Clemson deserves No. 1 spot, but clear favorite? Not in this playoff

BY Stewart Mandel • December 6, 2015

This year, unlike last year, there’s no debate that the four best teams will play in the College Football Playoff.

There does, however, seem to be a great deal of debate over the order of their bestness. So it’s probably a good idea that said teams will play each other.

No. 1 seed Clemson is the only undefeated team and, according to committee chairman Jeff Long, is “clearly the No. 1 team in the country.” Yet, Vegas considers the Tigers underdogs to the No. 4 seed, Oklahoma.

No. 2 seed Alabama is such a prohibitive favorite over No. 3 seed Michigan State that committee conspiracy theorists believe they elevated the Spartans just to save a much-anticipated Alabama-Oklahoma showdown for 12 days later.

Which is silly, because if the committee believed the Tide and Sooners to be the two best teams they would have ranked them Nos. 1 and 2.

Resumes clearly trumped the eye test in that Gaylord Texan conference room, with Long noting that Michigan State’s two Top 10 wins (over Ohio State and Iowa) ultimately gave the Spartans the edge over the Sooners. And yet anyone who watched Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma trounce then 10-1 Oklahoma State in their de facto conference title game was likely more impressed than they were watching Michigan State grind out yet another last-second win Saturday night against Iowa.

"There were people in the room who felt Oklahoma could be the No. 1 team,” said Long, noting that, “All four of these teams are very close."

That being said, I have to imagine some of the ex-coaches in that room – mainly Barry Alvarez, Tom Osborne and Bobby Johnson – were likely swooning over the Spartans’ game-winning 22-play, nine-minute drive to beat the Hawkeyes.

You could have made a valid argument either way.

Meanwhile, Clemson managed to go wire-to-wire in the committee’s top spot for six straight rankings, boasts the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson, beat three teams ranked in the committee’s most recent Top 10 (Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina) -- and will not be widely expected to win its semifinal.

Adding fuel to the fire, Long said as recently as Tuesday that the committee very nearly elevated Alabama to No. 1 -- despite the Tide having lost to the SEC’s second-best team, Ole Miss, and lacking even a Top 15 victory. Alabama had to settle for No. 2 despite being the seven-time defending eye-test champion.

It’s as if the committee and Vegas have conspired to ensure that whichever teams win those New Year’s Eve bouts will be able to claim that “nobody gave us any respect.”

Pregame storylines won’t be as bountiful as they were last year when the Sugar Bowl pitted Meyer and Saban, the Rose Bowl Mariota vs. Winston. We’ll just have to settle for Saban coaching against his former team, Michigan State, where one of his assistants was none other than Mark Dantonio; and Okahoma and Clemson waging a rematch of last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. (And Bob Stoops going against his former DC Brent Venables once again.)

In a weird circle, that bowl game -- in which Clemson humiliated Oklahoma 40-6, causing at least one columnist to call for the OU coach’s head -- led to Stoops’ staff overhaul. Which led to hot-shot OC Lincoln Riley installing the Air Raid, which proved a perfect fit for transfer QB Mayfield, all of which explains why, a year later, the Sooners are expected to beat the Tigers.

Like Dabo Swinney cares. He’s too busy giving out pizza.

Clemson absolutely deserved the No. 1 seed, but there remains understandable skepticism surrounding the Tigers given A) the lack of respect for the ACC and B) the fact it has not won a national title in 34 years. Stoops won one far more recently, albeit 15 years ago. Swinney’s program has long since buried the term “Clemsoning” but it’s not yet won over the masses.

Michigan State deserved the No. 3 seed, though it might have been better off at No. 4. Alabama is hardly impregnable, but the Tide have continually devoured pro-style teams like the Spartans. It’s Saban’s defensive bread-and-butter. With all due respect to Connor Cook, either Watson or Mayfield will be by far the most dangerous quarterback Alabama has faced if it makes it that far.

If you love college football, you don’t need Jimmy Kimmel to tell you how to spend New Year’s Eve. You’ll be watching these games.

May the best teams win -- whoever the heck they are.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.



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