MUCH LIKE IN NCAA basketball, the goal for college football programs will be to reach the final four – the College Football Playoff. The question that lingers in this state is whether USC or Clemson will be the first to represent South Carolina in football’s debutante ball, its Holy Grail, its promised land.
Give the edge to Clemson, due in large part to its conference affiliation, and in small part to where the program appears to be heading. The path to the national semifinals is much smoother for Clemson in the ACC than it is for USC in the SEC.
That truth changed dramatically in the favor of ACC programs with the advent of this past season’s inaugural playoff. Previously, under the BCS format, an ACC team needed a perfect regular season, then had to win the league’s championship game to reach the national title game. With the championship field expanded to four teams, a representative of the ACC has a much greater chance of making the playoff with one regular-season loss.
Conversely, the SEC once placed two-loss LSU in the BCS national championship game (2007), which the Tigers won. That was the only two-loss team to reach the title game, and, even with an expanded playoff field, it is not likely for a two-loss SEC team to reach the semifinals.
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So, the SEC is likely to get the same number of teams – most likely one – into the College Football Playoff as it did annually into the BCS championship game. Thus, there is no increased advantage for the SEC by the expanded field.
Most telling is that the SEC placed a team in the BCS Championship Game 11 times in 16 seasons, compared to four times for the ACC. Using the final BCS standings as the determining factor, the SEC would have had 19 teams in the final four, compared to six for the ACC.
Only three times – 2000, 2001 and 2005 – would the SEC have been shut out of the four-team playoff. Incredibly, the SEC placed two teams among the top four in the final BCS standings five times in the past eight seasons. The odds of that happening even once within the four-team playoff is remote.
The SEC’s slots likely are to remain the same or lessen with the new format, while the ACC’s chances of getting a team in the field likely will increase.
So what about USC and Clemson? I’ll use the old BCS final standings to determine the 68 teams that would have reached the final four the past 17 seasons.
By looking at how those 68 teams fared the season before, we get a clearer picture of how teams build on an excellent season to produce a fantastic one. Seldom does a team jump from a losing record into the final four.
Of the 68 teams that would have qualified for the playoffs, 38 (56 percent) won 10 or more games the previous season. There were two teams – Colorado at 3-8 the year before its big season in 2002 and Auburn at 3-9 prior to its big season in 2013 – that would have made the top four following a losing season. Four others with either 6-6 or 7-6 records turned those seasons into final-four showings the following year.
With four consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, including a 10-3 mark this past season, Clemson appears primed for a playoff run. The Tigers have a quarterback – Deshaun Watson – who could be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Clemson also is wise to beef up its non-conference slate. If the Tigers can win the ACC championship and register non-conference wins against Notre Dame and South Carolina next season, they will be in the College Football Playoff hunt.
USC, on the other hand, is coming off a 7-6 season. The Gamecocks return a bona fide star in wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, but otherwise enter next season without an experienced quarterback and a defense that was mostly porous last season.
USC also must navigate a difficult SEC schedule. Because of that, and despite a trio of consecutive 10-win seasons before 2014, the Gamecocks still were limited to the one SEC East title in 2010. Winning at least a division title has become a prerequisite to making the playoff.
USC could turn things around quickly. The Gamecocks went from 7-6 in 2009 to 9-5 with an SEC East championship the following season. The more likely scenario, though, is for a Clemson team riding the momentum of four consecutive standout seasons to reach the College Football Playoff first.