Friedlander: Beyond Clemson, ACC's legitimate Playoff possibilities are limited
There’s a scene at the end the Hollywood classic Casablanca in which Captain Renault, the character played by Claude Raines, arrives at the scene of a murder and tells his officers to “round up the usual suspects.”
It’s a command that could easily be applied to the College Football Playoff’s selection committee. Round up the usual suspects? How about starting with Alabama and Clemson?
In the 8 years that the 4-team Playoff format has existed, the Crimson Tide have been involved 7 times. The Tigers are right behind with 6.
If you follow one of those teams and plan your vacations around their road trips, you can probably go ahead and book your reservations for New Year’s weekend in either Atlanta or Phoenix, sites of this season’s Playoff semifinals.
That is, if you haven’t already done so.
While there’s no guarantee that Alabama and Clemson will be among the final 4 teams playing for the 2022 national championship – which will be decided at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on Jan. 9, the odds are heavily in their favor.
The same holds true for Ohio State, which has been to 4 of the 8 Playoff-era semifinals. Georgia looks like a safe bet to reach their 3rd Playoff this year.
But what about all those other teams in the FBS?
Most have as realistic a shot at crashing the Playoff party as Charlie Brown does of kicking a ball with Lucy as his holder.
Of the few teams that can legitimately set their sights that high, several play in the ACC. NC State, Pittsburgh and Miami are among those that began the season talking openly about their national ambitions. Now they have to back up the talk with their play on the field over the course of a long season.
Unlike Clemson, which has the championship history and current top-5 ranking to make it into the Playoff as a 1-loss ACC champion, the Wolfpack, Panthers, Hurricanes and anyone else that might come out of nowhere to win the conference title will likely have to go undefeated to have any sniff at the top 4.
Even then that might not be good enough — although an undefeated Power 5 champ has never been left out.
At least they all checked the most important box necessary to be in the conversation. They were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
Of the 32 Playoff participants since 2014, only 1 started a season unranked. And no, it wasn’t Group of 5 outlier Cincinnati. It was another of last year’s semifinalists, Michigan, a brand name program with a high-profile coach from a league perceived to be one of the two best in the nation.
It’s hard to say how much the Big Ten’s reputation might have played in the Wolverines’ selection, considering that they went 12-1, won the Big Ten championship and finally got over their Ohio State hump.
Would a similarly credentialed NC State get the same nod over Notre Dame or a 1-loss SEC team in the same head-to-head comparison, given the less-than-favorable way the ACC is looked upon nationally?
Almost certainly not, especially this year with the Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule that includes Saturday’s game against FCS opponent Charleston Southern and FBS doormat UConn, to go with middle-of-the-road programs East Carolina and Texas Tech.
The only thing missing is a matchup against Bishop Sycamore.
Defending Coastal Division champion Wake Forest, which is even more of an afterthought nationally than State, has an equally unappealing slate.
At least Pitt and Miami have opportunities to catch the selection committee’s attention.
The 14th-ranked Panthers have already begun to state their case with a nationally televised win against West Virginia last Thursday and can make an even bolder statement Saturday with a home game against Tennessee.
The 16th-ranked Hurricanes also have an opportunity to make a splash next week at Texas A&M.
Those marquee matchups, however, are only an appetizer.
Even with wins, they’d still have to run the table during the main course of their schedules until their showdown on the final week of the regular season. Then they’d have to beat the champion of the more competitive Atlantic Division – presumably Clemson – before getting to enjoy the dessert of a Playoff opportunity.
None of this will matter in a few years, of course, once the newly expanded Playoff field grows to 12 and includes automatic bids to the top 6 rated conference champions – of which the ACC figures to be included.
“It helps everybody,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said last week. “If we want Playoff football, going from 4 to 12 gives everybody more opportunity.”
Even under the current less-inclusive format, there’s still at least a chance. Maybe it’s not enough of a chance to start booking reservations in either Atlanta, Phoenix or both on New Year’s weekend.
But it couldn’t hurt.
Even if things don’t work out and your team isn’t involved, you can always sublet those Airbnb accommodations to a Clemson or Alabama fan.