Late-season upsets have trimmed the list of College Football Playoff contenders to seven candidates.
Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU hold undefeated records and remain the Top Four teams heading into the final week of the regular season. They are the obvious front-runners.
Although LSU has dropped two games, the SEC West champions would have a compelling case if they beat Georgia for the conference title. USC is a one-loss squad with a potentially impressive list of Top 25 triumphs.
And then, there's the little ol' Clemson Tigers.
How should the CFP selection committee view Dabo Swinney's team? Clemson is not the single-most fascinating wild card in the group—that probably would be the combination of a tight Michigan/Ohio State game and LSU edging Georgia—but the eighth-ranked 10-1 Tigers are both unconvincing and undeniably a part of the CFP race.
Yes, right now, Clemson is behind No. 7 Alabama. But the Tigers will undoubtedly leap Alabama if they end the season with a conference championship. So let's move past that.
Clemson is just two victories over South Carolina and North Carolina away from demanding a place in the discussion on Selection Day. However, neither the season-long eye test nor popular metrics give the Tigers a promising outlook.
Entering the weekend, Clemson has two Top 25 wins (Florida State and Louisville) with a potential for a third against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.
Among the seven contenders, USC (58) is one of two programs with a lower strength of schedule than Clemson's (56). That USC number may rise swiftly with Notre Dame and the Pac-12 title up next. Beyond that, it's simply implausible that Clemson—given the loss to Notre Dame—would suddenly jump USC in the rankings if the Trojans keep winning.
The same situation applies to LSU, which the committee has placed ahead of Clemson since Nov. 8. LSU upsetting Georgia in the SEC Championship Game would overshadow anything Clemson can accomplish now.
Michigan holds the other sub-56 SOS ranking, but the Wolverines—like UGA, Ohio State and TCU—are unbeaten. No team owning a perfect record will be excluded from the CFP this year.
If a solid majority of results meet expectation, Clemson is out. Based on what we've seen to date, there's really no argument.
But you, my esteemed college football friend, have recognized the 2022 season is bonkers. LSU and Notre Dame have risen from September graves, Arizona stunned UCLA, South Carolina walloped Tennessee, TCU is apparently a zombie you can't kill and on and on.
So, we ask: What if?
What if Michigan or Ohio State wins in blowout fashion and USC beats Notre Dame but loses in the Pac-12 Championship Game? Would a one-loss, ACC-champ Clemson jump the loser of Michigan-Ohio State?
Would the Tigers inch above a two-loss, Pac-12 runner-up USC despite the Trojans owning a victory over a common opponent?
What if TCU runs out of second-half magic and falls in the Big 12 Championship Game? Does, again, a one-loss, ACC-champ Clemson leapfrog the Hypnotoad?
You clicked here expecting thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis, so here's the answer: I don't know!
Clemson is a flawed team, leaning on a formidable-though-not-elite defense to atone for an offense that generally capitalizes on red-zone trips but is otherwise average in both efficiency and explosiveness.
On the other hand, the timing of that setback at Notre Dame may be the Tigers' saving grace. If they win an ACC championship and at least two of TCU, LSU and USC lack a conference crown—plus the loser of Michigan-Ohio State missing the Big Ten title game—the argument for the Tigers is there.
Clemson still has to beat a South Carolina team that smoked Tennessee and a North Carolina team with breakout quarterback Drake Maye. There's no guarantee the Tigers avoid a loss, either.
But if Clemson isn't part of the chaos, the perennial ACC power is subtly positioned for an improbable rise.
Given the trajectory of the bonkers season so far, however, it'd hardly be surprising to watch yet another nonsensical twist.