuesday. Cristobal has recruited well at Oregon — he landed top California recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux this spring — and the team is so far making the most of Justin Herbert’s senior season. 

Sonny Dykes, SMU (9-1)

The dream of the undefeated season is over for the Mustangs but that shouldn’t detract from a spectacular season that’s exceeded the wildest expectation of SMU fans. The Mustangs have reached the nine-win mark for the first time since 1984 and their 45 points per game on offense ranks sixth in college football. The defense is giving up over 30 per game — a familiar statistic from Dykes’ time at Cal — but SMU still has an outside shot at making it to the Cotton Bowl in a game that would be in front of a raucous hometown crowd. 

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota (9-0)

Fleck is staring an undefeated regular season in the face for the second time in four seasons. His 2016 Western Michigan team made the Cotton Bowl and became the first and only team from the MAC to make a New Year’s Six bowl game. This season, Fleck’s Gophers are now No. 7 in the AP Top 25, the highest the program has been since 1962, and 9-0 for the first time since 1904. Minnesota can clinch the Big Ten West with a win at Iowa on Saturday. If Minnesota finishes the regular season at 12-0, Fleck could be the favorite for coach of the year. 

Ed Orgeron, LSU (9-0)

It’s not too often that you see the coach of a preseason top-five team living up to its billing be in this group, but Orgeron deserves it. His team has been the most explosive in college football this season after a couple of years of offensive struggles to start his tenure. Orgeron’s ability to adapt and accept the system that’s been adopted with passing game coordinator Joe Brady has been huge for the Tigers.

Matt Rhule, Baylor (9-0)

Yeah, the games are close, but Baylor keeps on winning. Rhule’s team was 1-11 in his first season in 2017 after inheriting a mess from the Art Briles era. A year ago, Baylor was 7-6. Another six-game jump in the win column is still somehow attainable. How crazy would that be? If Baylor beats Oklahoma in Week 12 then Rhule should be mentioned in the same breath as Fleck and Orgeron in the top tier of candidates. 

Kyle Whittingham, Utah (8-1)

The Utes were the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 and are living up to the billing. We can’t wait for a possible 11-1 Oregon vs. 11-1 Utah in the Pac-12 title game. The Utes, after losing at USC, have won five straight. Utah is giving up just 12 points per game; only five teams give up fewer points. Running back Zack Moss is averaging six yards a carry while QB Tyler Huntley is completing over 70 percent of his passes and has thrown just one interception. 

Nick’s pick: As long as LSU is undefeated and at the top of the SEC I’m going to go with Orgeron. Much was made about the offensive changes at LSU in the offseason and they’ve lived up to their billing. That’s an achievement given how strong that billing is. 

Sam’s pick: To me, it’s Fleck. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a little skeptical of Fleck, even after all of his success at WMU. That skepticism lingered as the Gophers rolled through a lackluster schedule, but Saturday’s win over Penn State showed me that Minnesota is legit. Fleck has taken overlooked recruits and developed them into high-level Big Ten players, and he’s done it quickly. That effort is to be commended.

Teams in danger of missing a bowl game

(Note: Rankings reflect the Week 12 AP poll)

AAC

South Florida (4-5, 2-3 AAC)

Games left: vs. No. 17 Cincinnati, vs. No. 18 Memphis, at UCF

USF’s prognosis for a bowl game is not good. Cincinnati and Memphis are a combined 16-2 and fighting for a conference title and New Year’s Six bowl berth. 

Houston (3-6, 1-4 AAC)

Games left: vs. No. 21 Memphis, at Tulsa, vs. No. 24 Navy

The Cougars are staring a 4-8 season in the face in Dana Holgorsen’s first year in town. That would be UH’s worst season since 2004. 

ACC

Boston College (5-5, 3-4 ACC)

Games left: at No. 16 Notre Dame, at Pitt

BC has won exactly seven games in five of Steve Addazio’s six seasons as head coach. Now the Eagles will need to pull off a road upset to get to a bowl. 

Duke (4-5, 2-3 ACC)

Games left: vs. Syracuse, at Wake Forest, vs. Miami

Next week’s game vs. Syracuse is very winnable, but Duke will be underdogs against Wake Forest and Miami. Duke has played in a bowl in six of its last seven seasons. 

NC State (4-5, 1-4 ACC)

Games left: vs. Louisville, at Georgia Tech, vs. North Carolina

Bowl eligibility could be on the line when NC State hosts North Carolina on Nov. 30. NC State hasn’t missed a bowl since 2013. 

North Carolina (4-5, 3-3 ACC)

Games left: at Pittsburgh, vs. Mercer, at NC State

UNC has already been better than most expected in Year 1 under Mack Brown. With a road upset over Pitt on Thursday night, the Heels could clinch a bowl berth against FCS Mercer on Nov. 23. 

Syracuse (3-6, 0-5 ACC)

Games left: at Duke, at Louisville, vs. Wake Forest

Syracuse began the season ranked after winning 10 games in 2018. Now it’s very possible the Orange go winless in ACC play, cementing its status as one of 2019’s most disappointing teams. 

It's been a tough year for head coach Dino Babers and Syracuse. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)

Big 12

Kansas (3-6, 1-5 Big 12)

Games left: at No. 25 Oklahoma State, at Iowa State, vs. No. 12 Baylor

The fact that Kansas isn’t eliminated from bowl contention on November 11 is progress. 

TCU (4-5, 2-4 Big 12)

Games left: at Texas Tech, at No. 10 Oklahoma, vs. West Virginia

Next week’s game at Texas Tech is a must-win if a disappointing TCU team wants play in a bowl game for the sixth straight season. A Cheez-It Bowl rematch, perhaps?

Texas Tech (4-5, 2-4 Big 12)

Games left: vs. TCU, vs. Kansas State, at No. 22 Texas

Texas Tech snapped a three-game losing streak by beating West Virginia on Saturday and made its unlikely bowl hopes a little more realistic. 

West Virginia (3-6, 1-5 Big 12)

Games left: at Kansas State, vs. No. 25 Oklahoma State, at TCU

WVU, in its first season under Neal Brown, will almost certainly miss a bowl for the first time since 2013. 

Big Ten

Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten)

Games left: at No. 14 Michigan, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland

Michigan State should beat Rutgers and Maryland to get to 6-6. But if you watched the Illinois game, you know that’s no guarantee.

Nebraska (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten)

Games left: vs. No. 15 Wisconsin, at Maryland, vs. No. 23 Iowa

Without an upset of either Wisconsin or Iowa, Nebraska will miss a bowl for the third straight season. 

Purdue (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten)

Games left: at No. 15 Wisconsin, vs. No. 24 Indiana

Purdue has played better lately, but its bowl prospects look bleak.

Michigan State dropped to 4-5 with a loss to Illinois on Saturday. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pac-12

Arizona (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12)

Games left: at No. 6 Oregon, vs. No. 8 Utah, at Arizona State

Arizona is having another bad season under Kevin Sumlin. After a 4-1 start, the Wildcats have lost four straight and will need one monstrous upset, plus a rivalry win, to get to a bowl. 

Arizona State (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12)

Games left: at Oregon State, vs. No. 6 Oregon, vs. Arizona

We’d put ASU in the likely category, but a trip to Oregon State is no sure thing, nor is a rivalry game against Arizona who could also be fighting for a bowl game. 

Cal (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12)

Games left: vs. USC, at Stanford, at UCLA

Cal’s season went sideways when QB Chase Garbers went down with an injury, but Saturday’s upset over Washington State could go a long way in getting the Bears back to a bowl. 

Colorado (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12)

Games left: vs. Washington, at No. 8 Utah

CU has shown some flashes in Mel Tucker’s first season, but back-to-back wins over Washington and Utah to close the season is a long shot. 

Oregon State (4-5, 3-3 Pac-12)

Games left: vs. Arizona State, at Washington State, at No. 6 Oregon

Unless the Beavers can spoil rival Oregon’s season, they’ll need to win their next two games to get to a bowl for the first time since 2013. 

Stanford (4-5, 3-4 Pac-12)

Games left: at Washington State, vs. Cal, vs. No. 16 Notre Dame

Saturday’s loss to Colorado put Stanford’s 10-year bowl streak in serious jeopardy. 

UCLA (4-5, 4-2 Pac-12)

Games left: at No. 8 Utah, at USC, vs. Cal

UCLA, winner of three straight after a 1-5 start, is a tough team to get a read on. Perhaps another upset of USC is in store?

Washington State (4-5, 1-5 Pac-12)

Games left: vs. Stanford, vs. Oregon State, at Washington

Wazzu has gone to four straight bowl games, but a bowl trip in 2019 will be an uphill climb. Another disappointing team.

SEC

Mississippi State (4-5, 2-4 SEC)

Games left: vs. No. 4 Alabama, vs. Abilene Christian, vs. Ole Miss

Operating under the assumption that MSU will lose to Alabama and beat Abilene Christian, the Bulldogs’ nine-year bowl streak will be on the line in the Egg Bowl. Ole Miss (4-6) will almost assuredly be eliminated from bowl contention next week vs. No. 1 LSU, but the Rebels will be plenty motivated to keep their biggest rival out of the postseason. 

South Carolina (4-6, 3-4 SEC)

Games left: at Texas A&M, vs. No. 3 Clemson

South Carolina could end up going 4-8 in a season where it beat Georgia. What a time to be alive. 

Notable G5 teams in danger: Army (4-6), Florida International (5-5), Fresno State (4-5), North Texas (4-6), Troy (4-5)

Army already has one win over an FCS team and plays another FCS team next weekend, so it has to beat both Hawaii and Navy to be bowl eligible. 

Mississippi State is in danger of missing a bowl for the first time since 2009. (AP Photo/Kelly Donoho)

Divisional races coming down to the wire

AAC West

The contenders: No. 20 SMU (5-1), No. 21 Navy (5-1), No. 18 Memphis (4-1)

Biggest games: SMU at Navy (Nov. 23), Memphis vs. No. 20 Cincinnati (Nov. 29)

Predicted champion: Memphis

Playoff implications: As we detailed last week, the AAC champion — especially if it has just one loss — will have a great chance to represent the Group of Five teams in a New Year’s Six bowl game. This year it’s the Cotton Bowl. 

ACC Coastal

The contenders: Virginia (5-2), Virginia Tech (3-2), Pittsburgh (3-2)

Biggest games: North Carolina at Pitt (Nov. 14), Pitt at Virginia Tech (Nov. 23), Virginia Tech at Virginia (Nov. 29)

Predicted champion: Virginia

Playoff implications: None

Big Ten East

The contenders: No. 2 Ohio State (6-0), No. 9 Penn State (5-1)

Biggest games: No. 24 Indiana at Penn State (Nov. 16), Penn State at Ohio State (Nov. 23), Ohio State at No. 14 Michigan (Nov. 30)

Predicted champion: Ohio State

Playoff implications: After Penn State’s loss to Minnesota on Saturday, Ohio State looks like an even bigger favorite at home against the Nittany Lions on Nov. 23. If PSU pulls off the upset and goes on to the Big Ten title game, a rematch vs. the Gophers could be in store. An undefeated Big Ten champion would obviously make the CFP, and a one-loss Big Ten champion would also be heavily in the mix. 

Head coach Ryan Day and Ohio State are big favorites to win the Big Ten East. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Big Ten West

The contenders: No. 7 Minnesota (6-0), No. 15 Wisconsin (4-2)

Biggest games: Minnesota at No. 23 Iowa (Nov. 16), Wisconsin at Minnesota (Nov. 30)

Predicted champion: Minnesota

Playoff implications: Minnesota may need to win out to make it to the CFP. Even if the Gophers get through the regular season without a loss, a defeat in the Big Ten title game may prove costly. 

Pac-12 South

The contenders: No. 8 Utah (5-1), USC (5-2), UCLA (4-2)

Biggest games: UCLA at Utah (Nov. 16), UCLA at USC (Nov. 23)

Predicted champion: Utah

Playoff implications: If Utah wins out and then beats a one-loss Oregon team in the Pac-12 title game, the Utes would have a pretty good argument for the playoff. Though they would likely need some help. 

SEC East

The contenders: No. 5 Georgia (5-1), No. 11 Florida (5-2)

Biggest games: Georgia at No. 13 Auburn (Nov. 16), Florida at Missouri (Nov. 16)

Predicted champion: Georgia

Playoff implications: Georgia, if it wins out in the regular season, will have to win the SEC title game to reach the College Football Playoff. 

SEC West

The contenders: No. 1 LSU (5-0), No. 4 Alabama (5-1), No. 13 Auburn (4-2)

Biggest games: Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 30), Texas A&M at LSU (Nov. 30)

Predicted champion: LSU

Playoff implications: LSU looks poised to win the SEC and take the top seed in the College Football Playoff. 

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