How the Clemson Tigers still have a slight College Football Playoff chance despite two losses

Don’t count Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers out just yet.

Yes, they’ve been a massive disappointment thus far. And yes, they have two losses — and no team has ever reached the playoff with two losses. But the Tigers are fairly well positioned to become the first, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

Clemson, as it currently stands, has a 10% chance to reach the playoff, according to the model — which simulates the remainder of the season and playoff selection 20,000 times. Criteria that has correlated with the selection committee’s past behavior (strength of record, number of losses, Football Power Index and conference champion status) is used to predict its future selections. But the really shocking Tigers number might be this: If Clemson can win out the rest of the way, its chance to reach the playoff is 51%. What is the Allstate Playoff Predictor seeing that indicates what currently seems unfathomable to be, well, fathomable? Let’s break it down.

Clemson is (probably) still good

With two losses to its name, it doesn’t seem like it, but let’s zoom out here for a second. The Tigers began the season as what FPI believed was the second-best team in the country — a title they have not lived up to. But they also haven’t been that bad. Wins and losses do not tell the whole story.

When we look at opponent-adjusted efficiencies, Clemson ranks 16th — not all that terrible, and notably higher than undefeated Oregon and one-loss Ohio State. There are several reasons for this.

First, Clemson has played the most difficult schedule in college football so far this season! The Tigers have played (and lost) to the best team in the country in FPI’s mind (Georgia) on a neutral field and another top-25 team (NC State) on the road. Second, those losses have been relatively close: Clemson let the Georgia offense score just three points and lost on a pick-six, and it fell to NC State in overtime.

On the flip side: Clemson’s offense specifically does look like a problem. It ranks 75th in efficiency and QB D.J. Uiagalelei has a QBR of just 46. It’s the defense that is carrying the load, ranking sixth in efficiency, with special teams in a supporting role at No. 5 — though that matters less, particularly looking forward. In addition, the 14-8 win over Georgia Tech is about as concerning as either of Clemson’s two losses.

So how good will Clemson be going forward? The best estimate is something between what we thought and we what we’ve observed. Which is how FPI arrives at its current ranking of Clemson in its forward-looking ratings: fifth, albeit in a crowded second tier only a little behind Oklahoma and Ohio State and only a little ahead of Florida and Michigan.

That reasonably strong FPI rating plays two roles here. First, it makes the idea of winning out conceivable. There’s a 24% chance Clemson does that, tied for the highest in college football with Georgia. But that also means that if Clemson does rattle off nine straight wins, it might just pass the committee’s eye test.

One last point here: I don’t think FPI is necessarily on an island keeping some faith in Clemson. Let’s compare the Tigers’ point spread this week to Penn State’s. Clemson is a 14.5-point favorite hosting Boston College this week, while Penn State is a 12.5-point favorite hosting Indiana. As long as we agree that BC (FPI rank: 46) is as good or better than Indiana (55), then we can also agree the betting market believes Clemson is a better team than Penn State, despite the fact that the Nittany Lions are ranked fourth by the AP Top 25 poll and Clemson is all the way down at No. 25.

Clemson can still accomplish a decent amount

The best way to make a strong case for the playoff is a top-four strength of record (SOR) and a conference championship. The first part of the equation is out the window for Clemson. And that’s what makes it so difficult for it to recover: It has to overcome both not having a top-four SOR and two losses. The latter part is included within SOR, but the committee has shown it places an extra emphasis on the number of losses, regardless of a team’s schedule strength.

The good news for Clemson is it can get reasonably close: In scenarios when it wins out, Clemson’s mean SOR rank is 6.6. Plus, it would have a conference championship. That’s not nothing.

Putting it all together

If Clemson wins out, we’re looking at a top-five quality team that is an ACC champion and has accomplished the sixth or seventh most in terms of strength of record. Is that a playoff team?

It … could be? The important thing is to put ourselves in the mindset of the world of college football in which Clemson has now won nine straight games and presumably there’s been plenty of the typical carnage elsewhere, too. There’s only about a 1-in-4 shot that Clemson even wins out, and only in about half of those chances does Clemson look good enough or enough goes wrong elsewhere to put it in. But it is possible. The Tigers aren’t out yet.

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