Clemson could hush all those ACC skeptics

Right about now, you have to wonder what the basketball league has to do to convince the electorate that it’s not just a basketball league. (Although Duke is again the reigning NCAA hoops titlist.) An ACC member has won a football national championship more recently than anyone from the Big 12 or Pac-12 – or the almighty SEC. An unbeaten ACC team enters the College Football Playoff ranked No. 1. And yet …

Here sit the Clemson Tigers, 3 ½-point underdogs to Oklahoma. We note that the Sooners lost on a neutral field to a Texas team that didn’t qualify for a bowl. No team in CFP history – granted, that dates back all of 13 months – has carried a worse loss into the tournament.

That said, the Sooners have been very good since that day in Dallas when they were pretty bad. They belong here. They could win this thing. Still, Oklahoma wouldn’t be favored over Alabama, which is always considered unbeatable until you check the fine print and note that only once under Nick Saban has Bama finished unbeaten. But Alabama hails from the SEC, which means it has wiggle room. Coach K’s teams might get all the calls in that other sport, but in football the ACC is allowed nary a wobble.

The ACC has sent a team to football’s version of the postseason – counting 2013, the last bow for the BCS – three years running. All three were unbeaten. A year ago, Florida State was the defending national champ and hadn’t lost since Nov. 24, 2012. It finished third in the final CFP rankings. If one of those Seminoles’ near-misses had become an actual whiff, they wouldn’t have made the playoff. (No matter that the three other qualifiers were forgiven a loss.) The same would have happened to Clemson this time had it lost its conference championship to North Carolina in quintuple overtime.

Among Power Five leagues, the ACC is held to a different standard, which is a polite way of saying: As good as Florida State has been and as good as Clemson is, some believe that the league as a whole isn’t up to snuff. FSU, which is 10-2, landed in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Houston, which is – apologies to the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce – the least inspiring of the New Year’s Six games. At 11-2, North Carolina was relegated to the Russell Athletic Bowl, which is only the second-best of the three off-brand postseason games staged in Orlando. (Apologies to Georgia State, which graced the Cure Bowl.)

Beyond Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina, the ACC in 2015 was nothing special. But what was the SEC beyond Alabama? (Ole Miss, which cracked the New Year’s Six, lost to Memphis. Florida scored two points against FSU.) What was the Big 12 apart from Oklahoma? (Oklahoma State, which will face Ole Miss in the Sugar, lost its final two games at home by an aggregate 45 points.)

For as much skepticism as there is about the ACC, there’s even more about Clemson. The calendar is about to turn to 2016, but many still haven’t gotten past the Orange Bowl of Jan. 2, 2012. The Tigers lost to West Virginia 70-33 that night, and yes, it was embarrassing. But Clemson has since won an Orange Bowl over a Brand Name – Ohio State, among the biggest of brands – and won 58-0 in the same Sun Life Stadium over Miami on Oct. 24.

Some folks keep waiting for Clemson to crater just to yell, “See? Told you so!” But the phenomenon once known as “Clemsoning” hasn’t applied since 2011. Over the past four seasons, the Tigers have lost seven games – all to ranked teams. Clemson has won its past three bowls, the victories coming against LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma, all of which claimed titles in the BCS era. This is not some fly-by-night program. This is a team of rare balance – it’s seventh in total defense, 12th in total offense – and championship-caliber talent.

If Clemson loses on New Year’s Eve, it won’t be because it’s from a basketball league. It won’t be because it’s Clemson. And I’m not sure the Tigers will lose here or anywhere. They’re the most impressive team I’ve seen in person this season, and I’ve caught Alabama twice.

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