Why Clemson and Louisville could both make the College Football Playoff

Joshua S. Kelly/Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett has played in a national championship game, a playoff semifinal, a conference championship game and a BCS bowl. Yet he called his fifth-ranked team’s back-and-forth 42-36 victory over No. 3 Louisville here Saturday, “The most stressful game I’ve ever been in.”

It was nerve-wracking to watch, too.

Rarely has a regular-season game played so early in the season felt as important and impactful as the thriller played here Saturday night. Once North Carolina’s 54-yard field goal sent Florida State to its second conference defeat earlier in the day, Louisville-Clemson became a de facto ACC division championship game, with the winner taking a giant step in the direction of a playoff berth.

But it may be we see both these teams again on New Year’s Eve.

Seriously.

If there are four teams out there better than Clemson and Louisville, we haven’t seen them. Alabama? Sure. Ohio State? Definitely. And Washington sure made a case Friday night.

But with so much at stake, in a game that could easily have gotten away from either, a pair of Heisman-caliber quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, took turns putting their respective teams on their backs. Two athletic defenses combined to force eight turnovers, few of which felt sloppy or boneheaded.

Louisville fell behind 28-10 on the road in a raucously loud stadium and proceeded to roll off 26 unanswered points and seize control, only for Clemson’s visibly exhausted defense to rise up and finally make the stop it needed to give Watson the chance to lead an 85-yard go-ahead drive.

And then it ended with Jackson leading his own team 72 yards in the final three minutes only to have his fourth-and-12 completion to James Quick come up … one yard short.

Clemson Tough — we’re built for games like this,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said afterward. “Those guys have got the heart of a champion and they showed it tonight.”

“It’s a real tough loss,” said Louisville’s Bobby Petrino. “We will come back though and we will be alright.”

If there were skeptics who thought Jackson’s insane start to the season (25 touchdowns in four games) was mostly a byproduct of weak competition … well, for a half it looked like they might be right. The sophomore initially struggled against Christian Wilkins, Ben Boulware and the rest of Clemson’s swarming defensive front. He endured five sacks.

Then he came out in the second half and looked every bit like the Heisman frontrunner. By night’s end he’d run 31 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns and completed 27-of-44 passes for 295 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

He’s definitely the best player I’ve played against,” said Boulware, who notched a game-high 18 tackles and three tackles for loss. “He’s a freak athlete. A lot of times, we had good leverage on him and he just outran us and made a play."

Not to be outdone, Watson shook off his own uncharacteristic struggles – mainly three interceptions, but also repeated overthrows on deep balls – to remind the college football world he’s still got “it.” He finished 20-of-31 for 306 yards and five touchdowns. Three of those came on drives of less than a minute.

“Deshaun played like Deshaun,” said Leggett, who’s 31-yard catch-and-run proved to be the winning touchdown. “Lamar had a hell of a night, he’s definitely a great quarterback. But I still think the best quarterback on the field was wearing orange.”

College football fans aren’t too keen on postseason rematches. See: 2011 LSU-Alabama. But it’s not hard to envision a scenario where both the Tigers and Cardinals are right in the thick of the playoff conversation come early December.

Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC) is effectively two games up already on everyone else in the ACC Atlantic Division save for NC State (3-1, 1-0) – and NC State is not going to win the division. The Tigers must visit Florida State on Oct. 29, which will not be easy even given FSU’s defensive struggles, but their other remaining opponents are far removed from the Top 25.

Speaking of which, Louisville’s (4-1, 2-1) next five games are against Duke, NC State, Virginia, Boston College and Wake Forest. So long as Jackson is standing upright, none of those contests should be competitive.

But then, on a Thursday night, Nov. 17, the Cardinals visit the current No. 4 team in America, Houston. While the focus will be almost entirely on the Cougars’ playoff chances should they go in undefeated, one-loss Louisville could get the statement win it will need if it hopes to convince the committee why it deserves a seat at the table without a trip to its league championship game.

In fact, Swinney said he told counterpart Bobby Petrino afterward, “Just keep winning. You’re not out of it.” He should be careful what he wishes for, though, since he also said, “I’ve seen enough of them.”

That’s a great football team,” Swinney said of Louisville. “They’ve got some creatures over there. That quarterback is special.”

So special that he’ll likely remain No. 1 on most Heisman Watch lists this week even in spite of the loss. But Watson’s not going anywhere, either. Clemson has now won 22 of its last 23 games dating to late 2014, the only loss in last year’s national championship game to Alabama. Beating Top 5 teams is becoming habit for Swinney’s program.

Petrino’s did once already this season, but the Florida State team it humiliated has been further exposed as nothing special. And it doesn’t get brownie points for taking Clemson to the wire. The Cardinals’ best plan at this point is to start blowing people out again all the way up until that Houston game to keep themselves in the national conversation.

Who knows after that?

It’d be cool to see them again,” said Leggett. “Two ACC teams in the final four.”

It could definitely happen.