9 teams that played Clemson as competitively as Bama did


Lots of things were stunning about Clemson’s cremation of Alabama, but here’s another way to put it in perspective.

Clemson beat Alabama by 28 points in the Playoff National Championship. If you’d bet on that happening pregame, you could’ve gotten 50/1 odds and made $500 on a $10 bet. The Crimson Tide are not supposed to lose like that. The last time Nick Saban did, he was coaching the Dolphins and losing to the Bills. There is no analog to another college team beating the Saban Tide so thoroughly, and it will be hard to comprehend for a while.

One way of thinking about Clemson’s achievement is to put Bama where it rightfully belongs: among the other teams Clemson beat the hell out of.

The Tigers have proved themselves as 2019’s best team. They have a pretty good case as the best team in college football history.

But nobody has to pretend that they played a good schedule up until the Playoff. They played the 59th-hardest schedule in the country, going by S&P+, with a regular-season slate that amounted to Texas A&M and a whole lot of iffiness (though Syracuse turned out to have a fine year after nearly upsetting the Tigers).

So it’s not surprising that Clemson’s average score this year, in 15 games, was 44-13. What’s surprising is that Bama barely did better than that.

The Tigers’ opponents this year, ranked by margin of defeat, from smallest to largest:

Texas A&M by 2
Syracuse by 4
Boston College by 20
South Carolina by 21
Notre Dame by 27
Alabama and Georgia Tech by 28
Duke by 29
Georgia Southern by 31
Pitt by 32
NC State by 34
FCS Furman by 41
Florida State by 49, in a game that included this moment:


— College Football by SB Nation (@SBNationCFB) October 27, 2018

Wake Forest by 60
Louisville by 61

Bama did absolutely no better against Clemson than A&M, Cuse, BC, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, or <gasps> Notre Dame.

And if we’re being really real with each other, the Tide also did not do any better than Duke, Georgia Southern, or Pitt, who each lost by the same minimum number of scores (four).

That’s your nine right there. You could also argue there’s not much difference between Bama losing by 28 and NC State by 34.

Bama fared better than these teams typically did in efficiency metrics. Thanks to their offense, Tide didn’t get blasted in yards per play (7.7 for Clemson to 6.1 for Bama) and even had a slight time-of-possession edge.

But any claim Bama might have had to not playing that badly went out the window when Clemson ended the game on a 14-play, 94-yard, 10-minute drive with the ball sitting at the Alabama 5, while leading by four TDs. By that point, an ass-kicking is an ass-kicking.

Bama lost by exactly as many points as it beat Notre Dame in 2012’s BCS Championship, a title game many of us don’t take seriously.

The Irish deserved their spot in that game by going undefeated, even if they needed a missed chip-shot field goal by Pitt in overtime to get there. But once they were there, they were predictably outclassed. They didn’t look like they belonged on Bama’s field.

College football’s Special Select Committee on Playoff Arguing hasn’t ruled on this case yet, but it’s at least possible none of us are allowed to make fun of 2012 Notre Dame’s placement in a title game ever again if we’re not prepared to treat 2018 Bama the same way.

Hey, Bama lost by one more point than 2018 Notre Dame did to Clemson.

Is everyone who argued that Clemson’s destruction of unbeaten Notre Dame proved the Irish should’ve missed the Playoff now required to think the same of Alabama?

(No, and Notre Dame again deserved its spot. This is just a thought exercise to highlight how utterly disorienting it is that this just happened to the Alabama Crimson Tide.)

This list of teams speaks as well as anything to how great Clemson was.

There were so many different indicators that said Alabama and Clemson were, together, miles ahead of the rest of the sport. I can’t think of a better testament to Clemson’s greatness than that the Tigers then stared down the Tide and turned them into Duke.

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