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I Was Wrong About Clemson

By Jim Johnson
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I am ready to concede, Clemson is a legitimate contender.

I was wrong about Clemson.

For the past few weeks to a month, I had been pushing the idea that the only three teams that were complete enough to genuinely contend for a national title were Alabama, Auburn, and Ohio State.

I’m not backing off of any of those three, but it’s time to concede that I was a team short. Clemson can run this thing back.

My argument against the Tigers centered around three basic ideas: that Kelly Bryant was not good enough to win it all, that the poor special teams would be unovercomable, and that a true championship-caliber team would not have as bad of a loss as Syracuse is.

On the surface, Bryant has been underwhelming, statistically speaking. I’m still not in favor of the committee using his injury to diminish the value of the Syracuse game -- injuries are a part of football -- but I that is a decent piece of evidence in his favor.

First off, Bryant’s numbers need context. According to S&P+, he has faced the 1st, 6th, 25th, 31st, 34th, 45th, and 48th pass defenses. In other words, for as impressive as Clemson’s overall strength of schedule is, Bryant’s personal opposition has been even tougher.

Moreover, he has really upped his play in big games. He has had a 135.27 passer rating versus unranked opponents, which is 64th in the country, but his passer rating against other ranked teams is just outside of the top 25, nationally.

Now that there are only big games left, Kelly Bryant should be at his best.

The special teams thing is still mildly concerning. According to S&P+, no CFP champion has ever struggled as mightily in that facet of the game as Clemson has this year. However, we have a small sample size of College Football Playoffs and none of the champions have been particularly good in that respect, either. This deficiency certainly removes Clemson from the conversation of most complete teams, but complete and best are not the same thing.

While Syracuse still looks like a bad loss, and increasingly so by the week, this is college football… good teams lose games that they shouldn’t. I blindly assumed that none of the previous CFP champs had lost to a team with that much of a talent disparity. That’s just not really factual.

The Pitt team that Clemson lost to, last season, was better than Syracuse in 2017, but Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss doesn’t look very good, and Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech in 2015 sounds much better than it actually was.

Even outside of the playoff era, there is a storied history of eventual champs overcoming what in hindsight seem to be unfathomable losses.

Ultimately, Clemson has one of the best handful of defenses in the country and, as far as I can tell, always will as long as Brent Venables is running the show. Brent Venables basically is defense. Defense wins championships. A+B= Venables wins championships.

Consider this an admission of a bad take. There aren’t many teams that can legitimately win the national championship, this year, but Clemson is among the few.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP